The main difference between a hike and a canyoneering trip is whether or not rappelling is involved. The technical nature of canyoneering is what makes it so much fun- the fact that there is no way through without utilizing the unique skills and equipment you have.
The heaviest part of your equipment will always be your rope, and it’s also the gear that is most prone to damage from things like abrasion. There are lots of different rope choices with all kinds of different features.
What is the Best Rope for Canyoneering?
- Edelweiss Canyon Rope – Best Budget/Beginner Rope
- Imlay Canyon Fire – Best Value Rope
- Bluewater Canyon Extreme – Best Performance Rope
Best Canyoneering Ropes
Edelweiss Canyon Rope
I’ve been using the Edelweiss Canyon Rope for a few years. It’s a great budget rope starting out. The rope has a dry treatment on it, and doesn’t soak up much water at all.
This rope comes in multiple diameters. I have the 9.1mm. It feels faster than 9.1mm- we named ours the ‘twin lasers.’ It looks awesome in pictures!
The sheath isn’t anything special, but it lasted me about 20 canyons before I had to cut off an end. The bright color does get dull pretty quickly and never gets its shine back. There is a lot of stretch in this rope, especially after you hit about 150ft. It’s also fairly heavy, as far as canyoneering ropes go.
The price is great for beginners- it’s usually around $130-$150 for 200ft online. It’s one of the cheapest true canyoneering ropes available, and is a great value, especially if you plan to bring beginners.
View Price on Amazon: Edelweiss Canyon Rope 9.1mm 200ft
Imlay Canyon Fire
Imlay makes some of the best ropes for canyoneering- made especially for the Mountain West area of the United States. The Canyon Fire is my favorite. The sheath makes up half of the rope, which means it’s extremely durable. It’s hydrophobic as well, but the rope is woven so tight that it’s hard to imagine water can even get into the core.
I remember the first time I held the canyon fire in my hands- the sheath is so durable it almost feels like a cable. The 8.3mm diameter is really thin and fast, and a lot of fun. It’s probably a little too thin for beginners and heavy canyoneers, but is excellent for everyone else.
The most amazing thing about the Canyon Fire might just be that they are able to keep the price so reasonable for such a good rope. The price from Imlay is $160 for 200ft.
Imlay Canyon Gear – Canyon Fire 8.3mm
Bluewater Canyon Extreme
Bluewater makes some pretty cool ropes. The Canyon Extreme is basically the Rolls-Royce of canyoning ropes. It has every feature you could want, is super lightweight, and is one of the most durable ropes available.
It ways a pound less per hundred feet than Imlay’s ropes, and two pounds less than the Edelweiss rope. The sheath is cut-resistant. This rope also has a hydrophobic treatment, so it won’t absorb any water.
Unfortunately, you really have to pay for a rope this nice. The price is usually around $330 for 200ft, which is quite a lot higher than other ropes.
View Price on Amazon – Bluewater Canyon Extreme 8mm
What to Look for in a Canyoneering Rope
The length of the rope is probably the most important thing that you need to know. You can usually buy ropes in lengths of 60ft, 100ft, 200ft, or 300ft. Some places will let you order by the foot, so you can get the custom lengths you need if there are longer canyons you want to run.
Some ropes do shrink a little bit after exposure to water, so make sure you take that into account. Some brands give you an extra meter or two so that you will have the full length after it shrinks. Plan on a margin of error of at least 10ft (3m) on any rappel.
If it says the rappel is 90ft, you should have 100ft of rope if using a pull cord. Estimates aren’t always perfect, and the distance of the anchor from the edge of the cliff can vary.
As your ropes wear out and need to be cut shorter, make sure to mark exactly how long they are so that you don’t get stuck somewhere. Sometimes you’ll mark both ends of a rope or the middle, and then cut one side and forget to remark the other side. This can be dangerous.
A rope’s thickness is really important, as it impacts the strength, weight, durability, and feel. Some descenders or rappel devices are incompatible with thicker ropes, and some can be dangerous with thin ropes.
For example, if you rappel with an ATC then you probably can’t fit an 11mm rope into the slots. If you rappel with an 8mm rope, you will not be able to stay in control with an 8 ring. Modern canyoneering devices are designed to be able to handle pretty much any rope diameter, but check with the manufacturer just in case.
A rope’s strength isn’t always directly tied to its diameter, but that’s usually a good assumption. Certain materials are stronger than others, and some manufacturing methods leverage the material’s strength better. Thicker ropes, and especially tighter woven sheaths will last longer and handle more abuse; but they weigh a lot more.
A 9 mm rope is a good all-around rope, and a good place to start. If you plan on taking novices canyoneering, I’d recommend a 10mm because it’s slower and easier to handle (and mentally trust).
You usually won’t want to go much above 10mm for canyoneering. More advanced canyoneers can drop down to the 8mm level, but make sure to protect the rope on sharp edges.
The rope is the heaviest part of your canyoneering kit- especially after it’s soaking wet. Pay attention to the weight per 100ft of the ropes and remember that lighter is better. Hydrophobic ropes will usually absorb less water, which saves on weight when they’re wet.
A good canyoneering rope bag will help drain water and reduce that weight after swimmers. You can also modify a backpack you already have, as shown in this article.
In addition to the weight of the rope, you also have to consider the space that it takes up in your bag. Stuff sacks and compression bags can help with this, but it can still be annoying.
There are a surprising number of material choices that make up canyoneering ropes. They vary in strength, price, melting point, feel, elasticity, absorption, among other things. Each brand tends to use the same materials for multiple ropes in their product lines.
Materials include polyester and nylon, as well as other more specialized materials like polypropylene, dyneema, and technora. The sheath and core are usually made of different materials, and the sheath is usually more heat resistant than the core.
As long as a rope is rated for rappelling and canyoneering, the specific strength factor isn’t all that important. Most canyonering ropes have a strength rating of 4,000 – 6,000 lbf (pounds of force). Note that the strength reduces wherever there are knots or bends in the rope, but this strength is plenty for canyoneering applications.
Dynamic climbing ropes are manufactured to stretch a lot whenever a shock load is applied, such as when a lead climber falls. A thick static rope is designed not to stretch at all under regular forces. Canyoneering ropes though, on the other hand, do have some stretch in them because of the materials used and how thin they are.
Stretch, or elongation in a canyoneering rope is a disadvantage. If a rope stretches the rappeller will bounce up and down and the rope will saw back and forth against the cliff edge.
This can completely shred the sheath of a rope in a single drop. Nicer, tighter ropes have less stretch than less expensive ones. It’s a lot more difficult to ascend a stretchy rope than a truly static one.
Note that the amount a rope stretches depends on a variety of conditions (weight applied, wet rope, etc.), so manufacturer’s specifications are estimates.
Most of the durability of a rope is due to its sheath. The sheath is the woven outer sleeve that encompasses the core, which is the strength. Different ropes have different thicknesses of sheaths. The nicest ropes are cut-resistant and have a very tight weave that helps them to last longer. Cheaper ropes are looser and more prone to abrasion.
Some ropes have different forms of water treatment. Hydrophobic ropes don’t absorb water, which keeps them light weight even after a waterfall rappel or swimmer. Certain core materials will make a rope float, which can be a really nice feature.
How Many Ropes do I Need for Canyoneering?
The first thing you need to know is the length of rappels that you plan to tackle. The rappels you will come across in canyons vary from 15 feet (5m) to 300 feet (100m), and even farther in some cases.
It’s good to have a few different rope lengths so that you can take on canyons of different sizes. It may seem smart to start off with a really long rope, but you’ll get sick of carrying all of the extra weight when you don’t need to.
- 30m rope. It will be long enough for short rappels, and can be paired with a thin, 6mm pull cord to do longer rappels up to about 90 feet tall. You save time and weight with this rope versus a longer 60m rope.
- 60m rope. A 60m rope is long enough for most of the rappels that you’ll come across in canyons. You can rappel both strands of a 100ft rappel with this rope, or can use it with a pull cord to rappel up to 200 feet.
- 15-20m rope. Although it’s not necessary, it can be nice to have a shorter rope to use as a handline or for really short rappels. It’s just a lot easier and faster to handle than longer ropes.
- 90m rope. As you get into canyoneering more, you may find that there are some canyons you want to do that have rappels even longer than 200 feet. They’re somewhat rare, but there are still a lot around, so a long 300 foot rope is good to have.
You should always be prepared for a rope to get stuck, dropped, left behind, or otherwise be rendered unusable. The level of risk you’re comfortable with depends on your experience and that of your crew, as well as the difficulty and remoteness of the canyon you’re in. You should usually have 2-3 times as much rope as the longest rappel, just in case.
The nice thing about ropes is that any damage or abrasion usually happens to the first twenty or thirty feet of a rope. Once a rope needs to be retired, you can usually just cut it into a shorter rope.
Over time, you’ll end up with lots of different ropes of different lengths. Make sure you know for sure which rope is which so you don’t accidentally get stuck or worse- haul extra heavy rope through a canyon!
How Long do Canyoneering Ropes Last?
A Static Canyoneering Rope can last up to 10 years if it doesn’t see much use or wear, but that’s not why we have them. The most common damage to ropes is serious abrasions caused by sharp rocks on the edges of rappels.
Fortunately, you can cut off sections of bad rope and still use what is left over. A single canyon can ruin a rope if you do not use good technique. Read on for some advice on how to care for your ropes and make them last longer.
How to Tell if Canyoneering Ropes are Worn Out
There are several indicators that will help you to determine when to retire your canyoneering rope. Usually you can just cut off the affected area and keep a shorter length, but in some instances it’s best just to hang it on your wall or turn it into a dog leash. These are guidelines, rather than hard and fast rules. The most important rule is to retire it if you feel uneasy about it.
- Sheath Wear– If you can see the core of the rope, you shouldn’t trust your life to it. Some sheath wear is expected, but if more than about half of the sheath is worn through, you should consider retiring that section of rope. Ropes get fuzzy over time, but sheath wear is a little more than that. If long sections of rope are fuzzy, consider retiring it.
- Heat Damage– When descenders get really, really hot during a long rappel they can actually burn or melt the sheath of the rope. You can tell a rope is burned when there are shiny or glossy marks or areas where the texture of the sheath is hard or crusty. Cut off these sections of rope, as the sheath is no longer sound. You can mitigate this from occurring by using rappelling devices with variable friction levels, like those we recommend on our Gear Page.
- Discoloration and Fading– When you leave something out in the sun for a while, the color fades away. Pay attention to this, as UV rays can quickly destroy a rope. Some discoloration is normal in muddy canyons, especially on ropes with lighter sheaths. Be wary of any abnormal colored stains that could indicate contact with foreign chemicals. Usually sun damage to a rope means it should be completely retired. Sun-damaged rope or other cloth will turn into dust if you scratch it, so this is a good way to test.
- Core Shot– A core shot can happen in canyoneering due to a lot of different things. It can happen from a rock fall, or when dug in over a sharp ledge. A core shot just means that the section of rope is bad and needs to be cut off.
- Age– Rope manufacturers provide a shelf life for their ropes. Over time fibers break down whether they’re used or not. The lifespan is usually around 10 years.
- Core Shape– Sometimes a core shot can happen without significantly damaging the sheath of a rope. Feel the rope in your fingers for any spots where the core doesn’t feel round anymore. Sometimes this is a squished spot, and othertimes its a lumpy section. Note any sheath slippage as well.
Again, if you don’t feel completely confident in the rope, cut off the bad parts or retire it completely. A rope is a completely essential piece of gear that can lead to a catastrophic failure. Don’t risk it if you aren’t sure.
When you’re ready to retire a rope or section of rope, do so in a way that will prevent it from accidentally being used before. Don’t just put it in the next bin over and think that you, or anyone else, will remember. Cut it into pieces that are too small to use.
How to Take Care of Canyoneering Ropes
Sometimes accidents happen that can kill a rope in a single trip. A core shot, for example, can’t always be planned for. Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to treat a rope well that will keep it from wearing prematurely. Here are some tips for taking care of canyoneering ropes:
- Abrasion Protection– Don’t let the rope grind against rock, especially over sharp edges. Only lower people in emergencies, as a weighted rope ground against the rock will cause significant sheath fraying. Whenever possible, use a piece of tubular webbing or a glove or something as edge protection for the first rappellers to go over the edge.
- Clean your Rope– Mud, sand, and dirt get into the sheath and core of the rope and can cause it to wear out quickly. Try to keep your rope on rocks instead of in sand and mud, and wash it as needed to keep it clean. The best way to clean a rope is in the hydraulics of a clean waterfall, but a bathtub is a close second. Use mild soap (no bleach or other chemicals) and then let it dry completely out of direct sunlight before storing it.
- Don’t Step on Your Rope– There’s no way to make enemies faster than to step on someone’s climbing or canyoneering rope. I visually grimace when I see it happen. Stepping on a rope can grind dirt into the core and wear out the sheath.
- Dynamic Loads– Static Canyoneering Ropes do have a tiny bit of stretch, but they are not designed to handle dynamic falls like climbing ropes are. If you do cause a dynamic load on your canyon rope, carefully inspect it for any damage. You will probably find a core shot or misshapen core, which will need to be cut off. The core shot(s) doesn’t necessarily happen on the pinch point, so check the whole rope after it is shock loaded.
- Proper Rappelling Techniques– You might be able to jump and bounce and swing on a thick static rope (11mm+), but these rappelling tricks can quickly ruin a thin canyoneering rope. Stay slow and in control using proper techniques.
- Proper Storage– Store your canyoneering rope away from excessive temperatures, chemicals, water, and direct sunlight. Keep it in a bag so that dust and dirt don’t get into the fibers, and never put it away wet. Mold will form, which can be both nasty and potentially dangerous. Keep it in a rope bag while canyoning as well, as this will protect it from dirt and damage on the go.
There are a lot of things to consider before buying a canyoneering rope. Hopefully this guide helped you come to a decision. The right answer will depend on the specific types of canyons you do, as well as the crews that you frequently go with. Either way, the most important thing is to get any rope and head for the hills!