What is Canyoning?

Posted 21-02-2020 by Sally Guillaume

For people looking for something different to do on their next summer holiday, canyoning can be lots of fun. When the weather is hot, there’s nothing more exhilarating than getting in the water and challenging yourself. It’s a unique experience for those who don’t mind getting wet, and it’s a great way to explore mountain areas such as the French Alps

Check out our weekend adventure for or summer multi activity holiday for a great Alpine adventure including canyoning.

Canyoning holidays are generally suitable for adults and teenagers, but there are also some canyons that are suitable for little ones too. So if you’re nervous about trying it out, don’t worry – there’s bound to be a canyon to suit your abilities. If you’re a good swimmer, are generally fit and healthy, and don’t mind dipping your head under water, canyoning could be your sport.

Here’s everything you need to know about it, including what’s involved, what equipment you need, and where you can learn.

Canyoning definition 

Canyoning, also known as canyoneering, is the act of navigating down a fast flowing mountain stream in a gorge using a variety of techniques including abseiling, climbing, sliding and jumping.

The canyon itself is a natural gorge that has been carved out of the mountainside by a water current. They are usually quite steep, with dramatic cliff drops on both sides and a number of waterfalls to encounter along the way too. Some waterfalls form natural toboggans, which are natural slides where people can go down with minimal effort – and this proves to be lots of fun! Others involve abseiling or can be jumped.

The sport of canyoning involves a number of outdoor skills, including hiking, climbing, swimming, abseiling, sliding, stemming, chimneying and rappelling. It is designed for exploring hard-to-reach areas of the natural landscape by following water routes and navigating the different streams, pools and waterfalls. It can be vary varied during your journey from point A to point B, and you will need to use various techniques to complete the course. One minute you could be swimming through rock pools or sliding chutes, and the next you could be clambering over rocks or abseiling. 

Canyoning is done primarily as a recreational sport and helps people gain essential outdoor experience. For more serious canyoning enthusiasts, courses are often picked for their difficulty and the challenges of the terrain.

The origins of the sport

Although canyoning was made popular by the Americans and British in the 1970s, the origins of the sport can actually be traced back to the late 19thCentury in France. Edouard Alfred Martel, known as the 'father of modern speleology', was a pioneer of cave exploration, study, and documentation. He first introduced canyoning techniques in order to conduct important works of science in the hard-to-reach areas of the gorges. 

During these early days, the equipment being used was rudimentary and it wasn’t until the mid-20thCentury that things began to change. Many of the first canyoning teams were climbers to begin with, and climbing team made up of Alan Waterhouse, Paul Seddon and Tony Howard was the first to bring a commercial harness to market in the 1960s. 

The first ever harness was built by British company, Troll Climbing Equipment, and was made using a plastic protection that was worn as shorts to prevent the wear of wetsuits. This product was used by speleologists and canyon explorers in the years that followed. But at this point, canyon exploration was still a recreation that people enjoyed in their own time.

By the 1970s, the sport had grown, and this was largely thanks to Dennis Turville, a professional photographer and climber. He pioneered the sport and blazed the trail for many of the first recorded descents around the Zion area in southwest Utah in the US. Some of the most famous routes, such as Heaps, Keyhole, and Pine Creek can all be attributed to Turville and his team of climbers.

Canyoning has grown around the world and is hugely popular in Europe, with France, Spain and Switzerland being some of the most established places for the sport.  

Clothing and equipment

With guided canyoning trips like ours, you will be provided with most of the equipment you need. If you are heading out on your own (which you should only do if you know what you are doing), here are the things that are absolutely essential:

  • Canyoning shoes - the slippery nature of canyon adventures and wet terrain means that durable shoes with good grip are paramount for your safety. High specification canyoning shoes are the best option, and some of the brands that make these include Adidas, Palm, Salomon and Bestard. If you don’t want to invest in canyoning shoes, a pair of trainers with good grip and plenty of padding around the foot are fine for a first canyoning experience (an old pair of running trainers work well).
  • Wetsuit - you should never attempt to go canyoning without a wetsuit. Not only can they keep you warm and boost your circulation (which is essential for easy movement) in cold canyons, but they can also protect you from knocks and bangs against rocks. Most canyoning wetsuits are quite thick neoprene with a hood.
  • Helmet - it is not recommended to ever go out into the water without a helmet. This is necessary for keeping your head protected. The speed of the water can be extremely dangerous and it’s not uncommon for slips and falls. Your helmet should stay on throughout and should never be removed.
  • Static rope - a static rope is required for abseiling, and is crucial to your experience and safety in the canyon. Ropes need to be hardwearing and suitable for intensive abseiling activity in wet conditions. The best ropes will also remain supple over time, making them easy for you to use. You need to make sure you have the length of rope for the obstacles in your canyon and of course that you know how to use it!
  • Canyoning rope bag (s) - with this sport requiring so much of your focus and balance, it’s important to keep your hands free at all time. A waterproof, drainable rope bag will make it easy and convenient to carry your ropes around, allowing you to climb, swim and navigate safely. 
  • Waterproof container with first aid kit - to keep things light, select a small waterproof container for first aid kit, phone and other essential safety kit that will fit easily into your canyon rope bag and isn’t going to weigh you down.
  • Descender device - a descender belay system is another fundamental safety item and needs to be in every canyoning kit. This is used as a friction brake to help you manage your descent safely and effectively when abseiling.
  • Harness - the harness is worn at all times and attaches to a rope for abseiling or climbing. A canyoning harness will generally have a plastic seat protection to protect your wetsuit when you slide down toboggans.
  • Knife– a water resistant canyoning knife is an essential safety tool for all canyoning trips 
  • Slings, carabiners and protection - you need to know what belay and safety equipment you will need to secure your canyon and always take a few extra slings and carabiners.

Some smaller items that you may consider taking with you include a communication device (though note that some deep canyons won’t have  mobile phone signal), sun cream, swimwear, and your camera if you plan on taking pictures. Just remember to use your waterproof container to keep everything dry. 

Important things to know

If you’re considering trying canyoning for the first time, here are some important things to know.

1. Physical fitness is key

You don’t need to be super fit in order to try canyoning, and you don’t even have to be overly experienced in climbing. There are some canyons suitable for kids after all. However, this does not in any way mean that anyone can give it a go. Physical fitness is extremely important. Even with some of the easier canyons, conditions can become dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing or if you don’t have the fitness levels to keep up. That being said, many guided trips will come with excellent instructors to help you out with basic skills.

2. Canyoning isn’t kind to footwear  

Specialist canyoning footwear is recommended, but other waterproof shoes are fine too as long as they have good grip and padded protection over the foot. Neoprene boat shoes are generally not substantial enough, for example. An old pair of running trainers would be better. But whatever you do, don’t wear your best trainers or fanciest walking boots. Your shoes will be getting very wet and may even suffer quite a few scrapes, and stylish shoes are unlikely to look the same again. Stick with purpose-built footwear instead.

3. Check your travel insurance

Canyoning is classified as an extreme sport, so this means that a lot of standard travel insurance policies won’t cover it. Make sure you read the terms and conditions of your package, or speak to the insurance company to discuss upgrading.

Where to learn canyoning 

There are so many great places to try canyoning for the first time. If you are new to the sport, then you should always go with a guided group to start with and choose a canyon that isn’t too austere with some fun jumps and toboggans rather than too many technical skills.

One of the best canyons for a first and fun experience is the Rabou Canyon near Gap in the Hautes-Alpes. This particular canyon has some great fun toboggans and waterfalls with the option of jumping into large forgiving pools. You just need a thirst for adventure, to be able to swim and to follow your guide’s instructions to enjoy this canyon. No previous canyoning experience is required!

You’ll be rewarded with stunning waterfalls, exciting jumps and exhilarating slides, as well as some wonderful views. However, an access agreement is required if you want to explore Rabou so always book with an organised grouplike ours. 

The best time of year to do it

Although there are no hard and fast rules about when to go canyoning, it is best enjoyed in warm weather. The best time to book a trip is during the summer season, or late spring / early autumn before when temperatures are still nice.

It’s important to remember that you will be staying active in a wet environment, so cold weather can really take its toll on your body. Warm temperatures and moderate water levels are ideal for safer and more enjoyable trips.

The water level is often dictated by the winter rain and thaw or heavy storms. So always factor this in when deciding when to travel. May to September provides the perfect window for a canyoning holiday, but early summer can bring higher water levels which may not be quite as appealing for beginners. Seasoned canyoneers will really enjoy the challenge when there’s more water though.

Do you need a guide?

Canyoning certainly doesn’t need to be done with a guide, but it is highly recommended. This isn’t a sport that should be attempted without a professional, unless you are experienced and know exactly what you are doing.

But even for seasoned climbers, hikers and canyoneers, a local guide can still be extremely useful. They will have better local knowledge than you do and will be able to help you navigate tricky areas. They’ll have all the best tips for getting around certain parts and will have a good understanding of local conditions, including the weather.

Guides can also recommend the right program for your group and give you advice on what to try next.

For beginners, guides are absolutely essential. If you have never climbed or use canyoning equipment, they will give you all the training you need.

Is it dangerous?

Like all extreme sports, canyoning does have its risks. But with a guide, you can minimise these risks and learn new skills with professional supervision. Generally speaking, most guided canyon trips are extremely safe. There are kiddie canyons suitable for kids of all ages, so it isn’t as extreme as it may seem. Quite often, people are surprised at how much they are able to do when trying canyoning for the first time.

Canyoning on your own can become dangerous if precautions are not taken or issues occur, and that’s why it’s always recommended to bring a fully trained guide who knows the local gorges.

The best places 

Here are some of the best places in the world to try canyoning:

  • Sierra de Guara, Aragon, Spain
  • Corsica, France 
  • Bled, Slovenia
  • Utah, USA
  • Val Bodengo, Italy
  • Valais, Switzerland
  • …..and of course the southern French Alps! 

Canyoning adventures are particularly great in the southern French Alps because there are routes to suit all levels and abilities. The variety is fantastic too. Some are mainly waterfalls, some have no jumps for those who don’t want to dive into water, some have challenging jumps that require precision, and others have superb toboggans to slide down.

Find out more about our multi activity and summer adventure holidays in the Southern French Alps now.


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