Efficient Canyoneering

Efficient Canyoneering

I have marveled over the years when people have contacted me asking how a canyon took me a few hours and they took a full day (or even spent the night). Turns out in canyoneering, like aid climbing, or many other pursuits, small inefficiencies add up over the course of a day and can really slow down a group.

The following tips are the habits I use to be more efficient. They are NOT geared toward beginning canyoneers. If you are new to the sport, focus on learning the fundamentals of knots, anchors, and gear before working on efficiency. This is aimed and competent canyoneers looking to gain some speed for longer days. Canyoneering, in my opinion, is not about how fast you can do a canyon, but when heading into longer/harder canyons, its good to think about moving quickly.

Note: These tips are for dry Colorado Plateau canyons. Flowing class C canyons are a whole different skillset.


Tip #1 - Use a Ropebag

Most already to use a rope bag,  but if your not in the habit, get one and use it. They are much faster. Imlay Canyon Gear and Canyonwerks both make great canyoneering specific bags. I currently prefer the stiffer Canyonwerks bags because I find them more durable and easier to stuff. A homemade bag can also work great (for the more dirtbag type reader), just make sure it drains water and has flotation.

Tip #2 - Everyone gets ready at the same time.

Another no brainer, but the first spot someone needs to wetsuit up or put on a harness, everyone should do it. I can't count the number of times a group I've been in has stopped 2+ times for different members to suit up.  (With much eye rolling and heavy sighs from me.)

Tip #3 - How to efficiently rig the drop and rappel.

Here is my routine for rigging a rappel:

1 - A member of the group inspects the anchor while another member begins threading the rope.

2 - If the anchor needs to be backed up, pull enough rope through the quicklink to back it up, otherwise, I like to pull about 6' through, tie a figure-eight in the end, and clip it somewhere on the anchor as a backup. Tie a carabiner block in and place it up against the quicklink.

Basic safety note: NEVER carabiner block against another carabiner. ONLY carabiner block against a rapide or chain link. Carabiner-on-carabiner blocks will fail as the carabiners shift on rappel and one pulls through the other. Also, DON'T use climbing style lightweight aluminum rappel rings. The hollow rings wear very quickly. If you find them in a canyon, swap them out.

3 - Drop rope bag and hopefully hear a thunk as it hits the ground.  If there is a possibility of the bag getting stuck or ending up somewhere it shouldn’t, don't drop it, but have the first person rappel with the bag dangling below then on a daisy or bunny strap.

4 - First person rappels.

5 - (Rappel length less than 1/2 the rope length) Once down, the person at the top begins pulling up rope to throw down. Undo the carabiner block before throwing, but DO clip the rope to you so you don't drop it. Throw down the amount of rope that is your best guess for how much is needed to reach double strand, then adjust as the person on the ground tells you if you need more or less.

6 - (Rappel length greater than 1/2 the rope length) Pull up rope so the rappel end is just touching the ground. Tie your pull cord into the other end of the rope and toss it down to minimize the amount of pull-cord that needs to be coiled.

For advanced canyoneers only, the stone (stein) knot and a fiddlestick type device can work great here, and allow you to only need to stuff the amount of pull cord and rope needed for the rappel with no fuss.

7 - Last person down assures the ropes are not twisted and the pull is as easy as possible. He/she then rappels.

8 - Pull and bag the rope. Generally this is a good one person job, but that person should be bagging with fervor, like the rest of the group is heading down canyon and leaving them. (Because they probably are!) It shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes to bag the rope and head down canyon. If more rappels are expected soon, carry the bag over your shoulder instead of packing it away in a backpack.

Tip #4 - Looks like downclimb… or maybe a rappel… no.. probably a downclimb… or???

If members of the group can't decide if a drop is within their abilities, have them rappel. Much time can be wasted when people start downclimbing, then come back up, then try again, then come back up… well… you get the picture. The most skilled person should go last if the downclimb is within their abilities, while everyone else rappels off them first. If not a downclimb to anyone in the group, build an anchor.

Tip #5 - Buddies bring ropes.

In small groups (3 or less), I generally just bring the amount of rope needed for the biggest rappel. Groups > 3 in canyons with quite a few rappels, should bring more ropes. Typically 1 rope for every 2-3 members of the group. At a rappel, send a person with a rope down first to continue down canyon and setup the next rappel while the rest of the group is rappeling the first drop. 

Tip #6 - Good buddies only.

Smaller groups are generally faster. If your looking for speed, keep the group small. A well skilled group of two can be really fast,  three if the canyon will have potholes.  In some areas, such as Escalante,  BLM limits groups to 12 people. For canyons, keeping a max group size of 6-8 seems more reasonable. Larger groups are slower, have more impacts, and are harder to pass when a faster group comes through. Most of my trips have been a group size of 2 or 3. 

Tip #7 - No chit chat on rappel.

My preference is for people rappelling not to chit chat while rappelling. First, because they tend to stop , chat for awhile, then continue the rappel, but second (and more importantly) while rappelling the person should be focused on what they are doing, not other distractions. Rappel smoothly, safetly, and quickly.

Tip #8 - He or she who is strongest, carries the most…

If efficiency is the name of the game, don't split group gear according to body weight, pack weight equality, gender, or any other such arbitrary differentiator. Gear should be split according to this simple rule: the persons who are strongest, should carry more. If someone is constantly ahead or lagging, shift weight in the packs around until everyone is comfortable at the group pace.

Caveat: My partners do not believe food is divided in a similar matter.

Tip #9 - Get Over Aquaphobia

Ah, the games we play. If your in a hurry, it is often far faster and energy efficient to wade the pool and get your feet wet, than to try and climb/stem/hop or otherwise skip it.