Grand Canyon Birthday Trek: Winter Backpacking

Icy Angels Landing, Zion, Utah

All week, I’ve had the Backcountry Information Office at the Grand Canyon on speed dial. I swear, they’re leaving the phone off the hook — it’s busy every time I call! I want to ask about trail conditions: how much ice and snow to expect in the canyon.

I’ll keep trying, but no matter what they tell me, there’s really only one way to prepare for a winter backpacking trip: prepare for the worst, hope for the best, always keep an eye on the weather and deal with challenges as they come.

See the trails down below? I can't wait to explore this landscape in the snow!

I’ve been keeping an eye on weather at the Grand Canyon all winter. They’ve had some snow, but it sounds like a relatively mild winter so far. Still, the upper two miles of the Bright Angel trail are likely to be icy, since it’s north-facing and doesn’t get much sunlight. From the Backcountry Updates page of the website:

2/15/12: Bright Angel Trail: The upper two miles of the trail is icy. The trail will probably become more icy over the next few days as new snow is packed and then freezes every night. As usual crampons/traction devices are recommended for the first two miles.

I’m definitely planning on bringing my Microspikes ice cleats for traction on ice and snow. As for the rest of my outfit, I’ll be sporting long underwear, top and bottom, winter hiking pants, wool socks, Asolo mountain boots and gaiters, a mid weight fleece layer, an 800-fill down jacket, a down vest, hat and gloves. Winter hiking calls for lots of non-cotton layers that you can mix and match.

Microspikes at the Ghost Ranch Icefall

I think I’ll probably end up hiking in the fleece and and maybe the down vest  during the day and donning everything after dark and in the mornings. My down sleeping bag is rated down to 10°F and I’m planning on bringing two layers of sleeping pads: a closed-cell Z-lite foam pad and an inflatable pad. A lot of heat can be lost into the ground and my back and shoulder will be happier with a little extra cushion.

On average, the interior of the canyon is 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the rim, due to the lower elevation and protection from the cold winds that sweep across the Kaibab and Coconino Plateaus. In February, the average day time temp is 62°F with an average low of 42 overnight. Lately, days have been soaring to 65 degrees with a low in the mid-40’s. Sounds like pretty ideal hiking weather to me! I’ve definitely camped colder!

Ice Crystals, Natural Bridges, Utah

For packing tips, check out my previous post on Packing For Backpacking. The one major change from that post (written for a weekend trip in Colorado’s Weminuche Wilderness in July) is that I’ll definitely be bringing a stove. Fires are not allowed in the Grand Canyon, due to the shortage of wood, so we’ll be doing all our cooking on my JetBoil stove. I also plan on heating water for hot water bottles at night. Nothing like crawling into a preheated sleeping bag!

Stay tuned for a Dirtbag Gourmet post on trail cooking!

Grand Canyon here I come!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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7 Responses to Grand Canyon Birthday Trek: Winter Backpacking

  1. Pingback: Grand Canyon Birthday Trek: Planning & Permits « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

  2. Max Reynolds says:

    Very informational and great photographs. I can’t think of a better way to spend a birthday. Thanks for sharing.

  3. awesome shots. Love the mountains..Colorado is my love. 😉

    • Yeah, I’ve been flirting with Colorado for years – climbed some mountains, done some backpacking – but one of these days we’re going to have one hell of a full on love affair! Thanks for reading! M

  4. mjspringett says:

    Again, i love the vicarious adventures, thanks MJ

  5. Pingback: Grand Canyon Birthday Trek: Trail Cooking Guest Post! « Travels with the Blonde Coyote

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