Hammock Camping in the Grand Canyon
It’s official—I can cross another trip off my 2013 bucket list: I completed a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, February 27 through March 2. Not only that, but my group and I successfully hammock camped in the canyon, which turned out to be a little tricky in the end.
The question you might be wondering, especially if you are following my blog, is whether or not hammock camping is possible in the canyon.
Short answer: Yes, but it’s not ideal.
Greasing The Skids
My trip into the Grand Canyon began with an invitation from my friend Paul, who runs the hammock camping company Arrowhead Equipment out of Idaho. Paul was eager to fish the famed Bright Angel Creek and along the way do a little hammock evangelism with the park staff. Most folks heading down into the canyon would probably never consider bringing a hammock, simply because of the limited vegetation below the rim. But as crazy and die-hard as we all were, we had to see if it would work. We began with many phone and email conversations with park staff and rangers to check policy and guidance. The park staff were great to work with, helping us identify opportunities and creating a trip plan that would work with our goals. Our success is due to the wonderful staff and rangers who supported this trip and the future work we would do to foster better “hammock relations” in the canyon.
Hammocks are allowed in the canyon, but they do have some special considerations. Please check with the backcountry office and the park staff prior to any trip into the canyon to confirm current policies and guidelines.
Above the rim, within the park, I was told that hammocks are fine in the campgrounds, but that you must use appropriate webbing to protect the trees and remove the hammocks during the day to avoid entangling wildlife that wonder through the park. Trees are plentiful and accessible in the campgrounds and backcountry sites above the rim.
Below the rim, options are extremely limited. First, hanging from the limited vegetation is not permitted, for obvious Leave No Trace reasons. However, hammocks are allowed to hang from man-made structures. There are only two campgrounds inside the canyon that would work: Indian Garden and Bright Angel. Of the two locations, Indian Garden is the most ideal: there is a pavilion at every campsite with posts perfectly spaced for hammocks. At Bright Angel, the only option is the rock shelter in one of the two group campsites. By policy, the group shelter is only available to groups with seven or more on the permit, on a first-come, first-served basis. Because of our trip format, and because of the lower traffic during the off-season, we obtained a special one-time permit to use the group shelter, even though we didn’t meet the threshold.
At the other backcountry sites below the rim, the only option for a hammock would be to bring a hammock stand.
Hanging Below The Rim
When I first considered hanging in the Grand Canyon, I planned on bringing the Handy Hammock stand. In this way I wouldn’t be limited in where I could hang. However, upon further research, I realized that trying to secure 12, foot-long (30 cm) stakes into the ground at the campgrounds would be nearly impossible. A friend who returned from the Grand Canyon about a week before our trip warned us that the ground is like “cement.” His description proved to be true, and I was glad I decided to leave the stand at home. Leaving the stand saved about 1 kg (2.2 lbs). I further congratulated myself when I saw our neighbors’ futile attempts at pounding in stakes, only to resort to piling rocks or leaving tents limp.
All of my travel companions put their full trust in our pre-trip planning that we would be able to all hang our hammocks at each site. I am happy to report that we were all successful in hanging and sleeping in our hammocks for the entire trip, but there are some points to consider:
- The distance between the pavilion supports at Indian Garden is about 10 ft (3 m)
- Short to mid-length hammocks are ideal for this short hang
- Bring durable webbing straps, between 4-6 ft (1-1.5 m) long, with loops on each end
- Prepare your hammock with short connection loops as close to the hammock as possible.
At Indian Garden campground, I hung on the diagonal in the pavilion. In this way, I didn’t need to hang a tarp. If you hang off the sides, you’ll need a short tarp, or perhaps just hang a tarp off one side as you’ll have some overhang protection from the shelter when needed.
For anchor points, there’s nothing better than webbing straps with loops sewn or tied on each end. On the poles, you’ll need to wrap the webbing several times around the metal to limit slipping. Be mindful to keep the connection loop as close to the pole as possible to maximize the limited hang space.
I hung my hammock high up in the pavilion, using the table as a stepping stool to get inside. My straps looped around the top posts, allowing me to hang on the diagonal.
At the group site at Bright Angel campground, the only option was the stone shelter, but it has challenges. The jagged rock walls can cut into webbing straps, so you might want to invest in a new set just for the trip. I had to be very careful and intentional on where I placed my strap to limit sharp edges. The shelter is also solidly built with very few gaps where straps can be fed. We had a difficult time finding places to make anchor points. In the end, I had to hang my hammock high up in the shelter simply because that was the only way to get the right sag for my hammock based on where my straps could fit around the rocks.
A stand would be ideal in Bright Angel, and at the two group sites, there is a pipe stand (intended to hang packs from the wildlife) that is the perfect size for a hammocks. Paul, who brought a very large bridge hammock, was given preference for this location because of his setup requirements.
Hammock Gear List
This trip caused me more consternation with my gear selection than any other trip I’ve taken so far. This was due, in part, to the very limited details we had about the hanging opportunities in the campgrounds, so I oscillated between different hammock options.
One of my primary considerations was going lightweight. Thanks to the winter season, I didn’t need to worry about bugs, so I could use a simple gathered-end hammock. I brought a 7 oz (198 g) tarp but didn’t end up using it thanks to hanging in the shelters. In retrospect, I could have left that as well.
I knew this trip wasn’t going to be the lightest I’ve ever hung before, owing to some extra gear I was packing, including five copies of my book to give away to rangers, some extra insulation (I was worried about the temperature dropping lower due to the canyon effect), and some comfort food. But I was packing considerably less than most of the folks we passed along the trail, which made the extra ounces feel lighter, at least psychologically.
For my pack, I used the Gossamer Gear Gorilla, as did one of my hiking partners, Mike Stivers (te-wa under quilts). The Gorilla is turning into one of my favorite lightweight packs, primarily for its load distribution and capacity. Even with all the extra “junk” I brought along, I didn’t use all the liters available to me. Mike surprised us all when he pulled at least a dozen cans of exotic beer out of his Gorilla pack. Both of us were carrying around 20 lbs, including consumables.
I opted for one of my smallest hammocks, the Grand Trunk Nano 7 (5 oz/142 g), but looking back, I could have brought any hammock that was 10 ft (3 m) or shorter. I think a 9.5 ft (290 cm) hammock is ideal for the two campgrounds.
For suspension, I brought the ENO Atlas Straps (319 g). I went with the Atlas Straps because they (like the Kammok Python Straps) have daisy chain loops sewn every 4 in (10 cm), which provided ideal and easy anchor points anywhere along the length of the strap. The straps are also very durable and ended up surviving the rock walls in Bright Angel. I used my Kammok mini carabiners (32 g) to connect my hammock to the straps.
While I brought my GoLite Poncho Tarp as a shelter, I never used it or needed it, but I’m glad I had it “just in case.”
Temperatures in the canyon were forecast to range from 25°F (-4°C) to 40°F (4°C) at night at the different locations. I used my 20°F top quilt from HammockGear.com and a new Flame Thrower under quilt from Arrowhead Equipment. With my other clothing layers, I ended up being TOO HOT, which, in addition to listening to everyone snoring, contributed to difficult sleeping conditions.
On nearly all counts, our trip was a success. I had a great time with my friends and enjoyed my first foray into the canyon. We forged some great friendships with the park staff and rangers, verified that hammock camping is possible within the canyon in limited capacity, and made plans for future development.
Our next step is to send the park rangers our recommendations (at their request) for installing permanent hammock stands or multi-use poles at each site at Bright Angel. As temperatures rise in the summer season, hammocks are an ideal sleeping solution in the inner canyon.
My only regret is my slow hike out. We had roughly 10 mi (16 km) and 5,000 ft (1,524 m) of elevation before us. While I had a quick start in the morning and was the first to top out, my pace slackened at the end resulting in a 4.5 hour ascent. Mike beat my time by 30 minutes.