A Beginner’s Guide to Canyoneering
A First Timer's Perspective
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.