Maximize Family Fun With: Canyoneering

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Warning: Canyoneering is a dangerous sport where serious injury or death can occur. Before entering a canyon, ensure that you have the necessary training and physical fitness to achieve your objective. Canyons are an ever changing environment and can change dramatically from season to season. Make sure to seek out current information on the route you are planning to undertake. Flash Floods are an extreme hazard in canyon country. Obtain current weather patterns for the entirety of the canyon you are going to enter and never enter a canyon if there is a possibility of a storm. There are no warranties or liabilities either expressed or implied by the information on this website. You are responsible for your own safety, judgement and that of your family.
Psyched!

Waiting in the shade at the base of the ninety foot cliff, I shuffle my feet as yet more fine, red sand sifts into my shoes. A few feet away the desert sun beats down on the canyon floor but here, under the cliff’s overhang, I snug my puff jacket closer and shiver a bit. The sound of a ravens’ wings beats a cadence above my head seconds before the silence of the canyon is shattered by an ecstatic whoop.

“This is the best day evarrrr!”

I look up to see my daughter and her friend leaping backwards, pushing off the red sandstone as they  lower down the final rappel of U-Turn Canyon in Arches, National Park, Utah. We are in the Canyonlands country for spring break and we have hit upon pure seven year old type one fun: Canyoneering!

In case you have never had the pleasure, Canyoneering is the act of moving  down canyons via walking, scrambling, rappelling and swimming. For a kid, imagine all of the fun things about rock climbing without any waiting around at the base of the cliff while Daddy takes one more go at his “proj”.

We had been introduced to Canyoneering many years ago on our big roadtrip. We spent an enjoyable afternoon rappelling and swimming through some of the slot canyons in Zion, NP.  While rock climbing has always been our primary form of recreation, canyoneering has provided fun diversions on rest days or as a way to explore canyon country off the beaten path. We had never really considered it as a kids’ activity.

But why not? What’s holding you back? As with most of the activities we enjoy in the outdoors, there is a gradient of risk and commitment. We can share everything with our children if we scale our expectations and mitigate objective hazards. It all depends on knowing the comfort level of your kids and then gently stretching that comfort zone with new experiences.

So let’s break it down: The main activities involved in canyoneering are rappelling and scrambling with some canyons requiring swimming, technical climbing and routefinding. The objective hazards are mainly weather based (never enter a canyon if there is rain on the forecast, flash floods are definitely NOT on the fun agenda!) and there is danger from rockfall and a fall from heights.

Scrambling: If you have ever taken your kids outdoors you already know we are born climbers. Once the kids become used to the rock you are traveling in on and through, they will take off at top speed if you let them.

Rappelling: For their first canyon, we tied the girls in to the end of the rope and lowered them down each of the rappels. If you have taken your child out climbing, this will be just like lowering down off a toprope. Expect maximum whooping during this time. As they get older and more comfortable with managing their own systems, we will transition them to rappelling on their own with a backup from below, then by managing their own backup. We sent one adult down the rappel first, followed by the children getting lowered, and then the remainder of the adults.

Floods: As mentioned above, just don’t go canyoneering if the weather forecast calls for rain. Go for a hike elsewhere, sit by the river and watch the rain hit the surface or, if you are in the Moab area, go to Milt’s and get a burger and a shake. You deserve it!

Rockfall: Wear a helmet!

Fall from height: This is a legitimate concern as it seems like canyoneers (at least the ones equipping the routes we did) are a bit risk tolerant. Each set of rappel anchors seemed to be just a little bit farther over the edge than was comfortable.  Also, the aforementioned scrambling and walking around on top of big dropoffs can be a bit nervy with two impulsive seven year olds in tow. Simple answer: shortroping. Keeping the children on a short tether using our climbing rope and belaying them in and out of the more sketchy stances helped keep the little ones safe and the fun factor high. It also serves to keep them on a bit of a leash for when their confidence grows and they begin to outpace the older generation!

Looking down on Park Avenue from high in U-Turn Canyon.

Wait. You brought your baby!? Yeah, we did. The youngest member of the Home On The Loose Crew is now big enough to fit safely in a kid’s full body harness. We put her in the harness and attached her via a PAS tether to Mommy’s harness. This was the backup in case the Ergo Baby carrier failed (has never happened, but we are NOT taking that kind of chance!) It was a bit awkward to rappel with her riding along but it allowed the whole family to join the fun!

With the worries out of the way, we can look at choosing a fun family canyon. I recommend going with a short (2-3 hour) canyon for your first foray. Look for a canyon that provides minimal technical climbing and simple, equipped rappels. The more time you can spend moving and not dealing with setting up anchors and pitching out sections, the more fun you are going to have.

Make sure to bring lots of water, snacks and treats for keeping morale high. Always bring rain gear and I find it smart to pack the puffy jackets. Even on a hot day, temps can plummet in the shadows of the canyon, especially if the wind picks up.

So get out there and have an awesome time! If you would like to follow along, we did Big Horn Canyon and U-Turn Canyon. Both found within Arches, NP just minutes from the road and the major tourist overlooks of the Windows and Park Ave! There is a great guidebook: Moab Canyoneering: Exploring Technical Canyons Around Moab by Derek Wolfe that highlights a bunch of great starter canyons as well as some more challenging objectives as your family gains more experience.

See you out there,

Jim

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