Ready for something stunningly beautiful and completely different—a change in pace from your regular backpacking? Consider a non-technical backpacking trip in one of Utah’s many canyons: gems like Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, the Zion Narrows, or Grand Gulch. And those are just the some big name canyons for starters. The list of equally superb but lesser known canyons that await you in the Southwest U.S. goes on and on. The Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument may alone have a lifetime’s worth of superb canyons and side-canyons to explore. Many may have only a few visitors every 10 years.
Many beautiful canyons are low risk. One can simply walk in and out.
Contrary to the hype of high adventure and disaster in technical slot canyons, with flash floods, freezing water, and amputating arms—many beautiful “backpacking” canyons are non-technical and low risk. One can simply hike in and out—no rope needed.
The best place to backpack!
As you might guess, I believe that the desert canyons of the Southwest offer some of the best “backpacking” in the lower 48 States. These canyons are stunningly beautiful and except for a few, lightly traveled. My wife and I find the sparse beauty and solitude of desert canyons a deeply spiritual place. One that draws us back year after year for their peace and serenity.
Canyoneering is mountain climbing in reverse. Rather than striving for the highest point to look down, you are in the bottom of a canyon with the world above you. It is a more intimate and enfolding way of viewing your surroundings than when you stand on a mountain top. The good news is that many of your backpacking skills will work for canyoneering. But there are some things that will be new and different. Here are a few to consider.
Canyoneering can be technical and non-technical
Non-technical canyoneering, or what I call “backpacking canyoneering/canyon backpacking” is low risk and similar in difficulty to regular backpacking. You don’t need a rope. In some canyons you might need to do occasional calf-deep wading, a fun but safe scramble, or a light bushwack. But nothing to get excited about. Technical canyoneering with ropes and rock climbing will not be discussed in this article.
When to go, what to take
Most of the year it is too cold or too hot to backpack in the canyons. Most canyons in Utah have a short season, the middle of spring (mid-March to mid-May) and middle of fall (October-November). Here’s a link to a couple of Gear Lists that are good for backpacking/non-technical canyoneering.
There is a lower risk of flash floods in most “backpacking” canyons - most of the better known “backpacking” canyons are not slot canyons. As such, they are less prone to sudden and devastating flash floods. Yes, a slight risk of a flash flood (or more likely just high water) still exists in almost any canyon, so you still need to be aware of the weather. Water levels may rise considerably during the rare big storm, but usually not so fast or so high that you won’t have time to find suitable high ground. They will also recede quickly. (Buckskin Gulch is the exception big name canyon, but the Ranger’s won’t give you a permit for Buckskin if there is the slightest chance of a flash flood.)
Start small and build
Take some canyon day-trips and expand your skills—locating canyon entrances, finding and managing drinking water, walking through sand, river wading, bushwhacking—generally learning how to make intelligent and efficient progress in a desert environment. Even two or three canyon day-trips will give you great insight to prepare for and execute your first multi-day canyoneering trip. Oh, and day-tripping in canyons is great fun!
Guidebooks to get you started
Steve Allen has the best and most respected series of guidebooks on canyoneering in Utah. While some of his trips are technical, there are plenty of non-technical trips. And his general advice about canyoneering is among the best for both the non-technical and technical traveler. I have used the Falcon Guide “Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region” for canyons that Steve Allen doesn’t cover like Buckskin Gulch, Paria Canyon, and Grand Gulch. The guide’s specific information on the canyons is adequate but I would defer to Allen for general information on Utah and canyoneering.
There are many joys of walking the high benches above canyons—fabulous slickrock, big vistas, and intimate camping in remote side canyons that may only see a few visitors every 10 years. But traveling above the canyon is usually more challenging than traveling the canyon bottom with difficult navigation, hard to find entrances and exits, potentially technical sections and a likelihood of impassible side canyons and slots blocking forward travel.
How to pack the right clothing
The desert can be a hot, scratchy, prickly place with intense sun. Hiking in shorts, short sleeves and hatless is a terrible idea! Complete clothing coverage is better. Wear long pants (OR Ferrosi Convertible), a long-sleeve shirt (OR Wayward L/S), and a hat with complete sun coverage (OR Sun Runner Cap) including neck and ears. Light smooth fabrics (like thin nylon) slide easily through brush, absorb little sweat/water and dry quickly. Apply strong sunscreen to unprotected areas like hands.
Boots are not needed. Instead, take trail runners. Fine mesh outer fabric is best. It slows sand entry but lets water drain quickly after wading. (Beware, large mesh lets too much sand in.) Gore-Tex shoes do poorly. They are too hot, do not breathe well and don’t drain water after wading.
Don't let the generalization of water scarcity prevent you from planning a trip
Most backpackers will find that water, or lack of it, is not as big an issue as many knowledgeable professionals make it out to be. See: “The Best Hydration – Drink When Thirsty.” Many of the better known canyons have well documented water sources and you’ll know how far it will be to your next good water. As such, you won’t be humping a ton of water or in dire risk of dehydration. My wife and I, over the last 15 years, have routinely carried far, far less than the recommended gallon of water. We have yet to go dry or thirsty. Note: Most canyon river/stream water, if it’s running at all, is too silty and hard with minerals to make good drinking. You’ll get most of your water from springs and from the few clear-drinkable sources of canyon river/streams. For treatment, I prefer the Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System.
Pay attention to navigation
Canyon navigation is different than other backpacking areas. It takes a bit of getting used to. (Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it over time.) There are no signs, no blazes and almost no trails. One might think it's simply a matter of following the canyon bottom like a train on its tracks. But to the initiated, walking in the bottom of a many branched canyon can be more like navigating a hedge maze. At the bottom of a canyon you have limited visibility and to the uninitiated the main canyon can be almost indistinguishable from its many side canyons. It's much easier that you think to walk by and miss your exit ramp or exit side canyon. Over time you’ll get more observant, and pay better attention to small details.
Travel in many canyon bottoms is a combination of river walking/wading, bushwhacking through willows (easier) and tamarisk (harder), and sandy bench walking. There is no “right” route: you just figure out what works for you.
Make use of an emergency contact
Much of Utah is remote like few other place in the lower 48. Hikers are hard to see or locate in the canyons, and there may be few or no other hikers to happen by if you are in trouble. Make sure you have your trip itinerary filed with an emergency contact monitoring your trip. I strongly recommend you consider a device like a Delorme inReach (preferred) or a SPOT.
For those feeling more adventurous
Proceed with caution! Even small, seemingly insignificant up-climbs or down-climbs of just 8-10 feet might be irreversible, forcing you to move on without a retreat. If you do decide to do more adventurous scrambling, a 40-foot, 6-7 millimeter rope can be a huge help to raise or lower backpacks. Without a backpack on, members of your party can more easily balance and safely climb short sections that would be otherwise impassible. This can greatly expand where you can go in canyons. Again, use caution and always err on the side of safety when “climbing” in the canyons.
Flash Flood risk for less well traveled canyons: some moderately narrow “backpacking” canyons off the beaten path, may be more at risk for serious flash floods. These are not usually the big name canyons with lots of travelers. Choprock Canyon in the Escalante Grand Staircase is an example of moderately narrow “backpacking” canyon more at risk for flash floods. Be safe out there!