When I was a kid, a scene I saw in an old western movie absolutely terrified me: A man died a slow death by sinking in quicksand. It was a typical Hollywood-style quicksand drama—a cowboy slowly sinks deeper and deeper until the only thing left is his hat lying on the sand. 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.
Fast forward to a few years ago, when I was hiking in Capitol Reef National Park with a friend who grew up in southern Utah. Most of our hike involved going in and out of a creek, and as we walked through the shin-deep water, my foot suddenly sank about five inches down. 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, man-eating sand is one danger you probably don’t need to worry much about. However, there are some desert hiking hazards you need to take seriously.
Heat and Dehydration
In the Southwest’s canyon country, summers 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. Many trails follow exposed slickrock areas: no trees = no shade. The sun and dry air can cause rapid dehydration, and each year visitors die or require rescue because they didn’t 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: Bring enough water for all members of your party (a minimum of two quarts of water per person, per day). Hike early in the morning or in the evening hours before dark.
Although it’s against national park regulations, you’ll likely see someone climbing on an arch or natural bridge. 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. According to accident reports, falls are the leading cause of death in national parks. In 2019 the Grand County Search and Rescue team in Moab, Utah, responded to 134 incidents. Many falls happen when people are taking photos. When you’re focused on looking through your camera, it’s easy to start edging too close to the drop-off without even realizing it.
Safety Tips: Keep a safe distance from cliff edges, especially when taking photos. Don’t try to climb on or walk across arches or natural bridges.
In the narrow canyons and washes of the desert Southwest, flash flooding poses an ever-present danger, particularly during the summer monsoon season (June-September). 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. On June 23, 2022, flash floods roared through sections of Capitol Reef National Park, including the popular hiking route Grand Wash. The floods washed away several vehicles and stranded dozens of hikers who couldn’t get back to the trailhead.
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 desert hiking in canyon country often involves traversing slickrock by following rock cairns—piles of stones or rocks that steer 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. If you suddenly realize you’ve gotten off trail, try to backtrack to the last cairn you saw and then get your bearings again. It’s also 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.
A Word about Solo Hiking
I’ve been solo traveling and hiking for years. 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 a long time or possibly spending the night there. 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 you’re missing and where to look for you.
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.
Images and text ©Laurie J. Schmidt, All Rights Reserved