Canyoning Techniques | Learn The Basics
The skills you need for your next gorge walking adventure
As you might expect for a pastime that combines a ton of different disciplines, there are loads of canyoning techniques you can learn that will make any trip both easier and safer. Canyoning mixes elements of abseiling, swimming, climbing, bouldering and cliff jumping, so on top of a good overall level of fitness, some knowledge of basic abseiling techniques and the rudiments of rock climbing will really help you get the most out of your next gorge walking expedition.
Canyoning Techniques: Chimneying
Chimneying is an important climbing technique which helps you to navigate tight, confined spaces, making it super useful for canyoning too.
Chimneying requires you to spread your weight between two adjacent walls, helping you to control your descent down a steep, narrow section of the gorge, to save yourself time by travelling above tougher obstacles or to traverse areas where the floor of the canyon may be too narrow to fit through.
If you're high enough up to be able to abseil then chimneying is a technique you shouldn't consider unless you are a highly experienced canyoner who knows the canyon well.
To chimney, place your back against one wall and your feet firmly on the other. This should be a comfortable distance and not at the limit of your reach or so tight that you can't move. In either of these situations you need to reassess your approach and may need to perform an abseil instead.
With your feet and back firmly pressed against the walls you can now either edge sideways or down wards, using your hands to give extra traction by placing them flat on the walls or gripping on to any climbing holds you might spot.
Keep movements small and maintain the pressure in your legs to keep yourself pressed against the wall. If you find yourself slipping try to press your feet as flat as possible to the rock and lock out one leg, giving yourself the chance to get a firm hand hold and reposition your other foot for better traction.
Once you've got chimneying down you can also try stemming or bridging. In stemming you press one foot and one hand on either wall spreading your weight evenly and moving one limb at a time to progress down the canyon.
This canyoning technique is much more draining than chimneying so should only be used in short bursts. Bridging is almost identical to chimneying but this time you place your hands on one wall and your feet on the other. This is also very demanding, particularly of your upper body strength so try to reserve it for short bursts and small obstacles.
Canyoning Techniques: Abseiling
Abseiling is a canyoning technique that's a key part of many descents. Although many of the big drops you tackle on a gorge walking trip can be jumped, there are also plenty that it's just too dangerous to take the plunge off. For these it's helpful to know the basics of abseiling, controlling your descent down a rope by using a belay device / descender.
Basic abseiling is pretty easy to pick up, requiring a little training and some guts to actually take that first step over the edge. It's a technique that you can usually learn as you go, but it's a good idea to practice a bit first, at your local climbing wall for example, to stop your abseil becoming an ab-fail!
Before you start abseiling check that your anchor is secure, that the rope is feeding properly through your belay device and that your harness is properly fitted and attached. When your checks are complete, walk slowly to the edge of your drop and stand with both feet on the edge, heels hanging over the edge.
With your hands firmly gripping the rope, sit into the harness so that it's taking your weight and gradually feed rope through your belay device until your legs are straight out in front of you with your feet flat on the wall. Spot your landing to make sure it's clear of obstructions and then take small steps down the wall feeding the rope through your belay device as you go.
Some abseils will be from overhanging sections of rock or into cave sections, leaving you too far out to reach the wall with your feet. If you're freefall abseiling like this, just take your first couple of steps slowly and prepare for a little swing after you've left the edge. Once you've finished swinging, just feed your rope as normal and enjoy the view.
Canyoning Techniques: Rope Rigging
Rope rigging is a vital canyoning technique. In every canyoning tour there should be at least one member of the group who has the correct equipment and the proper knowledge to set up a safe abseil for everyone else and knows how to check over everyone's kit, making sure they are tied in securely.
Setting an abseil anchor is definitely a skill you should practice repeatedly before you go canyoning. People's lives will literally depend on the security of the anchor so there is no room for error here. Many popular canyoning sites will have metal bolts already attached to the rock wall which you can use as an anchor.
Don't assume these are safe, check them for wear and for damage to the rock around them and if possible test them out with bodyweight before trusting them over a big drop. There are also plenty of canyoning spots where you won't find pre-drilled protection. In these cases you'll need to use either a natural feature like tree stumps and rock pillars or use protection such as cams or nuts, jamming them into the rock to create a secure anchor point.
Having set the anchor you'll need to manage your rope. With dry abseils you'll usually just throw the rope off the top, letting any excess pile up on the floor. In canyoning things are different as you will probably be landing in water.
In water you don't want an abseiler to have to tread water while they detach themselves from the rope. This is especially true with white water where the rapids can tangle spare rope around your legs, snaring your abseiler and potentially causing them to drown. For this reason it's common practice to run your rope just far enough to touch the surface of the water, allowing your abseiler to lower themselves off the end of the rope and instantly be ready for action at the bottom.
Once your abseil is set up it's also useful to know how to tie a prussik knot for your abseilers. This handy little knot acts as a back up while rappelling so that if anyone lets go of the rope it will cinch tight, gripping the rope and hopefully stopping them from falling.
Canyoning Techniques: Cliff Jumping
Alongside abseiling, being able to jump safely is probably one of the most important canyoning techniques. How you jump will vary depending on how deep the water is your landing in - if you don't know how deep it is you shouldn't be jumping at all.
For all jumps, check out the landing first to make sure it's clear of other canyoners and that there aren't any obvious obstructions in the water below. If possible, lower one member of the group first with a set of swimming goggles to check that the water you're jumping into is free of nasty surprises.
Next, make sure your take off is in good condition, no crumbling stones, earth or big cracks that indicate you might be on dodgy ground. Test the edge before you commit your full weight to it. Take off for all landings should be static. You don't need a big run up to get the rush of leaping off a cliff and people that jump from a standing position don't tend to slip on their arse or belly flop half as much as those running at an edge.
With deep water landings you should try to keep your body fairly straight with your legs together and slightly bent to absorb any impact from landing. Keep your arms tucked in too so that you avoid the chance of a hilarious sounding chicken wing injury. Trust us, it's not funny when your arm hyper extends from hitting the water too hard - it can result in torn ligaments or even dislocated shoulders in some cases.
With shorter, shallower water jumps you'll be looking to land flat. This technique should only be used when you know the water is deep enough to manage it or when instructed by an experienced guide who knows the area well. Landing flat means that you try to fall roughly in the position you'd be in while lying on a reclining chair or sofa, arms out to the sides, legs bent slightly in front of you and your back roughly at 45 degrees to your hips.
The idea here is to spread your impact across as much of the water as possible, reducing how far you go into the water and limiting your chance of hitting the bottom, You might feel a bit of a back slap from this but canyoning equipment such as your wetsuit and buoyancy aid should protect you.
Canyoning Techniques: Swimming And Moving In Water
If you're going canyoning you'll probably be crossing water at some point. Not all canyon tours require you to be able to swim but most of the fun ones do and swimming can give you access to other sports like surfing or kite surfing, so it's a good idea to learn.
As well as swimming it's also important to know how to move around white water. Many white water sections on a canyoning trip will require you to climb through fast moving sections of water. If you're doing this try to make sure that you have at least one or two other points of contact, preferably some solid handholds on the rock wall near you, to balance yourself and prevent a fall.
If you slip over in white water it's normally a good idea not to try and stand up straight away as this runs the risk of causing a sprain or even drowning if you get your foot jammed. You'll need to get into the defensive swim position instead, used in sports like white water rafting and kayaking.
Lie on your back with your feet pointing down stream, using your arms to point you in the right direction. Arch your back and try to keep your bum up to avoid knocking your coccyx on rocks. In this position your feet can be used to fend of rocks and other hazards in the water and you should be able to see what's coming before it hits you.
Save your energy until you spot a calmer section of water and then swim aggressively for it. When the water is shallow enough for your hands to touch the bottom you can finally stand up and rejoin the rest of the group.
Canyoning Techniques: Sliding
This might seem like child's play and you'll probably look like a big kid doing it but sliding properly is also a canyoning technique you should have under your belt.
Once you've checked out the landing of your slide to make sure it's free of obstructions you're good to go. For shorter slides you can ride them just like you did back when you were in school, sitting up and enjoying the view. This gives you time to spot your landing and leaves your hands free to stabilise yourself when you reach the end.
Longer slides are usually done lying flat on your back, like you would on an epic water park ride. You'll be picking up more speed on a longer slide so try to keep all limbs inside the boat to avoid catching them on passing rocks. It goes without saying that you want to do this feet first, with legs slightly bent to absorb any impact on the way down.
You can also cross your ankles to prevent the chance of doing the splits which can result in some rather embarrassing injuries. With very long slides it may even be advisable to run a rope down the rock so that people can lower themselves under control rather than building up too much speed and having a spectacular crash.