What is the best technique for self-arrest on a sandy slope? I was canyoneering last week and the sand in the canyon was very soft and powdery--with a steep drop off at the bottom of the slope. Luckily I did not have any issues, but I was trying to figure out the best technique for self-arrest on a sandy slope--similar to self-arrest with an ice axe on a snowy slope. Any suggestions? I thought that plunging a longer backpacking knife, like a 7 inch blade, into the sand with your body weight over it might work--but this is just an idea.

  • I strongly doubt you're going to be able to manage drawing your blade while sliding through sand towards the edge of a cliff.
    – ShemSeger
    Mar 29, 2016 at 4:17
  • Haha. Well, you have to be a bit smart about it. I mean you don't start walking on a risky sandy slope close to the edge of a cliff--any more than you go walking along an avalanche prone hill without a personal locator and avalanche probe. I was about 150 feet above the cliff edge, but could feel the sand was so soft that I was starting to slip. So I would have plenty of time to pull a knife and plunge it into the slope.
    – krishnab
    Mar 29, 2016 at 4:29
  • 3
    The knife sounds like an awful idea to me: Sliding and possibly tumbling down a slope with knife in your hand that you try to stick into the possibly inhomogeneous ground close to your chest...
    – imsodin
    Mar 29, 2016 at 8:40
  • This sounds sketchy. Why not just set it up as a rappel? No appropriate anchors?
    – user2169
    Mar 29, 2016 at 15:12
  • @BenCrowell Thanks Ben. Yeah, the canyon was sandstone, so it would have been difficult to put in bolts or strong anchors. But we might have tried like tying rope around some bigger rocks or features. Did not think of that at the time. Good idea for next time.
    – krishnab
    Mar 29, 2016 at 15:16

3 Answers 3


You can use a snow self arrest technique (one that you use if you don't have an axe). Basically you want to dig your hands and feet into the "surface" as much as possible, thus concentrating your body weight into as small an area as possible:

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  • Exactly right. Flip over on your belly and dig in.
    – M.Mat
    Feb 20, 2017 at 8:16

If you have a hiking pole you can use it for self arrest. Keep the strap around your wrist. When you fall, hold that hand away from the ground. With your other hand, grab the pole a few inches from the point and jam it into the ground. It's a little like using a cumbersome ice axe.


A walking stick might help, but I think your best bet is going to be to sprawl out flat and dig your hands as deep into the sand as possible.

Sand is not like ice. You can self arrest on ice because it's a medium that you can create friction on (scratching your pick into the ice), but sand isn't solid, it moves; flows. Getting caught in a sluff of sand would be a lot like getting caught in a stuff of snow, or an avalanche. Your only chance of not going down with it is to dig deep and try to find something to anchor onto. Your knife may work, but only if you have it out while you're walking, so it's in your hand the moment you slip. I wouldn't recommend this however, because there's a chance you could fall onto your blade.

  • This is interesting. Good points. So I actually wear my knife on my belt while I am hiking. While going down this hill I actually made sure to have one hand on the hilt of my knife--just in case I needed to pull it fast. But your point about digging your hands into the sand makes a lot of sense.
    – krishnab
    Mar 29, 2016 at 4:32
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    You cannot arrest on ice with an ice pick, only snow, If you are sliding on ice your only option is to keep your crampons and ice pick(s) away from the ice, otherwise it will catch abruptly, in case of the picks this means you will loose them, in case of the crampons you will go into a wild tumble.
    – imsodin
    Mar 29, 2016 at 8:50
  • @imsodin - You are literally advising people who read your comment to embrace their fate and slide to their deaths if they slip on ice. Self arrest with the pick of your ice axe is exactly what you're supposed to do if you start sliding down an icy slope.
    – ShemSeger
    Mar 29, 2016 at 17:08
  • @ShemSeger No I am not, but unless you can stop your fall immediately (i.e. you are not yet sliding), I am telling them to get the points of their ice axes and crampons away from the ice to avoid injury. There is no chance that you can "break" on steep ice. If the wall is steep ice ending in rocks, then there is nothing more to do than get rid of your axes and hope that you survive the impact. With this method if the slope transitions to snow or becomes more level, you have a bigger chance of being still stable and not seriously harmed, so you can start to self arrest/slow down.
    – imsodin
    Mar 29, 2016 at 17:59
  • @imsodin, you have a much greater chance of "surviving impact" if you self arrest. You may not be able to stop yourself on hard ice, but you will still be able to slow yourself down, which will make it much more likely for you to avoid injury or death, even if you only manage to slow your speed a small amount.
    – ShemSeger
    Mar 29, 2016 at 18:10

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