Skip to content
header image



Gear Up and Get Out - Safety and Scouting Rapids

Posted: 07.06.2018 by Ben Coleman

Having a good safety plan is paramount to a successful day on the water. This not an
instructional on how to learn how to create a safety plan, or on specific safety skills like setting
up a z-drag. Safety is a big topic, and there is a lot to learn.
Whitewater can be incredibly forgiving, but the consequences can be steep, so no
matter your level, but especially when you are a beginner, take it slow. Your great sense of
adventure probably brought you to the river in the first place, but try not to bite off more than you
can chew. It can be fun to challenge yourself, but if you push too much, too soon, your level of
skill will be too far below the level of challenge and you will suffer the consequences.
Accidents can happen anywhere, but while you are building foundational skills, you
should paddle in less threatening environments. Learn to make class five moves on class three
water. There are no heroes on the river, so if you are out there to prove something to yourself or
someone else, take a moment to think carefully about your decisions. Everyone on the river, no
matter their skill level, should always take time to check in with themselves on every given day
on the water. Consider what you are doing and why you are doing it. These moments of
reflection can be your biggest tool in your set of safety skills.
You are in control of your decisions. Do not be influenced or unduly encouraged by
others, especially if you feel uncomfortable. Ultimately your decisions affect the entire paddling
community. Finally, take the time to learn the safety skills you need, like setting up a z-drag, and

other methods for saving other kayakers in trouble. Do not just bring a rope on the river with
you, make sure you know how to use the it! There are no substitutes for time, experience,
practice, and situational awareness.
Take safety seriously.

Key Points:
● Too much to say, be wary of thinking you can be safe on the water from an
instructional video
● Whitewater can be incredibly forgiving, but the consequences can be steep
● Take it slow, especially when you are just learning to kayak
● Do not bite off more than you can chew, great to have a sense of adventure,
push yourself, challenge yourself, but
● Learn to make class five moves on a class three river, consequences on class
five are steep, building experience slowly in the right environment is the single
greatest safety tool you can exercise
● At the end of the day you are the one in control of your decisions and your are
responsible for the outcome, not just for you, but for the entire paddling
● There is nothing heroic about running the big drop, if you want to be a hero, be a
● Finally, take a swiftwater rescue course and learn the safety skills you need to
maximize your chances of success, but remember that there are no substitutes
for experience and practice on the river

If you are unsure of your ability to run a rapid, then it is probably time to hop out and
scout. Scouting is the process of trying to find a line through complex whitewater. The
complexity of the whitewater often depends upon the perception of the individual paddler, for
example, a class three rapid will likely seem complicated to a relative beginner, but easily
understood by a more seasoned paddler.
The line is the route, from the top of the rapid to the bottom, through the variety of
present river features. Identifying the line through a rapid is a skill in and of itself, and can be
strengthened through becoming a student of whitewater. The more you scout rapids and study
whitewater, the easier it becomes to identify the line, or route from top to bottom. Paddlers with
the skills to paddle tough class, can typically boat scout class four. Boat scouting is
accomplished by slowing down the pace and examining oncoming rapids without getting out of
your boat. It might involve catching an eddy and peering downstream to identify features in
advance, in order to identify the best passage through a series of rapids.

There are four questions you can keep easily accessible in your pfd pocket that can
serve as a guide when scouting. They go like this: question one, can you see the line? If you
can see the line, can you make the line? What are the consequences if you cannot make the
line? Finally, are you willing to accept the consequences if you do not make the line?

Nowadays, though there are plenty of river adventures to be found, most paddlers are
navigating rivers that have already been paddled. However, just because many people paddle a
river, or perhaps more significantly, if you watch video footage of the rapids online, do not fall for
the temptation of being lulled into a sense of ease. If you have not yet paddled a river, it will be
fresh for you, and there is always a lot to learn. Though it might up the level of difficulty, it can
be fun to approach a river without someone leading you down, or memorizing the lines on film
before you get there. Running rivers with a sense of adventure and fresh eyes will, over time,
make you far better at reading whitewater because you are ultimately building and honing these
skills in ways that other paddlers are not.

Safety is paramount to scouting, and it is critical to identify major hazards, especially in
more severe conditions. You are making a decision about your level of skill in relation to the
relative level of challenge presented by the river. If you are going to push the envelope, i.e.
challenge yourself by paddling something just a bit beyond your skill level, think carefully about
when and why you are choose to do so.

Finally, once you identify a route, or the line you would like to paddle through a rapid, it
can be useful, especially if you have some nerves, to go through a series of visualizations.
Going through this process of visualizations can also get you to focus on when and what strokes
you are going to take, giving you the opportunity to refine these skills as well. Think about how
fast you are going to approach each feature, what strokes are going to be required, when you
will need to make these strokes, and ultimately how you can use the current to your advantage.

Key Points:
● Can you see the line, if you can see the line, can you make the line, what are the
consequences if I do not make the line, finally, am I willing to accept those
● If you are not sure about any of these, it might be a good idea to take a hike
around the rapid and see how you are feeling another day.
● Safety is paramount in scouting. You are trying to figure out a way to navigate a
rapid safely, usually as a group.
● Seeing the line is a skill in and of itself. This is a skill that is developed over time,
by being on the water. Learning to read water allows you to see the line through
complex river features.
● When you are scouting, you are not only looking for the route down a rapid, but
you are making a decision about the level of challenge in relation to your level of
● Additionally, when you identify a route that you would like to paddle, you are then
going to go through a series of visualizations. You need to think about how fast
you are going to approach each feature, at what points are you going to take key
paddle strokes, and how you will use the currents to position your boat in a way
that gets you where you want to go.
● Your decisions affect the entire paddling community.