Kayaking the Grand Canyon: Tips for Self-Supporting


Self-supporting the Grand Canyon of the Colorado offers solace, simplicity and speed. You can show up with your boat packed and be on the water in minutes. The clean up can be done in the same amount of time as at it takes you to change into a comfy pair of jeans—just throw that kayak back on the roof rack. Of course, spending a month floating down the Big Ditch with a barge for booze, a barge for food and a barge for costumes is the ideal, but not everyone’s lifestyle, careers, pet and kid duties allow for that luxury.

Case in point: me. I just graduated from nursing school and although I chose this profession partially for the ease at which I can manipulate my work schedule to accommodate my paddling wanderlust, I’m at the bottom of the totem pole right now. So, if the text I had gotten had been anything other than “I pulled a Grand Canyon permit for December…Oh and we’re self-supporting with kayaks,” I would probably have had to say no. Luckily, I know myself and my kit is dialed, mostly. I can be ready for any Grand Canyon invite at any time. And so can you.

But first, I’m sure you’re thinking what I was thinking? December? What a perfect time to go kayaking. Okay, you probably aren’t thinking that. But the Grand is revered as one of the classiest stretches of whitewater that you can find, and it’s most difficult to get a space on. Permits for the Grand in the winter are not only easier to snag, but the traffic is nonexistent—read: no jet boats.

But you’re worried about the weather and the cold water. Hey, it can be brutal at any time of the year for the unprepared. In the summer, temps approach heat levels that could burn your baked goods. In the winter, water pales can freeze solid overnight. If you find yourself with an invite in the chilly months, don’t shy away on account of the temps. I’ve spent many days in January in a tank top and short-shorts at the bottom of the big ditch.

So, how do you pack for these extremes? Well, it’s pretty easy when you have a fleet of 20’ rubber boats carrying enough equipment to outfit a small platoon. Bring the floaty toys, a tank top for each day, party favors galore and the whole dutch-oven set, including the really small one made just for frying one perfect egg.

When it comes to packing everything down into one single kayak, things can get a little trickier. Space is limited. You’ll have to triage a little when staring at that pile of gear and goodies. And you still have to carry out your poop! But, not too much fun needs to be sacrificed just because we’re self-support kayaking through the Grand in the winter. It just takes serious introspection about who we are, what we value, and what types of canned meat we are and aren’t willing to put through our G.I tract. Here are some broad tips for your winter self-support trip.

Getting to know yourself is an important piece of this process. Are you the person that wants fresh coffee pressed every morning before breakfast begins, like me? Are you the sort of person that normally lives off of red bull and ramen for every meal or do you make your own kimchi prior to eating a vegan bratwurst? Do you prefer a full sized air mattress, or will any old strip of mostly-level sand do just fine? Tough questions to ask but do it before you find yourself isolated for 10+ days without a ‘Whole Foods’ or gas station microwave in sight.

Now that you have an existential idea of who you are, make a list of must have’s. For me, I think a good night’s sleep is key to feeling great and performing well the next day, especially on long trips. I use a nice compact air mattress that doesn’t take up hardly any space but blows up thick and keeps me warm and elevated. This has its own challenges, but it’s something that I value and I make room for it.

When it comes to your wardrobe, layering is the name of the game. The canyon can range from ‘frozen spray skirt’ to ‘sauna dry suit’ on the temperature gauge in a matter of hours. Know what your favorite layers are for each condition and how they pair together to either add warmth or offer a reprieve from the unexpected heat wave while still offering sun protection. Have them accessible in a day bag and compromise with other gear to make room in your gear bag.

For example, you can bring a slightly higher temp sleeping bag that packs smaller if you layer up during chilly nights. I took a 20-degree down bag and was perfect. I slept in mostly thin layers but had a couple of ‘bigger guns’—down jacket and vest—for chillier situations. Don’t forget about the exposed skin either. Bring plenty of sunscreen, a face buff, a sun hat, and extra sunglasses with retainers. When your compadre loses their sunnies, you’ll be a hero!

You’ve figured out your can’t-live-without items. Your clothing-game is on point. It’s now important to know your routine: Which bags do I want to have access to throughout the day (lunch, hiking snacks and shoes, first aid, etc.)? And which bags can I pack away early (sleeping bag, pad, tarp, etc.)? Get intimate with your boat. Knowing the nooks and crannies of your specific craft will help you to get the most out of packing it. Separating gear into small bags will allow you to most effectively utilize those small spaces. Having your routine down will decrease your packing time and increase the amount of time you can spend hiking, sipping coffee and Bailey’s, reading a good book around the campfire or simply watching your fellow paddlers struggle while packing their own boats as you stretch on the beach.

Pro tip: Don’t underestimate the power of having a craft with a stern hatch. This makes packing on long trips a dream.

One of the biggest differences in self-supporting with kayaks rather than a raft fleet is energy spent. Even though you’ve decreased your packing capacities by 85%, you still need to have enough food to sustain 10+ days of high RPM’s. Too much is better than not enough. This is not a diet-trip. Paddling in the winter burns a lot of calories. Between making miles on flat water and putting up with colder temps, you need to feed the furnace. Being hungry on the Grand is unacceptable and unnecessary. It only took me losing 13 pounds on my first winter Grand to learn that lesson.

Figuring out your cooking routine ahead of time is key. This one is like peeling an onion, there’s more than one way to do it. After spending 10 days on the Grand with 14 self-support pros, I got to observe all the tricks of the trade. There were bacon wrapped corn dogs, Russian pots, jetboil masterpieces, freeze-dried delights, grilled cheese sandwiches and cinnamon buns. My favorite meal this past trip? Thai noodles, with heaps of fresh veggies, cashews, pre-cracked eggs stashed in a Nalgene (18+ per 32oz bottle), and an extra half-stick of butter following those BIG days. Butter adds calories and delicious flavor to any meal!

My favorite cooking apparatus to date? The aluminum 10-inch dutch oven. It can be used with coals or cooking stoves. It can make a large amount of food. The lid doubles as a concave skillet. It’s fairly lightweight. When packing it, you can fill the void space with other gear. When there’s a birthday on the trip, you can surprise the birthday girl/boy with a cake!

Some final notes: Bring a bomber repair kit. Things break, it’s inevitable. Having a gear-melt-down on the canyon is not ideal. Bring a solid repair kit that can face any malfunction. Have plenty of aquaseal, duct tape, a sewing awl and any equipment specific kits you might need. Like that one time my stove broke. And alongside that bomber repair kit, have an equally bomber first aid kit. But don’t leave out all the fun stuff. Pulling out that packable guitar, or harmonica adds a lot when floating through miles of silence. When in doubt, just remember: your kayak is never too heavy and whatever it is, you can make it fit, or you can bribe your minimalist buddy into squeezing it into their boat.