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Backpacking for Beginners

By camping inside the canyon, you give yourself time to explore the park's lower elevations. However, the extreme temperature and elevation changes can make the Grand Canyon a nightmare for inexperienced or unprepared backpackers. The jarring descent strains your knees; the climb out tests your heart. Extreme heat often precludes hiking during the middle of the day, and water is scarce. Taking these hazards into account, a first-time backpacker should confine hikes to corridor trails.

Preparing for Your Backcountry Trip

Packing Tips for Backpackers -- What you carry (or don't) in your pack is just as important as your choice of trail. Warm temperatures and dry weather make the canyon an ideal place for traveling light. Lighten your load by carrying dry food such as instant beans and ramen noodles. In summer, go lighter still by leaving the stove at home and preparing cold meals. Some foods that are usually heated, such as ramen noodles or couscous, will soften in cold water -- even inside a water bottle -- over time. In early summer, carry a tent's rain fly or bivy sack instead of a tent. At this time of year, you're more likely to suffer problems related to heat -- and heavy packs -- than from the cold, so be sure you know how to rig your shelter, in case rain does fall.

Also, make sure you have enough water containers. I usually carry 4 to 5 quarts (or liters) in summer and sometimes, for long, waterless walks, bring even more. Start drinking water before you get thirsty, and refill your bottles whenever you have the chance. Eating carbohydrate-rich, salty food is just as important. If you guzzle too much water without eating, you risk developing an electrolyte imbalance that can result in unconsciousness or death. Loss of appetite is common during a hike. Eat every time you drink, even if you don't feel hungry. Also, carry powdered Gatorade or another electrolyte-replacement drink.

Obtaining Permits -- Permits are required for all overnight camping in the backcountry that falls within the park's boundaries. This includes all overnight stays below the rims (except in Phantom Ranch's cabins and dorms) and on park land outside of designated campgrounds. Good for up to 11 people, each permit costs $10, plus an additional $5 per person per night (so the cost for four people, for example, would be $30).

Regular hikers can purchase a Frequent Hiker Membership, which costs $25 but waives the $10 permit fee for a year from the date of purchase.

The furthest in advance permit requests are accepted and considered by the Backcountry Information Center is the first of the month, 4 months prior to the proposed start month. For example, permits for all of May go on sale on January 1; permits for June go on sale February 1, and so on. To obtain a backcountry permit for the dates and use areas/campsites of your choice, ensure your request arrives at the Backcountry Information Center on the first day it will be accepted (but not before). Faxing is strongly recommended. Only written requests are accepted during the 4th month out. Written requests may be submitted by fax, letter, or hand delivered. All requests received by 5pm on the first day of the 4th month out will be placed in random order by computer. Verbal in-person requests are only considered for start dates 1 to 3 months out (not 4).

You can pick up the Permit Request Form and instructions in person at the Backcountry Information Center (tel. 928/638-7875; www.nps.gov/grca) or download them from the website. Select "Backcountry Hiking" and then "Backcountry Permit" (the Permit Request Form is available as a PDF file). Once you fill out your Permit Request Form, take it in person to the Backcountry Information Center on the South Rim or North Rim; fax it to tel. 928/638-2125 no earlier than the date the permits become available; or mail it postmarked no earlier than that date to: Grand Canyon National Park, P.O. Box 129, Grand Canyon, AZ 86023.

To increase your odds of receiving a permit, be as flexible as possible. It helps to request three alternative hikes, in order of preference, and more than one starting date. Keeping your group small also helps. No requests are taken by phone. Allow 1 to 3 weeks for processing after the Backcountry Information Center receives your form. Forms must be received at least 2 weeks prior to the dates requested. Faxing the form will get you a response much faster than mailing it. Tip: In the future, the Center may begin to accept permit requests online; check the National Parks website for updates.

The Backcountry Information Center takes calls weekdays between 1 and 5pm Mountain Standard Time at tel. 928/638-7875. You can also visit the office in person from 8am to noon and 1 to 5pm daily. Representatives can help if you have questions about a trail or about applying for a permit.

Permits are available from a few locations outside the park's developed areas -- and outside the park. These locations include Pipe Spring National Monument (tel. 928/643-7105) near Fredonia, Arizona; at ranger stations at Jacob Lake, Meadview, and Lees Ferry; and the Bureau of Land Management office in St. George, Utah (tel. 435/688-3246). At the Pipe Spring, Meadview, and Lees Ferry locations, you may not always find a ranger capable of processing your request, and they only accept credit cards (no cash).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.