If you want to explore the nooks and crannies of the Earth, but aren’t ready to try caving, trying out a canyon is a great choice. Places of great natural beauty, canyons feature crevices, rivers and waterfalls, a recipe for adventure.
Simply defined, canyoneering, or canyoning, is moving through a canyon. But because a casual hike is a bit boring (and pretty self-explanatory), this post focuses on the sport’s more exciting aspects. Here’s what you need to know to have a great time, without getting swept away by a flash flood.
No matter how much you read about canyoneering before trying it, there’s no replacement for an experienced guide. You can’t go wrong with someone certified by the American Canyon Guides Association.
First of all, you need to be in good physical shape. Canyoneering combines rock climbing, hiking, and the occasional swim, so don’t head out unless you’re up for it.
The most common way to get down into a canyon is to rappel. Rapelling is sliding down the side of a cliff (or any vertical drop) holding a rope, and it’s something you really don’t want to mess up. The canyon is just about the worst place for a lesson, so make sure to you know what you’re doing beforehand.
Know your knots. The connection between your harness and a rope will often be the only thing between you and a nasty injury or death. These seven knots are a good place to start: they’ll keep you secure in a variety of situations.
Can you swim? Canyons are subject to flash floods (more on that later), and dry rock can quickly become a impromptu pool.
Take a dry bag and wetsuit if you know you’ll be dealing with water. Wherever you go, take a helmet, harness, rappel device and several carabiners. Take a few slings, which are wrapped around rocks. For more information, check out Climb-Utah.com’s Gear page.
Use common sense getting dressed. Quick dry material is recommended, as you’ll be sweating and may get wet. Have some warm clothes, too, especially for desert canyons, where an unplanned night in the open can be real cold.
For your feet, ordinary running shoes work, but if you have room in your budget, consider a pair of FiveTen Canyoneers, specially made to provide top notch traction, even in wet conditions. Gloves are a good idea to keep your hands intact while rappelling. You’ll need ropes, of course. Check with your guide that you have enough and that they’re long enough for your purposes.
Getting lost is a common hazard in this sport, so take a GPS along for the ride. A map and compass are good to have as well. Other items are not specific to canyoneering, but are always good to have when roaming the great outdoors. First aid supplies, a knife, a lighter, some food, lots of water (and a way to purify water) are all good ideas.
Wherever there’s a canyon, you can go canyoning. In the United States, you can’t go wrong with Utah and Arizona, home to Zion National Park (try Orderville Canyon and Red Cave) and the Mongollon Rim. The western mountain ranges are also good destinations; the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and Rockies feature canyons worth exploring.
For locations outside the country, Canyoneering.net recommends the Pryeness, the Alps, Australia’s Blue Mountains, and Réunion Island, off of Madagascar.
Canyoneering is not a dangerous sport if you take every precaution. Remember that you’re putting yourself in potentially scary situations in remote places, where rescue missions are difficult to carry out. You don’t want to spoil your trip by cutting off your own arm. Tell people when you plan to come back and where you intend to go and, so they notice if something goes wrong, and know where to start looking for you.
Besides falling or getting stuck, the two main dangers are getting lost and being hit by a flash flood. For the former, use your GPS and maps, and follow your guide. The latter is the more dangerous: Canyons can be flooded by sudden storms miles away, so you may not even know it’s raining before you find yourself neck deep in water.
Check the weather report before you go. If there are storms expected anywhere near your route, call it off. There’s no simpler, or surer, way to stay safe.