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Grand Canyon Preparation
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS September 2007
Are you considering a trip to the Grand Canyon next spring? What sort of planning and physical conditioning do you need to have in order to be prepared?
Grand Canyon Overview
The Grand is a unique place, a spectacular hike where you start at 7,000’ (S. Rim) or 8,241’ (N. Rim) elevation and lose altitude first, then finish the most strenuous part of your hike going back uphill. If you are considering a hike from the North Rim to the South (or vice versa) you need to be prepared to hike 21 miles while gaining and losing close to 5,000-6,000’ elevation, The National Park Service website specifically states: “DO NOT attempt to hike from the rim to the river and back in one day, especially during the months of May to September” unless you are in supreme physical condition. Over 250 people get rescued every year either from improper physical preparation, lack of appropriate food and water, or getting into trouble with heat. We enjoyed a one-day hike down and back up the North Kaibab Trail to the Aiken Horse Ranch in mid-September 1996 and made certain we started at daybreak.
In general, you will need to build a) cardiovascular endurance appropriate for a very long day (or multi-day) hike depending on your trip destination; b) muscular strength to allow you to carry a day or overnight pack for 8-10 hours (usually 15-30#) with significant elevation gain and loss; and c) normal range of motion through the hips, legs, feet and core. www.bodyresults.com/e2alpinetraining.asp offers a good overview for alpine training including pictures and descriptions for 5 lower body strength exercises, 2 hip stretches, and a sample 8-week training program.
For appropriate training exercises, hiking-specific cardiovascular suggestions, stretches, and a comprehensive 6-month training program appropriate for a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon ideas, please see the DVD Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak (www.bodyresults.com/p1rainier.asp). The primary differences between training for Mt. Rainier and the Grand Canyon (beyond technical skills not specifically addressed in the video) would be a) lighter pack weight for hikes in the Grand Canyon (less equipment requirements), and b) someone with a good starting baseline of fitness could properly prepare for a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in 3-4 months rather than 6.
For additional information about hiking and preparation in the Grand Canyon, see the following links:
- Grand Canyon National Park website: To start your trip planning, be sure to take a look at the following pages: www.nps.gov/archive/grca/grandcanyon/south-rim/index.htm and www.nps.gov/archive/grca/grandcanyon/north-rim/index.htm. Keep in mind that visitor services at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon are closed from mid-October to mid-May when you might even encounter a light dusting of snow at the rim. The South Rim is open 365 days a year. The Colorado River flows through the Canyon 5,000’ below the south rim. This site suggests that it is a two-day hike to the river and back from the South Rim, longer from the North.
- Hit the Trails: www.hitthetrail.com/index.php provides trip reports, weather, health and safety, and equipment information on the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch, and the Southwest.
- Grand Canyon National Park Hiking Safety Guide: http://www.grand.canyon.national-park.com/safety.htm has information about flash floods, extreme environmental concerns such as dehydration, hyponatremia, hypothermia and heat stroke, and general training information. In particular, this resource suggests avoiding hiking in the heat of the day between 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Shade temperatures can easily be 15-20 degrees cooler than in the hot sun (Canyon temperatures can reach 110-115 degrees F mid-day mid-summer) so take breaks during the hottest parts of the day. Soak your clothing at every opportunity to avoid overheating and help your body stay cooler. Better yet, plan your trip off-season so you do not have as much issue with extreme temperatures.
- Knee and Trekking Pole Tips: If you need to shore up your knees to start off with the downhill portion of the trip, include reverse step ups at www.bodyresults.com/e2kneetest.asp and consider taking trekking poles page (see www.bodyresults.com/e2trekkingpoles.asp) to can help you with balance, rhythm, and stability, especially early season when you are just starting to prepare for your backpacking trip.
- Outside Fitness Pack Routine (see www.bodyresults.com/e2outsidestrength.asp) is another good web page that offers a pack circuit routine you can do to be sure your core and legs are ready for such a backpacking trip.
- The Grand Canyon Field Institute at www.grandcanyon.org/fieldinstitute/ offers guided educational trips ranging from single day to rim-based to backcountry classes of all lengths and covering topics such as geology, archaeology, ecology, history and photography.