Autonomous Packrafting of the Grand Canyon in winter: 6 essentials
Our editor has led several missions in the Grand Canyon, independently. Find out what the experience looks like, plus some pro tips.
Packraft America’s largest canyon without a large boat stand – in winter – at your own risk. Its immense rapids will intimidate you. The depth and calm of the canyon will impress you. And the water and wintry weather will give you hypothermia if you’re not careful.
Here are six must-haves to stay warm and safe on a self-contained mission through the Southwest’s deepest gorges.
How it all began
The first time I got a permit to conduct a private Grand Canyon trip, I felt like throwing up daily in the weeks leading up to the trip. How could I stay afloat in my 8 pound packraft on 10 to 15 foot rapids? The waves are not vertical, so the journey to the face of the wave is more than twice as long as the height of the wave. It’s 20 to 30 feet tall, not to mention the other side.
And how would I carry 16 days of food, gear and poo? I will not do it. You can carry a maximum of 12 days of poo in a packraft. So I invited my friend Gordon to my first big adventure. An experienced rower, he carried the groover (river toilet), a few beers per person per day and a blaster to boil water. The five of us in smaller boats carried the rest of the supplies, making the rafts too heavy to lift for a week.
The trip didn’t seem so engaging. I could get on the big boat if I panicked at any time. I didn’t, although I panicked, especially when I overturned my boat several times and lost my equipment. But I finally got used to the gigantic Class III and IV rapids. Kind of.
My stomach still knots when I think of the famous Lava Falls rapid. So I surprised myself and my fiancé, Doom, when just 15 months later I won another river lottery. My second trip would be a truly engaging mission: six people, 12 days, 225 miles, and we would carry all of our own poo and beer.
My first trip equipped me well for the second. First of all, you must have whitewater skills on the water. This is in addition to the standard backcountry expedition skills you need to have to be successful on a stand-alone adventure like this. Here are some essentials that I learned along the way.
Packrafting in the Grand Canyon: 6 essentials
1. Don’t panic when you return
And you’ll rock unless you’re a Class V boater. And it’s really scary when you can’t breathe, when you breathe water, when huge waves or big eddies drag you underneath, when a wave grabs you from behind and throws you into a rapid (it happened to me on the first side of Lava), or when you lose all your gear and feel like you’re in a giant washing machine and angry on the “extreme” wash cycle.
Swiftwater Safety Instructor Dan Thurber offered me this wise advice:
Use a mantra to keep you calm. As I stumbled into the always intimidating skylines, where you can’t yet see the rapids but their roar drowns all thought, I repeated, “Dig. Hold my paddle.” Dig just as you reach the top of the wave so you can stop there. But if you roll over, get into the kayak roll position and wait a few seconds before getting out of the boat, while holding your paddle and waders and repeating your mantra.
It works! I successfully ran the toughest vertical series of rapids after Phantom Ranch… Granite, Hermit, Crystal, oh my god! Also, keep in mind that when swimming, the rapids only last 10 to 30 seconds.
2. Go light, but bring what you need
You cannot put blasters or grooves in the tubes of your packraft. But for point-to-point journeys, you don’t have to go that light. Bring your camp chair and other things that make you warm and comfortable. Remember that a heavier boat is more stable in large waters. Plus, bring an extra drysuit and a packraft. You will have seal and zipper failures. The sand in the Grand Canyon is not comfortable to wear.
3. Eat a lot
Bring and eat lots of salty treats and lots of vegetables, cheese, tea, coffee, sugar, hot sauce, and broth. You will be surprised at the amount of food in the tubes of your packraft. I roasted potatoes and garlic on the fire, fried them for breakfast for the crew, and added onions and cheese to my dehydrated meals to enhance their flavor. .
We filled the front of our boats with bags of salted crisps. Tyler brought kale and cabbage, and Andy brought salmon and a bunch of healthy, hearty pilafs. You need to paddle 18-25 miles per day and you’ll want to do side hikes and canyoning missions. Eat lots of calories to fuel your adventures.
4. Time your trip
You can’t haul firewood on a packraft, but you will want nighttime fires in the winter. So go between November 1 and February 28 so you can collect wood and when it’s easier to get permits. And bring a fire blanket and a lightweight, compact fire pan that fits into the tubes of a packraft. Just be careful in big windstorms, as these contraptions and their contents can blow up very quickly.
5. Bring a deck boat
You need a decked packraft with a kayak style spray skirt, especially in winter. The water flowing from the base of the Glen Canyon Dam is always 52 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in summer, you’ll get a chill splash in the canyon’s 80 grand rapids. Avoid bunkers and open boats.
6. Layer up
Bring lots of thick, warm, quick-drying layers (the polyester fleece excels at keeping you warm and wicking moisture away from your body). But know that your inner layers will get wet no matter how bomb resistant your drysuit is. A full year before I even considered doing the Grand, Doom bought me my “moon suit,” a chunky poly fleece suit with a water resistant outer layer used by divers.
“Why do I need this? I asked him when the package arrived.
“For the Grand Canyon! he has answered.
“Are you crazy? I never do packrafting on the Grand! I had seen his photos of tiny people swimming in really huge, frothy and crazy looking water. Besides, I’m cold. Why spend 2 weeks? of my life freezing in a deep, dark canyon? I hung it in my closet.
But, after two trips on the Grand, it turns out it’s the best gift Doom has ever given me.
Looking for even more beta on a self-guided trip through the Grand Canyon? Discover the recap video of the author’s trip. (This part isn’t really a manual, but rather an overview of how fun it is.)