Hiking A Slot Canyon: 101
The first time I ever experienced a slot canyon I was around 6 years old (maybe younger). My dad took us down the classic slots, Spooky and Peek-a-Boo, found down Hole in the Rock road, UT. I vividly remember, even though it was so many years ago, the unique twists and turns of the canyon and the holes in the walls we would hide in and jump out of to scare each other. Exploring those slots was more like adventuring through a playground or obstacle course rather that a hike and after that I was totally hooked.
I've now been down too many slot canyons to count, most of which are here in Utah, and I've had the chance to learn a lot about them. Each one has their own personality and challenges and no two slot canyons are the same. And while these slot canyons are majestic and serene, they have a side to them that can be ruthless and even murderous. Now I know that seems a bit extreme. Murder? Really? Yes, really. Like anything else though, knowing the dangers before hand greatly reduces the risk of running into any serious problems which is why I wanted to make this post about the basics of hiking slot canyons. Honestly, I feel a bit like its my duty to help you "know before you go" if I'm going to be sharing about these slots and encouraging your family to go on a slot canyon adventure of your own.
First things first, lets cover some terminology:
Slot Canyon: a deep and very narrow canyon.
We like to stay that it's only considered a "slot" or "crack" canyon if you can touch both sides of the canyon walls with your arms at some point in the canyon.
Technical Slot Canyon: a slot canyon that requires the use of technical gear such as a rope or a harness.
I won't be covering Technical canyoneering in this guide but I think it's important to know that there IS a difference. If you're looking to hike a slot, you need to know if it is a technical canyon or not. Obviously, don't do a technical slot unless you have the right gear, experience, and know self-rescue techniques.
Slot Canyon Do's and Don'ts
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Do your research BEFORE hiking. Different slot canyons hold different obstacles like down climbs, pot holes (more about those later), and water. You'll want to know what obstacles are expected in your slot so that you can be prepared for them. This is one of our favorite non-technical guide books for Utah and surrounding states. It's nice to have a hard copy of instructions to reference back to during your hike, don't try to do it all from memory.
Do check the weather BEFORE starting your hike. You do not want to be in a slot canyon when it's raining or going to rain. This is because of the risk of a flash flood happening while you're hiking. Flash floods are sudden floods that not only fill the canyon with water but also bring along with them debris. Like I had to explain to my kids, there is no "swimming" your way out of a flash flood. If it hits then you're in deep deep doo doo. Not only do you want to check the local weather but also the weather in surrounding areas as some slots are fed by washes hundreds of miles away. If you're in a slot canyon and you noticed dark clouds or that it's starting to rain then leave the canyon as quickly as possible or seek higher ground.
Do bring plenty of food and water (and electrolytes). I realize this is kind of a no brainer but as someone who has spent an unexpected night in a slot canyon I can't stress enough bringing MORE than you think you'll need. Which brings me to my next "do".
Do bring an emergency blanket and a first aid kit. Because of the nature of a slot canyon, injuries and hypothermia are more of a risk than your average hike. I've had to learn the hard way just how nice (and even life saving) an emergency blanket can be.
Don't wear your favorite hiking clothes or backpack. Most slot canyons are made from sandstone or another sedimentary rock which, as you can imagine, is a bit like giant walls of sand paper. You'll be doing lots of scooting and scraping to get around obstacles which is the perfect recipe for holes in your clothes and backpack. We have separate packs and pants for our canyoneering trips just for this reason.
Do wear shoes with good sticky rubber and covered toes. You'll be using a few different movement techniques to get yourself over and down different obstacles (don't worry I'll go over these later) and a good pair of shoes is going to go A LONG way to assist you. If you're going to be getting serious about canyoneering then we recommend getting some shoes like these or our favorite 5 Ten Canyoneer shoe.
Do know if your slot has a chance of water and be prepared to wade or swim through it. Either bring water shoes to change into or wear a shoe that's good for both hiking and swimming. You'll also want to bring along a dry bag to protect your gear depending on how deep the water is. We've been through canyons that are bone dry and canyons where we've had to swim hundreds of feet through icy water. I'll talk more about water obstacles later in the post.
Don't graffiti the walls of the slot canyon. Yes, seems obvious, but i've seen it way more than I'd like to. Please keep these canyons beautiful for everyone to experience.
Do have a printed map or an app like Gaia on your phone. Canyon country can get confusing and it's important to have a detailed map so you can be sure of your exit and enter point.
Do bring a light jacket. Even on the hottest of days, a deep slot can be many degrees cooler inside the canyon.
Don't wear a kid carrier. Okay this isn't just a flat out statement for ALL slots but many of them will be so tight that you'll have to lift the pack up and over your head as you inch through sideways. Doable but not ideal.
Don't bring your dog. Dogs and slot canyons are not friends. Our little four legged palls don't do well on the type of obstacles found in even an easy slot. Even if you're prepared to do a lot of hoisting and carrying of your dog, the sandstone is very rough on their paws. They'll thank you for leaving them behind for this adventure.
Do always tell someone, not in your hiking group, where you're going and when you plan to be back.
Canyon Movement Techniques and Obstacles
I'm only going to cover common obstacles you'll find in a NON-technical canyon and some helpful techniques for concurring them. These techniques seem simple but for a first timer they can feel uncomfortable and foreign.
Stemming is a technique using a hand and a foot on each side of the canyon wall with your body facing forward.
When chimneying you'll have two feet on one wall and your back or bum on the opposite wall with your body facing the wall.
Similar to stemming although now both hands are on one wall and both feet are on the wall opposite and your body facing towards the ground. You'll use this in areas of the canyon that are too wide to stem or chimney.
You usually do a bit of all the techniques listed above when down climbing. Using friction you'll work (scrape, smear, slide) your way down an obstacle.
It's always good to have a spotter, or someone watching and helping, when working through an obstacle. There are some obstacles that can require the assistance from another person to either boost or lift their canyoneering partner. This is one of the reasons I love to canyoneer. Canyoneering is a group sport where everyone has to help each other and problem solve together.
Pot Holes and Water
Some canyons have water even in the hottest parts of the year and like I mentioned before, it gets very cool in the bottom of a deep slot canyon. You'll want to be sure to avoid getting your clothes wet if possible to prevent discomfort or even hypothermia. Pot Holes can be deceiving and it is sometimes difficult to tell the depth of the pool so be sure to investigate before stepping in. In many technical canyons you'll find large pools where swimming is necessary and a wet suit is recommended but I've yet to find something like this in a non-technical canyon.
Some of our favorite non-technical canyons.
Easy 3 miles
I mentioned before that these were my first ever slot canyons and they still remain a favorite today. These two non-technical slots are short and simple enough for the entire family to come along and give you a little bit of everything. These canyons have become quite popular over the past ten years so we recommend getting an early start on the trail or even doing an evening hike!
Easy 5 miles
Another family friendly and popular slot near Goblin Valley State Park and is popular for a good reason. The approach to the canyon is short and easy making it ideal for small hikers but adventurous enough to hold the attention of your pickiest teenager. With tons of wild camping spots available in the area and the hoo doos to explore near by, it makes this slot a perfect weekend destination. If 5 miles seems like a stretch for your little hikers, don't worry, just turn around when you're feeling tired.
Moderate 15 miles
Hands down one of my favorite slots of all time. The narrows of Buckskin Canyon extends nearly the full 15 miles and has a series of obstacles that will stretch your abilities and give you a good challenge. This can be done as a back packing trip or go as far as you can for a day hike. Truthfully, I've never done this slot with kids but I couldn't keep it off the list and I wouldn't hesitate to take them for day hike down this slot.
Moderate 5.5 miles
This slot is a little off the beaten path but worth the drive. You'll find a deep canyon and different colors of beautiful sandstone layers through out the canyon. Be sure to read the guide and bring along a rope to assist you in a 15 food down climb. The hike out is steep but only a short 1/3 of a mile if you do a car drop off.
Okay, that was a lot to cover and I know this post had a more serious tone than others but I want you to be prepared so you can have a fun and safe experience in these amazing natural wonders of our world! Remember that flash floods are called that because they happen quickly so please, be sure to check the weather for the day before entering the slot. Now go and explore some for yourself!