Aside from its ancient, soaring cliffs and majestic rock formations, modern-day voyages on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon bear little resemblance to John Wesley Powell’s historic epic journey in 1869.
The boats, the provisions, and even the river have all changed greatly. Indeed, for Powell and his crew, much of the trip was exhausting, miserable, and often terrifying.
Grand Canyon river running was once considered the adventurer’s adventure and only for the daring or foolhardy. It is now considered safe for just about anyone, a fact conclusively demonstrated by the data.
In contrast, today it is considered awe-inspiring, exciting, and comfortable. And while today’s trip is beyond comparison especially with regard to comfort, the transition away from fear to that of diversion is mostly the direct result of tremendous advances in safety.
How dangerous is it? Prior to the late 1930s, an adventurer who dared the mighty Colorado had a nearly 1000-fold higher risk of dying than travelers experience today.
A fact also surprising to most people when they think of whitewater rafting in Grand Canyon is that when compared to other sports, injuries boating in the Canyon occur at a rate similar to golf and bowling, and are less than 1/10 as frequent as those of football or basketball.
What’s made the difference? Safety is a high priority and has been for decades. In fact, statistics show that safety on river trips in the Grand Canyon has continued to improve over time.
Major developments: The single biggest factor insuring safe journeys down the Colorado has been the development and use of lifejackets, also known as personal flotation devices or PFDs.
Other factors that have also had significant influence include improved boat design and refined whitewater navigation techniques, emergency medical training for boatmen, enhanced communication technology, and advanced emergency medical services offered by Grand Canyon National Park utilizing helicopters for evacuations.
Taking an active role: Today, even with all the technology and expertise, a river trip through the Grand Canyon is not completely risk-free, and all visitors should take an active role in ensuring a safe experience for themselves and their families.
To accomplish this there are a few things one needs to understand. First, safety always begins with prevention. And for river trips, an appreciation of the two basic situations where accidents occur—”on-river” and “off-river”—is vital.
Accidents that happen “on-river,” occur while on the water, i.e. running a rapid. “Off-river” accidents are those which occur onshore, i.e. in camp.
In the Grand Canyon, about 60% of injuries happen onshore and 40% occur on the river. Both locations present a unique set of potential hazards, and both need to be approached differently with regard to prevention.
The Colorado River in the Grand Canyon presents two major hazards: rapids and cold water. With over 160 rapids, many of which are large and very powerful, there is potential for boating accidents. Indeed, approximately 40% of injuries that occur with river runners happen on the water while running rapids. This compares to smaller, calmer rivers where nearly all injuries occur onshore.
Overall on-river injury frequency was 1.02 injuries per thousand (1 in 977) visitors.
Your Lifejacket: The single most important thing to ensure one’s own safety on the river is a well-fitting lifejacket or personal flotation device.
A PFD is required on the river should be fastened and adjusted to a snug fit. Your guide will assist you with the adjustments, but it is your job to keep it fastened! Remember, it must be worn at all times while on the water as required by the National Park Service, your outfitter, and common sense.
Running rapids: Boating through whitewater offers a uniquely thrilling ride, but again, rapids are also very powerful and must be respected. Rapids can not only pitch the boat around; they can toss whoever or whatever is inside the boat as well.
Your guides will instruct you as to where to sit on the boat and how to hold on. You will need reliable handholds to avoid getting thrown in or from the boat.
While handholds are important, you will need to be watchful where you place them to avoid getting pinched or caught between the frame if it were to bend or flex suddenly. Do not wrap straps or ropes around your hands or arms to minimize the potential for entanglement if the boat were to flip.
These same rules apply to your feet. Avoid wedging your feet between the floor and the boat’s tube if you’re in a raft.
Also, avoid sitting against or too close to something hard or unpadded in the boat, and try to avoid sitting directly behind another passenger where you could potentially collide.
Falling off in Rapids or Boat Flips: On occasion, river runners may get knocked out of the boat and into a rapid, or the boat flips. If you do fall into the river, do not panic! Your lifejacket will bring you to the surface. Swim with your feet pointing downstream, take breaths in between waves, and turn your head away from an oncoming wave if it’s about to crash over you.
Try to swim to the boat first (it will usually be behind you after a flip) or to shore if it is closer. If someone throws you a rescue rope bag, grab the rope, and not the bag!
Above all, remember to remain calm! Boat flips and falls into the river happen regularly in the Grand Canyon.
The Colorado River is cold: Besides rapids, another hazard of the Colorado River is cold water. The water that forms the river is released from Glen Canyon Dam and comes from the bottom of Lake Powell, one of the largest and deepest lakes in North America. The river’s temperature, therefore, is only 42 degrees F at Lee’s Ferry. It “warms” to 58 degrees F by Lake Mead 280 miles downstream. Water at this temperature can cause hypothermia during sustained exposure. Hypothermia can lead to a variety of problems including a lack of muscular coordination. This in turn can increase the risk of drowning. Additionally, sudden immersion in cold water can lead to a heart attack or lethal heart stoppage in those suffering from heart disease.
To avoid hypothermia and its potential complications, do not intentionally swim in the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.
Additionally, anyone with a known heart condition, or high-risk factors for heart disease, (i.e. those over 55, smokers, and those with diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure), is at higher risk if they were to accidentally fall or be thrown into the river. Such individuals should seek professional advice from a doctor before the trip with regards to whether or not they should participate. Individuals with these conditions, who do decide to take the trip after consulting their doctor, should also make their guides aware of these risk factors before launching.
For small, calmer rivers, nearly all accidents that result in injuries occur onshore. In the Grand Canyon, roughly 60% of all injuries occur onshore. The greatest hazards generally are foot travel on uneven, rocky terrain, and the desert’s heat.
Getting off the boat: Safety off-river begins before you actually step onshore. Caution should be used stepping on and off the boat. It takes a little getting used to as the boats are somewhat awkwardly shaped and can be slippery. A person can easily twist an ankle or lose their balance and fall. Just take your time and be careful.
For those with balance problems, sitting on the edge of the boat and swinging the legs over can assist disembarking, as can a helpful hand. Ask for help if you need it or even if a steady helping hand will make you more comfortable. Don’t let a minor accident ruin your trip.
Alongshore and in camp: Walking near the river’s edge can be hazardous especially if the bank is steep, rocky, or muddy. People have accidentally slipped and fallen into the river or against rocks.
While scouting rapids, wear your lifejacket off the boat. It may help prevent serious injuries to your chest or your back by offering padding if you were to fall against any rocks. Avoid getting too close to the river’s edge if the bank is steep or slippery.
Wearing sandals or shoes around camp is a good idea as it helps prevent stubbed toes, cactus spines, cuts, or puncture wounds to the feet. Although river sandals are comfortable and practical around the boats, sand, and water, they are not typically the best footwear for any extended hiking away from the river. To prevent the above as well as sprained or broken ankles, a proper-fitting, lightweight hiking boot or walking shoe is best.
Try to quickly familiarize yourself with the terrain around your camp before dark. And at night, use a flashlight and be especially careful while urinating at the river’s edge, a practice required by Grand Canyon National Park resource protection and sanitation regulations.
Do NOT swim in the river! Although the river can be a cool and tempting reprieve from the heat, many individuals have drowned while intentionally swimming in the Colorado River after being overwhelmed by its strong currents exertion and cold water. Swimming in the river violates NPS regulations and is strongly discouraged. It is good practice to NEVER enter the river beyond waist-deep without wearing your lifejacket.
The Inner Canyon is a desert: As an arid, desert environment, the river corridor of Grand Canyon is extremely HOT and DRY, especially during the summer months. Daily temperatures along the river typically reach well-over one hundred degrees.
Unless a person lives and works in a hot environment, they will not be acclimatized to such heat at the start of their trip.
Unfortunately, for your body to fully adjust or “acclimatize” to such conditions takes about twelve to fourteen days. However, there are several things a person can do to compensate, remain comfortable, and avoid heat-related problems.
Heat Exhaustion and Dehydration: Above air temperatures of 95 degrees, virtually all the body’s cooling is done through perspiration. Sweat on the skin can evaporate so quickly, many people are not even aware they are perspiring. Fluid losses therefore can be rapid and excessive. Even on river trips where there is an abundance of water, people have developed heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Keeping your body cool and hydrated is vital.
Heat is a potentially deadly natural hazard in the Grand Canyon. It’s responsible for more emergency evacuations than all other natural hazards combined.
Several liters of fluids should be consumed each day, preferably those supplemented by electrolytes (see below). Do not wait until you are thirsty! Wear a wide-brim hat, and loose-fitting clothing that breathes, to keep a layer of humidity against your skin. (Sunscreens and sunglasses are also strongly recommended for protection against the intense solar glare.)
It’s also a good idea to cool your body down by frequently wetting your head and clothes. People who are not adjusted to the heat produce much less sweat than those who are, up to 60% less! By wetting your body down, you compensate by making “artificial perspiration.” It feels wonderful when it’s extremely hot, especially when you are hiking uphill. You’ll breathe easier and feel much more comfortable.
Electrolyte Problems: Unacclimatized individuals not only produce less sweat, they do not hold electrolytes as well in the bloodstream, especially sodium. Your body will be losing excessive amounts of salt through your sweat, and it needs to be replaced. If it isn’t, it can lead to painful heat cramps, or a potentially serious electrolyte imbalance called “hyponatremia,” which is the result of extremely depleted sodium levels in the blood.
In order to compensate for these salt losses and prevent these problems, it is very important to eat adequate amounts of salted food daily. For those on restrictive low sodium diets, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about setting such diets aside for the duration of your trip to avoid potential electrolyte depletion.
Canyon Hiking: It is a common practice on river trips to stop and take side canyon group hikes during the day or from camp. Hiking provides a rewarding opportunity to see some of the most scenic places the Canyon has to offer. It is always an optional off-river activity.
Hiking in or out of a river trip from Phantom Ranch on the Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trails is NOT recommended for anyone who is in poor general health, elderly, has heart or lung disease, obesity, or is deconditioned.
Hikes can vary from mild to strenuous and can also be hot and dry. Your guides will inform you of the degree of difficulty when offering a hiking suggestion. However, it is your responsibility to follow the recommendations about fluid and electrolyte replacement, and that you never try to hike beyond your level of fitness. Hiking in or out of the Canyon from Phantom Ranch is a very strenuous hike, and many unprepared individuals have been overwhelmed by the heat, or suffered heart attacks from the intense exertion. If you have heart or lung disease, it is extremely important to consult with your doctor before your trip about how to best participate.
Rock climbing or hiking off trails is generally is discouraged. In addition to problems such as multiple trailing and damage to the fragile desert terrain, many individuals have been seriously injured or killed on loose, unstable Canyon rock and cliffs.
Venomous Creatures: Several species of poisonous reptiles, scorpions, and spiders exist in Grand Canyon.
While there have been numerous bites, there have been no recorded deaths from any envenomation. Generally, desert creatures are not aggressive toward humans and try to avoid contact with people. The bites or stings that do happen often occur from intentional handling or the animal accidentally getting trapped between clothing, sleeping bags, footwear, and human skin. General rules for preventing bites and stings include: Avoid intentional handling of any potentially venomous animal. Always watch where you place your hands and feet. Avoid sticking them blindly under rock edges, logs, or brushy vegetation where these creatures commonly are found. Shake out your clothing, boots, or shoes before wearing them. Leave your sleeping bag rolled up until you’re ready to lie down, and always shake it out before getting inside. Use a flashlight at night.
Scorpions: Scorpions are nocturnal and very active during the summer months. Stings are not uncommon. They are painful and while symptoms may vary in severity, they usually do not require evacuation and spontaneously improve within 24 – 48 hours.
Rattlesnakes: Rattlesnake bites are uncommon in the Grand Canyon and those that happen are usually the result of attempted handling the snake by overly excited and uninformed visitors. Fortunately, like scorpion stings, no one has ever died from a rattlesnake bite in Grand Canyon. The number one rule is NEVER trying to intentionally pick up a rattlesnake! If a snake is causing problems in camp, let your guides know right away and let them handle the situation according to their training. Rattlesnake bites warrant emergency evacuation for possible antivenin therapy.
Contrary to the general public’s fears, typically only one rattlesnake bite occurs for every 200,000 visitors, and usually because of intentional handling.
Other Potential Hazards:
Flashfloods: Flashfloods are sudden, powerful floods of water, mud, and desert debris that can race downside canyons during periods of wet weather and high precipitation in the watersheds of side canyon drainages. Again, while your guides will typically direct your hikes, remember to avoid hiking or wandering up narrow “slot” canyons during monsoon thunderstorm weather (July through September) Also, it’s a good idea to avoid camping in the drainages of even small side canyons just to be safe.
Alcohol: Impairment from alcohol (or drugs) has resulted in countless accidents with injuries, as well as numerous drownings from shore. If you chose to drink, do so responsibly. Use extreme caution at the river’s edge and on steep banks. Do not go hiking or climbing. For family members, friends, and companions, discourage excessive consumption, and do NOT let any intoxicated person out of sight, especially near the river.
A river trip on the Colorado through Grand Canyon is a journey of a lifetime. Safety is a top priority, but you can add to your own experience by taking an active role in the safety of yourself or your family members. Use good judgment, and avoid unnecessarily putting yourself in harm’s way or at increased risk for injury.
Have a great trip, and we’ll see you downstream!