What is canyoning/canyoneering?
Canyoning, or canyoneering as is the most commonly used American term, is simply the act of moving down a canyon using any technique needed: swimming, jumping, walking, climbing, abseiling/rappelling, bushwhacking, sliding, slipping, getting stuck, cursing... It has grown in popularity over the last years following the general fitness/outdoor trend. Usually the canyons are wet, with a river running at the bottom, although especially in USA there are plenty of dry desert canyons to hike in.
Where is this done?
Many countries have suitable canyons and organizations for canyoning, for example in USA, Australia, Spain, France, Switzerland and the UK, South Africa, Reunion Island, Canada, Mexico, and undoubtedly several others. Good canyons for canyoning are cut deep into the surrounding rock, with narrow slots with waterfalls and nicely carved rock formations. They are often found in limestone, sandstone or granite bedrock. If the canyon is narrower than two metres it's called a slot canyon and may require some special technique to get through, especially if it has passages that are narrower than an average person.
The canyons have been formed over a long period of time by the erosion of the river and by the changes in weather with floods pulling along logs and rocks. Caution should be taken when being in them so that they're not damaged by your visit. Walking in the riverbed as much as possible, or on bare rock, helps minimizing the impact and leaves no tracks.
How is it done, then?
The easiest way to try canyoning as a beginner is probably to look for a company offering guided tours. The guides are (or, they should be) experienced and know the area well, and will (hopefully) provide the necessary gear apart from sturdy shoes. There may also be other outdoor activity clubs doing canyoning trips that will show someone new to it how it's done. The ideal group size is about 3-6 people, as being more than that will slow down the abseils, and going alone is definitely not advisable as there would be nobody to run for help if something happens.
The difficulty level of a canyon depends on the nature of the waterfalls and rappelling spots, but it may also vary with the water level. Some canyons may be easy enough to not require any particular gear apart from decent shoes and a bottle of water, and others may require the full set of a wetsuit and helmet, harness, ropes, rappelling devices, carabiners and slings, food and water, a first aid kit, some sets of dry clothes, maybe even a tent and sleeping bag, and perhaps a GPS as well. Oh, and maps, of course.
Why would anyone want to go through all that trouble of walking down a river when there's a perfectly acceptable road right here?
Walking in a canyon will be a completely different experience from walking on the flat (?) ground beside it. The steep sides block out direct sunlight as well as sounds from the surroundings and even if the countryside is dry and scorched and seems ready to burst into flames as soon as someone even thinks about matches, the river in the canyon makes for a green, lush environment with trees and flowers along the riverbanks. It will also be much cooler in the canyon than out in the open even on a hot summer's day.
What are the dangers of it, then?
Canyons are fickle things. The conditions in them change with weather and seasons when water levels change and stones and logs are moved. Because of this, a canyon that was easy and dry one visit may the next time be much harder with higher water levels and stronger currents, and someone expecting an easy hike with insufficient gear for the actual situation is in for a nasty surprise. You will reach a point of no return, usually around the first abseil, where escape is no longer possible upriver unless perhaps you're a really good rock climber with proper gear. This also means that injured persons still have to complete the canyon, short of sending in a helicopter which is costly and not always possible given weather conditions and the like.
Flash floods after thunderstorms are known to have killed several people. They occur when there is heavy rain upriver, more than the ground can swallow, and all that excess water comes surging down the river causing the water level to rise dramatically. The strong currents may also bring with them a lot of debris such as logs that also can sweep people along. The worst accident in canyoning history happened in Switzerland in 1999 where 21 people were killed in a flood, three of them guides. This is best avoided by caution and common sense (and luck), listening to the weather reports and asking local authorities about the situation.
Ropes or anchors for rappelling can break, tangle or get stuck, with disastrous results
is also a serious issue as it will lead to slower responses and a loss of dexterity
, making hard situations worse when tying knot
s and the like becomes nearly impossible. The combination of lack of direct sunlight and cold, running water can make it hard to stay warm.
When rappelling down into a waterfall
there is often a strong current at the bottom. This has caused deaths by drowning
when people didn't manage to find the way out of the current.
Where is there more info about this?
The websites listed below have some general info about canyoning. There are also several national canyoning organizations where info can be found about specific locations, and for someone going to a particular place it should not be too hard to find a local company doing guided tours.
All in all, this is a rather unique experience and well worth a try. For companies and the like it could be a great team building exercise, and someone who just likes to be out in the open should have a great time. There are no particular skills or techniques required and so everyone that is able to walk for a few hours without dropping dead should be able to participate.
Yes indeed, most of the info found on the 'net will call it
canyoneering and be from USA, but in Australia and the UK and in the rest of Europe it's known as