A crazy few stand amongst tourists peering down into the Grand Canyon and think, “I’m going to hike that.” The challenge is not in the hiking, it is in the surviving.
The Rim To Rim challenge is to hike from the North or South Rim of the Grand Canyon, descend to the base of the canyon at the Colorado River, then ascend back out of the canyon via the opposite rim, all in one day. It is a 24 mile trek with about 4,000 ft elevation change on one side and 6,000 ft on the other. Over the course of the day the temperature can swing from 40º to 120º. There’s a three mile stretch in the hottest part of the canyon where the trail is soft sand. It is a beast of a trail.
Backpacker Magazine lists the Rim To Rim amongst its “10 Most Dangerous Hikes In America” because of the risk of heat stroke. Bright red warning signs flank the trails that read, “WARNING. DO NOT attempt to hike from the Grand Canyon rim to the river and back in one day. Each year hikers suffer serious illness or death from exhaustion.” The book Over The Edge: Death In The Grand Canyon by Michael Ghiglieri and Thomas Myers catalogues the many ways the Grand Canyon has claimed the lives of the hapless. On the day of my Rim To Rim hike, members of my group were witness to a ranger rescue of a person suffering heat stroke. Yet, we and dozens others that day successfully, and cheerfully completed the Rim To Rim challenge. Several even turned around and hiked back across the canyon the next day! How can you succeed and live to post the pics on Instagram?
Here are my Top 3 Training Tips that will prepare you to survive and enjoy a Rim To Rim dayhike:
1. UPSIDE DOWN HIKES
A typical hike has an elevation profile like you would hike a mountain. First, you go up, then you come down, or perhaps it has a series of ups and downs, but it usually ends with an easier portion toward the end when you are tired. The Rim To Rim, however, is an “upside down hike”, which means that you hike the “easy” downhill portion while you are rested and fresh, then, after you become exhausted and overheated, you start the difficult climb back up to the rim.
Because of the favorable topography and movement of the sun, most people choose to hike the Rim To Rim from the North Rim (via North Kaibab Trail) to the South Rim, (via either Bright Angel Trail or South Kaibab Trail). By starting from the North Rim you avoid afternoon sun exposure on the 14 mile North Kaibab Trail as well as take advantage of the larger portion of elevation change being on the descent. There are 14 miles and approx. 6,000 ft. elevation loss from the North Rim to the Colorado River. Ascending the other side via the South Kaibab Trail is a shorter option than the Bright Angel Trail, but there are no opportunities to refill your water as there are on Bright Angel. The ascent is approx. 9.5 miles (Bright Angel) and 4,000 ft elevation gain.
To prepare for this hike, seek out local upside down trails that are at least 2/3 the length and elevation profile of the Rim To Rim. Train on that terrain until you can do it comfortably.
2. RUN INTERVALS
Endurance sports take a tremendous amount of cardio vascular stamina. To hike almost 24 miles in a day means that you have to sustain a certain pace. Although there will be times, especially in the hottest part of the inner gorge, when you will sit and rest, most of the time you will need to keep moving even when its hard. Your heart has to be up to the challenge.
This is the time to embrace interval running as part of your training regimen. Here’s how it goes: Warm up for 5 minutes. Run at 90 to 95% of your maximum heart rate for 3 minutes. (No need to get fancy here. You will know you are at 95% because it will feel like you couldn’t go any harder if you tried.) Walk at a comfortable pace for 3 minutes to lower your heart rate. Then repeat this cycle 4 more times. Cool down for 5 minutes. Remember, it is: Warm up for 5, 3 up / 3 down five times, then cool down for 5. Easy. You can do this on or off the treadmill, on any terrain. The goal is to strengthen your heart.
3. HEAT TRAINING
It is almost guaranteed that you will experience extreme heat while hiking the Rim To Rim, and chances are it will hit you like a ton of bricks. This is what the rangers warn us about. In this world of air-conditioning and modern shelter, people simply are not used to so much heat exposure, and they certainly don’t choose to exercise in it.
While you are training for the Rim To Rim, make an effort to exercise in heat. Wear a hat and hike in the heat of the day. Join a hot yoga class. Turn on the space heater in your bathroom and do P90X with the door closed. Something! Anything! You must learn how your body reacts to exertion in the heat and learn to embrace it or you will be stuck in the bottom of the canyon waiting until nightfall to hike out, or worse, on your way to a heat stroke.
On the Rim To Rim hike the only way through is through. There will be no rescue. The rangers will not call a helicopter for you or hitch you a ride on a burro unless you are dead, and that’s not the way you want to play it. You might as well be prepared to do well and have a great time. Train!