Deciding If, When, and How Far to Paddle

Wind, weather, water

  • Wind—Strength and direction
  • Weather—Current and expected conditions
  • Water—Water temperature, size of waves, presence/strength of currents, tides or rapids

Route features

  • The amount of protection from wind and waves
  • The direction of travel relative to wind and waves
  • The location of safe landing zones throughout your route (in case conditions worsen and you're forced to take shelter)

Paddler skills

  • Paddling experience in similar conditions
  • The ability of the least experienced paddler in the group to handle the current conditions (never ask a less experienced paddler to exceed their own limits just so the group can continue)
  • General mood of the group (Anyone tired? Sore? Any injuries?)

If there's any doubt about proceeding safely, wait a while to see if conditions improve. Never paddle into questionable conditions simply to stay on schedule. Make sure your trip plans include extra time for rest days, non-paddling activities, and delays caused by inclement weather.

The Pre-Paddle Meeting

Once the decision to paddle has been made, the next step is to plan a specific itinerary for the day. This itinerary should reflect the water, weather and wind conditions, as well as the desires and goals of group members.

To make sure everyone is informed about the day's plans, hold a brief pre-paddle meeting each morning. If there are a number of experienced paddlers in your group, use the meeting to solicit input about the day's plans. If you're leading a less inexperienced group, use the meeting to explain the reasoning behind the day's plans.

Be sure to discuss the specifics of the upcoming route with everyone in the group. Everyone should know the location of the day's probable destination, the most likely rest stops and lunch spots along the way, and any hazards or attractions they may encounter.

NOTE: If you're going to be traveling far during the day, identify a rendezvous point somewhere near the middle of the day's travels where everyone can gather up in case the group gets divided.

Deciding How Far to Go

The best way to ensure a happy, well-rested paddling group is to select a number of possible stopping points in addition to your primary destination. Rather than push hard all day, let the pace of the group and the conditions throughout the day determine where your next camp is pitched. Be careful—in popular paddling areas, campsites begin filling up early in the afternoon. Start looking early, or you may have to paddle a long way to find an open spot.

Making Sure that Everyone is Ready

Once the day's itinerary has been mapped out and agreed upon, it's time to pack up camp and get ready to hit the water. Before your group shoves off, be sure to make the following safety checks:

On-shore equipment checks

Make sure that every paddler in your group has easy access to the equipment they'll need while paddling. This includes their:

  • PFD
  • Primary paddle
  • An extra paddle (one per boat)
  • Signaling devices
  • First-aid kit
  • Detailed map or chart of the route (stored in a water-tight case)
  • Reliable compass
  • Water and a light snack
  • The right clothing for the conditions, plus an extra layer, just in case

Boat checks

Once everyone has the gear they'll need, turn your attention to their boats. Make sure that:

  • All storage bags are closed and securely tied in
  • Any gear stored outside of the main bags is securely fastened to the boat
  • Any spray covers being used are secure
  • The boat is trimmed properly, level in the water front to back