Whether you are planning a simple stroll through a dry, walk-through canyon, or a remote multi-day trip through difficult technical canyons, this guide provides an overview of the gear you’ll need to do it safely and enjoyably.
It contains a brief summary of each item you might need — from clothing and footwear to the specialist abseiling gear. If you scroll to the bottom you’ll also find links to printable PDF checklists that break down exactly what you need for a particular type of trip.
Be aware that this equipment list is based on the conditions in Australian canyons, where water flows are generally limited, temperatures are warmer, and you are unlikely to have to deal with specialist problems like ‘keeper’ potholes. The techniques, and therefore gear requirements, inevitably vary for canyons from different regions around the world.
And don’t forget the one item you should always leave behind: details of where you are going, when you are planning to return, and at what time the authorities should be notified if you’re not back.
Clothing / apparel:
Shoes: Canyons are naturally a wet, slippery environment. Rocks have been scoured by water, making them very smooth, while the mixture of mosses and algae that grow in these environments can cause them to be extremely slick. Traditionally, Australian canyoners wore Dunlop Volley’s, because they were cheap and provided excellent grip in the wet. However, in recent years a deterioration in quality means a growing number of people have moved to specialist canyoning shoes, which are the norm in the US and Europe. If you are just starting out, the cheapest and easiest option is still the Volley. Other joggers may be worn, but be warned that they will lack grip and struggle to stand up to the constant wear. Never wear a nice pair of shoes that you don’t want to get damaged! Also avoid bushwalking boots as you will end up feeling like an astronaut when walking in the water and the grip is dangerously bad in the slippery environment. Also avoid shoes with velcro straps as they often lose grip due to sand getting into the velcro. Dive shoes or wetsuit booties can be used, as they provide warmth and grip, but may be uncomfortable on the walk in and out. We have reviewed a number of shoes specifically marketed to canyoners.
Socks: A pair of woollen socks is the cheapest and easiest option. It is also possible to wear thermal socks underneath. Having two pairs of socks can help keep some of the sand out, reduce the chance of blisters, and provide greater warmth. Another option is neoprene socks (the stuff they make wetsuits out of). These offer additional warmth and prevent sand entering. Never wear cotton socks as wet cotton causes you to lose more body heat.
Wetsuit: Many canyoners wear wetsuits, especially in canyons that are known to be particularly wet, deep and cold. They are a good idea if you are someone who feels the cold, are planning a canyon with many swims, like to stop a lot for photos etc, or have a large group that will be slow. Children and people with thinner builds will often lose body warmth faster, so are more likely to need a wetsuit. For very cold canyons wear a full length steamer, rather than a short-sleeved spring suit. It is a good idea to still wear board shorts over the top to protect the bum of the wetsuit from damage when sliding and scrambling.
Thermals: Many canyoners prefer to wear thermal underwear rather than a wetsuit. They are much lighter and do not restrict your movement. Cheap polypropylene thermals are the best bet as the harsh canyon environment will quickly put holes in them, which is much worse if you’re in expensive thermals. The top suffers much less wear, so a nice merino wool thermal top with cheap polypro bottoms is a good compromise. Thermals can also be worn under your wetsuit for additional warmth in particularly cold canyons. In the past many canyoners would wear an old / second hand woollen jumper that they were willing to sacrifice, although these become very heavy when wet.
Beanie: While the often-quoted line about losing most of your body heat through your head is a myth, a warm beanie or even a balaclava on your head can make conditions much more pleasant in a wet canyon, especially if you are someone who feels the cold.
Shirt / shorts: Be aware that canyons are harsh on clothing. Wear sturdy clothes that can stand up to the wear. Try to wear clothing items that will dry quickly (synthetic fibres are generally best). Never wear cotton as it draws heat from your body when wet. Looking through the racks at a thrift shop / Salvos store is probably far smarter than spending big on some fancy outdoor brands.
Dry change of clothes: You will get wet and dirty canyoning, so a dry change of clothes is essential. Most people keep a set of clean clothes in the car for the trip home, but some even take a change for the walk in and out. A warm fleece or jumper is also useful to have packed away in your dry bag in case conditions turn and you desperately need the warmth. For multi-day trips you will also want something dry to sleep in.
Harness: Any climbing harness will work. If you are buying something specific, look for a tape style harness with no padding. These are usually cheaper, but more importantly they absorb less water so remain lighter. They are also generally sturdier when scrapped on rocks. The harness should have at least one gear loop, for some of the essential items listed below. You can buy canyoning specific harnesses with a vinyl section that protects your bum, but these are not essential. It is also possible to purchase a removable protector, such as the ScuttleButt.
Descender: Arguably the most important piece of kit. This is the tool that allows you to abseil on the rope. They come in many styles. Look for a descender that does not need to be removed from the carabiner when releasing yourself from the rope, as this increases the risk of losing it in a deep pool. My preference is for in-line devices that do not twist the rope. Many devices can be rigged in a variety of ways, including while on rope, to add or reduce friction. This is very useful when doing long abseils or canyoning with overnight packs. If you plan to abseil on double-ropes, avoid using traditional figure-of-eight style descenders. When using single rope technique (SRT), many of the modern variations on these work well. I generally use the Kong Hydrobot. A rack can also be used, but is heavy and quite bulky. Belay devices like ATC’s are not recommended as they twist the rope and need to be removed from the carabiner to release the rope.
Carabiners: Make sure your ‘biners are properly rated (you’d be surprised at some of the dodgy low-priced equipment that pops up from time to time). Old fashioned steel ‘biners are fine to use, but they are very heavy. Aluminium or alloy ‘biners are much lighter, and generally just as strong. As well as one for your descender, you should always carry a couple more in case you need to rig a ‘biner block (for SRT) or carry out a rescue. Like all gear, you should check them regularly for excessive wear or damage, and replace as required. (If you’re curious about reading more about whether you need to replace a ‘biner after a drop, have a read of this.)
Rope: Canyoning requires specialist ropes. Unlike climbing, where dynamic ropes that stretch are used to cushion falls, canyon rope is static, which means it has very little stretch. This limits the amount of wear on edges and also makes rope retrieval much easier. Dynamic ropes can be used if you have nothing else, but they will wear faster and may not be usable for climbing afterwards. Most canyon ropes are between 8mm and 10mm. Many canyon ropes will be treated when new to repel water. This makes them stay lighter in the canyon, although the treatment will wear off with use. Floating ropes made with hollow core fibres can also be bought, but our experience has been that they are not as long lasting. It does make them harder to lose (people have lost ropes when they have sunk in deep pools). We recommend looking for ropes with very low stretch and a thick sheath. It is a good idea for the last person in the group to carry a ‘rescue rope’, equal to the length of the largest abseil, in case someone gets in trouble on the descent. Many people also carry a small handline (a rope of 15 to 20m length and 6 to 8mm in diameter) which can be kept at the bottom of your bag for emergencies. For many canyons, the use of a rope bag will also make rope management much easier.
Helmet: A helmet is an essential piece of safety equipment. In many canyons loose rock can fall from above. There is also the risk of hitting your head after slipping and falling. Some canyoners chose not to wear them in certain easier canyons, however after seeing someone struck by rock and requiring a large number of stitches I am convinced that a helmet is always a good idea. When buying a helmet, make sure it is properly rated for use rock climbing and mountaineering. Good ventilation will also make wearing it more comfortable. A bike helmet can be used for occasional trips, but is not recommended.
Gloves: While some canyoners survive without gloves, they are a good idea. They are particularly helpful on dry ropes, which run faster, or very sandy ropes, which can be rough on your hands. A really cheap set of gardening gloves will cover you for occasional use, but leather riggers gloves will last much better. There are specialist abseiling gloves that can be bought as well.
Knife: A knife should always be carried on you in a spot accessible even when abseiling. While it will generally only be used for tasks like removing worn slings, cutting new slings to length or slicing a tomato for lunch, it can be vital in an emergency. The most likely problem that a knife will help with is probably hair or other items getting caught in a descender, but being able to cut yourself free of a rope could also save your life (such as if a self belay system jams and traps you in the flow of water). Always be careful using your knife around loaded ropes as they are surprisingly easy to cut!
Whistle: A whistle can help with communication in canyons where powerful waterfalls or long drops obscure regular calls. Make sure you chose a whistle with no moving parts (not a ball whistle). You also need to have an agreed set of signals to make it effective form of communication. Some groups carry walkie-talkies to improve communications on big drops.
Safety line / cowstail: Having a 1m long safety sling with a carabiner allows you to quickly clip yourself in to an anchor when rigging ropes or simply waiting in a highly exposed spot. While Dyneema / Spectra sewn slings are very strong and work well, it is not advised that knots be tied in them, so nylon can offer more options for use. A really good option worth considering is a purcell prusik, which allows you to adjust the length of your safety line.
Prusiks: Every canyoner should carry a pair of prusik loops and know how to use them. As well as allowing the rope to be ascended safely (in the case of stuck rope on a pull-down) they also have other uses. A single prusik loop can be used as part of a self-belay system, while most rescue / hauling situations will require the use of prusiks. An alternative is to carry specialist ascenders, however these are generally heavier, bulkier and more costly, although there are compact ascenders available.
Slings: You should always have a number of tape slings with you. These are not only used to build anchors (around a chockstone / cairn / tree where friction would prevent a clean pull-down) but are also needed to replace old, frayed or unsafe slings from existing anchors. 25mm tube tape is very cheap and light, so there is no excuse for not having several metres of it at the bottom of your pack.
Maillons: Much cheaper and lighter than a carabiner, a maillon rapide is a rated steel link that can be used when building an anchor. They provide less friction, and are harder wearing than tape, so will make well-used anchors last longer. Most commonly they are used by people who abseil on single ropes. The maillon provides a fixed point for the ‘biner block to butt up against.
Pack: Given all the gear you’ll be carrying with you, you’ll almost always need to carry a pack to hold it all in. While a general bushwalking pack can do the job, if you intend to canyon more regularly it is worth investing in a specialist canyoning pack. Canyons are very hard wearing on gear, so canyoning packs are generally made of a tough fabric such as cordura or vinyl. You also need good drainage, so that you don’t have to lift 20kgs of water every time you come out of a swim. Some packs use mesh to drain, although large metal eyelets will also do the job. A haul loop, to allow the pack to be hung below you or hauled up or down drops is also essential. We’d also recommend packs with both a hip and chest strap, so they don’t hang off your back while abseiling.
Dry bag / canyon keg: Your pack will inevitably get wet, as will all its contents, so having something to keep essentials (like your lunch and first aid kit) dry is a must. Waterproof dry bags are the most common thing used, but be aware that most dry bags are not designed to be fully submersed, and can fail in a canyon. Small holes or a poor seal when you roll up the top can also cause your essentials to end up soaking wet. Another option, which is more common in Europe or the US, is a plastic canyon keg. These are stronger, completely water-tight, puncture resistant and also protect items from being crushed. They are a little heavier and bulkier in your pack, but much more reliable.
First aid kit: A basic first aid kit, like that which you would use for bushwalking or hiking, should always be carried. The most common injuries you may need to treat include cuts, sprains, broken bones, snake bites or hypothermia. It is worth including a couple heavy duty crepe bandages, a triangle bandage, thermal blanket, pain-killers, anti-inflamatories, water purifying tablets, Imodium, disposable gloves etc. Matches and a firelighter are also a good idea. Kosta has produced a good list of what to include in your first aid kit. Many people also include a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) which can set off a rescue in an emergency. This is much more useful than a mobile phone, which will not get reception in a canyon.
Head torch: In some canyons there are dark tunnel sections that require a torch to safely traverse, but more likely your torch will help out around camp or during a walk out after dark following a surprisingly long, hard canyon. Make sure you buy a waterproof (submersible to 1m) torch, as other models will allow water in which will rust the mechanism. I also keep a spare set of batteries in my first aid kit. Never walk without a torch!
Navigation tools: A map and compass should always carried, and you should know how to use them. This is in addition to any track notes or guide books you have. In recent years there was a fatality caused by an inexperienced group getting lost during an easy, beginner canyon trip. A GPS can also be carried as a back-up, but be aware that in canyons you are unlikely to be able to see enough of the sky for them to get an accurate lock. Having at least two sets of maps in the group is essential in case one gets wet, damaged or lost.
Lightweight rain coat: A light raincoat or spray jacket is not only useful if the weather turns bad, but it can be a really good way to keep warmer in wet canyons or in windy conditions. Abseiling through waterfalls, it will protect you from some of the spray, but most of all it will limit how much you are chilled when a breeze blows through the canyon.
Water: Always make sure you are carrying adequate water for the walk in / out. Some streams and rivers may be polluted, so ensure you have enough to get you to a reliable water source. Keep up your fluids, as being wet and cold often makes you feel like drinking less, which can lead to dehydration.
Food: Always make sure you have adequate food and snacks for your trip, along with a small emergency supply if you run late. Eating doesn’t just help provide energy, it gives your body the ability to produce warmth, so having a snack when you are feeling cold can really help.
Cooking equipment: If you wish to have warm food, you should always take a gas stove. Canyons are extremely sensitive areas, and even small fires can damage rock and leave long-lasting scars. If you must have a fire (to warm up an extremely cold member of the party etc) then place it on sand and bury the remains once done. You’ll obviously need matches, a stove, gas cylinder, a billy, spondonicles, and cutlery.
Camping equipment: For multi-day trips you will need to carry your usual camping equipment, including a sleeping bag, mat, ground sheet and fly. Canyoning is usually done in warmer weather, so a light summer sleeping bag is enough. Camp caves are also often easy to find. A fly is much more compact than a tent, and more than adequate in summer. Ensure your camping equipment is stored in an adequate dry bag. Most people double dry bag their sleeping bag to guarantee it stays dry.
Lilo: Don’t take cheap pool toys through a canyon, as between the abrasive rock and spiky branches they won’t last long. While they are heavy, if you plan to do a liloing trip (such as through the tourist sections of the Wollangambe Rover) the best bet is a proper rubber / canvas lilo.
Camera: These are optional, but well worth taking. While normal cameras can be taken in a canyon, it is very hard to guarantee something will stay dry, so it can be a costly move. We recommend taking a waterproof and shockproof point and shoot camera, as it means less worries for you. If you do take a DSLR etc, make sure you double, or even triple dry bag it to protect it from water and impacts! Remember, cameras will sink. While you can return with scuba gear to rescue it (like Todd did) it is much easier to use a length of cord to attach it to your pack or harness.
Goggles: Swimming goggles are another optional extra that can come in handy if you do drop an item in a deeper pool. Particularly useful on trips with beginners who are yet to learn the hard way why everything should either be securely attached or contain floatation.
Sun protection: A hat and sunscreen are particularly useful for the walks in and out of your canyon. Consider using a natural sunscreen to avoid leaving chemicals in our pristine canyons.
Microfibre towel: A small, light-weight towel, perfect for drying off after a canyon (particularly handy if your group suffers an injury in a canyon or is benighted). Also helps keep other items in your dry bag dry if some moisture gets in.
Gear checklists (click for printable PDF’s):
- Day trip a non-technical (no abseiling) canyon
- Day trip through a technical canyon
- Multi-day canyoning trip
- Liloing day trip