Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Hiking Safety in the Virgin River

The Zion Narrows are a beautiful place and they are one of the most sought after hikes in Zion National Park. Many people come to Zion and are ill prepared for the conditions of the river. That is one of the many reason that our shop opened it’s doors, we want people to be able to explore the narrows in a safe and comfortable fashion.

Every day  we have people walk into our shop and ask us if their sandals are the right thing to wear or if their  tennis shoes will be ok.  While thousands of people hike the narrows every year barefoot or in sandals, this leads to much discomfort.  Improper footwear leads to ankle sprains,broken bones, foot entrapment and blisters. I’m sure the Zion Search and Rescue Team would prefer not to hike up a river to rescue someone who decided they could hike sandals.

A little know fact about Zion SAR is if your injury is not life threatening they will not come save you for 24 hours. This means that your friends or concerned citizens will more than likely be the ones assisting you out of The Narrows. Not only will you be uncomfortable the whole time you are putting other people at risk. If others are supporting your weight and caring for you as they walk they could trip, fall and injure themselves while at the same time dropping you which could lead to you sustaining more injury.

I truly hope that you readers understand this is a worst case scenario type of thing, but it does happen,  on a daily basis I see someone limping out of The Narrows. I’m not trying to scare people off or say you must rent the proper attire or else. I am just a very safety oriented person and the best way to get peoples attention and think about their own safety is to be brutally honest.

To be blunt if your footwear was the right thing to wear that is what we would be renting. You would not wear cross country ski boots to go snowboarding, so why would you wear trail running shoes or sandals to go canyoneering?

For those of you who would like to argue that hiking in The Narrows is not canyoneering I have a few things to say. The Narrows may not be a technical canyon route, but according to the standardized canyon rating system you are going in to a 1 CIII. For those of you who do not understand the Canyon Rating System I will define each character.

Class 1 canyon: Non-technical; no rope required. May involve some easy scrambling requiring the occasional use of hands for balance and support. Travel is possible up or
down canyon.
Class C canyon: Normally has water with current. Waterfalls. Expect to do some deep wading and/or swimming in current. Wetsuit or drysuit may be required depending on
water and air temperatures.

III: Normally requires most of a day

Due to the fact that the majority of people only spend a half day or less the canyon could be rated a 1 CII for more info on canyon rating systems follow the link. http://www.canyoneering.net/docs/ratings.pdf

There are many online blogs and social media sites that tell people all you need to hike The Narrows are some water shoes and a trekking pole. While that statement may be correct it is deceiving.  Things like aqua socks, teva sandals, keens etc… are not proper attire for hiking The Narrows. The reasons why are as follows.

  1. You are hiking on bowling ball sized sandstone cobbles. Not only is sandstone abrasive it is slippery when wet. Most water shoes soles were not designed with The Narrows in mind.  The traction you want on your “water shoes” is Stealth Rubber or Traxion. Stealth is what they use on rock climbing shoes and canyoneering boots.Traxion is used on Both canyoneering boots and approach shoes. If the shoe/boot you are looking to purchase for your trip to Zion does not have Stealth or Traxion on it, than the salesman at your local retail shoe shop does not know what he is talking about. There are two companies that use Stealth Rubber on their “water shoes” One of those companies is Adidas the other is 5.10, a company that Adidas owns.

  1. Ankle support and comfort are other key factor to walking in the Virgin River. Sandals do not have ankle support!  The cheap aquasock you bought at the grocery store does not have ankle support!  Neither one is comfortable and you will be stopping every 2 minutes to dig sand and pebbles out from under your foot. I maybe a little biased but I suggest the Adidas they last longer and are more comfortable. Trust me I have worn both over the last 5 years and have sent a thousands of people to The Narrows in the right boots and it is unanimous that Adidas make the most comfortable “water shoe”

  1. Trekking poles come in all shapes, sizes and materials and they are great for their designated purpose which is trekking. The Narrows however is not a trek it is a water hike. That being said water helps things like metal rust and most trekking poles have a metal spring or metal mechanism inside them to aid in adjusting the pole. If you do not take your pole apart after your hike and dry out the inside you may find on your next trek that your pole is rusted shut. Sand  will also find it’s
    1. way up inside your trekking poles internal mechanism, sand will also jam up your pole and when you twist the pole to extend it you might just break your internal mechanism. Last but not least most trekking poles will break under pressure, just jam one in between  to rocks than try to pry it out and, Voila! ,50% of the time your pole will snap. Smooth,sanded wooden hiking staffs are very sturdy and they come in one solid piece, therefore the chance of oak or hickory snapping in half is pretty minimal. Locally grown sticks/logs that you find along the Virgin River are soft and brittle not to mention full of splinters. A piece of wood stuck in your hand just might ruin your hike.

    Now that you have been given all this information let’s look at costs. A nice pair of trekking poles will run you around $100 and waterproof hiking boots or “water shoes” from your local outdoor shop will run you upwards of $100. If your nice new poles don’t get destroyed in the Narrows; will you hike in other rivers? if the answer is no, save your money for Zion souvenirs and just rent the right gear for $22 from any of the outfitters in Zion.

    Now let’s look at cheap gear. A cheap trekking pole will cost about $15 and since it was such a great price it was probably cheaply made which leaves it even more susceptible to breakage than the $100 trekking pole. A cheap pair of aqua socks run about $5-$10 and will get thrown away after the hike or will be discarded in some foliage off to the side of the river when the sandstone eats through the sole and you realize you’re better off barefoot.  For the exact same price you could have rented gear from any of the shops in Zion and had a more comfortable experience.

    If you are a starving student with an old pair of trekking poles and some beat up shoes you don’t care about sure go for it, but please keep the risks in mind.

    If you are a family with young children, think about how much whining happened in the car on the drive to Zion. Then think about putting those same kids in a cold river without hiking poles and proper footwear for 4-5 hours.