Paddling in the wilderness
where help could be days away should not be taken lightly.
To be as safe as possible, it takes much more attentiveness
and preparedness than paddling on a familiar roadside
run. Extra care needs to be taken not only on the water
but while scouting and hiking too. What are you going
to do with a broken leg...or a broken wrist? Even a
sprained ankle can turn in to an ordeal. You should
also pick your paddling partners with the same amount
of caution. It is best to paddle with people whom you’re
comfortable with both in and out of the water. Not only
will you be around them 24 hours a day, your life may
depend on them.
be looking for trouble - not to get into it, but to
stay out of it.
General trip preparation
a good idea for
on the trip to familiarize themselves with the river
canyon and adjacent topography via topo maps*
and Google Earth.
Make note of all major geographical points, distances,
tributaries, trails and roads in case there’s
a problem forcing someone to hike out. You should
basically be looking for escape routes. Being familiar
with the general terrain will also make it easier
to make time/distance correlations for picking campsites,
Matt discussing emergency escape routes at the
this could mean the difference between a strenuous
all day hike & a multi-day epic.
the pre-trip study, I recommend taking a map too.
They weigh little and take up even less space.
and National Geographic both have good topo software.
Delorme Topo USA and Google Earth make an incredibly
- Gear check:
The put-in is not the place to find out your neck
gasket is ripped or water filter clogged or rancid.
Do a thorough gear check at home well before you depart.
This may seem like common sense but kayakers have
a habit of ignoring this on seemingly trival things.
Trust me. Catching something at home can save you
a lot of grief later. Here are a few things to consider:
- inspect, clean & lubricate
all gaskets and drysuit zippers
- check your drybags for holes
& make sure the closures function properly
- if you're new to self-support,
do a fit check - i.e., make sure everything fits
in your bags & in to your boat
helmet straps, buckles & liner
- check paddle for hairline cracks
water filter for function & potability (it’s
not uncommon for bacteria to cause charcoal filter
cartridges to go foul after a certain amount of
& inspect all kayak hardware & outfitting
your shoe laces &/or straps
sure your lighter works & stove lights
An absolute minimum for any one should be a class in
basic first aid technique and CPR. A comprehensive wilderness
first aid course is highly advisable. Once you take
these courses and study a few books, you should have
a good idea what you’ll need in your first aid
- Whether your kit is homemade
or commercial, the contents should always be adjusted
according to trip duration, special hazards, the
particular group, location and so on.
- To save weight and space, do
not carry anything that you or your group doesn’t
know how to use.
- Have the groups most competent
paddler carry the kit and keep it easily accessible
in a separate dry container (i.e.
Nalgene bottle) or bag.
- Thinking of carrying a CPR
face shield? For quicker access (and
time is of the essence here),
carry it in your PFD pocket, not in the first aid
- Using the heimlich
to save drowning victims gets high praise from some.
I am not recommending the heimlich in lieu
of CPR for drowning...but, it may
have its place, in certain circumstances. You do
the research and make that call.
knowledge & gear
Although it should never be expected of some one to
risk their life for you, it’s comforting to know
that your partners have rescue knowledge. They would
probably appreciate the same of you.
Take as many rescue classes as you
reasonably can and practice what you learn. Also, study
rescue videos and books*. I used the
term study because, unless you have a photographic memory,
simply looking at them once is not sufficient. After
all this, and personal experience, you'll have a good
feel for the equipment you should take. The following
is basic overview:
With a good PFD, all of this can be
carried on person, where it is easily and quickly accessed.
The throw bag and sling can be worn on your waist. See
- throw bag
- three carabiners
- tow system
- small folding saw
- rescue pfd with a built-in quick
- two pulleys - Petzl
Ultralegeres are super
light & less than $5
- two prusiks
- 1” tubular webbing anchor
River Guide PFD with whistle tethered to shoulder
(shoulder padding removed); Pentax Optio W20 top
right; Kershaw Leek SpeedSafe knife with serrated
blade & traction tape added to handle, tethered
to PFD; Oregon folding pruning saw; two Petzl
Ultralegeres pulleys; fire starting kit in waterproof
bottle; Mini Bic with duct tape; CPR face shield;
biner; 9' of 1" tubular webbing sling with
biner, worn around waist; Salamander Golden Retriever
worn around waist, upper left; two prussiks, lower
- For the rope, I prefer ¼”
spectra line as it’s more compact yet has a
higher tensile strength than 3/8” polypropylene.
This higher strength makes it suitable for light mechanical
rescues. Obviously, bigger is better but......
- A waist worn bag will save space
in the boat plus it’ll always be there when
you need it. Beware that some are prone to
coming loose potentially causing entanglement. Check
yours & your groups often....while floating, on
portages, breaks, etc.
- For quickest access, wear a sheathed
knife on your pfd.
- Do not use a rescue pfd without
- Leave your neoprene socks at
home and wear real shoes
inside your boat. You are a liability to both
yourself and your buddies without proper footware.
- When worn around the waist, a
tubular webbing sling (see blue webbing in pic above)
is an extremely versatile piece of gear that's easy
and quick to don and doff. A few uses are: Anchor
point for z-drags, vector pulls, etc; dragging your
boat; pulling boat up steep/vertical pitches; lowering
boat down steep/vertical pitches; immobilizing dislocated
shoulders; sit harness; and what ever else your imagination
comes up with. Wear it like a belt with a carabiner
acting as the buckle. To minimize snagging hazards,
adjust the length so it's snug when wrapped around
You and your group must be able
to extricate yourselves from every imaginable predicament
so plan accordingly.
books are River Rescue by
Les Bechdel and Slim Ray, Whitewater Rescue
Manual by Charles Walbridge and Wayne
Sundmacher Sr, and White Water Safety and
Rescue by Franco Ferrero. For the video,
check out Whitewater Self-Defense by
Repair: Always carry materials for patching
a cracked boat. My preference is
Tear-Aid (Type A) backed-up with Duct tape.
A friend squeezed a season of NF Payette paddling
from a cracked kayak using nothing but Tear-Aid.
In this pic, two cracks (6" & 2")
were covered with Tear-Aid on the inside then Gorilla
tape inside & out. 60 more miles of rocky paddling.
No problem! There are other methods/materials. Just
make sure your chosen is proven! Simple is good.
Regardless, it is critical to drill a small hole
at each end of the crack to arrest crack enlargement.
Tip of a small knife works. Think ~1/16" diameter.
One of the nice things about kayaking is that it’s
an individualist sport. However, prior to getting on
the water, it’s a good idea to work out a plan
to move more efficiently and safely down stream.
A couple things to consider:
- which signals will be used
while moving downstream and during a rescue
- who will run lead and bring
up the rear
No one wants to hike/climb out of a remote wilderness
canyon...especially one with no trail. But, it can happen
any where to any one. Being prepared can make your life
a whole lot easier...or even save it.
Just a few of the most common
things that might force a paddler or group to hike out:
such as a shoulder dislocation, broken ribs/intercostal
tear, broken wrist, etc
or lost boat
- river difficulties
caused from bad judgement, flows, incorrect or unknown
If you are lucky, your hike may begin near the put-in
or take-out and only require minimal effort. If not
so lucky, you may have a multi-day trek to look forward
to. Depending on the conditions and or circumstances,
you may very well have to leave your boat behind and
retrieve later. At any rate, if at all possible, you'll
want to get yourself and equipment out under your or
your groups own power. Calling upon the authorities,
or other outside help where the media could get involved,
should only be done as a last resort.
Remember. This is SELF-support.
Below are a few things to consider at home in case
that dreaded day comes...all learned from misadventures
of my own, on the range and river:
- Shoes: worthy
of redundancy. Refer here.
do you know where the easiest escape route is...river
right or left, how far above the canyon, etc?
Refer to "Maps."
- What to pack out and
what to leave? Assuming you have not lost
your boat, ideally, you should pack every thing out
right then. It's not often that this is a practical
option though. In these cases, take no more than what
the circumstances call for. Just stash the rest and
- Water: dehydration
robs energy, causes dizziness and headaches, and reduces
the ability to concentrate...all things you do not
want at a time like this. In extreme cases, dehydration
can even lead to death.
- carry a packable reservoir,
in your PFD pocket. If you lose everything, you'll
still have a way to pack water. Even if you don't
lose your boat with your water bottle, in some
cases, you will need/want more capacity than what
your bottle has. This is particularly important
when traveling in the desert.
- If extra capacity is
needed (i.e. hot arid regions
w/ greater walking distances), put
water in a drybag/drybags and rig a carrying
system. If more than one is hiking out, each
person can take turns packing it. I've done
this. It works but can make the water taste
- Fire: warmth,
signaling or to keep bugs at bay.
- Always carry at least two
fire starting implements in your PFD. Lost boat,
no problem. I carry a lighter and flint.
- Fire starting material will
make your life
a lot easier when you are tired, hungry and cold.
I like birthday candles and cotton balls saturated
in Vaseline. Pulled apart a bit, one ball like
this will burn for nealy 5 minutes. Candles are
easy to light and burn a long time. Starting a
fire with a lit candle will save fuel in your
lighter. 2-3 candles, 1 flint stick (requires
practice) and a half dozen cotton balls
will fit in a standard pill vial (see
photo at right). Keep this in your PFD
- Be able to start a fire in
any condition at any time. Practice at home if
you can't. Also, being able to start a fire with
nothing but sticks is a big plus. If nothing
else, you can wow your friends at camp!
- Food: this isn't
an absoute nessecity but just a little can give you
a good energy and much welcomed morale boost. Food
will also help you sleep better if you get stuck out.
- If only one has to hike out
due to a lost boat, share food with that person.
Actually, always carrying a bar inside your PFD
or drysuit/drytop pocket is a good habit to get
- You will
likely be walking through, by and over various
wild edibles. Learn to forage.
if need be, you can grab the attention of others
from miles away by simply using the sun. While a
"signal mirror" is ideal, just about any
shiny, reflective, and polished item could work;
tin foil, inside of an energy bar wrapper, aluminum
can, polished stainless steel knife blade, etc.
Like every thing else in this section, carry the
signal device on person in a secure pocket.
out of the canyon is only part of the challenge.
With nothing as far as the eye can see and an
injured knee, these paddlers are in for a different
kind of self-support.
- An all too often
overlooked aspect to safety
is the colors one chooses. If you need new
gear, whether it be boat or apparel, please, do yourself
and buddies a favor and buy bright. Paddling,
pinned, swimming, scouting, etc... the gray, black
and similarly dull and dark colors so prevalent in
todays market are difficult to see and are nothing
more than camouflage in the river environment, a fact
amplified in low light canyons. Yellows and
bright oranges are the most visible (see
pic below). While better than
dark and dull colors, red, often perceived as a safety
color, is not the best choice as it has a narrow lateral
range for visual periphery. A four year study concluded
that yellow fire trucks are safer than red fire trucks
which, prompted the FAA and many community agencies
to convert rescue and fire-fighting fleets to lime-yellow.
Read more about the study of safety colors here
self-respecting kayaker would be without duct-tape.
Its uses are endless from first aid to repair
& fabrication. Wrap it around several things
such as your paddle shaft, lighter, pill vial,
etc...or place strips inside your kayak. Several
widths come in handy too. Be seen when you most
need it & get the brightest color you can.
- If your colors
are dull and or dark, and you do not need new gear,
tape can be used to brighten a few things. Yellow
electrical tape wrapped around a paddle shaft can
add grip and visibility. Just the same, a strip or
two of yellow duct tape can brighten dark helmets
and be used for a multitude of other things...if the
need arises. Double duty. Get creative!
- Any time you
get out of your boat, solidly wedge it in rocks, brush
or trees. I don't know how many times I have seen
or heard of boats sliding or getting knocked into
the water because they were carelessly placed. In
one such incident, the self-supporter whose boat slipped
in to the river broke his wrist while walking downstream
to find it. Place your paddle just as carefully...and,
out of harms way. Often times, boats tend to get stacked
above drops being scouted. No need to have your paddle
under three loaded kayaks. Stick it in the bushes
where it won't get boats piled on it or stepped on.
- Never carry non-locking
carabiners in exposed areas such as on your sprayskit,
PFD, or boat. One individual had a paddle biner clipped
to his skirt that clipped to his paddle during a hole
ride... resulting in a swim with paddle attached...on
the NF Payette. In another instance of weirdness,
a paddler popped out of his boat only to realize the
biner he had clipped to the deck had attached itself
to his skirt grab loop. These oddities serve as good
reminders that strange
poop can and does happen...when you least want them.
me bright! A good example of bright colors
that will show up in practically any environment
whether paddler is in or out of the boat, on land
or in/under the water. Orange helmet with reflective
stickers & strips on straps, yellow drysuit
& waist worn throwbag, PFD with reflective
logos, orange boat, & yellow electrical tape
on paddle. Get bright. Be seen. Find your gear.
yourself. According to a revered Alaskan
bush pilot/kayaking friend (not in pic), there have
been a number of deaths & serious injuries sustained
in backcountry plane crashes that a helmet could
have prevented. Statistically, there's an 84% higher
survivability rate when wearing a helmet. His advice
to all plane shuttling kayakers: Wear your helmet.
He dons an aviation helmet on every flight. While
at it, don your PFD for additional impact protection.
You have nothing to lose! Watch a backcountry crash
caught on tape here.
date? Unbeknowning to what he sat his boat
over, the kayaker ate half his lunch before noticing
this rattlesnake sitting near him. Rather than fleeing
like rattlesnakes prefer, this one likely felt threatened
by the boat & decided to take a stance. The
paddler didn’t hear the rattling due to the
river noise & hearing loss. This was a poignant
reminder that we need to be aware of the rattlesnakes'
existence & take necessary precautions. There’s
no need to kill them though. Forget the Hollywood
drama, be watchful, & give them their space.
If you do that, they'll gladly give you yours.
anyone? Be careful to not stir
up dust in old cabins, caves or overhangs and think
twice before sleeping in one. Though rare, Hantavirus
is a serious and infectious respiratory disease
with a U.S. mortality rate of 38 percent. And contrary
to popular belief, Hantavirus is not primarily confined
to the Four Corners area. Every western state has
reported cases and more than half of all cases have
come from outside the Four Corners region. For more
information, visit the Center
for Disease Control (CDC) website.
The mere mention of paddling alone can cause public
outcry. Soloing is a very personal choice though and
a mode of travel practiced and enjoyed immensely by
some. However, it is not for everyone, and I recommend
it to no one. The smallest mishap can lead to disaster.
There is no assistance and in the worst case scenario,
That said, spending time alone in
wild places is great for self-discovery and spiritual
development. Naturally, it also cultivates a keener
environmental and spatial awareness, independence, and
confidence. In short, solo wilderness experiences are
an opportunity for tremendous personal growth. As such,
they are increasingly being facilitated by psychotherapists,
educators, counselors, and outdoor adventure leaders
around the world. In aboriginal cultures, solo journeys
were a rite of passage. Christ, Immanuel Kant, and Confucius
also understood the value, and the great American naturalists
Thoreau, Muir, and Emerson advocated it. Why then is
solo wilderness travel so often frowned upon? The answer
is complex and beyond the scope of this page. The gist
however, goes something like this: Along the way of
chasing the American dream, we gave up skills that made
us self-reliant and confident and replaced them with
considerable anxiety of being alone in the wild. We
have figuratively and literally become disconnected
from the natural world seeing it instead through the
narrow lens of technological fiction. The unknown has
become a thing of fear and that of which was very routine
a century ago is now considered dangerous and foolish.
Given we are a different people
than those of the past, present day prescribers of solo
wilderness time are not typically advocating aboriginal
style journeys. And they're definitely not encouraging
people to cram themselves into tiny plastic boats and
crash through rapids in inaccessible and remote canyons.
For those with the mental and physical wherewithal though
--assuming they can break free of the ego's grasp--,
the values seen in the less risky solo endeavors can
be amplified and extended to another level when self-supporting.
However, there's no mistaking that this very niche method
of travel carries considerable more risks than hiking
or backpacking alone. And the closer one gets to the
line in which their personal skill level is challenged,
the more they are risking.
Based on popular opinion, it would
be easy to conclude that going solo is not wise. Common
human logic supports this in the sense that there is
indeed safety in numbers. However, when the topic of
paddling solo comes up, it is more often than not forgotten
that the level of extra risk varies from paddler to
paddler. For example: Few people are comfortable being
alone in remote areas. Others tend to get into trouble
more often than their peers, roadside paddling or not.
Either type of paddler would automatically be more at
risk soloing than the self-reliant individual with a
long track record of making sound decisions. It’s
no different than every other aspect in life. Depending
on one's upbringing, background, state of presence,
and natural characteristics, some people are simply
more adept at certain things than others. What
may be extremely foolish for one may be very reasonable
for another. These points in mind, if soloing
is not our cup of tea, we should be careful not to judge
those we do not know well who do choose to go alone.
They may have the independent character to make it a
choice well within reason.
Honest With Yourself
If you think
you're cut out for solo self-support, you should have
already contemplated the many “what ifs”.
Hope for the best.... but methodically and thoroughly
plan for the worst.
Obviously, being pinned and unable
to free oneself is the solo paddler’s worst nightmare.
Nothing more needs to be said here. Less dire but dreaded
nonetheless, is incurring an injury to an upper extremity
and/or losing a boat. In either case, you’ll be
hoofing it. Another and even worse possibility is an
injury to the back or lower extremity preventing you
from walking OR paddling. Would you know how to handle
these situations? What’s your track record on
and off the river? Are you vigilant? How’s your
overall physical conditioning? What about your sense
of direction? Can you climb? Could you walk 10, 20 or
more miles crosscountry, through extremely rugged terrain
with no trail? Some things to ponder. Be honest with
Lastly, paddling in groups tends
to cause a degree of complancency in all of us. To what
ever degree it is, we should recognize it and adjust
accordingly. This awareness needs to be acute in solo
backcountry situations. If we give our 100% to mindfullness,
there will be no room for carelessness. Below are a
few pre-trip and on-the-river reminders.
A PFD with
plenty of pockets is nice anywhere but of real
value for self-support & a must for soloing.
Between its four well placed pockets, this PeakUK
River Guide has room for a sizable "survival
kit" yet is still legitimately comfortable
with no large protrusions in front.
PFD kit: In
addition to what's shown here:
2 liter packable reservoir in dry enviroments;
several energy bars (inside of wrapper can serve
as signal device); mini headlamp; & cuben
- First & Foremost:
Consider your motivations for going solo. If you
could not enjoy yourself and experience personal growth
with no one knowing that your trip occured, it is
time for self-reflection. Again. Be honest with
yourself. An authentic trip will have more meaning
and be less likely to cloud your judgement.
- If soloing appeals to you but
you lack confidence to self-support, prepare yourself
philosophically then think about trying solo hiking.
If that works, consider working into solo backpacking.
You can then reevaluate your desire to self-support
alone. Go slow. There is no destination to race towards.
It's the beginning of a journey.
down a detailed plan A, B, C, etc and give it to at
least one trustworthy person that knows your abilities
in and out of the water. Do not deviate from those
plans. Also, explain your gear (what
you carry & colors) and how you would use
it (signal device, strobe light, etc)
in an emergency so others know what to look for and
- Carrying gear retrieval equipment
on person is as wise as carrying a breakdown paddle
in your boat. One solo self-supporter I know used
to carry a "pin kit" in a bag strapped
to the back of his PFD, and on at least one occasion,
used it. That works but a more streamlined method
is to use a PFD with built-in pockets (less
of a snagging hazard) containing enough volume
to accommodate this gear as well as the other things
you might want for a long hike out. Space can be saved
by wearing a waist worn throw bag with spectra rope,
Ultralegere pulleys, etc, etc.
- Read the above section "Hiking
out" and have plenty of secure pockets to carry
necessities in. Remember though. The most
important necessity is carried within your cranium.
On The River
be applied to group self-support)
- Be cognizant of boat placement
(see "general tips" below). Also, if you
decide to stop for a hike, consider clipping your
kayak to a tree in case a microburst comes through.
Rare, yes, but I have seen a boat 50 yards from the
water's edge get blown into the river. Consider also
a bear looking for food knocking your boat in the
river and/or ripping through your drybags. Tie your
boat off like those of the old west tied their horses....and
hang your drybags, if in bear country. There's
no such thing as overkill when soloing.
- Exit your boat carefully
in the easiest place to get out you can find. In one
careless moment at a less than ideal eddy, I some
how managed to get my leg twisted and foot hung-up
in my boat that, without help, would have resulted
in a twisted ankle, swim, lost boat, or all of the
- Most kayaking injuries occur
out of the water. Place each step with awareness and
- Unless you can see a clear route
to another escape eddy, NEVER place yourself in an
eddy you can not exit your boat from.
- Slowly and methodically work
your way downstream, running only that of which you
can see a clear route through. Scout more than you
think you need to. There is no shame in this or portaging
drops you wouldn't think twice about paddling with
a group on a roadside run.
choice to solo is yours and yours alone. I am not recommending
solo travel of any kind to anyone.
If you do choose to solo, you have a moral responsibility
not only to your friends and family but to the community,
paddling and otherwise. Those who choose not to solo
also have a responsibility. The death or injury of a
soloist inevitably paves the way to the breeding grounds
of speculation, and without a great deal of care, only
brings further misunderstanding and harm. Tread wisely.