carol in Grand Canyon
Carol Crooker on Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon dressed for backpacking in 100+ degree (38+ C) weather.


Most desert backpacking is just like three-season backpacking anywhere else except it’s more pleasant. No bugs, high humidity, or rain. The Desert Gear List (Mild Season) reflects this. The following gear list is for summer desert backpacking where temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) are the norm, and water sources are scarce. In contrast to the Desert Gear List (Mild Season), the pack used has an internal frame, there are more water containers with a larger total volume, more articles of sun protection clothing, and less articles of insulating clothing. Minimizing gear weight is important to keep the total pack weight within a lightweight pack’s carrying capacity even when 16 pounds (7 kg) or more of water is carried.

pack contents
Pack and contents. Note the four plastic bottles against the stone wall that combine for a 2-gallon water carrying capacity.

The particular gear selected for this list was tailored to an on-trail summer Grand Canyon trek. From June 1st to June 3rd 2004, I traveled 31 miles (50 km) down the Grandview Trail, west on the Tonto Trail, and back up to the South Rim along the South Kaibab Trail. I hiked in temperatures up to 107 °F (42 °C) and carried 2 gallons (8 L) of water at times. Although tailored for that trip, the gear is suitable for the following conditions:

  • Location: Southwest U.S. desert
  • Season: Summer (June – September)
  • Terrain: On-trail
  • Expected Weather: Nighttime lows 70s (low 20’s C), Daytime temperatures over 100 °F (38 °C) common, rain rare
  • Rationale for Selected Gear

    Notes on loading the pack: The prevailing wisdom is that heavy items should be carried close to the back in the upper third of the backpack. Many women (including me) are more comfortable carrying heavy items low and against the back. I was able to simply place the gallon jug and a 1.5-liter bottle side by side in the bottom of my pack, next to the back panel. I squeezed some gear between the bottles and the front of the pack to hold them in place and loaded the rest of my gear on top of the bottles.

    The compressed volume of my gear was not enough to fill the bottom two-thirds of the pack so that water could be carried high and on top of the gear. Three suggestions for those who prefer to carry heavy items high in a pack are: (1) suspend water bottles from the tops of the stays, (2) insert your sleeping pad into the bottom of the pack (and inflate if applicable) to raise the height of the water bottles, or (3) use a pack with an internal hydration bladder pocket (which the production Mariposa will have).

    Backpack. In very hot weather, less gear is needed to support a backpacking trip. Carrying lots of water along with this minimal gear creates a low volume, dense load. A frameless pack with a compression strap system that can reduce the pack’s diameter from top to bottom could possibly be configured to carry this type of load comfortably. A ¾ or full-length sleeping pad would be required to form a virtual frame in conjunction with the compression straps. A medium to low volume, internal framed pack can carry a low volume, dense load comfortably and allows more creativity in sleeping pad selection.

    Gossomer Gear Mariposa pack
    Gossamer Gear Mariposa pack (16.8 oz/476 g) and Lightrek poles (4.4 oz/125 g) just before the ascent to the South Rim. Although little food and only 1.5 L of water remains from 2 gallons, pack volume is maintained by hard sided water bottles and a partially inflated TorsoLite sleeping pad.

    My backpack choice: the Gossamer Gear Mariposa. The Mariposa that I used was a prototype weighing 16.8 ounces (476 g) including a pair of removable carbon fiber stays (0.8 oz/23 g). It had a silnylon body and 210 denier nylon ripstop bottom. I used the optional closed cell foam pads in the shoulder straps and hipbelt which, along with the stays, formed a very comfortable suspension system at loads up to 28 pounds (12.7 kg).

    Trail accessible water. I prefer a hard sided bottle with a twist open sport top for my ready access, on-the-trail water source. A twist open top lets me drink without danger of dropping the bottle cap, and it’s quicker to use than taking off a cap. A bottle that needs to be removed from a pocket in order to drink is not as convenient as a bladder and hydration hose on the trail, but the off-trail advantages make up for it, including easier clean up at home. I find hard sided bottles easier to fill in creeks or standing water sources, because they don’t collapse when held under water. A screw top is easier to close and less failure prone than a zip top and there is no bite valve to drag in the untreated water. The ground in the desert is often dry and dusty and the bite valve on the end of the hydration hose can get caked with dust when the pack or hydration bladder is on the ground.

    My choice: a 1-liter Aquafina water bottle. It has a wide mouth for easy filling and is rounded for easy removal from and return to a mesh side pocket while on the move. A Gatorade sport top threads perfectly onto the top of the Aquafina bottle.

    Water storage. I calculated I’d need 2 gallons (8 L) of water capacity for my Grand Canyon trip. Multiple containers, rather than a single bladder, allow for load shifting as water volume decreases, and create a margin of safety in case a water container leaks or is damaged. Prior to my trip, Tonto Trail backpackers reported water bladder damage from ravens and small animals.

    Hard sided water bottles and stiff bladders, such as Platypus or Nalgene (as opposed to a soft bladder such as a water sack), will hold their shape even if partially empty (top off half empty bladders with air) so pack volume can be maintained. Also, weight can be more evenly distributed UP along the pack’s backpanel, rather than sagging to the bottom of the pack.

    Wide mouth bottles are easier to fill. Round bottles enter and exit mesh side pockets easier than Platypus bladders or Nalgene canteens with their sharp bottoms which can catch on the mesh. A rectangular gallon jug can be loaded long side against the pack’s backpanel, keeping the load closer to the back than can be done with a square or round bottle.

    My choice for the remaining 7 liters of water storage: a Martinelli’s Apple Juice 1-gallon jug (5.9 oz/167 g), and two, 1.5-liter Aquafina water bottles (2.1 oz/60 g each). The gallon jug and one 1.5-liter bottle side by side were about the same width as the pack and fit nicely in the bottom of the pack.

    The second 1.5-liter bottle went in the pack’s long left side pocket and the 1-liter bottle with sport top in the right hand, short pocket for easy access. I shifted water as I emptied bottles. When the first 1.5-liter bottle was empty, I brought the full 1.5-liter bottle out of the pack. I used my clothing and shelter filled stuff sack to maintain the shape of the pack by stuffing it next to the gallon jug where I’d removed the 1.5-liter bottle. Digging into the bottom of the pack to pull out the water bottle was a painless process because there was so little else in the pack. When I eventually emptied the gallon jug, it went back on top of the rest of the pack contents.

    Sun protection clothing. I stay cooler and maintain my energy better if I’m covered in lightweight sun protection clothing rather than wearing shorts and a tank top. My favorite sun protection fabric is used in Solumbra ( clothing. It is very lightweight, feels soft, and is so finely woven that it offers some protection from mosquitoes and does not snag on thorny brush. Other sun protection fabrics I’ve used have a stiffer, less soft feel.

    My choice for pants: Solumbra Active Pants (6.3 oz/179 g). A very simple design of elastic waistband and two side slant pockets with a baggy, non-binding fit.

    My choice for shirt: Rail Riders Adventure shirt (6.1 oz/173 g). It has a very simple pullover design and weighs less than other sun shirts I’ve tried (including the Solumbra shirts). I chose it over a Rail Riders Eco-mesh shirt because the button cuffs add enough length so that the sleeves cover my wrists when I’m using hiking poles.

    I’ve sun burned the backs of my hands hiking with poles, so I use Solumbra Hand Guards (0.7 oz/20 g) to protect them. The Hand Guards are semi-rectangular pieces of sun protection fabric with a hook and loop wristband and elastic loops for the thumb and fingers (two loops for the four fingers). I don’t use the thumb loop with hiking poles.

    I chose the Outdoor Research Sahara Cap (2.7 oz/77 g) for its full coverage cape. The cape and hat covered most of my face and neck while still allowing me plenty of peripheral vision. It is vented to allow even a slight breeze in to cool you off. I also wore a bandana around my neck to soak up a little sweat and to cover any areas of my neck that could be exposed when the cape on my hat was blown around. See my review of the hat here.

    Sunscreen. I use sunscreen on the backs of my hands, even with the Hand Guards since they don’t cover my thumbs when I’m using hiking poles, and on my face, lips, and ears. A stick that can be used on skin and lips is convenient and less messy than hand applied sunscreen.

    My choice: Banana Boat Faces Plus, SPF 30 sunscreen in a stick.

    Shoes. Shoes need to provide foot support and protection from rocky trails. Lightweight footwear will not drag you down on long uphills. Ventilated footwear will help your feet stay a little cooler than full fabric shoes. Trails in the desert are often covered with gravel and when going downhill, the shoes will slip on the gravel. Because of this, shoe soles need treads that will provide traction. A defined edge at the heel interface helps to halt slides on gravel.

    My choice: Salomon Tech Amphibians. They provide enough support and protection from stones while being very lightweight, 24.2 ounces (686 g) for the pair. The sides are mesh and I can actually feel the breeze against my instep when hiking in them. They have a nice lugged sole and there is a defined heel edge. I considered hiking in sandals so the tips of my toes had nothing to bump against on the downhill portion of the trek but I decided to go with the Tech Amphibians because of their soft insole, which the sandals I was considering did not have. I find that my feet get less sore if there is some cushioning under them.

    Socks. I chose ankle height socks with mesh tops, SmartWool Ultra Light RBX, 1.1 ounces (31 g) per pair. Ankle height because I’d be on trails and didn’t expect to be pushing through prickly brush, and mesh tops for some natural cooling. Also, I’d save a few grams of weight over my normal crew height socks. These socks are not slippery like some wool socks I’ve used, so they helped to keep my toes from jamming against the fronts of my shoes on the descent into the Canyon.

    Poles. I chose the Gossamer Gear Lightrek poles (4.4 oz/125 g for the pair) since they are the lightest poles I know of and I’d have to be swinging them at the end of the trip when coming up out of the Canyon. They supported my weight hiking down into the Grand Canyon flawlessly.

    sleep system
    Hot weather sleeping system with silk mummy liner “sleeping bag” on top of TorsoLite pad and Quantum Vapr bivy.

    Sleep system. The desert can be breezy at night and grit blows everywhere. Evening temperatures can be so warm it is difficult to sleep, yet a 30 degree (17 C) drop in temperature overnight is common. A desert sleep system should allow cooling breezes in when it’s warm, protect from blowing grit, and block the wind and provide warmth when it cools down. Of course it needs to be very lightweight too.

    My choice: A Design Salt silk mummy liner (4.3 oz/122 g) and a Quantum Vapr Bivy without bug netting from Bozeman Mountain Works (7 oz/198 g). The silk liner provided a bit of warmth, kept some of the grit off, and allowed breezes in. When it cooled down, I used the silk liner inside the bivy. Another bivy choice would have been the Equinox Ultralite Mummy Bivi, however, I appreciated the hood on the Vapr Bivy for a bit of added warmth and more protection from blowing grit.

    Pad. Desert ground is usually packed down hard in areas where there are established camps. I’m a side sleeper prone to sore hips and hike better the next day if I have a little more cushion than a closed cell foam pad provides. A sleeping pad also provides insulation from the hot ground.

    My choice: the lightest self-inflating sleeping pad available, the TorsoLite (10.6 oz/301 g), and a 1.4 ounce sheet of 1/16″ (40 g, 1.6 mm) closed-cell foam to put under my legs (18″ x 32″/46 x 81 cm). The foam provided some ground insulation for my legs and enough padding so I didn’t notice the gravel under them. I also used the foam in the pack’s pad pocket to keep my back from feeling the stays and to insulate me from hot rocks during short rest breaks from hiking. I used the TorsoLite inside the pack to maintain volume (by inflating it) as the food bag got smaller.

    Shelter. Although, the chances of rain were extremely low, I wanted a shelter that could also provide some shade in an emergency. I chose the Bozeman Mountain Works SpinPoncho “T” since it is very light (6.2 oz/176 g) and could serve double duty as a poncho in the rare event of needing to hike in the rain. An even lighter shelter option would have been the Spin Tarp X at 4.75 ounces (135 g).

    Tent Stakes. I don’t normally take along tent stakes in the desert because: (1) the ground is often rock hard about an inch below the surface, or conversely, so sandy that stakes won’t hold, and (2) the chances of needing to erect a shelter are slim. I depend on the plentiful rocks to stake out my tarp.

    Guylines. When using rocks to stake out a tarp, an adjustable knot such as the tautline hitch at the guyline ends is handy to accommodate different sized rocks. Guylines that hold knots easily are required.

    My choice: Kelty Triptease (1.0 oz for 50’/28 g for 15 m)

    cooking system
    Esbit solid fuel stove made from a cut down Vienna sausage can with Snowpeak 600 pot.

    Notes on Vienna stove: I used a paper punch to make ventilation holes around the top and bottom edges. I crimped the cut edge to make the diameter slightly smaller so it would provide a stable base for the similar diameter Snowpeak cup.

    Water is heavy. Hydrated foods are not normally carried for lightweight backpacking because they weigh more than dried or freeze dried foods. However, when there are no water sources along a route and all the water for the entire trip must be carried, a stoveless option for “cooked food” is to carry precooked hydrated food. Commercially available examples are: (1) Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), and (2) pre-cooked food sealed in pouches available at many grocery stores such as Zatarain’s and Uncle Ben’s ready to serve rice dishes, Jack Link’s fully cooked ground beef, and Sweet Sue chili.

    Stove. Hot food is not needed or desired for hot weather desert hiking. However, I prefer the consistency of cooked food for dinner after eating uncooked food all day. I wanted the lightest stove and fuel set up that could heat water for rehydrating home dried food. Esbit solid fuel tablets are very light – 0.5 ounces (14 g) of fuel and container (one tablet) is enough to easily boil 2 cups (0.5 L) of water in hot weather.

    My choice: the bottom 1/4 inch (0.64 cm) of a V-8 juice can to hold the fuel tablet and reflect some heat towards the pot, pot support/wind screen made from the top 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) of a Vienna sausage can, and Snowpeak 600 titanium cup with foil lid. Stove and windscreen weighed 0.5 ounces (14 g), cup and lid 2.9 ounces (82 g), fuel for two dinners, 1.0 ounce (28 g).

    Food storage. There are not many trees in the desert. Those you do find are often small and thorny and hard to hang a food sack from. For most desert hiking, I take an odor proof sack (Watchful Eye Designs O.P. Sak) and leave my food on the ground inside the sealed sack at night. However, since there were reports of ravens and small animals chewing into anything that was plastic whether or not it had food in it, I decided to still use an O.P. Sak and hang it if there were trees available. I used a 0.1-ounce (3 g) plastic grocery sack over the O.P. Sak as the hanging bag to save some wear and tear on the O.P. Sak which is designed to be used as a liner within another sack. I did not have any incidents of animals chewing through my food sack using this method, although one small animal (squirrel?) woke me up leaning on my leg to look inside my, luckily, empty pack.

    Light source. Hiking in the dark is a common strategy used in desert hiking to take advantage of the cooler temperatures at night. A light that leaves both hands free to break camp and use trekking poles is needed.

    My choice: a Princeton Tec Scout headlamp (1.0 oz/28 g) with headband removed. I clipped it to my hat to break camp and to my waistband for night hiking.

    Chair. A chair is definitely a personal preference of mine. I don’t normally take one along, but figured if I was going to have to sit out the hottest part of the day, it would be nice to do so leaning back in a chair. I chose the Therm-a-Rest Lite 20 Chair Kit (10.3 oz/292 g).

    A complete gear list follows. Some examples of brands and models/styles are listed below for reference only. They neither represent an endorsement of that particular product nor a suggestion that the product listed is the best choice in the context of any particular situation.

    Clothing Worn While Hiking
    sun hat hat with brim and cape Outdoor Research Sahara Cap 2.7 76.545
    hiking shirt long sleeved sun protection shirt Rail Riders Adventure shirt 6.1 172.935
    sun shield for hands non-glove Solumbra Hand Guards 0.7 19.845
    bandana cotton bandana 0.8 22.68
    sport top minimal, breathable Femme Athletic 2.2 62.37
    underwear synthetic briefs Moving Comfort Microbrief 1.3 36.855
    pants sun protection pants Solumbra Active pants 6.3 178.605
    hiking socks thin merino wool blend SmartWool Ultra Light RBX socks 1.1 31.185
    hiking shoes breathable and lightweight Salomon Tech Amphibians 24.2 686.07
    Other Items Worn or Carried
    trekking poles one piece, carbon fiber Gossamer Gear Lightrek 4.4 124.74
    whistle pealess built into pack’s sternum strap buckle 0 0
    watch thermometer watch Casio Women’s Pathfinder without band 0.8 22.68
    compass tiny keychain compass 0.3 8.505
    light micro light Photon II 0.3 8.505
    carabiner micro carabiner for watch, compass, light UrsaLite Micro Carabiner 0.1 2.835
    Other Clothing
    insulation layer lightweight down long sleeved top MontBell U.L. Down Inner jacket 7.2 204.12
    rain protection poncho/tarp see overhead shelter below 0 0
    warm hat skull cap REI stretch helmet liner 0.8 22.68
    extra socks thin merino wool blend SmartWool Ultra Light RBX socks 1.1 31.185
    Shelter and Sleep System
    overhead shelter poncho/tarp SpinPoncho “T” 6.2 175.77
    tent stakes native rocks n/a n/a
    guylines 50 feet, thin cord able to hold a tautline hitch Kelty Triptease 1 28.35
    bivy sack waterproof bottom, breathable top Quantum Vapr Bivy wo/Netting 7 198.45
    sleeping bag silk mummy liner Design Salt silk mummy liner 4.3 121.905
    sleeping pad torso sized inflatable mattress TorsoLite 10.6 300.51
    sleeping pad thin closed cell foam, for under feet 32″x18″x1/16″ 1.4 39.69
    backpack internal frame Gossamer Gear Mariposa 16.8 476.28
    stuff sack 500 ci for extra clothing and sleeping gear SpinSack M 0.5 14.175
    Cooking and Water
    stove solid fuel, esbit bottom quarter inch of V-8 juice can 0.1 2.835
    cookpot titanium mug Snow Peak 600 2.8 79.38
    cook pot lid aluminum foil cut to size, doubled 0.1 2.835
    wind screen wind screen/pot support cut down Vienna Sausage can with vents 0.4 11.34
    utensil spoon GSI Lexan soup spoon 0.4 11.34
    lighting lighter Scripto 0.6 17.01
    water bottles, 2 gallon capacity 1 L, easily accessible 1 L Aquafina water bottle with Gatorade sport cap 1.7 48.195
    two, 1.5 L hard sided two, 1.5 L Aquafina water bottles 4.2 119.07
    1 gallon, hard sided 1 gallon, Martinelli’s Apple Juice 5.9 167.265
    water treatment chemical kit Aqua Mira (repackaged into mini dropper bottles) 0.8 22.68
    food storage odor proof Aloksak O.P. Sak, 12.5″ x 15.5″ 1 28.35
    food hanging bear bag and cord plastic grocery bag and 25′ of light cord 0.5 14.175
    Other Essentials
    maps topo local topo / trail map 2 56.7
    sunglasses clip on clip on sunglasses in flat leather case 0.6 17.01
    personal hygiene assorted toiletries toilet paper, alcohol hand gel, zip bag for used tp, antibiotic cream with pain relief in 4″ x 7″ Aloksak 2 56.7
    camp chair on the ground back rest Therm-a-Rest Lite 20 Chair Kit 10.3 292.005
    ditty bag miscellaneous paper cutter, wound kit, firestarting kit, teeth cleaning kit, sunscreen, headlamp in mesh bag 2.6 73.71
    light LED headlamp Princeton Tec Scout w/o headband in ditty bag n/a
    first aid minor wound care / meds aspirin, duct tape, butterfly bandages (2) in ditty bag n/a
    firestarting emergency firestarting storm matches (3), no-blow out birthday candles (2) in ditty bag n/a
    sunscreen SPF 30, sunscreen/lip balm Banana Boat Faces Plus stick 0.7 19.845
    personal hygiene teeth cleaning kit toothbrush, floss, baking soda in tiny zip bag (in ditty bag) 1.1 31.185
    Consumables (3-Day Trip)
    fuel esbit 0.5 oz/ evening 1 28.35
    food 2.5 days 24 oz / day 60 1701
    water average carried 128 oz n/a n/a
    Weight Summary
    Pounds Kilograms
    (1) Total Worn or Carried While Hiking 3.206 1.457
    (2) Total Base Weight in Pack 5.918 2.690
    (3) Total Weight of Consumables Less Water 3.812 1.732
    (4) Total Initial Pack Weight (2) + (3) 9.731 4.423
    (5) Full Skin-Out Weight (1) + (2) + (3) 12.937 5.880