River etiquette tips for paddling in groups

This story was originally published in Canoe & Kayak Magazine. Words by Kim Russell

River etiquette is just as important as table etiquette. Below are eight important tips to stay safe and happy both on and off the river.

River signals

Knowing how to paddle with others is key to a fun and safe trip. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

Have you ever been on the opposite side of the river from your friends and played a game of charades as you tried to communicate amidst the roar of the river?

Consider going over river signals at the put-in. If you’re paddling with a new group, chances are they may use a different kind of river language. Some may signal “stop” with a paddle held horizontally in the air, while others may signal “stop” with a hand held vertically in the air.

Most people point positive (towards where they suggest you go), but others may point negative (toward river obstacles). Clarify what system you are going to use before getting on the river.

Who’s carrying what?

Don’t make one dude carry all your stuff. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

Who has a breakdown paddle? Who has a first aid kit? Depending on the river, it may be appropriate to discuss what rescue and/or safety equipment each paddler is carrying on them or in their boat.

For instance, I carry a pulley, carabiner and prusik on my person, and a throwbag, pin-kit, breakdown paddle and first-aid kit in my boat. It’s nice to know who has what in the case of an emergency.

Be aware of your boat

Whether you are paddling or simply carrying your boat, be aware of it. For example: if you’re the only boat in a small, must-make eddy, make some room for the next paddler.

Put-in/Portage Etiquette

Portaging is a necessary part of most river adventures. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

One person at a time. When portaging or simply hiking to the put-in, if there is a sketchy move to make or slick down-climb to the river, go one person at a time.

If the person at the top were to fall or drop a piece of gear, it could land on the person below, or worse, it could knock them off the ledge. Once at the bottom, hang around for a minute or two to help collect gear, or spot someone on their down-climb.

Be aware of fellow paddlers

Avoid paddling too close to the person in front of you, just in case they miss their line. This will also make life easier when trying to avoid head-on-collisions should someone get caught in a hole.

Just make sure you’re not so spread out that communication becomes difficult.

In addition, it can be easy to lose track of people when paddling in larger groups. Take a head count at put-in and a head count below each and every drop. Start a buddy system, keep tabs on fellow paddlers (especially those behind you), and if you are in a particularly large group, consider splitting into multiple smaller groups.

Peeling out

You wouldn’t cut people off on the highway, so don’t do it on the river either. Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

When peeling out from an eddy, always look upstream. You never know whether another paddler, a swimmer, or a tree is on its way downriver. In general, if you are in an eddy, the upstream paddler has the right of way.

Scouting

When in doubt, scout. Always bring your throw bag with you, even if you’re only out of your boat for a minute or two. You never know when you’re going to need it.

Be prepared

Anytime you’re out of your kayak, whether it’s to scout or for a lunch break, position your boat on the rocks for a quick get-in, just in case you need to catch gear or rescue a swimmer.

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