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Don't Leave Safety at Home

Grand CanyonI recently returned from a week-long vacation in Utah and Arizona, where I spent hours almost every day hiking in canyons, the desert and/or at high elevation, all while camping in some remote areas.

While I was happy to get away from it all (no cell phone reception? Check. Traveling without a computer for once? Check. Forgetting about the "real world"? Check!), the nature of the trip meant that safety could never fully leave my mind.

From wearing UPF-protective clothing to save my skin from the hazards of the desert sun to carrying liters of water, consuming enough salt, always carrying a headlamp, never hiking alone and focusing on hygiene while preparing meals at far-flung campsites, I found that part of my brain was still in "safety mode."

My trip ended at the Grand Canyon, which felt like being at Disneyland compared to the more remote locations I'd just come from. Even so, attention to safety was especially important here -- particularly when it came to hiking down into the canyon, where the temperature could transition from "cool" to "warm" to "sweltering" by 8am.

My first hike was a short one, only about a mile down the South Kaibab trail, which is steeper than the Bright Angel trail and does not have any access to water. My husband and I had barely begun when we were stopped by two park employees who proceeded to give us the third degree: How much water were we carrying? Did it have electrolytes? How far were we hiking? Were we aware of the windy conditions? And on and on.

We were a bit surprised to be stopped like that, but even so, we appreciated the questions. While we were well-prepared for our hike, many others on the trail weren't. We noticed people hiking past our 1-mile turnaround point wearing flip-flops and carrying tiny water bottles -- or no water at all. Worse, it was still the hot part of the day, so they presumably were going to make the grueling hike up in the heat without enough water.

When we later hiked 3 miles down the Bright Angel trail, no rangers interrogated us, perhaps in part because this trail has some rest stops with running water. Even so, others definitely could have benefited from the third degree. Like the woman who approached us to ask for a "just a drop" of our water during the hike back up to the rim. She'd hiked as far as we had but had brought no water at all. Clearly, she was struggling. We offered more water but she took only the drop she asked for, which she claimed was enough to wet her mouth and keep her going to the top.

That woman, along with many unprepared hikers we passed that day, managed to make it back to the rim without having to be rescued by rangers. But that's not the case for everyone, particularly those optimists who think they can hike all the way from the rim to the river and back in one day.

The National Park Service FAQ page about hiking in the Grand Canyon makes it clear that preparation is key:

"Depending on how prepared you are, your trip can be a vacation or a challenge, a revelation or an ordeal. The majority of Grand Canyon hikers are here for the first time, and although many are avid hikers, they find that hiking the Grand Canyon is very different from most other hiking experiences. They tend to react to the experience in one of two ways, either they can't wait to get back, or they swear they will never do it again."

Because I had enough water and food, and because I rested in the shade on the way up and paced myself, my hiking experience in the Grand Canyon was a pleasant one. The same goes for my vacation in general -- I'm happy to report that I came home with little more than a few mosquito bites. And while I learned that taking a vacation from the real world can be refreshing, it's never a good idea to leave safety at home.

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