If any of you have read my ‘about me‘ page, you would agree that I could be considered as one of the worst kind of travellers, and certainly not someone you want to get stuck travelling with.
But time and again, as I mentioned, people do get tricked into travelling with me. This time round, it was 3 of my now friends that I got to know here in Berkeley who had to feel the brunt of travelling to the Grand Canyon with me.
And unlike most other trips where my annoying sides are only showing once I’m already on the road, I was already being quite a pain right through the planning stage for this trip.
I basically went into a panic episode when I found out that I would be sleeping in a tent in the freezing cold. I contemplated (out loud to my travel mates whom I barely knew at that point) about pulling out from the trip because
I didn’t want to die in the cold I didn’t have any experience in winter camping. And in the process, I might have made one of my travel mates freak out a little too.
But before you discount me completely, this is the part that I’m always proud of myself. My love for travelling is often great enough to conquer my fears. So before completely deciding to bail out from the trip, I decided to go on a research rampage, finding out as much as possible about winter camping and hiking at the Grand Canyon.
How cold does it get?
Will you die sleeping outside in subzero temperature?
Are there any animals?
Can I hike in Grand Canyon without hiking shoes?
How steep are the trails?
But the real question that I was trying to answer was: Would someone like me – a beginner (and somewhat unfit) outdoor traveller, who has no skills in camping, lighting up a portable stove let alone cooking on it, setting up a tent, blowing up sleeping pad,… the list goes on (I did not tell them these. They found out on their own pretty quickly the moment we arrived at the camp site.) – be able to survive a three-day two-night camping trip and hiking at the Grand Canyon?
And as much as I found tons of excellent sites and blogs out there with tips (and trust me, they are excellent), none of them were written in such a way that all my questions were answered in a single post. I had to go through about 10-20 sites before all my doubts and fears were reasonably erased to stay onboard.
So I decided to write this blog post for those of you out there who is going for your first ever road trip to the Grand Canyon, and you are as incapable as me in getting through life in general, yet you still want to travel the world. (There are probably not that many of you out there, but whatever).
We started out from Berkeley, almost 780 miles away from Grand Canyon in Arizona. And let me tell you something, 12 hours is a LONG time to be in a car. We drove from midnight all the way to sunrise and by the time we reached our campsite, it was noon.
Your back will ache, your eyes tired and you will probably gain a few kilograms on the way from all the endless snacking in an attempt to keep yourself awake.
Here are some tips to survive the long drive:
- Get as many driver travel mates as you can, and if you can’t drive (guess who), be an excellent co-pilot, which means staying awake with the driver and trying every means that you can think of to keep him/her awake.
- Have fewer people than what your car can accommodate. For such a long drive, a sedan for 5 means that it can only accommodate 4! The last thing you want is to constantly rub shoulders with the person sitting next to you. Have some personal space still.
- Stock your car with a lot of snacks. Important to keep the driver awake and you happy.
- Stop often for bathroom and stretch. And breathe some fresh air. Buying ice cream at some point has proven effective to boost morale too.
- Have good music playlist in hand (Spotify Premium is highly recommended) and always accommodate the driver’s request!
This was the part that I was most excited, and at the same time, most nervous about.
The good thing about sleeping in a cold weather was that I didn’t have to worry about insects crawling to my face when I was asleep. The bad thing about sleeping in a cold weather was that it was cold.
If you go to the Grand Canyon in early March, the temperature at night can drop to as low as -7C. And contrary to my strong belief that my travel mates and I were going to freeze to death, it was still possible to sleep outside without dying, and these are a few life-saving camping tips that I found from my research and religiously followed throughout:
- Get a tent that is well covered but with some ventilation.
- Use an excellent sleeping bag – there are special winter sleeping bags that say what is the lowest temperature it is suitable to. Hint: if your sleeping bag is not bulky, then it is NOT for winter.
- Get hold of a sleeping pad – I didn’t know what it was at first, but it was basically an inflatable pad that you put below your sleeping bag to add another layer of insulation between your body and the cold ground.
- Wear a few layers of warm clothing and trousers.
- Prepare a thermal mug filled with hot water. This serves two purposes: something to hold on to to warm yourself up, and something to drink when you feel cold.
- Go to sleep warm, e.g. right after eating or sitting next to a bonfire and eating s’mores.
- A heater isn’t necessary for that temperature if you have the right gear.
We were camping at the Mather Campground, which was a perfect location for beginners. It was close to the supermarket where you could stock up your supplies and there was a common bathroom to brush your teeth, use the toilet and get changed. There were showers available, but *ahem*, we did not use it at all.
We did not encounter any bears at our campsite, and the campsite has been known to be safe. The only animals we encountered were the ravens who woke us up at 7 AM sharp every morning and attacked our packet of eggs. So no real peril, apart to your breakfast.
I thought that the camping part would be the most difficult, but then hiking was when the adventure really started. We chose the Bright Angel Trail, supposedly a trail for beginners. It was not TOO steep, but did require some level of stamina. You wouldn’t need a pair of hiking boots, but make sure you had excellent sports shoes.
Technically you could choose to hike as far as you wanted. We chose to go all the way to the Tonto West Plateau, which was 6 miles away from the starting point. Adding the distance of the hike back through the same trail, it was a 12-mile hike.
Even though we survived the hike, there were some things that I wished I knew:
- A 12-mile hike is no joke, especially for someone with no physical stamina and fear of height. The thing about hiking through the Grand Canyon is that you go down for 6 miles first and then hike back up for the same distance after you are all exhausted from the first half of the journey. Just to give you an idea, it took us TEN full hours of non-stop hiking, half of them ascending.
- Prepare yourselves with plenty of food and water. While there were water points at the 3-mile and 4.5 mile point, still, bring at least 2 full bottles each and hydrate yourselves. And do eat the food that you carry in your backpack. Not only would it lighten your load along the way, but you would also actually need the energy especially in the hike back up. The last thing you wanted was to run out of energy in the middle of the canyon.
And remember this mantra: DOWN IS OPTIONAL, UP IS MANDATORY.
- The Canyon gets really dark once the sun sets. Sometimes we forget that the reason we could still see our surroundings in the nighttime is because we have city lights. But in the middle of the canyon, no one has bothered to install those fancy lights for you. So do bring flash lights because it is no fun to be treading the uneven ascending slope in the dark. And when you are all exhausted, the way back could feel like it takes forever and that sensation could mess up with your mind. Alternatively, start WAY early, so you can come back up before sunset.
Having said all that, I made it, relatively unscathed. And if I can do it, despite my fear of height, darkness and lack of physical stamina, so can you. Just be prepared physically, mentally and packing-wise so you have everything that you need.
And of course, have awesome travel mates with you. They are the ones who would make the difference when you were clutching the ground sobbing because you were too scared of height.
I wouldn’t lie and say that it was completely safe and anyone could do it. But just remember, this is what you will get to see throughout the hike.
And as far as I’m concerned, it was definitely worth the risk.