What is Canyoning?

Canyoning may be one of the youngest adventure sports, but it’s also amongst the fastest growing. So, what is canyoning and extreme canyoning? Read on to get the lowdown including what to wear canyoning.

5 August 2022

Canyoning is the sport of exploring and navigating the geological wonders that are canyons. Generally characterised as steep and deep, usually narrow, valleys, they can be dry or wet, hot or cold and may include anything from rapids and waterfalls to sharp cliffs.

This incredible natural diversity makes canyoning a varied, wide-ranging sport. One minute it can involve jumping into a river, the next abseiling down a waterfall.

So, what is canyoning and how is it different from gorge walking and river canyoning? We’ll explore all this, from beginner to extreme canyoning, as well as covering what to wear canyoning or what to wear canyoneering.

What is Canyoning?

A Canyoning team by a waterfall while finding their way through a canyon (Photo: EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER visa Getty Images)

It can be tricky to find an answer to “what is canyoning”. This is partly because, as a relatively new sport, the details are not yet set in stone (so to speak). However, another reason is that canyoning, also known as canyoneering, is actually many sports combined to achieve one aim: to explore canyons.

Why canyons? Because the natural features of these narrow, deep valleys are so incredibly diverse. They can be dry or aquatic, have waterfalls or cliffs, climbs and descents and even jumps. So, returning to the question of “what is canyoning”, it is the adventure sport of descending into a canyon by any means necessary. And this really does mean any. Just some of the possible ways include:

  • Abseiling (rappelling)
  • Hiking
  • Climbing
  • Swimming
  • Jumping
  • Sliding
  • Tobogganing
  • Scrambling
  • Down-Climbing
  • Bouldering

Every canyoning route will entail a different mix of these activities as well as others. It all depends on the natural features of the route chosen and its difficulty level. Canyoning is done all over the world, from Australia’s Blue Mountains to the Swiss Alps, Siq in Jordan to Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park.

What is Canyoning Versus Gorge Walking and Gorge Scrambling?

Canyoning Versus Gorge Walking and Gorge Scrambling (Photo: Jordan Siemens via Getty Images)

Another complication in answering “what is canyoning” is differentiating it from other similar sports, particularly gorge walking and scrambling. Gorges and canyons are themselves similar, but are formed differently and gorges tend to be the smaller of the two. And, whilst the matter is still debated, it is generally agreed that all three are different difficulty levels of a similar sport, with gorge walking the most accessible and canyoning the most challenging. Many also contend that canyoning also requires a level of specialist technical skill beyond hiking or swimming.

What is Canyoning Versus River Canyoning?

Navigating water routes (Photo: Zero Creatives via Getty Images)

River canyoning is another term used in relation to the sport. There does not appear to be a set definitional difference between what is canyoning versus river canyoning. Canyoning regularly involves navigating water routes, including rivers, especially as many canyons are formed by water pressure from rivers.

What is Canyoning Grading?

Canyoneering through narrow Zebra Canyon (Photo: Suzanne Stroeer / Aurora Photos via Getty Images)

Want to know how difficult a canyoning route is and what features it entails? Maybe you want an understanding of how long it will take to navigate. For all this and more, check its rating. There are currently three main grading systems used around the world. Most of Europe uses the one devised by the Fédération Française de la Montagne et de l’Escalade (FFME) and Fédération Française de Spéléologie (FFS). The UK and US, amongst others, use that created by the American Canyoneering Academy (ACA). Australia has its own system.

What is Extreme Canyoning?

Checking safety equipment (Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Canyoning is often classed as an extreme sport, especially by insurance companies. In a separate vein, canyoning is also a scalable pursuit. Some canyoning routes can be undertaken by children and, as already stated, there are different ratings for routes depending on their difficulty, time required and activities involved. Extreme canyoning represents the peak of the sport’s difficulty, not to mention dangerousness.

On that note, there are many dangers involved in any, let alone extreme, canyoning, from flash floods to getting lost, hypothermia to injury. It’s important to stick to a level commensurate with your ability, take safety measures and, especially for beginners, to go with a reputable guide.

What to Wear Canyoning / What to Wear Canyoneering

Typical canyoneering gear (Photo: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

In terms of what to wear canyoning, there is one golden rule: whatever it is, it must be hard wearing. That goes for shoes and shirts, socks and sun hats and all between. Canyoning is tough on clothes. Assuming you’re going with a guide – highly recommended – they should be able to tell you what you’ll need and what’s included, but here’s a general list of what to wear canyoneering:

  • Clothes – Go synthetic: You want clothes that dry quickly and are temperature tolerant, so synthetic is best. The only exception? Socks. Many canyoneers swear by woollen ones. Oh, and no cotton.
  • Thermals v Swimwear: In the next section we look at some of the gear involved in canyoning, amongst which wetsuits are key. In hotter climates, some people wear only swimsuits under these, whereas colder canyons might warrant thermals.
  • Shoes – Get a grip: Things get slippery. If you don’t want to splash out on canyoning specific shoes, wear sturdy trainers with excellent grip and plenty of padding. No velcro – it doesn’t do well when wet – and avoid anything too heavy like hiking boots, which will weigh you down in water.
  • Hat – whatever the weather: Whether it’s a sun hat or woolly one will depend on where and when you go, but have one on hand.
  • Gloves: Handy for climbing.
  • Waterproof bag: Did we mention things tend to get wet?
  • Spare clothes: Have something to change into.

The above list is what to wear canyoning, but there’s also a lot of other gear involved. A wetsuit, helmet and harness are a must. If you’re going on a guided canyoneering trip, these tend to be provided, but do check.

And that is a brief guide to “what is canyoning”, including river canyoning and similar sports. We’ve covered gradings, extreme canyoning and even what to wear canyoning and what to wear canyoneering. Hopefully you are now equipped with everything you need for your next adventure.


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