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What is Canyoneering?

By A. B. Kelsey
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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Canyoneering, called canyoning in other parts of the world, is the adventurous act of traveling through steep and narrow canyons using a variety of techniques that can include walking, climbing, scrambling, jumping, abseiling, wading, or swimming. Canyoneers usually differentiate between technical and nontechnical canyoneering. Where nontechnical canyoneering generally refers to simple canyon hiking, technical canyoneering requires specialized equipment and techniques to complete the climb safely.

Canyons vary greatly in their depth, width, and composition. In the United States, the most popular site for canyoneering is the Colorado Plateau with its beautiful sandstone canyons. Other popular canyoneering sites are the Rocky Mountain, Cascade, Sierra Nevada, and San Gabriel ranges. The sheer number of canyons and their varying technical difficulty means people of all skill levels and ages can enjoy the sport.

Canyoneering gear includes specially designed shoes, rope bags, and packs. Canyoneers also need climbing hardware, wetsuits, static ropes, and climbing helmets. Canyoneers must constantly inspect vital equipment such as harnesses, webbing, and ropes, for signs of wear and damage. If significant damage is detected, the gear must promptly be retired and replaced.

Canyoneering can be dangerous, which is undoubtedly part of the thrill for many who participate in the sport. Narrow slot canyons can present extremely difficult obstacles for canyoneers, because sometimes the only way out of a canyon is to climb to the very top. This tends to be strenuous on the body and can leave the canyoneer unprotected from the elements for long periods of time. Failure to complete the required moves can result in being trapped in a canyon where rescue is extremely difficult.

Some canyoneering involves escaping from large potholes called "keeper potholes." These hazards are circular pits that often contain water too deep to stand up in and walls too smooth to climb. Special equipment, good problem-solving skills, and trusted teammates are needed to escape from danger.

Canyons with a lot of water flow can be especially treacherous, and canyoneers should never attempt to traverse them without special equipment. Another potential danger is a flash flood. A dry, calm canyon can quickly become a raging torrent if there’s a severe thunderstorm nearby.

Another canyoneering hazard is temperature related illnesses. Hypothermia is a risk climbers take when they are in any canyon with any amount of water. In the desert canyons, canyoneers risk heat exhaustion if they do not keep hydrated and avoid direct sunlight. It is important to remember that many of the canyons are so remote and difficult to traverse that a canyoneer might not be rescued for many days.

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