Planning a Safe River Trip
by Rick Curtis
- Know the river
- Know your group
- Know your own skills and resources
- Have the right equipment
2. On the River
- Travel safely
- Keep the group together in some fashion
- Be prepared for a rescue
- Have the proper paddling and rescue skills
Examples of Hazards
When assessing the potential environmental hazards you need to look
at three factors.
- Static - activities in which the environment is
realtively unchanging (e.g. hiking)
- Dynamic - activities in which the environment change change very quickly
in unpredictable ways (e.g. whitewater paddling, biking)
In remote locations you need to exercise additional precautions. One
common method of accomplishing this is to increase the rating of
the rapid by one class if you are in a remote setting. For example,
a Class III becomes a Class IV. This helps take into account the
increase in Accident Potential (see below).
Weather and the possibility of weather changes also have a significant
impact on Accident Potential.
|Examples of Hazards
|i. Environmental Hazards
||ii. Human Factor Hazards
- Undercut rocks/ledges
- Foot entrapment
- Cold temperatures (water/air) equipment
- Overexposure to sun
- Poor physical strength, stamina
- No awareness of hazards
- No skills to avoid hazards
- Resistance to instructions
- Irresponsible/careless attitude towards self, others,
- Other inexperienced paddlers on the river
- Need to "prove" self - macho
- Lack of proper equipment (PFD, helmet etc.)
- Improper clothing for temperature
- Boat in poor repair
- Lack of knowledge of environmental hazards
- Inadequate skills to extricate self and group from
- Poor safety judgement
- Poor teacher of necessary skills
- Instructions unclear
- Poor supervisor, does not correct problems
- Ineffectual under stress
- Bad road conditions
- Overloaded vehicle
- Other erratic drivers
- Rushing to meet schedule
- Overly tired from long drive
- Not driving defensively
- Poor driving skills
- Group not yet formed, lacks cooperative structure
- Interpersonal frictions unresolved
- Poor communication patterns
- Excessive competition
- Scapegoating or lack of concern for slow or different
- Individuals excessive pressure or stress to "perform"
- No practice in working harmoniously under stress
- Lack of leadership within group
- Splintering into sub-groups
Sample Accident Scenarios
Think of an accident situation you have been in whether on an outdoor
trip or in some other setting. Analyze the situation and list the
Environmental Hazards and the Human Factor Hazards that led to
the Accident Potential.
Teaching the Formula = Reducing the Accident Potential
It is essential to teach the Dynamics of Accidents Formula at
the very beginning of any trip (or prior to leaving campus) so
that all participants are aware of how their behavior is directly related
to reducing the possibility of accidents. Participants then can
take some responsibility for their own safety. The formula gives
you four basic things:
- A technique for evaluating risk potential in the field
- A tool for analyzing how accident potential can be reduced
- A decision making tool
- A rationale for why OA has particular things we teach, particular
rules and policies
- A rationale for why you make particular decisions
A comprehensive Safety Program allows one to intervene to prevent
Human Factor Hazards from overlapping with Environmental Hazards
and thereby reducing the Accident Potential. In order to do this
it is necessary to rethink from Day 1 of the trip what is
an environment? In planning a trip the leaders must
examine the environment and the activities of the trip in order
to ascertain what the possible environment hazards of that trip
are. This information must be communicated to the group in the
form of an Environmental Briefing at the beginning of the trip with
subsequent briefings when there is a change in environment or
activity (e.g if a hiking group changes to canoeing the environment
and activity have changed and there are different environmental
hazards). The first Environmental Briefing should follow the
leaderspresentation of the Dynamics of Accidents formula.
On longer trips it may be useful to have the participants do some
of the Environmental Briefings once they are familiar with the
formula. This can be done with the help of the leaders. The
Environmental Briefings set a a tone for safety and help inculcate
the idea that the participant is responsible for his/her own
It is important to analyze the possible accident potentials
from a what if perspective. Ask yourself what is the worst case scenario. Then
ask yourself what you can do to reduce the accident potential.
Running A River
- Introduction - Skills/River
- What Skills?
- What is the highest skill level of the
- What is the lowest skill level of the
The river or river section should be chosen based on something that
the person(s) with the least skills in the group could run. The person(s)
with the highest skills should feel comfortable in performing
rescues in the most difficult section of the river.
2. What River?
- River Classification System
Standard I - VI River Classification System. Currently there
are a number of efforts going on to revise
the River Classification system so that
it becomes more open ended like the
rating system used for rock climbing.
- Be aware of differences in western vs.
eastern ratings and the current tendency
- If you are paddling in a remote area or
on a multi-day trip where help is a
significant distance away, upgrade the
rating of the rapid by one class. So a
Class III would be considered a Class IV
in terms of the consequences because of
- Depth in Feet
- Cubic Feet per Second (CFS)
- How much?
- How does it change?
- Type of River
- Pool/Drop - drops tend can be steeper and
- Continuous - can present more difficult
- Weather Change?
3. What Equipment?
- How long is the trip? one day, multi-day
- How remote is the trip? from help, resupply
- What are temperature and weather conditions?
- What spare equipment should you have?
- If something went wrong, what would you need?
- Equipment to bring
- Boats - in good repair
- Paddles - are spares needed?
- Clothing - What type is needed based on
water and air temperatures?
If air and water temp add up to less than
100 degrees F you should have a wet or
dry suit (this is a not especially conservative).
- PFD - with knife, whistle, carabiner
- Throw Bag
- First Aid Kit
- Other Rescue Gear
- extra carabiners
- slings (1/2 " tubular nylon
- prussik loops (made from perlon)
- rescue pulleys (optional)
- Other Equipment Issues
- Check it out - Leaders then need to make
sure that all participants have the
necessary equipment. If people are bringing
their own equipment it must be examined
to make sure that it is in good shape.
- How to use it - Participants must be
instructed on the safe and appropriate
use of all equipment.
This issue of leadership on paddling trips is often
overlooked, especially on club trips. Whenever you head to the
river there are some fundamental skills that need to exist both
with each paddler, and among the group. Individual paddlers
obviously need appropriate paddling skills, equipment, and judgement
to let them navigate the river safely. There also need to be
skills like first aid, CPR, river rescue and equipment like
rescue gear and a good first aid kit. If these things aren't
there and you need them, you may be in serious danger.
The notion of a "trip leader" may be antithetical to
some paddlers, but having someone who is designated to make sure that
all these things are taken care of is just good expedition-style
planning. It doesn't mean that the "leader" makes all
the trip decisions. Rather, this person serves as the "conscience"
of the group, that little reminder to make sure that all the
bases are covered. In an emergency situation, the people with the
most river rescue or first aid experience need to take charge and
this might not be the designated trip leader. This is something
that also should be determined before a group goes out, who has
the skills and judgment to take over in an emergency and who is
the back-up person in case the primary is the victim.
5. On the River
- How to Run a River
- Scout - especially anything blind or new
- Eddy Scout
- Scout "Down from the Top and Up from
- Trip Organization
- Lead and Sweep boats - keeps the
group "contained" within
a safety net
- Buddy System - makes sure that
someone else is always aware of
where you are
- When Do You Carry?
- Whenever you feel like it.
- When there are any
about the safety of running the
- When you need to "set an
example" for other members
of the group
- When you are tired/cold etc. and
are not in the proper condition
to run the drop safely and in
- Tell your paddling
partners not to run the drop if
they are in questionable shape to handle
it (either physically, mentally,
- Save Others - size up people on river via technique,
equipment attitude and give appropriate feedback
- be tactful
In order to deal with any emergency situation you need to have the proper skills
and training. These skills must be learned before going
out on the river. In the middle of an emergency is not the time
to see if you can throw your Throw Bag well.
- First Aid
- To treat injuries or medical emergencies
- What if someone on a raft trip had a
heart attack or a diabetic emergency?
- What if someone in your group was highly allergic to
- AWA River Signals
- All members of the party should know them
- River Rescue Skills
- From an experienced River Rescue training group.
River Rescue Organization
- Preplanning (Ask yourself these questions before
you get to the river)
- What if there is an emergency situation?
- How much time do I have to effect
- Where to set up rescue systems?
- Should someone walk out for help?
- What do I do about the emergency?
- What equipment would I need for a
- Do I have the skills for the
- Do I have the manpower for the
rescue? Do I need additional
- Who takes control in an emergency?
- The person(s) most skilled in
that area (river rescue, first aid)
must take control and others follow
- What if the leader(s) are the
victim(s)? Who is next in charge?
You should have a back-up person
both for rescue and first aid.
- Rescue Planning (Ask yourself these questions in
an actual emergency.)
- Assess the situation - Establish
- How many people are involved?
- Head up vs head down situation?
- Is the person stable?
- How much time do I have?
- What are my resources - human and equipment?
- What are the extent of injuries?
- What is the safest way to effect
- Effecting the rescue
- The leader must assign tasks to
- The leader should try to keep
from being intimately involved in
the actual rescue to remain free
to continually assess the situation. This
assumes that there are others in the
group with the skills/abilities
to follow through with the
rescue. If this is not the case
the leader may have to effect the rescue.
- SAFETY = JUDGEMENT
- Know your limits and groups limits. Be conservative.
- Be flexible - (e.g. change route if needed)
- AWA River Safety Cards - American Whitewater Affiliation -
available spring '96 - co-authored by Rick Curtis
- River Rescue by Les Bechdel and Slim Ray,
Appalachian Mountain Club Books, Boston, 1989, ISBN 0-910146-76-4
- The Best of the River Safety Task Force Newsletter,
first and second editions, edited by Charlie Walbridge
- Whitewater River Rescue by Wayne Sundermacher and Charlie Walbridge,
Ragged Mountain Press, Camden, 1995, ISBN0-07-067790-5
- River Rescue - The Video (VHS 55 minutes) - Anne
Ford & Les Bechdel, Gravity Sports Films, Jersey
- Heads Up! - River Rescue for River Runners (VHS 30 minutes)
- Russ Nichols, distributed by the American Canoe Association,
This page is maintained by Rick Curtis Director, Outdoor Action
This article is written by Rick Curtis, Director, Outdoor
Action Program. This material may be freely distributed for
nonprofit educational use. However, if included in
publications, written or electronic, attributions must be
made to the author. Commercial use of this material is
prohibited without express written permission from the
author. Copyright © 1995 Rick Curtis, Outdoor Action Program,