SELF SUPPORT SAFTEY
For part one of this series I wrote about paddling, rolling and portaging a loaded self-support kayak. Part two covered the basic gear you might use and why. In this part (three) we will consider some of the variables that contribute to safety and survival during a multi-day trip in a wilderness river environment.
The unexpected, the unfortunate, the unimaginable—it happens. We all know it and yet our powers of denial are impressive. We tell each other to “be safe” when we know our world is not safe, and our hobbies aren’t either. When things go wrong we tell one another, “It will be all right,” when really, we have no idea.
In the context of wilderness paddling, it’s valuable to acknowledge that Mother Nature is dynamic and often more powerful than we can comprehend. For us to survive on wild rivers we must be realistic about our situation and resources, and make reasonable decisions. There are no guarantees, but by being conscious and conservative we can adjust the odds in our favor. One of the most important purposes of this article is to emphasize that the risk calculation for a multi-day wilderness trip is different than for a roadside day trip.
For the most part whitewater accidents happen because of familiar hazards and mistakes. Some common denominators are cold water, fast-rising water, inadequate clothing, failing to wear pfds, continuous whitewater, and strainers in the river. These challenges injure and kill whitewater paddlers every year. If you are considering self-support kayaking, I hope that you are well versed in how to minimize the known risks.
Only rarely does something truly bizarre happen. If you spend enough time in the wilderness, you may get to see some exceptional natural phenomena. There are, however, some things we can control. The better prepared we are, the more likely we are to be able to deal with any anomaly that comes along.
Preparedness: A list of what you CAN control. These safety suggestions increase your odds of an uneventful adventure. The more that you disregard, the higher your odds of a mishap.
Avoid boating alone.
Boat under control.
Don’t put on late in the day.
Don’t go in bad weather.
Dress for climate, weather and water temperature.
Don’t launch with high and rising water.
Beware of cold water, strainers, and dangerous holes.
Know the difficulty and character of the run to be attempted.
Scout blind drops or use current, local, trusted information.
Have a frank knowledge of your boating ability and stay within it.
Maintain an adequate level of fitness and health.
Wear proper equipment including pfd and helmet.
Use a boat and paddle that are in good condition.
Install flotation bags to fill empty spaces in your craft.
Carry equipment for rescues and emergencies.
Be practiced in self-rescue.
Be practiced at throwing your rope.
Keep your group small enough to be cohesive.
Have a frank understanding of the people you boat with.
Go with a large enough group to mount a rescue.
Know where you can walk off the river.
Be able to recognize the take-out.
Know where the keys to the shuttle vehicles are hidden.
Know how to get to the closest hospital.
Have ways to communicate with the world in case of emergency.
Be prepared to hike out.
Bring enough food to spend more nights than originally planned.
Bring purified drinking water and have ways to get more.
Secure your boat (and other equipment) when on shore.
Clip everything in to your boat.
Keep watch over everyone in your group, especially the last person.
Wear your helmet and pfd and carry a rope when scouting or portaging.
Don’t split up the group without a shared plan.
Set safety for each other in high risk areas.
Be trained in rescue skills, first aid, and CPR.
Take full responsibility for your decisions to launch, scout, portage, or hike out.
Test new equipment before relying on it in remote or dangerous places.
Make your craft grabbable via painters or grabloops for rescue.
Let faster groups play through.
Look upstream and all around before entering the current.
Yield right of way to boats coming downstream.
Use strong racks for transporting boats, and use bow and stern lines.
Avoid using drugs that dull the senses.
Be able to roll your boat.
Learn hand and paddle signals and practice and use them with your group.
Know whistle signals and use whistles appropriately.
Stay attuned to your group, the river, and environmental conditions.
Speak up if you see something that needs to be addressed for group safety.
Be extra careful and conservative anywhere or time a rescue would be slow or difficult.
If you want to be ready for emergencies, you need more training than this article can provide. River rescue and first aid training are two essential slices of the skillset needed for wilderness river tripping. A reasonable baseline for whitewater paddlers is Advanced First Aid, CPR, and Whitewater Rescue training from local whitewater clubs or outfitters. When you are confronted with an urgent situation you will find out if you have mastery of the material. Repeat these trainings until you have integrated the knowledge and can use it under duress.
Passing a written test and getting a certification card is not proof of competence. When I first took the Wilderness First Responder class, I was working as a paddle raft guide. Soon after I completed the training I was faced with two emergency situations, a foot entrapment in the Nantahala and a car wreck. Those situations proved to me that I wasn’t competent yet. When it was time for me to recertify, I took the whole class over again instead of just the recert. When life tested me the next time, I did better.
When you have mastery of basic first aid and river rescue, I recommend continuing with a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certification, and Whitewater Rescue Technician training. The WFR training is similar to an EMT level of training except instructors assume you are in the wilderness, beyond the reach of an ambulance full of meds and oxygen. The Whitewater Rescue Technician training is designed for river guides, but anyone can take it. This training started out as Swiftwater Rescue (for police and fire fighters) but has evolved to integrate the river-specific skills that paddlers bring to the table.
These trainings are excellent, but they are still not enough. Disasters usually stem from a combination of poor planning and bad decision-making. Remote destinations and challenging whitewater demand a higher level of preparedness than popular, easy day runs. Unexpected challenges require the mental flexibility to adjust your plan. Having the right skills and knowledge, an adaptable mindset and a good team will serve you better than all the luck in the world.
Most of us enjoy whitewater because of that alive feeling that we get from surviving by our own wits in the face of real risk. Running a big drop and coming out in bubbles and sunshine makes us giddy. Better to die on the river than to have lived on the couch, some may rationalize. But still, life is precious. We want to live so that we can keep playing, and we want those dear to us to live too.
Here we will examine the main contributors to safety in some detail, including group selection, portaging, changing conditions, the unexpected, wildlife, first aid, communications, and a few last equipment considerations. If you have begun to compile your own self-support checklist, consider having it on hand to make notes as you read. There are no shortcuts to this competence so it is best if you work on it yourself.
The people you go with can make or break your trip. Each person brings skills and gear to the table, and they also bring their temperament. When people understand each other they can form functional teams and have more fun. It’s OK if people are idiosyncratic when you know about it and can work with their eccentricities. You may think that it’s an advantage to be open minded and invite everyone—until you find yourself in a group whose values you don’t agree with, or with people who compromise your safety.
At a minimum your crew should have river skills and judgement that are more than adequate for the run being attempted—say one Class higher in whitewater skill. For long trips or very remote runs, consider a bigger skill differential. For example, for a run with Class III rapids, you’ll want Class IV river skills. If the Class III is continuous then the run requires Class IV+ skills. If the Class III is continuous, cold and remote, Class V- skills are probably best.
Ideally all group members’ paddling skills are known ahead of time, but if not, be wary of taking someone’s word about their skills. People who are incompetent tend to overestimate their abilities, whereas those with amazing skills can be quite humble. Check references or assess them for yourself—but not in a wilderness setting.
The ideal group for remote kayak self-support tripping will not have any wild cards. Individuals who tend to fly off the handle, get seriously intoxicated, shut down or run off alone without telling anyone are a hazard. Emotional stability is key. Everybody has moods, but when the doody hits the fan, will everyone in your group be present and functional?
Group size has a significant impact on a trip, no matter who is going. Most kayak self-support trips are small, on the order of three to eight people. It’s far easier to come together around values and strategies with a small group. On big rivers a group can get as large as 12 before it starts to string out on the water or split into social factions. On small rivers with blind drops and corners, the maximum group size might be five or fewer. One variable that should influence group size is the minimum number of people needed to mount a rescue. A group of three offers a slender safety margin. At least with four people you can split into pairs if needed.
Shuttle capacities can also dictate group size. Four people and four boats in one vehicle is a nice number, and you can double that for a group of eight. Aircraft have specific limits for people and boats, and can also choose your numbers for you. Have an idea of your shuttle strategy and the character of the run to arrive at reasonable minimums and maximums for the trip you are attempting.
Another important variable is culture. Ideally you’d like to have agreement on both decision-making and river running style. Will your group have a leader who dictates the course of events, or will you go by majority rules or require a consensus? It’s a rare boater who is ok with being commanded, but the person with a launch permit often assumes control. If there’s no permit requirement the structure can be less clear. Know your style and what styles you can work with, and be honest about it. If leadership roles are split among several people, be sure everyone is clear about who is in charge of what. It can be difficult to sort out leadership after something has gone wrong.
Pacing differences can split groups up. Group cohesion is easier to maintain if everyone is on the same page about the rhythms of river and camp life. The pace of downstream travel varies significantly among groups; do you like to work the river, float, or blast downstream? How long can people scout and how much can they portage before it becomes an issue? Do you really need to hike a certain canyon, or have pee stops, lunch or stretch breaks? Discuss the intended take-out date well ahead of time, and get clear about how many days’ worth of extra food folks should bring in case there are delays. Another issue to resolve early is morning rituals. Will your group need to get up at the crack of dawn and get on the water, or will you hang out and have another cup of coffee while waiting for everything to dry? Can you agree to shift into a different modes as needed, getting a quick start one day and taking it easy on another? If you have agreement on these questions, are you less likely to have unintended separations or awkward conflicts.
Sticking together both on the river and at camp is generally seen as beneficial for safety, but some folks operate differently. They may enjoy self-sufficiency and solo boating, and feel less compelled to stick with a group, especially if the group process or decisions are problematic. It’s worth thinking ahead about your approach if you have a mixture of styles on a trip. Self-support groups can split up because each person carries their own gear. This ability to easily merge or separate is a strength. If someone is injured or falls ill it is not a hardship for a pod of paddlers to continue downstream while others stay behind to care for the person in need. This is a very different scenario than the mutinies seen in the Grand Canyon when a boatman takes off, leaving the group without a kitchen or a groover.
Fires can be another contentious issue. Even when they are allowed, some people are against them. Even where campfires are banned, some folks want them. Some people think nothing of creating a new fire ring, others prefer to Leave No Trace. Know the rules, know your ethic, and talk about fire ahead of time. The most important thing about fire is that you keep it under control and put it out completely when you are done.
Drugs and alcohol can also cause conflict. Alcohol abuse tends to be more common among rafters because they have the boat capacity to bring large quantities of beer, wine, and booze. Kayakers have their own habits, however, which you may not know about until you do some extended camping with them. Be sure to talk about intoxicants before the trip to hopefully keep the use of inebriants within reasonable bounds.
When you have no influence over the invitation list, your only say in group selection may be your decision whether or not to join. Given the importance of the group to your safety and enjoyment, it’s wise to be willing to exercise this option.
We may think that if we decide not to run a rapid, we’re doing the safer thing. Unfortunately there is risk involved in the process of getting your boat to the bottom of a rapid, even when you are not paddling it. On shore you can fall down, suffer cuts, twisted ankles, and broken bones, get things dropped on you, get stung by bees or bitten by snakes, get heat exhaustion or set the stage for a nasty case of poison ivy. Sounds like great fun, eh? Hauling a heavy boat makes it harder to pay attention to everything, so be methodical and wear solid shoes.
If anyone in the group does choose to run the rapid they are likely to reach the bottom well ahead of you, adding time pressure. They may be expecting that you will set safety for them. This is another reason to go with people whose skills and attitudes are similar to your own. It’s also incentive to be decisive when you scout.
Rock climbing skills are an advantage when it comes to negotiating steep riverbanks. Knowing how to set an anchor and to belay something heavy is invaluable when you have to get your boat past a steep drop. Even just lining a boat downstream requires specific skills, including excellent water reading, timing, and rope handling. It’s worth studying and practicing during day trips so that when your boat is loaded with survival gear you are less likely to lose it.
One way to dramatically increase your safety margin while portaging is by keeping your life jacket and helmet on. Paddlers are tempted to take off their gear when they get hot, or just out of habit. If it is only habit, you can change your habits. If you get hot, use the river to cool off. You can jump in or pour helmets full of water over your head, then put the helmet back on. It would be really embarrassing to get a head injury while you are carrying your helmet…but not on your head.
Wearing your river gear affords protection against collisions with rocks or equipment, and it keeps you prepared to be in the water. You could jump in to retrieve something or as part of a rescue, or you could fall in. In any event, wearing a pfd, helmet and top notch footwear is baseline protection.
The ability to adjust your strategy to the situation you actually encounter (instead of the one you expect) will contribute to your long life. When planning a self-support trip, people often pick dates that work for their calendars, and then pray that the conditions will be right. When people have short windows in which to accomplish a trip, they will be tempted to go even when the conditions are not safe.
To avoid this trap, it’s essential that someone in the group understands what conditions you need to safely launch. It’s also essential that the group be flexible enough to change plans. Someone in your group should have a sense of the flow inputs, pinpoint reasonable minimum and maximum flows for your group, and then use those parameters to make the go/no-go decision. Research contingency plans, because it is easier to redirect than to cancel if the planned trip becomes a no-go. Check flows, weather, and road conditions before you leave home, and if the conditions are bad, don’t leave. If the conditions are fine when you leave home, check them again before you launch. If it doesn’t look good, don’t launch. It’s that simple.
Predicting weather for the next couple of days isn’t difficult, but a week out is trickier. It’s one thing to look at the weather predictions on some website, plug in the zip code of the nearest town, and decide that the weather will be good enough. It’s another thing to consult radar, snotel sites, wind patterns and such, and know if there will be headwinds, smoke from wildfires, heavy precipitation, or a snowmelt flow bump on any given day. Get help from expert meteorologists in interpreting the data when it matters.
It’s particularly important to consult experts when you are headed to a part of the world that you don’t know. Research seasonal patterns and anomalies and talk to people who have been there. Note the elevations and latitude of your run and plan for the full range of possible conditions. Track the hydrographs. Bring clothing and shelter that will be adequate for the worst possible weather. It’s easy to underestimate the cold when you are in a warm valley, or before the sun is hidden behind rain clouds.
No matter how well you plan, you can be taken by surprise. Sometimes things you might not expect are well known to locals, so investigate thoroughly.
For example, the Illinois River in Oregon is a unique drainage that experiences dramatic spikes in flow. It’s a 56-mile long tributary of the Rogue River that catches storms right off the ocean. It has many large tributaries and unusual geology that limits topsoil formation causing super-fast runoff. Days after a rain, the streamflow on the Illinois triples between the put-in and the take-out. The gauge is upstream of the put-in, so paddlers launching at a moderate flow of 2,000 CFS can expect 6,000 by the take-out, even without additional rain.
During a rain the flow increases can be exponential. People have died on the Illinois because they thought it would be better to paddle out than to camp an extra night on some rocky slope, waiting for the water to come down. Paddlers who know this about the Illinois choose weather that offers no threat of rising water. Even commercial raft trips bring an extra night’s food, expecting to camp until water levels begin to fall.
Aside from runoff anomalies, extreme weather and sudden geological events are rare but real. Microbursts and tornadoes form quickly and can have dramatic impacts. Thunderstorms miles away can cause flash floods and lightning strikes under blue skies. Landslides like the one on the Jarbidge River in Idaho in 2009 can dam the river leaving boaters to wonder where the water went, or surprise them with a brand new rapid. If there’s one thing we know about the natural environment, it is that change is normal, and surprises are to be expected. Always study the map and know how to get off the river if you must.
Varmints, venomous snakes, grizzly bears and biting or stinging insects can all cause trouble for river runners. By varmints I mean anything that will chew holes in your drybags or life jacket pocket to get at your snacks. Sometimes rodents will chew through things that don’t even contain food. Mice, squirrels, raccoons, ringtail cats and the like can really put a dent in your food supply and your dry storage. Bring a sewing kit, patches and Aquaseal so that you can fix stuff that gets chewed, whether by critters or by the river. A spare waterproof stuff sack weighs little and can come in very handy. You can even use it to hang your food in a tree, or to contain food odors when you stash food in your boat.
Snakebites are uncommon but they can be very unpleasant. Find out about any venomous snakes living near your destination. Rattlesnakes are most common in the west, but cottonmouths, moccasins and copperheads can hurt people too. When in venomous snake territory, have good communications ability and an evacuation plan. Take measures to avoid getting bitten, like wearing sturdy shoes and something on your legs, and moving carefully when on land. If someone does get bitten, they will need immediate evacuation.
On North America’s far northern and western rivers, grizzly bears are a persistent challenge. Learn all about them if you plan to trip where they live. Avoid them when possible, minimize their interest in your stuff, and know how to properly confront them if you must. In the far north, satellite-based communications are less reliable because there are fewer satellites in that sky, and pilots only fly in the right conditions to the few reasonable landing spots, so rescues can be slow.
There is no shortage of wild things that might impact your trip. On one of our trips this year I pulled seven ticks off of a fellow group member. Ravens will steal things. Bee stings are just an inconvenience unless someone has an allergy, or gets stung too many times. As long as we are in their home, it is our job to understand the wild residents and minimize negative interactions with them.
Everybody wants someone else to bring the first aid kit. I am of the opinion that each individual should bring first aid supplies. There are two reasons why. One is that if you have Band Aids handy, you will take better care of your own small wounds. Devoted daily care of minor injuries helps prevent infections and worse troubles. The second reason is that if someone in your group suffers a more serious injury, one first aid kit doesn’t go very far. Improvising with duct tape and bandanas is not really sufficient when you are managing a wound for infection for a week on the water. Treating a serious injury might take supplies from several kits, so bring yours.
I split my first aid supplies into an owie kit and a major first aid kit. My owie kit is easily accessible in my day bag and contains things that I use all the time, plus a few emergency supplies that could be urgently needed, packed in a quart sized Ziplock freezer bag. Specifically my owie kit contains flexible fabric Band Aids, triple antibiotic ointment, Gorilla Tape wrapped on a Sharpie, butterflies, Ibuprofen, a hemostatic bandage and a menstrual pad, tweezers, electrolyte packets, Benadryl, a pair of gloves and a CPR shield. I also keep an epi pen and my trauma shears handy. Your kit will be different depending on your needs and knowledge.
My major first aid kit gets stashed deeper in the boat and usually stays there. I know exactly where I put this kit, and I tell people where it is. It contains an ace bandage, medical tape, more Gorilla Tape, zip ties, gauze, betadine swabs, water purification tablets, sterile dressings and bandaging supplies (menstrual pads make a cheap dressing), Aspirin, pain meds and antibiotics, eye drops, more hemostatic bandages and owie kit supplies, gloves, scissors, another epi pen and more Benadryl. I’m a doctor so I bring things that help with muscle soreness, constipation, infections, poison ivy/oak, sleeplessness and sunburn. Bring what you know how to use, and share as you deem appropriate.
No matter what you bring, events can exceed your capacity to deal with them. You can improvise a splint, but you can’t stop a heart attack or fix a rattlesnake bite. When rotten things happen, having an evacuation plan and communications ability can save the day.
When your situation is impossible, your best hope is to summon help from the outside world. Flagging down a commercial raft trip works in the Grand Canyon, but in places where there are few or no other people you need another plan. Sending a runner is only as fast as the wilderness is small. Cell phones are rarely effective in remote river canyons, but may connect in some areas if you climb to a high point. Satellite phones work in the lower 48 but they are heavy and expensive, and kayakers balk at their weight.
There are some lighter communication tools that are useful for kayak self-support. In the desert a signal mirror can get a response if you have sunlight and air traffic. These mirrors are tiny and can be carried on your person in case you are separated from the group. Unfortunately mirrors don’t work at night or on a rainy day, and there is no legal obligation for pilots to act on your signal.
Your best hope for getting help in the wilds is to carry a personal locator beacon (PLB) like those used on private aircraft. These devices can send an SOS signal that brings help to you, and are well worth the $300-700 price tag if you ever have to use one. Pairing one of these with good evacuation insurance can make your escape from a bad situation relatively easy.
If you don’t have a PLB on your trip, at least make sure someone knows when you are supposed to come out. Ideally that person will notify authorities and invoke a rescue effort if you don’t communicate within a certain timeframe.
Every item on your packing list is part of your safety kit. You just never know what that bandana might end up being used for. Every boater should have the standard safety/rescue gear that we use on day trips, including a knife, rope, carabiners, webbing and such. It bears repeating that excellent footwear makes you a better rescuer and gives you the option of hiking out if needed.
Your equipment should be sturdy and reliable, but it can still get broken or lost. For essential items like paddles, you should bring spares. If the river eats your paddle, you get out your spare. If the river eats your spare paddle, then what? Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.
It’s much easier to invent solutions when you have tools and supplies on hand. Every individual should bring some versatile repair supplies so that your group can combine resources to repair things.
Tape has so many uses that it tops the list for repair materials. Duct tape used to be the standard but these days Gorilla Tape is popular because it’s stronger and stickier. You can use it to temporarily repair broken paddles, cracked boats, tent poles and lots more. A lighter-powered pocket torch is useful in cold/wet conditions to dry surfaces before applying tape, and warm up the tape to assure a seal. Tape can also be used for bandaging blisters, casting broken digits, patching shoes, and making wind screens for stoves.
You may also choose to bring tools specific to your boat or a multi tool with screw drivers and pliers, a sewing kit, metal tubes for fixing tent poles, Aquaseal, superglue and self-adhesive patches for repairing punctured sleeping pads or drysuits.
The last bit of equipment that could save your life is your personal survival kit. If you somehow lost your boat and were separated from your group, how would you fare? You can stash a few survival items on your person just in case. My survival kit includes a whistle, compass, fire-making materials, water purification tablets, a signal mirror, a bit of food, my ID, credit card, cash and a personalized emergency contact/medical info page, all stashed in my lifejacket pocket and in the leg of my drysuit. Some people wear a small fanny pack underneath their sprayskirt to contain emergency items. You will probably never need this stuff, but if you do, you will be glad you thought ahead.
The upside of self-support is the freedom to be on the river with only what you need. The downside is that you have less backup. If you are having a bad day, there is no raft to drag your kayak up onto. If you put a hole in your boat, you had best be able to repair it. If you dislocate a shoulder, hopefully you know how to reduce it, brought good meds, and know where to hike out. If you have a heart attack, maybe somebody will even have a beacon that could bring a helicopter. Self-support demands a higher level of skill and preparedness than a garden variety day trip, and carries a higher level of objective risk.
This article only scrapes the surface of what could go wrong and how you might deal with it. The mindset of preparedness and the ingenuity required to improvise solutions are more important than following any checklist. When each individual thoughtfully packs their own unique survival gear, the combined resources increase the safety margin for all participants. The glorious thing about self-support kayaking with a prepared group is the adaptability that we gain from our collective skills, knowledge and preparation.
Disclaimer: Self-support kayaking is not for the rookie kayaker. If you are not sure of your roll, or if your river skills and survival equipment aren’t more than adequate for the adventure to be attempted, don’t go.
About the Author: Teresa Gryder is an integrative physician and lifelong paddler currently residing in the whitewater Mecca of Portland, Oregon.