navigation bar

Wilderness Tripping Protocols
by Marc W. McCord

Lower Canyons trip, November, 2004

To me, nothing is more exciting or fun than river tripping on a remote wilderness stream far removed from any vestiges of civilization where paddlers are truly one with nature and self-dependent for everything. Over the last decade wilderness tripping has become a staple of my personal and commercial paddling. While the majority of my paddling is done with close friends on weekend whitewater trips, and occasionally on a scenic flatwater river, I try to do three or four truly wilderness trips per year because, to me, these are special trips that make me glad I became a paddler.

In the first place, I get to see a lot of places that few people on earth will ever see in their lifetimes because they are far off the beaten paths we generally take. Often, these trips are to places where the only way in and out is in a canoe, kayak or raft, which cuts down on the number of other people to be encountered along the way. It also results in more wildlife sightings, and some of my trips have produced sightings of bald and golden eagles, black bears, bighorm sheep, buffalo, elk, moose, wild donkeys, javelina, Russian black boars, feral hogs, beavers, river otters, bobcats, a wide variety of snakes, mountain goats and who knows what else. I have paddled through deserts, deep canyons and swamps, each with its own special topography and features. Each of these sightings is always exciting, and I try to have my camera ready to capture the moment to preserve memories for the days when I am too old or infirmed to paddle these great trips.

For all its glory, wilderness tripping requires a special attention to details from planning through preparation to execution. There are many elements that go into planning and taking a wilderness trip, many of which are common to all river trips, but some of which are exclusive to tripping in remote places where help can be days or even weeks away, and where self-preservation is required to survive if something goes wrong. Failing to plan for a successful trip is the same thing as planning to fail, and nothing is worse than being in an emergency situation in the wilderness without a plan for safe extrication.

To be sure, many paddlers undertake wilderness trips with minimal planning and usually come out perfectly safe at the end. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and sometimes bad things happen to very good paddlers who are generally careful and take no uncalculated risks, which is why prior planning is so critical. It is simply not possible to ever foresee every potential problem that can occur, but making the effort might save some problems that can be avoided by thorough planning and preparation, such as taking proper clothing for possible weather and climate conditions, having a properly-equipped First Aid kit (and knowing how to use it), having adequate food and water with a little extra in the event part or all of the group gets stranded or somebody has to be left behind for a few days due to illness or injury, and other similar situations.

The planning stage is where you anticipate everything that could be needed for a problem-free trip. The preparation stage involves writing down, contemplating and arranging all parts of the trip from gathering proper gear and supplies to making logistical arrangements to developing a viable emergency plan. The execution stage is actually taking the trip according to your plan, making sure that you are on schedule and working your plan to assure an eventful and memorable trip from which everybody returns safely. Discussing the infinite details of these three stages would take many pages and a lot of hours, so I am going to briefly highlight the way I plan my excursions into the wilderness. Please bear in mind that planning for each trip is different and the process is dynamic. You will not follow each step outlined below or make every preparation detailed, but this will serve as a general guideline around which you can plan a successful trip.

The Planning Stage

  • Select your destination;
  • Select your trip dates;
  • Familiarize yourself with river characteristics;
  • Select outfitters for boat and gear rentals, shuttles, etc.;
  • Determine put-in and take-out points;
  • Select team members based upon required experience;
  • Establish gear requirements;
  • Determine shared responsibilities;
  • Establish rendezvous logistics;
  • Develop emergency contingencies;
    • Major First Aid kit;
    • Signal devices (flares, mirror, whistle, Klaxon horn, etc.);
    • Satellite phone;
    • Assess First Aid and CPR skills of group members;
    • Review rescue skills of group members;
    • Acquire a list of emergency phone numbers
  • Plan a pre-trip meeting, if possible;
  • Share information with group members;
  • Confirm all details with each group member
  • The Preparation Stage

  • Make a gear checklist;
  • Make a supplies checklist;
  • Confirm trip logistics;
    • Make shuttle arrangements;
    • Make gear rental arrangements;
    • Make camping reservations;
    • Determine all trip-related costs
  • Confirm logistical plans with group members
  • The Execution Stage

  • Rendezvous at the designated time and place;
  • Have a pre-launch meeting to discuss the trip;
    • Discuss river conditions;
    • Discuss emergency procedures;
    • Designate lead and sweep boats;
    • Check gear and equipment;
  • Final checklist for gear and supplies;
  • Shuttle to put-in;
  • Leave unnecessary valuables with car or outfitter;
  • Load boats and launch;
  • Follow scheduled trip plan;
  • Arrive at take-out at or before planned time;
  • Upload boats, then repack vehicles;
  • Double check to make sure nothing is left behind;
  • Group hugs and photos (optional)
  • As you can see, there is quite a lot to planning and taking a wilderness river trip. Working from a written game plan is the best insurance against forgetting something required or necessary. I have not discussed things like getting permits, private property access permission or other matters like that, but those are also necessary and should be undertaken in a logical sequence prior to driving a long way to do a trip. It all comes down to carefully thinking about and planning the trip so that it comes off without a hitch and everybody leaves feeling good about having been a participant in a great wilderness adventure.

    Be sure to be a good steward of the environment - take only photographs and leave only footprints. It is always nice when trip participants share their photos with each other so that everybody gets to recall the joy of the trip for many years to come. On many of our trips somebody volunteers to collect photos from everybody who took them, burn CDs or DVDs, then distribute them to each person in the group. I also share my photos with members of my paddling club, my clients on commercial guided trips and others who would enjoy seeing the places I have been. I use my photos to promote paddlesports and wilderness camping in an effort to entice more people to turn off the television, go outside and play.

    Read previous "On the Water" Feature Stories
    [ Surviving Hypothermia ] [ Rescues in Hydraulic Currents ]
    [ Texas Water Safari ] [ Dangers of Low-Water Bridges ]

    Southwest Paddler
    Click to return to the Southwest Paddler Homepage
    Home Page
    Southwest Paddler

    Arkansas Rivers Index
    Canoeman River

    Guide Services
    Return to the homepage
    Home Page

    CobraGraphics - Web Designs with a Bite!

    Send E-mail This web page designed, created and maintained by
    Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics
    © July 20, 2007. All rights reserved.
    Last updated October 31, 2009

    Copyright © 1998-2010, Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. All rights reserved. Southwest Paddler, CobraGraphics and Canoeman River Guide Services are trademarks of Marc W. McCord dba CobraGraphics. The textual, graphic, audio, and audio/visual material in this site is protected by United States copyright law and international treaties. You may not copy, distribute, or use these materials except for your personal, non-commercial use. Any trademarks are the property of their respective owners. All original photographs on this web site are the exclusive property of Marc W. McCord or other designated photographers and may not be copied, duplicated, reproduced, distributed or used in any manner without prior written permission under penalty of US and International laws and treaties.