A flash flood this past week that took nine lives of nine members of an Arizona family in Tonto National Forest has driven the very real dangers that storms can pose to outdoor enthusiasts. After rain events, dry creek beds, narrow slot canyons, and cool calm creeks can be transformed within minutes.
To make sure you are better prepared when you head out we reached out to Robby Brower, an expert guide with the Zion Adventure Company. As part of his job, he routinely takes groups into the backcountry of Zion National Park on canyoneering, hiking, and camping adventures. We talked with him about dealing with flash floods.
What should you do before heading out?
There are three main factors to consider before heading into potentially dangerous situations. The first is: What is the size of the drainage area? Is the area you are heading into fed by a relatively small system upstream, or does a large one feed it? The larger the feed the more potential for danger. In the Narrows, a popular destination inside the park, almost 300 square miles funnel into one slot canyon. If it is raining upstream, a lot of water can be coming soon. The next thing to look for is the composition of the area. Is it sand or slick rock? Is it something that will absorb rain or not? Then look at the weather forecast. Not just for today but also for the last two days. What has happened so far? If it has been raining for a few days, then the drainage basin very well could be saturated, meaning that any new moisture will be shed immediately and not absorbed. The last thing to consider is: How escapable is the area that you're heading? Is it an open valley with gentle slopes you could run up, or a tight canyon? If any of these things don’t seem right then change your plans.
Any other advice besides watching the weather?
Yes, always make sure you tell someone where you are heading. Make sure help can find you before you go into the back country. Plus, make sure you are building your adventure around the abilities of your group. Make sure everyone is ok with the plan and that everyone is comfortable. Too often groups head into situations that someone is not prepared for, either mentally or physically.
How often do you see flash floods?
Pretty often out here. It seems like they're happening more frequently these days. Most climate models are showing that, due to climate change, we are experiencing bigger and slower moving storms that can drop a large amount of water in a short period of time. That’s the recipe for floods. They can hit within minutes of raining. They are very unpredictable.
So if you are heading out and storms are in forecast, what should people watch for?
Well, remember most flash floods come from storms far upstream, and the weather is fine where you are. Really check up on the weather before heading out. I love the National Weather Service/NOAA website. It gives detailed forecasts that really help you drill deep into what the weather is going to do. Plus, they post flash flood warnings that can tell you what places to avoid.
If you do head out, pay close attention to any weather in the distance and if it looks like it's falling inside the drainage you're in. If it looks like a bad storm is moving in upstream of you, it’s time to leave. Often the problem is that you can’t see the weather that creates the flood. If that’s the case, watch the water. If it starts getting muddy, flowing faster, or rising, those are bad signs. If suddenly small debris starts going by that very well could mean something is heading your way. If any of these things happen, immediately start to head higher. A good rule of thumb is always look for an escape path as you hike through canyons and such. Have a plan—always.
Do you have any other advice to offer?
Don’t let your emotions get the better of you. Before you head out, or further into a questionable situation ask your self this basic question. If I died today doing this what would people say about me? Would they say I was dumb and reckless, or would they say it was a tragedy but that I had done all the correct things? If the answer is the first one, then just stop. If there is flooding forecasted, just don’t head out.