Packrafting the Grand Canyon: Adventures & Tips

 hannah and johnathan shininger packrafting the grand canyon

Hannah and Johnathan Shininger on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon

Winning a follow-up permit lottery from Grand Canyon National Park allowed Johnathan and Hannah Shininger an opportunity of a lifetime: to packraft 90 miles of the Colorado River through the Canyon.

The couple had been used to running rivers in the eastern part of the US with their Alpacka Raft Forager. But they had never been on a river as big as the Colorado.

“I don’t think any number of YouTube videos, trip blogs, or #ColoradoRiver Instagram posts adequately conveyed how BIG the water in the Colorado River really is,” wrote Hannah, in a recent article for Alpacka Raft. “We quickly learned that the secret to a good run was to ‘hold on tight and hit ‘em straight!’…a good line helps, too.”

Watch the 9-minute video below as they take us through the canyon on one of America’s mightiest rivers:

Packrafting the Grand Canyon: Hannah Narrates Their 90-mile Route

Johnathan and Hannah had just a week to accomplish their 90 mile goal, so they needed to average 18 miles a day. They started at Lees Ferry and tackled their first rapids on Day 1 successfully.

On Day 2 they headed into the Roaring Twenties, a stretch of water with several rapids sections in quick succession. While they took a few tosses into the river, they hung on to their packraft and paddles just fine.

The next day’s route was on smooth flat water as the canyon widens for some stunning views. That was followed by Day 4 with more rapids sections.

hiking in the grand canyon

Some of the Canyon’s best hiking is only accessible to river paddlers

“The highlight of day four was definitely the Little Colorado River. The water was bright blue, and we had it all to ourselves. It seemed like a water park, honestly—the rocks were placed just so we could enjoy floating down the river. It was incredible.” ~ Hannah

Day 5 was a shorter day on the river with some hiking and relaxing at camp, preparing for another series of tough rapids on Day 6.

In addition to the 90 miles of paddling, Hannah and Johnathan managed to get in a lot of hiking along the way, too. And the camping? Hannah wrote, “The beaches along the Colorado River were some of the most pristine we’d ever seen. Every half mile, or so, we’d come across an area that looked almost too good to pass up.”

Day 7 was their pack-out day. They hiked out from Across from Pipe Creek Camp, almost eight miles along the Bright Angel Trail, gaining 5,000 feet until they reached the top of the Canyon. “It was the hardest hike of our lives, but I would absolutely do it again for six more days on the river,” said Hannah.

grand canyon packrafting trip

Johnathan’s Best Tips for Packrafting the Grand Canyon

Are you interested in packrafting the Grand Canyon, too? Johnathan sent us his best tips for you:

1. Do Your Homework

A self-supported Grand Canyon packrafting trip isn't going to plan itself! Start by visiting the GRCA river permit website and apply to the annual lottery. If you’re fortunate enough to win a launch date, review the National Park Service’s regulations and required equipment well in advance. There’s an entire checklist of gear you must show the ranger at Lees Ferry before hopping on the water.

In addition to meeting the requirements, a deep dive into the available literature is highly recommended—here are a few good places to start:

The more you know about your trip before venturing down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, the more you will be able to appreciate and enjoy it.

2. Think Like a Backpacker

Most of the packing lists for a trip on the Colorado River are targeted towards folks with an 18-foot raft and unlimited space. In order to fit everything you need into a packraft, you must think like a backpacker. This means minimalist packing and ultralight solutions. 

For example, rather than trying to meet the fire pan requirement in hopes of grilling a steak, opt for a backpacking stove and dehydrated meals. As for the mandatory toilet system, make your own "poop tube" out of PVC pipe instead of attempting to carry a groover in your packraft.

Take the time to come up with you own creative solutions to meet the requirements and stay comfortable (within reason).

epic grand canyon hike

3. Prepare For the Worst

With epic adventures comes the potential for epic consequences. Before entering a remote wilderness, you must be mentally and physically prepared to self-rescue in the event of a swim or fall. 

The Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is a frigid 50 degrees year-round and you should dress yourself to swim. A PFD is required, but a helmet and drysuit are highly recommended.

A good first aid kit can save your life and a good boat repair kit (including Tyvek tape, Aquaseal, and zipper lubricant) can save your trip from ending early. In case something goes terribly wrong, carry a satellite phone or at least a satellite messenger to signal for help.   

4. Take Your Time

You got the permit, now make the most of it! Packrafting trips are limited to 16-25 days depending on your launch date, and river mileage is capped at 297 miles—but the hiking possibilities are limitless. 

Many say the best part of a river trip in the Grand Canyon is exploring the spectacular side canyons. The Silver Grotto, North Canyon and Matkatamiba Canyon are stunning places only accessible to river runners. If you’re paddling outside of the commercial season you may have them to yourself. 

Once you get a taste of the river and everything the inner canyon has to offer, you probably won't want to leave—so plan accordingly.

alpacka raft forager packraft and aqua bound shred apart paddles

Alpacka Raft Forager packraft and Aqua Bound Shred Apart paddles

5. Hold On Tight and Hit 'Em Straight!

The big water rapids of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon are legendary.  Sockdolager and Hermit rapids can have waves 15-20 feet high while Crystal and Lava Falls have holes large enough to swallow a bus. 

If you want to be a rodeo star, you have to square up and hit these features at a 90˚ angle. Lateral waves should be avoided at all costs. 

Before taking on the Colorado River, single packraft paddlers should be able to reliably roll and tandem paddlers should be experienced swimmers. Big water rapids can be especially daunting when you’re riding in a souped-up pool toy, but successfully navigating them is a thrill you won't forget.

(all photos courtesy of Johnathan and Hannah Shininger)

Can we help you choose your packrafting paddle? Contact our friendly Customer Service team today: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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