6 Painful Lessons Learned While Hiking the Grand Canyon

These hard-won tips will help you tackle the Grand Canyon's trail-free wilderness.

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Mike St. Pierre and Kevin Fedarko negotiate a route atop a redwall limestone cliff inside Marble Canyon.

I guess you can call it a grand beat down. I knew it would be hard, but not spirit-crushing hard. Our plan to walk the Grand Canyon as a sectional thru-hike would be a lengthy, logistical monster of sorts. Our food would be weighed by the ounce. Almonds and prunes would be rationed and counted per day. Caching supplies via hiking, raft trips, and possibly even mules would be a jaw-dropping jigsaw puzzle that placed our food (and lives) on the digits of GPS coordinates in a place with dodgy GPS coverage. Oh, and the permits—there are a lot of them when you deal with nine Native American reservations and one of the most regulated national parks in the world.

So the hiking part seemed simple—comparatively. I don’t mean to suggest that I took it lightly. On the contrary, I trained for three months climbing 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado with a heavy pack. Writer Kevin Fedarko did similar activities in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona. The two of us have also worked in challenging predicaments on assignment before—dusted by avalanches in Nepal’s Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest; deported from the ovenlike heat of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa while covering a story on narcotic trade. We even tromped across the bug-infested tundra of the Canadian Arctic without losing our sense of humor.

Epic Grand Canyon Hike: A 750-Mile Challenge (Part 1)

Photographer Pete McBride and writer Kevin Fedarko embark on a perilous adventure to make a sectional thru-hike of the Grand Canyon, a feat few have accomplished.

I’ve never claimed to be a fitness fanatic or an outdoor expert, but I have reveled for decades in the challenges of expeditions that often lead toward the “pain cave.”

So walking 600 miles across the desert landscape of the Grand Canyon would be daunting and humbling, but kind of fun, and, of course, stunning. I’d hiked chunks alone before, boated the Colorado inside the canyon’s abyss multiple times, and even bushwhacked the same river’s dry, forgotten delta at the end. So this wasn’t my first rodeo. So I thought.

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Kevin Fedarko stands below Marble Canyon's Navajo Bridge on the first day of the team's end-to-end Grand Canyon hike, which will cover nearly 600 miles.

Beyond the adventure, this grand stroll would serve as a powerful backbone for documenting the hidden wilderness between the rim and the river that is so rarely seen or understood, and which is under remarkable pressure by multiple entities looking to cash in on the canyon’s grandeur.

Of those that have hiked the entire canyon, only 12 have completed it nonstop, and just 12 have completed the jigsaw hike over time via sections. For comparison, 12 people have stood on the surface of the moon, 5,000 atop Everest. Some call this the Everest of thru-hikes when comparing it to other long walks like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the Grand Canyon has one major difference. Unlike others with “trail” in the name, there is no trail through the vast majority of the Grand Canyon, excluding a few short sections on the south rim and even fewer on the north. There are also no towns, limited water, no cell coverage in most parts, little satellite phone coverage, and a daunting vertical climb out of more than 5,000 feet if things go wrong (the potential list is long).

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Chris Atwood, in the middle of a 56-day consecutive thru-hike, treats water with a UV water filter. While walking the length of the Grand Canyon, the hikers consume six or more liters of water a day.

Frankly, I think “the K2 of thru-hikes” is a better description (less traveled, less supported, more technical).

In late September we set off from Lees Ferry, Arizona, and clawed our way west. And just days in, let’s just say, a few things went wrong. To my surprise it happened remarkably quickly, too. Fedarko and I shadowed a team led by canyoneering guru Rich Rudow doing a 56-day thru-hike. We planned to join them for just 15 days, but left even sooner due to unforeseen challenges that a sweltering September heat wave helped instigate (temps soared well above 100°F for a week).

But during what I’d call an intense thrashing, physical and psychological, some valuable lessons emerged for the next legs.

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Writer Kevin Fedarko stands slathered in mud after falling into a bog in a slot canyon.

The canyon respects no one.

Period. It doesn’t matter how many “rodeos” you have done.

Weight kills.

I never counted ounces before, but now I am fanatical. Ounces make pounds and pounds slow you down, creating more time between water access—and water is life. As thru-hiker Andrew Holycross told me, “You quickly learn to carry what you need, not what you want.” One problem when documenting for National Geographic: you need and want professional cameras, solar panels, and batteries. This adds 10 to 12 pounds that other trekkers don’t worry about. That creates the question of where to shave weight elsewhere—food, clothing, underwear?

Salt is key.

And a lifesaver. Hyponatremia is a term I didn’t know when I started (rookie!), but now I understand it too well. It’s not fun.

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Kevin Fedarko (right) and Pete McBride rest before starting the first leg of their sectional hike. During the hike, McBride suffered hyponatremia, or dangerously low salt levels.

Due to exertion, heat, and sweating too much (I sweat like a pig), you deplete your salt levels too far and often make the situation worse by drinking excessive water, thinking you are dehydrated because your body stops urinating to preserve salt. Tom Myers, a thru-hiker himself and part of the first father/son team to hike the Big Ditch, told me after I limped from the canyon that I was close to flapping around with seizures and ending in a coma.

Luckily, when I neared the unconscious phase, before seizures but wobbly and with tunnel vision, two days after full body cramps, I was slightly restored thanks to some packs of high-sodium soy sauce. Thanks, Rich Rudow.

Blisters: Take ‘em seriously.

I’ve never had problems before with my leather feet, but they can be the bane of your existence if they fester. Mine did, thanks to high temps, endless fine-grain sand filling my shoes, and grit acting like sandpaper for miles of angled, trail-less, exposed hiking. Despite bandages, moleskin, cutting away chunks of flesh, and even duct tape wraps, nothing beat the sweaty infection recipe. One of my heel blisters infected its way to the bone, but I ignored it, as I was too focused on not falling. Kevin endured worse. Not fun.

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Both McBride and Fedarko suffer through blisters on their hike. High temperatures, sweat, sand, and angled walking make it tough on their feet.

Cactus: Avoid it.

Hiking gaiters help (we purchased some for this next leg). But if you can’t avoid them—which is impossible, really, during miles of trail-less desert terrain—then extract the needles with aggression. I had a few cactus kisses and didn’t remove needles with enough vigor. Two weeks later, they worked into my ankle joint and required surgical removal. Also, not much fun.

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Clouds roll over the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Fedarko and McBride hiked much of the canyon in this image.

Carry Less.

Enjoying the Grand Canyon relates directly with how prepared you are without adding weight. See number two—if you prepare properly, the canyon and its magical, secret world of ancient rock and wondrous wildlife may speak to you through your occasional pain caves. If you are ill-prepared, then expect the canyon scream. My ears (and ego) still hurt from 60 miles of canyon screaming on our first leg.

The writer learned these lessons while working on the feature story "Are We Losing the Grand Canyon?" Follow his journey with writer Kevin Fedarko through this interactive piece.