Grand Canyon Traverse: Highlights and Lessons

grand canyon traverse

In the autumn of 2022, Ryan Sylva and I hiked the length of the Grand Canyon.

This is post 2 of 2, which details trip highlights and lessons. Part 1 is an overview of the trip in terms of length, duration, location, terrain, natural history, climate, water, and resupply. 

Highlights

It’s hard to whittle this experience down to a handful of highlights because the entire experience was a highlight. However, I enjoyed reflecting upon and distilling the aspects of this adventure that I treasured the most. 

Developing a relationship with the Canyon. Deepening my knowledge of the Grand Canyon and gaining a more intimate understanding of the history, the geology and characteristics of different rock types, the rules of travel, and the nonhuman inhabitants felt like being let in on an incredible secret. Each day was filled with seeing diverse types of rocks and getting the chance to crawl over and around them and learn their properties. Each time we caught sight of a bird or animal felt special and I was constantly seeing new plants, observing where they liked to grow, in what conditions, and around whom. 

It was similar to the excitement of falling in love and wanting to learn everything you can about your new partner. Day after day, it felt like I sunk more deeply into the timelessness of the place, becoming more connected to its rhythms and inhabitants. We drank from the same pools as the coyotes and followed the sheep tracks, trusting their ancient knowledge of the land. The plants and animals of the Canyon became our teachers; demonstrating how to move through and inhabit the harsh environment. 

The navigation, route-finding, and problem-solving. This was the most mentally engaging hike I’ve ever done. Nearly every moment of every day required my full presence as I was not only paying attention to macro navigation but to the route finding required with each step, which included avoiding any number of obstacles at once. For instance, it was not uncommon to be gingerly stepping along the edge of a very steep, loose, slope of hermit shale with a 500’ sheer drop off less than 12 inches to your left while also stepping over a beavertail cactus, swerving around a teddy bear cholla, and ducking under a catclaw branch. And doing that for 10 hours of the day.

From one end of the Canyon to the other, we passed through different ecosystems which felt like different worlds in a video game, each with it’s own unique challenge. Here’s the section of endless prickly pear, then the section of steep talus cliff walking, then the teddy bear cholla minefield, then the dead-tamarisk-hopping through the silt flat, and on and on. I was constantly learning about how to travel more efficiently off-trail through the different types of terrain and just as I’d gain proficiency, a new challenge would be presented. This made the experience ever-engaging.

The remoteness. Similar to my hike in the Great Basin in 2021, I was attracted to the harshness and remoteness of this route. Once beneath the rim and off the main corridor trails, we didn’t see another backpacker the entire time. The western Grand Canyon felt particularly remote as we didn’t even see any rafters west of Diamond Creek. It’s rare that one can travel for so long in the backcountry without encountering other people and very little human infrastructure. It felt like a true wilderness experience.

The 12-hour nights and dark sky. The Grand Canyon has some of the darkest skies to be seen anywhere in the continental US and each night countless stars blanketed the sky in our narrow ribbon of view between the Canyon’s walls. Hiking in autumn meant we had no less than 11 hours of darkness each night, and closer to 13 hours by the time we finished. Each day I looked forward to arriving in camp, not just to rest my weary muscles, but to lay there for hours and watch the constellations shift.

The extra rest was a treat as well. I’m accustomed to hiking from dawn to dusk during long summer days, only being in camp long enough to lay out my bedroll, sleep, and pack up again. These long nights allowed time for my body to recover from the demands of the day. There was also ample time to savor a slow-cooked dinner, breakfast, and hot coffee in the crepuscular hours while winding down after a long day or mentally preparing for another.

Hiking with Ryan. Like many things in life, much of what I saw and experienced on this hike was richer because it was shared. Moments of oohing and awing over a multi-colored, 360-degree sunrise, hearing the roar of the rushing river greet us at the mouth of a canyon, witnessing a group of rams scampering up a ravine, and successfully solving complex route-finding puzzles were all better because we could enjoy them together.

After years of friendship and partnering up to hike the Great Basin Trail last year, Ryan and I knew that we shared the same hiking style and preferences, which is essential on a trip like this. We like to hike from sun up to sun down while taking minimal breaks and pushing hard. Our risk tolerance is similar, we work well as a team, and we trust each other. We often went hours without speaking, communicating instead with glances, gestures, and only an occasional sentence or two that would probably sound cryptic to an outsider.

The mountain lion encounter. Having a mountain lion walk within 10 feet of me and then engage in an hour-long standoff with us in camp was the most frightening and exhilarating animal encounter I’ve had in the backcountry. To be so close to an animal that is known to be elusive and secretive, and to have left the encounter unscathed feels extremely lucky, and even sacred.

Spaciousness for my mind to wander and emotions to be processed. Even though this hike was full on both physically and mentally, it was nice, as it always is, to take a break from the firehose of information, emails, and tasks that fill my off-trail life. I had a lot that I needed to sit with, from my father’s death 18 months ago to the loss of my beloved feline companion of 17 years and the end of a 3-year romantic relationship this summer. I needed space to be and feel and grieve. And I got it. 

Take-aways & Lessons

The following are lessons I took away from this experience and which I hope, in some way, will serve you as well. They range from the pragmatic to the abstract, some applicable only to Canyon travel while others apply well beyond the outdoors.

Hold expectations loosely. Early on in our hike, it became apparent to me that if I was going to enjoy the experience, I’d need to learn how to hold my goals for each day loosely.  Travel was difficult and slow. For any sketched route mile on our GPS, we would need to add at least 20% for a realistic expectation of mileage required to cover that distance in the field, due to route-finding obstacles. With no trail, it’s rarely possible to travel in a straight line. Rather than our normal trail pace of 3+ mph, 1 mph became the standard. If we averaged 2 mph, we were really cruising.

Though we would study our maps, nothing could tell us the exact nature of the obstacles we’d encounter and how long it’d take us to problem solve our way through. I learned to hold expectations for the day loosely, not to get too far ahead of the present. It would only result in frustration and feeling deflated if we fell short of a goal, rather than staying present and feeling proud of what we did accomplish. Instead, I learned to keep a general idea of where I’m headed, and then take it step by step and hour by hour, leaving space in the day for adventure to unfold.

Most mistakes happen when I rush. From sliding down a loose ravine to brushing up against a cactus to fighting through mesquite when an easier way could be found above, many mishaps and minor injuries could be attributed to moving too fast and forcing a way through. I learned not to hurry. Walk with intention and slow down to find the best way through. And if it’s feeling too hard or dangerous, there’s probably a better way around. Go slow to go fast.

There’s no such thing as enough planning. We researched, planned, and prepared for this trip for months and it still wasn’t enough. Even though we’re seasoned backpackers, on this route, nothing can substitute for experience in the Grand Canyon. The more, the better to allow for learning different parts of the canyon and getting to know the area through various modalities (e.g. on foot and on raft). I have an incredible amount of respect for the folks who have spent a lifetime exploring and developing an intimate knowledge of the Canyon. 

I am resilient. And, all that said, you can plan and prepare all you want –and you should– and still there will be things that catch you off guard, take you down, and humble you deeply. This was a tough route, so much so that I had days that I questioned what I was doing out there. It’s getting through those moments that remind me that I am capable and resilient. I can trust myself in the face of uncertainty, tolerate discomfort, and learn and grow from the experience. 

Everything is only ever happening right here, right now. Being immersed in a society of busy-ness where our worth is linked to what we produce has conditioned my mind into unconsciously viewing things as a checklist. While I love to get stuff done, there’s a time and a place for that. That lens is beneficial for accomplishing goals, but it’s not conducive to staying present and soaking in the surroundings.

There were moments each day when I would become aware of the background instructions running in my mind: get through the ravine, around the side canyon, to the next water source, to camp, to the end. And then I’d arrive and realize I hadn’t truly taken in my surroundings along the way because my attention was focused on getting there rather than just being here.

As cliché as it is, it’s the journey, not the destination that’s the whole point. I can slip into this checklist mindset not just on trail, but in daily life as well. When I caught my thoughts wandering to the past or to the future, I’d remind myself “Here. Now. This is it.” It’s a gift and a privilege to be in this landscape and I can reciprocate that gift with my attention.

Final Thoughts

Finally, if you’ve read this far and you’re thinking about hiking this route, let me reiterate how challenging it is and how much preparation, research, and experience is necessary. Especially experience in the Grand Canyon. Ryan and I have a lot of off-trail backpacking experience and tens of thousands of miles on our feet, many of them in desert environments. We did months of planning, research, and preparation for this hike and still, we got walloped. Ryan’s words sum this up well:

“After hiking the route and getting to know the intricacies, I realized I didn’t know shit about the canyon no matter how much research I had done. I have so much respect and admiration for the folks who have spent a lifetime out there in the Grand Canyon. This route is simply not one to ‘plug and place.’ I will reiterate that the route is very, very dangerous. I will reiterate you will need to do more research for this than anything you have undertaken before. And, when you feel ready, you still need to do double the research.”

For step by step guidance on preparing for your next backcountry trip, our online courses are the best place to start:

Grand Canyon Traverse Trip Report

grand canyon overlook

In the autumn of 2022, Ryan Sylva and I hiked the length of the Grand Canyon.

This is post 1 of 2, which provides an overview of the trip in terms of length, duration, location, terrain, natural history, climate, water, and resupply. Part 2 details trip highlights and lessons.

My intention in sharing this overview, the instagram stories, and my gear list is because I believe that when we get glimpses of these wild, remote places, they go from the abstract to the relatable and we become more inclined to care about and protect them. My hope is not for you to emulate this trip, but to be inspired to get outside and experience the outdoors in whatever way feels compelling to you.

To see the journey in photos, check out my instagram highlights Grand Canyon and Grand Canyon II. You can also read a detailed account of the trip on Ryan’s website.

To sum it up, this experience was an adventure in the truest sense of the word: unusual, exciting, and often hazardous. Much gratitude is owed to Grand Canyon explorers before us, including Harvey Butchart, George Steck, Tom Martin and Rich Rudow among others, from whom we obtained inspiration and route beta.

Gear List, Training, Food Planning

Length, Duration, Location

We estimate that we hiked ~575-600 miles based on our mapped route, though neither my partner nor I recorded a GPX track. We hiked entirely on the north side of the Colorado River, connecting our footsteps from Lee’s Ferry to the historic Tassi Ranch, an arbitrary pick up point west of Pearce Ferry on the north side of the river. 

We completed the hike in a total of 35 days between late September and mid-November. Hiking dates were 9/27-28 (Lee’s Ferry to Rider Canyon), 10/1-5 (Nankoweap Canyon to Phantom Ranch), 10/19-11/10 (Phantom Ranch to Tassi Ranch), and 11/12-17 (Rider Canyon to Nankoweap Canyon).

There are many ways to complete a traverse of the Grand Canyon. We wanted our route to utilize different layers of the canyon, stay beneath the rim, and not require any technical climbing. Class 3, 4, and low 5th class climbing was fine, but anything more was beyond our skillset. We didn’t carry a harness or rope, but we did use a 30’ piece of tubular webbing to haul packs when wearing them while climbing compromised our balance.

Terrain

The entire route was off-trail with the exception of roughly 9 miles of maintained trail near Clear Creek. There were also portions of the Tuckup Trail that are well defined and a handful of miles on old ranching roads that were in good condition. Otherwise, we kept our eyes out for sheep trail and read the terrain to find the best path through. Travel included beach walking, boulder hopping, creek wading, scrambling up and down layers and along ledges, traversing steep talus slopes and loose ravines, and stepping over, through, and under cacti, mesquite, sagebrush, catclaw acacia, saltcedar and all sorts of other pokey vegetation. 

Our route traversed through three ecoregions, including the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau. These different habitats are the result of geologic variations and elevations that range from 2000’ to 8000’. We walked through desert washes at the lowest elevations to Mojave desert scrub, sagebrush steppe, pinyon-juniper woodland, and ponderosa pine forest as one ascends in elevation.

Natural & Human History

Humans have inhabited the Grand Canyon for thousands of years. The Havasupai, Navajo, Southern Paiute, and Hualapai communities live inside the Canyon or along the rim. Hopi, Zuni, and Apache live nearby. Later, Mormon ranchers, miners, and early explorers lived in and around the Canyon. We relished seeing remnants of early inhabitants, particularly the indigenous communities. This included granaries, pictographs, and agave roasting pits. 

A wide variety of animals, insects, birds, and plants also inhabit the Grand Canyon. I won’t name them all, but our wildlife sightings included bighorn sheep, squirrels, chipmunks, rattlesnakes, mice, mule deer, bats, tarantulas, black widows, lizards, scorpions, coyotes, burros, toads, and a mountain lion, to name a few. 

Plant observations were extensive as well. There are nearly 2,000 species of plants, mosses, and lichen in the Grand Canyon. Different vegetation communities are seen at different elevations and in different parts of the Canyon. Some of the species we saw the most include sagebrush, Juniper, Pinyon pine, aspen, ash, lupine, catclaw acacia, Mormon tea, western honey mesquite, willow, broadleaf milkweed, indian paintbrush, snakeweed, Utah agave, banana and narrowleaf yucca, snakeweed, creosote, white bursage, brittlebush, ocotillo, four-wing saltbush, big sagebrush, blackbrush, rabbitbrush, and various cacti, such as California barrel, fishhook, beavertail, desert prickly pear, hedgehog, and cholla.

Climate 

Heat, water, and remoteness are the biggest challenges of backpacking in the Grand Canyon. Temperatures ranged from over 100-degree highs during our first week of hiking in late September to lows around 20-degrees on a few chilly mornings in early November. Obviously temperature ranges are vast when you’re traveling at elevations ranging from 1,500’ to nearly 8,000’. We would have benefited by delaying our start date until mid-October, when summer’s sweltering heat had begun to wane. Generally speaking however, the temperature range was quite comfortable. Daytime temperatures were in the mid-50s to mid-70s, and nighttime temperatures were in the high 40s to low 30s. Other than adding a down jacket for the last half of the trip, which I probably could’ve gone without, I carried the same kit for the entire trip. 

Water

Water is constantly on one’s mind while traveling in the Grand Canyon. Our schedule coinciding with the occurance of several decent storms was quite fortuitous. Not only did we begin our hike at the tail end of a strong monsoon season, we also received a few well-timed storms that filled the potholes. As a daily practice, we were always looking ahead and making educated predictions about where we might find water again, how likely it was to be there, and how long it’d take us to get there. This wasn’t always easy, as we were traveling off trail through difficult terrain that we hadn’t seen yet. Additionally, we found that it was not uncommon to encounter an obstacle that ate up precious daylight, such as getting pinched off at a cliff and needing to backtrack to find a different way or encountering an area covered in prickly pear cactus that required us to tiptoe through for miles. 

As part of the research and planning phase, I created a spreadsheet of all of our potential water sources and their reliability. This was used in conjunction with maps and beta from other Canyon travelers, alongside our observations of the weather and the terrain we were traveling through to ensure we had enough water. For example, in addition to knowing where our next reliable water source was, we knew that we commonly found water in side canyons with steep walls that shaded the pools below pour offs. After a heavy storm, it was likely those pools and others would have good water. It was not uncommon for us to carry 6-8 liters, drink green water from potholes, and ration when we didn’t make it to our anticipated source in time.

Resupply

Options to resupply food and replace or repair gear were limited. There are no town stops inside the Canyon and getting into and out of it is time-consuming and strenuous. More thought went into self-sufficiency on this trip than on any of my previous outings, particularly hikes on well-traveled trails like the PCT. I was conservative with gear decisions and beefed up my first aid and repair kits. We planned for contingencies upon contingencies.

Caching food, water, and gear replacements was critical to our success. The distance between caches and our speed of travel determined how much food we carried at any given time, with food carries raging from 5-11 days. Caching required a lot of driving and time. We opted to set 3 caches: South Canyon (which we didn’t utilize due to Ryan’s heat illness on day 2), Thunder River Trailhead, and Tuweep Campground. 

Continue to Part 2: Highlights and Lessons

For step by step guidance on preparing for your next backcountry trip, our online courses are the best place to start:

Grand Canyon Traverse Gear List & Rationale

Grand Canyon Traverse Gear

In the fall of 2022, I hiked the length of the Grand Canyon from Lee’s Ferry to Tassi Ranch. This post shares my Grand Canyon Traverse gear list. It’s all the items I carried for the route and the rationale behind my choices. This is provided as a guide for how I think about creating gear lists and for those who are just curious about what I carried. The gear taken on any trip should be unique to the location, goals, conditions, season, and experience of the hiker.

Conditions & Intentions

This hike was completed in late September through early November. Temperatures ranged from 20-100 degrees Fahrenheit. We experienced a few thunderstorms as we were at the end of monsoon season, but overall conditions were very dry. Finding water was always a challenge and when we found it, we needed the ability to transport large quantities. Sun was intense and shade was minimal. There are no resupply points inside the canyon to purchase food, gear, or other supplies. Our goal was to hike in a lightweight style, hiking from sunrise to sunset to maximize mileage.

Location-specific selections and rationale

These are the items that were selected specifically for the conditions expected on this trip:

  • Sun hoodie & sun glasses: protection from the incessant and intense sun
  • Lightweight rain jacket: minimal rain expected
  • App Co Gear alpaca hoodie: my sole insulating layer for the first half of the hike while summer’s heat still lingered
  • 55L pack: larger capacity pack for the extra gear, food storage, and water capacity needed to be more self sufficient on this trip
  • Bulked up first aid and gear repair kit: the canyon is remote, help is far away, and there are no towns to replace broken gear
  • Increased water capacity: long water carries
  • Webbing: ability to create handlines or pass packs through breaks in the layers
  • 20K external battery: no towns to charge electronics

See the full Grand Canyon Traverse Gear List here

Special thanks to gear companies who have supported me:

  • Astral Footwear for providing shoes for me for this trip. I’ve been wearing and testing Astral shoes since 2018 and they’re my top choice due to their breathability, grip, and durability.
  • TOAKS for providing my awesome alcohol siphon stove, 750-ml titanium cookpot, and my long-handled spoon. If I’m carrying a stove, this is always the one I take.

If you’d like a downloadable copy of this template, it’s available for free from Andrew Skurka. It’s the template I use for all my hikes, updating it for each new location/season. It also serves as my pre-trip packing check list.

For more on how I think about and select gear, check out my book Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

Related Posts

How to Pack the Right Amount of Backpacking Food: 5 weeks in the Grand Canyon

Why spend $500 on a 14oz tent and then carry 2 pounds too much food?

This year, I’ve helped over 400 clients prepare for and execute backcountry trips. As a guide, online instructor, and operations coordinator for Andrew Skurka’s education-focused backcountry trips and online planning course, I’ve had the privilege to support clients through the most common stumbling blocks. One that comes up repeatedly both in the planning stage and in the field is uncertainty about how much backpacking food to pack. In most cases, people end up packing way too much food and therefore carrying unnecessary weight. 

For how much time, money, and effort goes into lightening one’s pack, it’s unfortunate to see people negating the payoff by carrying excess food weight. To be clear, a little bit of buffer, such as an extra meal or bar, is a great idea. Carrying a few pounds excess is not.

6-weeks of gluten free backpacking food (Grand Canyon + guiding in WV) at 0.93-1.29 lbs/day

Case Study: 5-weeks of Backpacking Food for the Grand Canyon

As I prepare food for an upcoming 5-week hike in the Grand Canyon, I wanted to share my process and techniques for keeping food weight appropriate for the length of trip I’m on. With longer distances between food caches (e.g. 5-11 day carries) and extra safety gear for this trip, packing efficiently in terms of food weight is critical. 

To keep food weight low, there are two key factors I focus on: packing the right amount of calories and packing the most calorie dense foods.

Determining Backpacking Food Calorie Needs

To determine how much food to take, I take past experience into consideration and calculate calories. You can use a free BMR calculator online, and adjust for activity (see this video). Then test it out and take note of how much food you returned with or whether you ran out. Like most hikers, I get hungrier the longer a trip lasts. For that reason, I generally plan for a higher calorie intake later in the trip. 

For this trip, for example, I’m planning about 2300-2500 calories for the first two weeks, then 2700 for the last 2.5 weeks. Cold temperatures, a high amount of elevation gain, and cross country hiking over uneven surfaces make me hungrier, so I also try to plan for that. As far as macronutrient ratios, I feel best eating about 50-60% fat, 20% protein, and 20-30% carbohydrates. See this video on macronutrients for backpacking. 

Choosing Calorie Dense Backpacking Food

As I discussed in my food planning for the Great Basin Trail, I prioritize trail food that is energy-dense, meaning high calorie per ounce. I aim for >125 calories per ounce, but some foods fall short of that which I’m okay with if it’s a high protein food. At nine calories per gram for fat compared to four calories per gram for protein or carbohydrate, this makes fat a good option for weight efficiency for long distance hiking. For a complete breakdown of the benefits of a higher fat diet for backpacking, see this post.

By focusing on packing the right amount of food and packing about 50% of my calories as fat, my food weight per day ranges from 0.93 pounds at the beginning of the trip to 1.29 pounds toward the end of the trip when I plan to eat more calories. For those interested, my food for this trip is all gluten free, with a high priority on nutrient density and antioxidants, and simplicity.

Hopefully this helps you with your own meal planning for your next backpacking trip. 

If you’re interested in the blueprint I use to plan my recipes and meals for every single backpacking trip I take whether it’s a few days or a few months, I invite you to check out the backcountry meal planning course

I dumped all my knowledge from training as a nutrition coach and my experience from 10,000+ miles of backpacking into this course to help streamline the process for others. We cover how to determine your calorie and macronutrient needs, how to create a meal plan (including templates), creating a resupply plan, creating your own balanced recipes, and much more. 

Join us in the Performance Nutrition and Meal Planning for Backpackers course.

Boosting the nutrition of a trail meal with carrot and foraged swamp onion

How to Plan Your Weekend Backpacking Trip with Ease

Use this free planning template to get yourself organized so you get out on your weekend backpacking trip faster and without forgetting anything.

Is this you?

It’s Monday morning and you get a great idea for a backpacking trip to take the coming weekend. You get energized all week just thinking about being out there. In moments between work tasks or before bed, you look up a few route details, maybe pull a forecast. Then suddenly, it’s Friday, but you haven’t packed or downloaded the route or purchased any hiking food. You scramble to get things organized and get out the door. At best, you don’t depart for your trip until 6pm – just in time to sit in rush hour traffic; at worst, you decide to delay your trip for another weekend (hopefully).

If so, this post is for you.

I’ve been back at home since finishing up guiding in the Sierra in early August, so I’ve had time to fit in a lot of 1-3 day adventures in the Colorado high country. This has mostly included 14ers, 13ers, and long mountain days traversing passes, ridgelines, and valleys to create fun loops and link ups. To stay organized and make my planning quick and easy for each of these adventures so that I’m more likely to get out the door, I refined a weekend trip planning template that I started using a few years ago.

This planning template helps me cover all my bases so that as soon as I get inspired for a trip, I can open up the planning template and get the ball rolling. It makes it easy for me to share this information with a trip partner or loved ones at home. It makes it far less likely that I’ll forget an important detail, which means I ultimately feel calmer and more confident heading into the mountains. This planner is intended for short trips, not a thru-hike.

You can download a copy of my weekend backpacking trip planning template here and try it out for your own trips.

Watch this video for a walk-through of how I use the weekend backpacking trip planner:

Related Backpacking Trip Planning Posts:

Plan Your Backpacking Trip Without the Common Mistakes

Backpacking Trip Resources mentioned in the video:

Backcountry Safety Course

Backcountry Navigation Course

Adventure Ready Course

How to Make Healthy Backpacker’s Granola

Grain free, gluten free, dairy free, vegan backpacker’s granola is quick and easy to make before a big trip.

I’m in the midst of preparing my food boxes for a 5-week backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon this fall. I bought a bunch of nuts and seeds, which I was planning to just make into a trail mix, but I decided it’d be a fun treat to turn them into granola instead. So I spent an hour this afternoon baking this tasty, healthy backpacker’s granola that I’ll take on the trail as a snack.

This recipe is quick and easy to make with a handful of simple ingredients, many of which you may already have on hand. At nearly 180 calories per ounce, it’s calorie density meets my needs for backpacking. It’s easy to pack into resupply boxes. And best of all, it makes the entire house smell amazing while it bakes.

What makes this a “healthy” granola?

It’s loaded with healthy fat from the nuts and coconut oil along with some easy to use energy from the carbs in the honey, and a bit of protein. It also delivers important vitamins and minerals, including potassium, iron, and zinc.

This granola is made with coconut oil, rather than the highly refined and inflammatory vegetable oils often used in commercial granola and the sweetener is honey, which is loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients. It also contains the anti-inflammatory spices cinnamon and ginger.  

This granola not only makes a great no cook breakfast, it’s a great snack any time of day. You can eat it straight out of the bag with a spoon, add coco milk or whole milk, or my personal favorite: sprinkle some in almond butter and scoop it out with a spoon – sounds weird but it’s so good.

You can modify this recipe to fit your tastes and/or add variety to your resupply boxes by changing the types of nuts and seeds you use. For example, substituting in pecans, hemp hearts, etc. Just keep the overall quantities the same. You can substitute butter or ghee for the coconut oil, and syrup for the honey. You could also add in fruit, such as goji berries or dried blueberries after baking. Note that any modifications will change the nutrition facts slightly.

Backpacker’s Granola

Makes 40oz

Ingredients

Directions

  1. Preheat over to 300 degrees F.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, combine the sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnut pieces, coconut flakes, chia seeds, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Mix thoroughly.
  3. In a saucepan, heat the coconut oil and honey until completely melted
  4. Pour the honey oil mixture over the dry ingredients in the bowl. Stir until all the dry ingredients are coated.
  5. Dump the mixture onto a parchment or foil lined sheet pan.
  6. Spread it out some the it’s in one even layer.
  7. Bake for 25 minutes or until granola is just starting to brown. It’s easy to overbake so keep an eye on. Stir once or twice while baking.
  8. Remove from over and allow to cool completely.

Storage

Store in an airtight container at room temperature. If you want it to last longer, store it in vacuum sealed pouches. Keeping pouches in the freezer may also extend the shelf life.

Backpacker’s Granola Nutrition per 1 oz serving

  • 179 calories
  • 8.15g carb (20%)
  • 12.7g fat (72%)
  • 3.5g protein (8%)
  • 3g fiber

Want to learn to make your own balanced backpacking recipes and meal plans at home so you can stop buying over-priced freeze-dried meals?

Check out our Performance Nutrition and Meal Planning for Backpacker’s online course.

Best Apps for the Outdoors 2022

It’s not uncommon to hear discussions about how technology has caused humans to become an increasingly indoors species, disconnected from nature. While there may be some truth in that, technology is part of modern life and it’s not going away. So how can we use our phones to enhance our experience in the outdoors and connect us more deeply to the natural world around us?

This season, in addition to swimming in as many alpine lakes as I can find, one of the things that’s been bringing me a lot of joy is getting to know the plant life around me more deeply. My educational background is in plant cellular and molecular biology and I’ve always had a keen interest in plants. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten to know many of the plants where I live but I wanted to accelerate my learning. I also wanted to learn more of the plants I discovered while guiding in new locations, so I started using the Seek app. I was surprised by how much I loved observing which species came out at different times; who they like to grow around and in what conditions. Observing these details can tell you so much about the surrounding land, such as how much (or little) water is available, whether it was a heavy or light snow year, and even the pH of the soil.

Spending the last several months really dedicated to observing new species, especially around my home, has helped me be more present while I hike, rather than getting lost in thought. It’s also grounding to know with whom I share the land. I also love seeing similar species or members of the same family growing in different places, such as the California Poppy in the Sierra and the Arctic Poppy in Alaska.

In the words of Mary Oliver, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” I observed over 100 new species this summer. In truth, many I already knew, but now I’ve officially logged them in my app 🙂 While I’m far from an expert, I’m enjoying the process of more deeply getting to know the land around me, aided by technology.

My clients observed the joy and fervor with which I sought out new observations this year and many asked for a list of apps I use most in the outdoors. Below is that list. Many of these I use regularly; some I’ve only used a couple of times, but I wanted to include them to provide a well-rounded list.

If you have feedback or suggestions, comment below.

Navigation

Gaia GPS, free for Basic, $40 for Premium

CalTopo, free for Basic, $50 for Premium

Digital maps and GPS are an important and powerful part of my navigational toolkit. A GPS device allows me to pinpoint exactly where I am and to do so quickly. I can also see my elevation, my bearing, create routes, record tracks, save waypoints at key locations and much more. Layers can be toggled on and the opacity adjusted so that I can see an incredible amount of information about an area at once, such as trail locations, fire history, topography, satellite imagery, slope angle, and much more. As many maps as you’d like (or that your phone storage will hold) can be downloaded for offline use and organized into folders. Gaia and CalTopo are my two favorite navigational apps and I usually save the same mapset to both apps as some features are better on one and some on the other. I also use the desktop version to plan routes at home and sync them to my phone. 

Weather

I usually check multiple forecasts for a single location when heading into the mountains (and then I refresh those forecasts compulsively until I go) so that I can make informed gear choices and even go/no-go decisions. In addition to the weather.gov point forecast, these are the apps I’ve found give me the most accurate hourly forecasts for precip, wind speed and direction, cloud cover, and more. 

Wildlife and Plant life ID

This is the plant ID app I use. It also identifies animals, birds, amphibians, plants, and fungi. You simply point your phone camera at the object you wish to identify and the app uses image recognition technology to give you an answer. Sometimes it can get you to species, other times only to genus or even just family. Personally, I use the app to help me get close, then use a field guide specific to the area to help me hone things in. 

Mountain ID

What’s that big peak way over in the distance? Can we see Mt. Whitney from here? If you love identifying the mountains near and far when you get to a summit or an open view, Peak Finder can help. You simply line your phone up to the horizon and the app provides a sketch of the surrounding terrain with visible summits labeled. 

Star Guide

It’s fun to know what’s in the night sky above us. With the Sky Guide app, you can point your phone at the sky and it identifies stars, constellations, and planets. I sometimes find constellations difficult to visualize and this app makes that a breeze. 

Bird ID

Search for and identify hundreds of bird species through song, drawings, and location. Works offline.

Knots

Use the app to follow images that walk you through how to tie over 300 knots. Learn that trucker’s hitch once and for all, and enjoy the world of possibilities that open up to you with a more versatile guyline system. 

How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

trip planning

The summer solstice is just a few weeks away! There’s so much I love about this time of year: the warmth, hiking in a skirt again, and feeling the sun on my skin. The days feel endless, the plants and trees are greening up and budding out, and most of the snow has finally melted from the high country, opening it up for alpine foot travel. I can’t help but get excited by the possibilities, and I know, like every year, that there won’t be enough time for all the places I wish to explore. 

I manage this conundrum by creating a list of everything that strikes my fancy. Then I estimate how long the hike will take (if it’s a multi-day, -week, or -month event) and when the ideal time to hike it would be. I see what fits into my calendar and go from there. 

This is all part of my trip planning process, which involves:

  • Defining the trip parameters – Where? When? With whom?
  • Researching the likely conditions -Temps, precip, weather patterns.
  • Creating an itinerary – Dates, expected daily mileage, potential campsites.
  • Selecting gear – What do I need for the expected conditions?
  • Planning food and resupply strategy – Plan, purchase, and packaging food.
  • Creating a safety plan – What risks will I encounter and how will I mitigate them?
  • Preparing physically and mentally – Training for the rigors of the trail.
  • Doing the final check – Use the checklist below!

Download a free trip planning checklist

This full process is outlined in Chapter 1 of Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

Related Resource

Watch this video on my condensed planning template and process to get out on quick weekend adventures feeling fully prepared.

A Guide to Mental Preparation for Backpacking

An excerpt from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency by Katie Gerber and Heather Anderson

In preparation for my upcoming book launch on June 1, I want to share an excerpt from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency.

The following passage is from Chapter 8: Mental and Emotional Preparation. It was one of the most fun chapters for me to write because I love the “inner game” of long distance hiking (and endurance, in general). It’s also one of the topics we cover that sets our guidebook apart from others in the same genre.

If you’re preparing for your first (or second or third or…) long walk and you’d like to learn the process co-author Heather Anderson and I use to get ourselves mentally and physically ready for our backcountry adventures, order here to receive a copy signed by me.

Enjoy this sneak peak!

Adventure Ready excerpt:

“Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”
—Mahatma Gandhi

A long-distance hike—or any situation that puts you under pressure—will unearth dormant attributes and highlight both your strengths and weaknesses. Preparing your mind for a long backpacking trip before you step foot on trail goes a long way toward overcoming obstacles and achieving success with your backpacking goals. This mental preparation involves setting realistic expectations, having a rock-solid sense of purpose, and practicing specific techniques that prepare you to overcome psychological hurdles.

Strong Mind, Strong Body

I (Katie) had been hiking as fast as I possibly could for over four hours in an attempt to keep my body heat up in the freezing rain. I alternated between a hunched over, eyes-toward-the-ground posture and occasionally lifting my gaze to scan either side of the trail for suitable spots to pitch my tarp. I was worried, however, that if I stopped moving even for the seven minutes that it would take to set up shelter, my core body temperature might drop to a point from which it would be difficult to recover. My rain jacket and all my layers had soaked through hours prior, and I was chilled to the bone. I was also acutely aware that my hands were cold beyond the point of being functional. I couldn’t even grasp the draw cord to tighten my hood.

I could sense the panic beginning to well up in my chest. Nighttime was quickly approaching. What if the rain doesn’t let up? What if I can’t warm up to at least regain function in my hands so I can set up a shelter? I imagined myself walking through the night until I simply became too exhausted to go on and collapsed into a shivering pile on the ground. I hadn’t eaten in hours because my hands were too numb to open the nutrition bar stored in my hip pocket. I tore at it with my teeth and still couldn’t get to the bar. I wanted to cry. My mind fought to stay rational and focused. It was hard to remember that the day had begun with a leisurely walk around the rim of Crater Lake, snacking on trail mix while photographing Wizard Island, one of the most picturesque landmarks on the PCT.

Circumstances can shift quickly on trail. To say my morale was low in that moment is an understatement. Yet as miserable and fearful as I was, I still wasn’t thinking about quitting the trail (assuming I survived the day). I had mentally prepared for the PCT to be hard. I had imagined myself walking through day after day of cold rain as I had on previous long-distance hikes. I had visualized how I would keep walking toward Canada even in those moments when everything felt awful and the idea of hiking this trail seemed inane. Honestly, compared to what I had mentally prepared myself for, the PCT had been surprisingly pleasant up until that moment. Fortunately, the rain subsided just before nightfall. I was able to dry out, warm up, and regain function of my body. Slowly the panic melted away. After a night of rest, I continued my journey northward.

We know that the mind and body are inextricably linked. This is why elite performers like Navy SEALs and Olympic athletes train their minds as much as they train their muscles. The ability to accomplish impressive feats requires strength inside and out. This is as true on a long-distance hike as it is for any challenging physical endeavor. A resilient mindset is one of the most valuable pieces of gear you can carry and it doesn’t weigh an ounce.

The Psychology of Thru-Hiking Success

It’s commonly estimated that 75 to 85 percent of aspiring thru-hikers on the Triple Crown trails quit before reaching their goal. That’s a staggering number. So, what’s the difference between those who get to the opposite terminus and those who don’t? It’s generally not athletic ability. People of all different demographics and athletic abilities successfully complete long-distance trails.

Backpacking is not a particularly technical sport, though it does require you to learn a particular set of skills. The primary physical component involves walking over natural surfaces with a load on your back. And though good physical fitness reduces the likelihood of injury and can make the experience more enjoyable, a backpacker always has the option to slow down or reduce mileage to ease the physical demand. The challenges unique to a multi-month backpacking trip are exposing yourself to the elements day after day and continuing to move forward when you’re tired of sleeping on a thin foam pad, sick of eating dehydrated foods, and missing your family and friends. Thru-hiking success comes down to the ability to endure when things get hard. There are certainly legitimate circumstances that force hikers off trail, like illness, injury, and finances, but many quit because the going gets difficult and they don’t have a strong reason for being out there. They’re still physically capable, but mentally they’re over it.

“Thru-hiking success is 90 percent mental.” This is a common phrase among experienced hikers. I didn’t fully understand it until I was thirty days into my first long hike, which entailed putting on frozen shoes and soggy clothes each morning and walking through intermittent 40-degree rain. Many of my hiking companions were struggling, but surprisingly, I didn’t find it all that miserable. Not that I was loving every moment of it, but to some degree, I had expected the challenge.

My background of long-distance running provided a strong foundation for a resilient mindset many years before I discovered backpacking. During multi-hour cross-country runs in Ohio’s sweltering August afternoons, I learned that I could be uncomfortable and it wouldn’t kill me. Memories of those challenging twice-a-day practices were fodder I would later draw upon when my body was ready to give up and I needed to rely on my mind to persevere. Like many new backpackers, I went into my first long-distance hike believing that my gear, physical fitness, and backcountry skills were the factors that mattered most. I learned that those things are valuable, but they will not get you to the end of a multi-month journey without the mental mastery to also endure difficult circumstances. So if “thru-hiking success is 90 percent mental,” how does one cultivate the proper mental preparedness?

Setting Realistic Expectations

The foundation of mental preparation for a difficult endeavor is to set realistic expectations. Having a grounded understanding of what accomplishing your goal entails is essential to preventing you from being thrown off course when things get difficult, as they inevitably will.

Consider what makes the idea of a long-distance hike enticing to you. Perhaps it’s the stunning landscape vistas, being on your own schedule, and experiencing a deeper connection with yourself via immersion in nature. Whatever it is, it’s likely that those are the elements that are top of mind as you prepare for your hike. And while you’ll likely experience those rewards and more, it’s important to keep in mind the range of experiences and emotions you’re signing up for when you embark on a long-distance hike. At one end of the spectrum, you will have days where everything feels right—your body feels strong, you make new friends, and you discover your own strength as you hike through incredible landscapes. At the other end of the spectrum, you will have days where you walk through cold rain from sunrise to sunset, feet blistered, lonely, with only a packet of tuna to get you the remaining 50 miles to town.

Mentally preparing for optimal performance doesn’t mean you expect to be at your peak the entire time; it means that you set yourself up to do the best you can in whatever circumstances you encounter. Mental preparation begins with the expectation that your hike won’t all go smoothly. Whether you are able to endure depends on how you respond. Will you let an obstacle ruin your day (or your entire hike), or will you find your way through the situation, recover quickly, learn the lesson, and keep moving forward? Essentially, it’s expected that you will “fall off the horse.” How quickly can you get back on? This is largely influenced by your mental resilience. This section covers mental preparation techniques to enhance fortitude, but first, let’s explore potential challenges you might encounter—because expecting adversity is half the battle in overcoming it.

Excerpted from Adventure Ready: A Hiker’s Guide to Planning, Training, and Resiliency by Katie Gerber and Heather Anderson (June 2022) with permission from the publisher Mountaineers Books.

Order a signed copy here. In addition to mental preparation, we discuss trip planning, trail nutrition, physical preparation, safety, navigation, gear selection, and more.

How to create a healthy backpacking meal plan in < 1 hour

backpacking meal planning

I put together a few trip planning resources to share with you as I’m wrapping up preparations for my first trip of the season in Escalante, Utah this spring. 

Last month, I broke down my gear list for this trip and how the location specific conditions are influencing my selections. 

Today I want to share my process for creating a fast, healthy backpacking meal plan. This process is essentially the same whether I’m planning for a trip that’s 5 days or 5 months. It allows me to know that I’m meeting my calorie goals and macronutrient goals so that I feel my best on trail. It also ensures I’m fueling my body with the right foods for optimal energy and recovery.

Plus it allows me to know I’m carrying enough food, but not way too much. On a 5+ day trip, my food bag is often the heaviest single item in my pack, so it’s worth the time to do some planning to make sure I’m packing efficiently.

I breakdown my process step by step here:

Hope this helps you create a healthy backpacking meal plan for your own backcountry trips this spring!

If you’d like to replicate this process for yourself, this is all laid out step by step in my performance nutrition and meal planning for backpackers course. This template, along with several others, are included. 

The course walks you through figuring out your calories needs, macro targets, choosing a cooking style, how to create a balanced meal, how to create your own easy, healthy recipes, where to shop, and how to put it all together in a meal plan. And much more.

Learn more and enroll here.

Questions? Do you have a process for meal planning for your backpacking trips? Share below.