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The Ultimate Adventure Guide to Canyoneering

39.3210° N, 111.0937° W

Striped red rock wall in Utah

CANYONEERING IS A GREAT WAY TO GET A LITTLE LOST IN THE DESERT. LEARN EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE RISING ADVENTURE SPORT BELOW.

 



For the past six years we have been fortunate enough to spend almost every Thanksgiving in the deserts of Utah and California. Our annual November trip to the desert - which over time has become a sort of quasi-pilgrimage - not only gives us a chance to hang out with friends and eat delicious food (nothing tastes better than a turkey cooked over a fire), but it also allows us to get a little lost in nature.


And in our opinion, there is no better way to explore the desert than by slipping into a harness and rappelling down a 90-foot canyon wall.


Sound like something you would be interested in or at least something you would be curious to learn more about? Great! Below is practically everything you need to know about canyoneering - including all the gear required and the best places to go.








 

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT CANYONEERING

 







\\ What is Canyoneering?


Also known as “canyoning” in pretty much every other country except the USA (or kloofing in South Africa), canyoneering is the act of traveling through canyons using a variety of technical skills. While this term could include simply walking down a canyon, most of the time canyoneering is associated with technical descents of canyons - often using ropes and belay devices. This technical descent of a canyon is known as rappelling.


Now this fact often leads to one of the most common questions about canyoneering: how do you get out of the canyon? Well, in truth, you almost never do any climbing and instead you simply hike to the top of the canyon, rappel down into the canyon and then walk out. The hike up to the top, as well as the hike out, can be miles long or just a couple hundred of yards depending on the location of the canyon.


GOOD TO KNOW: because canyoneering is often done in more remote and rugged terrain, you do need to possess a high level of navigational and route-finding skills. Be aware that there are almost never any signs pointing out where a canyon is.




IMPORTANT CANYONEERING TERMS TO KNOW


RAPPELLING

a controlled descent off a vertical drop, such as a rock face, using a fixed rope and harness. Also known as “abseiling" in Europe.


STEMMING

When you have to cross a narrow chasm by either keeping your legs on either side and slowly walking through, or in more intense situations, you have to brace your back and legs against either side of the chasm and slowly scoot your way through.


ANCHORS

The spot where you connect the rope and actually start rappelling (see photo below). Thick trees, rocks, logs and other natural items are often used to hold anchors. Anchors are a sure way to know where you are supposed to rappel into a canyon.


MULTI-STAGE RAPPEL

Sometimes you have to rappel down two canyons at one time before touching solid ground. A multi-stage rappel can include using one long rope for two different levels of the canyon or rappelling one canyon, untying the rope, reconnecting to another anchor and then rappelling the second part of the canyon. The second option usually only happens if your rope is not long enough (the first option is more common).









\\ History of Canyoneering


Canyoneering, in its simplest form, has been around since prehistoric times when people started to seek out canyons for water, food and shelter. Ancestral Pueblo Indians, more commonly known as the Anasazi, began exploring the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau before the time of Christ. In fact, evidence can be found of prehistoric people inhabiting canyons not only in North America but also in Europe, Australia and around the world.


But interestingly enough, the first known use of the term “canyoneering” was actually by a member of John Wesley Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River by boat in 1869. Today, the term is still used in reference to whitewater rafting in the famous Grand Canyon.


More surprisingly, and contrary to common belief, the better-known version of canyoneering – the sport of traveling through canyons on foot and/or with ropes – did not come to the U.S. from Europe (like most of us were led to believe, us included). In fact, the sport developed independently: in Europe by cavers in the 1930s, in Australia by bushwalkers in the 1950s, and in the U.S. by hikers, climbers and paddlers in the 1940s and 50s. The independent development can be seen in the different techniques and equipment used in each individual area.


Today, the tools available to modern canyoneerers are very different than what early adventurers would have had. In place of thin hemp and manila ropes, we use durable nylon and synthetic versions. Instead of light sandals and bare feet, we can use durable, thick-soled, grippy boots that keep us from twisting ankles and slipping down sandstone.


Due to these advancements in technology, the world of canyoneering has opened up and with it has come the desire to lay claim to some "first ascents" - aka the act of doing a canyon first. It also has opened up the sport to a wider audience - though for some reason it still has not caught on with the masses.


Learn more about canyoneering history here.









\\ Canyoneering Ratings


An example of a canyon rating: 3A - II



FIRST NUMBER = TECHNICALITY


1 | Simply a canyon, no actual technical skills needed (hiking)

2 | Some stemming, downclimbing, and teamwork but NO ropes (advanced hiking)

3 | Ropes are needed for rappelling (this is quintessential canyoneering)

4 | Very long rappels, some multi-stage rappels and anchor building skills are required




LETTER = AMOUNT OF WATER

A | Dry (usually often depends on season)

B | Water is often present, but NOT flowing

C | Flowing water is present, this can include going down a river/waterfall




SECOND NUMBER = AMOUNT OF TIME NEEDED

I | A couple of hours

II | Half a day (4- 7 hours)

III | Full day

IV | Multiple days




ADDITIONAL OPTIONS

X | There is some dangerous and sketchy stuff. Usually only for experts. These dangers can include: high exposure stemming, free climbing and veeeery tight squeezes.

X- | Some sort of sketchy stuff. Usually safe and or easy, but bad consequences if something goes wrong.

R | Runout anchors, meaning you will need to make your own anchors (must know how).






\\ What Gear You'll Need for Canyoneering



GOOD SHOES


Make sure to have strong and comfortable shoes that have a good grip so you can climb around rocks without worrying about slipping or spraining your ankle.




BACKPACK


Definitely bring a backpack that can easily hold all of your snacks and water, extra layers, your harness (for when hiking to and from the canyon you will not want to wear it), rolls of webbing and extra rope. Another thing to think about is that in a canyon you will likely be climbing, sliding and jostling through tight rock crevices. After years of canyoneering our bags have taken a serious beating. So if you are thinking of using an older bag or buying a spiffy new one - just know that rips, tears and fading will likely occur.




Blue hiking shoes in red canyon



HARNESS


This is the most important piece of your canyoneering equipment so make sure it is always in good shape. We personally like Mammut harnesses. A good rule of thumb is that if there are any signs of wear (fraying, discoloring) - get a new one. Safety is the most important thing here.