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Intro to Canyoneering: Tips + Gear

05.29.18

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Intro to Canyoneering: Tips + Gear
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Article
Pro Contributor

Canyons open Earth's surface like a ripple in the continuum, where reality shifts and a landscape's apparent form drops suddenly away into a tangential universe. The horizontal world turns vertical, light reflects at odd angles, and temperatures change. In a parched desert, canyons may be cold and wet. In chilly mountains, their canyons may be warmer and drier.

To explore a canyon, prepare to step into an alternate reality. Because they can be so dramatically different from surrounding terrain, canyons require special equipment and skills not used on a typical hiking trip.

Not all canyons are so extreme, of course. Many factors dictate the difficulty, and they all occur along a spectrum. Therefore, as with other outdoor activities, there are adventures suitable for beginners to build skills and work up to more advanced levels. This guide to canyoneering describes the safety, skills, and equipment you should learn about, some good places to start, and also some intermediate canyons to aspire toward.

Safety

Most canyons are water-carved, and the powerful force of water is ever active. The narrower and deeper a canyon, the more dangerous it is in the event of a flash flood. Floods are more common in some canyons than others, so you should always weigh the risk before you go and make smart decisions.

Canyoneering can be dangerous in other ways as well. Mechanical injuries, rockfall, getting lost, dehydration, hypothermia, and heat exhaustion are all real risks depending on the terrain and weather. Be sure to research any canyon you intend to visit, and go with an experienced group if you may be getting in over your head.

Types of Canyons

  • Technical: Canyons that require ropes, harnesses, and special hardware to safely descend. They are nearly always completed top-down by rappelling vertical drops that cannot be climbed.
  • Non-technical: Canyons that can be completed without rappelling. They may still have vertical drops, but short ones that be scrambled over or around. Non-technical canyons can usually be completed top-down or bottom-up.
  • Wet canyons: Those that require getting wet. Many canyons flow with water or retain water in pools that have no way around, so you must go through. May be technical or non-technical.
  • Dry canyons: Those that do not require getting wet, under normal conditions at least. They may still flow with water sometimes, but they are normally dry or have ways to avoid the water. May be technical or non-technical.
  • Slot canyon: Generally defined as a canyon that is deeper than it is wide. This is an especially dramatic form of canyon most commonly found in the desert Southwest. Slot canyons may be wet or dry, technical or non-technical. They are almost always difficult to escape, however, and the only way out may be to reach the very end.

Non-technical canyons are easier than technical ones, but they may still require special preparation and skills. Rock scrambling, route finding, or swimming may be necessary. You should know before entering a canyon what obstacles you may face and what conditions you may encounter.

Gear and Destinations

Basic gear needed for any canyoneering trip, even non-technical, dry canyons:

  • Boots or other sturdy shoes to fully protect your feet
  • Durable pants that can withstand catching on rocks and vegetation
  • Extra layers for unexpected cold or wet conditions
  • Food, water
  • First aid kit and knowledge about how to use it
  • Backpack
  • Helmet (for any vertical terrain where falls or falling rock are risks)

Non-technical, dry canyons to try:

Wet-canyon gear, additionally needed for non-technical or technical canyons that require moving through water:

  • Sturdy shoes and socks that work well when wet (some prefer canyoneering-specific boots constructed with neoprene and sticky rubber)
  • Wetsuit (to stay warm when wet in a shady canyon)
  • Dry bags (to protect extra layers and anything else that must stay dry)

Non-technical canyons to get your feet (or more) wet:

Technical canyoneering gear, which also requires expertise to safely use:

  • Harness
  • Rappel device and locking carabiner
  • Ropes long enough for the rappels you will encounter
  • Extra slings and hardware for building/replacing anchors
  • Basic rescue gear

If you are already experienced with rock climbing and familiar with all the above gear, you could jump right in with an easier technical canyon. Difficult ones may require canyoneering-specific skills and equipment not covered here, however, so be sure you know what you are getting yourself into. The following technical canyons are a good place to start:

More Resources

Here are some more guides on Outdoor Project to help you learn more about canyoneering destinations, skills, and safety:

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