When I was a kid back in the early 60s, I was terrified by a scene I saw in an old western movie. I watched a grown man die a slow death by sinking in quicksand. It was a typical Hollywood-style quicksand drama…a cowboy slowly sinks deeper and deeper until he’s blowing sand bubbles, and then the only thing that’s left is his hat. In south Florida, where I grew up, we had alligators, sharks, and hurricanes. But as a six-year-old, I couldn’t imagine anything worse than being swallowed alive by liquid sand.
A few weeks ago, I was hiking in Capitol Reef National Park with a friend who lives in that area. Most of our hike involved going in and out of a creek, and as we waded through the shallow water, my foot suddenly sunk about five inches in the sand. Immediately, my brain flashed an image of the incredible sinking cowboy—quicksand! My friend had a good laugh when I told her about the movie scene that traumatized me as a child, and she assured me that it’s next-to-impossible to completely sink in quicksand. So, that’s one danger you don’t need to worry much about in Utah canyon country. But here are five desert hiking hazards that you should take seriously:
In the narrow canyons and washes of the desert Southwest, flash flooding poses an ever-present danger, particularly during the summer monsoon season (July-September). This is not the type of flood where the water rises gradually. A storm can send a flash flood roaring through a canyon 50 miles downstream, even if conditions directly above the canyon are dry and sunny. Both visitors and guides alike have been killed by flash floods in canyon country—as recently as September 2015, when a group of hikers lost their lives in a slot canyon in Zion National Park. If you decide to explore narrow canyons, your safest bet is to go with a reputable guide or outfitter.
Safety Tips: Always check the weather forecast before hiking in canyons or washes. Never enter a wash or narrow canyon if rain threatens. Explore slot canyons with an experienced guide.
When most people think of a hiking trail, they picture a nice easy-to-follow dirt path. But in Utah canyon country, at least part of the trail will usually involve traversing slickrock by following rock cairns—piles of stones or rocks that lead you in the right direction. The desert landscape can be very deceiving; off you go on a hiking adventure, and before you know it you’ve lost track of the cairns and you’re disoriented. And everything around you looks exactly the same. If you suddenly realize you’ve gotten off trail, just backtrack to the last cairn you saw and continue from there. It can also be helpful to occasionally turn around and look at the view behind you to identify landmarks, so you’ll know which direction you should be heading when returning.
Safety Tips: Avoid taking detours and venturing off the trail. Keep yourself oriented by always checking your surroundings. Make sure someone knows where you’re going.
Heat and Dehydration
Summers in Utah’s canyon country are very hot and dry, with temperatures often climbing above 100 degrees. Add to this the extreme lack of humidity, and it doesn’t take long for the desert sun to suck the moisture out of your body. In July 2006, temperatures in Moab reached 116 degrees—the record high for the area. Many trails follow exposed slickrock areas: no trees = no shade. The sun and the extremely dry air can cause rapid dehydration, and each year visitors die or need to be rescued because they failed to take enough water with them. Take more than you think you need; believe me, it will be worth the small amount of extra weight in your backpack.
Safety Tips: Take enough water for all members of your party (a minimum of two quarts of water per person, per day). Hike in the morning or early evening hours.
Although it’s against national park regulations, you’ll probably see people climbing on arches and natural bridges. In a word, don’t. When I see people walking across the top of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, I always assume they must have temporarily lost their peripheral vision and the ability to see what’s below them—lots of air. People fall to their deaths every year in Utah canyon country. In 2013 the Grand County Search and Rescue team in Moab dealt with 93 incidents, including eight fatalities. Use common sense when exploring. You really can live without the photo of yourself standing on the edge of an abyss.
Safety Tips: Keep a safe distance from cliff edges when taking photos. Don’t climb on arches or natural bridges. Hold on to your little ones near cliffs and overlooks.
A Word about Hiking Solo
Some people will disagree with me on this, but I’m not going to say don’t ever hike alone. I personally think solo hiking is one of the best things you can do for the soul. However, when you take off alone, you assume an additional risk: if something happens to you–even a minor sprained ankle–there’s nobody there to help you or go for help. And if you’re on a trail that’s not well-traveled, you could be waiting for a long time, including possibly spending the night there. So, if you decide to head out on your own, make sure somebody knows where you’re going and when to expect you back. If something happens to you on the trail, your chance of survival dramatically increases if someone knows where you went.
Safety Tips: Always let someone know where you’re going and give them a deadline time for expecting you back. Carry extra water, snacks, and warm clothing.