Canyoneering 101: Getting Started
Canyoneering provides an incredible way to explore the depths of remote canyons etched by millions of years of erosion. The sport will lead you to beautiful areas and views rarely seen or experienced by others.
Last year Backcountry.com created this video about canyoneering in the network of canyons in southern Utah known as Robber’s Roost. Several customers called our Gearheads in Customer Service looking for more information about the trip and how to get started. This article is a beginning guide for anyone who is interested in preparing for their first, or one of their first, canyoneering trips.
A Word of Caution
Canyoneering can be very dangerous. Many things can go wrong in a canyon (127 Hours, anyone?) but education, preparation and common sense can minimize the risks. It is imperative to be prepared and I recommend seeking an experienced guide or enrolling in a skills course before attempting your first canyoneering trip.
I’m speaking from personal experience; on the first canyoneering trip a friend and I took, there wasn’t a lot of beta available for the canyon but we were confident in our abilities. Halfway through the canyon we realized our rope wasn’t long enough for one of the rappels. From my vantage point, I could see houses and a busy interstate only a short distance away but we didn’t have cell phone reception to call for help. Luckily there was a location halfway down the waterfall for a new anchor to be built, and we were able to descend the canyon. Moral of the story is, canyoneering demands self-sufficiency, and you should never count on having cellphone reception in a canyon to call for help.
In addition, narrow slot canyons can be technically difficult to navigate and/or to get out of. If there’s a lot of water flow they can be treacherous, and flash floods can be an issue at certain times of year. This water is often cold, so hypothermia can be a danger. Conversely, since many slot canyons can be found in the desert, heat stroke or heat exhaustion also need to be guarded against.
BC Alum Grant Burton takes 5 in a remote canyon.
Leave No Trace
Canyoneers practice a “Leave No Trace” ethos that allows others to experience a canyon as if it had never been visited by a human before. In the community, it is known as “ghosting.” Ghosting means traveling within a canyon without leaving any trace aside from footprints. Think of it as a gift you leave for the enjoyment of the next group. All the canyoneering community asks is that the gift is opened, wrapped back up and left for the discovery of the next group.
If you’re just starting out, focus on canyons where anchors have been placed or left behind for ease of use. You can learn ghosting techniques here, and re-do these canyons without using the bolts or other pre-placed anchors to prepare for more technical objectives.
Some of the maneuvers you may encounter while canyoneering
Choosing an Objective: The Canyoneering Difficulty Rating System
Canyons can vary greatly in the technical ability and amount of gear required to navigate them. To better understand how to choose an appropriate objective, I’ll introduce the rating system canyoneers use to help establish the difficulty of completing a route. It helps you determine what to expect and choose a canyon that matches your skill level and equipment.
The rating system has four parts: The technical class rating, the water rating, the time or length rating, and the additional risk rating (example: 3 A II).
I. The Technical Classification
This rating gauges the type of rope work required and the technicality of terrain you can expect to encounter, the numbers range from 1-4. It will also indicate what type of gear you’ll need to bring.
- Class I: Hiking canyon: These canyons are suitable for hikers and backpackers. There is no need to bring a rope because the route can be completed on foot.
- Class 2: Light Canyoneering: This canyon requires some scrambling. A handline may be necessary to assist down- or up-climbing.
- Class 3: Intermediate Canyoneering: Class 3 canyons require ropes and rappelling to successfully navigate the canyon. Once the rope for the first rappel is pulled, the only exit is down the canyon and turning back would require fixing rope.
- Class 4: Expert Canyoneering: These canyons contain obstacles which require advanced anchor-building techniques, pothole escapes, and extensive, advanced climbing skills.
2. Water Rating
This rating will specify the amount or type of water you can expect to encounter in a canyon during normal conditions. Ratings are graded from Class A-C. A canyon’s water rating will be linked to its technical rating, and water or flow in non-technical portions of the canyon are not considered. The water rating is considered when the presence of water complicates the technical descent of a canyon in terms of ropework or downclimbing.
- Class A: The canyon is entirely or mostly dry. There may be standing water for wading or swimming up to waist-deep.
- Class B: There is a moderate amount of water in the canyon. The water is still or barely has a moving current, falls are trickling or dry and swimming should be expected.
- Class C: Water is flowing through this canyon and rappelling down waterfalls is very common. You may encounter water with a strong current and you must have experience with wet canyon rope technique.
3. Grade: Time Required & Ability Level
This rating system evaluates the length of time required to complete the canyon for a small group of experienced, fit adults composed of 4-6 individuals. Actual completion times will vary but plan to multiply your time by 50-100% if there are individuals in your group who are not particularly fit or are inexperienced.
Grade I: Short – about 2-4 hours
Grade II Half day – about 6 hours
Grade III Day Trip – 7 or 8 hours
Grade IV Extended Day Trip: arise early, plan on at least 10 hours, bring a headlamp, possible shelter
Grade V Overnighter: normally completed in 2 days
Grade VI Extended Trip: takes two or more days
4. Additional Risk
More advanced canyons have a fourth element to their rating. It’s either an “R” or “X” rating representing risky or extreme obstacles above and beyond what you would normally encounter in most canyons. Risks include route finding, exposed traversing, difficult rappels, difficult anchors, and more. These canyons should be avoided by beginners and intermediates.
Beginners should plan a trip for a 3 A II or 3 A III canyon for their first exposure to canyoneering.
Planning a Trip
Canyoneering spots can be found all over the Colorado Plateau (that’s probably where most of the photos you see of canyoneering are shot). The area has a high density of canyons carved away by millions of years of erosion. Other places that are popular with canyoneers include spots in the Rockies, the Cascades, and the San Gabriel mountains.
To choose your first objective, I’ve found that YouTube is a great resource for visualizing a canyon and the conditions you’ll encounter. You’ll find many videos from popular and enjoyable canyons, making it a great place to begin your research.
These have tons of trip reports, as well as current conditions in canyons. A group I was with was able to avoid a newly formed beehive because of a report from the previous week.
Once you’ve zeroed in a little on your location, find someone to go with. The best resource is an experienced canyoneer. If you’re a first-timer, it is a very good idea to have an experienced canyoneer accompany you, be it a friend or a professional guide.
Going with a professional guide may cost a lot more but believe me, it’s totally worth it for your first canyoneering trips.
As you can imagine, a technical activity like canyoneering requires a fair amount of gear. I’ve broken down the requirements in a separate article, Essential Gear for Canyoneering.