Get your descender ready
Since you’re here, you likely already know a bit (or a lot) about canyoneering. The breadth and depth of the canyoneering knowledgebase is huge! If you feel intimidated by pothole escapes or building deadmen anchors, this guide is for you.
I’ve seen too many canyon parties descending canyons unprepared, unsafely, and unethically, and I want to change that.
This guide is here to help you be more prepared for your next canyon adventure. It will teach you all the skills, knowledge, and motivation you need to get you off the couch and on rappel in your next canyon.
The guide is under development, so check back often as we add additional content.
Think back to your days as a kid running around the playground trying to get from one side to the other without touching the ground – climbing up slides, swinging across monkey bars, and balancing on narrow and shaky chains. It may have been a few years since you squished into twisty slide, but you’re never too old for playgrounds because canyoneering is the grownup version of a playground.
In the most basic terms, canyoneering is descending through a canyon. Most sought-out canyons are narrow slot canyons and are often very technical in nature requiring rappelling, swimming, climbing over, under, around, and down all kinds of various obstacles. Most the canyons I’ve had the pleasure of descending are in the Southwest United States, but there are canyons all around the world of all sorts.
The basic format of the ACA Canyon Rating System includes two digits. The first digit is numeric and represents the values described below related to terrain and rope work. The second digit is an alpha character representing the values described below related to water volume and current. Additional values may be added to represent relative risk and time/commitment. Ratings are cumulative.
For example: descending a Class 3 canyon will require the skills listed under Class 3, as well as those listed under Classes 1 and 2.
NOTE: Ratings refer to descents in normal conditions, during what is considered the normal season for the canyon. Adverse conditions, such as higher than normal water volume or colder temperatures, will increase the difficulty of the descent.
TERRAIN / TECHNICAL ROPE WORK
1 Canyon Hiking Non-technical; no rope required. May involve some easy scrambling requiring the occasional use of hands for balance and support. Travel is possible up or down canyon. See route description for more information.
2 Basic Canyoneering Scrambling, easy vertical or near vertical climbing and/or down-climbing requiring frequent use of hands. Rope recommended for hand lines, belays, lowering packs and possible emergency use. Travel is possible up or down canyon. See route description for more information.
3 Intermediate Canyoneering Exposed technical climbing. Down-climbing could be difficult and dangerous; most people will rappel. Rope required for belays and single-pitch rappels. Obvious natural or fixed anchors. Retreat up canyon will require ascending fixed ropes. Basic pothole escape techniques (i.e. partner assist, counterweights) may also be required. See route description for more information.
4 Advanced-Expert Canyoneering Route may involve any combination of the following: 1) difficult and exposed free climbing and/or down-climbing, 2) climbing using direct aid, 3) multi-pitch rappels, 4) complex rope work (i.e. guided rappels, deviations, rebelays), 5) obscure or indistinct natural anchors, 6) advanced problem-solving and anchor-building skills.
WATER VOLUME / CURRENT
A. Normally dry or very little water. Dry falls. Water, if present, can be avoided and/or is very shallow. Shoes may get wet, but no wetsuit or drysuit required.
B. Normally has water with no current or very light current. Still pools. Falls normally dry or running at a trickle. Expect to do some deep wading and/or swimming. Wetsuit or drysuit may be required depending on water and air temperatures.
C. Normally has water with current. Waterfalls. Expect to do some deep wading and/or swimming in current. Wetsuit or drysuit may be required depending on water and air temperatures. Class C canyons may be rated more precisely using the following system:
C1 – Normally has water with light to moderate current. Easy water hazards.
C2 – Normally has water with strong current. Water hazards like hydraulics and siphons require advanced skills and special care.
C3 – Normally has water with very strong current. Dangerous water hazards. Experts only.
C4 – Extreme problems and hazards will be difficult to overcome, even for experienced experts with strong swimming skills.
NOTE: Water level in any canyon can fluctuate greatly from year-to-year, season-toseason, even day-to-day. If, upon arrival at a canyon, you discover the water volume/ current is greater than indicated by the rating, descent will be more difficult than suggested by the route description. It will be necessary to reevaluate your decision to attempt the descent.
RISK / SERIOUSNESS (OPTIONAL)
G General Audiences Should be straight-forward for those who possess appropriate skills.
PG Parental Guidance Suggested Even with appropriate skills, beginners may sweat.
R Risky One or more extraordinary risk factors exist that could complicate the descent. Solid technical skills and sound judgment critical. Not recommended for beginners.
X Extreme Multiple risk factors exist that will complicate the descent. Errors in technique or judgment will likely result in serious injury or death. Descent should only be attempted by expert canyoneers.
XX Double Extreme Definitely life-threatening.
NOTE: The presence of a risk/seriousness rating suggests that the canyon will involve higher than average risk. The absence or a risk/seriousness rating does not suggest that there will be no risk. All canyoneering involves risk. Risk factors include number and frequency of rappels, length of rappels (single- or double-rope) and exposure, anchor availability, anchor quality, route finding, obstacles, problem-solving, terrain encountered between technical sections, flash flood potential, availability of exits and high ground, water temperature, prolonged immersion, and difficulty of evacuation or rescue. Specific factors should be addressed in the route description.
TIME / COMMITMENT (OPTIONAL)
I Short. Normally requires only a couple of hours.
II Normally requires a half day.
III Normally requires most of a day.
IV Expected to take one long, full day. Get an early start. Bring a head lamp. Plan for possible bivy.
V Expected to take an average one and a half days.
VI Expected to take two or more days.
NOTE: Time estimates are based on average group of 6 people or less. Larger groups and less experienced groups will take longer. An accurate self-assessment of your abilities will be important. For some users, it may be adequate to refer to time in terms of half day, full day or multi day. Others may prefer a more specific estimate and choose to use the Roman Numeral Grade system common in traditional multi-pitch rock climbing.
S = SLOT DESIGNATION
Tight slot canyons are in a class of their own. Slots can be so narrow that it is necessary to stem above the floor of the canyon to move horizontally. An “S” may be appended to the terrain rating to indicate some sections of the canyon are extremely narrow. A canyon rated S2 will serve as a warning to those with greater-than-average girth that they may have to stem more than their skinny partners. A canyon rated S6 will draw emphasize the need to execute difficult climbing/stemming moves that are likely to be high above the canyon floor.
- Anchor building
- Pothole escapes
- Down climbing
- Class C technique
- Leave No Trace
- Human Waste
- Rope Grooves
- Sharing Beta
Canyoneering involves numerous risks, but knowing what they are will help you prepare ahead of time so you can be confident and safe.
Heat exposure and dehydration
Hot hikes in and out of canyons are very common. You should prepare well for these hikes, but sometimes we underestimate the amount of water needed. Even if we do have enough water for a normal day, sometimes things don’t go as planned. You often end up in the sun much longer than anticipated. Having a backup plan for how to deal with heat and dehydration is important. Do you know how to find water in the desert? Do you carry a water filter? Also, wearing the right clothing to keep you cool and protected from the sun can go a long way. Full brimmed sun hats and long sleeve shirts can mitigate the heat and keep you from becoming a raisin.
One of the more common and perhaps the slowest way to die in a canyon is hypothermia. Canyons can deceive us. You go in when it’s 105 degrees outside in the middle of August and pretty soon you find yourself sloshing around in a deep and shady pothole filled 45-degree water that you may not easily be able to get out of. Unless pack wetsuits, drysuits, and also dry changes of warm clothes, you may actually freeze to death on a hot summer day. It happens regularly and sometimes entire groups disappear only to be found in a pothole dead from hypothermia. Who knows how long they struggled to get out. I don’t want to find myself in that fix.
Often inexperienced canyoneers drop into potholes that can be difficult to escape from. If you don’t possess skills and equipment for pothole escapes such as pack tosses, potshots, hooks and eretrier ladders, you may be stuck. If you don’t leave someone on the upstream side of the water, nobody may be able to help you out.
It’s critical that before you descend canyons with the potential for keeper potholes, you prepare yourself with the proper skills and gear.
Never let the entire group commit to a pothole until someone is successfully able to escape the downstream side. Leaving someone with a rope above the pothole allows people to get out if the pothole proves impassable. This safety tip may not get you down the canyon, but it will save you from dying a cold death in the pothole.
One quick way to die canyoneering is to enter a technical canyon without the right skills, experience, or equipment.
Let’s start with skills. Canyoneering, like any technical sport, requires techniques that are unique to canyon environments that you don’t usually learn rock climbing or in other rope sports. Many competent alpine climbers come into canyons and find themselves at serious risk because they don’t have the skills they need. To avoid dying from lack of skills, the simple solution is to only go with competent leadership experienced in canyoneering.
Even with a leader with technical skills, having the right experience and preparation is critical to not committing lethal mistakes in a canyon. This means not going into a canyon without doing your homework and knowing what you’ll run into in the canyon. If you’ll need a 200-foot rope, and you don’t have one, you’ll be in trouble. Also, if you bring an old rope not designed for canyoneering, you may suffer the consequences
Technical canyoneering isn’t hiking. Many inexperienced people end up in popular canyons without the necessary gear. Instead of rappelling, they try to downclimb or jump and frequently end up with sprains, fractures, or worse.
Flash floods are a powerful and destructive force behind the formation of our canyons. That formative force is also one of the greatest dangers to canyoneers. If you’re new to canyoneering, you may be tempted to jump right in and go explore. Beware – even on what appears to be a sunny clear day with no rain on the forecast for the area of the canyon, a quick hitting and isolated thunderstorm up to 50 miles away can send a lethal wall of water rushing your way.
So how do you know if it’s safe to commit on that first rappel? We won’t delve into forecasting floods in depth here, but to keep from dying, the main rule is to check the forecast for the entire drainage that feeds the canyon you’ll be in. If you check that no rain will come down the entire drainage and you avoid hanging out in the canyon longer than needed, you can usually stay safe.
But even with careful checking of the forecast, micro storms can dump enough water into a drainage in a hurry and when you’re in a canyon that’s only wide enough to fit through sideways, it doesn’t take a ton of water to kill you.
What do you do if perchance you do end up getting stuck in a canyon with a flash flood coming your way? You find high ground. That’s simple to say and much more complicated in practice, but in general, this requires you understand the signs of flash floods and pay attention to your surroundings so you always have an escape route when you need one.
Reading the signs of an approaching flash flood and reacting quickly are key. When passing through canyons prone to flooding you should continually think through your escape plan. Keep it top of mind and you’ll be able to react more quickly in case the worst happens.
Even with careful preparation, flash floods can strike like a thief in the night.
This one is related to flash floods and hypothermia and often occurs simultaneously with them. But people also drown in the absence of flash floods or keeper potholes. You can jump into a pool of cold water and drown because you’re wearing heavy clothes, shoes, and a backpack and don’t have the swimming skills to get out. This isn’t very common, but it can happen and should be planned for.
In class C canyons with flowing water, drownings are common when people don’t have the skills or training to swim safely. Getting your foot caught in a crack or on a log can quickly flip you face down into the water and you may not have the strength to right yourself if the water is flowing swiftly.
Although not common, snakes, scorpions, and spiders live in many canyons around the world and given the tight quarters in most canyons, you can easily find yourself sneaking up on and surprising creatures that don’t want you around. They can and will bite or sting. Medical support can be hours away and that’s if you can actually contact someone to let them know you need help. Sometimes you have no choice but to hoof it out and depending on the situation, death can be the outcome. You can pack snakebite kits, but the best prevention is to stay alert and be watchful of dangerous animals.
Do your homework beforehand so you know what species you may encounter and be comfortable identifying them.
I wrote a series of articles all about navigation. Brush up on your skills here so you don’t get lost:
- Ropes – Canyoneering ropes come in many breeds, colors, and styles – all designed for the rugged canyoneering environment.
Some will fit your needs better than others for various reasons. This article will help you pick the right rope to add to your family and will discuss the care and feeding of canyoneering ropes once you adopt one.
Let’s drop right in and see what makes canyoneering ropes so special.
What makes a canyoneering rope tick?
Canyoneering ropes are not the same as climbing ropes. They’re designed for static loads, sandy, muddy, wet, and abrasive conditions, and find their greatest joy by getting you from the top to the bottom of a canyon safely. They also know their owners may be carrying them many miles to and from the canyon – often in scorching hot conditions. That’s why canyoneering ropes are often narrower in diameter than climbing ropes.
To survive the harsh conditions of canyon life, canyoneering ropes have evolved a thicker, tougher sheath and tighter weave than their climbing rope cousins. Their sheaths are typically made from polyester or Technora to make them light and durable and often have cores made of polyester, polypropylene, or Dyneema.
The tight weave and core material and design makes canyoneering ropes very low-stretch. This is a huge help to their happiness and well-being inside canyons where stretching and bouncing leads to abrasion and damage to the poor ropes. The static nature also helps you, the rappeller, out when you’re 200′ feet over the edge and trying to stay in control of your descent.
All these characteristics make canyoneering ropes uniquely suited for life inside canyons, but how do you choose the right one?
Which canyoneering rope is right for you?
The short answer to this question is – it depends. It’s largely a matter of personal preference. I won’t leave you hanging there though. Let me break down all the characteristics of canyoneering ropes you should consider when you go to the rope shelter to pick the right one to bring home to the kids.If you already know about canyoneering ropes, but want some solid info on the best ropes on the market, check out the canyoneering rope info sheet we put together for you. It has all the technical specs you need to make an informed decision including, price, weight, diameter, materials, and my comments on the best use for each rope.
The current diameter range for mainstream canyoneering ropes runs from 8 mm up to about 10 mm. You can find strange ropes that are only 6 mm but those are for special people with special needs. We won’t discuss those here. Large diameter ropes over 10 mm can also be found, but again, let’s leave those to the eccentrics.
The main concerns when evaluating a rope by its diameter are durability, weight, and personality.
Personality describes the way the rope behaves while in use. A skinnier rope will typically generate less friction through your rappel device than a thick rope so you’ll have to prepare for that. Skinnier ropes also behave differently when trying to use friction hitches such as prussiks so practicing with your rope before getting into a canyon is recommended.
The weight of a rope can make a big difference when you’re packing 300′ or more feet of it across endless miles of desert terrain. It also helps the rope pack into smaller space so you don’t need as big of a pack.
Durability will be increased the thicker the rope is so choosing a skinnier rope is probably best for those with experience in handling canyoneering ropes in canyon conditions since mistakes in setting up rappels over sharp edges or getting ropes sandy and muddy can quickly reduce their life expectancy.
Some other factors to consider when choosing the right diameter canyoneering rope are what rope size your rappel device of choice works best with. Some rappel devices don’t play well with skinny ropes while others aren’t designed for the beefy ones. Read the manufacturer’s instructions.
Also consider the canyons you plan to descend in the near future with this new rope. If you’re aiming for bolted canyons with clean pulls, any diameter rope will work. If your canyon has difficult raps with sharp overhangs or snaggle-toothed rocks, you’ll want something more durable.
Diameter also depends on your own weight and the weight of those you plan to bring along for the ride. If your rope is skinny and doesn’t like Clydesdales dropping on it, it will give you too little friction.–
It should be obvious that different construction materials give canyoneering ropes different personalities and characteristics. What a canyoneering rope is made of makes a difference. Technora, Dyneema, polyester, and polypropylene are the most common materials used.
- Technora – Technora is an aramid fiber with high tensile strength, high abrasion resistance, and a high melting point. These traits make it ideal for many canyon situations. In canyoneering, long rope pulls can generate substantial heat, so Technora’s heat resistance is a desirable attribute. Technora may sound amazing, but it’s primary weakness shows up when things get wet – and they often do in canyoneering. Technora can absorb more water than polyester and Dyneema so Technora ropes tend to get heavy and waterlogged when you let them swim.
- Dyneema – Dyneema (AKA – Spectra) melts at a much lower temperature than Technora but doesn’t absorb much water. Dyneema is super strong so a little bit goes a long way and Dyneema ropes tend to be lighter than similarly sized ropes. Dyneema is slick as snot which means it doesn’t hold knots very well so if you’re not confident in your knot skills, Dyneema sheathed ropes may not be the right choice for you. One other interesting tidbit about Dyneema – it doesn’t pick up dyes very well so it’s often plain white, but if the albino rope is the look you’re going for, it’s a great color variety for you.
- Polyester – Polyester make great canyoneering ropes because the material is cheaper and it’s a very static material compared to the other options. Polyester is hydrophobic meaning polyester canyoneering ropes definitely don’t like drinking in tons of dirty canyon water. They stay pretty dry and also have good abrasion resistance. One area polyester canyoneering ropes tend to get poor marks is their tendency to stiffen up with age. This isn’t necessarily bad, but an old arthritic rope can be a bit harder to handle and can develop a crotchety personality.
- Polypropylene – Polypropylene canyoneering ropes are lightweight and resist absorbing water. They often float depending on the core material and sheath thickness. Polypropylene ropes also melt more easily than others. They can be great ropes for wet conditions, but not always the best all-around.
Other materials are sometimes used to make canyoneering ropes, such as Nylon. Nylon is cheap, but it stretches a ton, absorbs water and becomes weaker when wet. I don’t recommend Nylon ropes for canyoneering for these reasons.
The diameter and construction material of your canyoneering rope directly determine its weight. Some ropes are chunky little fellas while others are wiry and scrawny looking. Each one shines in its own element. A rope used for canyons off the side of the road or the canyons where you bring along your pack mule friend can be heavy and will give you extra durability and functionality. Those canyons with long rappels that require a big hike in or out are where the featherweights shine.
Consider the intended use of your canyoneering rope when selecting and think about how heavy a 200′ 11 mm rope will be to haul. They don’t walk on their own you know!
Between continual permit applications for canyons in Zion National Park and replacing canyoneering ropes each season, the cost of canyoneering adds up. Adopting the purebred, high-performance ropes may seem like a good idea, but recognize that even the most prestigious pedigreed rope will still fall victim to the wiles of the canyon if you spend much time there. Don’t let cost limit your participation in the sport by not being able to afford to regularly replace your ropes.
I recommend starting with a cheaper rope and only buying the pricier ones after you put several canyons behind you. Of course, if you have the cash to spend, some of the pricier ropes sure do have beautiful personalities.
Researching all these details of the commonly used canyoneering ropes can take time so I’ve put together this awesome summary chart of all the common canyoneering ropes.
A few other things to think about when buying a canyoneering rope are the length and color.
Choose lengths that fit the needs of the canyons you plan to drop. Most canyons can be done with either a 120 or a 200′ rope, but you may want a shorter one for canyons with short rappels so you don’t have to pack extra rope
Color may not seem to matter too much, but when you start to grow your rope family to more than a few, it’s good to keep different lengths identifiable based on color.
Ready to bring home your first canyoneering rope?
If you’re ready to pull the trigger on a canyoneering rope, I put together this great canyoneering rope info sheet to help you learn all about the best ropes on the market.
If you want to take my word for it and skip all the research, here’s what I recommend to get started in canyoneering:
- One 200′ Imlay Canyon Fire
- Two 120′ Imlay Canyon Fire
(Swap this for the Canyonero if you weigh more than 200 lbs.)
Care and feeding of your new rope
okay, so you have a fun new rope to play with. How do you take care of it to ensure it lives a good long life?
How to care for your rope
- Keep it clean – Clean ropes are happy ropes. Your rope is bound to get dirty in the canyon, just be sure to do what you can to avoid throwing it in the mud or sand. When you get home from the canyon, wash your ropes. Avoid using any chemicals to wash your rope with except for mild soap. Never use any oxidizers like bleach.
- Keep it dry – wet ropes degrade more quickly and can grow mold and mildew. Be sure to dry your rope out after it gets wet and before you put it in storage. Hang your rope loosely in a cool place out of the sun to dry it.
- Don’t abuse it – stepping on it, leaving knots in it, storing it in the back of your car in the hot sun, or using your rope in ways you shouldn’t such as sport climbing will kill your rope in a hurry.
- Keep it safe – perhaps the fastest way to destroy your rope is to rappel with it running over sharp edges without any edge protection. Sometimes this can’t be avoided, but do your best to rig your rope in a manner that won’t damage it.
- Get better at rappelling – hero-style rappels with the guy bounding down the side of the building may look cool in the movies, but is poor form for canyoneering. Rappels should be steady, controlled, and not jerky. Shock loading your rope over a sharp edge or swinging back and forth will wear your rope out faster than nice, easy rappels.
- Keep it out of the chemical cupboard – ropes and chemicals don’t mix. Getting battery acid, oil, bleach, or even sharpie marker on your rope can weaken it and degrade the fibers. Keep it out of trouble.
- Don’t let it get sunburned – UV rays will degrade your rope over time. It should be stored in a cool dark place – just like your potatoes and onions, just don’t store them together. After cleaning and drying my ropes, I store them loosely coiled in bags to keep them from accidental exposure to anything that would do them harm.
How to know when your canyoneering rope is ready for rope heaven?
Captive bred canyoneering ropes have a pretty short life span if you take them out in canyons often. Learning to recognize when it’s time to retire your ropes is important for your safety and their happiness. Canyoneering ropes don’t like to be used beyond their safe lifespan.
Depending on the type of malady your rope suffers from, you can cut a longer rope into two shorter ropes. Use judgement in when to cut a rope and when to retire the whole thing. When you cut a rope also be sure to document that it was cut and record how long each length is. Not many things are as exciting as thinking you have a 200′ rope only to find out halfway down the wall that you grabbed the 160′ rope.
- Core Shot – core shot is any time the core is visible through the sheath. This is a sure sign you need to cut your rope.
- Core Damage – Each time you inspect your ropes (which should happen every time you pull one out to take on a trip), run the entire length of rope through your hand and feel for bumps, divots, or other imperfections in the core. If you find one, it’s time to cut the rope.
- Sheath damage – if you can see the core at all through a worn-out sheath, either cut the rope if it’s isolated, or discard the entire rope if it’s uniform. When you discard a rope, be sure to cut it into short pieces that can’t accidentally be used to rappel or climb on.
- Frayed sheath – this is beyond just a bit of sheath fuzziness. When entire bundles of the sheath are frayed or broken, it’s probably time to cut the rope.
- Shiny rope – if your rope is shiny like it has a glaze on it, you’re probably descending too fast for your belay device. The glazing is typically heat damage to your sheath. Discard!
- Discoloration – if your rope looks like it just got came from the groomers and they bleached or dyed it, it was probably exposed to chemicals or UV rays and should be discarded.
- Old Age – the life expectancy of a rope that never goes out to a canyon to play but sits on the shelf its entire life is still only about 10 years. Soft goods like rope that keep you alive can wear out over time and should be retired even if they still appear to be in good health.
- Loss of Faith – Sometimes there’s no apparent reason why a rope shouldn’t be trusted, but if you feel hesitant about going out on a limb with a specific rope for any reason, retire it.
- Anchor building gear
- Wet Suit
- First Aid