Everything You Need to Know About Canyoneering
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.
\\ 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.
Some Good 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 to complete the canyon
I | A couple of hours
II | Half a day (4- 7 hours)
III | Full day
IV | Multiple days
Some 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
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.
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.
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.
This is maybe the second most important thing you need for canyoneering. An ATC or Figure 8 is the tool you need for the actual rappelling part. An ATC, which actually stands for “air traffic controller” is the most common belay device. But another good one is a simple Figure 8 — which is literally just a large metal 8.
You can find both types of devices at almost all outdoor and gear stores, especially ones selling climbing gear.
INSIDER TIP: we always recommend bringing an extra belay device juuuuust in case. There have been a few too many times that someone in the group forgot to bring a belay device or, worse, we happen to drop one while in a canyon (no bueno).
You really cannot canyoneer without a rope so make sure you have a good one. One important thing you need to know is that climbing ropes and canyoneering ropes are not the same.
When climbing, you want a dynamic rope — one with a bit of elasticity. But for canyoneering, you want one that has very little stretch. This type is known as a static rope. There are some pretty sharp differences between the two, so when looking to purchase a rope for canyoneering make sure to get the right one.
Search for canyoneering ropes here.
Another type of rope you will need for canyoneering is webbing. But unlike a rope, webbing is very easy to find and much cheaper to purchase. Tubular webbing is simply just a thicker piece of nylon fabric that you can usually buy in 15–30 feet rolls.
We always bring about 10–20 feet of 1” tubular webbing with us when canyoneering because you never know what you are going to find. Common usages include: extending anchors, backing up anchors, and lowering backpacks.
Carabiners: we also pack a few in our bag just in case. They are handing for anchor building and reinforcing, holding things on your harness, and just to keep things organized. Like ATCs and Figure 8s, you can purchase carabiners at most outdoor stores.
Sunscreen and/or a Hat: because you are in the desert and the sun can be intense. Plus, sunburns and headaches suck.
Sun Shirt and Long Pants: to help protect your skin from the strong sun, as well as from getting scratched up on rocks and cacti.
Food: the amount of food you bring totally depends on how long you are planning to be in the canyon. We always like to bring one hearty item for lunch (we like bagels with hummus or tortillas with beans) along with some easy-to-grab snacks (trail mix, gummies, granola bars. etc.).
Water (at least 3L): once again, remember that you are likely going to be in the desert and that you will be exerting a surprisingly high amount of energy. Therefore always bring enough water with you because dehydration not only sucks, but it is also dangerous. Trust us — we have run out of water in a canyon before and it really is no fun.
\\ The Best Places to Canyoneer
While you can find canyons all over the Colorado Plateau and the American Southwest (especially in Utah) some places are just heads and shoulders above other locations when it comes to great canyoneering routes. Below are a few of our favorites.
Moab & Arches National Park
Some of our absolute favorite canyons are in and around Moab and Arches National Park. Because of the crazy cool rock formations that are found within Arches — including the largest grouping of natural arches in the world — you can very easily find some truly stunning canyons to get a bit lost in. Plus, for the most part, canyons in the area are dry — meaning they are a great place to go for winter canyoneering.
We recommend doing your research beforehand and creating an itinerary of canyons in one location. Be it in Arches National Park, near the Behind the Rocks Area (where Rock of Ages is) or up near Canyonlands. Because some canyons can be tough to reach, make sure you are giving yourself ample time to travel around and not get stressed out.
Capitol Reef National Park
Very possibly our favorite national park in Utah (and likely top 3 in the whole USA), Capitol Reef is an amazing spot to do a bit of canyoneering. What we love most about this area of Utah is that you can find lots of different types of canyons. From tight slot canyons to free-hanging rappels, this region is sure to blow your mind.
GOOD TO KNOW: a permit is now required for all canyons within Capitol Reef National Park. You can pick up the permits at the Visitor Center.
Zion National Park
One of our first Thanksgiving canyoneering trips was to Zion National Park. This was back when we were first starting out and just getting the lay of the land. And truth be told, we didn’t love Zion canyons at first. But this was 100% our fault. The fact is, most of Zion’s canyons are wet. And in November, the idea of spending hours on end in freezing cold water in canyons that get very little sun is totally mental. We did it though. But only once.
Luckily, we have learned our lesson and now love spending a hot late-summer weekend in the park exploring some stunning canyons, including one of our all-time favorites: Pine Creek.
GOOD TO KNOW: just like with Capitol Reef, you do need a permit for all canyons within Zion National Park boundaries. But unlike Capitol Reef, Zion gets very busy during peak canyoneering season so you might not be able to do all the canyons you want (like The Subway). We recommend getting permits ahead of time if possible.
- Refrigerator (3A — I)
- The Subway (3B — II), though this is more of a “technical” hike with a few short rappels
- Pine Creek (3B — II)
Death Valley National Park
This might surprise you, but Death Valley is home to some of the hardest, most rugged canyons we have ever seen. While many Utah canyons require an hour to two-hour hike in (at most), many of the longer canyons in Death Valley require at least 3 (sometimes more) hours of hiking. And the hikes are more often than not not on a trail — oh and they usually go straight up.
But with that being said, Death Valley canyons are absolutely stunnnnnning. You honestly feel like you are out in the rugged wilderness and away from any sort of civilization. And the multitude of colors — from bright pink to deep purple all the way to aquamarine — is just spellbinding. Honestly, Death Valley National Park should not be overlooked when it comes to full-day canyoneering trips.
\\ Some Useful Tips
Best Time of Year
The best time of year for canyoneering is usually during the “shoulder” seasons. In the desert this means March — April and September — October. But some places really peak either in the hotter late-summer months or in the winter. For example, you want to visit Zion in the hotter months since most of the canyons are wet. But then the opposite is true for Death Valley: November and December are prime since the park gets very little snow.
INSIDER TIP: we made the mistake of doing The Subway (in Zion) in November and let us tell you, it was very (very) cold. But we also did it in early September it was downright perfect. When canyoneering in Zion definitely lean more towards summertime.
Two important things to note are that if you decide to do a canyoneering trip during the winter you should expect cold nights (low 20s) and less daylight. Both require some extra preparation (do you get a cabin or plan to tent camp?) but in the end, the daytime temperatures and lack of people make winter canyoneering absolutely awesome.
One of the best things about canyoneering is that for the most part (besides Death Valley) all of the best places to canyoneer are in Utah — a state known for its colorful canyons and wide open, empty spaces. Furthermore, Utah is a haven for boondocking: the act of camping on available land for free.
And even more importantly, there are tons of places to camp for free near the national parks where you plan to canyoneer. Or, if you are instead looking to have a more established camping site, all of the national parks have campgrounds in them. The Capitol Reef campground is especially good since it has lots of camping spots and heated bathrooms. Plus, during the off-season (winter) it is almost always empty.
Some of our favorite places to boondock are:
- Arches NP | Dewey Bridge, Willow Springs Trail (dirt road)
- Capitol Reef NP | BLM land between Torrey and the park boundary, Fremont Granary area
- Zion NP | Dalton Wash Road, Gooseberry Mesa, North Fork County Road
- Death Valley | Lake Hill, a Former Mining Camp near Death Valley Junction
Other great spots to check out are Hole-in-the-Rock Road near Escalante, Utah and Temple Mountain Park near Goblin Valley State Park, Utah.
GOOD TO KNOW: we almost always use the app iOverlander when planning on boondocking in Utah (and everywhere else). You can easily download their free app (it also shows where to find water, showers and laundry).
Number of People
In our opinion, 4–6 people is the optimal number of people for a canyoneering trip. We have done trips with just the two of us, all the way up to 10 people. And let us tell you, the fewer the people — the more fun you will likely have.
Now, don’t get us wrong, we totally understand the idea of having a large group of fun people with you. The more the merrier right? Well… when it comes to canyoneering, especially when it comes to canyons with a higher number of rappels, we tend to be more thankful for fewer people since having to wait in line at every rappel tends to decrease the overall fun.
Having in-depth and up-to-date beta is crucial when planning a canyoneering trip. Before even stepping foot in a canyon you need to first know how long it will be, how many rappels there are and how long each rappel is. The last one might be the most important, because when you know how long each rappel is you can figure out how much rope you need to bring.
INSIDER TIP: while you can do a single strand rappel (only one rope), we tend to favor double-strand rappels just for the added friction. This means you need to bring double the length of rope as your longest rappel.
When it comes to finding good beta, 90% of the time we head over to Road Trip Ryan (a canyoneering legend in our eyes). His website has in-depth reports on all of the best canyons in Utah, including in places like Capitol Reef National Park and Zion National Park. In our opinion, one of the best things about Road Trip Ryan is that you can actually download the beta and then use the app to follow the route. This is super helpful on the entry and exit hikes.
But if we are planning a canyoneering trip out to Death Valley National Park, we instead head over to BluuGnome for beta (Road Trip Ryan doesn’t have much info there).
Leave No Trace
While canyoneering is nowhere near as popular as other activities (like hiking and mountain biking), it still can have an effect on the natural landscape. A few ways to decrease your impact is to focus on leaving absolutely no trace of you actually being there (no littering, no rock graffiti, etc.), to practice good rope and anchor skills (try to decrease rope rub), and to make sure to stay on the trail as much as possible (especially be careful of not stepping on cryptobiotic soil).
Learn more about canyoneering leave no trace principles here.
Canyoneering has quickly become our go-to adventure activity — especially when we are looking to totally get away from it all and get a little lost in nature. Plus, there is just something truly special about being able to explore the red rock desert of Utah up close and personal by way of hiking and rappelling. Not to mention the fact that for the most part you will have the canyon all to yourself (besides maybe a few lizards if you are lucky).
So if you are looking for a truly off-the-beaten-path adventure and are curious to explore the stunning deserts of Utah and California, then we highly recommend checking out canyoneering. While it might seem a bit scary at first (there are few things more uncomfortable than walking off your first 90-foot canyon wall… backwards), in the end the feeling of adventure will likely win you over.
If you have any questions about canyoneering — from what gear to get to where to go — please feel free to reach out to us! We are always down to chat all things canyoneering :)
You can find more adventure travel information and inspiration at www.backroadpackers.com.