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Proper floatation in Canyons

There is much debate over many things in the world of recreational canyoning. One of which is the wearing of a PFD. This is a topic close to my heart because of coming from a whitewater boating background and being a swift water rescue instructor. I am a member of the American Canoe Association swiftwater rescue committee and I am privy to much discussion about PFD use and accidents due to a lack of understanding of PFD’s. I am also in many discussion posts from around the world that talk about the use of PFDs in canyons, recreationally and commercially.

Please, don’t read this article as a lecture about wearing a PFD. My point is to make people aware of why PFD’s exist and how to increase your lifespan if you choose to play in the wonderful environment of whitewater.

So, let’s change the narrative from black and white, yes or no, or always and never to a discussion about flotation and our need to breathe.

In the US, the Coast Guard is the approving authority on what is a PFD. There are many factors that come into play for certification. One of which is the amount of flotation a wearable PFD provides. It’s not the number that is important here, but how it is determined. In a pool of water, the PFD must provide enough floatation for a human to maintain an airway. Seems reasonable right? Another factor is how the PFD positions the body in the water to maintain an airway. Again, seems like a no-brainer. But, what if the water becomes aerated like whitewater? Whitewater does not provide the same amount of flotation. This requires a PFD for whitewater to provide more floatation.

Now I would like to address some of the comments I hear from the canyoning community:

  • “I’m a good swimmer.” - What happens when you are not? Canyoning can be very exhausting and the cold water sucks even more energy out of you. If you find yourself injured or unconscious, swimming becomes difficult to impossible. It is much easier for a team member to move an injured person through any water if they can maintain an airway by floating on their own.
  • “My pack provides me flotation.” - Does your pack help maintain your airway? Is your pack always with you? Do you really want an entrapment hazard with you in whitewater? The answers are no. Your pack should have floatation to save itself, not you. In the whitewater community, this puts you in the category of “tuber” or running whitewater on a pool toy. Once you lose your “toy” you will probably drown.
  • “My wetsuit provides flotation.” - Is it enough for the water you are going to encounter? Have you tested it? Not all wetsuits, or people, have the same amount of flotation and drysuits provide none. Your canyoning harness kit provides negative flotation. You should know the type of thermal protection, harness kit, and water conditions before entering a canyon. Knowing the amount of floatation you need is part of a safe plan to get back home.
  • “A PFD hinders the operation of my rappel device.” - Adapt and overcome. As canyoners, we thrive on problem-solving. Yes, this means you may have to slightly change your harness setup.
  • “Wearing PFDs in a canyon has caused injuries.” - In the cases of jumping from height with a PFD on causing neck damage, I would say it was due to improper use and fitting that allowed the PFD to ride up at the time of impact. This resembles jumping from height with a canyon pack on. In the private rafting community, boaters jump from height often and without injury from a properly fitted PFD.
  • “A PFD prevents me from escaping a hydraulic.” - Yes, floatation can have an adverse effect on escaping specific types of hydraulic features. The real questions are: How many are out there? Can you identify them? Why are you in them? Whitewater kayakers in the Pacific Northwest spend a lot of time in water features that scare the s#!t out of most canyoners. They swim them often and escape always wearing a PFD. The difference is not the water or the PFD, it is the experience of the person. The best tool in these situations is your brain.

''You can’t outswim the river, but you can outsmart it!''

What to do from here…

Know and understand the environment in which you operate in.

  • Swimming in whitewater is more of a mental skill than a physical one.
  • Reducing your level of fear by understanding your survival instinct to breathe is the best place to start. It is easier to stay calm and think when you can float.

Verify that your level of flotation with the gear you plan on operating with does, in fact, help maintain an airway without moving.

  • Remember, whitewater does not provide as much buoyancy. You may want more flotation than you think.

There are multiple options for increasing your personal level of flotation.

  • Add layers of neoprene
  • Use an impact vest designed for surfers and kiteboarders
  • Use a PFD that fits and is best suited for what you are doing.

Swift water canyons require having some flotation, and any gear that does not float will inevitably sink to the bottom of a pool if not secured. Flotation can also be important in still-water canyons, especially those with potholes.

Personal flotation device (PFD)

A normal wetsuit will usually provide enough flotation for strong swimmers, but those wishing a bit more flotation or who are uncomfortable in swiftwater should not hesitate to wear a personal flotation device (often abbreviated as PFD; sometimes referred to as a life jacket or life vest). Wearing PFDs might not be a bad idea for the entire team if very long swims are anticipated. PFDs might be used simply for flotation if it's warm enough such that you don't need a wetsuit. Some canyon guides require their clients to wear them.

Some whitewater experts are adamant that no one should enter swiftwater without a PFD. Statistics[citation needed] clearly show that PFDs can save lives. However, many expert canyoneers point out that there are instances in class C canyons where wearing a PFD can also work against you. They're not all good, nor all bad. For more information: The Role of PFDs in Canyoneering.

  • Per Rescue 3 International: PFD technology has changed dramatically over the last twenty years. New designs permit far more mobility when swimming while still retaining necessary buoyancy. Older types of PFDs may still be in use, however, in many parts of the world.
  • PFDs are removable. Consider removing PFDs / packs for high jumps, ascending or if entry to a hydraulic is anticipated.
  • Taking off your pack (assuming it floats) and bracing it may also provide a good resting position for a tired swimmer.

Pros & Cons

Some advantages to wearing a PFD:

  • Increased buoyancy.
  • More insulation in cold water.
  • Acts as body armor to a degree.
  • Brightly-colored for visibility.
  • Pockets and places to secure gear (ex: rescue knife).

Some disadvantages to wearing a PFD:

  • Can restrict movement / agility.
  • Awkward with a pack.
  • Can obstruct the view of the working area of your harness. Ascending can be difficult.
  • Exterior straps can get snagged.
  • Limits your ability to dive (e.g. escape a hydraulic)

Whitewater References

  • NOLS River Rescue Guide – by Nate Ostis.
  • River Rescue – 4th Edition – by Les Bechdel and Slim Ray.
  • Water and Flood Rescue Manual – by Rescue 3 International.


Canyon ropes usually sink, so tossing a coiled rope into a pool or sliding it down a slide is not a good idea. Make sure you use rope bags that float, and test them when loaded with rope at the start of the canyon. Make sure that you do not clip too many carabiners on a rope bag, or it will end up sinking. If you ever need to use canyon rope as a "throw rope" (a rope you throw to a swimmer in distress), keep in mind the swimmer will only have a couple seconds to grab the rope before it sinks, so aim well and be ready to retry quickly.

Dry bags/kegs

In swift water canyons, given enough time and submersion, dry bags will allow water seepage. Double or triple dry-bagging may partiallly solve this issue but decrease access time. Dry kegs are often preferred for storage in swift water canyons, but the user should take care to tighten the lid so that jumps or bag-tossing don't unseat it. The lid seal should be kept lubricated and in good condition with no obstructions to prevent flooding. Water bottles can make adequate mini-kegs and be used to store a medical kit or other emergency essentials. All of these containers provide added flotation for the canyon pack. Secure all flotation devices with straps or carabiners so they don't escape the pack and allow it to sink. If the pack does not have adequate flotation, a half-empty water bottle or hydration bladder could provide enough flotation to balance hardware, rope, and other dense items, provided they don't escape or explode upon impact with the water.