Are you up for a trip down Labyrinth Canyon?

If you are new to backcountry multi-day self-guided river trips, you might be wondering if you have the appropriate skills. It’s good to be honest with yourself and your abilities. That’s the first step to staying safe and having fun. Here are some things to consider.

When you float Labyrinth Canyon, you will be in remote wilderness in a deep and inaccessible desert canyon. It is entirely possible that you won’t see anybody else in the canyon during your trip.

There is no mobile phone coverage! Even satellite phones can be finicky and difficult to use in this environment. Egress on foot would be extremely difficult if not altogether impossible in places.

True, there are few real rapids in Labyrinth Canyon. Even those that do qualify count mostly as riffles and barely rate on the normal river rapid rating scale. Still, the river is big and there is moving fast water. At high water, the river cooks along at 4-5 miles an hour (6.5-8 km/hr) and sand waves shift back and forth (see: The Magic of Sand Waves)

The weather can be extremely fickle, changing from blazing sun to freezing rain and snow in the blink of an eye. Both the water and air temperature can be cold. Microburst storms with high winds often blow through and seemingly out of nowhere. These winds can easily swamp a canoe if you are in the middle of the river. Self-rescue can be extremely difficult. Sleeping in wet gear isn’t fun. And despite what the salesperson at REI says, synthetic fill sleeping bags really don’t keep you warm when they are wet.

Winds can also hinder downstream travel, and require lots of additional paddling to stay out of the wind and make any progress. This can be extremely fatiguing. In a worst case scenario, high winds (particularly in the afternoon) can make downstream travel impossible. If you don’t make your miles for the day, you might end up with extremely long days to make it to your take out on the scheduled date.

Steep river banks and tamarisk overgrowth can make getting in and out of your craft very difficult. Depending on the weather, this can either be comical or potentially life threatening.

Weather and water aside, there are many other hazards, particularly in camp and on side hikes. Trails aren’t maintained (mostly). Loose and unstable rocks abound and it can be extremely easy to lose your footing and twist and ankle.

Main Hazards

That said, here are the main hazards you will face:

  • Weather: hot, cold, sun, snow, rain, wind, and everything in between
  • Exposure — sun and cold — leading to hyper- or hypothermia
  • Injuries from falls in rough terrain
  • Swamping your craft
  • Biting and stinging insects
  • Falling rocks

Suggested skills

A trip down Labyrinth Canyon requires (minimally) a level-head and common sense backcountry skills. You will need to look after yourself and your companions, as well as abide by the regulations that help keep Labyrinth Canyon a special and pristine place.

You, or your group collectively, should have the following skills:

First aid / second aid

First aid is how you take care of yourself; second aid is how you take care of others. You should be prepared to do so, with a well-stocked kit with you at all times, too.

Low-impact camping

Backcountry wilderness river trips require gear, and lots of it. You will have a smoother trip if, for example, you already know how to set up your tent. And you’ll be a lot happier if you can set it up quickly when it’s about to start pouring rain or the mosquitos are swarming.

Basic-to-intermediate skills with your river craft of choice

It helps, although is not absolutely required, that you be familiar with your craft of choice. If you are renting canoes, hopefully you will have paddled a canoe before! But like we said, this is not required. Many of the types of craft people take on Labyrinth Canyon are very user friendly. Sea kayaks, for example, can be paddled by almost anyone right off the bat.

Basic familiarity with river navigation

eg: How do you steer your craft through eddies, up into side canyons, around islands and sand bars, etc.

Orienteering, either by GPS or map

So you know where you are, how far you have gone, how far you have to go, where the good camps and sidehikes are, and how to tell people to find you if necessary.

Familiarity with water purification techniques

If you bring sufficient water or are running a short trip, you may not need to purify water. Still, you should have the capacity and knowledge to do so.