BEYOND THE CORRIDOR. What’s it like to backpack the Grand Canyon backcountry? What gear do you need?

Lauri tying back the screen door at a 0600 sunrise on the Tonto.

This blog features our April, 2017 trip: Tanner to Hance Rapid via the Escalante Route continuing on the Tonto Trail to South Kaibab Trail back to rim. Total distance: 54.5 miles over 7 days. Day 1 and 7 were half days. Total drop down Tanner Trail is 4,650’. Day 7 climb out was 3,650’ in 6.5 miles in 3.5 hours.

Moonrise and sunset from the end of Tanner Trail, above Tanner Rapid on the Colorado River with a touch of fall colors on riverside willows, November.

My bladder woke me at 4:48AM, 12 minutes before the alarm. The crescent moon with Venus to its north bathed in a subtle wash of blue and pink light dominated the view to the east. This was our final night on the Tonto, sleeping only with the mesh portion of the tent on a cool, calm morning. Our crew of 6 eagerly rose at 0500 to hit the trail at 0600. This was “hike-out” day and real food, a shower and beating the heat on a 3300’ climb were the main motivators for the early start. One more painfully short steep descent into the west arm of Cremation Canyon followed by a gradual 300’ climb brought us to Tip-Off Point where the eastern Tonto trail joins the South Kaibab. By the time we finish our bathroom break near 0700 on a Sunday morning we will have already seen more people at this one spot than we did the previous 6 days in the primitive sections of the Grand Canyon. In 3 hours, Lauri and I would complete our 11th multi-day Grand Canyon backpack trip.

Andy on the Tonto Trail at sunrise, coming out of Cremation Canyon approaching Tip-Off Point there the Tonto meets the South Kaibab Trail.

Most of our trips have been in March and April with two in November. This is when the inner canyon is most tolerable. For the most part, spring and fall don’t see much flash flood danger. Those floods take place mainly during monsoon season when tropical moisture can dump large amounts of rain in a very short period of time. Hikers can also face winter weather near the rim during this same time period. We’ve had trips where we used microspikes and gaiters up top with summer weather near the river.

13 year old Erich negotiating a lingering snow field with a steep drop off on the upper reaches of the Grandview Trail, April.

We’ve hiked in and out of every trail east of here including Grandview, New Hance and Tanner, including 5 Escalante Route hikes. Further west, we’ve done 2 Royal Arch Loop trips. Last November, we reluctantly did one corridor trip, camping at Bright Angel near Phantom Ranch. Finally after many years of talking about it, we did Rim to Rim (North Bright Angel to South Kaibab) in October in 12 hours. My Grand Canyon wilderness addiction started in 2001 when Lauri and I oared a raft through the Canyon for 225 miles on a private 21-day winter trip. I guess you can say we are experienced Grand Canyon hikers.

Our gang of 6 on this latest trip had a common Alaska bond. With us was long time friend and hiking buddy, John Hoffer from Seattle. Lauri and I met John at a mountain pass in Alaska in 1990 on a backcountry ski trip. We’ve been friends ever since. His two adult sons, Dean and Erich, were with us. That’s what made this trip special. We’ve known these boys all their lives and this was our first trip with them together as adults and it was great to see father and sons sharing this kind of trip. Rounding out our crew was our good friend Andrea DeVore, a lifelong Alaskan, and intrepid world traveler and hiker. All of us except for Dean, the oldest son, had been on a previous Grand Canyon backpack trip. John has been on 5 “Big Ditch” backpack trips with us. Erich did his first when he was 13 and Andy was on her second Escalante trip with us having done it for the first time in 2014.

Our mostly Alaskan group on our latest trip, hiking the Escalante Route, above Escalante Canyon

Erich at age 13 on his first Grand Canyon backpack trip down New Hance Trail, and Again, at age 20 on Tanner Trail.

A DESERT IN CONCERT. I submitted my permit application for this last trip via fax, at 8AM sharp, on Dec. 1, 2016 – the first eligible day and hour for trips starting in April. I got lucky. My permit notification was emailed to me a few weeks later. I knew that a trip in the third week of April had a greater than 50% chance of being HOT! The average mid April high at Phantom Ranch is 85, so even 5-10 degrees above average would put us at risk for heat injury. The Tonto is mostly shadeless and brutally hot. But I timed it for peak flower bloom and I’m glad I did. From what I understand, fall rains (and I remember a wet fall here) have as much influence on following spring blooms as winter rains do. It paid off.

Andrea walking among fields of gold on the Tonto Trail with prolific nakedstem in bloom as well as several species of cacti

Claret cup in bloom along the Tonto Trail, Hance Creek, April.

The Tonto Platform was in concert! In fact it was the best I’ve seen on a spring trip. Fields of nakedstem daisies, cliffrose, showy four-o’clock, paintbrush, globe mallow, prickly pear, beaver tail, hedgehog and claret cup cacti all in simultaneous bloom were everywhere not to mention the profusion of green from blooming black brush, mesquite, willow, cottonwood and service berry. This kind of desert beauty can’t be seen from the rim. Pictures don’t do it justice.

As it turned out we had average to slightly above average temperatures on this trip with zero rain and one night of strong winds. Average was hot enough. Ironically, our lifelong Alaskan, Andy, adapted the best. In fact, after a few days we were wondering if she was part reptile for all the sunbathing she did. For the rest of us, forget it. After leaving Alaska, the Hoffer boys grew up in Seattle, and Lauri and I re-located from Alaska to the high, dry and cold ski town of Taos, New Mexico. Our blood is still northern thick and probably always will be. If you hike smart and stay hydrated, the inner Grand Canyon heat is managable.

Andrea on the lower Tanner Trail, walking by numerous prickly pear cacti in boom, April.

When we arrived at Cardenas Beach, there was already a raft party camped there that we didn’t see approaching the beach from the trail above. I remember from our raft trip that there are many great beaches to camp on, but Cardenas isn’t really one of them as it is overgrown and rocky. We bushwhacked upstream of the rafters to eat an early dinner, hydrate (“camel up”) and chill in the afternoon heat. Another mile up would bring us to one of my favorite dry camps, above the cliffs that line Unkar rapid on river left. This time it would not be as pleasant as I was in previous trips. The all night westerly winds damaged a couple of tents and resulted in a short night’s sleep. Strong winds kept the temperature from falling very much. It didn’t go below 60 and I didn’t crawl into my bag until wee hours of the morning. Strong nocturnal winds usually relent some in the morning. They calmed to a slight breeze, enough for a fairly pleasant breakfast with a few minutes to enjoy the stellar view of the inner canyon, river and rapids below. What lied ahead was my favorite section of trail along the Escalante Route.

Three hikers On the Escalante Route, climbing above Cardenas Beach and the Colorado River with Unkar Rapid below, April.

A NIGHT ON THE BEACH. We had 6 miles to go to Escalante Canyon our next access to the river and water. From there it was another 1.5 miles to our camp that night. The day involved varied terrain, with a 1000’ climb around an ancient landslide, more dazzling wildflower displays and a beautiful slot canyon, Seventy-Five Mile. The day was hot, but there was shade. We would end at Papago Beach, a secluded lovely beach on the border of our designated use area and too small for a regular sized raft party. Most raft parties continue another half mile down river to the much larger camps at Hance Rapids. We’ve camped here 5 times and have always had it to ourselves.

Alaskan hikers, Andy, Lila and Ashley with a backpacker dinner in the sand at Papago Beach, on a 5-day Escalante Route trip, April

The last half mile from Seventy-Five Mile to Papago was the hottest. At 3 in the afternoon you are rock hopping over dark, hot, loose rocks. There is no trail, just a few loosely cairned routes. This is one of those spots on the Escalante where the going is slow. My skin was parched and I felt like fire would shoot out of my eye sockets at any time. I was the first to arrive at Papago with others not far behind.

When I took off my pack under a willow feet from a sandy beach along a large eddy, I stripped down to my shorts. You don’t even think about it. Do it before you cool down. The only way to end a hot hike into the Colorado River is with full and sudden commitment. I dove in to the 44 degree beautiful green water. It feels great for a split second. Then reality hits. In the desert air, you really don’t need a towel on a day like this. I was dry in 15 minutes.

Erich diving into the Colorado at Papago Beach on an 85 degree late afternoon. Papago is a nice hot weather camp as there is shade, cool water and the sun goes behind the towering walls of the Inner Gorge early.

Beyond the Corridor trails with their bathroom, water, rest and emergency phone stations along the way as well as guaranteed tent sites with picnic tables and toilet, lies a truly wild Grand Canyon backcountry experience. I’ve backpacked in a lot of beautiful places, along the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails, including the High Sierra, North Cascades, the Colorado San Juan, the Idaho Sawtooth, and Glacier National Park not to mention many backcountry trips in the Alaska and Brooks Ranges. The Grand Canyon backcountry is world class offering stunning beauty, challenging trails and solitude. At first glance, going to rim viewpoints, and hiking the Bright Angel and South Kaibab Trails, you would’t think that solitude would be  possible here. Thanks to effective backcountry management it is – even at the peak of spring break.

Sunrise on the Tonto Platform, looking 1400′ down into the Inner Gorge, where Grapevine Creek meets the Colorado, 7-day Escalante Route-Tonto Trail, April.

I commend the NPS for their management of the backcountry. You have to know something about how the use areas are laid out, how to plan your pace and how to submit an application 4 months ahead of time. Demand is increasing and sometimes we don’t get a permit. That’s OK. Permit holders are pretty much guaranteed a quality wilderness experience, provided they have the skills, equipment and physical ability to execute their trips without incident.

The backcountry office can be hard to get a hold of on the phone but for the most part they have been helpful and knowledgable. There is a lot of good and helpful information on the backcountry pages of the Grand Canyon website including trail descriptions and water sources with distances and elevation changes that are helpful for planning. I’m not going to post links here. If you’ve passed Googling 101, these pages are easy to find. The book I use the most for ideas and planning is the Falcon Guide: ‘Hiking Grand Canyon National Park’ by Ron Adkison.

Elves Chasm, where Royal Arch Creek meets the Colorado. This scene is a 3 day backpack or a 10 minute walk for rafting parties.

At first glance, the Park Service’s trail descriptions seem to over exaggerate the difficulty and dangers of the wild and primitive trails. I understand their position though. They are the ones that have to pluck hikers out of the backcountry who over estimated their abilities or just ran into bad luck. Sure, there are some very steep and exposed sections of trail. If you have solid footwear, reasonable balance, accustomed to hiking steep mountain trails with a pack, you should be fine. Yes, there are potentially long water hauls across long stretches of unshaded and hot terrain. Have an itinerary that allows you to take long mid day breaks. If you have the capacity to carry needed water, know how to find it when it is not obvious from the trail, and have a manageable pack load to allow for heavy water loads then you will be fine.

The Royal Arch Loop requires a 20-foot rappel to get to Toltec Beach seen below beyond the edge of the shadow. We carried 1-inch webbing for a sling and one carabiner which we shared the rappel (to save weight) and lowered the packs with the 50 foot of line we carried. The rappel was the easy part. The approach to the rappel was very steep and exposed, difficult to follow (the first time) with razor sharp limestone and loose rock on steep slides. Below the rappel, the walking on marbles down steep slopes continue. It’s hard to get through this section unscathed. Leather gloves are a huge help here. March.

Navigation and route finding can be challenging especially on your first trip. Outside of boating the river, there is no direct route to anywhere in the Grand Canyon. Even on the well worn sections of the Tonto it can be easy to temporarily lose the trail if you are not paying attention. Don’t rely on just your phone as your sole source of navigation. Carry a paper map and compass and know how to read it. On our first Royal Arch trip, we lost the route on the Esplanade going around the Toltec drainage and ended up spending 3 hours going 1 mile over a treacherous landslide. At one point, Lauri accidentally kicked a rock the size of a recliner down and it almost pinned my leg and would have snapped it if it did get pinned. That would have ruined our day. We were not lost. We know where we needed to be. We just missed the cairned route that laid out the best way to get there.

The “trail” on the Esplanade, From South Bass Trail to Royal Arch drainage, May.

ASCENDING THE TONTO. Hance Rapid is an interesting place. It is the first technical rapid river runners encounter and it’s advisable to scout. A beautiful setting with abundant beach camping, it is where Red Canyon and the New Hance Trail, one of the South Rim’s most difficult descents, ends at the Colorado River. This would be our last river contact and last water re-supply before reaching Hance Creek, 1500 feet up and 5 miles away. Getting here is only .6 miles from our Papago Beach camp. However, the route took over an hour.

If there was any place one is likely to snap an anke or tib/fib it would be going down the Papago Slide. Loose, steep and rocky, it is easy to kick rocks down below. For safety we went one at a time. On the bright side, if you did get hurt here, it was only a short distance to the beach where a raft party could help. That didn’t provide much comfort to me though.

Hauling packs up the “trail” above Papago Beach, Escalante Route. March

At Hance, the Escalante Route ends and the Eastern Tonto begins. Once on the Tonto, the hiking is considerably easier as the trail contours around side canyons with only minor climbs and descents. This spring, water was more abundant due to a wet winter. It’s still hot though. The trail is narrow and the stiff branches of blackbrush will result in many superficial scratches on your calves. There are also stretches of trail through cactus mine fields. But the dazzling spring green, wildflowers, steep side canyons, and views of the river and inner gorge and awesome view camps made us forget about time on our remaining 3 days.

The Grand Canyon backcountry isn’t for everyone. We witnessed a disturbing reminder of that on our second Royal Arch Loop trip. We found an abandoned backpack on the far western end of the Tonto. Some guy left a nearly full backpack, with boots, clothes and food which were rummaged by rodents and ravens already. We ran into a volunteer sent down to investigate. We never did learn what happened there.

The Grand Canyon backcountry isn’t for everyone. We found this abandon backpack with men’s hiking boots and clothes and unopened backpack food which was already rummaged through by ravens and rodents, near Garnet Canyon on the western Tonto Trail on a Royal Arch Loop trip. This was a little spooky. We inquired when we returned to the Backcountry Office 4 days later, but never found out what happened. March

The primitive and wild areas of the Grand Canyon have become part of our normal stomping grounds. I don’t consider the Grand Canyon backcountry to be particularly dangerous or difficult as long as you have some sense of how trails and routes are laid out, how to read a map, have adequate food, know how to avoid heat injuries and dehydration, and know how to select suitable camps. That said, I never forget this is truly wild country and the canyon shows no mercy for the unprepared or for those with poor judgement and cocky overconfidence. The demographic that experiences the most injury and mishaps in the Canyon are young adult males who consider themselves athletes. Don’t be that guy! If you can, go with experienced hikers who’ve done the route before. If you have the right skills, equipment and sound judgement and approach this awesome vertical desert world with a sense of healthy respect then be prepared for a memorable, sometimes challenging, rewarding wilderness experience that will draw you back again and again.

Our all Alaskan crew making memories at camp above the Redwall, Tanner Trail, April.


TRAIL PACE. The corridor trails are like other well worn mountain tracks such as the John Muir Trail but steeper and hotter. While hiking the JMT and other portions of the Pacific Crest Trail, doing a 15 mile day was effortless and we could easily do a 20 mile day if we pushed a little. That pace in the Grand Canyon backcountry would be a dangerous fools errand and an unneccessary forced march. On the well worn parts of the Tonto, we planned a 10 mile/day pace if you didn’t have to carry more than a day’s worth of water. Plan less if you have to carry 2 days worth. On the nasty approach trails such as New Hance and Tanner we plan on less than 1 mile/hour pace. This also applies to portions of the Escalante Route and Royal Arch Loop. Here we plan on 7 mile days. You need to leave time to not hike in the heat of the day. In addition, sometimes getting water can be an hour affair as you may have to walk 30 minutes up or down a side canyon to a water source. Unless you get lucky with cool weather, once in the lower elevations of the canyon your best strategy is to start hiking early to beat the heat, seek shade in the hottest part of the day then resume in late afternoon when more shade develops. When you have to plan your trip 4 months in advance it’s hard to determine what the weather will be.

John and Lauri standing near the Royal Arch, the largest natural arch in the Grand Canyon in the noon sun. It is a steep descent to the Royal Arch with several drops where you need to remove and lower packs down. Our strategy was to camp near where the trail climbs out of the the Royal Arch drainage over to Toltec beach, and then day hike down to the arch. Much easier on the knees and back. March

AT-LARGE CAMPING. Having the skills and confidence to choose your own campsite with 30 minutes of daylight left comes from years of experience and detailed map reading ability. The quality of at-large camping and solitude in the Grand is one of the main reasons I come here. Few places can rival the Esplanade or Tonto for star gazing with 360 degree stellar views. There is zero light pollution out here.

Our group sharing dinner from our last trip in April, 2017 at a dry at large camp on the Tonto Trail near the mouth of Grapevine Canyon

There seem to be two types of campers: valley and ridge campers. Valley campers like to be nestled and cozy, close to a water source. It’s not uncommon for three parties with a permit for the same use area to all camp at the same place, a perennial water source, such as Hance Creek. In these places you’ll find well worn tent sites, big shade trees and wind protection, but not solitude. As a photographer and hopeless claustrophobic, I’m a ridge camper. That’s where the action is. I don’t want to be in a hole, or under a canopy of trees with other parties I don’t know. I want to be where the first and last rays of light will be, and, as mentioned earlier, where the star gazing is along with 360 panoramic views.

Photographer and author, Ike Waits photographing the Milky Way from a dry camp on the Tonto Trail near Lonetree Canyon, November.

My preference is to dry camp and it is not that difficult. For one dinner and breakfast and teeth brushing between water sources it is only an extra liter per person (2 lbs). Otherwise the amount of water I carry between sources would be the same. So we “camel up” at a water source, then carry water to a dry camp.

Ridge top or open country camping is not without risk. We had one night of gale force winds on this last trip and two tents sustained mild damage. The ground is hard and not very stake friendly. Have a high quality 3 season tent and know how to stake it out with a deadman. Or cowboy camp, which is possible 90% of the time. Usually, we just sleep without the rainfly. This way we can still star gaze and be protected from little creepy crawlies in the night.

Lauri at camp on the Tonto with the Big Agnes Copper Spur Platinum with only the bug mesh. Tent is lit by a Luci light, an inflatable LED with built-in solar charging panels. We like this better than a headlamp. April

GEAR: The best strategy for off corridor backpacking in the Grand is to go as ultra light as possible. Adopt the PCT/AT style of backpacking. Dean and Andy had their base weights to 9 lbs. Mine was at 16 and that was OK with me. That included 3 lbs of camera gear. Having a manageable base weight makes it easier on your knees for the steep plunges down canyon and easier to deal with a 2-day water carry. Below I will lay out the big 3, pack, tent, sleeping system, food, then all the other stuff. Remember, you don’t carry a pack. You WEAR it. Pack selection and fit is just as important as footwear. Don’t go on an extended day trip, especially here, with a pack you have never tested before.

PACK: Lauri: ULA Catalyst, less than 3 lbs. Me: Custom fit and made McCale at 4 lbs. This pack comfortably carries heavier loads. With this pack I can hike 2-3 hours with a 35 lb load and not need a break. Other Ultra Light packs on our latest trip were a Gossamer Gear Mariposa (Andy) and a Hyperlite Mountain Gear 3400 Southwest (Dean) – a great pack.

Dean with a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 ultra light backpack, heading down the Tanner Trail below the Redwall.

Cottonwood trees in peak fall color, the week before Thanksgiving in Cottonwood Creek. After 1 bone chilling day, the weather warmed to very pleasant conditions below the Redwall. This time of year, a 20-degree bag is a good idea. Lauri is carrying a ULA Catalyst pack, November.

TENT: There is a growing array of lightweight shelters from cottage industry manufacturers such as Six Moon Designs, Tarp Tent, Z-Packs and Hyperlite Mountain Gear. We have a Big Agnes Copper Spur Platinum 2.8 lbs with everything. That makes it 1.4 lbs per person well within ultra light territory.

The modern ultra light backpacker, Andrea, with an ultra light pack, Gossamer Gear Mariposa, a solo Big Agnes Fly Creek and a small 7oz solar charger for her iPhone. This is from a dry camp above the Redwall, looking into Furnace Flats at the end of the Tanner Trail.

SLEEPING SYSTEM: Nowadays, it is easy to get a high quality down bag (800 or 900 fill) 30 degree bag for less than 2 lbs. In fact you can get a 30 degree quilt for about a pound. Lauri’s 20 degree Feathered Friends Flicker quilt is 1.6 lbs. Pad: We use Exped Synmat at 14 oz and a Big Agnes Q Core SLX at 15 oz. We also use Z-Rests which weigh another 12 OZ. Some of the younger folks use only a Z-Rest. At my age, I’m sleeping comfortable. I bring both. The Z-rest is worth its weight in gold. I’ve never had an inflatable pad leak but if it did, I would still have some padding and insulation below me with the Z-Rest. I also believe the Z-rest helps protect an inflatable mattress. I carefully check it for anything prickly before I place it in the tent. I also use the Z-rest for mid-day naps and long rest breaks.

John star gazing from a bivvy sack at a dry camp above Hance Creek on the Tonto Platform, April.

STOVE: Soto Windmaster. 2.3 OZ. Best stove I’ve used. An 8oz MSR or Jetboil canister lasts 5-6 days boiling 1.5 liter a day for meals/tea for 2. Go stoveless for even lighter pack.

Dean making morning tea at a dry camp along the Tanner Trail with a Soto Windmaster Stove, and a Six-Moon Designs ultra light tent.

KITCHEN: 1 liter titanium pot with lid, long titanium spoon, a titanium cup, very small green scub pad and a very small bottle of bleach is our entire backpack kitchen kit. We also bring a small disposable lighter for back-up if the stove piezo lighter fails.

FOOD: We use the same guidelines we use for a long distance through hike. Generally speaking, we shoot for 2 lbs per person per day and most everything we bring meets the minimum of 125 calories per ounce. Going hungry on a backpack trip sucks. So does bringing too much or heavy food. A backpack trip in the Grand is no place to diet. You are burning calories and sweating out salts and electrolytes. Leave the fat free, sugar free, dairy free, (everything else that’s good free) crackers at home. Snickers bars and Cheez-its are your friend out here. We buy Mountain House freeze dried granola, and scrambled eggs in bulk and then vacuum seal our own portions. We also buy a lot of dehydrated bulk food at Winco such as mashed potatoes, beans and dried cheese. We also buy commercially dehydrated meats and put together our one-pot meals at home. Don’t forget electrolytes. We use Propel and Emergen-C. We bring enough for 2 liters a day of drinks with electrolytes. These greatly help with joints, energy level and brain function. Food is carried in ultra light stuff sacks.

Salt crusted shirt pattern from pack and shoulder straps on Dean from the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400 pack. In the dry air, you sweat more than you think. Replacing electrolytes is important.

Our Alaska crew sharing evening freeze-dried backpack meal at a dry camp above Hance Creek on the Tonto, April

CLOTHING. All clothing for our 7 day trip is 2 pounds for a mainly hot weather hike. We carry different clothing for a cold weather hike. If you are in the Canyon in March or November you have to carry for both cold and hot weather. We basically adopt a wear one, carry one philosophy. I carry only one extra t-shirt, socks and undies. I have one pair of full zip long pants that slip over shoes and shorts with a draw cord waist for 6 oz. I have one pair of running shorts and one long sleeve button down shirt. Don’t waste your money on a $100 shirt that has an “SPF”. A used dress shirt from a thrift store will have the same SPF. And you can trash it. For $5. I take a very light t shirt for sleeping. I have a Patagonia hooded down jacket for 10 oz along with a lightweight fleece beanie hat to take off the morning chill. For rain gear, which I’ve only needed for 10 minutes on 11 trips here, is the Outdoor Research Helium jacket. For cold or wet weather hiking I take a very lightweight Patagonia base layer t shirt. SOCKS: I like Wright double layer socks, ankle high. The double layers really help prevent blisters. Lauri likes Darntough socks. They are too hot for me.

It’s not aways hot in the Grand Canyon. Even in November, cold spells usually only last a day or two before it’s nice again. Featured here is Ike and Lauri on a cold windy morning on the Tonto near Lonetree Canyon.

SHOES. The Grand Canyon backcountry is no place to test new footwear. Have your shoe/sock system dialed in before you come here and make sure you can hike several days in a row without getting blisters. They suck and really slow your pace down. I’m a late convert to light weight trail running shoes. Now I will never go back to the Swiss-Alpine leather waffle stompers I used to use. I use LaSportiva Wildcats. Lauri uses the ever popular Altra Lone Peak trail runners. They come from the factory ready to accept Dirty Girl gaiters. How cool is that? Dirty Girls, cheap with many cool patterns to choose from, are worth their weight in gold.

TREKKING POLES: We use Black Diamond carbon fiber Z-ploes. Poles save knees, provide ankle support, help flip pesky rattlesnakes off the trail, can be used as tent support (some UL tents are designed to use poles as their support) and can be used for deadman anchors on your tent in strong winds. We’ve even used them to assist in hanging a food bag on a branch just beyond our reach. If you do break a limb, then you have a readily available splint.

John Hoffer descending a typical ledge drop on Royal Arch Creek, Royal Arch Loop, March.

WATER FILTER: Sawyer Squeeze with chemical tablet back-up. The Sawyer filter system comes with collapsible 1- liter containers. You get your water from the source into these bags, then filter from those bags to a clean container. The Sawyer filter also fits on a Dasani/Aquafina bottle with just some minor leakage. In the past, we used a Steripen. We’ve never been sick from Grand Canyon water with either system.

Lauri filtering water with the Sawyer squeeze filter into a used over and over again Dasani water bottle at Cottonwood Creek along the Tonto Trail, November.

WATER BOTTLES: Steel canteens are heavy. We’ve used the same Dasani 1 liter water bottles for over a year now. Much lighter. We carry 2 each.

ADDITIONAL WATER CONTAINERS: MSR Dromedary bags were our gold standard for carrying water to dry camps or for long hauls. They are heavy. The new kid on the block is Hydrapack. We have 2 of the 3-liter collapsible containers. They are guaranteed against puncture and leakage. When not needed they fold up small and weigh much less than Drom bags. They are also more durable than the Sawyer collabsible containers. I make sure each person has the capacity to carry at least 6 liters.

Cooling off at Papago Beach after a long hot day’s hike on the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon.

Backpacking With Your Dog

Senior lab mix with saddle bags on trail to Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado

Senior lab mix with saddle bags on trail to Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado

Kyia near Ice Basin Trail on Oct. 1, 2013.  She’s been backpacking with us ever since we rescued her.  She is 12 now, had 2 knee surgeries and it’s heartbreaking to see her slow down so much even though she still wants to go.   We are very patient with her.  It took her three hours with frequent shade stops (below timberline) to climb the 2,800 feet and 3 miles to Ice Lake where we camped at 12, 300 feet.  We camped on a ridge top where she was content to lay in the bug-free cool tundra and overlook the massive valley below to South Mineral Creek.

My mission was to get sunrise shots of Ice Lake.  It was a little late in the season as fall was well past its peak at this altitude. Fortunately, there was some new snow to provide some visual interest.

tent at Ice Lake Basin, Colorado

Camp in dawn light, Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado

Ice Lake Basin, Colorado

Sunrise, Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado

 September hiking/backpacking at Ice Lake, Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado

September hiking/backpacking at Ice Lake, Ice Lake Basin, San Juan Mountains near Silverton, Colorado



New Work: Grand Canyon National Park Backpacking Adventure

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Standing beneath the Royal Arch, a view seen by few visitors.

In addition to showing new adventure images, I address degree of difficulty and creativity as well as sacrifice and compromise with respect to photography.

Lauri and I completed our second weeklong trip on the Royal Arch Loop with longtime friend and backpacking companion John Hoffer.  The Royal Arch is a special and beautiful place seen by few because it is a difficult multi day hike.

I feel fortunate that at 50+ I am still capable of making physically demanding treks to create images.  They are not without pain.  There are times I wish I had a normal mid life crisis like owning a Corvette and whooping it up in Vegas but no!  Instead, I do brutal backpack trips to remote places like the Royal Arch.   When I go to places like this I never lose sight of a principle of photography that has stuck with me for many years: Degree of difficulty does not correlate to creativity.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Descending the upper Royal Arch Creek.


Going to expensive exotic places, or places that are difficult to get to or require special skills (in this case rappelling and canyoneering skills) does not mean you will get great photography.  Your viewers, unless they were there with you, cannot relate to the physical or emotional pain and investment you make in your photographs.  Your images are judged solely on their creative merits.  And it should be that way.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Day hiking to the Royal Arch from camp.


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Rappelling through the Muav Limestone above Toltec Beach


Photography on a backpack trip requires sacrifice but not compromise.  I’ll explain.  Sacrifice on this trip was severely limiting my equipment for obvious reasons.  I took a Canon 5D, Mark 3, 24/f2.8 lens, Sigma 15/f2.8 fisheye, a 600RT speedlight with a couple of gels and the ST-E3 transmitter.  For the first time in a long time, I went without a tripod.  That was the biggest sacrifice on this trip.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Climbing through the Tapeats Sandstone in Garnet Canyon.


I had to sacrifice some sweet photo ops.  As long as I stayed within the limitations of the equipment I had I didn’t have to compromise on the principles of making compelling imagery.  My focus would be on the hiking and at camp experience and making images where it was still possible to get sharp, hand held shots and shots that still looked well lit with simple fill flash skillfully applied.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Backcountry meal on the Esplanade


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Elves Chasm, below Royal Arch near the Colorado River.


Without a tripod and with only wide angle lenses I had to give up landscapes and many telephoto and macro ops.  I really felt the pain of what I sacrificed one evening when we had a blazing pink sunset.   I did however improvise on a full moon tent scene.  With plenty of rocks and a ziplock bag full of sand made a great stabilizer for a 2-3 minute exposure.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Camp on the Esplanade under moonlight.


The 15mm fisheye really came in handy as the noon sun was cresting the Royal Arch.  It is such a fun lens to shoot into the sun with and I did that a lot.

Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Standing beneath the Royal Arch, a view seen by few visitors.


Sacrifice without compromise of solid photography principles and remembering that degree of difficulty does not guarantee good imagery has hopefully resulted in a few marketable shots from a difficult to reach and seldom seen location that holds a special place in my memory.


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Lunch stop along the Tonto Trail near Bass Canyon.


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Second wind at sunset along the Esplanade.


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Claret cup cacti in bloom along the Tonto Trail near Bass Canyon.


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Clean up in the Colorado River at Toltec Beach


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Donning boots for the hike out.


Backpacking/hiking Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park. Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop. Elves Chasm, below Royal Arch near the Colorado River. Taking a break from the camera for a cold bath.


Photography and Patience: What is The Longest You Waited to Get a Photograph?

Aerial view of Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alask

Arieal view of Mt. Fairweather (15,300′) and Grand Plateau Glacier near Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Whenever possible, I offer my meteorological abilities and skills to my clients to advise when to shoot to get the best possible conditions.  This has been a big asset for my tourism clients.  Many shoots, however, have to be scheduled far beyond accurate forecasting range.   In Alaska, based on climatology and years of experience, I plan 7 days on location to get one evening or morning of nice light.  Getting more than one nice day in a given week is a bonus!  This is especially true anywhere in coastal Alaska and around Mt. McKinley in Denali National Park.

The longest I’ve had to wait to get a shot has been 12 days in the very inappropriately named Dry Bay!  The mission was to get a series of shots of the equally inappropriately named Fairweather Range and and the glaciers that flow into Alsek Lake in the northwest corner of Glacier Bay National Park.  Mt. Fairweather is one of the loftiest mountains rising from sea level to 15, 300’ in only a few miles.

In mid August we flew in to Dry Bay from Haines (in the rain) where we met Brabazon Expeditions to boat us up the Alsek River to the park boundary where we planned to canoe, camp and shoot for 7 days.  After 2 days of continuous rain with more rain forecast for the next 5 (we had a marine radio) we decided to paddle the 11 miles back to Dry Bay to hole up at Brabazon’s wood frame and tarp roof bunkhouse.


Canoeist of Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Lauri in a 14 foot inflatable whitewater canoe from Grabner in Austaralia navigating with map and GPS on Alsek Lake through icebergs toward the outlet where lake ends and the last 11 miles of the Alsek river flows into the Gulf of Alaska at Dry Bay.

That proved to be a good call.  On the three hour paddle back to Brabazon in a hard driving continuous rain dressed in $1200 each of high tech Gore-tex raingear and fleece base layers and we still got soaked (mainly from perspiration) and were border line hypothermic upon arrival.


Dry Bay and Mt. Fairweather, Alaska

Brabazon Expeditions rafters hut in Dry Bay, along the Gulf of Alaska coast below Mt. Fairweather (15,300′) and the Fairweather Range. We spent 12 days waiting for a view of the peaks.

Monitoring the marine radio daily, horrified by the forecasts, we were pinned for 10 days waiting for the weather to clear!  We lived off of food left behind by rafting parties who didn’t want the weight for the flight back.  During the 10 day wait, Yakutat, the nearest reporting station 30 miles west, reported 16 inches of rainfall which is more than a year’s worth of rain in Taos!

Alaska Brown Bear, Dry Bay

Chocolate colored brown bear near our hut at Dry Bay, Alaska. These guys were digging up roots of eskimo potato roots all around the area. I stood under the covered front porch for about 30 minutes waiting for this young bear to get closer until I got a decent shot with my 300/f4. After one shutter click the bear turned and ran away.


On day 11 with a forecast of brief clearing, we were shuttled back up river in early afternoon.  We shot like crazy spending the night on Gateway Knob for sweeping views of the lake and Mt. Fairweather then paddling back down to Dry Bay again where FlyDrake would pick us up and return us to Haines before the weather closed in again.

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Dusk view of Mt. Fairweather (15,300), and Alsek Lake Glacier and Lake in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska


Wilderness camp at Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Camp at Gateway Knob above Alsek Lake with view of the Fairweather Range. We hiked about 1/3 mile and 400′ above the lake from our boat to get a commanding dusk and dawn view of the lake and Fairweather Range after waiting out 12 days of rain and low clouds.

Why did we stay so long?  I am tenacious when it comes to getting my shots and just hate giving up.  Another trip would have cost more in both time and expense than just waiting it out even though our trip length doubled.  Being flexible allowed us to adjust to the prolonged wet weather regime.   In the end, we got the shots and that’s what counts the most.

Aerial view of Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska

Arieal view of Mt. Fairweather (15,300′) and Grand Plateau Glacier near Alsek Lake, Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska


Simplifying Life and Photography While Backpacking

Image of couple backpackers on Devil's Dome in the North Cascades, Pasayten Wilderness, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB148

Lauri and Michael DeYoung on Devil’s Dome in the North Cascades, Pasayten Wilderness, Washington

For a photographer who’s invested in an entire system whether you are a hobbyist, part time or full time pro it becomes difficult not to have your system with you whenever you shooting.  Every so often, maybe even on a regular basis, it is good to simplify and go with the mentality that “less is more.”

I recently read another excellent PDF by Photoshelter titled:  “Selling Nature Photography”.   One of the shooters profiled, Martin Bailey, in his “Tips from the Field” sidebar, it reads in part:  “keep your load light and you might increase your hours in the field.”

Sunset landscape image on Devil's Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB131

Sunset on Devil’s Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


My backpacking trips force the issue of simplifying my equipment.  Besides photography what I really like about backpacking is that is also simplifies life.  At the start of a trip I’m always wondering if I can produce a compelling body of marketable images with just one lens and one strobe.   After a few days of life simplified on the trail my senses sharpen up, I’m in tune with the light and I begin seeing more clearly and creatively.  When this happens I begin feeling confident that I can make good images.

Image of group of 3 backpackers along Devil's Ridge Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB175

Lauri DeYoung, Michael DeYoung, John Hoffer along Devil’s Ridge Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, Washington


This latest trip to the North Cascades was put together by my good friend John Hoffer who’s been a long time resident of Washington State.  We started at Harts Pass where it intersects the Pacific Crest Trail near 7000 feet and hiked 43 miles to Ross Lake at 1600 feet finishing at Ruby Creek Trailhead along Highway 20.  Most of the time was spent in the Pasayten Wilderness.  All but the last day was spent between 4500 and 7000 feet.  I was amazed by the wildflowers still abundant in the first week of September.   In addition to some sample images, here are the particulars on my camera outfit.


Image of Man crossing Canyon Creek below Sky Pilot Pass in the Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB46

John Hoffer crossing Canyon Creek, below Sky Pilot Pass, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

I take one body and lens, a Canon 24-70/2.8L.   It’s a heavy sucker but I just love the image quality of the heavy L lenses.   Yes there are times when I am frustrated, longing for a 100 macro, a 200, or my trusty 20mm.  But I force myself to see how this one lens sees, staying within its limitations.  The camera and lens, a polarizer, a 3-stop, hard edge ND grad filter, cable release, 4-16gb cards and lens cloth all fit in a Clik Elite chest pack that fits a pro body with 70-200.  It comes with a harness and 4 clips that attach to a backpack.  It rides nicely on the front of the pack and gives me easy access to my camera all day long.  I take one strobe with off camera cord with a couple of gels that weigh next to nothing.

Image of woman enjoying her morning cup of tea at camp on Devil's Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB110

Morning tea at camp on Devil’s Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


I have the lightest Gitzo carbon fiber tripod made with a Really Right Stuff B-30 head.  On this trip, the sunset we had on Devil’s Dome with 360 degree views of the North Cascades was worth the anguish of carrying that extra 3lbs.

Image of woman walking among a tamarack forest, Pacific Crest Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB10

Lauri DeYoung walking among a tamarack forest, Pacific Crest Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Image of woman shaking off the frost on a chilly morning camp near Windy Pass, Pacific Crest Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB13

Shaking off the frost, chilly morning camp near Windy Pass, Pacific Crest Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Image of female hiker resting sore feet from a 11 mile day hike along Pacific Crest Trail near Holman Pass, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB34

Lauri DeYoung resting sore feet on a 11 mile day, Pacific Crest Trail near Holman Pass, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Image of man on break among the big trees on the Pacific Crest Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington - Michael_DeYoung_MD120908VWA_HB37

planner in chief, John Hoffer on break among the big trees, Pacific Crest Trail, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Landscape image of lupine still in bloom in September along Devil's Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

Lupine still in bloom in September! Devil’s Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Image of woman standing on a lingering snowfield at sunset on Devil's Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

Lauri standing on a lingering snowfield at sunset on Devil’s Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Image of Big Agnes backpacking tent at dawn on Devil's Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

Big Agnes backpacking tent at dawn on Devil’s Dome, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington. The tent survived 30-40mph winds most of the night.


Image of woman female backpacker backpacking on Devil's Ridge Trail, Jack Mountain, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

Lauri backpacking on Devil’s Ridge Trail, Jack Mountain, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington


Sunrise landscape image along Devil's Ridge Trail with first light on Jack Mountain, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

Sunrise landscape along Devil’s Ridge Trail with first light on Jack Mountain.


Michael DeYoung jumping into Ross Lake on day 6 of 7 backpacking. Photo by Lauri DeYoung


Image of Indian Paintbrush in bloom along Canyon Creek, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington

Indian Paintbrush in bloom along Canyon Creek, Pasayten Wilderness, North Cascades, Washington