Lessons Learned From A Trip Leader

(Basic guidelines for leading successful trips)

Leading trips can be an OWA member’s most important and rewarding activity. Important because it is the heart and soul of the club, rewarding because you get to share with others the knowledge and skills that you’ve learned while exposing them to your favorite river through discovery and adventure.

The rewards of trip leading are huge. But nothing is more important than getting everyone to the take out without an accident or incident. As I lead more trips each year, I try to be mindful of my strengths, my biases and to learn from my past oversights and mistakes so that the trip goes as smooth and as safe as possible….not to mention packed with fun!

The focus here is to outline responsibilities of trip leaders and is not intended to be a comprehensive list of swift water rescue skills or obvious boater safety precautions. There are many books and classes that cover that in detail and should be familiar to the trip leader.

Pre-trip planning and communication

  • Scout the paddling route and the big rapids if possible. Familiarize yourself with the details of the run, and know the time and distance.
  • Check water levels before you leave home and have a plan B if the conditions change too drastically to keep to plan A.
  • Confirm details with participants via email a few days before the trip.
  • For paddlers unknown to the Trip Leader, establish in the pre-trip communications whether or not the participants have the necessary skills and equipment to feel successful on the trip. Confirm that participants understand the skill level required for the paddle and that each paddler asserts that they have the appropriate skills.

Know the factors that influence your risk or could potentially introduce risk to the whole group.

  • Has the water level or weather suddenly changed?
  • Ask if there are any special medical conditions which may be a concern. Learn where the paddler carries the required medications.
  • Identify who are the least experienced boaters. Perhaps you want to assign an experienced boater to “buddie up” with them.

You have to be your own master when you take a risk.

While it is the trip leader’s goal to help reduce risk, paddlers should know their own base qualities and make honest decisions about their skills, knowledge and abilities. People unfamiliar with the river should ask questions and scout rapids if possible. Like wise, trip leaders can look to offer up advice to a beginner paddler who appears unable to advocate for their own best interest.

Pre-Launch Group Discussion

Before launching, gather your group together and give the safety talk only when you have everyone’s undivided attention.

  • Discuss the trip length, difficulty, water and weather conditions, any known obstacles, and then ensure that everyone feels comfortable with the trip.
  • Ask everyone to tighten life jackets and offer to assist with others, especially children. Watch that folks are checking for tightness, don’t assume it will happen.

While on the water

Check on your paddlers. Watch how ALL of your paddlers are doing and frequently ask people how they are doing during the trip.

  • Depending on the conditioning of your group, take sufficient breaks for water and rest
  • Assign better paddlers to be lead, sweep and assist with any struggling paddlers.
  • Remind folks to keep within view of each other

Whether you are an expert boater or a novice boater, familiar with a few rivers or many, you need not be an “expert” to be a trip leader, as very few of us are. You only need a desire to connect with others and to be willing to gain profound experience. Also, consider teaming up with an “assistant” trip leader to help lighten load.

Life is a matter of taking risks but it is only by doing so that we grow, learn, gain experience and make living worthwhile and enriching.

*Note: many of these tips were taken from the trip leaders handbook.