Safety Guide for Phoenix Summer Hiking

With the recent tragic death of a 23-year old on Camelback Mountain, safety on the trail has been on my mind.

I never want to discourage anyone from hiking. But in the summer, it’s tricky business. Doable…but you have to know what you’re doing.

In addition to the general safety tips hikers should practice (carry a first-aid kit, map, etc.), these are the rules I recommend following when hiking in the heat:

This is what one liter looks like. In the summer, it's good for about 2 miles. That's it, no more.

This is what one liter looks like. In the summer, it’s good for about 2 miles. That’s it, no more.

Rule #1: Water, Water, Water, Water…

Water! So I generally bring one liter for every two miles. And I always, always have an extra liter in my pack. How much is a liter? Excellent question. It can be answered easily by checking the label on your water bottle. I’m making you work for this answer because checking your water is an important part of your preparation for hiking safely.

(Or you can look at the picture to the left.)

Regardless of how much you bring, the general rule is to turn back when your water supply if halfway gone.

It’s important to note that one-liter-to-two-miles ratio is NOT sufficient for a hike in mid-day summer. Which brings me to my next rule…

Rule #2: ONLY hike at sunrise or sundown.

For evening hikes (my preference), I get to the trailhead about 30 minutes to one hour before sundown. This way, I’m catching the serenity of sunset as I watch the desert come alive. Depending on your fitness level and the hike’s difficulty, you can potentially fit in 2-4 miles.

For morning hikes, I’d follow the same timeline and hit the trail about an hour prior to sunrise if you can. If you do the morning hike, keep this in mind: unlike a sunset hike, weather conditions increase in intensity the longer you are out. So make sure you know what you’re in for.

Rule #3: Know Your Trail

This is a rule that is downright critical to follow in the summer. Stick with the trails you’re already frequenting so you don’t accidentally make a wrong turn or get in over your head.

Know the mileage. Know the elevation gain. Get familiar with what 2 miles with an elevation gain of 1200 feet feels like to you (that’s Piestawa Peak, btw). Google, read, buy a hiking book. Start with easy hikes and gain an understanding of your body. Know yourself, know your trail and you’ll know safety.

Rule #4: Stay in the Shade

If you follow rule #3, you’ll know where to go for good shade.

During the winter months, I scout trails that have excellent evening shade potential. Relying on vegetation for shade is a joke so take note of trails that trace the appropriate side of a mountain or canyon wall for the time of day you plan to hike.

Example: For evening hikes, hit a trail that follows the east side of a mountain or canyon wall (blocking the sun when it sets in the west).

I’m partial to the Phoenix Mountains so my favorites are the Quartz Ridge Trail 8A, North Mountain, and Trail 100 from the North Mountain Visitor Center. If I’m in the South Mountain area, the Kiwanis Trail also does the trick.

Glorious shade (and quartz)!

My pre-pregnant body celebrating the glorious shade (and quartz) on Trail 8A in the Phoenix Mountains.

Rule #5: Be Self Aware

I have been a total MORON on the trail many times. I”m almost ashamed to admit that it took many frightening moments of almost overheating on the trail for me to finally know how to swallow my pride and cut a hike short.

Don’t be like me. Accept that some days, things are just off. Maybe you had too many beers the night before or not enough protein in your breakfast or the moon is pulling at your chakras wrong…whatever!

If you’re not feeling it, you’re not feeling it. Turn around and head back to the car while your brain is still working well enough to make good decisions. Then resolve to redeem yourself when you’re feeling 100%.

Rule #6: Avoid Exploring New Trails in the Summer

Unless you are a super-pro survivalist who excels at reading trails, maps, and a compass, just save the exploring for better weather. And if you’ve never hiked before in your entire life, summer may not be the time to try out this hobby (unless you have a trusted, experienced friend to guide you).

Rule #7: Don’t Rely on Your Cell Phone

Dead battery, lack of reception, or a drop down the side of a mountain can turn that lifeline into a hunk of useless plastic. Bring one, sure, but assume that you’ll have to survive without it.

Rule #8: Help Tourists

A few summers ago, we had cousins visiting from Ohio. They mentioned they were planning to hike Camelback Mountain the next day, starting around 10 a.m.

Uh, no.

We convinced them to hike with us. Start time was 6 a.m. and we chose a less challenging trail. We also insisted they borrow our extra hydration pack.

“When we started, I thought I was going to die!” my cousin said when the hike was over. They both drank all the water in their packs. Just imagine what would have happened on Camelback at 10 a.m. Scary!

It’s your responsibility as a Phoenix hiker and host to visitors to provide the right guidance. When possible, do the hike with a visitor so they start early enough, bring enough water, and stay on the correct trail.

Safety aside, your dog deserves to look this adorable.

Safety aside, your dog deserves to look this adorable.

Rule #9: Pay Attention to Other Hikers…Including Dogs

If you see someone on the trail who is flushed, dazed, or looking ill, approach them. Tell them they look like they’re overheating and ask if they are feeling okay. Offer water. Offer to sit with them in the shade until their mind clears. You may have to insist.

Overheating messes with your brain BIG TIME. So if a person is in that state, they will often lose the ability to make sound decisions. This is why it’s a good idea to have a hiking partner. I don’t think that hiking alone shouldn’t be an option but know that you’re much safer if you have a pal looking out for you.

When it comes to dogs on the trail, please know that your dog is less capable of regulating his body temperature. Whenever you are thirsty, your dog is, too. And be mindful of how hot the trail is on their paws! Those things can blister, burn, and bleed if they are out too long on hot surfaces.

Consider buying dog paw booties. I mean, they’re adorable anyway so why not?

Rule #10: Buy My Book

I couldn’t think of a 10th tip so here’s a link to buy my book which has an entire chapter dedicated to hiking safety.

Did I forget anything? Want to add your advice? Leave a comment!

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Not Safe for Hiking Blog

If you're squeamish or easily offended, don't click the link below.

If you’re squeamish or easily offended, don’t click the link below.

I try to keep it clean on this blog, I really do.

But hiking is dirty business. And when you’re a lady and you’re hiking, you have a unique set of challenges. And that can lead to some dirty conversation.

For a vulgar list of tips and tricks on how to manage your lady business on the trail, click here. If you’re squeamish or easily offended by raunchy crotch talk, please disregard.

You have been warned.

Best Solitude Hikes for Beginners in Honor of National Take a Hike Day

This Sunday (November 17th) is National Take a Hike Day!

I’m excited. But given my pathetic blog stats lately, I very much understand that not everyone is a hiking nut like me.

I get it. Exercise — an activity that requires you to wear tight clothing, grow sweat rings, and potentially expose your lack of cardiovascular endurance — is not something everyone wants to share with other humans.

So for those of you who hate getting sweaty in front of others, I propose you give one of these trails a shot. Each is easy, short, and offers plenty of privacy so you can try out this hiking thing without feeling too self-conscious.

Tip: Click the hike title for a link to its EveryTrail review and be sure to scroll to the bottom right corner of the EveryTrail page for driving directions.

You can so totally do this. I promise.

You can so totally do this. I promise.

South Central Valley: Judith Tunnell Trail in South Mountain

This is a barrier free trail. Which means it’s wheelchair friendly. I was sure to include wheelchair-friendly hikes in every chapter of my book and I regret that I did not feature this one (2nd edition, here we come!) because it really is lovely. The trail is beautifully paved and was totally deserted when I explored it with my family a few weeks ago. At just 1.3 miles total with only a few small inclines (inclines that would totally make my arms fall off if I were in a wheelchair, btw), this hike amounts to a leisurely stroll if you’re a walking person. It also features plenty of benches and shaded structures with educational plaques to help pass the time.

West Valley: Black Rock Loop in White Tank Mountain Regional Park (Free admission on National Take a Hike Day!)

Flat. Short. Deserted. Easy. There’s not much holding you back from trying this trail out. And it has two options: The Long Loop at 1.2 miles and the Short Loop at 0.5 mile. Yes, you can take as much time as you want on this little-known trail that simply walks through the flat desert around a couple large black rocks. Your biggest challenge will be avoiding the cholla that surrounds the trail.

Central Valley: Mohave Trail 200 in Phoenix Mountains Preserve

Okay, so if you haven’t been to the gym lately (And why would you? Too many judgmental eyes!), this one might be a little tough. But who cares when you can openly curse your burning lungs and take as many breaks as you wish because there’s no one around to silently mock you? I’ve hiked Mohave five or six times and I think I’ve seen one other person on the trail. I assume it’s because everyone else is busy killing themselves by hiking up the neighboring Piestewa Peak. Mohave is only 0.6 mile up a mere 300 feet to a tiny perch that offers a spectacular view to South Mountain and the city below. After soaking up the scenery, you make an easy descent back to the trail head to total a scant 1.2 mile.

Blevins is so beautiful, it's CRAY.

Blevins is so beautiful, it’s CRAY.

East Valley: Blevins to Cat Peaks Loop in Usery Mountain Regional Park (Free admission on National Take a Hike Day!)

I recently took my sister-in-law on this hike in the east valley to prove to her that I wouldn’t force her into anything too hard-core. It worked. We enjoyed a breezy, 3-mile walk on the flat terrain of this desert trail that is off the radar for hikers. If you can walk across a parking lot, you can easily manage this trail. The only human contact you’ll have is with the locals who choose to enjoy this trail on horseback. So even if you’re working up a sweat, there’s no shame. At least you’re not making an animal do the heavy lifting.

North Valley: Sears-Kay Ruin Loop in Tonto National Forest

This one requires a bit of a drive. But consider the distance your insurance policy against the peering eyes of health elitists who might cruelly judge your muffin top (jerks!). At just 1 mile total, this little loop is one of my all-time favorites. You’re out in the middle of nowhere, climbing a small hill, and touring the ruins of a 900-year-old Hohokam village. With plenty of informational plaques, you’ll have all the excuses you need to take breaks between breaths (this one’s great for kids, too).

Have a happy National Take a Hike Day, everyone!

Winter Hiking in Phoenix, A Guide/Rant

Smiling doesn't mean you're happy.

Smiling doesn’t mean you’re happy.

Looking out my window this morning, I see gray clouds and a wintery-looking Phoenix.

One might think that on a day like today, a Phoenix hiker would be dying to hit the trails. It’s better to hike in the cool weather, right?

Wrong!

​This hiker prefers hiking in the summer.

Yeah, I said it.

I’d much rather trek through the baked dirt in the disgustingly hot evenings wearing practically nothing and sweating like a maniac than hike in the cold — bundled up and clammy with snot dripping from my freezing nose.

Wow. Hiking is not very attractive.

Anyway, as a hater of the chilly outdoors, I’ve come up with a list of tips/gripes to make winter hiking tolerable:

1. Layer with as many zip-up clothing options as possible
With fuzzy beanies, visors, sunglasses and other cumbersome accessories, you’re not going to want to keep pulling something over your head that musses up your hats and glasses. Zippers are your friends.

2. Bring a snot rag
With a cold nose, you’ll start to drip watery snot out of your nose. It’s super gross and it’s really freaking annoying. The only way to avoid this is to keep a snot rag on hand and constantly blow your boogers out of your head. You may as well use an old bandanna. A tissue will just get shoved into your backpack or pocket only to be discovered later. Gross.

Lou...harnessing inspiration from "The Road".

Lou…harnessing inspiration from “The Road”.

3. Bring a non-snot rag bandanna
This is essential. If you find yourself feeling too chilly around your neck or head, this thing can be fashioned into hat, ear-warmer, or scarf. Of course, do not confuse it with No. 2.

4. Cover your ears
This may only apply to me because I’ve got ugly monkey ears that poke out of my head but those things can catch a lot of wind. Then they freeze and I experience the most painful freaking headache in the world. Keep ’em fettered if you can.

5. Bring a tissue and a zip lock baggy (if you’re a girl)
Another thing I hate about hiking in the cold: you don’t sweat out your water consumption so you have to pee in the desert. This is the suckiest. Especially for chicks. And it’s not like there are big bushes in the desert you can effectively hide behind.

Again, if it’s summer, this is not a problem at all. One time I hiked a 10.5 trail in 100 degree weather and didn’t go pee once. It was beautiful. Anyway, you should be able to guess what the tissue and the zip lock bag are for…don’t litter your pee rag.

6. Remember to drink water
Duh, right? But I actually get more dehydrated on winter hikes because it’s so easy to forget to chug water when you’re not at risk of heat stroke. Plus, I don’t like to drink water on the trail because then it brings me to tip No. 5. I can’t win!

7. Bring your camera
Ok, I admit it. The desert is more beautiful in the winter sun … assuming you have time between pee breaks and snot-blowing to notice.

This blog post originally appeared on The Phoenix New Times website way back in 2010 when I had no idea I’d ever write a hiking book. I stand by what I wrote with just one caveat: winter hiking is truly spectacular because, unlike summer, I can plan glorious, 10-15 mile hikes that take all day.

Also, now that I published a book with an entire chapter devoted to safety, I feel it’s my responsibility to mention that my summer hikes only take place in the early morning or at dusk because hiking midday in the summer is too dangerous. Also, if you hike a trail of any length in 100-degree weather, please, please, please be sure to bring plenty of water. I take 3 liters for any trails over 5 miles, no matter what time of year. And when it’s warm, I take 3 liters plus a large water bottle, sometimes two. Okay, I’ll stop now!

Ten Alternate Trails to Hike While Camelback Echo Canyon is Closed

Camelback Cholla Trail at your service.

Camelback Cholla Trail at your service.

Want to know more about these trails? You’ll read all about them in my upcoming book, Take a Hike Phoenix, which hits bookstores late November and is now available for pre-order at barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com.

I’ve see a few tweets that will surely upset a Phoenix hiker or two.

According to azcentral.com, the Echo Canyon Trail on Camelback Mountain may not re-open until January 2014, a solid 2 months later than the originally scheduled November date. I’ve seen other tweets say that Valley hikers might be waiting even longer due to delays in the trail renovations, parking lot expansion, and bathroom construction.

These tweets don’t upset this Phoenix hiker, however. Because I have options. In fact, I have 81 of them which I will share with you in late November when my book is released.

In the meantime, though there’s no replacing the Echo Canyon Trail, here are quick summaries of ten alternate trails that offer some of the same features of that valley favorite.

Cholla Trail on Camelback Mountain

3.6 miles, 1,300 ft. elevation gain

Did you know there’s a trail on the other side of the mountain? With constant climbing, heavy scrambling, and views from the very same summit reached via the Echo Canyon Trail, the Cholla Trail will surely satisfy your need for climbing Camelback Mountain. The similarities to Echo Canyon don’t end there…the parking is a nightmare. With no proper parking lot, hikers must park parallel along Invergordon Street then walk to the trailhead.

Piestewa Peak Summit Trail in Phoenix Mountains Preserve

2.4 miles, 1,200 ft. elevation gain

This one’s a no-brainer. Wildly popular, the Piestewa Peak Summit trail demands hard-core huff n’ puff all the way up. And up. With barely any reprieve from the climbing, Echo lovers will feel that scathing lung burning they crave. No scrambling efforts required here except for the parking. It’s crowded at the trailhead but there are other parking lots within walking distance.

Holbert Trail at South Mountain

3.6 miles, 950 ft. elevation gain

Like making it to the top? This trail will take you to the highest point accessible in all of South Mountain park at Dobbins Lookout ( 2,330 feet). This one’s a more subtle burn but offers plenty of sweat-filled climbing as you make your way to the stone-stacked structure which marks your endpoint. The big difference here is that reaching the top means running into non-hikers who opted for the mountain drive, accessible by car. But with views of the entire city, you’ll barely notice.

Black Mountain in Cave Creek

2.2 miles, 1,275 ft elevation gain

It’s really no secret that Black Mountain is Cave Creek’s Camelback Mountain. It’s a hefty grunt all the way up this rocky trail with zippo switchbacks to ease the pain. Make it to the top and you’ll be treated to views that rival Camelback’s. It may be a drive but it’s right off the main drag in Cave Creek so treat yourself to a burger and beer afterward.

Not so little anymore! Say hello to Tom's Thumb.

Not so little anymore! Say hello to Tom’s Thumb.

Sunrise Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve (aka McDowell Mountains)

3.7 miles, 1,100 ft elevation gain

To put it simply, this is a stellar hike. The trail and trailhead are brand new, beautifully maintained, and in a nice area of North Scottsdale. Reaching Sunrise Peak guarantees clear views of your beloved Camelback as well as the Phoenix Mountains, the Superstitions, Four Peaks…you can even see the Fountain Hills fountain’s massive projectile of vertical water if you time it right.

Tom’s Thumb Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve (aka McDowell Mountains)

4.1 miles, 1,325 ft elevation gain

Okay, so when you’re on Camelback and you’re looking north, you’re looking at the McDowell Mountains. Have you ever noticed the single, rocky protrusion that looks like a teeny little thumb? That’s Tom’s Thumb. And after you sweat your way up this challenging trail, it won’t be teeny. In fact, it’s so huge, you can barely wrap your head around its massiveness.

Pinnacle Peak Trail

2.9 miles, 1,000 ft elevation gain

This trail offers the same Scottsdale fanciness that the Echo Canyon Trail boasts. Nice area of town, beautiful trail, and tons of opportunity to stare into rich peoples’ backyards. This trail is less of a summit hike and more of an up, down, up, down…turn around and do it all backwards kind of hike. You’ll love it.

Image credit: www.jfryhale.com

The Flatiron. Reaching the top feels the way this photo looks. (Which is awesome.)

Siphon Draw Trail to the Flatiron in Superstition Mountains

5.8 miles, 2,750 ft elevation gain

I am going to say this now and I’m sorry if you’re offended. This hike is way, way, waaaaayyyy better than Camelback Mountain. Six miles. Vertical climbs. Merciless crawling over boulders. And the absolute most breathtaking I-am-on-top-of-the-freaking-world-right-now views. If you love Camelback, you must do this hike.

Hunter Trail at Picacho Peak

3 miles, 1,900 ft elevation gain

To the timid, this trail is downright terrifying. But if you like the steep parts on Camelback when you have to grip those bars, you’ll adore this trail. It’s one of the few in the U.S. that boasts via ferrata climbing — Italian for “iron road”. Picture this: rockface, metal cables, and you gripping the cables while hanging on for dear life as you climb your way to the summit. Chickens, you’re going to want to sit this one out.

Elden Lookout Trail in Flagstaff, AZ

5.1 miles, 2.400 ft elevation gain

Admittedly, this requires a lot more driving on your part. But if you can zip up Camelback Echo Canyon Trail, it’s time to up your game, friend. This trail is about 5 miles roundtrip with 2.400 feet in elevation gain. It’s like two Piestewa Peaks stacked on top of each other surrounded by thin, Flagstaff air. No bones about it — you’ll feel like a serious hiker after you finish this one.

Things I’ve Learned

Striking Photography by Bo Insogna

I’m scared.

Well, it’s another blog post about hiking.

Here’s a list of just a few things I’ve learned so far, in no particular order.

1. A rattlesnake bite does not equal instant death. I always assumed that if I got bit by a rattler out on the trail, I’d be dead within minutes. Not true. If you get to a hospital within a few hours, you won’t die.

2. I can tell the difference between three types of cholla: teddybear, buckhorn, and jumping. This is probably only exciting to me.

3. Baby Regal Horned Lizards are really cute. Then again, as my friend Lisa has pointed out, baby anything is really cute.

4. Saguaros were a food source for the ancient Hohokam people. I don’t know how it was prepared or any other details. Sorry.

5. You’re supposed to remain in the center of a hiking trail so the path remains as narrow as possible. This way, hikers aren’t constantly causing the trail to widen and, in the process, destroy surrounding plant life.

6. I have difficulty staying in a good mood after six miles. Right around mile six, I get angry for a little while. Fortunately, I get over it.

7. When encountering other hikers on a hot day, the right thing to do is to ask if they have enough water. We always try to bring extra just in case.

8. In a lightning storm, try to do as many of the following as possible: get to low ground, find a some bushes or small trees, crouch down in the bushes, stay 40 feet (or more) away from other people in your hiking party, wait it out.

9. Counting the seconds between a lightning flash and its thunder to estimate its proximity is B.S. All you need to know is, if you’re seeing lighting and hearing the thunder, it’s close and you’re in danger.

10. When sweating a lot, it’s just as important to replace your salts as it is to hydrate. Munching a handful of salty pretzels or nuts while on the trail can make a huge difference (hmmm…maybe this has something to do with #6).

Very Arizona

I can’t resist you.

I’m feeling very Arizona.

I’m also feeling inspired by my grandmother’s writing.

Right now, I’m stuck in my office and staring at a screen. But my mind keeps wandering back to these sights, sounds, and moments on the trail…

I love you.

Powdery plumes of iron-rich, red dirt exploding with each step.

Green mountain slopes covered in a far-reaching thicket of prickly pear.

Mismatched socks of a 10-year-old hiker, eager to ditch her brothers to join me in the shade.

The grating sensation of my first blister…right between the toes.

I want to be inside you.

Slippery, moss-covered rocks bombarded with the rushing creek.

My white toes peeking out from frigid water as I floated on my back.

A scream followed by our cackles when my friend poked a “dead” spider with a stick.

You’re lovely.

Distant masses of clouds threatening to pound the dirt with fat, violent raindrops.

A lone coyote trotting across a dry wash.

Sheets of torrential rain marring my visibility.

Flushed cheeks and matted hair of my overheated hiking companions.

Yes!

A lovely mess of overlapping ancient petroglyphs carved into rock.

The constant buzz of whirring insects’ wings echoing off canyon walls.

Total solitude in a craggy, shaded canyon.

A swarm of insects hovering over the stagnant water trapped in a tinaja.

Toads the size of my thumbnail hopping out of the way.

I will return to you.

…all this in just two days of hiking.