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Canyoneering 101by Lizard by Lizard
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When I originally wrote my “Canyoneering 101” article back in 2005, very few people were out in the Arizona canyons. That has changed. Each year, more and more people are discovering the sheer joy of canyoneering. The availability of gear has changed greatly also. While canyoneering gear is still very much a specialty, there are a number of manufacturers of high-quality canyoneering gear out there. Stores like the Arizona Hiking Shack carry a wide variety of excellent gear, but it can be overwhelming as a newcomer to sort through and figure out what you need and don’t need.


Therefore, I am completely overhauling my 2005 article on the basics of canyoneering gear. This article is aimed squarely at the beginner. Most people who get into canyoneering start with trips of the non-technical variety; that is, trips where scrambling, wading, and swimming may be required, but where no technical ropework or difficult climbing is required. This article will discuss gear requirements for this type of trip, with a focus on the overnight variety. There’s a wealth of trips like this in Arizona and nearby Utah, including Wet Beaver Creek, West Clear Creek, Tonto Creek, Haigler Creek, Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River, Zion Narrows, Zion Barracks/Parunaweap Canyon, and Death Hollow. This article assumes that you are starting with a good grasp on basic backpacking gear, and focuses solely on the adjustments necessary when the trip gets wet and narrow.

Water Protection
The first and most necessary step to take is to protect one's pack from water. For the first several trips, most people simply take their regular backpacking pack and waterproof it. This can be done most easily by lining the pack with a garbage bag, dumping in your gear, and knotting the bag at the top. This approach actually works very well, particularly if you use more heavy duty bags such as trash compactor bags, and use several layers.

Knotted garbage bags are not the most convenient things to open, however, so as you get more into the sport you may want to upgrade to drybags. You want to be careful about taking the claims of drybag manufacturers at face value. Light, thin drybags made of coated nylon or silnylon, such as those made by the Sea-to-Summit brand, are notorious for leaking. Even if the seams were sealed (which they aren’t), silnylon itself is only mostly impervious to water. Repeated immersion will cause these bags to fail and fail hard. The heavy duty PVC bags (such as Seal Line brand) are a major improvement, but even those can leak. The best approach seems to be to use multiple layers. I typically line each drybag with a trash compactor bag, roll the trash compactor bag and then seal the drybag on top. This approach has yet to fail. I will sometimes place an absorbent item (such as a t-shirt) right next to the roll-top closure, so if there is a small leak, it gets absorbed by the t-shirt rather than penetrating the rest of the bag.

There’s also a number of hard sided containers that are popular among canyoneers. These range from cell phone cases, to Pelican-brand hard sided cases, up to the dry kegs manufactured by Imlay Canyon Gear. The advantage of a hard sided container is that it protects the contents from getting crushed as well as wet – useful for both food items, and sensitive electronics. Again, you want to be careful taking claims at face value. Most of these cases, including expensive ones like the pelican cases, are made to be “splashproof,” protecting an item that is in a boat from periodic splashes, not from the constant immersion that happens during a canyoneering trip. Look on amazon for reviews of a case before completely trusting your gear with it, and use redundant layers of water protection for sensitive items.

Backpack
Most people start canyoneering using their existing backpack. Canyoneering is very hard on gear, so I suggest if you do this, you use an older pack that you don’t mind trashing. You can improve your pack somewhat by adding grommet holes. Simple grommet kits are available from walmart, Michaels, and similar stores. Without drainage holes, water will tend to pool in the bottom of a pack, increasing the weight of the pack, and increasing the chances of water penetrating the drybag. As you get into the sport, you probably want to get a pack specifically for canyoneering. These packs are generally much tougher than normal packs, and made to deal with water. Canyoneering packs come in two flavors:
  1. Completely waterproof packs (i.e. a dry bag with straps)
  2. Packs made with tough materials and lots of drainage
There’s a number of completely waterproof packs on the market, such as the Seal Line Boundary Bag, made for canoe portaging. However, most canyoneers that I know eventually end up using the type 2 pack, made to drain rather than to seal. The completely waterproof packs initially look appealing – they’re cheaper, and you’re carrying drybags anyway, so why not just make the whole pack a drybag? However, the reality is that any drybag is only fully waterproof the first time you use it. Each subsequent time, it leaks a little more. This is especially true when your whole pack is a drybag, since the exterior of the bag is then exposed to abrasion and fails even sooner. It’s also difficult to get things in and out of a fully sealed drybag during a long day of canyoneering. The fully waterproof packs usually end up being more of a hassle than they’re worth. So most canyoneers eventually end up using type 2 packs with drybags inside, where they are protected from abrasion and can do their job of keeping your goods dry.

There are a number of manufacturers of specialty canyoneering packs, such as Imlay Canyon Gear. However, with a grommet kit and hot knife, you can also purchase any tough pack and turn it into a canyoneering pack. Look for extra-tough materials like PVC and Cordura. Many canyoneers use rock climbing haul bags, which are built to be super tough for hauling up and down rock walls.

Floating your pack: Of concern to newcomers is how you will get your pack to float across pools as you swim. The truth of the matter is that this is not something you need to worry about. When you seal off a drybag, you trap enough air with the seal to float the pack. Generally, no supplementary flotation device is necessary at all. If you are concerned about this still, you can try including some water bladders in your pack (Platypus bladders work well). You can blow air into these to add flotation to the pack.

Footwear
The other major gear adjustment that needs to be made for canyoneering is in the footwear. The traditional full-grain leather boot will not fare well on a canyoneering trip. You will need footwear that will stand up well to repeated and prolonged submersion in water, and that is flexible enough for scrambling up, over, around, and down water-slicked rocks.

For short day trips in canyons, sandals made for use in water (Teva is the most well-known brand name) are often suggested. This is for good reason, as they work well for these trips. However, it has been my experience that for prolonged, multiday canyoneering trips, this type of footwear is far from ideal. You will spend a lot of time scrambling and hopping over wet rocks, and slips and falls are inevitable. I used a pair of Tevas on my first trip down Wet Beaver Creek in 2001, and I came home limping, with chunks of flesh missing from my foot from when I slipped off slick rocks and jammed my foot against another rock. On a multiday trip, water sandals become medieval torture devices.

More suited to multiday canyoneering is footwear that covers the entire foot. A popular option is to take an old pair of sneakers or trail running shoes and wear them for canyoneering. You can wear a pair of neoprene socks inside the shoes, which will help both keep your feet warm, and make it easier to deal with sand. You’ll get sand inside your shoe wearing neoprene socks, but it typically doesn’t get inside the sock itself, so it’s much more tolerable than wearing a pair of wool socks.

Several companies make shoes and boots specifically designed for canyoneering. The standard for many canyoneers (driven partially by the fact that they’re the most popular rental shoe for the Zion Narrows) is the 5.10 Canyoneer. This boot features a bulky construction that protects your foot from scrapes, drainage options, and most importantly, sticky rubber soles. In my opinion, the 5.10 Canyoneer is not the most comfortable shoe in the world. However, there’s been a number of moments that the soles have been lifesavers, and so the Canyoneer is the gold standard canyoneering shoe for a reason. 5.10 was recently bought out by Adidas, and the sticky rubber is now showing up in a variety of other shoes, some much lighter and more flexible than the Canyoneer. I would expect there to be a good deal of development in this space in the near future.

Lighten Up
Given the amount of kinetic energy necessary for canyoneering, a lighter load is almost essential. If you're carrying 60 pounds as you attempt to hop from wet rock to wet rock... good luck. I would aim to carry a base pack load - your pack load before food and water is added - of about 15-20 pounds. For tips on lightening up your load, visit the websites www.backpacking.net and www.backpackinglight.com

Clothing
In general, the clothing you will carry on a canyoneering trip is the same you would carry on a backpacking trip. One exception is that you may consider purchasing a wet or drysuit. A neoprene wetsuit will extend the canyoneering season in Arizona a great deal. New and lightly used wetsuits can be found dirt cheap on Ebay. A 4/3 full length wetsuit will be the most versatile, allowing you to do some Central Arizona canyons well into the winter. However, it will also be overkill in a lot of cases. A 2/3 shortie may be more versatile. If you can, I recommend owning both to give yourself maximal flexibility. Drysuits are delicate items that are to be used only in the extreme coldest water. In my opinion, if a canyon hike requires you to wear a drysuit, it’s probably best to wait until it warms up.

If it’s warm enough to not need a wetsuit, you still may want to consider wearing Spandex shorts to help prevent chafing. Whatever clothing you wear, bring a completely dry set of clothes for the evening.

Shelter/Tent
Leave your freestanding geodesic dome at home. In most canyons, camping space is at a premium. In extreme cases (Wet Beaver Canyon is a good example), you will have to hike many miles to find campsites that will accommodate more than one person. You will want to bring a shelter with the smallest footprint possible. This will also help with lightening the load. As you will be doing your canyoneering only when good weather is in the forecast, I suggest bringing a groundsheet to sleep on, and having some sort of tarp in the slight chance that rain falls. A hammock is also an excellent choice, as it opens up camping options where a ground sleeper would be completely out of luck. I often carry both a hammock and a groundsheet, to give myself maximum flexibility in choosing a campsite.

Food
The food requirements for canyoneering are essentially the same as backpacking. Given that most multi-day canyoneering is done during the summer, you might consider leaving the stove at home and carrying only no-cook food. I've done this on several trips, and it is a worthwhile option. I would also think about carrying more food than normal for a backpacking trip. Swimming through cold water repeatedly eats up more calories than simple hiking, so your appetite is likely to be bigger at the end of the day.

Lotion
Moisturizing lotion is in my opinion absolutely essential for canyoneering. After a long day of repeated soakings in water, you are very likely to find your palms and soles to be achingly dry. A small tube of lotion is cheap, light, and wonderfully welcome at the end of these days.

Trekking Poles
This item is a matter of personal preference. On the one hand, swimming with trekking poles is a major pain in the rear. On the other hand, having trekking poles for extending rock hopping and scrambling can be a lifesaver. If you do decide to carry trekking poles, I would recommend buying one of the cheap knockoffs available at Wal-Mart or Target. You might also look for old ski poles at Goodwill. Trekking poles carried on canyoneering trips tend to get jammed in rock cracks and bent into weird shapes, which is distressing when it happens to your $150 Leki's. As with shoes, I find a pair of cheapo trekking poles usually lasts about one season.

Final Note
As with any gear junkie, this article is tainted by prejudices and quirks I've developed over the years. Its intended as a starting point for hikers who are getting into canyoneering, nothing more. If you disagree with any suggestions I have made above, please add your comments below.

original version posted 2005-09-16

2014-05-30 Lizard
 
 

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