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Grand Canyon Backcountry Equipment Checklist

Backpacking the backcountry in Grand Canyon enjoyably and safely for longer than day or overnight hikes requires significant amounts of planning and preparation in addition to equipment, food and water. Everything you need and want along must condense and pack into three cubic feet or so of space inside your pack or strap to the exterior of it. Good organization is very important so that you can readily locate and extract needed items and then replace them to a consistent location. A place for everything and everything in its place... You should be familiar enough with the inventory and location of items in your pack that you can readily locate and identify them even in the dark.

I subpack related items in separate mesh and ripstop nylon stuff bags of varying sizes; quart and gallon size heavy duty Hefty brand 'OneZip Slider®' baggies, and smaller 3x4 inch ZipLoc baggies. Use of baggies within baggies has proven to provide reliable waterproofing for moisture sensitive items like film, camera equipment, dehydrated foods, lighters and so on.

Numerous essential items must be assembled and efficiently packed prior to each trip. I've found the only way to insure I'm not forgetting critical items or details while preparing and packing is to employ the following equipment and supplies checklist. While this list covers the fundamentals for longer hikes, each trip and hike has it's own particular requirements depending on route, destination, duration, season, particular activities planned, and the interests and needs of the individual hiker(s). If you are less experienced and haven't developed your own backcountry checklist yet, here's my own with typical weights for your consideration and reference.

Expedition Pack
Dana K2 Loadmaster (Long Bed) 6100 cubic inch 3.40 kilograms
There's just no way around it - it takes a big, heavy, robust pack to haul all the equipment, food and water required for week long treks in the Grand Canyon, especially if your route is a dry one. I like my external frame Dana K2 Loadmaster very much for extended Canyoneering. It provides a cavernous capacity; thick, comfortable hip and shoulder pads; handy external pockets and pouches; and customizable fit and shoulder/hip load distribution adjustments. I wish it was a little lighter, but on the overall I figure it's well worth carrying an additional pound or two of pack for the capacity and comfort of a premium, heavy duty, external frame backpack and the manageability imparted to large, heavy loads. BTW, I also use this pack for shorter hikes, as it is very comfortable when loaded in the sub-40 pound range.
Cache Stuff Bag with Trash Bag Liner and Baggies
12 x 24 inch Waterproof Stuff Bag .15 kilograms
I like to do multiple hikes per visit to the Grand Canyon, ranging from day hikes to hikes of a week's duration or more. I inevitably bring along or accumulate items that won't be used on a particular hike, such as excess food or clothing, books, water bottles, exposed film, keys, change, postage stamps, bus tickets, and what not.

Backpackers using public transportation to visit Grand Canyon (such as myself) won't have a parked car there in which to store these things while off hiking. To keep my working load and bulk to a minimum on each hike, I temporarily cache such items in a stuff bag that I hang and conceal in a tree on the rim, and recover later upon my return. Storing moisture sensitive items in ZipLoc baggies and lining the cache bag with a plastic trash bag closed with a twist tie insures its contents will stay dry regardless of the weather.

Many hikers will car camp while staying at the Mather or Desert View campgrounds preparatory to, or while recovering from, day hikes on the South Rim or more extended treks into the Grand Canyon backcountry.

Charcoal and wood campfires are normally allowed on the park-type grills and within established fire rings at the Mather and Desert View campgrounds. However, due to dangerously dry conditions during the summer months it is not uncommon for campfires to be banned anywhere at Grand Canyon and other national parks and forests for extended periods as a precationary measure against inadvertantly starting a forest fire.

This is a wonderful excuse for taking a meal or two at the legendary restaurant in the El Tovar Lodge at Grand Canyon Village, which has become a near-sacred ritual for me prior to departing from the South Rim for the backcounty. Campfire bans are also a good time to have along a decent, heavy duty gas-fueled camp stove and grill for once you've gone broke from dining at the El Tovar and are more disposed to a camp cooked meal.

Day Pack
'Student Style' with Shoulder Straps .29 kilograms
I pack a light day pack to carry water, trail mix, camera gear, maps, first aid kit and so forth when I want to drop my expedition pack with most of my gear and supplies for brief exploratory hikes for route, campsite and water finding, or to gain a vantage point for sight seeing and photography. My day pack doubles as a dirty clothes bag/pillow by night.
On My Person (Mild to Hot Weather)
One Pair Socks, Underwear, Shorts, Shirt 800-1200 grams
Hiking Boots 1400-2000 grams
Belt 155 grams
Shady Hat with Chin Strap 180 grams
Sun Glasses with Neck Band 30 grams
Billfold with Emergency Info, Credit and Business Cards, Money 100 grams
Small Swiss Army Knife 35 grams
Lighter 15 grams
Notebook with Pen 100 grams
Watch with Alarm, Night Light 30 grams
Subtotal: 3.35 kilograms
You won't have much need or opportunity to use money below the rim unless your itinerary includes Phantom Ranch. However, the plastic and folding variety doesn't weigh very much, and I just feel better with mine on my person rather than stashed on the rim. So I carry a light canvas/Velcro billfold which also contains my personal ID and an emergency contact and information card. Upon returning from a hike to the rim, I traditionally reward myself with an ice cream cone at the first opportunity, which is soon followed up with a hearty meal including fresh vegetables and potatoes and burnt cow. Of course that takes money, so it is convenient to have some on my person when I hike out, rather than having to travel back to a trailhead rim cache first, which might be many miles from my exit location and the nearest ice cream...
Camp and Fording Shoes
Sandals/Tennis Shoes for Fording, Wading, Camp Wear .80-1.00 kilograms
I have seen hikers fording streams and creeks in their regular hiking boots, but I think this is a very poor idea and endeavor to keep mine as dry as possible. I've been carrying a pair of lace-up tennis shoes for fording and wading, as I find doing so in my bare feet both painful and dangerous. The rubber soles provide some traction on slick rocks and protection from sharp travertines and gravels. Once settled for the evening I also like to remove my hiking boots to give them and my feet time to air and dry out, and switch over to fresh socks and the tennis shoes for around camp wear. You may prefer "sports sandals" for the same purposes. I've begun eyeing rubber soled, slip-on neoprene surfboarder's booties to replace the tennis shoes as they are significantly lighter and should also dry faster.

Some hikers actually wear and swear by sandals for hiking in Grand Canyon. I'm rather dubious regarding the safety of doing this on all but the corridor and rim trails. Those who advocate wearing sandals for primary footwear in the backcountry must be a lot better at avoiding the cacti and scrub than I am... It only takes one misplaced step, or an unexpected slip to really whack your foot on an unforgiving rock, or equally unforgiving cactus. I had a rather memorable close encounter with a whopper of a pink rattlesnake near camp in Lonetree Canyon in fading light on May 28, 2000 while I was wearing shorts and tennis shoes. The pink rattler's camouflage is perfectly adapted to their domain and I was first alerted to his close proximity from his rattle... I think he had just ventured out to feed on rodents, lizards, frogs or other abundant small prey attracted to small pools of water in the slick rock below a seep there, something at which he was obviously successful judging by his size. He could have certainly hit me in a bad way but fortunately he didn't strike at me, the happy outcome due more so to his discretion than mine.

While unfashionably low-tech and heavy, that incident together with painfully thorn-pierced shins on more than one occasion has since had me envious of those awesome knee-high, heavy duty lace-up leather backcountry rock kickers that are often seen adorning early explorers and prospectors in historic Grand Canyon pictures.

Sleeping Bag
Goose Down Mummy with Stuff Bag 2.10 kilograms
My faithful, patched up, goose down bag is over twenty years old and it's still serviceable in spite of lots of use and abuse and a grungy appearance. It was a sub-zero bag when it was new, but it has lost enough down and loft that I would rate it at about a 30 degree bag now (when sleeping in underwear). You need a bag or blanket on the rim, even during the summer. You don't need a bag for warmth below rim in the backcountry during the summer, but then one can provide some additional cushion and insulation from baking hot bedrock that continues to radiate stored heat during the night. I have straps on my pack to carry my sleeping bag externally when it is displaced internally at the beginning of a long hike with food and water.
Ground Pad
Coleman 24 x 72 x .75 inch Convoluted Foam .42 kilograms
I pack a closed cell foam type for a ground pad under my sleeping bag, which I attach to the exterior of my pack with straps. The upside to this type of pad is it is relatively cheap (twenty bucks), light, and pretty much indestructible. Mine's been punched clear through by sharp rocks and thorns and severely abraded without functional impairment. The downside is that it feels like you're sleeping on rocks when you are - there's only so much padding provided by three quarters of an inch of foam, which averages something more like half an inch overall with the convoluted style, especially after compressing down some with several weeks wear. I've actually gotten in a fair night's sleep on this pad when it is lying over soil or sand.
Hydration and Water Containers
2-Liter Hydration Unit 150 grams
In-Line Water Filter 100 grams
Five 2-Liter Pop Bottles (Empty) 275 grams
Twelve Liters Water 12000 grams
Subtotal (Dry): .53 kilograms
Subtotal (with 12 Liters Water): 12.53 kilograms
I've incorporated a 'Camelbak' 2-liter hydration unit in my gear, which is essentially a canvas covered, collapsible plastic bag, connected to a silicon mouthpiece with a hose. The hydration unit just happens to be a perfect fit inside a long, narrow slip-in pocket on my expedition pack, the hip pads and belt of which prevent me from simultaneously carrying belt hung canteens or water bottles. I've come to appreciate it's just plain nice to yourself to have water on demand a few inches from your mouth when hiking the Grand Canyon!

I've installed a 'Safe Water Anywhere' water purifier inline between the hydration bag and the mouthpiece as a last line of defense, which filters fine suspended particulate matter, microorganisms and dissolved organic and inorganic contaminants, as well as removing the taste from iodine treated water. If you ever have to tank up at a soupy, dying tadpole and bug infested water pocket, you will especially appreciate a good water filter in addition to iodine. If the life sustaining water you have to drink also makes you sick, you're going to be in big trouble in the backcountry.

I've been using ordinary, plastic 2-liter soft drink bottles for containment and bulk transport of water inside my pack. They are cheap and easy to come by, light (55 grams each) and amazingly tough. As soon as one begins to look crumpled or worse for the wear, I replace it for my own peace of mind, even though they have proven to be serviceable across multiple outings. A drawback to carrying a number of 2-liter bottles is they are not as efficient volumetrically as larger containers and take up more space in my pack than I'd like. I sometimes study larger containers in the gear and sporting goods stores, but have yet to find anything that likes me. One consideration regarding carrying a number of smaller bottles versus a single or smaller number of larger containers is that in the event of a catastrophic accident or container failure, you will not be hurting as bad. I may switch to the magnum sized 3-liter soft drink bottles after some further field testing.

Water is the limiting factor for the duration of hikes into dry areas, which constitute about 99.9 percent of Grand Canyon. I've found that twelve liters (3 gallons) of water, which weighs 12 kilograms (26.4 pounds) is my own absolute limit of what I can carry on top of a seven day pack (while negotiating relatively moderate terrain with frequent rests). When the going is steep, up or down, my limit drops to eight liters or less. Your rate of consumption will vary considerably, depending on the season and temperature. During the winter, 3 gallons could sustain you for a week inside the canyon. During the summer, you can easily consume 3 gallons in less than two days and still be on the losing side of the water in/water out equation, due to tremendous loss through perspiration when your body has to cope with ambient temperatures well over 100 degrees on top of the work heat hiking generates. During the summer it is also harder to carry water, as your metabolic efficiency is significantly reduced by heat and water/electrolyte losses, so there is somewhat of a vicious circle operating then, where the more water you carry, the faster you consume it.

The majority of the springs and seeps in the backcountry are unreliable and only flow during wet years, or seasonally go dry, flowing only during cooler months when surface evaporation is at a minimum and rainfall/snowmelt is at a maximum. A Park Service publication lists only 28 reliable perennial water sources, including the Colorado River, throughout Grand Canyon. Thus, water availability becomes a principle strategic consideration when planning backcountry hikes and is an especially critical issue during the summer.

Cooking Utensils Bag
Replacement Lighter 15 grams
Plastic Funnel 15 grams
Unbreakable Plastic Spoon 10 grams
Unbreakable Plastic Fork 10 grams
Plastic Coffee/Tea Brewer 15 grams
Two-Cup (16 fluid ounce) Aluminum Pot/Cup 70 grams
Snow Peak GS-100 Gigapower Stove with Case 115 grams
Tinfoil (12 inch x 20 inch unfolded) 5 grams
14 Days One-A-Day and C Vitamins 25 grams
Salt & Pepper (35 mm film canister full) 40 grams
Scrub Pad (2 inch x 3 inch) 5 grams
Subtotal with Mesh Stuff Bag/Baggie: .35 kilograms

In accord with the Prime Directive Leave No Trace, it is illegal to collect fuel or build a campfire anywhere in the backcountry within Grand Canyon National Park borders. So if your idea of the quintessential wilderness experience entails hot meals and coffee, you have no choice but to pack a backpacker's stove and fuel. Some fundamentalist backpackers eliminate the weight of a stove and cooking utensils completely and eat only cold food, which is not as unappealing as it sounds during hot weather. However, I am personally from the progressive camp that embraces technology and the general improvement of the human condition that resulted from the domestication of fire and cooked food. For me, the preparation of food marks the beginning and end of each day on the trail. It is a time for relaxation, reflection and planning, an integral part of the fundamental rhythm and ritual of my backcountry treks. And I do like my coffee.

While white gas (Coleman fuel) is commonly available and relatively inexpensive, the stoves that burn it tend to be heavy and can be notoriously cranky to operate.

Rave reviews in Backpacker Magazine convinced me to try out Snow Peak's ultralight, blended gas (Isobutane/Propane) burning "Gigapower" stove, the stainless steel version of which weighs a scant 115 grams including its compact case. Its operation could not be simpler - you just screw the burner together with a fuel canister, which also serves as the base, unfold four wire pot support arms, open the fuel valve and ignite. No muss, no fuss, instant heat. Run full blast this stove will boil a quart of water in about 4 minutes, with a total full blast duration of about 45 minutes per GP-110 canister.

The simplicity, small size, light weight and efficiency of my Gigapower stove amazes other backpackers to whom I've demonstrated it, and I am a very happy camper with mine. Being a poor person, I invested in the no frills stainless steel version, the least expensive of four related models at fifty bucks. Affluent backpackers with more money to burn may prefer the titanium version that weighs an ounce less, or the piezo auto igniter option. I considered the auto igniter prior to purchasing mine, but decided against it after a company sales person told me that some Gigapower users had melted their auto igniters when using their stoves with a wind shield. It is often very windy in the Grand Canyon backcountry, and strong winds reduce the heating efficiency of camp stoves. I employ an unfolded piece of tinfoil formed in a partial cylinder around the stove to provide a wind shield when needed. I've read that reflected heat from the use of too-tight wind shields can cause dangerous overheating of fuel canisters, so if you deploy a wind shield like this, be sure to leave adequate air gaps and periodically check the temperature of the canister while operating the stove.

One downside to the Gigapower stove is it wouldn't be that stable under larger pots due to it's small footprint, but I have yet to dump a meal out of the one pint aluminum pot that I double duty for cooking meals and as a coffee cup.

Fuel Bag
Two Snow Peak GP-110 Isobutane/Propane Fuel Canisters 400 grams

Each GP-110 canister provides 110 grams of mixed gas fuel, providing 45 minutes duration at full blast. Snow Peak also makes a larger canister with double the fuel of the GP-110 (90 minute duration) which should have a little lower net weight than two GP-110s and also make a more stable base.

I don't usually run my Gigapower stove full blast, but my daily consumption of fuel works out to about 22 grams, or about 8-10 full blast minutes. Your own consumption may vary considerably depending on the cooking time of the food you prepare.

Lotions Baggie
30 SPF Sunscreen 100 grams
Bug Repellent 60 grams
Cut Off Tooth Brush 10 grams
Toothpaste ('Travel' Size) 25 grams
Subtotal with Baggie: .20 kilograms
Medical/Emergency Baggie
Plastic Whistle 5 grams
Small Roll Gauze 10 grams
Several Small/Medium Gauze Pads 5 grams
Small Roll Adhesive Tape 15 grams
2 inch x 3 inch Moleskin 15 grams
Five Blister Bandages 15 grams
Four Regular Band-Aids 5 grams
Four Packages 1-Gram Dose Triple Antibiotic Salve 7 grams
30 Aspirins 15 grams
Metal Tweezers 10 grams
Subtotal with Baggie: .11 kilograms
Utility Baggie
Iodine/Neutralizer Water Purification Tablets in Pill Case/Baggies 25 grams
Duct Tape 1.5 x 18 inches 5 grams
25 feet 5mm Cord 40 grams
Several Twist Ties -
Replacement/Extra Baggies 30 grams
Subtotal with Baggies: .11 kilograms
Navigation Baggie
Compass 25 grams
Garmin eTrex GPS Unit 155 grams
Topologic, Geologic and Formation Maps 305 grams
Replacement Pen and Pencil 20 grams
Replacement Lighter 25 grams
Compact Flashlight (2-AA Cell Size) 90 grams
Two Replacement AA Size Batteries for GPS/Flashlight 45 grams
Backcountry Permit(s) 5 grams
Subtotal with Baggies: .70 kilograms
Book Baggie
Geology of the Grand Canyon in 8.5 x 13 inch Bubble Wrap Envelope .89 kilograms
Camera/Optics Bag
Nikon 2000 Body with 35-75mm f3.5 Zoom Lens, Filter, Caps,
Lens Protector, Strap
1135 grams
80-200mm f4.5 Zoom Lens, Filter, Caps, Lens Protector 610 grams
Backpacker's Tripod 115 grams
Macro Lens Set (Filter Style) and Case 95 grams
Several Paper Towels and Dust-Free Lens Cloth 20 grams
Twelve 36-exposure Rolls Kodachrome 35mm Film/Canisters 360 grams
Four Replacement AAA Alkaline Camera Batteries (One Set) 45 grams
Tasco 10 x 25 Compact Binoculars with Soft Case 300 grams
10X, 21mm Triplet Hand Loupe 40 grams
Subtotal with Stuff Bag and Baggies: 2.82 kilograms
'Bag' Baggie
Emergency Poncho 55 grams
Two 'Lawn Size' Trash Bags 100 grams
Toilet Paper/Used Paper Baggie 30 grams
Subtotal with Baggie: .19 kilograms
Warm Weather Clothing Bag
'Night' Clothes (Swim Trunks and Tank Top) 290 grams
Clothing - Two Days Worth
(2 pairs hiking socks, 1 pair each underwear, shorts, shirt)
800-1200 grams
16 x 16 inch Towel/Rag 85 grams
Subtotal with Stuff Bags for 7 Days: 3.70 kilograms
Food Bag
Food - Rations per Day
50 grams Jerky
150 grams Trail Mix
150 grams Noodles or Rice with Dehydrated Vegetables
100 grams Oatmeal with Dehydrated Fruit
30 grams Powdered Milk
15 grams Brown Sugar
150 grams Powdered Gatorade
20 grams Coarse Ground French Roast Coffee (Makes 5 Strong Cups)
20 grams Gravy Mix
200 grams Fresh Fruit (Orange, Apple, Mango)
885 grams
Subtotal with Stuff Bag and Baggies for 7 Days: 6.30 kilograms
Total Dry (Without Water) 7 Day Pack Weight: 23.53 kilograms (51.77 pounds)
Total 7 Day Pack Weight with 12 Liters Water: 35.53 kilograms (78.17 pounds)
Weight of Worn Clothes/Boots/Pocketed Equipment: 3.35 kilograms (7.37 pounds)
Seasonal and Optional Equipment
Solo Tent, Poles, Stakes, Rain Fly, Ground Sheet 1.60-2.00 kilograms
Fishing Gear 1.00 kilograms
Down Vest or Parka kilograms
Gloves kilograms
Hiking Staff or Pole(s) kilograms
Gators kilograms
Crampons kilograms
Climbing Rope kilograms

The Ten Essentials for Backcountry Survival

In editing the above and putting together your own checklist, be sure you do not neglect these ten essentials for backcountry survival, regardless of your plans. You should always carry the following with you, even when venturing into the backcountry for 'just a day hike':

  1. Extra Water and Food - Yes, it's a dry heat... No water, you die! An often published general rule of thumb is one gallon of water per person per day. Folks, that's for mild weather and conditions - you'll have to consume 3 or more times that amount to prevent dehydration and combat heat exhaustion if exerting yourself in the summer heat, which can exceed 120 degrees in the shade on the Esplanade, Tonto Platform and within the Inner Gorge. No food = No fuel = No fun! Hiking the Grand Canyon backcountry is not the time to diet or loose weight... Indulge your body and appetite with double your normal intake of carbohydrates, sugars and water, and be sure you eat and drink periodically whether you feel hungry and thirsty or not.
  2. Trail and Topographic Map(s) - Without maps of the area in which you're hiking, and knowledge of how to use them, your hike may turn into something less than enjoyable, especially if you are venturing onto and navigating the more remote, unmaintained trails or routes in the Grand Canyon backcountry. The trail maps published by the National Park Service, Grand Canyon Association and others are no substitute for 7.5 minute United States Geological Survey topos, which are essential for safe hiking on all but the Park Service maintained, heavily traveled corridor and rim trails.
  3. Compass/GPS Receiver - Used with knowhow, a GPS receiver makes navigating with those topographic maps ten times as effective. But do not neglect to pack a compass even if you are a competent GPS user! Your GPS could conk out, its batteries could become exhausted, or you may find yourself in such rugged terrain (typically, a deep canyon or wash) that your GPS may not 'see' enough sky (satellites) to function. Sometimes simpler is better... BTW, if your compass skills are a little rusty, or you've never learned how to triangulate position using a compass and topo map, waiting until you are lost in the Grand Canyon backcountry to figure it out will no doubt add to the intensity of the situation and provide for a better story later, assuming there is one.
  4. Flashlight with Spare Batteries - Besides just being very handy around camp for scaring off mountain lions, bears and giant ground sloths after dark, ;) you may need a flashlight to hike during the night under emergency conditions to reach help for a fallen comrade, or to move your camp to higher ground if it rains. Flashlights also make good emergency signals at night.
  5. Emergency Whistle - This safety item is particularly important if you hike alone and/or venture off the beaten trail. A whistle carries further than your voice and can still be used after you've shouted yourself hoarse.
  6. Sunglasses - Your eyes can burn easily, and you won't know it's happened until the damage has already been done. A tough pair of polarized sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection is mandatory canyoneering attire, with a retainer string or band that helps prevent their loss and facilitates you in conveniently hanging them from your neck when not in use. I guarantee you will not be a happy camper if you lose or break your sunglasses during an extended hike!
  7. Protective Clothing and Hat - Depending on the season and weather, protective clothing may include rain gear, a wool shirt, sweater or parka, gloves, and perhaps a Mylar space blanket. In a pinch, a lawn size trash bag can be employed as an emergency rain poncho/pack cover. If your feet perspire anything like mine, a fresh change of socks is always appreciated. A shady hat is mandatory canyoneering attire! You will encounter high, gusty winds on the rims, outcrops and in side canyons that can easily and suddenly strip your hat from your head and blow it into an inaccessible abyss, so be sure your hat incorporates a secure chin strap. I guarantee you will not be a happy camper if you lose your hat in the Grand Canyon during an extended hike!
  8. Waterproof Matches/Windproof Lighter/Emergency Fuel - Keep them in a waterproof container. Candles, fuel tabs or another long-burning fire starter is essential when trying to start a fire with damp kindling. While it is illegal to build camp or cooking fires anywhere in the Grand Canyon backcountry, in an emergency you may need to start a fire to signal for help, or for heat if you're caught in life threatening hypothermic conditions.
  9. Pocket Knife - This is an essential tool! You won't be skinning any elk or bear, so a small Swiss Army Knife is all you'll really need.
  10. Personal First Aid Kit and Emergency Info - Your first aid kit need not be elaborate but should at least contain Band-Aids, rolled gauze and pads, adhesive tape, antibiotic ointment, tweezers (for removing thorns and splinters), moleskin or blister bandages, and aspirin. You might also want to include an elastic bandage to wrap a stressed knee or sprained ankle, and of course any prescription medications you may require. In the event of an accident or medical emergency you may not be conscious if and when found, so it is also a good idea to carry emergency contact and medical information on your person on a card, including your blood type and any known allergies to medications or complicating existing medical conditions.
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