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White Water River Etiquette

White Water River EtiquetteThe following is the first in a three part series of  an excerpt from an article written by Chris Joosse on the subject of White Water River Etiquette! This particular article is all about folks who love to Kayak, however these rules can equally apply to people who are part of a White Water Tour group. Lots can be learned from this article and that is why we wanted to post it on this web site. Hope you enjoy reading this post and can learn from it. Your comments are welcome.

As kayaking has become more popular and as river traffic has increased over time, it has become necessary to evolve conventions of etiquette and right of way to minimize the otherwise inevitable friction that arises as a result of crowding around play spots.

White Water River Etiquette

The first order of business is to understand that courtesy, safety, and common sense are the basis from which white water river etiquette are derived.

Meeting Strangers at the Put-in

Nearly everyone’s heard stories about nightmare days on the river. Where a friend met up with some stranger at the put-in who overstated their abilities. Then proceeded to swim nineteen times. Didn’t have float bags in their boat. Scammed a bit of everyone’s lunch. Didn’t have a rope, a clue, or any common sense. While these stories are mercifully rare, they do happen. They can make for a frustrating day for everyone involved.

It’s expected, if you’re looking to attach yourself to a group at the put-in, or if you’re arranging to paddle with someone you don’t know. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions about your abilities, familiarity with the run, what gear you’re carrying, your experience, etc. Be honest.

If someone asks to join your group, don’t be shy about asking for credentials. Whether they’ve done this stretch of river before. Whether they’re carrying appropriate safety equipment. Also whether they’ve got float bags in their boat. Don’t be afraid to refuse their request if you think they’ll be a problem.

Paddling over your head

Unless you’ve got an understanding with your party to the contrary, it’s not just unsafe to put yourself in a position where you’ll regularly require rescue. It’s a fairly serious imposition upon their generosity. We all get into trouble and need help from time to time. But if your ‘time to time’ is on a regular basis, you may have a problem. Not only are you making decisions that endanger you and your group, you’re putting them in a precarious position.

It’s sensible, not only out of your own interest in remaining healthy and alive, to avoid putting people in your party in a position where they might have to choose to save themselves over saving you- that is the stuff of nightmares. Paddle responsibly.


Believe it or not, there are do’s and don’ts involved in rescues.

Don’t wait for a rescue if you can safely work on self-rescuing. When your buddies get there, they’ll appreciate your effort.

If you’re on the receiving end of a rescue, do your best to help. That means kick when your rescuer says ‘kick’, let go of your boat if your rescuer tells you to let go of your boat, and let go of your rescuer if that’s what they say. In a rescue situation, the rescuer is boss and their word is law. Your job is to cooperate with your rescuer to the best of your ability, and to endanger them as little as you can. It’s best to make their job easy- make eye contact with them, talk to them, let them know you’re not going to climb up on their boat (and them) in a crazed panic. If you don’t tell them, they’ll have to find out somehow.

Avoid Endangering Yourself

As a rescuer, your job is to avoid endangering yourself first, and help the other guy if you can second. Before you collect a swimmer, talk to them- ascertain that they’re copus mentis, (do not come in contact with a swimmer who’s panicking) establish a plan to get them to safety, and execute on that plan. If they’re not cooperating, bark orders. If they put you in danger by not cooperating, no holds are barred.

Also If you’re not involved in the rescue, you’ve got two things to do: 1) make sure you’re safe, the rescuers can’t deal with more people to save, and 2) if you’re capable of helping somehow without endangering yourself or others, help out.

After the rescue, remember to thank everyone involved in it. It is considered good etiquette to offer beverages at the end of the day to anyone who either recovered gear or you, at a rate of one beverage per item/incident.

Know your access rights

We abuse the word ‘navigable’ when it comes to water on a regular basis. The word ‘navigable’ means different things in different contexts. In different principalities because one meaning of the word refers to whether said water can be navigated in fact. While the legal usage of the word means something different rules vary from state to state. But generally in the US for a body of water to be deemed ‘navigable’ in the legal sense, it must have a history or current demonstrated use for hauling commerce. Or be specifically declared ‘navigable’ by a state (which normally uses the prior test).

It’s been wrangled to and fro. But according to precedent in every state that I’m aware of, “the ability to float it in a canoe” does not satisfy the law’s definition of navigability, despite our ability to actually navigate it.

Property Law

The reason for the more stringent test is one of property law- ‘navigable’ water is always held by the state or principality as a public trust. While ‘non-navigable’ water is subject, depending on specific states’ laws, to private ownership. One of the fundamental principles in the US constitution is that private property is more or less holy.

What this means to you and me is that very often we don’t actually have the iron-clad right to be on a given reach of water. It may be common practice to run a stretch of river not deemed officially ‘navigable’ in your principality. However it still pays to curry good will with the locals and adjacent landowners. Be discreet about changing, courteous about parking, and invisible in all other respects if at all possible.

Watch for our next article in this series regarding Right of Way.

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2 Responses to “White Water River Etiquette”

  1. this is really good information about white water rafting rules and guidelines. too bad more people did not read this ahead of time before they went rafting

  2. Most Americans don’t boil our water unless there is a water main break, flood or plubic announcement by the government. Our water supplier is supposed to notify us if our water doesn’t meet EPA or state standards or if there is a waterborne disease emergency. If we know all the contaminants in our water these days, we should take more precaution. Yeah, I agree, purifier + boiling is the best way to go! (I heard boiling alone doesn’t get rid of all the chemicals and metals in tap water)exile

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