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Ultralight Winter Backpacking Through Canyon Country

Photos & text by Matt Jenkins

Rangers Matt Jenkins and Elyssa Shalla recently joined an exclusive group of just 26 backcountry experts to have embarked on this extreme thru hike below the rim of the Grand Canyon. As well, they are among the eight most recent people either thru hiking or section hiking below the rim who are using Hyperlite Mountain Gear equipment. In this post Jenkins shares the gear choices they make specifically tailored to ultralight winter backpacking. You can read the other posts in his series, including their Ultralight Winter Backpacking Sleep System Strategies. And read more about what it takes to do a huge adventure like this in Rich Rudow’s blog, “The Grandest Walk.”

No “Gimmes”: Ultralight Winter Backpacking the Grand

A winter thru hike of the Grand Canyon from the Grand Wash Cliffs to Lees Ferry encompasses a vast range of climates and terrain over the course of an approximately 50-60 day walk. Between mid-December and early-February we walked a primarily off-trail, seldom travelled, rugged, and mostly waterless route below the north rim. We got hammered by multi-day snowstorms and experienced extended periods of frigid, icy weather. We traversed steep canyon slopes covered with talus and cacti, riparian areas choked with tamarisk, and an uncountable number of cliff bands. There were no “gimmes” in the Grand, and its relentless terrain required lightweight gear that could withstand two months of demanding use.

Planning and packing for this kind of trip required a honed and hybrid skill-set encompassing ultralight backpacking, rock climbing, canyoneering, expedition and winter travel skills. Carrying the wrong, or too much, of any type of gear in our Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 3400’s would have left us too cold, wet, bogged-down, or cliffed-out to continue the nearly 600-mile route we intended to complete.

Spectacular ledge camp across from Granite Park, Grand Canyon, Ariz.
Spectacular ledge camp across from Granite Park, Grand Canyon, Ariz.

Ultralight backpacking isn’t merely an exercise in reducing pack weights to an arbitrary number. It is a methodology built around multi-functional systems and minimalist ideologies so that every piece of lightweight gear carried on a trip serves a critical and/or a multi-functional purpose. Excess and luxury are minimized; and function and utility are maximized. Everything must be simple, durable, repairable, and weather resistant.

This trip posed unique wilderness and expeditionary challenges, but it offered unparalleled opportunities for solitude and adventure. Below is our tried and tested ultralight backpacking gear list for winter in the Grand Canyon, which outlines everything we brought from socks to our UltaMid 2 pyramid tent. The following lightweight gear recommendations may help canyon country thru hikers select a safe, light and effective kit for their travels, whether section hiking the Hayduke Trail this year or piecing together an extended “Great Western Loop.”

Instagram post from photographer

Instagram Post from ultralight backpacker

Table showing list of ultralight backpacking gear and weight


table showing list of ultralight gear and total weight