A Beginner’s Guide to Canyoneering

A First Timer's Perspective

Man Jumping into water
Woman in crack canyoneering

For years I’ve always been intrigued with the sport of canyoneering. Images of adventurers rappelling down waterfalls in South American jungles looked like the ultimate trek. To get into the sport takes years of climbing experience, a collection of gear that is built over many years, and extensive knowledge of the gear (just to name a few).

Once I started dating an avid rock climber, the possibility of a canyoneering trip became real. If you’ve ever meet a climber you know they aren’t just limited to climbing. The sport branches out into an array of different practices. It just so happened that her friends had 15 years of canyoneering experience. 

Equipment

Climbing Harness
Mammut Ophir 3 Slide Harness – This was my everyday climbing harness, the one I use in the gym and outdoors. It’s an inexpensive harness that fits well and I have no issues wearing it for long periods of time. There are canyoneering specific harnesses available and they offer a few additional features compared to a typical climbing harness. For instance, a canyoneering harness will usually have horizontal tie points for rappelling, covered gear loops, and are designed to withstand more punishment. 
Gloves
There are canyoneering specific gloves on the market, aimed at climbers and belayers. The durability of these gloves vary, as does the price. I personally wouldn’t recommend shelling out a large amount of cash for some basic gloves, especially if they are only going to last one trip. Basic work gloves can make it through your trip and can often be found at any home improvement store for $3-$5. When sliding down sand stone and rappelling down a hand rope, you’re going to want that extra protection. 
Petzl Cordex Plus Gloves
Locking Carabiner
Black Diamond Positron Screwgate Locking Carabiner – Typically someone wouldn’t own an ATC and not a locking carabiner, they go hand in hand. When you are selecting a locking carabiner for canyoneering it’s best to find one that is very sturdy and can withstand the elements. It will be subjected to water and sand which can cause it to lock up and become tough to use. As always, it’s great to have a number of these handy for both rappelling and building anchors. 
Black Diamond Positron Screwgate Carabiner
Static Rope
Rope selection will need to be its own post, as the selection size is huge and features enormous. Canyoneering rope widths used are usually around 9mm, the rope is static, moisture resistant, and very durable. These ropes are designed to have low stretch to make rappelling easier with limited bouncing. When it comes to rope length it will depend on the anchors available and the rappel lengths within the canyons. It’s vital to know your rappel lengths before you get down into the slot canyon. 
Sterling Rope CanyonLux 8.0mm Rope
Wetsuit
If you’re just trying canyoneering out one time to see how it is, don’t spend big on a wetsuit. Jump on a second hand type website or local classifieds and see what people are selling. Your wetsuit is going to come back beaten and battered, so don’t use one you care about. I managed to find one in my size on Craigslist for $40 which had only been used a handful of times. If you’re thinking “I can swim in water without a wetsuit, I mean, it’s the desert”. You’re not wrong. Our trip was in southern Utah during March, which can be warm, but gets chilly in the dark canyons. Much of the water is stagnant so it’s not terribly cold either. However, I found the wetsuit served more of a purpose for climbing rather than keeping me warm. When you’re sliding down a narrow canyon with two sandstone walls on each side and a 20 foot drop, you’ll need to do whatever it takes to slow yourself. This includes spreading your arms/shoulder/elbows (think chicken dance), using your knees as braces, and lots of sliding on your butt. The wetsuit helps provide a necessary layer between you and the sandstone. 
Approach Shoes
La Sportiva Boulder X Approach Shoes – Like rope, this will also need to be its own article, as there are a huge variety of shoes that you can use for canyoneering. Ideally, you’ll want something that drains well and has a TON of traction. Stemming across a slot canyon requires different traction in comparison to doing a hike at your nearest state park. Sandstone can get very smooth in places, add in some moisture and it’s a whole other story. Many of these canyons have a decent approach, and hike out, so you’ll want something that can handle the trek. Find a shoe you’re comfortable wearing for a long period of time. The La Sportiva Boulder X Approach Shoes were a decent canyoneering shoe, excellent traction, lightweight, and inexpensive (REI Outlet). The one issue, these were not made for canyoneering, after one pothole we were slogging for the rest of the day. Add in some deep sand and you have your work cut out. 
Belay Device
Black Diamond ATC Belay – This is the belay device I use along with my harness on a weekly basis. It’s one of the most simple ATCs on the market, not to mention least expensive. A few members of our team opted for a canyon descender, it really depends on your needs and what’s available. If you’re experienced with rappelling you may know what device works best for you. 
Climbing Helmet
Never neglect safety. Canyoneering is a dangerous sport and it’s important to always be prepared. Any climbing helmet should work just fine.

Optional Equipment

Fiddlestick
This is a relatively new invention in the realm of canyoneering, and it’s gaining popularity. This type of anchor allows for ‘ghosting’ (leave nothing behind) a canyon, setting anchors around corners, no webbing needed, and quick to rig. Now with any anchor system there is a learning curve to perfecting this anchor. If this anchor does fail, which is a possibility due to its design, serious injury or death may result. The idea of the fiddlestick is to hold a stone knot in place while your team rappels, a pull cord is then pulled to remove the stick, freeing the knot, and allowing the rope to be pulled down. 
Potshot
In some cases you may encounter a pothole that you can’t climb out of, it may be too steep, high, or no water to help you get towards the top. Here is where a potshot comes in. The potshot is filled with sand, tossed over the pothole, and lands on the other side. Climbers use the rope to help pull themselves up and out of the pothole. Occasionally it can be tough to get the potshot right, mostly when you have to heave a bag of sand 20 yards over a pothole. 
Sand Trap
The sand trap is a retrievable anchor system that is used with material nearby, specifically sand. Fill the bag with sand, rappel, pull the pull cord and release the sand, pull the empty sand trap over. There is some trial and error involved in building a sand trap so it’s important to practice with it a few times before using it in the field.
Ascender
Your potshot made it over, you’ve swam through the stagnant, cow-poop-filled pothole, now how do you get out. Some are able to simply pull themselves out, but this isn’t always the easiest route. An ascender can help get you up and out of that pothole, without exhausting yourself. 
Tubular Webbing
A typical man-made anchor will feature two quick link carabiners tied to two ends of webbing. This is wrapped around a fixed point, rope is lead through and canyoneers rappel down. Many people choose to build these anchors ahead of time rather than when they arrive at the rappel. However, carrying extra webbing allows for canyoneers to build emergency anchors if one is not available.
Rope Bag
Throwing rope over your shoulder and climbing through a canyon is just not feasible. Those narrow passages require you to throw your bag ahead or toss it to team members. Constantly doing this can damage the rope and require you to constantly re-wrap it up. A rope bag can make it quick and easy to pack and unpack your rope when you need to. Not to mention it protects the rope from any unnecessary damage that can occur during the trek. 
Climbing Hook
These aren’t needed in many cases, however, we did use ours as an anchor on the first trip. Pretty stright-forward, a metal hook with a rope attached. Hook it into, or around, and anchor, we had a small hole in the rock. It can be tough trying to jar the hook out of the hole following a rappel. 
Spare Quick Link Carabiners
If you’re building an anchor with your backup tubular webbing, it’s going to be much easier with some backup quick link carabiners. Anchors that have been put there by prior teams can deteriorate quickly and pieces fall off. You may be required to replace quick link carabiners on an anchor that was previously built. 
GPS
Canyons are deceptive and every year people need to be rescued from them. It’s easy to get turned around, take a wrong canyon, or miss your exit points. Having a GPS with you can save your life. There are a few websites out there that allow users to download gpx files that can be uploaded into a GPS. This will give waypoints to users, letting them know what to expect ahead. 
Dry Bag
You can opt to go through the canyon entirely in your wetsuit, or switch back into dry clothes. You’ll want to switch into dry clothes when you have the chance. Hiking in a wetsuit for a long period of time can become very uncomfortable. A small dry sack can hold a tee shirt, shorts, and socks… and keep them dry while you make it through some of the potholes. Additionally, tossing some snacks, or lunch, in there is nice as well. 
Piece it together
Now as mentioned earlier much of this gear is accumulated over the years, it can add up if you’re going to jump online and start making purchases. Luckily for my situation I was with well-experienced canyoneers who had copious amounts of climbing and canyoneering supplies. 

It’s always a good idea to carry backup gear, as anything can happen to the one you’re carrying. Extra locking carabiners and at least one ATC is recommended, you don’t want to be stuck at an 80 foot rappel with no ATC. 

Skills Required

Basic knot knowledge – If your trip is being guided by experienced canyoneers, you can get away with not knowing knots. Lets face it, it’s not a bad skill set to have. If you’re leading a canyoneering trip you’ll have to understand different knots, their functions, and when to use specific ones. 

Climbing stamina – As someone who does various workouts a minimum of 5 days a week, canyoneering kicked my butt. Stemming for nearly 30 minutes straight, a 2 mile approach, 2 mile hike out, and multiple climbs out of potholes, you’ll be a bit fatigued. Having a strong core, some upper body strength, and legs that can adhere to a big workload will help you make it through the journey. 

Rappel experience – Every canyon is different and not each one will feature rappels. But what’s the fun in that? If you’re doing a canyon that requires a rappel you should go through the motions a few times and perfect the skill. You can get some practice in your own backyard or garage in most cases. Wrap some rope around a tree, branch, or garage rafter/truss, anything that is secure and can withhold your weight. Get your harness on and run the rope through your ATC. Practice leading rope through and braking with your brake hand. Review some videos online to get a better understanding, and don’t be afraid to ask someone who is experienced for help. 

OK with tight spaces – Canyons get tight, very tight. In some cases if you’re more than 180 lbs, chances are you’re not getting through. You’ll need to be comfortable with tight spaces. Some of these tight spaces can carry on for a good distance, you may have your back and chest against rock as you slide forward. Often in these areas your only option is to go forward, there’s no turning back, keep in mind before descending into the canyon. 

Ability to swim – Depending on the time of year, potholes can have an abundance of water. Typically a pothole is only 5-10 feet long, however you may encounter longer ones that require some swimming. 

Man walking in mountains

How Canyoneering Rating Work

Technical Classification – Canyons work on a 1 – 4 technical classification with 1 being the lowest. These ratings can help hikers quickly determine the skills needed along with the gear that may be required. 

  • Class 1 – The lowest, or easiest rating, a class 1 canyon often involves hiking, no technical climbing, and no rappelling. Great for beginners. 
  • Class 2 – Scrambling, hand ropes, and downclimbing may be present. Typically, no rappelling and the canyon exit may scrambling. Better for fit hikers.
  • Class 3 – Rappels are very likely, along with downclimbing, and hand ropes. Fixing rope for canyon exits may also be necessary. Intermediate canyoneers with experience. 
  • Class 4 – The highest rating, for advanced canyoneers with technical knowledge and appropriate gear. May include difficult potholes, multi-pitch rappels, difficult down climbs, tight squeezes, and limited anchors. Again, for advanced canyoneers only. 
Canyoneering Ratings
Woman Rappelling

Water Volume – Water levels in canyons can vary dramatically, depending on a number of different factors. Water in slot canyons can be incredibly dangerous, always check local weather reports before a trip.

  • A – Typically there is no water, at the very least waist deep.
  • B – Still pools, no current, swimming is a possibility.
  • C – Waterfalls, flowing water, high possibility of swimming.

Time/Grade – This indicates the allotted time a team should consider to complete the canyon. Ratings are based on team members having technical knowledge and experience along with being fit and able to complete the canyon. Inexperienced teams may double the estimated time, depending on pace.

  • I – Allow a couple of hours.
  • II – Around half day.
  • III – Most of the day.
  • IV – A long day, start early.
  • V – About 2 days.
  • VI – Two or more days required.

Additional Risk – There are additional risks associated with many canyons and this section of the rating system often highlights them here. However, it doesn’t give specifics, it’s important to do some research to pinpoint exactly what those risks entail.

  • No Rating – No increased risks, normal canyoneering risks are still present.
  • R Rating – Additional risks are present, necessary skills and judgement are required.
  • X Rating – Extreme risk factors, not for inexperienced canyoneers. Errors in execution can result in serious injury or death.

Get Some Beta

Know before you go! There’s lots of information online where people have shared their stories of different canyons. Some of the original posts date back many years and the canyon has changed over time. Read some of the comments on these pages to get a good understanding of what to expect before you get there. These sites will provide directions to the trailhead, waypoints to look for, and rappel lengths. I suggest downloading a gpx file and adding it to your GPS to ensure you’re on the correct route and know what to look for. It’s easy to miss canyon entrances and exits. 

Practice Makes Perfect

Canyoneering is tough. If you’re an avid hiker a 1AII should be no problem for you. Now if you’re an avid climber or mountaineer you’re probably well-suited for canyoneering. If you’re going to go on your first canyoneering trip I suggest taking two to three weeks to make sure you’re ready. 

Stamina – You’re going to be hiking, climbing, scrambling, and stemming quite a bit. Having the endurance to do all this throughout the day is going to be vital. In many scenarios you won’t have the opportunity to sit and rest your arms or legs, you’ll need to hold yourself up while other body parts rest. Increase your stamina by walking/running on the treadmill or hitting the stairmaster. Get your heartbeat up and do this for long periods. This will help you set a good pace while in the canyon and not fall behind. 

Core – Having a strong core makes scrambling and stemming around a canyon much easier. You’ll find yourself in peculiar positions that will test muscles you don’t use often. There are a number of core exercises you can do at home to prepare yourself. Start with planks, rocking hollow body, and reverse crunches to start building a foundation. 

Legs – In many aspects of climbing power is driven from the legs, although it may seem the upper body gets more of the work. This is the same for canyoneering as your legs will get a workout by stemming and climbing. If you’re working out at home start with wall sits and squats, this will transfer to the canyon and will boost your stamina come time to stem. 

Upper Body – Pulling yourself out of a pothole can be torture. Assuming you have something to grab onto, such as a hand rope or partner, your upper body will need to be ready. Push ups and pull ups are great ways to work the arms, back, and shoulders. If you don’t have anywhere to do pull ups try doing inverted rows on a fixed object in the house. Grabbing the end of the table, or even a bed sheet in the door will work. 

Canyoneering is dangerous, even the most experienced make mistakes. Gear fails, and when you’re 50 miles in the desert, you’ll want to know how to get out. Take the proper precautions before venturing out. This means knowing your route, exit points, landmarks, and letting others know where you are. If you’re unsure of a situation, ask for help. Not sure if you have the knowledge to complete your first trek? Get a guide to show you the proper techniques. Classes are also offered that can teach all the ins and outs of canyoneering. Remember to never push the limits and always double check your gear. Be safe out there.

Group Canyoneering
Road to mountains
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