Unforgettable Adventure: Backpacking Tips for Grand Canyon Beginners

I love being outdoors. I hike a lot. I love camping. And until recently I had never experienced backpacking.

As luck would have it, I was invited by a good friend for a 5 day 4 night Grand Canyon adventure! As a newbie, I was probably most worried about what to pack and if I would be able to carry the weight. But I was also so excited to be able to do The Grand Canyon!

My friend is an avid backpacker who was able to show me the ropes. So I’m going to tell you all the things that I learned and hopefully help you if you’re also a newbie. And of course, I am going to share a bit of the adventure with you!

In this post I’ll walk you through:

  1. How to Choose a Pack as A Beginner
  2. What to Pack (5 days 4 nights in March)
  3. Which Backpacking Meals to Bring
  4. A Play-by-Play of My Grand Canyon Adventure (so you’ll know what to expect)
  5. Lessons Learned

Backpacking for Beginners

Choosing A Pack For Backpacking

One of the most important things is ensuring that you have a pack that fits you properly and is the right volume for the amount of backpacking that you will be doing while considering what you can actually carry.

I’m 5’3.5″ (approx. 163cm) in height, just under 25″ waist, 31″ hips, and when I measured my torso it was about 16″. I’m right at the smallest size for a woman’s pack. HOWEVER, the real issue is that the waist belts just couldn’t get tight enough. They were at max tightness, so if I happened to lose weight while hiking (and you usually do), there would be no way to tighten the belt.

I looked at a lot of packs, both online and in stores. It was helpful being able to go to REI to get a pack fitted. They put weight in the pack and let you walk around in it. It helped me understand where the weight was sitting on me with each pack.

Ideally, you want the weight to sit mostly on your hips. You’ll likely end up shifting the weight around as you hike but you need to be able to shift the weight in the first place. So, you need a pack that allows most of the weight to sit on the belt.

After an hour of testing, adjusting, and trying different packs I ultimately decided to go with Gregory Wander 70 Pack – Kids‘. Yep. A kid’s pack because there is a serious lack of pack options for petite women.

I chose this pack mainly for two reasons: 1) It was slightly lighter than the woman’s pack, and 2) The hip belt could actually be tightened further (if I needed).

It was also a 70 liter bag. This seems to be a pretty good size because you’ll have enough room for at least week-long trip. Anything smaller than that might be hard to fit everything. For me personally, I plan on doing more backpacking and maybe up to two weeks long. The 70L still had some room left after packing for a 5 day 4 night trip — granted, I wasn’t carrying the tent or stove; but those would’ve fit no problem.

After using this pack, I would definitely recommend it. My only issue with it is due to my personal preference, and that’s that I do not like bright colors. I wish this pack came in pure black or any of the more subtle colors that are available for the the adult packs.

I also ordered this same pack in the 2019 version from CampSaver because it came in black (and it was a little cheaper). But, I didn’t like the way that it looked either. Ultimately, I ended up just sticking with the bright blue pack because the convenience of a great return warranty for members that REI offers (I could use it for a year and return it if need be).

The bottom line: get a pack that fits you properly, choose at least a 70L pack if you’re planning 5-14 days (unless you don’t mind having a bunch of packs), if you’re petite a good goal weight for a full pack is ~35 pounds.

What To Pack When Backpacking The Grand Canyon in March

You’ll obviously have to really consider where you’re going and the time of year you are going. But for my adventure, I went the first week of March. The canyon was showing daytime temps in the 60’s (Fahrenheit) and mostly 30’s & 40’s for nights. But some nights were expected to be in the high 20’s.

I wore some thermal leggings, base sweater, sleeve-less sports top, and my Adidas hiking boots to start. I also started off wearing my NorthFace jacket & shell, but once we got lower and more in the sun, I had to put it in my pack as it was much too hot — came in handy at night though.

Here’s everything that I packed:

Disclaimer: some or all of the following links are affiliate links, so I may earn a small commission.

*These are items that I technically did not bring because I was sharing them. But if you’re carrying all your own stuff then you’ll need to consider them.

My goal weight for my pack was 35 pounds & no more than 40pounds. After I added in all the food my pack was at about 30 pounds, which meant I only had a few pounds of water left to add (we did it at the cabins on the south rim). So my pack was quite light. As I mentioned, I was sharing some items so anything with an asterisk on the above list I didn’t actually carry.

If you want to see how I packed all of these things into my pack, I made a video for you and you can watch it on my YouTube channel.

The Toiletries I Brought Backpacking

As I already mentioned, my pack was pretty light so I had no issues bringing a little bag full of toiletries. So, yes, I brought some things that I know most people will not bring — but it was worth it to me. The clear bag is water proof and I got it when I purchased some travel toiletries, but I prefer travel pouches for my bathroom products (I reviewed them on YouTube if you’re interested).

I also tucked my ID and a credit card in this bag. At Phantom Ranch you can buy things (food, drinks, and items), and I ended up getting a patch for my pack.

So here’s what I brought:

  • (3) Extra AAA batteries for headlamp
  • Ear plugs
  • Blister bandages (w/ hydrocolloid)
  • Wet Ones for Sensitive Skin (20 pack)
  • Small bar of soap in small ziplock
  • Ibuprofen & Tylenol (small container – but both in it)
  • Benadryl (just in case)
  • Moleskin (normal for blisters & padding for rubbing)
  • Sunblock for body (1fl oz)
  • Sunblock lotion for face (put in a travel pouch)
  • Colorscience Sunblock for face
  • Aloe vera (put in a travel pouch)
  • Image Skincare Ormedic Face lotion (.25oz)
  • Small mirror
  • Tweezers
  • Extra hair tie
  • Lip balm spf 15 (I’d actually bring 2)
  • Travel toothbrush (got from a plane lol)
  • Toothpaste 0.8oz
  • Glide Floss (small)
  • Small emery board (3.25″)
  • Contacts
  • Salicylic acid 15ml
  • Tretinoin 1.59oz

Backpacking Meals & Snacks

Food was one of the things as a newbie that I was concerned about — but I nailed it! lol

I didn’t run out of food, nor did I have too much left over, so I brought the perfect amount IMO. I left the Mountian House meals “free floating” in my pack, but the rest I separated into two 1 gallon ziplock bags: breakfast & other meals.

I technically needed 13 meals. However, we “cheated” (as my friend says) because on Day 1 we ate breakfast at the lodge on south rim. And my friend’s mom was so sweet and pre-purchased two meals at the Phantom Ranch canteen. So that’s already minus 3 meals.

Additionally, when doing the descent and the ascent, we knew that we weren’t likely to be cooking so having power bars & snacks is what we opted for for the lunches. Which meant that I only needed to pack 8 meals, and whatever snacks I wanted.

I brought two extra gallon zip lock bags. One for trash (you must pack out all trash and uneaten food) and one just in case. At every campsite there is a metal box to keep all food and scented stuff so that the critters don’t chew on your pack and get your stuff.

So I ended up using that extra baggy to take snacks out of the side pockets of my pack and store them in the camp box.

Here’s the food that I brought/recommend:

I used my collapsable cup for coffee, then I put my oatmeal in that same cup once the coffee was gone. I cleaned it easily by shaking a little boiling water inside; but also my friend’s mom brought a small sponge and dish soap so I was able to actually wash it and my spork at Phantom Ranch.

Initially, I was a little scared about the Mountain House Adventure Meals because I had heard mixed reviews about them tasting good. However, I thought they were delicious. I followed the instructions on the back and I had zero problems. I will say the chicken was a strange texture, sort of reminded me of when it’s overcooked and it’s almost stringy in a way. But when you’re hungry, you won’t care.

The chicken fajita bowl was slightly spicy (if you’re a “mild” salsa type of person FYI) and it was probably the softest meal. I found myself wishing that I had tortillas to break up the texture — but I personally have an aversion to “soggy/mushy/soft” textures lol. Great flavor though.

But honestly the Mountain House Adventure Meals were really good, and aside from snacks, I could’ve easily just brought those for all my meals. You eat right out of the bag (which is why the long-handled spork comes in handy), just don’t forget to take out the little “fresh” packet inside before you add hot water.

Gadgets While Backpacking

I’m one of those weirdos who wants to bring technology while backpacking. Not because I wanted to call, text, or use social media, but rather because I love tracking hikes (and all the stats), filming videos, and taking pictures. So I knew right away that I needed a way to charge my phone, my watch, and my gimbal.

I did a lot of research and was originally looking into solar chargers. I wasn’t sure how much shade would actually be in the canyon, so they seemed risky to me.

I needed something that would be able to charge 3 devices and hold its charge for 5 days. And preferably, it’s small and lighter.

I went with the 26800 Charmast Powerbank – and it did not disappoint! I charged my watch every night. Charged my phone a couple of times (kept it on airplane mode the whole time and turned it off at night), and I don’t think I ever had to charge my gimbal, or maybe I did slightly charge once (it’s battery life held up great).

The Charmast still had plenty of power left as I only used one of the “battery-dots”. I never charged three devices at once, but I didn’t need to.

It’s a good size IMO because it’s thin and small-ish, but it does have some weight to it (approx. 12oz)

I brought 2 cords and a watch charging cord. They easily fit into the pouch that came with the powerbank.

One last tip on gadgets: if you go when it’s cold keep the gadgets in your sleeping bag with you, because cold temps can quickly drain the batteries.

Backpacking The Grand Canyon for 5 Days and 4 Nights in March

If you’re wanting to do a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon then you do need to get a backcountry permit. And it seems that you have to apply at the right time, as it isn’t just an open booking for any time.

We had the first week in March Tuesday – Saturday.

Day 1 – The Canyon Descent

We started on the South Rim at the Kaibab trail around 11am.

I guess my group usually prefers to start at a different trail but it was under maintenance. Additionally, you used to be able to park at the trail head, but apparently they are not currently allowing backpackers to leave their cars, so we left the car at the Grand Canyon Village. I filled my water bladder with 2.5L of water at the village. Then we took the blue bus, to the orange bus, to the trailhead (approx. a 15-20 min bus drive).

We started our descent. And wow what a view!

It was a little crowded for the first few miles, and there’s a surprising amount of joggers. For me, I honestly thought the decent was pretty easy.

Granted, my friend had been taking me on some pretty brutal training hikes. Plus, I work out consistently and do long hikes pretty much every weekend. The point being: if you work out and train, the canyon won’t be too crazy.

From the start of the trail to the Bright Angel campground (connected to Phantom Ranch) my watch logged 6.75 miles. It took us 5hrs 48mins, but we were definitely going extra slow and taking our time due to a group member having knee pain. But if there’s no issues, then this seemed like it could easily be done in about 3hrs or so.

There are two restroom/outhouse stops on the way down the canyon. But don’t leave your pack unattended otherwise the squirrels will go after it. And they are brave FYI.

Once we got to the camp, we placed our permit, and headed to dinner at the canteen. It was family style: stew, corn bread, salad, and brownies. I thought it was delicious and helped myself to two servings! lol

This campsite has restrooms with actual pluming, so there are sinks and the toilets flush.

We set up camp. I got all my gadgets situated, stuffed my down jacket into the pillow case (to be used as my pillow), popped in my ear plugs, and slept.

Day 2 – The Trek to Cottonwood

I slept pretty well, but when I woke up my calves were quite sore. After getting up and moving around a bit, they seemed to feel much better. But not totally better.

We bundled up from the morning chill and made some coffee and oatmeal for breakfast. I enjoyed watching the the sun creep over the ridge and fill the canyon — it felt so warm and nice.

My friend and I were the only ones continuing on to the next campground. So we got ready, packed back up, and began another hike to the Cottonwood campground.

We again took our time hiking to the next place. He did some fishing. I did some filming. I built a tiny cairn with pebbles (they typically frown upon doing that), and took pictures to make it look giant! (I am very easily entertained).

For lunch we enjoyed some power bars and snacks.

My watch logged 7.75 miles with a 1,797 ft elevation gain and it took us approx. 4hrs 49mins.

I loved the first few miles walking through more of a narrow canyon. Reminded me of something from Star Wars. And walking next to a creek for most of it was quite pleasant.

However, the last 3 miles or so were rough for me. My calves were killing me, but what’s worse is that my toes started to get blisters! And just before you make it to the campsite you have to climb a steep hill — Hell hill as my friend’s aunt calls it. And it is aptly named.

By the time we made it to the camp, I was walking like a cripple. lol Thank gawd my friend told me to bring sandals because they came in very handy at this point.

Unfortunately this camp had a water leak so there was no running water to fill bottles — which is why a water filter is important so that you can get creek water. Also, this campsite has the outhouse style restrooms and for some reason there were a ton of bugs everywhere! I was glad a brought my head net.

My friend set up camp, cooked some mac ‘n cheese, mashed potatoes, and Mountain House meals.

Both of us had sore calves so we decided to rub the heck out of them to get rid of the lactic acid, but holy moly it was killer.

Day 3 – Hiking Back to Phantom Ranch

I had chosen not to bring my down blanket to Cottonwood, and even though I was sleeping in wool socks, long Janes, and sweats I still got cold. I also messed up and didn’t put my beanie on. So needless to say, it was cold night for me.

We woke up to heavy clouds creeping over the tall canyon walls, hiding the blue skies — we knew rain was on the horizon.

My friend boiled water so that we could quickly make coffee and breakfast. We packed up what we could inside of our packs. I put the rainfly on my pack and we propped them on the campsite table which was under a tree. Then we ducked into the tent to let the rain pass by.

Once we had a little bit of clear skies, we used the microfiber towel to dry the rainfly and pack up the tent. Then we began the trek back to Phantom Ranch.

On our way, we decided to cross the river and go to ribbon falls. And it was super pretty and serene. Luckily, no one was there. So we got to enjoy the peace and natural beauty of this lush little cove in the canyon.

About halfway through our hike, my blistered toes were screaming at me. I wish I had also brought regular moleskin, but I didn’t for-see blisters being a thing. So I only had padded moleskin which is more conducive to a rubbed-raw spot treatment.

The pain was pretty bad. My calves were still quite sore, but I felt that was now tolerable compared to the pain that my feet were feeling.

I told my friend that I was in a lot of pain, and then I picked up the pace quite dramatically. Almost a jog.

He was confused by my choice to speed up in the face of pain, but I wanted it to end so I was trying to hightail it to the camp! lol

My watch logged 7.69 miles and it took us approx. 4hrs 18mins.

Once back at camp we set up the tent, cooked dinner, and used ponchos to protect our hanging packs from any rain.

Day 4 – Bright Angel Camp & Chill

The sun was back to give us a perfectly relaxing day. We decided that we would just take the day to hang out and recoup before we had to hike back up the canyon. My friend took me down to a pretty spot next to the river. I found a large rock next to the river where I could feel the sun on my skin, hear the water swishing by, read my book, and meditate.

I wish I would’ve brought a pair of regular leggings vs. having 2 pairs of thermal leggings because it was hot when the sun was out. Maybe even a pair of shorts would’ve been fine.

After a few hours of reading & meditating, we went to to the ruins to take a look and then headed back to camp to make lunch.

Then we decided to go on a mini hike up the creek to find a new spot to relax. That night we got to enjoy one last stew meal at the canteen. I enjoyed the playful banter and dinner conversation.

Walking back to the campsite, I liked to pause and look up. The stars were bright in the canyon and splashed across the sky. It was absolutely beautiful. Nature really puts life into perspective — we’re simply on a giant rock floating around in infinite space. So what really matters in the large scheme of things? How can any problems you have really be problems? Nature is a good reminder for us to be present and simply enjoy each moment as it unfolds.

Day 5 – The Canyon Ascent

The adventure was coming to an end. Today was the last day, and the day that we would begin our ascent. We had our coffee and breakfast. Then we packed everything up.

Poles in hand we began. We trekked out of camp, past the ruins, across the black bridge, and up the switch-back filled trail.

Thank baby Jeebus that my blisters weren’t being affected by walking up a hill; it seemed to be that going down was the only thing that hurt like a mother.

Again, I was surprised by the ease of going up. The hiking poles helped and my pack was quite comfortable. I was able to shift the weight as needed. The last mile up the canyon was probably the steepest. And it felt never-ending. But still wasn’t that bad. I’m assuming it was because we were going at a pretty slow pace.

Once we popped out at the top my watch had logged 8.15miles 7hrs 55mins and 4,578ft elevation gain.

While we waited for the bus, I enjoyed a fruit by the foot that was gifted to me by my friend’s aunt. Once we were all back at the car, we headed out of the park for a celebratory burger and fries (or The Feast as my friend calls it). And boy, did I feast.

Lessons Learned

I am so thankful to have been invited on such an amazing trip. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to go with some experienced backpackers that helped me be properly prepared (not to mention just being lovely humans).

I feel proud that I did so well and really had no major issues (aside from the blisters, and I’ve got to try and solve that). My pack was great, the weight was good, I didn’t run out of food, I had everything that I needed. And overall, it was pretty easy. So I’m glad my friend kicked my butt with training hikes.

Having sandals (that doubled as my water shoes), a pillow case to stuff my jacket as a pillow, and ponchos to protect packs while hanging were nice little pro-tricks. The collapsable cup and long-handled spork were also particularly handy IMO.

There’s only a few adjustments that I would make next time, which are:

  • I would’ve brought regular leggings or shorts just in case there’s a hot day.
  • I might skip the mac ‘n cheese cups and just do Mountain House mac ‘n cheese because I didn’t like the bulkiness of the cups.
  • I’d definitely bring more crackers! I was told they may be turned into dust, but I know how to protect my crackers. lol
  • I honestly might attempt bringing tortillas if I do the Chicken Fajita Bowl again
  • I’d be sure to bring an extra lip balm. If you lose it, it will suck.
  • I’d bring a pencil so I can mark my book (I like to write in the margins).
  • I’m going to get a different headlamp. Mine was just too bright for a campsite with other people around and it had no red light.
  • Moleskin for blisters and not just the padding.

I loved being disconnected for a bit with no reception in that canyon. I hope that everything I shared was helpful and entertaining! I had an amazing time and it was truly a grand adventure!

Questions? Ask me in the comments! And don’t forget to Subscribe so that you don’t miss out on posts like this!

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