101: Equipment

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You'll want some protection from this!

You’ll want some protection from this!

There are a lot of people interested in getting involved in local canyoning, so this is a brief equipment guide for those who want to start out.

Thermal and water protection

The first thing you’ll need is protection from cold water.  The standard here is a full wetsuit.  Depending on the season and outside temperature, as well as the length of the canyon, this can range from a 3mm shorty wetsuit to a 7mm full suit, with bonus layers of vests, hoods, and jackets.  Another factor is how resistant you are to the cold.

In hot weather, a short canyon like Cypress Creek or Lost Creek can be done with a shorty, but chances are you would prefer at least a 3/2 full wetsuit. (Many wetsuits use two numbers for the thickness – and sometimes three.  A 3/2 means that the torso is 3mm thick, and the extremities are 2mm, for better flexibility.) A longer canyon with lots of water, such as Monmouth Creek, would be better with at the very least a 4/3 full suit, even in the full heat of summer – and preferably more.

Wetsuits can be layered to provide extra protection, so there are a lot of possible combinations.  I’ll list a few ideas here, along with some thoughts on where to purchase the items.

Currently, I have three full wetsuits, as well as a shorty, a farmer john, and a hooded vest.

  • The lightest full suit is a 3/2 Hyperflex, which I purchased on Steep and Cheap (a discount remainder website from Backcountry.com) for just under $50.
  • I also have a 4/3 Hyperflex, which I purchased from Canyoneering USA for about $120 (the newest model is $135 there).
  • Finally, I have a 5mm full wetsuit.  This one I purchased used on Craigslist for $50, in like-new condition. It is from Neptune, in Australia.
  • My shorty wetsuit is a 3mm Body Glove, purchased at Costco for only $40.
  • I also have a farmer john wetsuit (can’t remember the manufacturer.) It is a 3mm as well, and was purchased at Value Village for only $15.  MEC carries a good version of this (Fusion John or Fusion Jane) for only $85 to $90 brand new.
  • An extra piece that is quite useful is a 5/3 hooded vest, by NeoSport.  It is a 3mm vest with a 5mm hood.  Putting this on under the full suit does a great job of keeping water out of the neck, whether the hood is up or down – and helps prevent heat loss through the head when it is up.  Mine came from Canyoneering USA and cost $52.

For canyons that will have a lot of exposure to water falling on one’s head (where you are exposed to the full force of the water dropping from above, as opposed to water rushing past your feet or legs) it is nice to have a hood, so the hooded vest is a good option.  Another possibility is to wear a hooded rain shell (that you’re not too concerned about damaging) as long as the hood will fit over your helmet.  You can then pull it up only for the rappels, and it will prevent water from pouring into the gap around the neck.

Putting on wetsuits in the snow for a winter descent of Brothers Creek

Putting on wetsuits in the snow for a winter descent of Brothers Creek

For very cold canyons, or long days, the suits can be layered.  I recently wore my 3/2 full suit, with my 3mm shorty over top for a cool day in Cypress Creek.  For a colder, much longer day in Monmouth Creek, I wore the 5mm full suit, with my 3/2 full suit on top of it.  (When I bought my 3/2, I weighed about 25 pounds more than I do now, so there was a little more room in that suit, to fit over another one!)

Suits can be purchased from online retailers/discounters, online marketplaces (Craigslist, Kijiji), gear swaps (MEC), or in physical stores.

Rental suits can be a good choice, as well.  Dive shops in the area have nice thick wetsuits available.  However, much of the diving here is done with thicker neoprene than we require – often a 7mm farmer with a 7mm jacket on top, giving 14mm on the torso.  International Dive Centre at Arbutus and 10th rents a full 7mm wetsuit that works very well.  This is important however: do not tell them you are “canyoneering” in it.  The activity has bad connotations for wetsuit rental shops, probably because of abrasive canyons elsewhere that can do great damage to wetsuits.  Instead, tell them that you are rappelling waterfalls.  It’s entirely true, and neatly sidesteps the issue.  Keep in mind that you have to be very careful with a rental wetsuit – do some damage, and you may end up purchasing it!

Another option, with which I have no personal experience, is to wear a drysuit. The significant bonus of this approach is that your body, staying dry, stays significantly warmer.  The downside is the potential for damaging the suit, and having it leak – at that point it loses its protection.  A technique that minimizes the danger of damaging the drysuit is to wear coveralls over top – especially in canyons with abrasive rock. Beneath a drysuit, it is necessary to wear a warmth layer – generally a layer (or layers) of fleece or other synthetic fibers.

Footwear

First of all, it is best to start with a good foundation.  Neoprene socks can make all the difference!  MEC sells good quality neoprene socks at a very reasonable price.  Normally, I wear one pair, but in very cold canyons I will occasionally wear two. Keep in mind the extra thickness of neo socks when sizing your shoes.  You’ll want a fairly loose shoe to accommodate that thickness.

There are a few specialty shoes designed for canyoning.  The most common is the 5.10 Canyoneer. This shoe combines a climbing rubber sole with a neoprene and mesh upper, that drains well and provides a fair bit of support. The usual complaint about this shoe is that the shoe is far too large inside.  The toe box is very capacious, and people often find their feet sliding around inside, leading to discomfort on long trips.  For people like me, with abnormally wide hobbit feet, this is not a problem, and I can wear these shoes comfortably for hours on end.  (After 16 hours descending Heaps Canyon in Zion, my feet still felt good – the rest of me, however…)

A shot of the elusive Adidas Hydro Pro in canyon.

A shot of the elusive Adidas Hydro Pro in canyon.

For a narrower foot, a better option might be the Adidas Hydro Pro.  These are a lot tougher to find, but are far more comfortable for those with a narrower (normal) width foot.  Most reviews indicate that people find them a little less grippy than the Canyoneers, and they don’t drain as quickly. As well, sand can cause problems in their zippers. However, in flowing granitic canyons, this isn’t that big a deal.

Another shoe that is fairly new, but getting good reviews here and there, is the Bestard Canyon Guide, from Spain.  Pretty expensive, and hard to come by – I believe the only way to purchase them is directly from the manufacturer.

The other route, aside from specialty footwear, is to use a pair of approach or trail shoes.  Anything that is synthetic or even canvas (i.e. not leather or suede) is fine.  Ideally, you would like something with a bit of tread, and maybe a soft grippy sole.  You will be doing a lot of walking on unstable rocky creek beds, so some ankle support (and ankle protection) is useful as well.  Again, remember to wear something that will leave room for neoprene socks.

Something to probably avoid is wearing kayaking booties.  These are neoprene booties with a flexible rubber sole, and would probably be fine if you were walking on a surface of flat sand, gravel or smooth rock, but they do not offer enough support when walking on creek beds of fist- to bowling-ball-sized rocks.  After a couple of hours, your feet will be tired and aching – on a longer day, you could end up hobbling along in agony!  As always, there are variations in the canyons, however.  Cypress Creek will cause problems because of the size of the rocks, but in Monmouth Canyon – a trip that takes about four times as long as Cypress – the rocks are large boulders, and are much easier to walk on without pain.  It’s probably best to be prepared with comfortable shoes that will get you through all situations…

Technical equipment

There are a few pieces of equipment that are fundamental: helmet, harness, and rappel device.

Helmet:  Rocks fall, equipment falls, people fall.  Protect your noggin.  There are people who do canyons without helmets – but anyone who shows up without one will not be going on a trip that I am organizing.

Harness: Any climbing harness will do, but I am partial to the lightweight, non-padded types, like the Black Diamond Alpine Bod, or the bare-bones, no frill, fully adjustable harnesses at MEC.

Rappel device: Any rappel device that works on ropes down to 8mm will work. Some of the favourites among canyoners include the Petzl Pirana  and the Sterling ATS.  These devices allow the rope to come on and off without having to remove the device from the carabiner, and are highly adjustable for friction, even in the middle of a rappel.  Other than these specialty devices, a basic belay/rappel device like a Black Diamond ATC-XP is terrific.

Another piece of equipment that is really highly recommended for all experience levels is quite simple: a whistle. A very loud whistle (a good quality one, like a Fox 40 – not something that comes in Cracker Jack or cereal boxes) is easy to find at outdoor equipment stores. Use a short piece of accessory line, and attach it to the strap of your helmet, close to the ear, and long enough to blow it while still attached. A whistle is used for signalling in a loud waterfall environment, where voices simply will not carry

As you get more experienced, you will learn about more equipment you’ll eventually invest in, such as ropes, rope bags, carabiners, and ascenders, but the foregoing are what you’ll need to go out on a trip with an experienced and already equipped party.

Pack

Pretty much any pack will work in a canyon, but there are some variables to consider.

The size of the pack can really vary – if you will be expected to carry a rope, you may require something in the 30+ liter range.  Otherwise, a much smaller daypack will do the trick.

The biggest issue is drainage.  Under a waterfall, or when swimming across a pool, a pack will fill with water quickly.  When you get out of the water, you’re suddenly carrying an extra 10 or 20 kg on your back!  You may often end up removing your pack frequently and tipping it over.  In the long term, two approaches to this are available:  keep the water out, or allow it to drain.

MEC Aegir Pack – 20L

Waterproof (drybag) packs are available, but are by no means cheap.  MEC carries a couple of options – the Aegir and the Slogg.  These packs will keep the contents pretty close to dry, but there is a possibility of a leak or failure.

Possibly a better option is to use a draining pack.  My favourites are from Imlay Canyon Gear, in Utah, available through Canyoneering USA.  They are comfortable and durable, and come in a variety of sizes.  Unfortunately, they are out of stock until sometime in the spring.

Suited up for a chilly descent

Suited up for a chilly descent, wearing a daypack with drainage holes.

You can also use an older daypack, and put drainage holes in it. For a couple of bucks, you can get a grommet kit at hardware stores, and put eight or ten holes in the bottom of your pack.  These will permit the water to drain quickly. Of course, with a pack that fills with water, you need to keep some things dry.  Both dry bags and dry kegs fit the bill for this.

 

I’m always open to new ideas and feedback!  Let me (and everyone else!) know in the comments if you have any other suggestions, or send me a note with your thoughts…

5 thoughts on “101: Equipment

  1. David

    Hey,
    Thanks for the awesome article! I am looking to get into canyoneering this summer. A fellow Vancouverite, I have a lot of rock climbing/mountaineering experience and have descended a canyon in the caribbean, but I still have a lot of questions. What kind of rescue/safety gear do you carry around? Also, what is your rope system? How much? How long? Do you use a rappel line and a pull line with a biner block or..?
    Thanks a lot!
    David

    Reply
  2. cirrus2000

    Hi David,

    Sorry for the slow reply – haven’t really been watching the website closely during the off season…

    Interesting questions that I should probably expand upon with a future article(s). Getting much further than questions like this, however, starts to touch upon subjects that are better discussed in person, in canyon – or perhaps over a pint at the pub… ;)

    As far as rescue and safety gear, aside from a basic first aid kit (well dry-bagged), there aren’t a whole lot of pieces of equipment we carry for emergencies. One very basic item that I consider a must is an ascending system. I know a lot of people that carry a tibloc and a prussik, or perhaps a Ropeman, but I prefer something more substantial – I usually carry a set of handled ascenders rigged with dyneema slings tucked in my pack.

    Because we are rarely in water that is very deep, or with heavy hydraulics (our runnable canyons here just aren’t conducive to formations like that – the water in skinny canyons is usually shallow) we don’t – so far at least – take PFDs or throw bags. Depending on what we find in future, that is subject to change, and I do have both of those things.

    What we mostly rely on, equipment-wise, is being well stocked with the basics (extra carabiners, rappel devices, rope, etc.)

    We use static ropes in the 8 to 9 mm range. I have used Imlay’s Canyon Fire ropes (8.3 mm) from Canyoneering USA extensively, both in dry canyons and wet. I’ve also used some of their 8 mm and 9.2 mm (Canyonero) ropes as well. I recently got a Sterling Canyon C-IV rope, and really like the feel of it – though I’ve not used it a lot yet… Lengths: I have ropes ranging from 12 meters to 90 meters in length. A 60 meter length is probably the most versatile, locally, though there are rappels that will require that combined with at least another 30 to be able to make the pull (i.e. in Monmouth Creek.) As a rule of thumb, unless I’m with a small, very experienced crew, I like the party to carry a total of approximately 3 times the length of the longest rappel.

    Along with the rope, I use Imlay Canyon Gear rope bags to carry my ropes. They float, drain quickly, and are easy to stuff the ropes back into.

    There are various ways of setting the rappels. Around here, we generally use a single strand rappel, using a block. I know one guy who uses knot blocks (as seen in Down The Line), but I far prefer a ‘biner block. In heavier water flow, or with inexperienced rappelers, we generally use a contingency anchor – a block that is releasable, and can be easily converted to a lower. There are multiple benefits to a single strand rappel in flowing water, but I will sometimes convert to a double strand as last person down, if I am concerned about the rope sticking on the pull.

    So we do use a pull side from a block, but not generally using a pull cord (though I do have a 60 m length of 6 mm pull cord.) We use full strength rope for the descent and the pull. Always better to have extra rope available!

    Cheers,
    Kev

    Reply
    1. David

      Thanks a lot for the info! It seems like you are building a great community of canyoneers here!

      “Down the Line” at the BMFF got me really stoked to do more canyoneering this summer, and summer has finally arrived! A couple weeks ago, I descended some canyons in Utah and just recently also did Cypress Creek, which was amazing. I hope to descend Box Creek soon, now that it has been bolted! Thanks for all your work in discovering and reporting these sweet canyons!

      I would also love to go on a trip with some of you very experienced canyoneers, and learn from the pros so maybe someday I can descend an unexplored canyon myself and grow the sport up here.

      Thanks again
      David

      Reply
  3. jesse

    One additional piece of gear that I would highly recommend, including for beginners, is some way to attach yourself securely to an anchor. My favored method is a double cowstail made of 3m of 10mm dynamic rope. It has locking carabiners on both ends secured by poacher’s knot. Attachment to the harness is by an overhand loop knot. Other options are a nylon sling, 8mm climbing accessory cord, or a PAS. Dyneema slings are not recommended. It is also very important to never position oneself above the anchor point when using a tether, as a fall could produce a fall factor greater than 1.

    Reply
  4. BC Canyoneers Post author

    Again, thanks Jesse for your comments. I agree that, especially in some canyons, it is very good to have a way to securely tether to an anchor. Generally, when leading a trip with beginners, I like to tether myself into a secure stance (when the rappel starts in a tenuous position) and then pass a bight of the rappel strand to each rappeler in turn, so that they can get on rope in a secure position. I also frequently bring along a daisy chain or two (nylon!), with extra locking carabiners, to offer to those who don’t have a tether installed on their harnesses.

    I will admit that I do, in fact, use a Dyneema attachment – the Kong Y Aro Speleo lanyard. I do always keep in mind that this piece of equipment is not intended for a dynamic load, and am very careful to never put myself in a position where I can create a high load on the lanyard. Usually, I am either crouching or leaning back, weighting it or staying close to its extension limit.

    Reply

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