Your Worst Nightmare

Among the National Parks, the Grand Canyon ranks as the highest in annual search and rescue operations…  Around 400 on average.  While planning and preparation can go a long way toward preventing an emergency while in the backcountry, the nature of travel there can result in one despite your best laid plans.  The most common cause of accidents is falls.  The most common cause of emergencies is bad decision making.  There is nothing more sobering than to have someone in your party get into a severe emergency situation while deep in the backcountry.  Under these circumstances, a cool head prevails.


Preparation for Emergencies

  • Let’s define an emergency as a situation that arises when one finds themselves asking whether a team member can continue on at that point in time.
  • Your trip planning should include provisions for handling an emergency. 
  • Emergency Preparation Considerations:
  • Make sure that you provide someone with a copy of your travel itinerary and instructions to send help if you do not contact them by a specified time once you are out of the Canyon.
  • First aid: Have the necessary equipment to administer first aid and know how to use the items you bring.
  • Contacting the Outside World:
  • Low Tech Options: Signal mirror, loud whistle, bright colored materials (e.g., clothing, sleeping bag, ground cloth, etc.)
  • Emergency Phones:  These are located at several points on Corridor trails including: S. Kaibab Trail (at the “Tip-Off” near the Tonto Trail Junction), N. Kaibab Trail (at Cottonwood Campground) Bright Angel Trail (at 1.5 Mile Rest House, 3 Mile Rest House, Indian Garden Campground, Bright Angel Campground, and Phantom Ranch)
  • Cell Phones:  Don’t count on getting cell phone reception once you drop below the Rim.  Many locations on the Rim itself are dead zones as well.
  • Personal Locator Beacon (PLB):  A key feature in selecting one of these devices is one that allows you to transmit a message in addition to merely sending out a distress call.  This is beneficial in allowing customization of the emergency rescue response.  Manufacturers of these devices include:

ACR Electronics at:

McMurdo at:

  • Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB): These are PLBs on steroids and common in maritime use.  They float and keep the unit’s antenna in the correct position for signaling.  They are also required to maintain a signal for 48 hours.
  • Satellite GPS Messenger:  These are a GPS based technology that allows one to send their location, status and messages to those monitoring trip progress.  It will also send out a call for help singal when needed.  A product called the “SPOT” is the main player in the market.  Unit cost is significantly less than a PLB or EPRIB, but requires a subscription service similar to a cell phone.  More info on the SPOT is available at:

PLB and Satellite GPS Messenger devices are available for purchase at REI via this portal:

[Insert REI PLB/SPOT  Widget Here]

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We Have a Problem...

  • When an emergency situation occurs, remain calm and logically assess the situation.
  • First things first… Administer first aid.
  • Once the victim’s situation has been addressed as best as possible given available materials, a decision needs to be made as to how to proceed.
  • Avoid frivolous use of PLB and GPS Messenger devices.  They should be reserved for the direst of circumstances where life is threatened and there are no other options.
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Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

  • Unless you have the ability to establish voice contact with an emergency responder, only you and your team can make the decision as to what to do.  The options are relatively few:
  • Stay Put
  • Go for help
  • Hike out
  • These are obviously entirely dependent on the condition of the victim, and in some situations, getting the victim stabilized and improved may allow you to progress from one option to the next.
  • Staying Put:
  • If injured while solo find a shady spot and use your signal mirror.  If you are on a reasonably well traveled trail other hikers will likely happen by, but it may be a while. 
  • Staying put is the best bet if in a group and the victim is not mobile or you find yourself too far from the Rim and transport out to safely cross the distance given the victim’s condition.
  • A decision to stay put should be based on whether there is adequate water and food to allow you to hang out for several days.  Availability of shelter and appropriate clothing for the expected weather conditions will also factor into the decision-making.
  • Staying in one place generally allows you to be found more quickly and active signally may serve to accelerate someone coming to your aid.
  • Be aware that help may not arrive for days.  Also be aware that an emergency response during the winter will take longer given the limited availability of staff during the “off season” and the safety precautions they must take due to potentially difficult weather conditions that might be in play.
  • Ranger Patrols – These are infrequent outside of the main corridor trails.  Some trails only see a ranger a few times a year.
  • River Trips – Staking out a spot by the River to wait is a great option.  But, being able to see the River and being “on” the River are two very different things in many areas of the Canyon.  Flagging down a passing group of boaters is a great way to get needed assistance, but getting their attention from on high is not guaranteed.  If you can get down to the River safely seek out a calm stretch, as boater access to your location will be much easier than expecting them to navigate through a rapid.  If you manage to connect, boating parties are typically well equipped and often have a satellite phone.
  • Signaling options include anything that will attract attention:
  • Alert people on the Rim or on the trail if in view with whistle, voice, waving of arms or other materials.
  • Even if people are not visible on the Rim, use your signal mirror to flash scenic vistas, someone unseen by you my pick up your signal.
  • Signaling aircraft:
  • Use a signal mirror or other reflective device to attract the attention of passing aircraft. 
  • Make a large “X” on the ground using clothing and gear. Make it big and distinct enough to be spotted from the air.  It can’t be too large.
  • Fire (Three spaced equidistantly).

Note:  There is no air traffic over Marble Canyon (between Rider Canyon (Mile 17) and 60 Mile Canyon), Stephen and Conquistador Isles (Miles 117 – 122) and Deer Creek to Vulcan’s Anvil (Miles 138 - 178).  If you are in these areas it might be advisable to make a move, if at all possible.

  • If you depart for water ensure your location is visible to anyone how might happen by and leave a note indicating where you went, and the time and date you left.  Return as quickly as possible.
  • Going for Help:
  • An optimum team of at least three makes this option viable.  If one is injured, the second can go for help and the third can remain with the injured team member.
  • Don’t leave an injured party alone unless it cannot be avoided.
  • The messenger should have key info for the authorities, including:
  • Injuries
  • Treatments given
  • Location of the injured team member - Mark the spot on a topo before heading out
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Weight
  • Medications the victim is taking
  • Ranger Stations – Be aware of the closest ones to your chosen route.  These are located along the Corridor Trails, and include:
  • Indian Garden (open year round)
  • Phantom Ranch (open year round)
  • Cottonwood Campground (open mid-May through mid-October)
  • If lucky enough to encounter a passerby, they may be able to send assistance allowing you to return to the injured team member.
  • If the River is close at hand, head there to signal boaters on a river trip, taking heed of the comments above.
  • Hike Out:
  • If the victim can manage it, a slow hike out can be the way to go.
  • Keep in mind that the pace of the victim will affect how long it may take to get out and carrying enough water or having a plan for water access along the way are critical.
  • If the going is slow and the season’s temperatures hot, confine hiking to early morning and early evenings to limit the toll of the sun on the victim and to provide better hydration management.
  • Pay careful attention to victim’s condition all along the way.  Don’t push beyond their capabilities.  Rest often.  Constantly assess the situation and revert to a “staying put” strategy if things start to deteriorate.
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How Will You Get Out?

  • Forget about hitching a ride on a passing mule string.  Mule evacuations are generally not available in the Corridor areas.  They will certainly carry a message and alert the authorities to your plight and get help to you.
  • Hitching a ride with a party of boaters is an option; however, depending on where you are when you hitch that ride, it might be several days before getting to a spot where evacuation is possible.
  • Evacuation by helicopter is the most likely way out, should getting out under your own power not be viable.
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Who Pays the Tab?

  • Under most circumstances, you do.  The price tag for a helicopter evacuation is about $1,500.
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