Good planning can make your next river trip more enjoyable and safer for everyone connected to it.

River trip planning can be an enjoyable activity, conducted while you’re forced to earn a living or holed up because of the weather or season. A little pre-trip planning will greatly improve the potential success of a river trip and increase safety for all involved.


Kayak River

Check around with other boaters and search the internet for available guidebooks for the areas you plan to paddle. Many kayak and canoe clubs have locally favorite publications. Another option is to hire a professional river guide for your group or take a trip offered by a qualified outfitter.

Maps and GPS

Purchase the topographic (topo) maps published by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) for the rivers you plan to run. Traditional paper and digital maps are available from the USGS and its contracted vendors. A new product being offered by USGS is what they call GeoPDF that are scans of topographic maps that have been geo registered.

This process adds spatial data to a topo map that can be viewed on screen or printed. Learn to read, orientate and navigate with a topo map before relying on a GPS receiver. Batteries and electronic equipment can fail at inopportune moments, while a paper map and compass will continue to function smoothly.

Stream Flow and River Gauges

Hydrologists measure water flow at fixed points along waterways in terms of cubic meters or cubic feet per second. A river’s character and the feasibility of running it is absolutely dependent on the amount of water flowing down its course. I

n the United States, the National Weather Service conducts river flow forecasting and the US Geographic Survey (USGS) operates gauging sites. Real-time data from many river gauges is available online. An example is a gauge located on the Stikine River near Wrangell, Alaska.

International Scale of Difficulty

Kayak River

River classifications are a little subjective and will change seasonally (sometimes daily) with shifts in water flow. They do provide a good starting point for trip planning. This is a version of the scale provided by American Whitewater. Add a degree of difficulty for water under 10°C (50°F).

  • Class I – Moving water with few riffles and small waves. Few or no obstructions
  • Class II – Easy rapids with waves up to three feet and wide clear channels that are obvious
  • Class III – Rapids with high, irregular waves often capable of swamping an open canoe. Narrow passages that often require complex maneuvering. May require some scouting from shore
  • Class IV – Long, difficult rapids and constricted passages that often require precise maneuvering in very turbulent waters. Scout from shore often necessary and conditions make rescue difficult. Canoeists and kayakers should have the ability to roll
  • Class V – Extremely difficult. Long very violent rapids with highly congested routes that nearly always must be scouted. Rescue conditions are difficult and there is a significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. Ability to execute a roll is essential for all boaters in kayaks and closed canoes
  • Class VI – Difficulties in Class V carried to the extreme of navigability. Nearly impossible and very dangerous. For experts only

Assessment of Group Member Skills

Based on the information developed through available publications, topo maps, and stream flow forecasts, take a hard and honest look at the ability of your group members. The lowest common denominator reflecting individual knowledge, skill, and ability will determine the overall performance of your group. Group ability needs to be matched to river conditions.

Other Considerations

Assess the intended area of operation for ready access. Locations that are hard to reach will require greater logistic effort and slow emergency service response. Add a cushion of time for poor weather and avoid pushing the weather to complete a trip. Remember to observe proper wilderness etiquette and respect the rights of others. Practice No Trace outdoor skills and pack out your trash.

Float Plans and Trip Permits

File a float plan with a responsible person prior to your departure. By providing route and scheduling information, someone will know that you are overdue and have a better idea of where to locate you.

Checking in with your plan holder at regular intervals can greatly speed rescue by reducing the overall search area. Many river trips require a permit from the agency overseeing the waterway. A float plan is a major component of many trip permits.