Here in Utah, the sport of canyoneering has a dedicated following. No surprise, because we’re blessed with a vast red-hued desert awash in twisty labyrinthine slot canyons, and they’re prime for adventuring. Canyoneering (called “canyoning” in most places outside the U.S.) is a downright delightful activity involving making your way down narrow rock canyons, which may be full of running (or standing) water, or might be dry.
Many newbies ask if it’s similar to rock climbing or mountaineering. And, newbies, never fear—we can help clear that up. (And, readers, please chime in with your own thoughts and questions on our Insta post!) This guide is an extremely brief, high-level recap and conversation starter … don’t treat it as a comprehensive gear or skills list.
A summary of differences between canyoneering and climbing:
Technical canyoneering involves going down complex terrain, usually with ropes and harnesses … Climbing and mountaineering usually involve going up complex terrain, usually with ropes and harnesses. But there are many, many differences beyond that. And someone well experienced in climbing can’t jump straight into canyoneering.
While canyoneering and climbing use some of the same gear or types of gear, many items vary from the ones you’d typically use climbing. The dynamic rope you usually climb with can quickly get waterlogged in a slot canyon and can make rappelling needlessly bouncy, which dynamically loads your anchor and causes more rope abrasion.
And while you can get away with a typical climbing harness in some slot canyons, a specialized harness is a better bet—many come with a seat protector that protects your rear-end (and the clothing covering it). You may want special protection for your palms and knees (although many people use rubber-palmed gardening gloves and hardware-store knee pads and do just fine).
You can also often get away with a typical rappel device that you’d use rock climbing, but specialized canyoneering descenders are a smarter choice that let you add friction as desired and easily tie off if you want to pause mid-descent. (Ascenders are an extremely smart item to have along as well in case you need to retreat back up your rope for any reason.)
While most rock climbs aren’t undertaken in wet conditions (unless something’s gone sideways), many slot canyons are wet, which is part of the fun. If you’re descending a wet canyon, you’ll likely want a wetsuit or PFD, as well as a dry bag to keep your pack and its contents dry during your swims.
One more good-to-have item: a knife. While this is nice to have in your climbing or mountaineering pack, it’s vital for canyoneering, during which it’s oddly easy to get very stuck. An emergency knife could be needed to save the day.
Navigating technical mountains and technical canyons both require good rope management, understanding of knots, rappelling, belaying, unroped scrambling, and anchor-building. But anchor-building techniques and protocols look quite different for canyoneering. You’re much more likely to lean on natural features like rock knobs and tree trunks, or even the weight of a friend’s body (the ol’ “meat anchor”).
It’s also vital to gain the skills to retreat back out of a canyon if any sort of emergency or other need arises. You’ll need training in how to use ascenders and how to work your way up things you’ve rappelled into—knowing these things are often overhung and/or involve flowing water, it’s a very complex undertaking and requires specialized knowledge. Swimming ability and water rescue technique come into play, too.
In canyons, you’ll find yourself employing all sorts of movements that may feel familiar from climbing yet are applied in cool new ways—such as stemming between the two walls of a canyon and scooting yourself forward with your pack dangling from your waist.
Here in the west, canyoneering routes are often heavily guarded secrets kept shrouded by a community of people who’d rather not have their favorite slots overrun by throngs of wetsuit-clad, GoPro-ing Jerrys. Your ability to gather and process beta is crucial, and you need stellar confidence in your ability to read maps and route writeups.
Much canyoneering around the world takes place in lofty mountain canyons where you have a solid understanding and view of where you are, but deep in the slots of the desert, it’s ridiculously easy to get turned around. Once you’re disoriented, all the beta you’ve gathered and route plan you’ve compiled will dissolve. It’s usually best to try a new canyon with someone who’s done it before so you can gather beta firsthand and memorize details.
You think it’s important to know conditions for mountaineering? Try canyoneering! Unexpected weather shuts down a mountaineering day and can leave you shivering on a ledge, but if weather hits while you’re in a slot canyon, you’re in grave danger of being swept away in an unsurvivable flash flood. (Are we making this sound like a beginner-friendly picnic or what?)
Pay keen attention to forecasts not only for your immediate area but all the terrain that’s potentially upstream. A storm many miles away can send a wall of water draining down into the slots. Play it safe by giving storms a multi-day buffer and consulting with locals and rangers whenever possible.
Give it a go!
If you’re ready to bring your rock and alpine skills down into the canyons, you’re in for a wonderful treat. Booking a guided trip is likely the safest and most conservative option, and canyoneering with a guide is a wonderful way to get some instruction and mentorship you can carry into future canyons. You can also join groups of skilled canyoneers willing to take a newbie under their wing. Just do your own research and be selective about whom you entrust. Ask lots of questions about their risk tolerance, decision making style, gear lists, group dynamics, and experience.
As always, tag and send us pics of your adventures in your UnNew gear. We love seeing it out there having a great summer with you rather than sitting in the back of someone’s closet or warehouse. Follow us on Instagram + Facebook: Tag us @geartrade with the hashtag #unnewoutdoor #wearitout on your post or story for a chance to be featured on our page.
See you out there!
Beth Lopez is a seasoned writer and creative director who loves to tell tales of adventure and discovery—and finds writing a powerful way to give a voice to people, causes, and places. Beth runs amok in the Wasatch mountains when untethered from her computer. She believes there’s no such thing as a bad ski day and considers animals her favorite people. Don’t tell her mother about her Instagram mountaineering photos.
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