Colorado has recently suffered quite the blow from flash floods in cities like Boulder, Fort Collins, Jamestown, and Lyons.  The destruction there is unbelievable.  To know that it was done by flash flooding is, in my mind, just plain scary.

This is an image from the Denver Post of a Jamestown road after the flooding.

Photo caption from DenverPost.com:  The floods have taken out huge portions of James Canyon Drive east and west of Jamestown, CO on September 15, 2013.  People in the town say the the Little Jim Creek which used to flow quietly through town has changed course and is tearing apart properties and houses as it continues to rage. This is east of town.  (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

Flash floods are no joke and they happen, well, in a flash.  If you’re hiking in slot canyons or washes, as is common out here, there are several things you can do to protect yourself from these natural disasters.

1.  Know what causes a flash flood. 

Flash floods begin with unusually hard rain (4 inches or more in an hour), or substantial rain for several days in a row.  Out here in the arid west, the sun bakes the dirt so much that it often can’t soak up water at all.  It’s almost like a pot or vessel for water instead.  When this happens, water just runs down canyon walls and starts a small creek in the canyon bottom.  This can soon turn into a raging river.

Conversely, if there is strong rain for several days, the creek beds and canyons become saturated and can’t hold anymore water.  Then the same thing occurs:  dry creek beds just continue to fill, and eventually fast flowing “rivers” have formed.

2.  Know when you’re in an area that could be affected by a flash flood. 

If you’re hiking in a slot canyon you probably know you’re in an area that could be affected by a flood.  But canyons, even small ones like Ladder Canyon, which I hiked last month, are potential flash flood candidates.  In fact, we could see debris high on the canyon walls from floods and times of high water. Dry washes or dry river beds are prime targets for flash floods as well.

This dry river bed can quickly become filled with water during the monsoon seasons in Colorado.

3.  Listen to warning sounds around you. 

If you’re in a canyon and you hear thunder overhead, it is probably time to cut your hike short and get out.  If you feel a stiff breeze coming up the canyon towards you and hear a roaring sound, it’s time to formulate a plan of action.

4. Look for higher ground or ways out. 

While you’re hiking through canyons enjoying the views and slickrock canyon walls, look for exit routes.  Are there ways to scramble up the canyon walls if you need to?  Knowing ahead of time how to escape when you hear a flood coming can be a huge benefit.  You won’t waste time panicking about what to do, you’ll just head for the wall and start climbing.

The slickrock walls of Pollock Canyon allow rains to just roll right down into the bottom.  A flash flood through here could be massive.

5. Have an alternative hike planned. 

If you have listened to weather reports and know that substantial rain has been falling in areas around where you plan to hike, have an alternate hike planned on higher ground.  In desert areas, large amounts of rain from up to 100 miles away can cause flash floods where you are.  If you know it’s monsoon season or you know big storms have been occurring, play it safe and hike on top of mesas or buttes instead of down in their canyons.

This is an image of the “Chutes” leading down into Bullet Canyon in southeastern Utah.  During thunderstorms these dry rock chutes become paths for huge, fast flowing waterfalls.

The motto of “always being prepared” means not just having a rain coat, extra food and warm clothes, it means gathering information, too.  Pay attention to weather reports, to what is happening around you, and most of all to your instincts.  Hiking that next slot canyon right this minute isn’t as important as living to hike another day.

For an amateur video of Utah flash flood footage, click here.

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