Ask Me: Hiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim in a Day
My son Matt and I (age 35 and 65) will be hiking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim (r2r2r) in May as a continuous ultra-hike. This will be the farthest we’ve ever hiked in a day (44 to 48 miles, depending on the route), and we’re excited. Since you have done this hike in a day, we’d appreciate your advice. Do you plan your rest periods? What about pace? On a recent 30-mile hike with rolling hills in Maryland, we averaged about 3.3 miles per hour. Should we expect a slower pace on the r2r2r? What else do we need to know?
We have hiked in the Grand Canyon probably a half-dozen times and have done rim-to-rim (r2r) three times during the last 10 years or so. We are familiar with the potential temperature variations and know to plan carefully around calorie intake, hydration, and electrolyte replacement.
Although they’re not desert environments, we have dayhiked eight or so 14ers in Colorado, plus done hikes in northern New Mexico (Wheeler Peak), the Tetons in Wyoming, and extensively in Glacier National Park. Most of these dayhikes have been in the eight- to 20-mile range, with early-morning starts by headlamp.
In prepping for r2r2r, Matt and I put in three- to four-hour hikes every Saturday (12 to 15 miles) with weighted packs (up to 45 pounds), plus consistent cardio, core, and weight work throughout the week. Over the last three or four months, we have done two local 20-milers and a nearly 30-miler over rolling terrain. We’ll do another 30-miler about a month before our Grand Canyon date.
As to what we’ll carry, our overall intention is to go as light as we possibly can. On the Grand Canyon corridor trails, there is water every seven miles or so—Phantom Ranch, Cottonwood Canyon, North Rim, and a few places on the Bright Angel Trail. We’ll carry enough water to get us from one source to the next, plus enough for contingencies. We intend to use Hammer Nutrition’s product called Perpetuem for most of our calories, so we’ll carry powder to mix with water along the way. We likely will carry a bar or two plus a few gels as well. Beyond that, we’ll each probably bring a light windbreaker and a long-sleeve shirt.
I’ll also throw in a multi-tool and carry a satellite locator with GEOS capability—just in case.
That’s it! Any thoughts you have are welcome and appreciated.
It’s good that you’re already familiar with the Grand Canyon environment and the trails you’ll hike doing the rim to rim to rim (the North Kaibab and either the South Kaibab or the Bright Angel), and it sounds like you’re training seriously. I’ll focus on your questions and point out what I believe are key issues and strategies to think about.
But you can also see my training tips in my stories “Training For a Big Hike or Mountain Climb” and “Cranking Out Big Days: How to Ramp Up Your Hikes and Trail Runs,” as well as my feature story “April Fools: Dayhiking the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim” about my r2r2r, which describes the route choices.
Regarding pace and managing your time, my ultra-hiking friends and I often try to cover eight to nine miles every three hours, and the longer the hike—meaning anything over about 20 miles—the more diligent we are about managing our pace and staying on schedule. We take a 15- to 20-minute break every three hours to cool off, eat, refill/treat water, bathroom stop, and take care of our feet (remove shoes and socks to cool and dry them; taping and blister treatment if needed).
Get the right daypack for hikes like the Grand Canyon. See my “Gear Review: The 7 Best Hiking Daypacks.”
Even at that rate, those stops add up to significant time over the course of a huge hike like the r2r2r, so you have to keep track of time and be efficient. By later in the day, it’s easy to lose track of time and not force yourself to get up and move soon enough; and of course, by later in the day, muscles may be starting to stiffen up, and stopping too long can exacerbate that.
There’s just two of you, so fewer people to have a slowing effect on the group. Still, you don’t have to both stop just because one person has to pee. When on long hikes with friends, if we spread out a bit (as can happen), we use a system where, whenever someone walks potentially out of sight off the trail to go to the bathroom, that person will leave a trekking pole (or a pack) beside the trail, where partners will see it, so everyone knows when someone has been leap-frogged.
As for feet, I tape pre-emptively to help prevent blisters on ultra-hikes—even though I almost never actually get blisters on hikes of moderate distances. You’re going to take something on the order of 110,000 steps that day—that’s a whole lot of cumulative friction. I put two or three overlapping strips of athletic tape around my heels. If my toes develop hot spots, I’ll tape them immediately, before they develop blisters. We carry tape and often reapply it multiple times during the day; but athletic tape stays in place pretty well even when feet get sweaty.
I always wear highly breathable but reasonably supportive, lightweight, low-cut hiking shoes or trail runners. In the Grand Canyon, you don’t need waterproof shoes, you need shoes with mesh uppers and no membrane so they’re very breathable. See my reviews of some favorite lightweight hiking shoes, including the La Sportiva TX3, Scarpa Epic Lite, and Brooks Cascadia 12.
Click here now for my expert e-guide to hiking the Grand Canyon rim to rim!
You already know how hot it can get in the canyon in May. My most recent GC hiking trip was in early May (we backpacked the Royal Arch Loop and dayhiked 25 miles from Hermits Rest to Bright Angel—a gorgeous dayhike that I highly recommend for your next visit), and we got lucky for weather, with a little light rain, some clouds, and cool to moderate temps.
Assuming it’ll be as hot as it can be at that time of year, think about the r2r2r in terms of where you’ll be at the hottest hours of the day—or when I’ll encounter the heat based on where I’ll be at certain times of day. We started in the dark (around 5:30am) on the South Kaibab Trail, the most direct route to the bottom and truly an absolutely beautiful trail to descend when the sun’s rising, because you’re constantly looking out over the canyon.
Even taking time for some photos, we reached the river in under 2.5 hours, partly because the trail is so good. Get some memorable photos, but get down to the bottom early and start ascending the other side before the heat starts building. We did the r2r2r on April 2, a time of year when we the initial few miles of the North Kaibab Trail—beneath the sheer, close walls of the canyon’s Inner Gorge—remains shaded and cool. In May, with the sun higher in the sky, you could get direct sunlight earlier in the Inner Gorge, and that will raise temps very quickly in there. Fortunately, you’re beside the creek and it’s gorgeous hiking.
In all likelihood, the hottest part of your entire day will be when you emerge from the Inner Gorge into the more-open middle miles of Bright Angel Canyon—before and beyond Cottonwood camp. You’ll get there around mid-morning, as the temperature’s rising quickly, and have several miles of hot sun with little shade. Once you turn the corner into Roaring Springs Canyon on the North Kaibab Trail (near the Pumphouse Residence), you’ll get shade again at some point because the trail hugs the cliff on the southwest wall of that canyon. The upper North Kaibab Trail reaches forest and cooler elevations. By the time you’re back down in that open middle section of Bright Angel Canyon, it will be hours later, probably evening—although in May it certainly could still be hot.
Plan clothing using the same way of thinking that I outlined above. In early April, we started and finished the r2r2r in strong, cold winds in early morning and later evening. But on that 17-hour day, I was only cold the first half-hour (or less) at the outset, hiking downhill in the dark in that wind. We were plenty warm enough hiking back up the South Kaibab in the dark with essentially the same wind and temps, wearing just a T-shirt, long-sleeve layer, and wind shell. If I had carried any more clothing than that, I would literally have just carried it most of the day after the first half-hour. Not worth it.
Want more? See “The 20 Best National Park Dayhikes” and “Extreme Hiking: America’s Best Hard Dayhikes.”
Unless the forecast is for unusually chilly temps, I’d only bring the minimal layers described above (maybe also a warm hat and light gloves), in addition to a wide-brim sun hat. If you stop to rest in the lower canyon, it will likely be warm, even at night. See all of my reviews of ultralight wind shells—especially the Outdoor Research Helium Hybrid Hooded Jacket, Arc’teryx Atom SL Hoody, Black Diamond Alpine Start Hoody, and the Montane Minimus 777 Pull-On Jacket—and my “Review: The Best Base Layers and Shorts for the Outdoors and Training.”
Carry a 3-oz. emergency bivy sack, just in case you’re forced to stop. We figured that our likely worst-case scenario was that one or more of us would just feel too wrecked to continue, find a place to crash on the ground for a few hours, not expecting much sleep, but enough to eventually get up and continue. That obviously presumes a high degree of experience in this environment, and self-sufficiency, to avoid a serious accident or emergency.
I think your water plan is smart. At a strong pace, you’ll reach water sources in intervals of three hours or less, so you likely don’t need to carry more than two liters at any time. Check with the backcountry office about water sources right before your hike. I always drink a lot at water sources, to fully hydrate myself before I start walking, reducing the amount of water I need to carry.
But I’ll tell you about one interesting situation we encountered on our r2r2r: It’s possible to get a case of hyponatremia, where your body takes in more water than it can absorb. (Basically, it happens when your body lacks enough sodium/electrolytes to bond with water molecules, so you end up just urinating the water out rather than your body putting it to use.) One of my friends on our r2r2r peed about 45 times—yes, he counted—about once per mile. He didn’t have any bad side effects, but keep in mind the possibility of actually over-drinking and not consuming enough sodium/electrolytes, especially in cool temperatures.
I can help you plan this or any other trip you read about at my blog. Find out more here.
Regarding your nutrition plan: I haven’t used Perpetuem. If it works for you, great. I’ll just say that my experience on really long hikes is that, especially in heat, my stomach and G.I. system can get a little upset (as happened to me on an attempted 50-mile dayhike across Zion). You’re just really overtaxing your body. I also find that I have a tolerance ceiling for sweet foods (like chocolate), or energy bars, and some other foods.
A man needs about 250 calories per hour in endurance events. Experiment with the sorts of foods you like eating on the trail, but I like to include a diverse blend of sweet and salty—the latter particularly important to replace sodium your body’s losing. I carry foods like nuts, sandwiches, dried fruit, candy, and I plan on eating upwards of 4,000 calories. Real food is heavier than powder, granted, but some variety may enable you to actually stomach what you need to consume, especially in the last hours of the day, when you’re most depleted and may find your appetite depressed if you don’t feel great. I also keep snacks within reach while hiking, so that I’m regularly ingesting calories in small amounts. (I like dried mangoes, which are high in calories per ounce.)
Check out my “Gear Review: The 6 Best Hiking Daypacks,” as well as my “7 Pro Tips For Avoiding Blisters,” including the really helpful reader comments at the bottom of that story, and my “10 Tricks For Making Hiking and Backpacking Easier.” And see all of my stories about the Grand Canyon by scrolling down to Grand Canyon on my All National Parks Trips page.
Good luck. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.
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My son Matt and I completed our r2r2r hike. We started at 3:35 p.m. on Thursday (5/19) down the South Kaibab Trail (beautiful and steep). We got to the North Rim at about 1:15 a.m. and finished on Friday coming up the Bright Angel trail at about 12:30 p.m.
It was a long day and a heck of a lot of hiking. We had great weather throughout. (It was only about 90 degrees at Phantom Ranch.) The toughest part for me was the last 4.5 miles from Indian Garden up the Bright Angel Trail to the South Rim.
A big lesson for me is that no matter how hard you train, age makes a difference and one has to take that into account. (I’m 65 and my son is 35.)
In the end, other than fatigue, we handled the hike well.
Just as an FYI, Hammer Nutrition has a bunch of products for calories, supplements and electrolytes specifically for endurance activities—including detailed usage guidance. My sons and I have found their stuff to be excellent.
We both appreciated your thoughtful advice. Best of luck with your outdoor blog. It’s quite good.
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