Packing for a Shoulder Season Trip on the Grand Canyon

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When you’re in the depths of a canyon at the mercy of high winds, cold rains, blazing sun and sand storms, it’s a fine line between a majestic adventure and miserable slog.

That line is gear.

The opportunity to raft the renowned 280-mile section of the Grand Canyon is hard for any boater to turn down, and shoulder season trips are among the most coveted times to land a permit. Without the insufferable heat and crowds of summer, and warmer than the depths of winter, joining a group of friends on an April trip was an easy decision. Deciding what to bring with me was not.

Packing for any trip is stressful. Rafting the Grand Canyon for 24 days in the most erratic season of the year takes another level of planning. I had rafted the Grand Canyon once before, but that trip launched in the middle of winter. So, I had no idea what to expect from this spring trip. Luckily, I had the chance to speak with an expert. Longtime Grand Canyon raft and dory guide Nick Grimes has been guiding spring and fall trips for OARS for more than 20 years. He has rafted the Colorado River close to 100 times, not only packing his own bags but also helping clients and fellow raft guides throughout the years. Let’s just say he has had plenty of opportunities to hone in the needs.

His top recommendation for me was to be prepared for any conditions. “You’re in that transition period,” he said. “You get a lot of dynamic weather. You get a lot of wind. Nighttime temperatures can dip into the 40s and 50s with days in the 80s or even 90s depending on the year.” After hearing this, I had concerns about overpacking in my attempt to prepare for everything, but Grimes said the key is bringing something for every scenario, but not bringing too much of any one thing.

Starting with the essentials to keep you warm and dry, Grimes confirmed my plan to bring a drysuit. “I always bring mine on spring and fall trips,” he said. At the very least, he advised you pack a dry top and dry pants. From there it’s all about the layering—which plays a dual role as drysuit insulation and camp comfort. Pack a range of layers from fleece heavy-weight layers to lightweight mid-layers and even silk base layers (or sun protection). In addition, Grimes recommends including a helmet beanie, poggies or gloves and neoprene socks.

When it comes to around camp Grimes uses the same standard as river gear. Pack only items that possess multiple uses and versatile layering pieces help maximize space efficiency. For instance, having a down jacket is essential for around camp and also great for wearing to bed on cold nights. Bringing camp clothes such as sturdy pants, hat, scarf, and a couple of items so you don’t have to be in your river clothes for three weeks straight is nice, Grimes said, but too many people overestimate the amount of camp clothes they’ll wear.

“You’re going to be wearing your technical gear [most often], not the seven different camp shorts you brought,” Grimes said. “If I’ve got this cool new shirt, I bring it. I just don’t bring seven of them.” Grimes also stressed the importance of knowing what you have and how to use it before the trip, even if it means doing a practice trip. “There is the classic saying, there is no bad weather, just bad gear,” he said. “You have to be prepared. Having the right gear makes a huge difference.”

Gathered at Lee’s Ferry on April 10th with 15 fellow raft guides, spirits were as high as the pile of dry bags we were loading onto the 18-foot rafts we would call home for the next 24 days. I felt the collective relief in knowing that whatever we had decided to pack—or not pack—the worrying was over. We either had it or we didn’t.

I did my best to follow Grimes advice, cramming everything from rain gear to boardshorts into my two dry bags. So I could access my clothes and layers without pulling everything out, I used my 35-liter duffel style bag. And then I crammed in extra warm gear and my down sleeping bag into the large 65-liter dry bag. In the pleasant spring weather at put-in, it was hard to imagine needing half of the items.

Within a week they had all come out to play.

The unimaginable winds Grimes had warned me about struck on day two. Gusts reached 60 miles per hour and forced us upstream. After hours of hard rowing, we had barely made it anywhere. It tore up the skin on our hands and faces, chapped our lips and kicked sand into everything from our coffee to our tents.

After the winds, the daytime temp plummeted. At that point, we weren’t just wearing our drysuits for “just in case we fall in” but actually needed them and the layers underneath to keep from shivering. The cold day ended with a rainstorm that lasted just long enough for me to put on all my rain gear and set up a tent before blue skies took over.

The very next day, it was 90 degrees and we were covering up for sun protection instead of rain.

After the trip, as we unloaded the boats and tossed our crusty drybags to the beach one last time, the chatter circled back to the initial packing list. After spending 24 days with whatever we deemed ‘essential’ more than three weeks before, here’s what we chose to be the must-haves:

Overalls – “My overalls are clutch. They keep me warm, they keep the sand off my legs, they are a real quick item to slip on, and if you need more layers you can always put more underneath.” — Megan Becker

Sand mat – “It reduces sand in the tent and it is nice to step on barefoot. After enjoying sand blowing in your face all day and having it in your food and water, it is nice to have a respite even if it is just for the night.” —Zach Coakley

Reclining camp chair – “A quality reclining chair is especially clutch for the lazier folk who get tired of setting up their tent on the second night. You just take it off the boat, set it up, throw your sleeping bag on it and you’re done.” —Ben Coakley

Other boaters chose: A quality dry bag, protective hoodie, a headband, river sneakers, and ski goggles… “Do you want to make the Martian landscape look even more Martian? Do you want to look like Mad Max? Of course, you do. Plus it keeps sand out of your eyes for those outrageously windy spring days.” —Scott Ferris

My personal must-haves? A thermos: Sand and river water are persistent. It’s essential to have a tight lid on your drinking vessel that can keep both out. Quality hand salve: Bring more than you think you need and keep up consistent hand maintenance to prevent debilitating hand cracks. And a solar charger: Great for keeping cameras and speakers alive throughout the trip. Bringing an external battery pack to charge up for the cloudy days is a great addition to the system.

It can be as important to know what not to bring as what to bring. As a group, we decided on three items we wouldn’t bring again.

Solar shower – Setting up a solar shower and waiting for it to heat up is more trouble than it is worth. Those who brought solar showers used them on our first layover day. From then on, everyone opted for the simpler bathing strategy—jumping in the river.

Hiking boots – While some people used hiking boots on the longer, steeper hikes, we found that ‘river sneakers’ could handle even the more challenging hikes. Hiking boots weren’t worth the space they took up in the dry bag.

Straw hat – And while a wide brim hat is crucial, make sure it is made of a material that will hold up to water and wind and can rebound after being crunched. The many straw hats brought on our trip did not last through the first week.

Regardless of how hard it is to pack gear for every season into a drybag, I wouldn’t trade the ups and downs of a shoulder season trip for the solid heat of summer or the cold of winter.

Because of the ever-changing weather, I never got a chance to get tired of wearing my drysuit. Nor did I get burned out (literally) from the heat. And I don’t think I will ever spend another windy day at the beach without thinking of those days that the sand blasted so hard off of those Grand Canyon beaches that we had to wear sunglasses (or ski goggles) at night just to be able to open our eyes at all.