People who canyon with me quickly discover my contradictory personality. For instance, while I’m a massive gear nerd (both in size and scale) who happily spends hours trawling the latest equipment, I also hate replacing items that are still usable, even if they are heavy, old, and have been well-and-truly superseded.
My collection of canyoning ropes is very much like this. So while I’m always spruiking the amazing ropes that have been released in recent years, my own pack still generally bulges with a random 10mm static that has become so stiff with age it feels more like a steel cable than a canyoning rope. Thankfully, these old workhorses are finally being put out to pasture, with the past year seeing several become so worn they clearly need to be retired.
A couple canyoning trips to the US over the last two years have also given me the chance to get up close and personal with many of the ropes now on the market. Not only are they so much lighter, smaller, and nicer to work with than what most canyoners in Australia still use, many utilise advanced fibres making them stronger and longer-lasting than the thicker ropes they replace.
Frustratingly, many of the best ropes are not currently sold in Australia (the canyoning market is too small for most retailers, especially when most people still happily buy the inferior ropes that are available). But I’ve started engaging with a number of rope manufacturers and distributors in an effort to bring these ropes over in an affordable way, so watch this space…
Still, there are enough good ropes available that I thought it was worth writing a post that outlined what canyoners should look for before making a rope purchase. (I’ve started a thread on the Canyoning Australia forum if you have any thoughts, feedback, or first-hand experiences you’d like to share).
What makes canyoning ropes different to ropes used in other outdoor pursuits?
Canyons place different demands on ropes compared to other pursuits that involve abseiling. For instance, rock climbing ropes need to provide elasticity to absorb the forces involved in falls. Caving ropes generally need to be ascended much more. The list goes on and on.
On the other hand, canyons involve ropes running over sharp or abrasive edges, extensive exposure to water, lots of grit and grime being rubbed against them, and a reasonable amount of UV exposure. They also generally require much more walking, making weight and bulk a bigger consideration.
To address the issues of abrasive wear, good canyoning ropes generally have extremely low elongation. This is because the more stretch a rope allows, the more it can rub against edges as the rope is loaded and unloaded during abseils. This process is the primary cause of wear to the sheath of the rope. So as a general rule, the more a rope stretches, the more it will suffer from abrasion and the shorter its working life will be.
Water is another important consideration. Some fibres lose significant strength when wet, elongate more, or even become prone to gradual degradation due to regular exposure to moisture. Some simply absorb more moisture, making them significantly heavier to carry.
Weight and bulk are also important factors. Especially for longer canyons, additional weight on your back will slow you down and cause fatigue. Tiredness, fatigue, and becoming benighted will all increase the chance of accidents occurring. Thinner, lighter ropes also discourage people from cutting corners with how much rope is carried. This allows more efficient leapfrogging through canyons, as well as a spare safety rope being kept at the back of a group. For those reasons, most specialist canyoning ropes are now available in a diametre of between 8 and 9 millimetres.
What fibres are used to make canyoning ropes?
Traditionally, the most common fibres used in abseiling ropes were polyester, polyamide (Nylon), and polypropylene. Nylon is most common in climbing ropes as the the natural elasticity of the fibre is what allows climbing ropes to safely absorb dynamic falls (this stretch actually increases when wet). Polypropylene is common in rope cores as it is light, cheap to produce, and floats in water. Polyester is best suited to canyoning-specific ropes because it has exceptional UV resistance, does not degrade due to exposure to water, has good abrasion characteristics, and is a naturally static fibre with very low elongation.
In recent years, some truly exceptional fibres have come onto the market and found their way into specialised canyoning ropes. These fibres provide features such as higher strength and superior abrasion resistance. Unfortunately, that performance also comes with a higher price. Some of these fibres include: ultra-high-molecular-weight-polyethylene (Dyneema / Spectra), aramid (Technora), para-aramid (Kevlar / Twaron), liquid crystal polymer (Vectran), and polybenzobisoxazole (PBO / Zylon).
If you look at the top-of-the-line canyoning ropes now available, you will find almost all use at least a blend of these more advanced fibres.
Dyneema and Spectra are exceptionally strong but are not great at handling heat. For that reason they are generally used as the core of the rope. Woven Dyneema has the same strength as steel cable of the same diametre, allowing abseil ropes that are a thinner overall diametre. It is also completely static, bringing rope elongation down to under one per cent in most cases. Finally, it doesn’t absorb water, or degrade / lose strength due to moisture.
Technora not only has exceptional cut resistance, but it can also handle much more abrasion. The use of a Technora sheath almost doubles the amount of abrasion a canyoning rope can endure, resulting in a much longer life-span. Unlike Dyneema, it handles high working temperatures, far exceeding the temperatures a descender can reach.
The other fibres mentioned (Kevlar, Twaron, Vectran and PBO / Zylon) are used in some high-end ropes, particularly as the core material, but as yet they don’t appear to have been used in a canyoning-specific rope.
What types of rope are best suited to canyoning?
From my experience, polypropylene ropes have the shortest life-span. So while they might make your initial purchase cheaper, you’ll end up spending more in the long run.
Likewise, the additional stretch in nylon ropes will inevitably cause the sheath to suffer greater abrasion in Australian conditions. It is impossible to get a truly static rope using a nylon core, so while the rope may seem competitive on price and work well at first, you’ll probably need to retire it sooner.
Of the traditional fibres, polyester ropes provide the best “bang for buck”. They are tough, hard wearing, and will handle exposure to grit, water, and UV. It’s for that reason that the polyester sheath / polyester core combination form the basis of several very popular canyoning-specific ropes. For canyoners on a budget, you can’t go past polyester ropes.
If I’m considering more advanced fibres, it is Technora and Dyneema that I look for. The incredible cut resistance of Technora make for a much safer rope, and it maintains an incredibly soft rope-feel even after extensive use. Likewise, Dyneema is incredibly strong. When you consider that a good-quality 3mm woven Dyneema cord has a breaking strength of 1.1 tonnes, it becomes clear how the use of Dyneema can produce thin and light ropes with exceptional safety margins. You will pay more for these fibres, but for a regular canyoner the price is well-and-truly worth it.
In addition to the materials used, the manufacturing process of the rope can also have a significant impact on stretch, abrasion resistance, hand feel, and overall performance. The fibres in the core, which provide most of the strength, can be straight or twisted (a twisted core will generally be more elastic).
The braiding process used on the sheath will have a greater impact on the abrasion resistance. A tighter braid generally leads to a stiffer rope, however it reduces abrasion and prevents grid from entering the core of the rope. Ropes with a looser sheath will often feel softer to the touch and be easier to knot, but at the expense of durability. Different braiding approaches will also change the thickness of the protective sheath on the outside of the rope, influencing cut and abrasion resistance.
As a general guide, a tighter braid on the sheath will make for a stiffer rope, which often leads to better abrasion resistance and a longer lifespan. A less stiff rope will have a softer hand, be easier to knot, and pack smaller, but will also provide less friction on descent, wear quicker, and can be more prone to getting tangled or stuck during retrieval. There are obvious limits to this, with an extremely stiff rope becoming almost unusable.
Overall, rope technology has come a very long way in the last decade. There really is no reason any recreational canyoner should still be buying 10mm ropes. Despite being heavier and bulkier, in most cases they’re no tougher than the thinner alternatives now available. So while a thicker rope might feel good psychologically, you’ll often be safer descending on an advanced 8mm rope.
What canyoning rope should I buy?
This depends on a lot of things and you should consider your individual needs.
If you’re a new canyoner or are on a pretty tight budget, stick with the polyester core and sheath combination. It should last quite a few years and will provide a good all-purpose canyoning rope.
If you only ever do occasional day trips and you just want a trustworthy rope that will last for years, then I’d suggest a sheath-heavy 9 to 9.5mm polyester rope.
If you intend to do remote, exploratory, or multi-day trips, then I’d recommend sticking with the thinner ropes in the 8 to 8.5mm range to reduced weight and bulk. Given that the last thing you want is a rope to suffer significant damage, I’d also recommend a rope with a Technora sheath to maximise the abrasion and cut resistance.
If you canyon in an area with particular sharp rock edges, such as Kanangra, then the Technora sheath ropes are even more valuable.
If price is no obstacle, the top-of-the-line ropes are exceptional. They’re a pleasure to use, lighter to carry, and will last for ages. An 8mm diametre rope with a Dyneema core and a Technora sheath really can’t be beaten. These fibres are so strong and hardwearing, while retaining amazing flexibility, that you’ll never want to go back. The 8mm Bluewater Canyon Extreme is a good example of this type of rope. While it’s quite fast (best to keep away from beginners unless you’ve taught them how to add friction while on descent) it is far and away the best rope I’ve used.
If you want to see a full list of specialist canyoning ropes that are currently available, along with a detailed technical breakdown of their diametres, fibre types, elongation, and other factor, check out this great article on Ropewiki.
Recommended canyoning ropes:
Below are a list of some of the ropes currently available fitting into three main categories: hard-wearing ropes for canyoners on a budget; more advanced ropes utilising a mix of fibres; and the most expensive top-of-the-line canyoning ropes.
Best canyoning ropes on a budget:
- Imlay “Canyon Fire” 8.3mm
- Imlay “Canyonero” 9.2mm
- Sterling “Canyon Prime” 8.5mm
- Sterling “HTP” 9mm
- Bluewater “Canyonator” 9mm
Best of the intermediately priced canyoning ropes:
Top-of-the-line canyoning ropes: