Backpacking: West Rim Trail of Zion National Park

I’ve been fortunate enough to make multiple trips to Zion National Park but haven’t been able to explore a whole lot of the park by foot. I always end up going with different people and always end up hiking Angels Landing (I think three times now) and maybe one other shorter trail during our quick stays. The guys over at Outdoor Vitals had permits to backpack the West Rim Trail (top-bottom) and were gracious enough to invite me along and I knew I had to make to the nine hour drive down to join them.

The West Rim Trail is about 16 miles running north and south through the park and is typically completed top-to-bottom and most people would drop their packs off and make the ‘outdoor detour’ up to Angels Landing before returning into the valley. Unfortunately, Zion experienced some very severe flash flooding during a recent storm, and the trail leading back to Angels Landing and the valley was completely closed, so we were completing this trip as a 18-mile RT out-and-back to backcountry site #4.

Since I was driving in from Denver and the Outdoor Vitals crew were making the short drive from their headquarters in Cedar City, Utah and there would be limited cell service at the trailhead, we set a rough time to meet at the trailhead and if either group couldn’t make it by then, we would simply meet at the trailhead.

No shortage of amazing views on the drive up Kolob Terrace Road.

No shortage of amazing views on the drive up Kolob Terrace Road.

The drive to the trailhead on Kolob Terrace Road and Lava Point Road was spectacular and exposed me to yet another part of Zion that I had never seen or explored before. The trailhead parking lot was just big enough for about tens vehicles max and there was no one present so I prepared my pack to make the hike out, not knowing if any of the vehicles there were the Outdoor Vitals crew.

I quickly geared up and hit the trail in hopes of catching up to the guys in case they were already on the trail. The trail started out flat and then stayed surprising flat. I guess I hadn’t fully examined the vertical chart, but the lack of elevation change allowed me to cruise by myself at “Randy Pace.” I completed the first five miles in a blistering 1hr 24min. It was a wildly unspectacular and flat five miles. I was not impressed.

Right at that five mile mark though, you catch your first glimpse of Zion’s beauty. There’s a perfect tree to get some coverage and rest and an absolute perfect scenic viewpoint looking west into Zion’s Potato Hollow.

You first scenic view on the trail is a good one!

You first scenic view on the trail is a good one!

After the viewpoint, the trail stays flat for some time and then steadily goes downhill. I hiked some truly unique terrain where a trail of fine desert sand travels through a field of wildflowers. It was very bizarre and undoubtedly beautiful. But this is where things took a turn for me.

Immediately following the beautiful field of sand and wildflowers, the trail starts climbing steeply and suddenly into a forested area. It’s at this point where my legs decided to stop working. I had been cruising through the flat desert at a blistering pace, and I think the lack of water and calories caught up to my body as soon as it had to do any real uphill work.

So uniquely awesome!

So uniquely awesome!

I carried around 3L of water for the trip, thinking that at least one of the four potential water sources I read about would provide me with all the additional water I might need during the desert hike. I was wrong. Zero water throughout, so I was forced to ration my water for the rest of the trip.

After struggling up the first of the two main uphills on the hike, I was welcomed with wide open sprawling views of Potato Hollow. I took plenty of breaks to take photos and catch my breath and soon realized that there are no roads (or developed trails) into the Potato Hollow area. So the only people that have really seen it are those who have hiked or backpacked the West Rim Trail to those viewpoints. Pretty wild to think that so few people have been fortunate enough to see those amazing views of Potato Hollow.

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Moments like this are exactly why I spend so much time exploring the great outdoors. I was so grateful in the moment that I had the physical capacity to get there and grateful that I even had to opportunity thanks to the invite from the Outdoor Vitals team.

The trail continues on the West Rim up one more hill toward the backcountry campsites, providing many more similarly amazing views of Potato Hollow. I arrived at campsite #4 to find that I had beaten the Outdoor Vitals team there. They had to go all the way to the West Zion entrance to obtain the backpacking permits, so I must have beaten them to the trailhead after all. I quickly set up my tent, took a few photos and videos, and took a short nap as I waited for the rest of the crew.

The other guys showed up about an hour after I did and staked out a wide variety of different set-ups. Dave set up a 1-person prototype tent that Outdoor Vitals is working on, but he went the minimalist route with just the footprint and rainfly. Derek opted for just his sleeping pad and sleeping bag under an A-frame rainfly/tarp. And joining them was Shawn who, like me, is a “social media influencer” (check out his YouTube channel) that was invited on the trip. Shawn was sporting an Outdoor Vitals hammock under a rainfly.

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All the guys were super friendly like-minded individuals. Just typing this out makes me realize that this was basically a blind-backpacking-dude-date (ahaha I’ll try anything twice!). We sat around resting our legs and sharing outdoor adventure trip stories and ideas while a deer perused around our campsite. When sunset was approaching, we grabbed our dinners and camera gear and made the short walk to the nearby scenic viewpoint. Unfortunately, it’s been an exceptionally bad year for wildfires and the thick smoke from California ruined any chance we had for a decent sunset.

As the sky darkened and clouds slowly rolled in, we were treated to quite the show of heat lightning. When there were breaks in the clouds, we pointed out satellites and planets, as Mars and Jupiter were easily identifiable this time of the year. We crashed early so we could get packed up early in the morning and beat the desert afternoon heat for the 9-mile hike out.

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We all slept well, had a quite bite for breakfast, and packed up even earlier than we expected. We cruised on out of there to beat the heat and were able to make it back out to the trailhead in about 3.5 hours. Nine miles before noon—not too shabby! Ice cold Gatorades awaited us and couldn’t have tasted any better! A quick change into flip-flops and we were on our way to our next campsite—at the developed Zion Canyon Campground just outside of the West Zion entrance in Springdale.

After driving into town and quickly setting up at the campground, we bought some adult beverages and Dave led us to a hidden swimming hole within Zion. Jumping off a large boulder into the swimming hole couldn’t have felt much better! A much needed rinse after too long hikes through the Utah desert the previous two days!

Dave found an alternate use for his Outdoor Vitals sleeping pad

Dave found an alternate use for his Outdoor Vitals sleeping pad

I was originally planning to spend the night with them and head back to Denver in the morning, but I once again decided to beat the heat by taking off just before sunset so I could start knocking out the nine hour drive. I made it to Colorado National Monument around 12:30am and decided to take some night shots there before sleeping in my truck and finishing the drive home in the morning.

Colorado National Monument

Colorado National Monument

Huge shout-out to the guys at Outdoor Vitals for inviting me along on the trip. So thankful to have the opportunity to backpack in Zion and explore more of the park. They continue to make some great gear so go check them out. Big thanks to Shaun for documenting the trip and for shouting me out in the video. He’s got a huge following on YouTube so go check out his trip videos and subscribe to his channel!

Beginners Guide To Buying Tents

 

Tents

So, you want to get into camping but don't know where to start. A good place would be your bedroom. You're going to need a place to sleep out in the wilderness, and it doesn't have to break the bank. It's way more likely that you'll stick to "car camping" (driving right up to a campsite) than backpacking (hiking into the wilderness carrying all your gear on your shoulders), so you don't need a super small or ultralight tent when starting out. In fact, I would suggest getting a bigger tent just so you have plenty of room and are comfortable starting out. However, if you really want to take the plunge and invest in this new camping hobby of yours, you'll have much more versatility with an ultralight backpacking tent.

SIZE: If you're buying a tent primarily for car camping, buy a size up for space and comfort. A 2-person (2p) tent will certainly fit 2-people, but space will be extremely tight, especially if you have a dog or prefer to keep your backpacks or other gear in the tent with you. We always use a 3-person tent when we car camp so we have plenty of space for an air mattress , which you'll be thanking yourself for if it rains and you're bunkered down in it for hours on end.

SEASON: You'll notice pretty much all tents are either advertised as 3-season or 4-season tents (the 4th season being winter). Unless you plan on mountaineering and sleeping on the tops of mountains or camping in the winter a lot, stick with a 3-season tent. The main differences you get with a 4-season tent are stability and insulation from the thicker walls. And as long as you're not expecting heavy winds or heavy snow, a 3-season tent can be used all year long. 

FOOTPRINTS: Not all tents will come with footprints (the vinyl tarp that lies under your tent to protect it from rain, dirt, and rocks), but you definitely need one. Marmot and Coleman tents typically include the footprint, most other companies sell one separately that is specific to the tent and will clip in to securely attach it to the frame. You can use a generic tarp, but it will be heavier, clunkier, and not nearly as secure.  

Best Beginner Tents

COLEMAN SUNDOME SERIES

I bought my first tent on Amazon in September 2013 when it was on sale for $34. Seriously, just $34 got me my first tent--the Coleman Sundome 2-Person Tent. Must be a piece of junk, right? That's where you'd be wrong! This thing is thick, it's heavy, and because of that, it's pretty damn bombproof and get's the job done, especially for a beginner camper! The rain-fly looks worrisome because it seemingly barely covers up the mesh walls, but I can tell you that I've been in a complete downpour all night long and stayed completely dry. If there was a lot of wind, we may not have been as lucky, but who knows. This tent has already exceeded my expectations, and for just $34 I can tolerate A LOT!

My first out-of-state camping trip with my Coleman Sundome 2 in Moab, Utah.

My first out-of-state camping trip with my Coleman Sundome 2 in Moab, Utah.

So for a beginner tent, I fully endorse these Coleman Sundome tents. I think they're at a perfect price point for beginner campers and provide tremendous value. If you'd like to spend a little bit more for a beginner tent, look at all the tents by ALPS Mountaineering. The ALPS 2-person Taurus, Meramac, and Lynx tents all come in under $100. And if you want to spend a little bit more, definitely check out the REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent.

Best Car-Camping Tents

MARMOT LIMELIGHT 3P

This thing is a beast. This has quickly become my favorite tent ever! The pre-bend frame pole design allows for an insane amount of headroom. The entire top half of the tent is mesh, which is a priority for me to have for stargazing on nice nights without the rain fly. Plenty of interior pockets and loops for hanging lights and storing gear. As usual it comes with the rainfly that creates a large vestibule on both side. One thing Marmot also does is include the much needed footprint, so make sure you factor that in when shopping around.

One side of the tent has a standard D-shaped door, but the other side has an absolutely massive double-door--easily my favorite feature of the tent. I mean just look at the view you can get with the door fully open!

The Marmot Limelight 3P's massive double-door is ideal for scenic views.

Best Backpacking Tents

The main differences with backpacking tents are weight and versatility. The lightest 2-person backpacking tents will come in between 2 and 3 pounds. Many of them also have an ultralight option, meaning that you can set up just the footprint and rainfly (yes, without actual the tent) for an ultralight backcountry shelter. 

REI QUARTER DOME SERIES

I didn't realize that REI manufactured some of their own in-house gear until I found their highly reviewed tents on their website. After some research and price comparisons, I settled on the REI Quarter Dome 1 that weighs in at just 2lbs 2oz with the rain-fly and footprint. It's been a great minimalist option for me in the backcountry and you can even use it just as the rain-fly and footprint (yes, without the tent!) if you want a real minimalist and lightweight option.

I liked the REI Quarter Dome 1 so much that I picked up a Quarter Dome 2 at one of REI's Garage Sale events (where they sell their returned products) so I would have a bigger backpacking tent to use if I was expecting rain and wanted more shelter or if I wanted to share a tent (snugly) with someone else. 

The REI Quarter Dome 1 is narrow and tight, but it's light as hell and perfect for backpacking.

I don't personally have experience with them, but the MSR Hubba Hubba NX is a favorite of backpacking tent used by at least four of my friends. I hear nothing but good things about many of the Big Agnes and Nemo backpacking tents as well. When backpacking, your number one priority should be weight. As long as you can fit yourself in the tent and your pack in the vestibule, that's really all you need for minimalist tent camping in the backcountry.

Happy trails!