I coil my bowline, push my boat off from shore, and jump into the rower’s seat. The greenish water floats me gently downstream, but none of my other senses are deceived. One hundred yards in front of me the entire Colorado River drops over a horizon line into whitewater chaos.
What do the grizzled guides say? You’re always above Lava Falls? But on this spring day I’m REALLY above Lava Falls in the most immediate sense of it.
My hands grip my oars as tightly as my PFD crunches my ribs. I’m ready to swim—I’m always ready to swim above Lava—and hoping to not lose any clothes off my body when I do so. My boat tips into the rapid, and for the next twenty seconds, everything goes white.
There’s nothing quite like the Grand Canyon. I know that sentence seems bland, like something you’d find in a Arizona Tourism Brochure. But for us Lower 48ers, it’s hard to compare the Grand Canyon of the Colorado’s scale - in length, depth, intensity, history or legend. That makes prepping and packing for your first trip endlessly exciting, and also frustrating. The Canyon is often a whitewater, flatwater, hiking and lounging trip all in one. Plus, there’s no way to just stop into a store to pick up something you forgot!
By day six, and trust me on this one, the color and style of your clothing won’t matter much. Your dry bag will be divided into a) warms me up b) cools me down/base layers c) sequins - and nothing else will be important.
John Wesley Powell pioneered the Canyon by boat in rotting cotton and perpetually-damp wool - but that doesn’t mean it was a GOOD idea to do so. The Grand Canyon’s desert environment is notoriously grand, meaning some good layering building blocks will go a long way toward making your trip enjoyable.
The Grand Canyon of the Colorado flows through the Colorado Plateau, which leads to a surprisingly seasonal weather pattern. Before you start to pack, you’ll want to consider if you’ll be boating during the cold season, windy season, monsoon season or hotter-than-hell season.
Your outfitter or a quick search engine query will tell you average temperatures, wind and precipitation. (Make sure you’re looking at weather along the river, not on the rim—there’s a surprisingly big difference between the two!) I’ll talk about some building blocks I bring on any trip, then a few season-specific necessities you won’t want to miss stuffing into your dry bag.
CANYON PACKING LIST: The Essentials for Paddling or Rafting the Grand Canyon.
Puffy Down Jacket
For camp. Put in a sacred, always-dry place. Do NOT be tempted to bust this out for a cold morning on the rafts, which might turn into a surprise lateral wave drenching you. For me, my puffy is always stuffed into the bottom of my sleeping bag, so I’m not tempted to wear it midday.
Synthetic Jacket or Vest
During cold weather trips especially, I like one without a hood. This makes for better layering under neck gaskets on dry tops and splash layers.
Base Layer Bottoms
Go by preference here, with thicker layers in the winter months and sun-shade layers in the summer.
In the summer a lightweight hoodie is an essential piece of gear for keeping the sun off my skin. In winter, I like to use it as my base layer under fleece and other warm layers. Also, be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen!
Most trips, even in the depths of the winter days, have a few camps and side hikes with some sunshine. Your legs will thank you for giving them a breather from your synthetic layers and dry layers. On spring and summer trips, of course, shorts are no brainer - just watch out for that top-of-thigh sunburn.
For warmth in the winter, wind protection from flying sand in the spring and sun protection the rest of the time, a neck gaiter is a must. Who knew a little fabric tube could be so useful?
Fleece and Insulating Layers
I like to have a set of warming layers set aside for camp, and another one for when I’m actually on the water.
Cotton T-Shirt (Yep you read that right)
My skin always craves cotton after about five days in smelly, sticky wool and synthetic fabrics. A cotton t-shirt can be a great sleeping layer, especially when the weather is dry.
In the winter it might be under ten other layers, but just knowing you’ve got something fancy on can be a good pick-me-up after a long day on the water.
Feet get weird down in the Canyon. In the summer, guides and guests battle tolio—a painful condition caused by cold and wetness—as well as fungus and cracked skin. In the winter, keeping your extremities warm is a constant battle. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t skimp on, it’s socks. Even on the hottest of trips, a good way to keep your feet dry and somewhat sand-free, at least at camp, socks should be considered. And maybe throw in some anti fungal cream and a set of muck boots, too.
In all seasons, you’ll want a good pair of hiking boots or sneakers, Chaco or Bedrock sandals, and a wet tennis shoe that either goes over your drysuit or right on your feet.
I bring two on cold-weather trips—again, one for on-water, one for camp. For your on-water hat, it can be nice to have a hat that fits under a helmet.
No matter the season, the average water temperature in the Grand Canyon is 52 degrees. Maybe your rain layers will end up stuffed in the bottom of your day bag for the entirety of a trip, but on that one day it starts raining at lunchtime, you’ll be glad you have them.
WHAT TIME OF YEAR ARE YOU HEADED TO THE GRAND CANYON?
Warm months: April through October
Hot season trips can be tricky because while the air temperature can be 100+ degrees, the water temperature is still frigid. Here are a few things I take when it's hot.
1. A sarong that I can use to cool myself down and use as a skin shade, whether on the boats or on a hike.
2. The biggest, baddest sun hat I can find—preferably something with a full brim. In desert environments like this one, I always just try to keep my skin out of the sun as much as possible. It helps keep my skin in good shape and keeps me better hydrated. You’d need a lot of sunscreen to protect your skin in a way that a clothing layer or big hat can easily do.
Cold months: November through February
Commercial outfitters don’t run trips during the winter months on the Grand Canyon, but often private trips still launch. For these trips, I’d recommend all the basics I listed above above, plus a few extra staples.
1. A drysuit is a necessity. You can often rent these from river supply stores or college outdoor programs. A drysuit uses rubber gaskets and waterproof fabric to keep your under-layers entirely dry, even if you swim. For me, a drysuit is a critical piece of gear for avoiding hypothermia during the winter boating months, and a non-negotiable for winter trips.
2. A fleece onesie—like the ones you can get at Target—to sleep in, and a pair of down booties for extra cozy tent time. Also, don’t forget salves and sunscreen. The skin that does see the light of day is still subject to burning and cracking from the arid desert environment.
Monsoon season: July, August, September
During the monsoon season—July, August, September—it’s important to be prepared for both hot temperatures and afternoon thunderstorms. A lightweight rain layer can easily be stuffed into the bottom of your hiking bag in case you’re away from camp when the rain arrives.
MISCELLANEOUS ADD-ONS FOR GRAND CANYON PACKING
A lot of the joy of the Grand Canyon is the way that after around 12 or more days, the rest of reality falls away. Days on the canyon can be long and scary (big rapid days!), long and tiring (rowing against the wind) or long and mellow (a lazy afternoon in camp). In addition to the necessities, I also always bring along a few fun costumes. Whether for a party night at camp or a pick-me-up on a cold morning, you probably won’t be the only one pulling some sequins out of your dry bag. Bonus points for a layer like Grand Canyon Guide Kelli O’Keefe’s FunLuvin’ Fleece, which is both functional AND a bit silly.
I’d also bring along something that makes you feel like a million dollars. Maybe it’s a lucky necklace, or that T-shirt with Bon Jovi’s face on it, or something sparkly. Either way, clothing can provide a confidence boost when you need it most. I also save away one clean set of clothes for the latter half of the trip. While you might not think you need it, your tent-mate probably does, and they don’t call Separation Canyon, um, Separation Canyon for nothing.
Photos by Hilary Oliver.