20 Tips for Backpacking Havasupai
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
First and foremost, I will note that although this content has been written by me (Lauren Wood), much of the information comes from the incredible planing and expertise of our trip organizer, my dear friend Lacey Smith of My Laced Up Boots. Lacey deserves all the credit for the work that went into booking permits, sending out backpacking lists to everyone in our group, organizing transportation and shared meals, and… well, pretty much everything. Thank you Lacey—I am just re-purposing your information for the world to enjoy.
On February 1, 2020—the first day of the season—our group of 12 women backpacked into the Havasupai Indian Reservation for a four day, three night trip to Havasu Falls. Organized by our fearless leader, experienced and highly organized Lacey Smith of My Laced Up Boots, we had detailed group meals planned out, packed our own stuff in, and split shared items like tents, fuel, bear cans, food items for shared meals, and cook wear.
Lacey put together a detailed list of all the things we needed to bring and identified which items would be shared (meaning: things I didn't need to bring). I put together a list of these items on my Amazon Storefront so you can shop them directly.
To shop the complete list of items for a Havasupai backpacking trip, CLICK HERE.
We all flew into Las Vegas McCarran International Airport, with most of us arriving around 8 pm. Unfortunately one of our girls missed her flight, so we made a run to REI (10 mins away) for stove fuel, did a quick run to the grocery store, and went back to pick up the 12th woman of our group. That made for a late night—with the time change crossing into the Arizona border (Arizona doesn’t observe daylight savings time in winter), and the two and a half hour drive, we didn’t get to bed until 3 am. That meant for a rugged night with the plan being to be up by 6:30 and out by 7:30 am.
We stayed at the Hualapai Lodge, which is about an hour and a half from the trailhead. Then in the morning we got up bright and early, drive the 1.5 hours to the trailhead, and started our hike down. 5.5 hours later, we were at our campsite and in hikers heaven. We enjoyed four incredible days hiking in, setting up camp by the river, hiking to Beaver Falls and Mooney Falls, cooking group meals and enjoying the stunning scenery.
If you’ve got a Havasupai trip in the cards, lucky you! Use this guide to know what to expect, what items to bring, and the best products to buy before you go.
So without further ado, here are my 20 tips for backpacking Havasupai:
1. Hike in early to claim the best campsite.
If getting a good campsite is important to you—or especially if you are traveling in a large group and need site with space for multiple tents—the old adage “the early bird gets the worm” should be your new mantra.
Hit the trail early: like 6 am in the winter and spring, or even earlier in the summertime. Hikers in summer have to head in early to beat the heat, and I’ve heard people sometimes do this as early as 2 am. Any earlier though and you’ll be sitting in Supai waiting for the tourist office to open (which opens at 9 am Nov-Apr and 6 am May-Oct).
Depending on your ability level, the hike in should take you anywhere from 4 to 7 hours. Realistically, if you’re in decent shape and don’t stop too long in Supai, the hike in shouldn’t take you more than 5 hours. It took our group about 5.5 hours to get in (hilltop to campsite, which we chose at the end of the campground) with A LOT of stops (I mean, there were 12 of us, so…). We stopped a half a dozen times for short breaks, took a rather long break for lunch, and were stopped in Supai for about 45 minutes, where we checked in with the permit office, played basketball with the neighborhood kids, shopped in the market and bought fry bread from the cafe. Had we cut out the lunch stop and time in Supai, it would have taken us only about 4.5 hours.
So where is the best campsite you ask? Well, that largely depends on what you plan to do while at Havasupai and what’s most important to you. Since we had a large group, we really just needed to find a place that fit five tents. If I could do it over again though, I’d probably pick a spot at the beginning of the campground, close to the water source. We chose a spot close to the end of the campground by Mooney Falls, and although it was incredibly beautiful—and closer to the day hikes—it was quite far from Fern Spring, meaning we had quite a hike each day to refill our water bottles.
If the longer day hikes—like to the Confluence, for example—are in the cards for you, perhaps a spot at the end of the campsite by Mooney Falls like we did would be best for you to lessen the length of those hikes. If your plan is to just chill though—and if you don’t want to make the 10 mile hike in and out any longer—then choose a spot close to the beginning of the campsite so you’re not adding to the already long trek just to get there and back.
Speaking candidly, it’s ALL beautiful though, so it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get first pick of the campsites.
2. Bring a Day Pack
If you plan to hike to Beaver Falls, Navajo Falls, Mooney Falls or the Confluence, you’ll need to bring a day pack with you for water, snacks, your camera and extra socks or grip gloves. Although I belatedly found out that my Deuter Futura pack has a detachable lid that can double as a day pack, I still found my day pack to be pretty handy. I chose to bring a small 5L dry bag, so that I could protect all my gadgets when going over all the river crossings. Thankfully I never fell in the water, but I’m so damn accident-prone that I had to plan for that! A lightweight, pack-able backpack like this one is great too.
3. DO NOT go to Havasupai without water shoes.
No, you cannot take off your hiking boots to cross the streams; there are simply too many stream crossings to get to Beaver Falls and the Confluence to be taking your shoes on and off. A good pair of water shoes is really important. Solomon makes great amphibious shoes that are perfect for going in and out of the water and keeping your feet comfortable on the rest of the hike as well. The Salomon Crossamphibian Swift 2 water shoes
were the shoe of choice for our group (I think almost half of us bought these) and they worked great. Water sandals work well too but because of the cold (like when I was there in February) I think shoes are just better.
4. Prepare for extreme cold or heat.
Getting a permit in the first place is hard enough, but getting a permit for “peak” Havasupai season is even more difficult. So if you are going any time other than April, May or October, be prepared for either extreme cold or extreme heat.
It probably goes without saying, but proper (translation = warm enough) gear is SO important if you’re backpacking Havasupai in February, March or November. Temperatures at night can dip to the 30s and 40s in even April, May and October so check the weather forecast and plan accordingly. Fires are not permitted in the campground, so you can’t rely on a fire for warmth.
Some tips for staying warm (and comfortable) in the colder season:
Sleeping Bag: Bring a zero degree bag. Mine was rated to 15 and I was still pretty cold. It ended up being doable with all my layers on, AND putting activated hand warmers at the foot of my bag, but if you want to be warm, you’re probably better off just bring a zero degree bag. If you don’t get cold easily, something in the 15-20 range is fine.
Liner: A sleeping bag liner can add 10 degrees of warmth, so bring one of these and you should be a little extra cozy.
Puffy: A good puffy is as important as a good pair of hiking boots. Preferably one that has a lot of down, is water proof or water repellent, and can pack into itself. I used one from Patagonia and loved it.
Hand Warmers: my girl Kellie brought hand warmers on our trip and they saved my life on our last night, which was the coldest. I used these in my pockets in the evening and then threw them in the foot of my sleeping bag at night.
Wool Socks: Duh. Bring thick ones if your feet get cold.
Base Layers: A good base layer is SO important. I brought a full set (top and bottom) by Odlo which had a ruched neck that pulled overhead and doubled as a face mask. The Smartwool layers were great too.
Other Layers: The key to staying warm is layering, layering, layering. At night, I would wear my base layers, pants, my Kjus mid-layer, a puffy vest by Mountain Hardwear, and my puffy jacket by Patagonia.
"All the things": You may think it’s overkill when you’re packing it in, but all the little things—hat, gloves, beanie, neck/face warmer, etc.—are just as important as the layers.
5. Get permits early!
This really should be the most important tip listed. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me after seeing my photos and have said something like “Oh, I can’t wait to go! We’re thinking about going later this year.” And I hate being the bearer of bad news and explaining that permits are required—and likely already sold out—when they say they haven’t gotten a permit yet. Often times they don’t even know that a permit is required and even though they might be tentatively planning on going later this year, they’ll face a rude awakening when they find out that the permits went on sale and sold out just a few days ago.
So if you’re hoping to go to Havasupai anytime soon, mark your calendar for February 1 of next year so that you can be ready to purchase permits when they go on sale. Campground reservations for all arrival dates from March 1, 2021 and onwards will become available on February 1, 2021 after 8:00 a.m. (Arizona time) at HavasupaiReservations.com
Pro Tip: Register early at HavasupaiReservations.com so you can save time doing it the morning permits go on sale.
If you’re still holding out hopes of going this year, head to the website and book NOW. I checked early this morning for two people, and it only had ONE date available: Nov. 4. You can get on a cancellation list though, so you can add your name to your preferred date and hope that someone cancels.
6. You need a good pair of hiking boots.
Well, duh. You obviously need hiking boots. But what’s most important is that you wear comfortable, well-made and well-fitted hiking boots that have been broken in. Since the entirety of the hike coming in is down hill, you will want boots that are about a half size bigger, and big enough so that you can wear a thick wool sock. Something waterproof is recommended and leather is great for durability. Be sure to spend time breaking in before your trip if your boots are new.
I recently purchased pair of Zamberlan Vioz Lux GTX RR Hiking Boots in “Waxed Green”, and they are not only a pretty attractive hiking boot but they are super durable, very comfortable, required little to no break in time, and are very clearly well made. They have a price tag to match though: they retail for $345. I took advantage of a holiday sale at REI and paid about $200 instead, so I got a great deal. If you're looking for something more affordable, try the Salomon Women's Quest Backpacking Boot or the Salomon Women's X Ultra 3 Hiking Boot.
7. No need to bring iodine tablets.
Yes, you can drink the water at the camp. There is no need to bring iodine tablets. “Fern Spring”, located at the beginning of the campsite, has fresh, drinkable water where you won’t need a filter or iodine tablets. Choose your campsite wisely, as your close proximity to this water source will make your life more convenient. We chose a spot closer to the end by the top of Mooney Falls—which was really quite beautiful and worked well for our large group—but we were nearly a mile away from the water source, which meant many long walks back and forth to the spring. After you’ve hiked 10+ miles in the first day, another 8 to Beaver Falls, and back and forth to Supai, you probably won’t want the extra distance on your feet just to get water. If I go again, I’ll probably choose a spot closer to the beginning of the camp.
8. Definitely use trekking poles.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe I ever considered not bringing these. The trekking poles completely saved my joints, and I’m 100% certain the hike—both in and out—was made so much easier by using these.
If you have bad joints or have ever had a knee injury, trekking poles are a must. Because the trek in and out is so steep (2,800 feet in elevation, either up or down!), you’ll need trekking poles to save your knees, hips, quads, glutes and calves. I actually found out I had a torn labrum in my hip the day before we were set to hike out, so I’m thankful I had the trekking poles. They saved my life!
If you focus on using your arms and your core to propel you forward (or conversely, stop you from going down too fast), it not only helps save your joints but can make your pack feel lighter. I will never do another long hike again without them.
9. Bring Neoprene Socks.
This is a pretty important one because of the above-noted recommendation. Again, you will be going in and out of streams several times on the hikes—sometimes even above the knee—so wearing neoprene socks
inside your water shoes helps prevent blisters, keep your feet warm, and allow your feet to feel dry when you’re not in the water.
I brought an extra silk liner, and used it inside my neoprene socks because they were a little big. This helped prevent blisters and kept my feet comfortable on the 8 mile hike to Beaver Falls and back. You can actually see my neoprene socks and the liner I wore in this photo. It wasn’t very attractive but I sure was comfortable!
10. Bring a professional camera or GoPro.
It would be a shame not to be able to capture the beauty of Havasupai on film or video. I brought two GoPros with me, and I’m glad I did because of all the water. In hindsight, it would have also been worth it to bring my Nikon but I made do with my GoPro Max, GoPro Hero 8 and my iPhone 11.
The photos really don’t do this place justice, so arm yourself with the best camera gear possible. Trust me when I say you will want to document the beauty of this place.
11. You need a good trekking backpack.
This too seems like an obvious one, but if you’ve never backpacked before, you’ll need to know a few things before purchasing one:
Men's vs. Women's: One size does not fit all. Our bodies are just made differently, plain and simple. If you’re female, be sure to get a women’s pack, as they are designed to sit on the hips differently than a men’s pack. A good pack is designed to distribute weight onto your hips, taking the weight off of your back, so it’s important that it falls in the right spot. A women’s pack will also ensure it fits you correctly.
How padded are the straps? Comfortable, padded straps are a key part of the equation. You don’t want the straps digging into your shoulders.
Can you adjust the harness? If you’re either really tall or really short, you’ll need to make sure the harness is adjustable. This will make a big difference in your comfort level on the trail.
Does it have a hip belt? Again, a good pack is designed to distribute weight onto your hips rather than your back. So a hip belt is a must. Don’t even consider buying one without a hip belt.
Is a rain cover included? If rain is in the forecast, you’ll need one. I had some difficulty finding the right size rain cover at REI (my pack didn’t come with one) and the weekend before our trip they were all sold out of the 60L covers (with 40L being too small and 80L being too big). Thankfully we didn’t need it, but we got lucky.
Are the side pockets easily accessible or angled? My only complaint about my pack is that the exterior side pockets—where you put your water—are vertical rather than angled forward, making it nearly impossible to put my water back into my pack without the help of someone else. Now, mine has a place for a bladder, so if you are using a bladder this becomes less important, but the packs with exterior pockets that are angled forward make it a lot easier to retrieve and replace your water bottle while the pack is on your back.
Are there a lot of exterior pockets? You’ll want to be able to have some items easily accessible on the trail, so exterior pockets are important.
Does the back panel have a breathable barrier? You’re going to sweat—a lot, whether you’re hiking in the winter or summer—so a breathable mesh barrier is key.
Is it expandable or come with a detachable lid? This isn’t a necessity but a nice perk. My pack by Deuter not only expands from 45L to 55L, allowing for extra space, but the lid is detachable for day hikes.
Are there plenty of clips and cinch straps? Having a multitude of clips and/or cinch straps is important so you can clip things to the exterior portion of your bag, like a sleeping mat, your sleeping bag, or other bulky items.
12. Bring a dual solar lantern and USB charger.
There are a bunch of different brands who make these, but be sure to bring one of those multipurpose solar lanterns that can charge stuff too. I love this little gadget because it is multipurpose, is lightweight, and is something you end up using more than you think. I have the Luci Pro Outdoor Inflatable Solar Light and mobile charging station by MPOWERD,
inflates to create a lantern with four functions (bright, brighter, brightest and flashing) and also has a USB charger for your gadgets.
There are plenty of options out there for inflatable solar lanterns, but few have the USB charger. Keep your eye out for one that can charge your gadgets as well as provide light at night.
13. Hire a mule… or don’t?
Don’t want to carry all your stuff in or out? Well, there are donkeys for hire if you prefer. Pack mules are available, but must be reserved in advance of your trip. They cost $400 and can carry up to four bags.
A bit of a warning though: it’s largely frowned upon by the backpacker community to use the pack mules. If you can’t or won’t carry your own shit in and out, well then you probably shouldn’t be backpacking into Havasupai. There are at least a half a dozen accounts here on Instagram advocating for the cessation of horse and pack mule use by the Havasupai people, citing abuse, improper treatment of the animals, and causing deaths. I’m not in this camp because I think the Havasupai people should maintain their autonomy (and therefore be able to do what they’ve been doing for hundreds of years), but I’m just putting the information out there so people can make the decision for themselves and be informed.
Put simply: it’s better to avoid hiring the pack mules if you can. Plus, it’s a pretty great feeling of accomplishment when you do pack your own stuff in and out the 20 miles.
One group we met carried their stuff in and hired pack mules to carry their gear and their trash up the hill on their way out. We also saw a family with young kids (including an infant), who clearly hired the mules to carry their stuff in and out.
14. Stay as close to the trailhead as you can the night before.
We stayed at the Hualapai Lodge, which is about an hour and a half from the trailhead. We got 3 rooms, each with two queen beds to share, for the 12 of us. The beds were comfortable and the rooms were surprisingly nice, actually—much nicer than I had anticipated. We took advantage of the WiFi (with zero service only about an hour into our drive, and the last ability to get connected) and free coffee to go.
15. Bring a good headlamp.
I say “good” headlamp because not all headlamps are created equally. When purchasing a headlamp, take note of lumens, beam type and brightness modes, beam distance, run time and whether or not it is waterproof.
Lumens: The term “lumens” is used to quantify the amount of light that is being put out at one time. Headlamps can range from 15 to 500 lumens and more, so the numbers can seem daunting. A headlamp in the 200 range is fine, but if you want a good one, aim for something higher than 300.
Beam Type/Brightness Mode: Most headlamps have two beam types: wide and spotlight. Some headlamps also have different modes, which can include any of the following: flashing or strobe for emergencies, different levels of brightness, or red light (which is good when you’re trying not to disturb others).
Beam Distance: is exactly how it sounds. How far your headlamp will project the light is important depending on the activity you’re engaging in. For hiking or just walking in the dark, beam distance isn’t as important, but if you are cycling or running, for example, it would be.
Run Time: Basically, you don’t want the thing to die on you. Make sure that it will last you a few days without having to change the battery.
Waterproof: If you find yourself having to climb the rocks at Mooney Falls at dark, you will thank yourself for getting a waterproof headlamp, as the spray from the waterfall can get you pretty wet. A waterproof headlamp for Havasupai isn’t necessary, but can be a bonus feature.
16. Bear cans or Ratsacks.
Those little critters are CRAFTY. The squirrels, raccoons, mice and other critters are relentless! You’d be surprised what they can get into. They will eat through your gear to get anything scented: food, lip balm, lotion, trash and even wet wipes.
Don’t forget ropes to string these in the trees and carabiners to easily hang and remove the ransacks each time you retrieve your food.
Though some leave bear cans behind so they don’t have to carry them out, don’t rely on there being stuff waiting at the camp for you, especially if you are one of the first of the season. There is also no guarantee that on a busy weekend there will be any available.
17. Bring grip gloves and a microfiber towel.
If you want to do the hike to Beaver Falls or to the Confluence (or if you just want to get to the bottom of Mooney Falls), you will need to get down the chains and slippery steps at Mooney Falls. Bring grip gloves, as getting down the rocks is sketchy AF and slipping is the last thing you want to be worried about!
You’ll also want to bring a microfiber towel if you plan to get in the water. I mean, you’re hiking to one of the most famous swimming holes in the United States, so there’s probably a chance you will get wet! A good microfiber towel is lightweight, quick drying, absorbent and pack into a small space.
18. Give yourself extra time to hike out.
This should go without saying, but no matter how in shape you are in, it will take you longer to hike out than coming in. The last mile+ of the trail is straight up hill, more than 1000 feet in elevation, so the incline will definitely slow you down.
The day we hiked out, we left camp at 8:30 am and got to Supai around 9:45 (note that our campsite was almost all the way at the end of the campground, near Mooney Falls). We hiked 11 miles total from the camp to the top, climbed bout 2500 ft in elevation and arrived to the top at 1:30. Some of the girls in our group got to the top at 2 pm.
So, if like us you have a flight back home the evening of your hike out, plan to give yourself about a half hour to an hour more than what it took you to get in.