Have you ever been on a guided tour rappelling and canyoneering? Sounds like the dream job, taking people looking for adventure on some of your favorite canyons and getting paid. Or maybe you go canyoneering mostly with friends and family? Do you trust the friend who is the designated guide that brings you? Experience may not always equal competence and safety. Canyon guides go through rigorous training and assessments in courses to become certified. Here you can look into the types of training and certifications required to be a professional guide or as an individual looking to further improve their technical skills by becoming certified as a Canyon Leader.
The American Canyoneering Association offers multiple courses and assessments to help certify people for canyoneering and rappelling. These certifications are for hobbyists, guides to family and friends, and professional guides. Courses range from a couple of hours to multiple days in length, and encompass a wide range of skills that are important to know and put in practice.
The American Canyoneering Association (ACA) specifies what you need to learn to become certified. The ACA is the professional agency for safety in canyoneering in the United States. If you are interested in becoming a professional guide, look for an ACA course. The courses guide you through the entire process of becoming a professional guide by providing training as well as an assessment.
ACA is the only organization in the US that offers a certification program. International programs are not covered in this post.
There are 2 types of certifications: to become guide certified, and to become certified as a Canyon Leader. You don’t need to work as a professional guide in order to become certified in the safety techniques of canyoneering. Becoming a canyon leader is for individuals who are interested in furthering their skills in canyoneering and to improve safety. This post will first cover becoming a Canyon Leader and then how to become a professional guide.
Why Take an ACA Canyon Leader Course?
Think about it, to become better at any sport you take classes and learn from experienced coaches, so why would you jump off steep cliffs on the weekends with only a little know-how you found on the internet? Taking a Canyon Leader Certification Program will help you improve your canyon safety and technical skills.
This is for any individual who plans and guides canyoneering trips whether that is for youth groups, Boy Scouts, family reunions, summer camps, clubs, or a group of friends. The programs start by teaching basic canyoneering skills to become an efficient team member, to being able to lead groups and problem solve with advanced rope and rescuing skills.
If you have a lot of experience canyoneering and would rate yourself as a very competent canyoneer, now consider if you know what you would do when something goes wrong. Maybe you know what to do when everything is going right, but what about situations of bad weather, broken or unsturdy anchors, insufficient gear, or injured friends?
It is also a good idea to become ACA certified if you go canyoneering often, on lots of different terrain, with friends of varying levels of experience, and especially if you are the one planning on leading these friends. It’s in your best interest and safety to take a canyoneering class and learn the correct principles and techniques that will guide any of your canyoneering and rappelling trips. Get the formal training and proof of competency to know the safest techniques and what to do in emergency situations.
ACA courses encourage canyoneers to learn correct techniques and practice in group settings with a mentor on canyoneering trips. The ACA strives to decrease the amount of untrained amateurs who attempt canyons without proper technical and rescue skills and an experienced professional.
ACA Canyon Leader Skills Checklist
There are 4 levels within the ACA Canyon Leader certification, with a skills checklist for each one. You can take a course to learn the skills required to pass off your checklist. Practice until you are ready for the assessment. Assessments are conducted by someone with a higher certification who can check off your skills list.
Here’s a brief idea of each of the 4 skill levels of becoming a Canyon Leader:
Level 1- Core skills. This checklist is for individuals learning the basics of how to descend easy canyons as a team member. On the Level 1 checklist is specific skills for:
- Understanding the ACA canyon rating system to correctly identify the difficulty of canyons
- Canyoneering technique
- Equipment selection, use, and care practices
- Belaying and rappelling
- Evaluating and rigging anchors and belay systems
- Proper technique for rappelling into water
- Problem solving
- Precautions to eliminate accidents
- Basic knots
- Demonstrating appropriate spotting, belaying, and partner assist techniques
- Appropriate responses to flash flood warning signs
- and more
Level 2- Aspirant skills. This level provides intermediate canyoneering skills for an individual to become a contributing team member on canyon trips. The Aspirant checklist includes all the skills from the core skills checklist plus others such as:
- Using a topographical map to understand relative steepness of grade, terrain features, escape routes
- Tying more advanced knots such as a munter hitch
- Rigging a natural anchor and a dead man anchor
- Ascending a rope using different techniques
- Providing assistance for a person stuck on rappel
- Creating a flotation device with gear available
- and more
Aspirant Canyon Leader assessments are conducted by Canyon Leader 1 or 2 or higher.
Level 3- Canyon Leader 1. Level 3 provides advanced canyoneering skills for an individual to become effective at problem solving and leading. The Canyon Leader 1 checklist includes skills such as:
- Using human anchors
- Learning transitions from bottom belaying to then lowering
- Setting up a retrievable rappel system
- Demonstrating tandem assisted rappelling
- Problem solving scenarios such as hair caught in rappelling device, tangled rope, leg injuries, etc.
- Escaping a pothole or keeper hole using partner assist techniques
- and more
Level 4- Canyon Leader 2. This checklist covers skills needed for advanced canyoneering as well as rescuing skills such as:
- Constructing more advanced anchors: artificial anchors, chock stone anchors, sand trap anchors, etc.
- Proper techniques for multi pitch rappels
- Set up a retrievable rappel system with a fiddle stick
- Simultaneous rappelling
- Rescue techniques such as swift water contact rescues
- and more
Canyon Leader 2 assessments are conducted by Pro guides (see below) or higher.
Look up the specifics of the skills checklist on ACA’s website.
Once you have achieved the necessary skills, you can become a member on the ACA website and start preparing for the next level certifications. You will keep track of the number of canyon descents you have completed, the types of canyons, the number of canyons you have guided, and other trainings and certifications as well as first aid training. To be Canyon Leader I certified you’ll additionally need First Aid/CPR training, and to be Canyon Leader II certified you’ll need WFA (Wilderness First Aid) training. As a Canyon Leader I or II, you will also need to participate in continuing education.
How Much Does it Cost to be ACA Canyon Leader Certified?
Basic classes for beginners could cost around $100 per day, but if you want to learn the Canyon Leader skills, expect to pay anywhere from $400 to $800 for a class that lasts several days. You’ll be paying about $100-$150 per day. These classes often provide gear and sometimes even food. Group size can be small and personalized, or a little larger.
How Long Does it Take to Become ACA Canyon Leader Certified?
Courses typically last a few days, depending on the instructor and setting. You could expect around 4 days of training and assessment to become Canyon Leader Certified. This includes instruction as well as descents of multiple canyons.
Where to Take an ACA Canyon Leader Course?
You can search online for ACA Canyon Leader courses. There are many courses teaching basic and technical skills for canyoneering, however if you want to become Canyon Leader certified, you’ll have to make sure it is listed as following the ACA guidelines, or you’ll need to ask. Some college and universities also offer ACA canyoneering certification courses. Sounds like a great way to get college credit, I should have done this! You can look into private companies for courses, many states have canyoneering organizations that offer courses. You can also look through the ACA website for any events.
How Long Does ACA Canyon Leader Certification Last?
ACA certifications are valid for 3 years. You can become re-certified by retaking the assessments, or becoming certified at a higher level. You’ll also need to keep up any required continuing education as well as your member profile and canyon resume.
Professional Canyoneering Guide
You can’t ever charge or receive compensation from your service if you are a canyon leader. If you ever want to become a professional guide, you need to train and attain the certifications listed below. The course is required for any professional guide. The goals of the ACA courses are to teach you how to become the best canyon guide possible in terms of safety, and how to deliver the greatest reward for your clients. An assessment is used to ensure that you have attained the competency, experience, and knowledge needed to guide a group successfully through a canyon with potential hazards.
Types of ACA Professional Canyon Guide Certifications:
1. Fixed Site/Single Pitch Canyon Guide. Anyone wanting to gain some experience in guiding and building a strong foundation of technique and knowledge is encouraged to seek this certification. This is an entry-level certification available to individuals who guide on a small number of similar canyons, that are rated less than 3-C2 -wet canyons that have simple, bolted anchors (see below for rating system).
2. Pro Canyon Guide. You must first be currently fixed site/single pitch canyon certified to gain this level of certification.The pro canyon certification is for individuals who have a high level of technical competence through training and assessment.
3. Master Canyon Guide. The individuals who are eligible for the master canyon guide certification have attained advanced proficiency in guiding experience as they have progressed as a Pro Canyon Guide. The certification is based on either Class A/B or Class C terrain (see below for rating system).
How Much Does it Cost to Become a Professional Canyon Guide?
The cost to become ACA guide certified varies on the provider of the course, but it can range from $100-$150 per day. Certification courses and assessments can be multiple days and overall cost around $1000- $2000 depending on the course and number of days required.
Just to get an idea of cost, the Fixed Site/Single Pitch Canyon guide course and assessment lasts about 7 days, the Pro Canyon Guide lasts about 11 days, and the Master Canyon Guide lasts about 15 days. So if you do the math of $100-$150 per day you’ll end up paying about $700-$1050 for the Fixed Site/Single Pitch Canyon Guide course, $1100-$1650 for the Pro Canyon Guide, and $1500-$2250 for the Master Canyon Guide course.
Assessments are meant to be challenging, so even the most competent canyoneers need to continually practice and train to study techniques and skills.
ACA Canyon Rating System
I thought I would throw in some information about the canyon rating systems since guides need to have this knowledge in order to understand how to prepare for a specific canyon. The ACA rating systems are used in the United States as well as throughout North America. The ratings attempt to label the level of ropework, water conditions, time commitment, additional risk, and quality of a canyon. Before embarking on a new canyon descent, it’s always recommended to check the weather and know the details of the canyon: the amount and length of rappels, equipment needed, overall difficulty of obstacles etc.
Here are the specifics of the ACA Canyon rating system:
Technical– Similar to climbing ratings, the technical class ratings of 1 through 4 describes what difficulty of rappels and other ropework is required.
- 1 – Basic hiking, with few physical obstacles.
- 2 – Easy climbing or scrambling, a rope is not required; however, a handline may be useful.
- 3 – Technical canyoneering, involving rappels and climbing techniques such as stemming.
- 4 – Advanced canyoneering, with obstacles such as multi-pitch rappels, unusual exposure, or difficult rope work.
Water– The water ratings of A through C intend to give an idea of what the water levels are like during the regular season (usually spring through early summer depending on the canyon and area).
- A – Normally dry canyon, or very little water that can usually be avoided. Feet may get wet.
- B – Normally has water, but no current so the water is stagnant, collecting in pools. Waterfalls may have a trickle, and there could be deep pools that require swimming.
- C – Water with a current, waterfalls, deep wading and swimming. Wetsuit probably required, depending on season and weather. Sometimes these are split into varying degrees of danger & difficulty as C1, C2, C3, C4.
These conditions can change in a matter of a few hours due to flash floods.
Time– Although it isn’t always included, the time factor of the rating system shows the approximate time commitment to a canyon, ranging from I to VI.
- I – A couple of hours (<3 hrs)
- II – A half day (3-5 hrs)
- III – Most of a day (5-9 hrs)
- IV – A full day (>8 hrs)
- V – More than one day
- VI – More than two days
Additional Risk (Optional)- Canyoneering is inherently risky, so even a canyon with a blank risk factor involves some degree of risk.
- Blank – No abnormal risk
- PG (R-) – Difficult for beginners
- R – Risky, not for beginners
- X (R+) – Extreme risk, only for experts
- XX – Double Extreme, life-threatening even to experts
Quality (Optional)- In an attempt to rank canyons based on visual appeal or overall fun, some guidebooks and websites add a series of 1-3 stars to the end of the rating.
The technical skills, water conditions, approximate time commitment, degree of risk, and overall quality are the factors used to rate canyons. A rating intends to describe the canyon in a simple way. An example is 3C III, with some rappels, flowing water, and will take most of a day.
For more information on international canyon rating systems, check out our post: What is Canyoneering?
There is a big difference between rappelling recreationally and as an experienced professional. Learn from a pro. Experience doesn’t necessarily mean competence. Technical competence is more important than total number of canyons and routes descended. The goal is to get out and practice as much as you can, learn from professionals, seek out the best and safest gear (see our recommended gear page), practice the safest techniques, and observe and learn from other canyon guides as mentors. By doing these things to gain as much experience as you can, you will be able to learn and master the necessary knowledge and skills to become competent in a canyon.