Canyoneering didn’t explode into the mainstream until the mid-2000s, and because women’s gear tends to follow long behind men’s, women-specific items designed for this sport are rare. Most canyoneers adapt their caving, swimming, climbing, cliff-jumping, and river-running equipment, but they can run into issues of durability or weight due to the wide range of terrain and conditions. In Zion National Park, for instance, you might hike for miles in a desert and then need a wet suit to drop into a slot.
But one of the many things I love about canyoneering is the challenge of packing the right gear for unpredictable moments. To find the ideal women’s kit, I spent months canyoneering in places like Hawaii and the country of Jordan. Here are the items that came out on top.
Metolius Safe Tech Women’s Deluxe Harness ($105)
A specialized canyoneering harness with a durable butt pad is great for sliding and chimneying; however, the industry hasn’t yet produced a women-specific version. This is the next best thing. The Metolius Safe Tech is the only harness in the world that can adjust in three dimensions: around your waist, leg loop circumference, and rise length (the distance between your crotch and hip crest). Women typically have a longer rise than men. “If the rise is too short, all the weight is taken by the leg loops and none by the waist belt, and this scenario can tip you backwards in a fall, which is quite dangerous,” says Brooke Sandahl, vice president of Metolius. “If the rise length is too long, the weight is taken all on the waist belt, making a very uncomfortable or dangerous loading of the torso for the climber.”
When I’m wearing this harness, I often don’t bother taking it off even if I still have miles to hike before the slots. The heavy-duty, hand-stitched fabric makes it durable enough for canyoneering, but it does take longer to dry than other harnesses. That’s a small sacrifice since this is also the only harness that rates features beyond just the tie-in points, belay loop, and haul loop. Sandahl adds, “If someone mistakenly clips into a gear loop or rear haul loop (depending on the load), there is a good chance that the load-rated part will hold this mistake.”
Petzl Boreo Helmet ($70)
The Petzl Boreo is not designed specifically for canyoneering or women, but I still recommend it for both because, according to Benjamin Eaton, Petzl’s marketing manager, “What differentiates this helmet from other hard-shelled climbing helmets is that it’s completely lined with energy-absorbing foam to better protect the front, rear, and sides of the head from hard impacts. Most hard-shelled helmets only have foam located above the crown, providing energy absorption to only the top of the head.”
The shell is lightweight, scratch-resistant, and durable for squeezing through narrow spaces. Its low profile also doesn’t make my head look elongated like some dorky helmets do.
Bestard Canyon Guide Lady ($230)
With input from female testers and marketers, Bestard designed the first-ever women-specific canyoneering boots. The Bestard Canyon Guide Lady offers a lightweight, low-volume fit. Handmade in Spain, these boots were designed for maximum resistance to wear and tear, from their Cordura uppers to their Vibram soles.
Though the Guide Ladies took up some serious real estate in my North Face Rolling Thunder 30-Inch during the two weeks I was in Jordan, I was glad they were on my feet for every one of the five times I tried to run Wadi Mujib, a river canyon that feeds into the Dead Sea. I hiked around the nature reserve four times because the rain had flooded parts of the canyon and made conditions too dangerous. But when I finally got in on my fifth attempt, the boots not only held up well on the approach but also adapted like a fish to the river. Water evacuated through four holes just above the sole and the Cordura. The tough Vibram outsoles gripped slippery boulders and slick ladder rungs. While everyone else stopped every few miles to empty pebbles from their shoes, the built-in gaiter at the top of my boots kept all the sand and debris out.
Astral Layla PFD ($140)
PFDs are required in some canyons, like Wadi Mujib, but if you’re not a strong swimmer, you’ll appreciate having one regardless of the rules. Sometimes I even wear my Astral Layla PFD to float down the river on my back. The organic kapok foam, a sustainable buoyant material that comes from the seedpod of a kapok tree, forms to my body, hugging the right places without ever squeezing too tight. The bottom line: this PFD is designed with a woman’s bust in mind.
Christie Dobson, vice president of sales and marketing at Astral, says that in 1994, when Philip Curry started Lotus Designs (before Astral), there were no women-specific life jackets on the market. “That made no sense to him,” Dobson says. “The company’s head seamstress, who sewed custom prom and wedding gowns in her spare time, proposed a PFD with princess seams—a classic formalwear design that conforms to the natural curves of a woman’s body.” The design stuck.
Miraclesuit MSP Grid Lock Swim Paddle Pant ($90)
Made of a propriety Miratex fabric that has more than twice the Lycra and three times the holding power compared to other swimsuits, the Miraclesuit Swim Paddle Pant slims my tummy and slenderizes my legs and hips. More important, the material is tough enough to withstand sliding down abrasive sandstone.
I learned its true value the day I abseiled down Fern Creek Waterfall in West Virginia. Climber and rafter Kyle Kent, founder of Appalachian Mountain Guides, rigged a releasable abseil to a monolithic hemlock tree and lowered my husband into an overhanging chimney. Then Kent coached me over the edge while my husband photographed my first descent. I was nervous, but I remember thinking that at least I looked great because I had these flattering pants on. The Paddle pant held up flawlessly against both rock and water, and I didn’t have to ask the group to wait for me to change before the hike back up the ladders on the Endless Wall.
Oakley Outpace ($143)
As I descended Fern Creek Waterfall, I swung into and out of the sunlight, and my Oakley Outpace sunglasses adjusted accordingly. The Prizm lenses increased contrast and reduced glare, helping me pinpoint the safest place to land in the boulder field. Even in the shade, the colors of the lichen and algae on the sandstone remained vibrant.
The no-slip nosepads and earsocks keep the Outpace from tangling in my hair and help the sunglasses hold their grip when I sweat. But my favorite feature is the ventilation built into the top of each lens—they never fog up in the humidity.