PFD's and their role (or lack there of) in the sport of Canyoneering
PFD's and their role (or lack there of) in the sport of Canyoneering
A Global Perspective
A Global Perspective
You might think that any time you’re in moving water, you should be wearing a life vest. However, as a canyoneer, myself and others often find ourselves not wearing one. Is this a giant act of rebellion for a small, but growing sport? A risk we’re willing to take to save weight? Laziness? Or is there more to it? Well, after a fellow canyoneer asked about the use of PFD’s in canyons, our friend and Coalition of American Canyoneers (CAC) Board Member, Sonny Lawrence, shared a series of responses after he extended the very same question to his networks from around the world. The responses Sonny collected provide more than just a global perspective on PFD’s in canyoneering, but insight into how canyoneering changes from one region to the next. The responses are shown below with a huge shout out to Sonny for taking the time to collect this information.
“A few months ago, I emailed friends around the planet asking their opinion about the use of PFDs and backpacks with regard to ACA class C canyons. These are canyons with significant water flow. This discussion is not about white-water boating or swimming in a river. You have to make your own distinction between a flowing canyon and a river. At some point the distinction will be quite blurred. Please don’t get caught up in debating that distinction. I did very little editing. Please excuse the grammar, etc. Most have English as a second language. Google translate was used once. The respondents are all very experienced canyoneers, far more so than me. Many are guides. Some teach for free, others for money. Most do canyons on various continents. Many have opened the canyons and written “the” book for that area. Some are the living pioneers of canyoning in their region, having helped develop the skills used today. Hopefully their comments will cause everyone to pause and open their thinking. Ultimately, we each must decide for ourselves.” -Sonny Lawrence
This is a very interesting question and I am sure with very controversy opinions.
First I have to apologize for my bad English, so I hope you understand.
25 years ago when we start with the commercial canyoning in Tirol we use life jackets for all canyons where swimming was necessary.
We like the advantages like:
You can hold the customers on the shoulder belt for helping
It was a protection against could and fell/jolt
And it was easier for the clients to swim in the poles, the feel safe
After a while we find out there are also some disadvantages:
You are not so fast and quick to swim short and hard distances in or under whitewater
Sometimes it could be hard to come out from an backwash. When we have analyzed the drown deads in canyon, than a life jacket would be not helpful because person come not out from and are. Some of them had an backpack on the back and we suppose this was another reason why they come not out.
*Some clients had BAD accidents by higher jumps (this problem start with 7/8m and its more worst if the jumps are higher)
Then we realized there is a norm/standard for life jackets for a maximum high of jumps in water.
The reason is, when you jump in water then two things can happen.
When the west is not very good closed on the waist than the water pressure can push you hard on the back when you hit the water.
When you come not very strait in the water, maybe sideways than the impact changes a lot between feets in the water and life jacket comes to the water surface.
Now we understand some accidents when they hurt very bad the back (spine). The body can do a sharp bend in the time when there dunk. That was the reason why more less nobody use life jackets in canyoning (I thing in the most regions).
When there are dry canyons or no poles for swimming – make no sense
When there are jumps and slide jumps – make no sense, because there is a safety and low reason*
BUT it make sense when you have aquatic canyons with longer current and whitewater parts
Mostly I see life jackets where the scene and technique come more from the professional raft guides. For them is normal to use life jackets where ever there are. When you have students let them swim hard in whitewater (not dangerous) with lifejacket or/and backpack. I think everybody will find out quick its not easy to come out of backwash (hole), an eddy or cross a current what the most whitewater in canyons is. If you have a longer whitewater current (faster than 4km/h) where you have to swim save downstream, than it is a comfort and safety factor.
I hope you understand what I would tell and I am very interested about other views and facts (not alternative facts )
Google translate: It would have to be seen in what conditions it is used ... it is a fact that in Europe it is not contemplated by the fact that a lot of buoyancy can also be bad ... I do not know when to decide that yes or no. In some countries it is used for the following motijos, to ensure that the customer stays up, personal swimming conditions terrible, medium-high flows. The fact that the vest in river or sea is more or less mandatory I think it is to keep the individual up. We do not usually use vests in ravines, only in the courses of living waters, by work methodology ... the vest subtracts rapidity of swimming power.
in France we don't use life jacket in canyons (and I'm talking of canyons, not kayaking or hydrospeed, etc, of course)
Why? No interest in waterfalls, and it's uncomfortable, heavy and boring all along the canyon. With a wet suit, you already have a floating help (and with a bag (not on your back!) in some cases too), and it's enough. And all the accidents of drowning in canyons I know, without flash floods, were related to mistakes with the ropes, or with syphons (english word?). Adding a lot of gear doesn't take place of learning techniques.
There are exceptions:
The first day ,when we are doing a white water course.Because we do it in a river ,and we use a life jacket to secure the participants and made them more confident.But in the second day we try (if the water level is ok) to do the same exercices without life jacket
If we do a canyon who arrives in a real big river,we may take some for people who are not comfortables, the others use their bag as a float in hydrospeed.
But we are no more in a canyon...
A friend of mine had made a thin neoprene jacket(with no arms),tied to the harness,with pockets and place to hang security rope, knife and other things, and a bag sewn in the back that he can inflate with a pipe. It's was interesting, but had no success.
If you have more specific questions, no problem
Italy / Switzerland
There is not a rule about pfd in canyons. Mosto of people don’t use it. Rafting companies that offer canyoning use it because it’s part of their normale gear From this situation many people started to use it. It has some advantages but only for the clients: easy swimming-flotation, less time underwater in the jumps, protection if you slip on the rocks (because they don’t give canyon shoes, people use snickers and slip often). Disadvantages : you cannot dive: to pick up some gear, to pick up a person underwater, you cannot swim fast, you cannot dive to go under some water stream. If you are caught in an hydraulic with a pfd you have less chances to get out, in a canyon. But then i don’t consider canyons with very high water flow, let’s say the human limit, this does not count for normal practice. The bag is also slowing any swimming movements so i teach not to wear it for swimming in the stream or hydraulic.
Italy / Austria
I forwarded your email to the director of our teaching school and can give you an answer more officially as teaching of canyoning is concerned. I think that he will write to you directly.
Please bear in mind that there is a big difference between guided tours and our school.
As far as my personal experience is concerned we are not using flotation devices unless you have a dry suite. We are very strict in using only backpacks constructed exclusively for canyoning because we had already some accidents.
I cannot tell you what Austrians are doing because I am not aware of any school but just guides. As in Italy, guides are using flotation devices and no backpacks for their clients.
In Greece training and education is mainly based on the french equivalent. We are taught to not have a PFD, but to always have a well sealing bucket in our backpack so that it always floats. When the hydraulics are strong we are not supposed to have the backpack on our backs but also to avoid having them hanging from us (harness) so that we are not pulled by the backpack if that is getting into some strong current. Managing the backpacks by way of ropes and carabiners is suggested for very difficult hydraulics. The behaviour of a backpack vs that of a PFD is quite different in my experience and I would not do the same in situations where I have either one of them.
Personally I started whitewater kayaking before canyoning, so my knowledge of hydraulics and currents precedes any canyoning training so it is possible that I am getting something mixed up.
I first saw canyoners from Mexico with PFDs in a video that was shown during a meeting, but I don't really remember which one. I was surprised at first but the water flow seemed to warrant their use.
I would think that the volume of water in a canyon combined with the difficulty in technical rappels would dictate if PFDs are a good choice. If the flow is high enough that people can float and be carried by the current while it is dangerous to try and plant your feet on the floor I would prefer that my team has PFDs on. But then again if there are lots of narrow passages and it is necessary to be nimble at the rappels I would think the opposite.
Greece / Crete
In Greece you dont have to wear pfds except kids, kids ''must'' have it in kind of canyon with water. My opinion is that pdfs gives you much trouble, while you are moving and transfering things and work with rope. Another big problem is many cases you have to dive and get out of a ''washing machine'' in much water so pfd will not help
After having experienced lots of things about canyoning in Italy and Spain - I can say that we are the only group which do the canyoning with regard to world canyoning standards so what the rest do is not even remotely close to canyoning.
As to your question ,we don’t wear pdf in canyons and 5mm. Neoprene suit does the job and also how can we apply SRT technique while wearing PDF . we have prepared the canyoning training programme for our courses and very soon we will bolt a canyon here with the same equipment and method as in Italy. After finishing we will share the photos with you to get your opinions.
I'd like to say something about PFD. Almost for two years we haven' t been using it , instead we use 5.5 mm neoprene swimsuit it is a kind of law for us.we had two important experiences, the first one was last year; it is a 4 hour canyon but we had to make it overnight because of high water level and during the night we were in our neoprenes. The second one was when I broke my tailbone and had to spend the night waiting for the helicopter and on both events I didn't feel cold. And one more reason, you can't use SRT equipment well.
According to our approach; Using PFD is not necessary in canyoning and dependence to each person and each canyon and as well dependence to each water movement. Using backpack is so comment but again in each water movement we have to have a different approach and completely is context dependent.
Well, in Jordan we don’t have actual white water canyons –nothing with strong movement-. The majority of the canyons are dry canyons and only few canyons that are aquatic. Now for the clients joining canyoning trips, or new canyoneers –also include experienced canyoneers- we always recommend to wear the life Jackets wherever there is unavoidable swimming parts of the canyon. This maybe due to the fact that lots of Jordanians are not good swimmers -cultural thing J-
Nothing is official, as we don’t have fixed trainings.
But the thing that the most do, clip your bag below you by the cow tail in abseil –some will keep on back wish usually for not strong waterfalls-, or through it to water if it is an actual rope bag (canyoning bag).
When I guide in South Africa we provide our clients with PFDs. The canyons we do have really long pools for swimming so we believe this helps them. depending on how much rope I take down I would either use my backpack, that is a drypack so it offers flotation when closed or otherwise I also take a pfd. I honestly dont think we have any formal training or governing body in south Africa.
I would personally not take a pfd if its a very low waterlevel where extended swims are not an issue.
In terms of hydraulics I think the only negative to a pfd would be in a very big flow where they could cause you te get “stuck" in a recirculating hydraulic but I dont think we experience that level of flow in a canyoning environment. What are your thoughts on this?
In NZ, recreational canyoners generally do not wear PFDs. The thinking is that there is sufficient bouyancy in the wetsuits we wear here (5mm full length is standard, up to 10mm at times). PFD's also obscure vision to the master point, which makes complex ascent/descent/rescue moves difficult.
There are two guiding companies who insist on PFD's for everyone (including guides). The owners have come from a whitewater rafting background, and have been unwilling to change even though the canyons they do are very low water volume... The stated advantages of PFD's here is something for guides to hold onto on the torso, padding/protection for the client, and extra bouyancy to allow small/medium jumps into shallower pools. A handful of recreational canyoners use PFD's, but they are "Kayakers who go canyoning". We took a top level kayaker under our wing for a few weeks of high volume canyon exploration... After 4 days he started leaving his PFD behind, and only put it back on for one of the last trips (which had huge water... and I almost wished I had one myself in that instance!)
I agree with the advantages of PFD's in guiding circumstances, but the disadvantages outweigh them for my personal use.
In canyoning, I feel that it is very uncommon to have to make more than one move when swimming whilst disconnected to the rope. We make lots of single move, whitewater transitions, but we're never floating/swimming rapids where we have to make more than one move. So the extra buoyancy just isn't needed for those very short transitions.
Noted your question and I can talk about the practice for small groups in Brazil but prefer to talk to others (canyon groups) o listen their instruction and recommendation to sportif groups and commercial practice. Usually autonomy practice is not taught to wear PFD or backpacks when facing whitewater but let me check if any in Brazil uses different recommendation.
For the commercial canyoning tours the majority of operators do used PFD’s for their customers as part of their day to day operations as most Japanese are not so sure in their swimming. If they say they can swim OK then it is preferred not to give a customer a PFD.
You also need to take into the level of the canyoning they are entering as well. Most commercial courses are usually low flow canyons. On the French Scale this would be anywhere to from A2 to A3 (https://canyonmag.net/technical/essentials/grading/) most of the time. Canyons which are more advanced and a higher grade, Majority of the time we will option not to use PFD’s but if the customer does choose this then these are managed very well with usually a guide managing the obstacle at hand.
For our canyoning training we do not recommend the use PFD’s at all. PFD’s are restrictive and even dangerous as it creates unbalance in the water especially when dealing where hydraulics and recirculation are possible. Wearing a PFD in a high flow canyon cause various problems, and especially these time where we are teaching to streamline equipment.
During the water training section of the course, we do teach people how to eddy swim similar to SWR, but also how to give training on undercuts, hydraulics and other features on how to escape them. A PFD in these situations is a hindrance due to not having the ability to duck dive down to the bottom to swim out of the obstacle. In recirculating hydraulics forced by a waterfall, the PFD can cause the wearer to get stuck in the same position.
Also if people are wearing a standard canyoning wetsuit of 5mm then they are already fairly buoyant therefore reducing the need of a PFD. Also most obstructions are single point (ie not spread over distance like Class 4 / 5 rapids) but tend to be fairly well focused. With good instruction, you should be able to read the obstruction and navigate a way around or an escape from the obstruction.
[Note : Lightweight throw bags should be carried in high flow canyons. Not many people do, but it is something that can be used very effectively to pull out of a hydraulic.]
Canyoning backpacks used in high flow canyons should have quick release buckles on the shoulder straps and waist strap. This way if you are swimming and get caught you can easily release the backpack. For long swims, we prefer to have the bag attached to a long lanyard on the harness. This allows swimming / floating to be more freer.
For slides, the general rule is to remove the backpack. What we try to teach is that the first person goes down the slide first without any backpack and then the next guide will throw / slide the backpacks so each person can slide pack free. Wearing the pack on your back lifts your back up and shifts your central point which can cause you to topple over on more vertical slides.
If you do have to slide with a backpack, we recommend that you take it off and lay it on your chest and then slide. This way when you hit the water, the backpack can be pushed away by your hands thus freeing you to swim out of the impact point.
For low jumps of less than a few meters, jumping is possible with a backpack on but on high jumps, removal of backpack is necessary as the pack will rise up and hit the back of the neck / head on impact.
Backpacks in waterfalls we recommend that they are removed and attached to either the central part of the harness or one of the leg loops. Wearing them on the back while going through a good flow fall can invert the abseiler and cause all sorts of other issues. Also lids should be kept closed (but not locked if you are releasing rope) on backpacks while abseiling in a waterfall so that the water doesn’t create additional pressure when pouring into the bag.
USA / Taiwan
We do not recommend the use of a PFD in whitewater canyons, but we do recommend floatation. A 5mm wetsuit provides ample floatation at roughly 20N of buoyancy (PFDs are 40N minimum).
In whitewater canyons, it is actually advantageous to have a little less buoyancy than what a PFD provides. The reason for this is the canyoner's need to move with sub-surface currents. Unlike kayakers, rafters, etc. who move only on the surface of the water, canyoners frequently have to dive to find sub-surface currents in order to escape things like trap pools. Many times these currents are very deep, so having too much buoyancy can prevent the canyoner from diving deep enough to escape. Personally, I used to wear a PFD all the time, and now I don't because it is more of a hindrance than a help. Another thing to consider is jumping from high places while wearing a PFD; a quick google search will show you that more than one person has snapped their neck this way.
As for backpacks, they are only suitable as buoyancy in water without a current. In swift moving water, the bag will cause too much drag to swim effectively, which will put you at additional risk of missing your target. As well, bags without suitable buoyancy can be pushed easily to the bottom by a strong current, which can drag the canyoneer with it. In all swift water situations where a swim is make or break, the bag should be transported some other way (guide line, toss, etc.). What I tell my students, "Your bag is always trying to drown you." And when rappelling directly in waterfalls that are beyond a trickle, a canyoneer should never wear the backpack on their back.
I do think PFDs can be appropriate in certain contexts. First, if the canyons are normally done without a wetsuit or maybe a shortie, then a canyoneer should think about wearing a PFD. Second, if the canyoneer is obviously a poor swimmer, then a PFD is a good choice. The only other time I myself might consider wearing a PFD is in heavily aerated water (usually a7 conditions).
In Taiwan, the canyoneers were initially taught by the ACA, who I believe recommended them to use PFDs. As well, swimming is not so common in Taiwanese culture, so PFDs are a natural choice. However, I think these attitudes will change as Taiwanese canyoneers progress and realize that the ability to use sub-surface currents is imperative in harder canyons.
I can’t say I speak for the whole community, but generally we do not wear PFDs canyoning in Canada. Other than the odd isolated and lower risk moving water situation, there is not a whole lot of risk in the commonly run canyons here. But on exploratory missions I have brought a PFD along and worn them in some pretty wild water. But that canyon in particular isn’t something that many people would venture down as it was terribly unsafe and has no exit. I just completed my SwiftWater Rescue Technicians course (With injury requiring surgery - saved by wearing a PFD...) and I believe once I’m back into sports and canyoneering, I would more frequently wear a PFD. Even the pockets on it are very useful for gear and cameras.
Regarding the use of PFDs:
Canyons in the Santiago area have slow moving water and we take clients thru them
Usually we provide 3 mm shorties so the flotation they have is minimal. So we need to provide extra flotation and give the PFDs
It is required by the government that, if you are going in the canyon, you need to use a PFDs
Since the PFDs rule was enforced deaths by drowning have gone to zero
Only guides carry backpacks. Clients are forbidden to carry them
I think that, if you have a backpack with extra flotation with you or have a tick wet suit, it is ok not to use a PFD. But if you have a low flotation wet suit or do not use a floating pack it is very good practice to use PFDs
PFDs are not enforced outside national parks
*Images used in this article that are not my own were sourced from RopeWiki, Descente-Canyon, Wikipedia, Wikimedia, and World For Travel under a Creative Commons license. Images can be sourced by right clicking and copying image URL.