What is Canyoneering?


Canyoneering is the ultimate adventure sport. As a multi-disciplinary activity, it combines the best parts of hiking, rappelling, mountaineering, swimming, cliff jumping, and rock climbing. A single day of canyoneering can pack as much adventure as you could get in a full weekend of other activities. Descending into a canyon is the ultimate exploration of the unknown.

Many canyons are so remote that the approach requires hours of hiking and scrambling, map reading skills, and even a certain amount of luck. Even after reading the guidebook or beta, you never know what you will find in a canyon. Canyons are dynamic. On a week to week, or even day to day basis water levels and temperatures drastically fluctuate, log jams form or clear up, and natural or man-made anchors flush away. Navigating these ever-changing canyons requires a strong set of problem solving skills, and an arsenal of technical knowledge.

Canyoneering involves endless physical challenges, requiring the strength and balance of a gymnast and the mental fortitude of an ultra marathon runner. Most canyons cannot be completed by a single person- they require a team with a variety of different strengths. Taking advantages of these different individual strengths and skills builds an ironclad sense of camaraderie and is excellent for team building. A warning though- canyoneering will pretty much ruin basic hiking for you. Sure, hiking is pretty and can be fun and everything, but it is utterly boring compared the adrenaline and mystique of canyoneering.

What is Canyoneering? Canyoneering is the adventure sport of exploring a canyon by a combination of skills like rappelling, hiking, climbing, and swimming. This means finding ways to descend an otherwise un-navigable waterway. It can require technical expertise, strength, and courage. In many places in the world, it is known as Canyoning.

The Rockulus: Learn the Ropes!

History of Canyoneering

Ancient peoples first explored canyons in places like the Colorado Plateau as a means of finding sources of water and food, or establishing secure places to live. In some places they built types of ladders, in others they just lowered ropes. The larger canyons of Southern Utah, Arizona, and Colorado house scattered relics of past civilizations like the Pueblo and Anasazi.

Later on, early explorers and pioneers traversed the area searching for easier routes of travel and access to water. Although people have always explored canyons looking for food and water or places of defense, modern canyoneering began with the invention of rock climbing equipment and techniques in the  1950’s and 1960’s. Using climbing pitons as anchors, rather than relying on natural anchors, explorers and adventure sports enthusiasts could virtually go anywhere in a canyon with enough rope.

Canyoneering started to catch on all around the world independently through the early to mid 1900’s, and as such there are different techniques and names in each region. Adventurers who excelled in other activities like caving, climbing, paddling, and hiking brought their own unique skills to the table as they formed what is now known as Canyoneering. See discussion on Global Variations of Canyoneering below-

Initially, exploring canyons was done in the same way early mountaineering and arctic expeditions were done- with systems of permanent anchors, ladders, and ropes or cables and pulleys. The only thought was to make the descent of the canyon easier the next time you came through, with no regard to sustainability and preservation.

Only in recent decades have Leave No Trace principles been widely adopted and embraced by the overall canyoneering community (in conjunction with the overall outdoor community). The goal of most canyoneers now is called ‘Ghosting,’ leaving nothing behind but footprints in the mud through the development of various retrievable anchors.

See Also: The Complete History of Rock Climbing

American Canyoneering Association

Early canyoneers were very hesitant to share locations and beta with others. Lots of different groups claimed first descents of now popular canyons, and it was very difficult for the average person to get involved. Thanks to the internet however, people interested in canyoneering have been able to come together and swap stories, information, and techniques.

In 1999, after nearly a decade of professionally guiding groups through Southern Utah canyons, Rich Carlson started the American Canyoneering Association (ACA). The intent was to formalize the ethical and safety issues in the sport, and to provide training, organization, and certification for professional guides and other people who are interested. The ACA now offers multiple courses and trainings throughout the year.

Present Day

The last few decades have launched dozens of canyoneering guide services around the world, from the Philippines to Portugal, and everywhere in between. The area with the most guiding companies is near the National Parks of Southern Utah- Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands. You can book either a half-day or full-day adventure as a once in a lifetime opportunity, or as a way to learn the sport.

The advent of social media has catapulted canyoneering to the forefront of many people’s travel itineraries and bucket lists as they seek to explore the deep slots and natural waterslides in the earth. As canyoneering grows in popularity, different gear and techniques launch every couple of years. Whereas in the past canyoneering gear consisted of tools from other disciplines haphazardly applied to canyons, now a few companies built around canyoneering have emerged, developing gear specifically designed for canyoneer’s needs.

While the majority of the canyons of the US have been explored and documented, there are still plenty of First Descents available in other parts of the world.

Global Variations of Canyoneering

As mentioned above, canyoneering didn’t really begin in any one place. Different people around the world started using similar techniques to explore the canyons around them. Because of this, there are no universal canyoneering techniques or practices, and there is no universal term for canyoneering.

In fact, the term “Canyoneering” is primarily used in the United States- as well as tourist destinations throughout the world. The next most common term is “Canyoning,” used throughout Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. In Africa, they use the word “Kloofing,” derived from Afrikaans. Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico and Spain call it “Barranquismo” or “Cañonismo.”

A few other places that practice various forms of canyoneering have other names as well. Several Asian countries, like Japan and China, practice a reverse form of canyoneering where they ascend canyons instead of descend them, called “River Tracing.” When they go down canyon, they do call it canyoning. The same thing goes for non-technical canyons in the UK, where it is called “Gorge Walking.” They also use the term Canyoning for technical canyons.

In many places in the world, canyoneering has matured to the point that there are very few unexplored and unbolted canyons left; however, there are many regions that are virtually untapped. China’s canyoneering is in its infancy, as is the canyoneering in much of South America and Africa.

Most Popular Canyoneering Locations

United States (Southwest, some in Pacific Northwest)- When you think of canyoneering, you probably envision Southern Utah. The 5 National Parks boast some of the most iconic sandstone canyons in the world. Along the Colorado Plateau, Northern Arizona also hosts a large selection of different kinds of canyoneering. The west coast, including California, Oregon, and Washington also have great access to canyoneering and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Oceania (New Zealand, Australia, Philippines)- New Zealand has made a name for itself as the adventure capital of the world. They have everything from alpine hiking to zip lining. The south island has the majority of the canyoneering, but keep in mind that it is not permitted to run canyons without a guide. Australia has some neat sandstone canyons in the Blue Mountains National Park, and Kawasan in the Philippines always fills up the #canyoneering on instagram.

Europe (UK, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Montenegro, etc.)- Pretty much every country in Europe has some form of canyoneering. European canyons vary from tropical-type canyons on Portuguese Islands to Alpine canyons in Switzerland.

Costa Rica– Costa Rica has developed a reputation as the adventure capital of Central America. It is a prime vacation spot for adventurers from all over North and South America. Lots of different companies provide guided tours through some of the best canyons Central America has to offer. Other regions in Central and South America have lots of canyoneering potential, but Costa Rica is the most mature of the area.

Rating System

Just as in rock climbing, where there are several different systems for rating the difficulty of climbs based on where you are geographically, there are two different rating systems for canyoneering. The different ratings were established by the American Canyoneering Association and the French Federations.

These ratings help you to have a rough idea of what to expect in a canyon; however, it is very important to note that conditions are always changing, and no canyon is the same from week to week. These rating systems provide only the bare minimum amount of information required to attempt a canyon, and you should look for more information from reputable guide books and online beta.

ACA Ratings:

The ACA ratings are used throughout North America. They are very simple to understand, but also leave a lot of room for interpretation. An example is 3C III, with some rappels, flowing water, and will take most of a day.

Technical– Similar to climbing ratings, the technical class shows what level of ropework is required.

  • 1 – Normal hiking, with very few physical obstacles.
  • 2 – Easy climbing or scrambling, but a rope is not required; however, a rope may assist as a handline.
  • 3 – Technical canyoneering, involving rappels and climbing techniques like stemming.
  • 4 – Advanced canyoneering, with obstacles such as multipitch rappels, unusual exposure, or difficult rope work.

Water– Intended to give an idea of what the water levels are like during the regular season. These conditions can change in a matter of a few hours due to flash floods.

  • A – Normally dry canyon, or very little water that can usually be avoided. Feet may get wet.
  • B – Normally has water, but no current so the water is stagnant in pools. Waterfalls may have a trickle, and there could be deep pools that require swimming.
  • C – Water with a current, waterfalls, deep wading and swimming. Wetsuit probably required, depending on season and weather. Sometimes these are split into varying degrees of danger & difficulty as C1, C2, C3, C4.

Time– Although it isn’t always included, the time factor of the rating system shows the approximate time commitment to a canyon.

  • I – A couple of hours (<3 hrs)
  • II – A half day (3-5 hrs)
  • III – Most of a day (5-9 hrs)
  • IV – A full day (>8 hrs)
  • V – More than one day
  • VI – More than two days

Additional Risk (Optional)- Canyoneering is inherently risky, so even a canyon with a blank risk factor involves some degree of risk.

  • Blank – No abnormal risk
  • PG (R-) – Difficult for beginners
  • R – Risky, not for beginners
  • X (R+) – Extreme risk, only for experts
  • XX – Double Extreme, life-threatening even to experts

Quality (Optional)- In an attempt to rank canyons based on visual appeal or overall fun, some guidebooks and websites add a series of 1-3 stars to the end of the rating.

French Federation Rating System:

The French system describes both canyons and caves, and most of Europe and the rest of the world follows their rating system. An example of the format would be v4a3 III, signifying a canyon with long rappels, moderate water flow, and with a moderate commitment level. The rating system mentions siphons (see vocabulary section below), which are more directed at caving than canyoneering.

Vertical Rating– The vertical rating signifies the degree of technical skill required.

  • v1 – No rappels necessary, no down-climbing
  • v2 – Rappels up to 10m, easy down-climbing with little exposure
  • v3 – Easy rappels up to 30m with low water flow, moderate down-climbing and exposures
  • v4 – Long rappels of >30m with low to moderate water flow, rappels without visibility, multi-stage rappels, exposed down-climbs
  • v5 – Difficult rappels into flowing water, multi-stage rappels with redirects and rope traps, difficult exposed climbs
  • v6 – Very difficult rappels into strong water flow, hydraulics and/or siphons at the bottom, and difficult traverses and climbs
  • v7 – Extremely difficult rappels into powerful water with hydraulics and/or siphons, extremely difficult and unprotected climbs

Aquatic Rating– The French system includes warnings for different heights of jumps, as well as for siphons.

  • a1 – Either dry or walking through water. Under normal circumstances, water is avoidable.
  • a2 – Calm water; swims up to 10m, jumps up to 3m.
  • a3 – Weak currents; swims up to 30m, jumps up to 5m.
  • a4 – Medium currents; long swims, jumps up to 8m, and a < 1m siphon
  • a5 – Strong current; no mandatory water hazards, jumps up to 10m and < 2m siphon
  • a6 – Very strong current with mandatory water hazards, jumps up to 14m, technical jumps and 2m siphons
  • a7 – Extremely dangerous water hazards, jumps over 15m, technical jumps over 10m, technical siphons

Commitment and Duration Rating– Commitment refers to the ability to ‘bail’ if necessary in the event of a flash flood. Duration refers to the amount of time required to do the canyon. Most guidebooks only mention the commitment, not the duration. Don’t get this mixed up with the ACA time rating.

  • I – Easy escapes throughout the canyon
  • II – Easy escapes within about 15 minutes
  • III – Escapes within about 45 minutes, up to 1 hour apart
  • IV – Escapes within 1 hour, up to 2 hours apart
  • V – Escapes within 2 hours, up to 4 hours apart
  • VI – Escapes take more than 2 hours, and are even more spread out

Different Types of Canyons

Slot Canyons are formed by seasonal rivers that slice away at softer rock rainstorm after rainstorm. Slots can be extremely dangerous because of the flash floods that tear through them whenever it rains anywhere in the vicinity. Most canyoneering fatalities happen when people disregard weather forecasts, or when monsoon storms appear unexpectedly. Even if a rainstorm is 10 miles away, it could still fill the slot in a moment’s notice providing little or no warning.

Narrow slots often require techniques like stemming and chimmying to cross sections with deep drops or water. Slot canyons develop in softer rocks, like sandstone or limestone, as the water carries bits of sediment away. Limestone canyons often also include caves of various sizes as well. The steep walls of a slot formed out of a uniform rock become very smooth and slick, making escape or rescue in the event of an emergency impossible. The most famous slot canyons in the world are in Southern Utah and Arizona.

Plateau Canyons or Box Canyons form as more permanent rivers etch their way through the ground year after year. Box canyons form in harder rock, and generally don’t have the same narrow slots that you’ll see in sandstone. A lot of box canyons can be explored without ropes, as there is enough space to go around any rappels.

A box canyon usually opens up at the end as the river turns into a floodplain. While box canyons may not have the same flash flood danger that slot canyons have, fatal flash floods can still happen whenever it rains. Because box canyons aren’t as narrow as slots, escape and rescue are usually easier to execute.

Canyoneering Vocabulary

As with any new activity, there is a slew of new vocabulary and slang involved. Here are some of the most common, along with their definitions.

  • Rapping- Slang for rappelling
  • Swimmer- A deep pothole or slot that is deep enough to require swimming
  • Keeper Hole or Pothole- A pothole filled with water that may require special techniques to escape
  • Slot- The extremely narrow sections of a canyon
  • Bridging- A canyoneering technique to get across or down slots by putting both feet on one wall and both hands on the other facing downwards
  • Chimneying- Similar to bridging, but with feet on one side and using your back against the face on the other side
  • Rack- The technical equipment required for a canyon
  • Ghosting- Going through a canyon without leaving anything behind
  • Scree- gravel and sand on rock that create a slick surface

Is Canyoneering Dangerous?

In short, yes. Every year there are a handful fatalities in canyons throughout the world. Often they are due to flash flooding, but other emergencies happen as well. One of the main reasons disasters happen so frequently is that rescues are so difficult due to the remote and isolated nature of canyoneering.

If a rockfall, or exposure to elements happens on a well-trafficked hiking trail, someone will be there to call search and rescue and render first aid. If an accident happens deep in a canyon, it could be days before another group passes through to find you. If an accident befalls a single member of a group, someone will have to hike all the way to the next escape to be able to call in search and rescue. With the dangerous conditions found in most canyoneering trips, groups need to have the technical expertise and preparation necessary to self-rescue.

Common Canyoneering Accidents-

  • Flash Floods
  • Heat Exhaustion
  • Drowning
  • Falling
  • Rockfall
  • Pathfinding Errors (Getting Lost)
  • Waterborne Diseases (Very Uncommon)

The majority of these risks can be mitigated with preparation and technical expertise. If you bring plenty of water and a map and knowledge of the route, then you likely won’t have to worry about getting lost. Preparing for the weather, whether hot or cold, and taking care to limit exposure to icy swims will significantly reduce the risk of hyperthermia and hypothermia.

Bring a simple pool floatie to avoid the risk of drowning during long, cold swimmer sections and treacherous potholes. Learn how to escape a keeper hole before getting yourself stuck in a canyon! Proper anchor construction, ropework, and rappel backups will help prevent falling and some rockfall. The majority of canyoneering accidents happen during rappels as people get stuck halfway down a cliff, slip near an edge, or lose control while descending. Check out our guide to the top 10 most common rappelling accidents here

Unavoidable Risks-

Some canyoneering risks just can’t be completely avoided. Flash floods take the lives of canyoneers every year, and these stories capture news headlines. A few years ago I searched for videos of flash floods online, and was shocked to only find a handful. People just don’t survive them. In a matter of just a few minutes, and only a few inches of rain, a dry slot canyon can turn into raging river chock full of mud, logs, and rocks.

I remember reading a story a few years back about a popular swimming hole that wasn’t even in a very narrow canyon. A rainstorm 8 miles upstream caused a 40ft wide, 6ft high wall of water. The poor victims had zero warning, and the rescue crews found the last body two days later. The point is, there is little you can do once the rain starts falling. The only way to avoid flash floods is to avoid entering the canyon if there’s even the slightest chance of rain in the area. Check the forecast, and check the skies during your trip.

Another mostly unavoidable risk is rockfall. Canyons are strewn with random boulders and chockstones that, more than likely, have broken off the walls and floor over the years. Especially in softer rocks like sandstone and limestone, chunks break off and can cause serious injury. The most famous example of this comes from Aron Ralston as portrayed in the film 127 Hours. Rocks shift, and you don’t want to be on the bottom of one when it comes tumbling down.

The best way to lessen this risk is to always wear a helmet and to test anchors and climbing holds prior to fully committing. Another serious risk, though very rare, is contracting a water-borne disease. Canyon water is often stagnant, and disgusting. Lots of different strains of bacteria inhabit the water. Potholes can contain bacteria that is harmful if ingested, and that is harmful to the skin as well. Avoid putting your head under the water whenever possible, and shower off as soon as you can afterwards.

Planning ahead and gaining the technical expertise necessary will help lower the overall risk of an accident.

For more Canyoneering Safety Information, Read: Is Canyoning Dangerous? Canyoneering Safety Tips

What Gear do I Need for Canyoneering?

The gear you need for canyoneering depends on the technical requirements of the canyon and the location and weather. You can usually find enough information beforehand to know if a canyon is technical or not. Even if a canyon doesn’t claim to have any rappels, it is best to bring a 30ft handline for unforseen problems. For non-technical canyons, you still need to bring a selection of gear specific to canyoneering.

  1. Helmet
  2. Sturdy Shoes
  3. Water/Food/Emergency Kit
  4. Harness/Rope/Hardware
  5. Webbing/Anchor Building Material

For a complete list of the gear that you need to go canyoneering, check out this post

See Also:

How to Rappel Without Leaving Gear

What are the Best Canyoneering Shoes?

How to Get Certified for Rappelling and Canyoneering

Jake

Husband, Father, Wild Animal. If I could explore canyons and cliffs every day, I would. For now, I dream about it during the week and go hard on the weekends. The best days are when my wife and baby daughter come along...still trying to figure out canyoneering with her though! Currently based out of Phoenix, Arizona.

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