A beginner's guide to canyoning
© Getty; Cavan

A beginner’s guide to canyoning

One of the world's fastest growing adventure sports, canyoning is nothing short of a thrill ride. Here’s everything you need to know...
Written by Stuart Kenny
6 min readPublished on
In a few short decades, canyoning has gradually transformed itself from a one-off summer thrill to an adventure staple – both in the UK and beyond.
The sport gets outdoor enthusiasts into their wetsuits (and very often) out of their comfort zones as they explore rivers, gorges and other parts of nature normally deemed inaccessible. Whether it's jumping off a waterfall or sliding into whitewater, there's something for everyone.
To get there lowdown on the sport, we spoke to George Yates, co-founder of The Canyoning Company and a qualified UK canyoning guide and ICOPro (International Canyoning Organisation for Professionals).

What is canyoning?

Canyoning started as an exploration sport just like caving or mountaineering. It’s still quite a new sport – it’s only been on the adventure scene for 15 or 20 years. It’s basically the descent of a river system or a gorge using various techniques and methods. Quite often we'll abseil or rappel down waterfalls, sometimes we can jump, sometimes the canyon forms natural flumes and you can slide down. There’s also a lot of swimming, walking and climbing. It’s all of that stuff thrown together.

Can anyone go canyoning?

Yep! Canyoning should be for everybody. I feel like canyoning is a sport where you can do as little or as much as you want. Some people do it for pure adventure and adrenaline and for other people it’s about exploring these beautiful places, and getting access to these deep gorges that a lot of people don’t get to see.
There are canyons that are very basic, very easy and very open so you can come out of them whenever you want, with hardly any jumps. [There are also] canyons that take six days to descend and have massive waterfalls over 200 metres in them.
There’s always a little bit of adventure and adrenaline thrown in, but if you have a good level of fitness and quite a good head for heights then you can definitely go canyoning.

What if you don’t like heights?

A good head for heights is important, but actually, canyoning in the UK has developed to the point now where it often offers other options rather than just the jump.
For the last 10 or 15 years it was more of an activity that was just a stag weekend or a hen weekend – jumping off big things and trying to be as gnarly as possible and scare yourself, whereas actually now, for us, there’s normally another option to a jump.
We always offer an abseil or a rappel down any of the jumps we do. That's the biggest fear for a lot of people – they don't want to jump off stuff, but with us, you don't have to jump, but having a good head for heights definitely still helps.

What equipment do you need to go canyoning?

The first thing you should take with you is a wetsuit. There are now canyoning-specific wetsuits available. They're generally two-piece wetsuits – long john's and a jacket – which are great to regulate your temperature, as when you're walking it can be quite warm and when you’re in the canyon it can be quite cold
Wetsuits come with extra padding in the knees and elbows and you’ve normally got a hood as well. So we can make ourselves really warm if we need to. One of the most important things after the wetsuit is the footwear – there are lots of shoes that are specifically for canyoning – with good grip, good ankle support, designed to be in the water. They’re really important.
You also need a harness, where you can also carry any extra equipment you need, and obviously a helmet to keep your head protected. For group equipment, you'll have a bag, a first aid kit and a couple of ropes big enough to get down the biggest abseil. Most guided tours will provide equipment, but check first with the operator.

What makes for a good canyoning destination?

Accessibility is good. A good rock type – nice smooth rocks give you a lot of slides. A mixture of everything is ideal; mixed jumps, water flumes, beautiful swims, bits that you can abseil.
What can be really awesome with canyoning is when you go into deep canyons where the walls on each side rise really high. There’s a real feeling of exploration and commitment and adventure in those canyons.

How good is the UK for Canyoning?

The UK is becoming a really cool destination for canyoning. Some canyons can have a low water level coming through though, whereas others are very aquatic. The water level can be quite high.
The unique thing here in Scotland is that we have a lot of water in our canyons, so we’re getting really well known for being quite specialist in whitewater canyoning.
The other great thing about canyoning in Scotland is that it’s so accessible. A lot of the canyons have footpaths at the side. A lot of them have places to park, and you can be in the canyon in 15 minutes walk.

Can you go canyoning in winter?

The canyoning season in the UK is generally April through to October.
People do request to go out and say they’re not to bothered by the cold but in Scotland? In the winter? In the water? When it's zero-degrees air temperature and the water is frozen? It’s pretty cold. So that's why we go abroad at that time of year.

What’s the best next step after a first canyoning experience?

If someone really enjoys the experience, which most customers do, they can come back and do an intermediate or advanced trip with bigger jumps and abseils – or they can take a training course.
We run ICOPro training courses. ICOPro is the International Canyoning Organisation for professionals. It's an international organisation and they have training courses for people who want to do canyoning recreationally all the way up to people who want to become a professional guide or instructor like myself.
The third option is, if they’re really adventurous but don’t want to go down a training route, to go abroad for a canyoning expedition. We go to the Pyrenees, the Alps and Madeira.

Tips for a first-time canyoner?

Firstly, find a reputable company to go through, and experience canyoning with professional instructors so you'll learn the basics.
From there there are lots of options. But if people want to go canyoning and practise safely and confidently with friends, then I would strongly suggest that they undertake a training course where they could gain the confidence and knowledge to enjoy the sport.
Now click below for 11 canyoning adventures in the UK