December 6, 2017

How to Train for a Grand Canyon Hike

6 million people visited the Grand Canyon in 2016 — and most of them simply peered over the edge. Think you’re ready to venture into the canyon?

The Grand Canyon is a beautiful place, stacked with colors and shapes, so vast that it’s almost dizzying to look at. No wonder it’s regularly one of the most-visited national parks in the United States. Though standing on the rim of the canyon is a serene feeling, there is so much adventure to be had below the edge — as long as you’re up for the challenge.

Even if you think you’re in shape, it doesn’t mean you’re ready to hike the Grand Canyon. On top of the strength and endurance needed for the thousands of feet of steep elevation change over miles of switchbacks and stairs, consider the added challenges of pack weight, thin air near the rim, and desert conditions.

Journeying into the Grand Canyon unprepared could leave you in pain or seriously injured. This guide will help you think about what you need to do to physically train. Do not use this as your only source of information — seek it widely and begin researching and developing your training plan months in advance. If you’re motivated to train, hiking the Grand Canyon is an attainable goal.

Grand Canyon conditions to prepare for

For a little perspective, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is approximately 7,000 feet above sea level, while the North Rim is 1,000 feet higher. Along the Colorado River, the canyon floor is about 2,400 feet in elevation. That means whenever you climb in or out of the canyon, you’ll be facing about a mile of elevation change.

Those steep trails are no joke. Mike Walters, who worked on the North Rim for 13 years, said, “The downhills are what destroys the legs and knees. To get out, all you have to do is breathe and put one foot in the front of the other.”

As for mileage, expect to hike 15-27 miles if you’re descending to the Colorado River and back up the same trail, or 21-24 miles if you’re hiking rim to rim. Combined with the elevation change, any trail you choose is bound to be seriously exhausting.

Weather makes the trek all the more challenging. Winter brings snow to the canyon and summer brings extreme heat — 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more on the canyon floor. Even during the best weather windows (May and September), temperatures can greatly fluctuate from day to night. The desert also brings low humidity, which means sweat evaporates quickly and you may be losing water without benefiting from the cooling effect of sweat.

Furthermore, consider your pack weight when training for your Grand Canyon hike. You need to carry an abundance of food, water and electrolytes to fuel your trip (as well as gear and safety supplies, of course). Water weighs 2.2 pounds per liter, which adds up quickly. Don’t neglect to strengthen your core muscles, because a strong core will make carrying a pack easier.

If this all sounds overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to go out and hike the Grand Canyon tomorrow. With plenty of training, you should be just fine. Tired, but fine.

Grand Canyon physical training exercises

This section offers training ideas to help you get in shape for a Grand Canyon hike. Depending on your specific level of fitness and health concerns (e.g., bad knees), you may need different or additional exercises to prepare your body. If you have any doubts about starting a training plan, make sure to check in with your doctor.

Hike mountains and difficult trails

Training for elevation gain and loss is a must. In the months leading up to your journey into the Grand Canyon, regularly challenge yourself to difficult hikes, especially steep mountain trails that incorporate stairs or climbing up rocky slopes. In the canyon, you will consistently be stepping over rocks or using stairs, so your muscles and joints need to be conditioned for heavy use.

Train on trails with a minimum of 1,000 feet of elevation gain — which still pales in comparison to the Grand Canyon, but will help. Set goals to hike the same trails faster and faster in order to build leg strength and endurance.

Hiker Brittani Kunce vigorously trained four days a week for three months and pushed herself to hike rim-to-rim in 8 hours (a pace that’s not recommended for the average hiker). “I would’ve trained more for the incline,” she said. “That was super challenging because you have about 18 to 20 miles on your legs and then you have to climb.”

Your physical preparation should also include high-elevation trails and hikes in hot weather. Whenever possible, choose trails that are around 8,000 feet high to give you a feel for what hiking in thinner air will be like. If you’re used to working out close to sea level, the lower oxygen levels near the Grand Canyon’s rim could leave you winded more quickly than expected. Additionally, tackle long hikes in hot weather before heading to the canyon for the first time, so you know how your body responds to exerting itself in the heat. Familiarize yourself with heat-related illnesses and how to avoid and treat them.

Sean Coleman, a Phoenix native who’s completed 11 rim-to-rim hikes and one rim-to-rim-to-rim hike, said, “The important thing is to push for endurance. A few long hikes are much better than a bunch of short hikes. You want to test the limits with shoes, joints, tendons, and more.”

Run stairs

Another way to prepare yourself for declines and inclines, as well as improve your aerobic fitness, is to run up and down stairs. Running stairs builds strong leg muscles such as glutes and hamstrings. Head to a set of bleachers, a tall building, or a local park with stairs to get your legs ready for constant steps and elevation changes in the Grand Canyon.

“My best workout was running up and down the five flights of stairs of a parking garage,” Sean Coleman said. “This is actually a pretty good replica of the steps of the trail.”

Make sure to warm up by running a couple of laps or walking up and down the stairs first, and take brief breaks in between running up or down a set of steps. If you’re running on bleachers, a good way to break in between bursts is to run diagonally across the bleachers, walk across the top or bottom row to the other end, and diagonally run the other way. Aim for a 20- to 30-minute workout.

Hit the gym (or workout at home)

Get your muscles ready for miles and miles of difficult hiking by doing simple exercises. Our guide to hiking workouts includes instructions on how to do goblet squats, downhill lunges, step-ups, and other important exercises to get you in Grand Canyon shape. Keep in mind that having balanced leg muscles will reduce the chance of developing knee pain over the course of your hike.

Jared Schoepf, an Arizonan who recently hiked from the South Rim to the North Rim, said he did a lot of hiking to train for his Grand Canyon trek, but did almost no gym training. “In the future, I would have done significantly more training in the gym,” he said. “Specifically I would do squats, deadlifts, single leg extensions, single leg curls to strengthen my knees, and resistance band side steps to strengthen my hips.”

Here’s how to properly execute a few helpful moves not included in our hiking workout guide:

Single-Leg Curl: Work out your hamstrings with this exercise that uses a machine.

  • Adjust the machine according to your height and choose the weight you want to lift. Start with a lower weight if you aren’t sure.
  • Lie on the machine face down, and make sure that the padding on the bar that you’ll lift is slightly above the back of your ankle.
  • Using one leg, raise the padded bar by squeezing your hamstring and curling your leg. The weight will be lifted when you do this. Go as high as possible.
  • Continuing to squeeze your hamstring, slowly lower the bar back into its resting position so the weight gently rejoins the stack.
  • Repeat as many times as you’d like, and do equal reps on your other leg.

Calf Raises: Though strong quads and hamstrings are most important when hiking, you don’t want weak calves.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • On flat ground, slowly raise your heels until you’re on your tiptoes, and slowly let your heels back down to the floor.
  • If you have access to stairs, stand with your toes on the edge of a step. Slowly raise your heels until you’re on your toes, and then lower your heels slightly below the level of the step. This will allow you to stretch your calf further than if you’re on flat ground.
  • Complete 6 sets of 10 reps.

Plank: Don’t ignore your core when building muscle. Planks strengthen your entire body.

  • On the floor, get into a pushup position and then drop down onto your forearms.
  • Ensure that your elbows are directly underneath your shoulders, and that your body is in a straight line from head to toe.
  • Squeeze your abs to keep your back from sagging.
  • Hold this position for as long as you can. Gradually, you’ll be able to hold a plank for one to two minutes as you get stronger.

If you’re not used to working out on your own, consider joining gym classes or a fitness regimen such as CrossFit. Drew Jorgensen, a North Carolinian who hiked rim-to-rim, did a lot of CrossFit training before backpacking the canyon for the first time with a women’s hiking group.

“This helped me keep up with my partners who hike a great deal more than I do,” Jorgensen said.

“However, this trip was my first big backpacking trip. The last day was hot and hard. I wasn’t sure I would make it but I did and I wanted to do it again. It was a great first experience with hiking the canyon.”

Work on your cardio

The more cardio training you do, the better off you’ll be in the canyon. One of the easiest ways to elevate your heart rate and get in good cardiovascular shape is to run a couple times a week. Other aerobic exercises such as cycling, swimming, jumping rope, and using an elliptical machine are also great at getting your heart pumping.

Better yet, go trail running to help your feet and ankles get used to a variety of terrain. The Grand Canyon isn’t paved or cushioned, after all! Choose durable trail-running shoes that can grip to rugged surfaces and protect your feet from rocks, roots, and uneven ground.

Enroll in regular yoga classes

For increased flexibility, overall body strength, and beneficial breathing techniques, consider joining a yoga studio and going to a class at least once a week. There are many different types of yoga, so if you’ve never done it before, do your research and choose a beginner class.

Want to get a feel for what working out in the heat is like? Try a Bikram yoga or “hot yoga” class. These energetic classes are done in a room heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit with moderate humidity, and are a great addition to cardio training if you can handle it.

Train with the gear you’ll use in the canyon

The fact that you have to carry gear shouldn’t be an afterthought. Train with weight so your body won’t be shocked by 10 to 30 pounds of gear on your back. If you plan to backpack through the Grand Canyon, hike on practice trails with all of the gear you plan to take on your journey. This not only helps prepare your body for carrying a heavy pack, it can also let you know if you need to make any adjustments to your gear selection or weight load.

Don’t use any gear for the first time in the Grand Canyon — try it out frequently beforehand so you’re confident that everything works, you have all the essentials, and everything you’re wearing is as comfortable as possible. If something is uncomfortable during training, it won’t miraculously get better in the canyon.

Josh Morin hiked the Grand Canyon as a teenager with a Boy Scout troop, and didn’t break in his hiking boots before the trek. “My dad warned me, but I didn’t heed his advice,” he remembered. “So after the first day of hiking, I had massive blisters on the back of my heels. That made the rest of the hike rough, and I feel like I missed out on a lot of the beauty of the canyon because I was so focused on just pushing through the pain.”

Conclusion

No matter which trail you choose, hiking the Grand Canyon is an adventurous but difficult endeavor. The better you train, the more open you’ll be to the awe-inspiring splendor.

After you finish your first Grand Canyon hike, don’t be surprised if one trek isn’t enough. Mike Walters, who’s put in more than 3,000 miles of Grand Canyon hiking, explains why he kept going back for more:

Once you have the canyon in your heart, it can become an obsession. There are so many wild places that few see — and that is the allure. To be self-sufficient and experience the majestic beauty of both the historic and prehistoric past, and sometimes the arduous journey, is what defines living.

If you prepare yourself for the challenge of hiking the Grand Canyon, you’ll be able to experience one of the earth’s natural wonders in a way that most people don’t. Happy hiking!

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