Tips for the first-time trip leader or those looking to improve their procedures before their next big river trip 

If you’ve been on a multi-day river trip, chances are that you had a trip leader. The trip leader can make or break the overall boating experience depending on their commitment to the trip and planning skills. If you’re thinking about rounding up a crew for a late season river trip this fall, here is what you need to know to carry out a successful adventure from start to finish.

What Is a Trip Leader?

A trip leader (or TL) is responsible for overseeing the river trip from start to finish. A strong trip leader is proactive, good at organization and has strong communication skills. While most trip leaders are experienced boaters, this is not entirely necessary. However, selecting a river section with rapid levels that you’re comfortable with is helpful.

raft trip leader boating labyrinth canyon green river fall
Fall is the perfect time for boaters looking to snag a last minute river permit and put a trip together.Tiona Eversole
Obtaining a River Permit

First things first: Research which river sections require a permit. In recent years, it has become progressively more difficult to attain a permit through the river permit lottery process. While the lottery occurs at the beginning of the year for the entire boating season, it’s still possible to acquire a permit later in the year through cancellations.

For those looking to plan a fall trip, look to obtain permits for river sections that are much easier, such as Ruby Horsethief Canyon on the Colorado River and Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River. These are both mellow stretches of water, making them excellent sections for your first time as a trip leader. If you’re lucky enough to acquire a cancellation permit, you might be able to float highly sought after river sections of the San Juan, Green and Colorado Rivers.

The best way to look for these openings is to check for options. 

Trip Planning

The trip leader is responsible for the primary tasks of each trip such as selecting group members, choosing campsites, figuring out shuttle and planning meals. The trip leader must also ensure that all requirements (which vary for each river section) are met for the trip — this may include, but is not limited to bringing a boat patch kit and first aid kit, carrying a spare PFD on each boat, packing a fire pan and having a groover (portable toilet for those who don’t know).

raft trip leader camping labyrinth canyon green river
Picking a good campsite (and having a solid backup) is important for river sections that offer camping on a first-come, first-served basis.Tiona Eversole
Prior to Launch

Once trip dates are selected and a permit has been obtained, the next step is selecting who will come on the trip. Most permits have a limit, so make sure you don’t go over. Having fewer people than what is on your permit is fine. When selecting members, take into consideration if  they know others on the trip and are compatible, their previous boating experience and if they are able to contribute any group gear. If this is your first time as trip leader, you might want at least a few seasoned boaters to help you should any issues arise.

Next, you will want a way to stay organized and keep track of all of your planning. The best way to do this is through a shareable spreadsheet (Google Sheets works well). Create separate tabs that will include a trip itinerary, trip member’s personal and contact information, meals, gear and group costs. You might also want to consider collecting cash ahead of the trip to reduce any stress of group members having to bring cash to the put-in.

Once all of the details have been ironed out on the spreadsheet, start communicating with other members and help assign certain tasks and responsibilities. Initiate carpooling, which is helpful in cutting costs and the number of vehicles being used — especially for trip members traveling from the same town. Figure out who has trucks or trailers, and who can haul what gear. And make sure all necessary gear and equipment is accounted for. The last thing you want is to show up to the put-in and not be able to get on the water because a required item is missing.

During the Trip

Once the boats are loaded and the group has pushed off, the trip leader’s next steps are to keep the group relatively close together while on the water, watch the river mileage and get the group to camp. Not all river sections will have reserved campsites per group, so it’s important to have a backup option in the event that another group is at your first choice.

At camp, the trip leader should make sure that the members are helping out and taking care of their assigned camp responsibilities. Typically there is a cook crew, cleanup crew and groover crew; but feel free to assign responsibilities as you see fit. For longer trips, it’s also nice to let a group have a night off from cooking, cleaning or groover duty to enjoy the sunset and camp festivities.

raft trip leader boating camping evening labyrinth canyon green river
Moments like this make all of the hard work put into a river trip worthwhile.Tiona Eversole
Post Trip

Once the trip has come to an end, the trip leader should manage the breaking down of boats and loading of gear into vehicles. Depending on the size of the takeout, it’s common courtesy to try and take up as little space as possible for other trips taking out at the same time. A final beach sweep should always round out the river trip, ensuring that no gear is left at the takeout.

While the role of trip leader requires a lot of time and preparation, the sense of accomplishment from a successful river trip is well worth the effort. Your group will thank you for your hard work and a river trip full of memories.

Not the Trip Leader? You Should Still Help Out!

It is important to note that river trips are a group effort. The trip leader on your trip is making a huge effort to guarantee a successful trip, which comes with a lot of responsibility. Show your appreciation for their hard work by offering to help with one of these tasks:

  • Maintain the spreadsheet
  • Collect cash from trip members
  • Organize the shuttle
  • If renting, pick up gear
  • Read the map if the trip leader is rowing