Trail Safety, Ethics, and Uses

Adapted from the Arizona State Trails Guide, 3ed., State Trails Program and Arizona State Committee on Trails, 1998.
Other material adapted from the Santa Catalina Ranger District, the Kaibab National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service Southwestern Region's pamphlet "On Your Own in the Southwestern Mountains," and other government sources.

Trail Safety

Know your Route. Know as much as possible about the area and the trail prior to venturing out. At the very minimum, print out and bring the maps that we have provided. However, keep in mind that we have cropped the maps so they will download faster, which means that if you stray off the trail, you may stray off our maps. We recommend bringing the complete USGS quadrangle. Check with forest rangers for advice on trials, campsites and potential problems. Also check for fire restrictions and closure notices that may affect your planned route. Allow about one hour for each two miles covered, plus an additional hour for each 1,000 feet of altitude gained.

Know Your Limits. All trail users need to be aware of their physical abilities and limitations, and those of their hiking partners. Realize that when you push beyond your limits, you can start making bad decisions. If you are not a regular exerciser, check with your doctor before embarking on a challenging hike.

Check the Weather. Know the weather forecast and be prepared for changes in the weather. Extreme heat, cold, and lightning are particular threats in Arizona. 

Travel in a Group. Do not hike alone. Unless you are very experienced and prefer solitude, a party of at least four persons is recommended because you should never leave an injured person alone. He or she may wander off while in shock.

Tell Someone Where you are Going. Make sure you tell someone, in writing, exactly where you are going and when you expect to be back. In the event that you are not going to be very late returning but you are OK, be sure to let that person know. Trails are often located in remote areas. Therefore, injuries can present a potentially dangerous, frustrating, and even expensive experience. In most cases, with trails outside of a municipality, the county sheriff's department will be responsible for search and rescue operations (with the exception of National Park Service units that typically conduct their own).

Bring the Right Stuff. Some essential items that are useful in challenging and/or survival situations include the following:

Make sure you have a working spare tire and jack (and know how to change a tire), a spare car key, a blanket, extra food, and several gallons of extra water in your car, in case your car breaks down in a remote area.

Hiking in Arizona offers some unique hazards for which hikers must be prepared.

Snakes, Scorpions, and Spiders. Avoidance is the best policy. Avoid putting your hand in any cracks or reaching up into areas that you cannot see. Keep tents zipped and shoes on. Check shoes and sleeping bags before entering. Avoid getting too close to snakes.

Bears. Although there are no grizzly bears in Arizona, black bears inhabit the higher mountain ranges, and do on occasion attack people. Adults range in weight from 125 to 400 lbs, can stand 5 feet tall on their hind legs, can run 35 mph, and can swim, and climb trees. Avoidance is the best policy. In camp, hang your food from a high limb in bear country, and avoid bringing smelly items into your tent. On the trail, make noise coming around blind corners so you won't surprise them. If you encounter a bear, stay calm and make noises to allow the bear to become aware of your presence. Never approach a cub, keep dogs leashed, and never, ever feed the bears. Stay calm, back away slowly, and if the bear is on the trail, get off the trail. Give it room to escape. Do not run or make any sudden movements. If you can safely get to a vehicle or other secure structure, it is advisable to do so. In the event that you surprise a bear and it charges you, it is best to play dead, but if it actually attacks you, fight back. For more about black bears in Arizona, visit the USFS Coronado National Forest's "Black Bear" page.

Mountain Lions. Many of these hikes are in mountain lion habitat. For information on what to do if you see one, and to learn more about them, visit one of these sites:  USFS Coronado National Forest's "Mountain Lion" page  |  Arizona Game and Fish Department's "Mountain Lions in Arizona" brochure (PDF).

Heat and Sun. The heat and sun are your worst enemies in Arizona. It is far easier to avoid dehydration than to rehydrate after you have become dehydrated. Therefore, it is important to drink a lot of water before you set off on hot hikes. Sunblock and hats are essential for Arizona hiking, especially at high elevations. Taking 250 mg of vitamin C can hasten acclimatization to heat. Among the various heat stress disorders are heat cramps, heat exhaustion, dehydration exhaustion, and heat stroke. The Southwestern Region of the USFS offers the following guidelines for recognizing and treating heat stress disorders:
Type of Heat Stress Disorder Cause Symptoms Treatment
Heat cramps Failure to replace salt lost in sweating. Painful muscle cramps. Drink lightly salted water or lemonade, tomato juice, or athletic drinks; stretch cramped muscle.
Heat exhaustion Failure to replace water and salt lost in sweating. Weakness, unstable gait, or extreme fatigue; wet clammy skin; headache, nausea, collapse. Rest in shade and drink lightly salted fluids.
Dehydration exhaustion Failure to replace water losses over several days. Weight loss and excessive fatigue. Drink fluids and rest until body weight and water losses are restored.
Heat stroke Total collapse of temperature regulating mechanisms. Hot skin; high body temperature (106F or higher); mental confusion, delirium, loss of consciousness, convulsions. Rapidly cool victim immediately, either by immersing in cold water or soaking clothing with cold water and fanning vigorously to promote evaporative cooling. Continue until temperature drops below 102F. Treat for shock if necessary once temperature is lowered. Send for medical help at once. Brain damage and death result if treatment is delayed.

Cold and Wind. Despite Arizona's desert environment, cold, snow, rain, and wind are commonplace on mountains and also canyons at certain times of year. Mountain weather is notoriously unpredictable. Temperatures can plummet to well below 0ºF, winds can become fierce, and whiteouts can disorient you. In fact, heat stroke and hypothermia are possible on the same hike if the weather changes. Hypothermia is the cooling of the body's inner core. It is the primary killer of outdoor recreationists. Warm and dry clothing including hat and gloves, high-energy foods, water, a good night's sleep, and avoidance of alcohol all can help ward off hypothermia. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, poor coordination, loss of manual dexterity, drowsiness, disorientation, slurred speech, and exhaustion. The recommended treatment is to get back to your car or shelter as quickly as possible, keeping dry, getting out of the wind, eating fast-energy food, and slowly rewarming the body externally. Do not give hypothermia victims liquids because they may be in shock.

Snow, Ice, and Avalanches. Avalanches can occur during winter and spring months. Exercise caution on inclined hardpacked snowfields where a misstep can cause a slide or fall. Bring and know how to use an ice-axe for late fall or early spring hiking on the high summits. Check the weather conditions before you leave, but keep in mind that thunderstorms are common in Arizona from June to September, and their occurrence is unpredictable.

Altitude Sickness. Many people who go too high too fast suffer altitude sickness due to lack of oxygen. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and the feeling of being very ill. Pulmonary edema, a major medical emergency, also can occur above 9,000 feet. The symptoms include extreme fatigue or collapse, shortness of breath, a racking cough, bubbling noises in the chest, and bloody sputum. Unless transported to a much lower altitude immediately, the victim may die within hours. It is recommended that one should spend time acclimatizing one's body to higher altitudes, by spending Day 1 at 0-7,000 ft; Day 2 at 7,000-10,000 ft, Day 3 at 10,000-12,000 ft, and Day 4 at 12,000-14,000 ft. Other ways to help avoid altitude sickness include being in good physical condition, getting plenty of rest and sleep, and avoiding alcohol and smoking. Returning to sea-level at the end of a mountain hike presents no adjustment problems.

Flash floods. Flooding presents another unique danger in Arizona, especially in narrow canyons. Water levels can rise suddenly, cutting off your return route. In extremely rare cases, a wall of water can move down a canyon at rapid speeds. These can occur even if it is not raining at your location. Heavy thunderstorms can be highly localized upstream of your position. One should never drive a car through a flooded arroyo, which can be surprisingly deep.

Lightning. During the Arizona monsoon (summer), storms move very fast, and lightning is a common occurrence. Avoid exposed areas and ridges, lone trees and rocks, streams, and puddles. Try to get below treeline fast. If you find your hair standing up on end or see lightning strikes nearby, squat down low, and insulate yourself from the ground. Try to keep only the rubber soles of your shoes in contact with the ground. Remove metal-framed packs, but do not abandon them - they may be needed later on.

Swimming and Diving. Many Arizona canyons have rivers or pools of water. One should never dive head-first into these pools, and one should not jump without thoroughly checking for depth and underwater obstructions. Also, avoid swimming in the fast currents of the Colorado River.

Infected water. Two common parasites found in outdoor water sources include Giardia and Cryptosporidium. They cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, and dehydration. The illnesses can begin in 4-12 days, and can last 1-12 weeks. All stream and lake waters should be boiled for at least 5 minutes. Portable filtration units with very small pore sizes (less than 10 microns) can also be used.

Rock climbing. Rock climbing is an inherently dangerous activity to both the climber and those underneath. Arizona has many loose sedimentary rocks. Never roll or throw rocks down a mountain or canyon.

These advisories, maps, and directions are offered solely as helpful guidelines. Hikers must use judgment and take responsibility for their own safety. The authors and the State of Arizona assume no responsibility for problems that may occur in using this guide. For more advice, see the US Forest Service Outdoor Safety website.  For more motivation to take safety seriously, we recommend reading: Ghiglieri, Michael P. and Myers, Thomas M. 2001. Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon. Flagstaff: Puma Press.

Trail Ethics

Many factors need to be considered when using trails. These may include the effect that you may have on a resource or other users, and how the resource and other users may affect you.

Trail users have a responsibility to maintain a stewardship ethic. Trail users are generally visitors, and their presence should not affect the natural biologic or geologic processes of the specific area. This includes working closely with the land managing agencies in protecting natural and cultural resources with their own actions. Report any concerns you may have to the land managing agency, and ask how you can become involved. Trail users can be a valuable resource to the agencies by providing updated information and by voluntering for various trail-related projects.

The national Tread Lightly program advocates responsible use of public and private lands. In addition, the national Leave No Trace program, which advocates leaving minimal impact while using an area for recreational purposes, is another good source of information. The US Department of Agriculture has a Leave No Trace circular, as does the Bureau of Land Management. Two other good web sites for low-impact hiking are, and All of these programs provide comprehensive information that can assist in achieving a stewardship ethic.

Trail and Land Uses

Many trails in Arizona are multiple-use trails, therefore accommodating a spectrum of trail uses. While great differences may exist in the specific trail activities, trail users are often seeking some of the same benefits such as challenge, solitude, socialization, clean air, natural surroundings, and escape. Many trail uses have existed since the turn of the century, while others have evolved in recent decades. The Share the Trail program is designed for all trail users and includes the following recommendations:


Equestrians: Mountain Bikers: The above Share the Trail program can also apply to walkers, cross-country skiers, packstock users, snowshoers, hunters, anglers, and the variety of other recreationists that use the trails.

Trails within Wilderness areas are not open to bicycles (wheelchairs may be permitted in some cases) because these trails are limited to "primitive" modes of travel. Many nonwilderness trails are also limited to primitive travel. However, many of these trails may be available to bicyclists and not be indicated as such within this guide. Many higher elevation trails may be available for cross-country skiing and just not have traditionally been promoted for such use. Contact the trail managing agency for the most current information.

Most of the trails within this guide are located on public lands. Many of the trails on Federal lands are located on multiple-use lands (except those within National Park service units and wilderness) where uses include wildlife habitat, recreation, watershed, grazing, mining, and timber harvesting. Please be prepared to encounter these various land uses, as many of them are traditional land uses. In addition, remember that in most cases, grazing is permitted within wilderness.

In areas where grazing occurs, please respect the ranchers' needs and desires as you pass through these areas. This includes avoiding livestock, livestock improvements, and structures, leaving all gates as you find them, keeping pets on leash, and adopting a "stewardship ethic" while using the area.