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.
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.
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…)
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…
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.
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.
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.
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…