Friday, April 12, 2013

Play it safe on Grand Canyon hiking trails

South Kaibab Trail; photo courtesy NPS
With spring’s arrival, hiking trails across Grand Canyon National Park are opening. Many of these trails head into the backcountry and go up and down steep canyon sides. Still, a small segment of any of the trails can be done as a day hike.

Whether doing a day hike or a backcountry hike, though, the Grand Canyon’s many trails always should be taken seriously. The park annually averages around 400 medical emergencies on trails while about 250 people need to be rescued (which the rescued hiker gets billed for, by the way).

That shouldn’t frighten you from enjoying the Grand Canyon’s impressive trails, though. By being aware of the challenges these trails pose, you can prepare ahead to tackle them and make smarter decisions when hiking.

Among those challenges:
g High altitude – There’s less oxygen when you’re 7,000-8,000 feet above the sea level, so catching your breath will be more difficult while taking trails back up to the rim. You’ll want to set a slow pace and take frequent rests.
g Steep trails – Many trails involve large elevation changes and so require difficult switchbacks. A slow pace away from the cliff edge is smart. Plan to walk no more than about 2 mph going down a trail and about 1 mph going up. Bring energy bars to give you a little boost.
g Limited shade – While a few trails head through the rim forest, most are under an intense, direct sun. Always wear a wide-brimmed hat, polarizing sunglasses, sunscreen, and an SPF lip balm.
g Hot desert summer – During summer, rim temperatures can hit 90 degrees F while the canyon floor tops 100 degrees F. Dehydration is a significant danger, so drink plenty of water and bring high sodium snacks such as nuts, pretzels and jerky. Consider hiking the trails in spring and autumn when temperatures generally are more moderate.
g Crowds – Among the most popular of the national parks, you may find some trails resemble an expressway more than a wilderness excursion. To avoid, opt for visiting the less crowded North Rim instead of the South Rim.

Another way to play it safe: Take a ranger-led hike. Such hikes usually move at a slow pace, and there’s a park ranger to help if danger arises. The hikes are offered year round on the South Rim and June-October on the North Rim.

Read more about day hiking the Grand Canyon in my Hittin’ the Trail: Day Hiking Grand Canyon National Park guidebook.