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How To Dive Into Canyon Country and Survive

Sculptural rock formations and otherworldly passageways await when you descend below the rim. Here’s how to do so safely.

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The labyrinthine world of desert canyons is a unique landscape carved by water and time. Canyoneering, the sport of exploring rocky gorges, pulls from a variety of other activities, from hiking and scrambling to technical rope skills and even swimming. But before you squeeze in, it’s important to understand how to stay safe, navigate, plan, and move with style and ease.

Read the Forecast

Slot canyons become extremely dangerous during a rainstorm. Small amounts of precipitation can cause deadly flash floods, even when the rain isn’t falling exactly where you are. Water runs into catchment basins—geographic areas where runoff flows to a singular outlet like a river—and funnels downstream into slot canyons, where it can wash hikers away.

(Photo: yamonstro via Getty)

Use topographic maps when assessing the weather for a slot canyon.

Locate your canyon on the map, then look upstream (V-shape topo lines point downstream). Check the forecast for the canyon itself, at least 50 miles upstream, and a few spots in between leading up to and on the day of your adventure. Stay out of the canyon if there is even a slight chance of rain within half a day before or after—and of course during—your trip.

You’re Doing It Wrong: Wicked Weather

Take a wide view while examining the weather. Some canyons, like Utah’s Buckskin Gulch (the longest-known continually-narrow slot canyon) have catchment basins that are over 50 miles away. Every year, search and rescue teams get calls from stranded hikers in this beginner canyon. Many people only look at the weather in the canyon itself and fail to zoom out enough to check the entire catchment basin. If you don’t know where to check, try looking in a guide book or consulting an expert (like a local guiding company) for info on weather conditions. Alternatively, you can seek out canyoneering training from certified guides to learn how to expertly analyze weather.

Navigation Know-How

For beginner canyoneers, stick to easy terrain no greater than class 2 (see rating system below) on well-trafficked routes. Before you go, read up on route descriptions and commitment time, and note any special gear requirements or points of no return (when you’ll descend something you can’t get back up). Use guidebooks and the internet to find destination-specific info. To level up to technical terrain, consider taking a course on canyoneering, anchors, and rappelling from a certified guide.

Most slot canyon routes are completed from the top down (from higher elevation to lower), or they come in pairs and are done in a loop. This almost always requires cross-country desert navigation. Routes often don’t have trails, so keep a GPS handy for any out-of-canyon hiking. GPS devices won’t work in canyons, since the steep walls obstruct signals, so bring a map, too.

(Photo: Cavan Images via Getty)

Leave Only Footprints

The desert environment is a sensitive landscape that’s rich with history. Stick to established trails and durable surfaces to avoid disrupting the environment.

Don’t bust the crust

Raised, black, bumpy ground, called cryptobiotic soil, is made of living organisms. Its primary importance is to prevent erosion and it takes decades to regrow if damaged. If you see dark lumps on the ground, step around them, even if it’s inconvenient.

Toilet Time

Human waste takes ages to break down in the arid desert. Instead of burying it, always carry a waste disposal bag for emergencies, pack out your toilet paper, and use established toilets at trailheads before you enter the canyon.

Leave Artifacts Alone

The desert is chock-full of relics from native civilizations of the past. Respect these bits of history: Don’t draw, write, carve, or use mud to make your own art in canyons. Never touch or deface petroglyphs and rock art.

Know the Ethics

Some canyons are considered “ghost canyons,” meaning you can’t leave any webbing, bolts, or gear behind. Protect all sandstone surfaces with proper gear—even ropes can form grooves that forever alter the rock.

How to Read Difficulty Ratings

Canyon grades describe routes varying from casual hikes to full-blown epics that require technical gear. Early exits are rarely an option once you dive in, especially on routes that require ropes. Only explore canyons you are confident match your skill level.

Technical Class

Class 1 Canyon hiking on rocky or sandy terrain, no ropes required.*
Class 2 Basic scrambling, for which you’ll have to use your hands. Easy downclimbing required.
Class 3 Intermediate canyoneering skills and ropes required. Necessary skills include rappels (descending ropes with a harness and belay device), anchor building, climbing, and down-climbing where a fall could result in injury.
Class 4 Advanced canyoneering skills are necessary and risk is high. Only experts should attempt these canyons, as there are often obstacles that, if managed incorrectly, will trap you in the canyon with no escape. Think deep pools of water, smooth and steep canyon walls, and extremely tight squeezes.

*Expect to keep a near-normal hiking pace through class 1, and budget for one mile per hour through class 2 terrain. As you go up in class, the going gets slower and depends on your efficiency with rope systems.

Water Rating

A Normally dry, with a potential for up to waist-deep wading in still water. Best for beginners.
B Standing water with no current or water with a gentle current. Swimming required. Wetsuits or dry suits and specialized canyoneering gear is required.
C Strong, flowing current and waterfalls. Specialized gear, ropes, and experience needed.

Time

I A couple of hours
II Half-day
III Most of the day
IV A long day that usually requires a headlamp. Always pack an emergency bivvy.
V More than a day
VI More than two days

Additional Risk Factors

No rating Normal risk factors such as slips, trips, falls, and loose rock
PG Some risk of an injury-causing fall or getting stuck
R One or more extraordinary risk factors that could cause stranding such as keeper potholes (large, smooth-walled pools that “keep” you inside with no way to climb out), descents with no possible re-ascent, and risky climbing with limited protection.

Quality of Canyon

* Quality ratings, measured out of five stars, indicate how enjoyable the route is according to people who have completed it. This subjective rating can be found in guidebooks and online.