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Red Cave - Zion National Park

Canyoneering Gear
Technical Canyoneering

          What does the well-dressed canyoneer wear? What gear does Mr. Cool Canyoneer pack along? I can't answer those questions but I can tell you what I use and why. I don't claim that what I wear is the best, it is what works best for me. I don't consider my gear list to be perfect or correct, it is just what I carry and I will explain why.

          The following suggestions are full of my opinions, you might not agree with any of them. I hope this article will at least give the beginning canyoneer an idea of what to pack and why. Perhaps, the experienced canyoneer will discover a nugget of wisdom, a fresh idea or a new technique stashed inside.

          Something you should probably know about me is that I am a minimalist. I believe that speed is my most potent weapon and commonsense my most valuable tool when descending a canyon. This doesn't mean I descend canyons in high gear all the time. It means that I can travel quickly over a long distance when the need arises.

          All the gear mentioned by brand name is the gear that I use. Some was purchased because it was the best gear available, some was purchased because it was on sale, some was purchased because it was in stock the day that I needed it, and some was given to me. I purchased most of this gear with my hard-earned dollars, an I have no reason to promote one product over another.  Often there are other products, which are just as good or better.

          That being said, if someone would like to send me a bunch of free gear I would be happy to use it if I find it valuable. Damn, I sure hate begging unless sex is involved.

Possibles Bag
          No mountain man worth his buckskins would go into the wilderness without his "Possibles Bag". The term "Possibles Bag" comes from the American Mountain Men of the early 1800's. My "Possibles Bag" is a 6" X 6" stuff sack, which I carry on all my outdoor adventures. This bag contains the items I need to survive. 

          My "Possibles Bag" contains Aspirin, prescription pain killers, assorted Band-Aids, knife with a 3" blade, two butane lighters, 10-feet of 3mm accessory chord, toilet paper, duct tape, small bottle of bug juice, chapstick, Coleman emergency bivy bag, A small LED headlamp (mine is a Petzl Tikka), small bottle of sun screen lotion and water purification tablets.

          Most of the items in my Possibles Bag are self explanatory. I switched from a space blanket to a real bivy bag after a couple of forced bivouacs. The sun screen lotion can be used to treat rashes along with offering sun protection. I use duct tape for blisters or hot spots because it stays on in water unlike most band-aids. Duct tape can also be used to suture deep cuts or attach splints in an emergency. I like to think of duct tape as my all-in-one first aid kit. I carry two butane lighters so I can break one open and use the fuel inside to start a fire in wet or snowy conditions.

          Canyoneering puts harsh demands on your footwear. Improper or ill fitting footwear can ruin and enjoyable adventure. The following are a few suggestions for footwear.

Shoes - The ultimate Canyoneering shoe at the moment is the 5.10 Canyoneer. This shoe was specifically designed for canyoneering. The heart, or should I say soul of the shoe is Stealth Rubber. Stealth Rubber is advertised as the stickiest rubber in the world and after using the shoe I would have to agree. Climb out of a wet, muddy pothole; plant your foot on a slickrock friction pitch and it sticks. You will soon discover that the 5.10 Canyoneers biggest contribution is that it will improve your confidence. The 5.10 Canyoneer is not perfect, but it is the best shoe I have found for the Colorado Plateau's technical canyons.

          So, your just starting out and investing in a pair of expensive canyoneering shoes is not in the budget at the moment?  Any pair of good old cross-training or running shoes will work great. For years I used an old pair of Nike cross-trainers with great success.

Socks - I wear a thin pair of neoprene socks with my shoes. Neoprene socks provide warmth in cold water and add a little bit of cushion to the entire shoe. Sand does not collect as quickly inside Neoprene socks as with other options.

Sandals - I strongly advise against wearing sandals of any type. Sandals do not provide the support or protection, which I feel, is required for technical canyoneering. Sandals will also compromise your downclimbing skills and destroy your climbing confidence in difficult canyons.

          Being wet, uncomfortable, cold and miserable all day long is not the ingredients for a grand adventure. Wearing the correct clothing has nothing to do with looking good. Well, maybe a little but having the correct clothes will make the adventure a more enjoyable affair.

Shorts - I wear shorts made for white water rafting. These shorts are made of quick dry material and have plenty of pockets with drains. Some river running shorts even have a reinforced bottom, which is nice, if you slide down slickrock on your butt. A swimming suit or almost any shorts that will dry quickly are appropriate.

Shirt - I like to wear a shirt made for river runners. The shirts are made of quick dry material and have lots of pockets with drains. As you might have noticed I like pockets, you can never have too many pockets. Pockets give you a good place to carry your beef jerky and stash a beer. A T-shirt works just fine if you don't have anything fancy to wear.

Jacket - Hypothermia is a big danger in technical slot canyons. I often carry a fleece jacket, which I can slip on if I get chilled.

Cool Weather - During cool weather I always carry wind pants and a wind shirt in addition to a fleece jacket.

          I use the Black Diamond Ice Pack with about ten 1/2" drain grommets mounted in the bottom. The grommets drain the water out of the pack quickly upon exiting a pothole. Any pack in the 2500 to 3000 cubic inch range which fits you will work well. A pack with few or no pockets is preferred since that allows less places for water to become trapped.

          The big secret to a canyoneering backpack is placing grommets in the bottom to drain the water out quickly. A Grommet kit is available in most fabric stores for around $10. I suggest placing at least one grommet in each bottom corner of the pack and several across the bottom. Grommets placed in the bottom have a tendency to become clogged with items inside the pack such as your dry bag sitting on top of them, which is the reason for grommets in the bottom corners.

          If the idea of placing grommets in an existing backpack sounds like a bunch of work you can always buy a canyoneering backpack from Imlay Canyon Gear. I would suggest the "Kolob" as the most versatile model and best all around choice. If I were buying a new backpack for myself today this is the pack I would purchase.

Dry Bags
          I stuff everything I do not want wet into drybags, which I than place inside my backpack. I have found that several smaller dry bags are more versatile than one large drybag. Some canyoneers prefer to carry gear inside a keg. While this method keeps gear dry I have found that the kegs cause holes in your backpack where it rubs against sandstone. The kegs also do not collapse when stuck in a skinny slot. I don't like kegs, I prefer drybags, that is a personal choice. Some guys like blondes and some like brunettes, that is a personal choice, get the picture?

          I am quite warm blooded, or maybe I just have a bunch of body fat, but I don't get cold easy. I own four different cold water items and by wearing them in different combinations I am able to stay warm in any condition.

Full Wetsuit - I often use a 3mm full wetsuit. This provides complete coverage from neck, to ankle, to wrist. A 3mm full wet will be the item you use the most and should be the first wetsuit you purchase. It works well in most canyons. Full wetsuits designed for surfing often have reinforced knees, which is a bonus. If you only have one wetsuit this is the one you want. Full wetsuits also provide a layer of armor when battling you way through the skinny slots.

Shorty Wetsuit - I occasionally use a 2mm shorty wetsuit. This wet suit covers your legs to the knee and your arms to the elbow. I seldom use a shorty wetsuit anymore, the full wet suit offers more options, more protection, and is only slightly more bulky to carry and wear. Some canyoneers wear a shorty under their full wetsuit when attempting really long and cold canyons for an added layer of warmth.

Dry Top - The most prized item in my cold water arsenal is a Stohlquist Dry Top. This top is extremely versatile. Wear it alone on hot days or add polypropylene or fleece as required to warm up. I occasionally wear the dry top over my wetsuit to stay warm and dry. I have found the dry top replaces the shorty wetsuit when a small amount of protection from the cold is required. A dry top is a luxury item that should not be at the top of you list to buy.

Drysuit - I finally broke down and bought a Kokatat Swift-Entry Drysuit, I guess I am just a wussy boy. To give my new dry suit the ultimate test I wore it through Imlay Canyon the last weekend in September and was thrilled with the results. After spending over 6 hours jumping in and out of potholes my clothes underneath were completely dry and I was warm. The drysuit has the added advantage of being much lighter and packing smaller than a wetsuit. The one major fault of a drysuit is they are rather fragile when compared to other forms of cold water protection.

Map and Compass are Essential          Good navigation gear is essential if you don't want to get lost. Rappelling into the wrong drainage is a major cause of canyoneering rescues. Many of the best canyons are located in very isolated locations. No signs, no trails and no directions are very common.

Map - I always carry a good map of the area I intend to explore. I use the program "National Geographic Topo!" for nearly all my map requirements. 

For those on a budget JDMCOX Software has an excellent aerial photo and topo map program called "USAPhotoMaps" available online for free. The USGS 7.5 minute topographical maps are also a good alternative. All USGS 7.5 minute topographical maps for the state of Utah can be downloaded for free from the Utah Division of Water Rights. Free maps for all 50 states can be found at Libre Map Project.

GPS - I always carry a Garmin eTrex GPS receiver. This unit weights only six ounces and will literally fit in the palm of your hand. With a good map, GPS, and some practice, there is no reason for you to ever get lost.

Hydration System
          I often use a 100 ounce Camelback bladder system which I place inside my backpack. I mix the bladder 50/50 with water and Gatorade. I have found I stay hydrated better with a bladder system than if I use water bottles. The Gatorade is added to re-supply missing electrolytes and improve the taste.

          If I am not using a bladder system I just toss a couple of bottles of Gatorade in my pack. I love Gatorade and when combined with beef jerky I can live for days. As you might have noticed I'm not a real gourmet in the outdoors.

          It seems that I hear dozens of opinions each day on which rope is best or why I should use X-brand rope. One guy is telling me I should only rappel on static rope while his best friend is screaming in my other ear that dynamic is the only way to go. Well here is the truth about canyoneering ropes. As a general rule thicker ropes are safer than thin ropes. Thick ropes are easier to rig, but they weigh more. Any good safe climbing rope will work just fine until you have enough experience to gain a preference. By the time you have a preference your first canyoneering rope will be worn out and need replacing anyway.

          There is one important and often overlooked item to consider when purchasing a canyoneering rope. Bright colors look better in photographs. Don't laugh, it's true and worth considering when you have an array of colors to select from. Rope color never entered my thought's until I was doing some rappel's for a professional photographer and he kept asking me to rig the "yellow rope" to enhance his photographs.

          At the moment my personal canyoneering rope arsenal contains a 9mm x 60-meter static rope, which is often combined with a 6mm x 60-meter pull chord. The third rope in my arsenal is a 8mm x 100-foot static rope. This is my favorite rope since it is light and versatile. This rope gets more use than any other rope. It is easy and fast to use on all the short drops which you will frequently encounter during your canyoneering adventures. I also have a 8mm x 60-foot static rope that is used in canyons with only very short rappels.

          The best value on canyoneering ropes are usually found at Imlay Canyon Gear. The ropes are designed by a Utah canyoneer and made specifically for canyoneering. It's always a nice bonus when you can support one of our own in addition to obtaining a quality piece of gear.

Technical Gear
          Buying the correct technical gear is where many beginners get lost. They have a tendency to ask, read, and loose as much sleep as possible wondering what style of technical gear is right for them. They than take their credit card down to the local climbing store and spend all of next year's disposable income on equipment that somebody in an internet chat room recommended based on hearsay. Only to find out half of the gear that they bought is really worthless and that "...only 'Posers' buy that stuff".

Bolt Kit - I don't carry a bolt kit, not because I believe is any supreme ethical standard or because I am an environmental fruitcake. The reason I don't carry a bolt kit is because they are heavy, time consuming to use and unnecessary. I am not against using a bolt if it is already placed, handy and safe. Maybe I am just a tight wad and never found a good reason to blow the dust off my wallet and part with over $150 for a bolt kit or perhaps I have discovered that a little imagination can be substituted for a heavy bolt kit.

Helmet - Everyone needs a helmet. I have found little difference between manufacturers. Just make sure that you purchase a helmet with fits you and has a U.I.A.A. approval stamp. A bicycle helmet also works well for those who have not yet purchased a climbing helmet.

Harness - I use a Black Diamond Alpine Bod because it is small and light. Canyoneering is not like big wall climbing, you will probably only be spending a few minutes each trip hanging from your harness. Any quality harness which fits you will work just great.

Rappel Device - Whatever you feel most comfortable with will work just great. I currently use a Black Diamond ATC-XP and found it easy to rig. The ATC-XP works outstanding on ropes from 8mm to 11mm in both single or double strand mode.

Carabiners - You should carry a minimum of three locking carabiners.

Ascenders - I carry two Petzl Tibloc's of emergency use. The Tiblocs are fast, light weight and can also be rigged to form a pulley system.

Daisy Chain - Everyone should carry a Daisy Chain, the uses are endless. I most commonly use my Daisy Chain to clip into protection at exposed rappel stations.

Slings - I carry a minimum of two standard length slings (made from 6-feet of 1" webbing) and one double length sling (made from 12-feet of 1" webbing). Along with my slings I carry at least two 5/16" rapid links.

Webbing - I usually carry a minimum of 50-feet of 1" tubular webbing. Webbing is much lighter, cheaper and more versatile than a bolt kit. When descending unknown canyons I will often carry 100-feet of webbing.

Mae West Bunny - Any canyon featuring what is described as a "Mae West" will require the use of a "mae west bunny" or "bunny strap". This is a length or webbing or a daisy chain with a carabiner attached which will allow you to hang your pack from your harness while you chimney, climb and stem above and through the narrow slots. A bunny strap is a must have item in a mae west canyon. I prefer a daisy chain since it allows much more adjustment in where and how you attach your pack.

Shane Burrows in Entrajo - Moab Hot babes in Keyhole Canyon - Zion NP

          The equipment list above should give you a good idea of what I carry and why. Every canyon is different so I can not provide a standard gear list. If the canyon is difficult it is not uncommon to carry ten slings of different lengths and 100 feet or more of webbing. Clothing changes with the weather and season. Wetsuit's vary with amount of water, time of year and depth of slot. Ropes are a big variable with many canyons requiring only a 60-foot rope while others require 600 feet of rope.

          Before you spend your hard earned coin on fancy gear you should seriously consider receiving professional instruction.  Good schooling is a powerful weapon and difficult to beat when everything goes to shit in a deep, narrow slot.

          Without a doubt the most valuable piece of gear you can carry is "Commonsense". Never, under and circumstance or condition enter a canyon without it.

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