Sometimes you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’ve done it. Like surviving a 200-mile river rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, for instance. The 9 day journey—which was run by Outdoors Unlimited—involved braving massive rapids, hiking through the high desert, and living at the bottom of America’s most gobsmacking geographic landmark. I walked out of that canyon with a deep tan and a massive sense of accomplishment, as well as the following hard-earned lessons.

 

The weather is unpredictable: Welcome to the land of fire and ice, said our guide, and it didn’t take long for me to grasp what he meant. Temperatures in the Grand Canyon range from 60 to 115 degrees, and the river water averages a brisk 48 to 50 degrees. Cotton became my biggest frenemy—the slow drying material is great for evaporative cooling, but if the sun disappeared behind a cloud I’d rapidly find myself blue-lipped and shivering. On the other hand, there were windy desert nights where I felt like I was trying to sleep in a giant, infernal hairdryer.

 

Always pitch a tent: As we’ve just established, the weather is unpredictable. While you can and should sleep in the open under the stars (and, by the way, prepare to see more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life), you’ll be glad to have shelter nearby when it starts raining at 3am. If you do get caught in the rain without a tent, your best bet is to employ a move known as the Burrito, which involves wrapping yourself in a tarp or groundsheet and pretending not to notice that the foot of your sleeping bag is getting damp.

 

Tie everything down: Grand Canyon rapids are huge, which means it’s very likely you’ll end up going for a surprise swim at some point. Make sure you have straps on your sunglasses, a chinstrap on your hat, carabiners on your water bottles, and that your GoPro or camera is secured. It’s also not a bad idea to have some kind of cord attached to your personal soap bar in case your husband loses it in the river on the second day.

Respect the river: Like all adventure sports, the thrill of whitewater rafting is not without its risks. We ran more than 50 rapids without incident, but on a particularly difficult one 6 people were thrown out of their raft. Nobody was in the water for more than a minute and for many it was the trip’s most dramatic highlight. However, one person was so traumatized that it was 24 hours before they could pick up a paddle again, and unfortunately another injured their knee so badly they couldn’t walk for days.

 

Clean is a relative term: Wet wipes, hand sanitizer and camping soap are essential, but it’s important to recognize at the outset that while you can get clean-er, you cannot really get clean. The murky brown river is where we wash our bodies and our dishes, but it’s also where we urinate and dump the camp’s wastewater. (And get drinking water, once it’s been properly treated.) The cleanest you’ll ever feel on this trip is right after you rinse off in a waterfall, which you’ll have the opportunity to do almost daily. But don’t kid yourself: you’re still as grubby as the rest of us.

 

Dehydration can ruin your day: It goes without saying that when you’re spending time in the desert, you need to make sure you’re drinking plenty of fluids. But I’m saying it anyway because, as I discovered on two separate occasions, it’s surprisingly easy to become dehydrated even when you’re being vigilant. Guzzling gallons of water simply doesn’t cut it, you have to supplement with electrolyte drinks or risk getting sick on the river—not an ideal scenario when your bathroom consists of an army surplus ammo tin with a toilet seat attached.

 

The canyon is an outdoor classroom: Our guides were constantly schooling us, both on and off the river. While hiking down the many side canyons that branch off the main one, we learned about the geological mystery of the Great Unconformity and about the Ancestral Puebloan Indians who lived in the area more than a thousand years ago. I now know the difference between a petroglyph and a pictograph, and can identify at least two constellations in the night sky. And given a piece of duct tape, I will de-cactus a pair of pants with the brusque efficiency of a Russian bikini waxer.

There’s no “i” in “all forward:”Paddling isn’t about brawn (much to my relief), it’s actually about teamwork. The boat moves most effectively when everyone paddles as a unit, taking each stroke in unison and following the guide’s precise instructions. If you slack off or flex too hard, you will be immediately identified as the weak link since everyone else will have to compensate. And being an uncooperative A-hole will come back to haunt you when you’re running low on sunscreen and beer on day 7 of the trip.

River guides are a special breed: It’s a singular type of person that eschews job security and a steady paycheck, and chooses instead to wear the same pair of shorts for a week and get regular fungal foot infections. These guys love what they do, and to be a guide on the Grand Canyon, they have to be really good at it too. River guides are imminently capable people who possess technical river skills, leadership and communication skills, medical and culinary training, a great way with people and a damn good attitude. They also tell terrible jokes and have an extensive mental inventory of time-wasting games.

 

It’s not an easy trip, but we had it easy: When John Wesley Powell mounted an expedition to explore the unmapped canyon in 1869, he spent three months running the river in a wooden oar boat, nearly drowning and starving along the way. While we had all the benefits of modern technology (such as drops that will magically turn a bucket of silty river water into purified, drinkable H2O), we also had guides that catered to our every need. And we ate better than most of us are accustomed to at home. We’re talking fresh coffee, fruit and yoghurt, and a hot breakfast every morning; and three-course dinners featuring things like tuna steaks and burgers each night. Sure, we were dirty, tired, and my entire body was covered in heat rash. But this was backcountry glamping, if such a thing exists, and our suffering was of the most pampered sort.

Photo Credit: Ariel Jankelson