Canyonning - Equipment
Canyonning is a lot like a caving through trip, so those from a caving background who have done trips like Simpsons or Swinsto to Valley Entrance will find it very familiar. However, Canyonning is a sufficiently popular and independent sport in Europe that many participants have never been caving or climbing. The equipment needed falls into three categories - personal gear needed to protect participants from the environment, personal gear needed to descend roped pitches and group gear needed to equip the canyon safely. Group gear is typically provided by the leader or the club, so we'll leave that to last.
Personal gear for the canyonning environment
Canyons range from open and sunny with avoidable water in warm climates, to deep and dark with wet pitches, cold water and long swims, so the personal gear chosen depends very much on the type of trip.
Gear for a sunny open canyon in a warm climate (Canyon de Tramouillon, Peut Difficile, French Alps, Durance valley). In the photo (left) Sarah is wearing neoprene shorts under her board shorts, and thermals under a paddling dry kag with wrist and neck seals. The dry kag also interlocks with the neoprene shorts to form an effective waist seal adequate for short swims. Her footwear is a pair of neorene booties intended for canoeing or similar watersports and is probably a bit lightweight - the wet part of pitches like this can also be very slippery indeed, so something with a little better grip would have been ideal. A helmet is very important - a caving one as here, or a climbing helmet (photo below). Falling stones are quite a bit more likely in a canyon than in a cave, especially if there are people or animals above the rim, so the helmet should be designed for this - cheaper canoeing or cycling helmets really don't provide enough protection, though high-end canoeing helmets may be adequate and may be better draining for those very wettest bits...
Some canyons are deep and dark, and some trips take longer than you expected making benightment a possibilty. Headtorches can be useful in these circumstances, and they will want to be waterproof. There are certainly occasions when a proper caving light is essential.
If your canyon has deep water, something to give you buoyancy is a good idea, and become essential if there are any significant swims or you intend jumping pitches. A decent thickness full wetsuit goes a long way towards keeping you afloat, but thin wetsuits or shorties don't do much. A wetsuit won't keep your upper body high and while buoyancy aids are specifically intended as aids to swimming (and therefore won't keep your unconscious head above water), they are there all the time rather than needing inflation after an incident, and they do prove excellent both for padding and insulation.
Other things are similar to caving trips - food and drink to keep you going. It may sound silly to carry water in a swimming environment, but can you be sure the water is safe to drink ? Dehydration is a significant hazard in dry canyons and trips can always take longer than planned.
Personal gear for descents
Most participants need just a harness, cow's tail(s), a descender which can be used on double rope and a means to cut rope. Those doing the rigging may want to carry extra bits of hardware, and someone should always have gear for making an ascent back up a jammed rope (prussik slings and a footloop). A caving harness is designed for this sort of ropework, and will often have reinforcement to allow for the sort of wear and tear that the environment generates. Specialist canyonning harnesses are also available (usually with a higher attachment point and reinforced seat). A climbing harness (as here) also works well, but it's worth checking carefully for wear if used frequently in canyons. A Cow's tail is essential to clip into belays and occasionally traverse lines. A longer Claude loop gives a lot more freedom of movement than a short cow's tail, although you will often see these confusingly referred to as cow's tails too. Since these may be required to catch a slip at a pitch-head when clipped directly to a bolt belay they need to be made of dynamic (climbing) rope rather than static accessory cord or caving rope. Even with dynamic rope, you should never move above the belay point, as this would give a high fall-factor. If you happen to have a pair of Via Ferrata cow's tails, these are bombproof (they are designed to cope with falls up to fall-factor 5), if a little bulky (and, strictly speaking, these are Claude loops, too - they are a lot longer than cow's tails).
Some may question the need for everyone to carry a means to cut rope, but canoeists are well aware that rope and water can be a fatal combination. The photo below shows the sort of environment which is common at the bottoms of pitches. Waterfalls can be heavier and water deeper, and the single most common cause of fatal accidents in wet canyons is failing to get off rope and drowning. A descender that can be unclipped quickly in a harsh environment is your first safety precaution, but a knife or concealed-blade rope-cutter could save your life.
There is a wide choice for descenders - figure eights are amongst the most popular, but the fact that you need to unclip these to thread them does mean there's a risk of dropping them, and this seems to occur most often at the bottom of wet pitches when, as noted, there may be great urgency in getting off the rope. Metal hardware sinks (as we have found) and diving in pools under waterfalls is difficult. Consider clipping a Claude loop into the top of the figure-eight to avoid losing it when getting off rope, especially with cold fingers. If your figure-eight mounts flat, remember to pass the bight of rope downwards through the larger loop and up over the smaller. A common error is to pull the bight upwards, which then puts the rope underneath the middle of the device where it is prone to catch on ledges, resulting in a locked-up descender and an awkward rescue problem. Getting your figure eight to clip in so it lies in a vertical plane avoids this issue.
A caving rack, super-rack or Curlew (as in the photo right) will also work on double rope, and have the advantage of being threaded and removed from the rope without unclipping from the harness. Against this is their greater complexity and the slight chance of threading them the wrong way. Petzl now make a descender specifically for canyonning, which doesn't need to unclip, but we haven't seen these in use... Various climbers' belay devices can also be used as descenders, and, since these are light and have sundry other uses, they are useful to carry as a backup. In extremis, knowing how to build a karabiner brake or even abseil on Italian hitches is useful, but the latter, in particular, tend to twist the rope which increases the risk of getting a rope stuck. As an aside, the photo here shows Andy in a pool that had already been found to be only waist deep - carrying a rope this way is not advisable into deep water, especially without a buoyancy aid, as it will sink the canyonneer and cannot be quickly jettisoned. If you must carry a loose rope, chained is probably safer.
Some groups use an abseil protection device (such as a French Prusik) with beginners, but if you do so, there must be someone available to help if things get locked up. They are considered dangerous if there is a wet get-off at the bottom of the pitch - though beginning abseilers should not be on such pitches in the first place, of course. It's generally better to have someone experienced at the bottom to provide a bottom belay if the abseiler loses control, as this can equally be released from below, too. Alternatively, if the pitch is not free-hanging (no spinning risk), then a separate lifeline can be used. It's best if everyone has done enough abseiling not to get into trouble, and start beginners on trips with easy off-vertical abseils with easy take-offs and landings.
For the easiest of canyons, with nothing more than short sloping drops or easy climbs, a short rope to use hand-over-hand or as a lifeline may be sufficient. Rope used this way needs to be thick enough not to cut into your hands - at least 8mm. Floating rope may be advantageous (and club canoeists have done easy canyons using paddlers' throw-lines). Polypropylene floating rope like this should not be used for abseiling, as its low melting point makes this very dangerous.
For longer and more vertical pitches, kernmantel ropes designed for abseiling should be used. Static nylon or polyester ropes (those designed with a low stretch, and not to take the shock loads generated by falling climbers) are ideal, and the club stock of caving rope is just as good for canyonning as for pull-through caving trips. Since the ropes will not be used for prussikking back up, stretchier ropes like climbing rope are also OK, but we don't recommend using your best lead climbing rope, as there does tend to be a bit of wear and tear. We have often used retired climbing ropes - undamaged but perhaps no longer new enough for lead climbing, or maybe ones which have been cut into shorter lengths for whatever reason. Having ropes of different colours can often be useful. Dynamic ropes have the edge if you ever need to climb to escape a canyon or get above a flood.
There are specialist canyonning ropes available, basically similar to static caving rope, but often in a selection of bright colours to aid identification (and look good in the sun...). Béal make a specialist rope with a nylon sheath for abrasion and heat resistance, but a polypropylene core, so that the ropes float. As these ropes are used double, they are typically thinner than you might feel comfortable with for caving SRT. 11mm ropes are fine for canyonning, but are certainly heavier to carry (especially if you have any big pitches), so 10mm, 9mm or even 8mm ropes are common. As with all ropes used double for abseils, it's a good idea to clearly mark the middle of the rope - this means you can often clip it into the belay and abseil feeding it out of the bag (useful on pitches where the rope might snag when thrown down). If you knot two ropes together for a long pitch, remember to keep the knot high near the belay, and to pull down the knotted side when it's time to derig - another good reason for having different coloured ropes.
As in caving, ropes may need to be dragged through long sections between pitches, and are best carried in tackle bags. Loose rope in deep or moving water is an especially bad idea - waterlogged trees and the like can snag ropes and leave you trapped or even pulled under. It should always be easy to jettison equipment in a hurry. Low roofs are rarely a problem, so bags with rucksack straps make sense, but in all cases, bags need to be tough, and have drain holes (or mesh panels). Since ropes may be dropped down pitches to get them ahead of the group for the next pitch to be rigged, and pitches often end in deep water, it is critical that every bag has enough buoyancy to float - this also makes them a lot safer to carry when swimming. We have often used empty plastic pop bottles or old 1 gallon containers in the bottom of the bags - ideally it wants to be something that can be tied in. Some custom-designed bags have a foam layer incorporated inside (like an old karrimat) which does make them nicer to lug about.
For bolt-equipped canyons (typical in Europe), not much else is needed - simply thread your rope through the ring-bolt, maillon or chain, feed both ends down and off you go. For lesser-used (and maintained) canyons, it's a good idea to carry some short slings or old bits of rope which can be used to rig, and which you can afford to abandon (collectively known as "tat", but do need to be in good enough condition to bear everyone's weight!). If canyonning in a new area, or exploring new canyons, quite a bit more rigging gear needs to be carried - even if there are adequate natural belays, it is important that the rigging point is somewhere where the rope will pull back easily, so plenty of slings are always a good idea. It is good form to remove any old and unsafe tat you find, leaving your own behind.
If your canyon involves swimming, especially if there is appreciable current, it is recommended to maintain line-of-sight and carry throw lines. No loose slings should be hanging off people - keep them in a bag. If it's a long way or a difficult swim between pitches it may be safer to remove harnesses too. Swimming with a lot of equipment is difficult, so some groups use floating rope along a swimming section to aid progress, or to enable people to clip the gear into, rather than having it attached to the person (in the caving world, this would be called a "canal line"). Again, if using any rope in water then entanglement is a risk, and everyone must carry a means to cut themselves or others free in an emergency.
Rocks can be sharp, stones can fall, slips off greasy boulders can hurt, people can get chilled, rescue is far away and communications can be difficult - some canyonning guides note that for long stretches even satellite phones have no coverage... Every group should have at least a basic first aid kit (including pain killers) and perhaps a group shelter or bivvi bags. If there are escape routes, make sure you have enough information carried with you to identify these. A copy of a printed guide or topo, suitably laminated to survive and remain is invaluable for getting the right gear to the front, but also to specify the location of an incident if help needs to be called - rescuers may not come down the canyon the same way as you (especially if water is rising), but may want to drop in from above, so knowing where you are and being able to tell them is important.