Hiking A Slot Canyon

Follow these seven steps for hiking your first slot canyon safely, start to finish.

By Courtney Johnson
Explore Ambassador

A slot canyon is a narrow chamber of typically sedimentary or sandstone rock that has been carved by water over millions of years. While hiking through a slot canyon can be lots of fun, there is also an inherent risk that isn’t typically found while hiking regular trails. Follow these seven steps for hiking your first slot canyon safely, start to finish. 


Do Your Research

Slot canyons greatly vary in difficulty, making it very important to do research ahead of time. While some slots are just a hike that may have a few technical areas, some slots require ropes, more planning and skills beyond just hiking. 

Slots may contain technical areas, steep drops and other obstacles that you can’t see from maps or simple hike write-ups. Use your online resources to help you plan a safe route from start to finish. Hiking Project and AllTrails are some of my favorite resources. 

Local outfitters, tourism boards, Bureau of Land Management offices and similar entities are great places to reach out for current conditions and for more detailed information to help you navigate the slot safely from beginning to end. Hiring a guide can help put all the worries of a slot canyon hike at ease and is especially recommended if your hike requires any kind of canyoneering. 

Some slots are dog friendly with a leash and some slots do not allow dogs. Though, even if dogs are allowed, it may be beneficial to not have the added distraction of guiding a pup safely through. 

There are plenty of kid-friendly slot hike options for younger hikers to more experienced ones. If you plan to bring children along, be sure that they are sure-footed and open to challenges. More than likely they will need a hand or a boost during various parts of the hike. Some slot canyon hikes, including the Narrows in Zion, allow for hiking carriers, but most slots are too narrow to accommodate them. With the additional risk factors, I would not recommend attempting any slot canyons with a carrier. 


Start Short 

Slot canyons vary in distance from a mile or less to a full-day hike. For those first hikes, choose a shorter slot to tackle. You never know how your body will feel when you are in the tight conditions that are found in slot canyons. For this reason, start with shorter slots that might not be as tight to get through to see how your body reacts. 

Slot hikes also have varied terrain, uneven surfaces and challenges not found on typical hiking trails. Scrambling, climbing, down climbs and uneven terrain are all a part of the game, requiring different muscles of the body. 


Get Out Early

There are many reasons to get out early when climbing through slot canyons. Weather tends to be more stable in the morning. In the summer months, you will also avoid the intense heat of the day. Since slots are located in more desert climates, lack of water and shade are big factors for getting out early. 

Intense summer storms brew typically in the afternoons in states including Utah, Arizona and California where slot canyons are typically found. Sometimes these storms are unpredictable, show up early or were not in initial forecasts. 

Getting out early also guarantees less crowds. If you want a more personal experience, hit the trail in the morning hours. If you want to avoid having to wait to maneuver through the tight sections or navigate the obstacles, getting out first will help ease traffic jams along the trail. 


Weather Watch

Storms that are miles away have the potential to create a flash flood. June, July and August are the highest risk months for storms and also the heat index. Even as you’re hiking, pay attention to the sky and adjust your hike accordingly if storm clouds are seen moving in. 

According to the National Park Service, “When the National Weather Service states that there is a 30% chance of rain, they are not stating that there is a 30% chance that it will rain. They are stating that 30% of the forecast area will be affected by measurable precipitation.”

The potential for flash floods can be monitored by putting your location into the National Weather Service website. Speak with a park ranger or other official before you head out for the latest information. Typically, guides have a good understanding of weather patterns and how precipitation affects slot canyons based on locations. This is another good reason to consider hiring a guide. 


Download Offline Maps

More than likely you will not have service within the canyon, so you can’t rely on the use of maps or navigational tools that require any cell service. Take the time to download offline maps, or even print one. Gaia GPS and onX Backcountry are two apps I recommend. 

Additional navigational tools can also be beneficial, as slot canyons often lack the signage you find on other trails. Be on the lookout for signs, cairns and other markers along the trail, but don’t rely on these things to be present to help you navigate.


Pack Efficiently

You will want to pack efficiently when hiking the slots to be sure that you maximize space and weight. Slots will have narrow sections, so you will not want to be burdened with a heavy and overstuffed pack. 

Water is one of the most important things you will want to carry on your hike. Don’t expect shade or a clean water source during your route. The best way to carry water for hiking the slots is using a hydration bladder such as a CamelBak. This allows you to stay hands-free for when you may need to use your hands to down climb or for a boost up. Bladders are also a thinner option for when you need to pass through tight walls. 

Choose snacks that pack a punch energy-wise and that don’t take up a lot of space in your pack. Suggestions include trail mix, energy bars, hardy fresh fruit (think apples) and jerky. 

Weather conditions may change along your hike. A jacket may be needed if you begin hiking earlier in the morning, as well as a hat and gloves. Layer your clothing for the best comfort level, choosing clothes that you can easily remove and that are compact. Waterproof shoes and maybe a change of socks are recommended, especially for routes that require you to cross water. 

Don’t forget a hat and sunscreen for extra protection. A first-aid kit is essential for any hike. An additional item to consider is a hiking stick that collapses and that you can attach to your pack. In some places like the Narrows, hiking sticks line the start of the hike for anyone’s use. If you want the extra balance, consider bringing at least one stick along. 


Don’t Hike Alone

While hiking alone on any trail is not advised, it is even more important when hiking in a canyon. Share the experience with a friend and have an extra hand if you need help with any obstacles or need help navigating. 

As always, let someone who isn’t in your party know where you are going (the more specific, the better) and approximate the time you will be back. If there is a logbook, be sure to sign in when starting the hike. 

Follow along with Courtney and family as the experience a slot canyon hike

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