Canyoneering is what we commonly think of as hiking’s spicier, more adventurous cousin: It's likely to get you dirty, exhausted, and at times, a little scared. You’ll skin an elbow, tear some clothing, slog through a muddy pothole, wish for one more sandwich than you have, and rappel off anchors that rock climbers would turn their noses up at. And then, exhausted but exhilarated on the drive home, you’ll start planning your next trip.
And while technical canyoneering is a delightful adventure (and a step up from less demanding treks through slot canyons), it’s not advisable for newbies to just it try out on their own. Which makes it an even more elusive beast: You need an experienced friend who doesn’t mind you tagging along—or you need to hire a teacher or guide. (If you’re going to shell out for that expense, you may as well attend a course, which will likely involve going down some real canyons while learning. Bonus!)
It's difficult to under-emphasize the importance of safety as well. Those who attempt technical slots without the right training end up being rescue stories at best and tragedies at worst.
So, as a handy starting point, here's what newbies need to know before attempting technical canyoneering in Utah.
1. Know what to expect (hint: water often is involved).
A little rock-climbing experience can go a long way in helping you feel good about the occasional scramble or down-climb. It helps to be very comfortable with rappelling, too, including free-hanging rappels that leave you far from the cozy wall. Climbing experience also can help you trust the sticky rubber soles on your shoes too—and trusting your equipment (and skills) is a critical part of a successful excursion.
You’ll also navigate a little (or a lot) more creatively than you would while climbing. You’ll stem and body-bridge across gaps and slots (and if you’re anything like this author, you’ll go to acrobatic lengths to avoid mucking through a cold, deep pothole of murky water).
But, if water is unavoidable (and in many canyons, it is), you’ll likely need a wetsuit and dry bag to get yourself and your stuff through comfortably (more on gear below). Does all of this sound reasonable? Good; you’re ready to start planning your trip.
2. Learn who to learn from. If you have an experienced, safety-conscious friend to learn the basics from, great: Ask them to take you on an easy canyon to start with (check out our list of great slot canyon hikes in southern Utah for inspiration). And keep in mind that everyone’s definition of easy is a little bit different—make sure you ask for a detailed description ahead of time and research the canyon online; more on that below.
If you don’t have a friend to learn from, grab another friend and sign up for a course. A quick online search will yield a variety of options ranging everywhere from two-hour workshops at local outdoor shops to multi-day courses taught by guides out in the redrocks. (Excursions of Escalante is a tried-and-true favorite of many canyoneering enthusiasts, and there are multiple other reputable outfits operating around southern Utah.)
But if you’re not ready to throw down the hundreds of dollars that most courses cost, consider hiring a guide to take you and a friend on a short day trip. Then you can get a feel for what’s involved and decide how much you’re interested in investing time- and gear-wise.
3. Get savvy with your gear.
Canyoneering requires an extensive gear list—which won’t be too formidable if you already own a climbing harness, daisy chain, slings, and belay device. If not, you’ll eventually need to beg, borrow, steal, or invest in the goods yourself. Besides the expected ropes, helmets, dry bags, and packs, as well as camping gear if you want to make it an overnight adventure, there are a few inexpensive extra items that can make a world of a difference while canyoneering.
Standard gardening-type gloves made of knit fabric with grippy rubber palms can be a godsend. You’ll spend a lot of time pressing your hands against the rock and pulling yourself through small spaces, and the gloves not only help your palms grip but also prevent the countless little scrapes and knicks you’ll get otherwise.
Another unexpected savior? Simple knee pads—the black neoprene-type ones available at the hardware store for a couple bucks. Put a pair on your knees and one on your elbows, and you’ll feel much more invincible as you shimmy your way through small slots, bracing your body weight against your knees, elbows, and bottom.
Also, don’t wear clothes you like. The protocol for canyoneering is cheap, shred-able clothes only. (Pro tip: Don't go commando, lest your pants rip and leave an unfortunate gap in coverage.)
4. Pick a spot smartly.
One of the most critical questions for canyoneering: Where to go? When you're just getting started, that can be a daunting question. Start figuring out your options by picking up a good guidebook, and hit up the vast online wealth of knowledge on CanyoneeringUSA.com, with input from Tom Jones, an original-gangster-status canyoneer who has made a lifetime project of documenting the canyons of southern Utah and beyond. With Jones's extensive expertise, this site goes far beyond route descriptions to include all sorts of helpful tips and information.
You’ll also want a printed map—ideally a plasticized “paper” like the National Geographic Trails Illustrated series of maps. (Standard paper maps that get dropped into a pothole and rendered into useless, blurry pulp are no help, after all.) You can’t rely on GPS units working deep within these rock slots, so don’t underestimate the power of a tangible map.
And check out CUSA's ratings system, which is very handy in helping you pick a spot. By knowing the rating of every canyon you intend to do—and knowing just what that rating means—you minimize the potential for unpleasant surprises (and worse).
Utah is home to several amazing canyoneering areas, each covered with an intricate web of slot canyons. And each is home to another mysterious, beautiful network of drops, walls, pools, and chockstones. The Escalante area is a treasure trove, as is the Zion, North Wash, San Rafael Swell, and Robber’s Roost. So do your research, get your gear in order, and go have the adventure of your life.