Canyoneering 101: Essential Gear
If you’re intrigued by canyoneering, and are ready to get into the sport, you’ll want to start thinking about the gear that you need.
Canyoneering can be a highly gear-intensive activity, in part because of the wide range of conditions and terrain that you might encounter, and because the sport is just hard on equipment. If you’re going out with an outfitter much of this may be provided, but there are other things you’ll want to be sure to bring along, or that you might want to begin to accumulate as you get into the sport.
When selecting a rope for canyoneering it is important to know that canyoneering ropes are made specifically for the rigors of canyoneering and differ significantly from stretchy dynamic climbing ropes.
Canyoneering ropes are often made of polyester and are very static, meaning they do not stretch at all. Bouncing down a rappel on a dynamic rope is dangerous and hard on your body; the rope’s integrity can be compromised as it saws over a rocky edge. The polyester coating on static ropes also won’t absorb water like the nylon in dynamic ropes, so your static canyoneering rope doesn’t double its weight if you get it wet.
Canyoneering ropes are usually between 8 and 9.5 mm in thickness, which is skinner than most climbing ropes. Within the category, the thinner ropes are intended for advanced users while the fatter ropes tend to be more durable and user-friendly.
Length is also a consideration. Longer ropes allow you to do a wider variety of canyons with long rappels but can be difficult and heavy to manage. Shorter ropes are lighter and are usually considered “working ropes.” They see the bulk of the action because most canyons involve multiple short rappels rather than long ones.
When managing and transporting a rope, the most effective and convenient method is to use a rope bag. Instead of coiling your whole rope for every drop, you only use as much rope as needed for the rappel in question. You simply flake the rope into the bag and close it up. When using a rope bag, your rope is also much less prone to tangling and deploys quickly and easily while preventing damage from abrasion.
It’s important to note that canyoneering rope bags differ from climbing rope bags. A canyoneering rope bag has to survive being thrown from over 100 feet up with a rope in it and not split at the seams.
The size and features you’ll need for a canyoneering pack will depend on the canyon. For relatively wide canyons (like those found in or near Zion National Park), I’ll use my Arc’teryx Miura 45. For narrow canyons where I’ll probably be scraping up against rock I’ll use an old, beat-up 35-liter backpack. I find that a good, comfortable 35- to 45-liter pack is all that is needed for a day trip in a canyon.
Because chances are you’ll encounter water at some point, I always recommend bringing along a dry bag to keep items like a telephone and a change of clothing safe. I think the Sea to Summit eVAC Dry Sack is a great dry bag for canyoneering because it’s totally waterproof and very breathable. The air in the dry bag can be pushed out of the bag, leaving no extra space. For class B or class C canyons I’ll double-bag it with a SealLine Ecosee Dry Bag.
Generally speaking, canyoneering generates more wear and tear on harnesses than rock climbing will. Rock climbing harnesses work for canyoneering but they will wear out quickly. Petzl makes the Canyon Harness specifically for canyoneering featuring a PVC protector to go over your bottom, protecting your spendy wetsuit or drysuit. The PVC panel is replaceable if it becomes damaged beyond repair. The harness is comfortable and effectively protects your seat.
Another good harness to consider is the Black Diamond Alpine Bod. It’s a simple, sturdy, and inexpensive harness. There’s nothing flashy about it, but wear and tear is easy to identify and repair. If the harness is beyond repair, it doesn’t cost too much to replace.
Climbing helmets are essential equipment for canyoneering. Learn more about How to Choose a Climbing Helmet.
There are a few descenders on the market made for rappelling into a canyon, and a Figure 8 device is a great choice for the job. The design allows for a lot of contact area for added friction, plus it keeps the rope at a lower angle than other descenders, so it feeds through smoothly. There are other descenders on the market that are variations of the Figure 8, because the Figure 8 design is versatile and comfortable to descend with. It can be a little intimidating for beginners, though—I think its channel-less, smooth design makes it look less effective than an ATC.
Beginners tend to gravitate towards the ATC, because the design seems more logical and comfortable to use. However, I don’t recommend an ATC for canyoneering. ATCs get really hot during rappels due to the friction; also, if it has ‘teeth’ on one side, it tends to ‘bite’ into the rope, causing abrupt descents and stops. My wife started out using an ATC, then halfway through the canyon she traded her ATC for my Figure 8 and she hasn’t switched back. I don’t recommend an ATC for canyoneering.
The Petzl Pirana is a good choice. It’s a Figure 8 with some added hooks. The hooks are advantageous when descending on a single, narrow rope. The rope can be wrapped around one or two hooks for added friction to keep the canyoneer in control and moving at a comfortable speed on descent. The Pirana can be used with double strand.
Left to right: Petzl Pirana, Sterling ATS
The Sterling ATS is the descender I recommend for people who are going to descend multiple canyons a year. Again, it’s a variation of a Figure 8. The shape adds more friction points, making it better for canyoneers of bigger stature. In my opinion, the ATS is easier to lock off than the Pirana. (Locking off keeps the rope from sliding through the device.)
Carabiners are the items that get the most use during a canyoneering trip and I carry three or four carabiners on my person when I’m in a canyon. One is used to biner-block the rope for a safe descent on a single strand. One biner is used to connect my descender to my belay loop on my harness. I use one wiregate carabiner for putting the rope in the rope bag. I put the wiregate biner on my helmet strap, run the rope through it and shove the rope into the rope bag. It makes cleanup really fast and easy. The fourth carabiner is extra just in case it is needed or one of the others becomes damaged.
A screwgate carabiner is great for canyoneering. My go-to is the Metolius Element. The Element is small and compact for easy use with skinny canyoneering ropes, it is easy to use for a biner block. I’ve found the Black Diamond RockLock is also a great choice, especially when using a thick rope. Avoid the lightweight I-beam carabiners that sport climbers use because they tend to wear out faster.
Canyoneers use webbing to build anchors. Webbing is cheap and can be easily tied for strong knots. When you’re canyoneering, every anchor needs to be inspected before use. Webbing may be needed to create a new, safe anchor, so be sure to have some with you. On a random note, black is the preferred webbing color for National Parks.
Keep in mind that the bottom of the canyon will become darker before the rim of the canyon. Always be prepared with a headlamp, even if it’s a short canyon or a half-day trip. My favorite is the Black Diamond Spot because it has a lot of functions and variety packed into one headlamp. I think it’s one of the better headlamps you can purchase for under $40.
Gloves are important for rappelling and stemming in a canyon. Stemming is pushing against both canyon walls, usually with your hands and feet. The friction allows you to not touch the ground with your feet to avoid water or other obstacles. Pushing and sliding against the rock will wear away at your skin, which is why you need gloves.
Leather work gloves get the job done but they don’t offer much dexterity. Rubber-coated knit gloves work great in canyons and rappelling because they are inexpensive to replace.
A good pair of kicks will help keep you comfortable and dry all day long in the tough conditions presented in this extreme environment. Old running shoes are not recommended for canyoneering. The worn, slippery rubber is not suited for gripping the sandstone in a canyon. Canyons can be harsh on gear, especially shoes. Make your shoes count.
Approach shoes tend to have grippy soles, which makes them a good choice for canyoneering. The La Sportiva Xplorer make a great canyoneering shoe for people with narrow feet. I’ve used them in a few canyons and have had really enjoyed them. If you’re not narrow-footed, check out the Salewa Wildfire, which fits a broader range of foot shapes. The FiveTen Canyoneer 3 shoe does well in Class B or C canyons. It’s the preferred shoe for people who are hiking the narrows but the Canyoneer 3 isn’t the best shoe for every canyon.
Left to right: Five Ten Canyoneer 3, La Sportiva Xplorer, Salewa Wildfire
For whatever shoes you select, make sure your shoes don’t have Gore-Tex or any other type of waterproof membrane. The waterproof membrane keeps water locked inside the shoe, and it most likely will never dry out in the wet canyon environment. You’ll also find that sand tends to get stuck between the fabric and waterproof membrane, breaking down the membrane rendering your shoe uncomfortable and no longer waterproof.
There is a scene in the movie 127 Hours where Aaron and a couple of girls find a secret, beautiful swimming hole in Utah’s backcountry. The water is clear and beautiful but take note that this scenario is completely false, and the water found in Class A and Class B canyons is murky and uninviting; water in canyons is typically very cold because it rarely sees any sunshine. For that reason, merino wool or neoprene socks work well for canyoneering. Neoprene socks are only necessary when a canyon requires a wetsuit. The Simms Neoprene Wading Sock will work well for a lot of canyons.
Some people like using thick socks for warmth, but I prefer thinner merino wool socks in canyons because they are the most comfortable. Because they’re thinner they keep my feet cool; thin socks are also easier to clean out, and removing sand will be easier in thin socks versus heavy socks. My favorite pair is the Darn Tough Merino Wool Micro-Crew Light Hiker Sock.
Temperatures can fluctuate widely in some canyons. You might discover triple digits on the canyon’s rim while the bottom of the canyon can be relatively cool and rarely see sunlight. A light insulating layer like a fleece jacket is recommended to help combat the wide variation in temperatures that you may encounter.
Keep in mind that narrow canyons can destroy clothing pretty quickly. It’s best to wear a old pair shorts or pants. You may also find that elbow and knee pads offer welcome protection from abrasion and bruising.
Some canyons will require a wetsuit for extra warmth and comfort, while preventing the onset of hypothermia. A 2mm wetsuit is a little thin for canyons with more than an hour or two of exposure. A 4/3mm suit is a suitable thickness for canyoneering as it will keep you comfortable without impeding your movement too much.
I wear a pair of nylon shorts on the outside of my wetsuit to protect it. Try to prevent your wetsuit from rubbing on the rocks to keep your equipment from breaking down or developing holes. If a canyon requires a wetsuit and a lot of abrasive maneuvers (sliding through skinny slots with sandstone walls), it’s wise to get an additional wetsuit top to put over the full wetsuit. It will add warmth and is cheaper to replace than a full wetsuit.
It should go without saying that keeping hydrated in the desert is crucial to survival. Make sure you will have enough water for the trip. I prefer a Camelbak Antiodote Reservoir to carry my water. As I drink water, the volume and weight is reduced from my pack. Nalgene waterbottles are popular but an empty bottle can take up a lot of space at the end of the day.
Sunscreen is important to wear during the day because the sun can be so intense in canyon environments. If you’re hiking out in the middle of the day, remember to reapply a fresh coat before heading out.
It’s also necessary to carry a first aid kit in the canyon. In the spirit of being self-sufficient, it’s important to be able to address any problems along the way and educate yourself about injury treatment in the wilderness.
GPS Units and personal locator beacons can work in canyons. Some resources or websites will provide GPS coordinates to the top of the canyon. A GPS unit can verify you are standing at the top of the correct canyon. Neighboring canyons can have similar starting areas but different results at the end. If you don’t have a GPS unit, including a map and compass is absolutely necessary in the backcountry. And needless to say, informing someone of your precise plans is critical before heading out into canyon country.
With the proper education, equipment and essentials, canyoneering provides an opportunity to see some of the most remote and beautiful areas where the west is still completely wild.