Why would someone need to write an article explaining what canyoneering is? We don’t need to explain what hiking is or what is running or what is camping. Do we need to answer the question of what is canyoneering? Yes! Yes, we do! The reason we have to answer this question is, canyoneering is the Platypus of outdoor recreation. If you’ve ever tried to explain what canyoneering is without video or pictures, you know what I’m talking about.

When you mention you use ropes and abseil, people usually respond by saying, “it’s rock climbing.” No, not really! But the skills crossover. When you tell them, they need a backpack for the gear they say, “so it’s backpacking.” Sure it can be, but not likely. When you mentioned drysuits or wetsuits, it causes more confusion than a paternity test on a Jerry Springer episode. To make canyoneering even more confusing, in different parts of the world, canyoneering requires different gear and skills, which changes the confusion factor from Jerry Springer to shouting who’s your daddy at an Alabama family reunion. To help you better understand what canyoneering is or can be, we will cover the necessary skills that you should have or may need, depending on the canyon.

First Aid and Wilderness Survival Are Necessary For The Canyoneering Environment.

Canyoneering can be and is one of the most dangerous outdoor activities. In addition to being hazardous, it usually takes place in very remote settings. If there is an accident, assistance may be several days away, and self-reliance is necessary. Many areas don’t have phone signals, and because of the canyon walls, locator beacons and satellite phones may not work.

Several years ago, I came upon an accident in Zion National Park. It happened 30 minutes before my arrival, and they sent someone for help. On our way out, we crossed the Rangers and emergency personnel on their way in. They made it to the person within 3 hours of the accident. The next day we returned to the trailhead almost 24 hours after the accident. They were finally loading the person into the ambulance. This accident happened in a national park with a full-time search and rescue personnel. It still took 24 hours to get the person to an ambulance and probably 25 hours to get to a hospital. If this was a remote canyon, it might take 10 hours to get out of the canyon and cell phone service, maybe even longer. First aid skills are a must if you don’t have them, STAY AWAY!  For people in the mountain west states I would recommend a wilderness first responder course or EMT training in Utah.

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Orienteering And Route Finding Are Necessary For Most Canyoneering Routes

Canyons are not always well marked or easy to find. You have to walk through surfaces like sand or on the rock. There usually aren’t marked trails or any indication where you should go. Sometimes a group may spend a couple of hours just looking for the canyon entrance. In some places like the North Wash, where many Canyons are close together, people have dropped into the wrong canyon.

Many people choose to rely on GPS. GPS isn’t a bad thing, but Canyons can be hard on gear, and I have had many GPS get destroyed in Canyons. Even if you have a GPS, you should have a compass and a map. Most importantly, you should know how to read a compass and map.

In some well established National Parks and Monuments, Rangers will often destroy cairns or markers. They classify canyoneering as a route, not a trail. Therefore, you have to find your way not to follow it.

Hiking and Scrambling Are Part Of Every Canyoneering Adventure

Having hiking skills may not sound like you have skills, but being a professional hiker does require certain things. Canyoneering requires assisting people over obstacles down from ledges and using proper body position. These are things that can be picked up or learned from hiking.

Backpacking Is Also a Staple Of Canyoneering

Canyons come in all different shapes, sizes, and lengths. Some of the canyons may require multiple days to finish, in which case they are a real backpacking trip requiring time and gear management. Both of these skills are used on shorter trips but to a lesser degree.

Swimming Is Required For Some Canyoneering Routes

It may sound odd that an activity in the desert requires a rope and has a high risk of heat exhaustion also requires swimming skills, but it does.

In some desert areas, flash floods rush through the area and deposit water in the canyons. Because they can be narrow and deep, sunlight may never reach the bottom resulting in cold water that may require long swims. The result is why some canyons need wetsuits or dry suits even when the temperatures may be 100 degrees plus topside. It is possible to fight heat exhaustion and hypothermia in the same hour.

Most of the water is not what you would consider “friendly.” This water isn’t something you would drink, filter, or even consider water: flash floods deposit, logs, pine cones, dead animals. The water can sometimes sit for weeks, months even years—Coincidentally flash floods are also one of the greatest canyoneering dangers. Even the most family-friendly and straightforward canyons are subject to them.

“Canyoneering, a hybrid form of madness halfway between mountaineering and caving … hundreds descend into them by ropes, but only a handful explore new ones. These driven individuals tend to have a rugby player’s legs, knees crosshatched with scar tissue from all the scratches, a penguin’s tolerance for frigid water, a wallaby’s rock-hopping agility, and a caver’s mole-like willingness to crawl into damp, darkholes. “

National Geographic

Rock Climbing and Rappelling Are One of The Strongest Draws For The Canyoneering Activity

For almost all technical canyons and some non-technical canyons, ropework is necessary. Ropework in non-technical canyons is usually limited to just a hand line or a security blanket scenario.

For mid-level technical canyons, ropework is necessary for setting up rappels belaying people. It is essential to travel through the canyon.

For more difficult canyons, skills such as climbing, multi-stage rappels, long rappels, ascending, tyrolean traverses, and guided rappels may be necessary.

Rock climbing can teach many of these skills, but some are specific to the canyoneering activity.

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Canyoneering Involves Lots of Problem Solving and Teamwork

Because canyoneering combines so many different activities in one adventure, it makes for unique problem-solving opportunities. Of all the outdoor activities I have ever participated in, nothing requires teamwork and problem solving like canyoneering. Some of the unique challenges are:

Anchor Building

A lot of the times, a rappel will not have sound, or established anchor. Groups we’ll have to create one, and sometimes they have to be creative about it.

  • The deadman anchor is a rock, or some other object with webbing tied around it buried in the ground.
  • The meat anchor which is when the rope is tied to another human being. This is when it is a difficult downclimb and the strongest climber is usually the meat.
  • The knot or wedge anchor, which is a knot that is tied in the end of a rope and wedged into a crack in the wall.
  • The stack anchor, which is a pile of rocks that the webbing or rope is wrapped around.
  • The releasable anchor for people who practice leave no trace.

Pothole Escapes Is Where Canyoneering Gets Really Creative

Often the water in the canyon will create traps call potholes. These potholes can become dangerous. If the pothole is 10 feet deep with 7 feet of water, it is too deep for someone to touch, but the lip is too high for someone to get out the other side. It could be a dry pothole where it is simply too deep to get out the other side. Getting out of these potholes requires a lot of creativity and sometimes a lot of teamwork. Some proven techniques are:

  • Partner Assist -one person helps another person climb out. An assist may be from a shoulder stand or two people raising the feet.
  • Pack Toss- Tie a rope to a pack or bag full of rock and throw it over the pothole’s edge. Then a person ascends the rope.
  • Happy Hooker– The happy hooker is a long collapsible pole, like a tent pole, with a hook on one end. A rope is attached to the hook. The person uses the hook and pole to grabs a crack or notch, then ascends the rope.
  • Inflatable Boats– In Neon canyon, the last pothole, is one of the most difficult ones at specific water levels. A friend of ours, Bruce, was lagging way behind. When we got to the pothole, we had no idea what we were going to do. Bruce showed up, pulled out a Sevylor raft, and started inflating it, saved the whole day.
  • Stack of Rocks- Throwing rocks in, until you get enough to stand on and reach the lip.
  • Tying Packs Together- This is the same idea as the inflatable raft, but you are tying your packs together.
  • Drill/Bat Hooks– In this technique, you use a hand drill to drill a small hole and then use a small bat hook to hang in the hole while drilling another hole to keep moving up.

No matter what technique you choose, you have to use your head.

Just remember some canyons may require all of these skills, some canyons may only need one or two. The safest way is to know what you’re in for and understand the canyon rating system. Be an adequate judge of your skill level, who you’re going with, and understand what the canyon is rated.

Canyoneering classes are offered and are a good start, but even with a lesson or two under your belt. Go with experienced people, and all the courses in the world can’t make up for poor judgment and reckless behavior.

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One of the fastest growing sports but do you really know what it is? Find out what canyoneering is.
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One of the fastest growing sports but do you really know what it is? Find out what canyoneering is.
Canyoneering is one of the fastest growing outdoor recreation sports in America, but few people know what it really involves. Learn more about it with this inside look from an industry insider.
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