Canyoneering: The Coolest Outdoor Adventure Sport You’ve Never Heard Of

Peter Brandon

If you’re an outdoor adventurer and haven’t heard about canyoneering, you’re in for a treat, because it’s probably going to shoot straight to the top of your adventure “to-do list”.


The incredible finale of a Utah sandstone canyon. Photo Credit
The incredible finale of a Utah sandstone canyon. Photo Credit


Canyoneering is a relatively new, and rapidly growing outdoor adventure sport centered around traversing challenging, yet mesmerizingly beautiful slot canyons. Slot canyons are deep narrow slits in rocky landscapes that have been carved out over thousands of years by running water.

The water runs through these canyons and sculpts beautiful, winding passageways that draw canyoneers (those who participate in canyoneering) deeper and deeper.


Slot canyons can be found all over the world, but they’re generally concentrated in areas with lots of soft rock for the water to carve through.  In the US, the most famous area for canyoneering is definitely Utah, with a seemingly infinite number of sandstone slots begging to be discovered. The sandstone canyons in and around Zion National Park are some of the most beautiful in the world, and canyoneers travel from across the globe to explore them.


You’ll never forget the color and texture of a sandstone slot canyon. Photo Credit
You’ll never forget the color and texture of a sandstone slot canyon. Photo Credit


To explore slot canyons, you’ll need to get used to working with ropes! When water flows through the canyons, it forms huge waterfalls and drops in the slot canyons that can’t be navigated without rappelling on a rope. The issue is that there are so many of these waterfalls and drops, it’s not feasible to carry a rope for each one. Instead, canyoneers just bring one or two ropes, and after each rappel, they pull the rope down behind them and continue on.  Once you pull the rope, the only way out is to continue down the canyon, because the walls are so steep and tall that there’s no hope of escaping any other way. Talk about committing!

Being temporarily stuck in a canyon means that the risks and danger of this activity are magnified. Getting hurt in a canyon, like falling and breaking a bone, means it will be extremely difficult for anyone to rescue you.  Weather hazards are also extremely dangerous. Since slot canyons are formed from water runoff, even a small amount of rain can unleash a raging torrent, called a flash flood, that will easily kill anyone inside the canyon.


A canyoneer rappels into a slot canyon in Utah. Photo Credit
A canyoneer rappels into a slot canyon in Utah. Photo Credit


Don’t let the dangers scare you away completely, though. Despite the risks from rappelling and flash floods, with proper preparation and training you can have an epic adventure canyoneering.  Unique rock formations, incredible colors and textures, and precariously perched “chockstones” stuck in between the canyon walls are just a few the many wonders you’ll only find in a slot canyon.

At times, you’ll find the walls so narrow that in order to move you’ll need to exhale deeply in order to compress your chest and slide through. Other times, the canyon will simply be too narrow, and you’ll need to perform a technique called “stemming”. Stemming means you have your hands on one side of the canyon wall, and your feet on the other, and you slowly shimmy your way to safety as you stare 20 to 30 feet to the bottom of the canyon.


Though most canyons don’t have too much water in them, others are completely flooded! For these canyons, canyoneers often wear thick wetsuits in order to stay warm. The most extreme canyons not only have lots of water, but lots of fast moving water! These canyons are rare, and are reserved for only the most experienced canyoneers.

Interested in trying out canyoneering?  The best way to get started is to hire a professional canyoneering guide, who will you safely take you through the canyon and teach you the necessary techniques such as rappelling and stemming. You’ll find canyoneering guides pretty much anywhere canyons are found, especially in more touristy areas like Costa Rica and Banos, Ecuador.


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peter-brandon is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival