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Embrace the Journey: Training for a Grand Canyon Backpack

Rim-to-Rim, Deer Creek and beyond

You have decided to embark on an epic journey across the Grand Canyon where limitless views, canyon creeks and unimaginable beauty await. For prepared hikers, this can truly be a trip of a lifetime and that’s why we train. It’s more fun when it feels good.

The challenge of the Grand Canyon

Hiking the Grand Canyon is like summiting a mountain in reverse. You will be dropping one entire mile in elevation from the North Rim to the Colorado River and most of that drop will occur in the first seven steep miles. The descent puts tremendous strain on knees, ankles and certain muscles in your legs. Even well-seasoned hikers arrive at Bright Angel Campground with sore, tired calf muscles and especially quadriceps (the front of the thigh). 

Then, on already sore, tired muscles, they face the crossing and finally the arduous ascent out of the canyon. Training, hydration and maintaining a healthy electrolyte balance will certainly minimize the soreness but the big downhill is a hard day.

First-timers usually worry more about making the ascent out of the canyon. Here’s our take on that: with solid cardio and endurance training and a nice stockpile of snack bars you should do just fine on the way up. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put one foot in front of the other. The descent is the real killer, and the reason why hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon is harder than you think.

Carrying a heavy pack also makes the hike more challenging than you might expect. It takes much more strength and energy to walk long distances with a 35-pound pack on your back. And you will be doing it multiple days in a row. Our rim-to-rim backpack trip is 3 days, 2 nights and about 24 miles in distance. We might be walking as much as 14 miles in one day, depending on which camping permits we are awarded. ​​To complete our Deer Creek / Thunder River trip, you need to prepare for almost 30 miles over four days with more than 12,000 feet of vertical change (including over 6,000 feet of ascent) and demanding traverses that require sure-footedness. This challenging trip is for fit, experienced backpackers only.

When should I start training?

So much depends on your current physical condition. If you are currently exercising regularly, a 12-week training plan focused on hiking the Grand Canyon should get you where you want to be. Those not currently exercising will need to start earlier.

Schedule your workouts

Get out a calendar and mark off at least four days each week for training. Three of these sessions can be one hour squeezed in after work; set at least one long day aside each week for a long hike – those should range in length from three to ten (or more) hours. If you have to miss a workout, don’t skip it, reschedule!

For the short days, combine cario exercise and a variety of exercises to boost flexibility, strength and cardio fitness.

Do at least one long hike each week

If you ever needed an excuse to get outside or explore new areas, this is it. A regularly scheduled hike is also a great opportunity to invite friends and build relationships with people you want to spend more time with.

Don’t start too big and knock yourself out on the first hike. Instead, gradually increase the length of the trek and the weight in your pack until you can comfortably carry 35 pounds (that’s the equivalent of your backpack loaded with four gallons of water) for 10 or more miles, preferably in hilly terrain.

Wear the shoes and pack you plan to bring on the Grand Canyon trip. Break in the shoes, make sure they don’t cause blisters. Get your pack adjusted and get used to how the weight feels and how it changes your balance. You should also hike with your trekking poles to practice using them and condition your arms.

Hills are key. Try to hike in an area with long ascents and descents. The longer, steeper downhill you can find, the better. If you don’t have hills, walk the stairs of your high rise office building, or work your way up and down the bleachers at the local high school football field – these are terrific and frequently underestimated ways to exercise. You can do these workouts on your long hike day, or incorporate them in your shorter exercise sessions. Don’t worry about looking silly wearing your backpack where backpacks aren’t the norm. You are going to look awesome. You might even get the chance to tell someone you’re preparing to hike the Grand Canyon. There is nothing uncool about that.

Build up your cardio

It’s no fun huffing and puffing your way up out of the Grand Canyon. If you complete those weekly long hikes, and dedicate forty-five minute sessions three times each week for cardio training as part of your training regimen, you should feel ready to tackle the ascent with a loaded backpack. There are lots of exercise methods: jogging or power walking (just don’t slip into too leisurely a pace), using an elliptical or stair stepper at the gym, swimming laps, etc. You can get a good cardio workout right in your living room with minimal equipment. There are a myriad of streaming video services that offer workouts to give you ideas and keep it fresh and fun.

Strengthen those legs

You’ll be using your leg muscles like never before. Squats, lunges, leg raises and especially step downs will build the muscles you’ll be using the most. If you’re not a gym rat and you don’t know what the heck a step down is, don’t worry about it. Guaranteed, your guide is not a gym rat and probably doesn’t know the fancy names for these exercises either. We’ve found two excellent videos to help.

Give it a rest

You can’t cram for your Grand Canyon backpack like you can cram for a college exam. Invest in your training over the course of the three months leading up to your hike, then take it easy a couple of days before your big adventure. Enjoy your vacation, get out, hike, but don’t overdo it or go big those last three or four days. Give your body a break. And then, embrace the journey. You’ve earned it.

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