What Is Canyoning?

Much of the same gear used for rock climbing you can use for canyoneering. Roberto Lumbreras/flickr

Most people have heard of rock climbing, mountaineering, spelunking and hiking, all activities that help us explore the natural world. With so many different kinds of terrain to choose from, we've created pastimes for each type of challenge.

One sport that's gaining in popularity in the United States is canyoning or canyoneering, as it’s also called. At its most basic level, canyoning means heading down into a canyon to explore. While that sounds simple, the act of getting down into a canyon is more involved than you might think. Those who do it utilize several skills, including hiking, rappelling, bouldering, sliding, swimming, wading, scrambling, rafting and waterfall jumping.

Because so many different skills might be needed on a trip into a canyon, there's often a guide or a certain level of expertise involved, plus a wide range of gear.

The gear

Basic outdoor stores like REI and Eastern Mountain Sports might have a small amount of canyoneering gear. Just because the gear isn't labeled for the activity doesn't mean it won't work. Many of the same pieces of equipment you would use for rock climbing, mountaineering and spelunking are also used for canyoning.

Depending on the difficulty of the canyon, gear could include harnesses, helmets, wetsuits, dry suits, rope, carabiners, rappel devices, gloves, elbow and knee pads, webbing, biners, prusiks, descenders, survival kits and canyon dry kegs or water-resistant packs that keep your belongings dry when you're in the water. If you're new to the sport, contact your guide in advance to make sure you'll have all the items you'll need for a specific trip. All canyons are different, so the equipment will vary.

A man navigates a narrow crevasse in a canyon
Canyoning can be a lot of fun, but it's important to be safe and take precautions to avoid tight spots. Mia & Steve Mestdagh/flickr

Popular canyoning destinations

Canyoning is relatively new in the United States, but there's no shortage of great destinations, especially if you head to Utah. Zion National Park is a favorite for many canyoneering adventures as well as Cedar Mesa. For a great list of places in Utah along with ratings, visit Canyoneering USA. Arizona and Hawaii also have some excellent canyoning options. Outside the U.S., Australia, South Africa, Scotland, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Mexico offer great canyoning sites and have plenty of experienced guides to help you navigate the terrain.

Is it dangerous?

As much fun as canyoning is, it’s important to remember that there are very real dangers. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  1. The buddy system. Don't ever go canyoning alone. One slip or twist of the ankle could leave you stranded.
  2. Know where you are. Bring a GPS or map and make sure to follow your guide so you don't get lost.
  3. Flash floods. It might not be raining where you are, but if it’s raining a few miles away, the waters can swell and create fast currents leading to a potentially dangerous situation.
  4. Hypothermia. If someone sits in cold water for too long, hypothermia can be a real risk. That's why canyoners wear wetsuits and know to pay attention to their bodies and the bodies of their companions.

Why should you try canyoning?

There's the obvious benefits like improving your health through exploration and spending time out in nature, but a more persuasive argument can be made through pictures. Canyoners see some of nature’s most magnificent wonders, like these:

A man shimmies down a canyon wall in Utah
A man attempts a careful climb while in Garfield, Utah. Mia & Steve Mestdagh/flickr
A woman descends into a waterfall while canyoning
A canyoneer carefully descends near a waterfall. Luigi Mengato/flickr
A couple secures their ropes while canyoning
Climbers tread carefully in Barranco del Infierno in Spain. Roberto Lumbreras/flickr
A woman straddles the gap between canyon walls
A woman straddes a crevasse while canyoneering. Mia & Steve Mestdagh/flickr