Oh man it’s about to get real… You applied for all those trips on Recreation.gov because your friends begged you to and you actually won a permit. First off, take a moment to be stoked, because the odds are getting worse and worse every year for getting a private permit. Some rivers, like the Selway or Yampa Canyon have about a 2% success rate.
Then, the anxiety will hit. You’re responsible for a lot of planning to make everything come together. You’ll likely obsess for months over a 4-8 day trip happening in six months. But, it’s all worth it. To help calm the nerves, here’s the first things to think about.
I said this in an earlier blog, but think of river trips like Fight Club: The first two rules are not to talk about it. You will thank yourself later. Once people find out you won a permit, you’ll start to get inundated with casual requests for information about the trip, mainly how many spots available and who is going. While it’s great to feel like a celebrity, this will quickly dissipate and you’ll realize you said yes to like 25 people for a 15 person trip and have to have some hard conversations.
It’s important to figure out who you want, and who you need to be on the trip. It’s pretty easy for people to feel bent they weren’t invited. Resist the urge to post your permit on social media, or places like that.
If I can give one piece of advice from all the trips I’ve been on, it’s this:
Group dynamics make or break a river trip. This is the single most important factor to planning.
First thing to think about is the regulations. Read them closely for required gear. Do you have it? Will you buy it? If not, who has the things you need that you can tolerate for X amount of days? Those are the first people to quietly let in on your plans and confirm they can go.
As your group comes together with those who you need to have on the trip to make it work out, then you start your shortlist of who you want to fill the remaining spots. Keep one thing in mind, for every one person you invite, they’ll want at least a +1, if not more. Be ready for that request, and understand that these +1 or more can be wildcards on your trip. Make sure you know their +1, and don’t let them bring a whole crew unless you need to fill spots.
Be wary of people who have a lot of experience that ask for like 5-6 spots on your trip for their friends. This scenario can quickly unfold into a power struggle between the people who you invited on the trip, and the people that they did. A beautiful canyon will become a granite prison in this scenario. I never let people bring more than two other people max with them, unless it’s a crew I know.
Think about people’s attitudes. People who are reckless or party super hard may not be the best folks to bring along. It’s fun for a night, but by day 4 you’re over their daily and nightly shenanigans. These people are a safety liability on long trips as well. First Aid stuff is great to have, but ideally you aren’t using it because people are keeping themselves in check.
Once your group starts to come together, the next thing you need to do is plan logistics. If you cast a wide net for permits like I do, sometimes you are driving 8-12 hours away to a place you’ve never been to for the trip. As the TL, it’s important to know how you’re getting there, who is driving, who has trailers for shuttling gear, and how shuttle is happening.
Shuttle is the more difficult part to sort out. For those who might not be familiar; “Shuttle” is moving cars to the take-out from the put-in, since rivers don’t go in a circle. Most river sections that are permitted have about a 3-5 hour shuttle one-way. Most of the places we like to boat tend to be not very close to roads.
Some trips, like the Main Salmon, require an insanely long shuttle vs. the river section mileage. Its 11 hours one-way from the take-out to the put-in. Running that shuttle yourself is not ideal, and paying for guides to do it is pricey. Take my advice - bite the bullet and pay. It’s so much more worth it than running long shuttles yourself ahead of all of the other logistics that go into gear getting packed and boats launching. Splitting the cost up among the group is worth it. There is a chance that something happens to your car/trailer while in the shuttle company’s control, but it’s equally likely that will happen while you are driving. Guides don’t want to deliver your car to you broken at the end; they are as careful as they can be.
There are some rivers that have unique shuttle options. The Main Salmon has one option (if the water is high enough) to de-rig at the takeout, load your boats and gear onto jetboats, and blast back upstream at like 30 miles per hour to the put-in through the rapids that just took you days to run. Do it if you can, it sounds like an awesome way to end the trip, and a really interesting review of your last few days.
There are also several river sections where flying back to the put in is a good option. Airplanes can’t carry all your gear, but they can carry the majority of people back to their cars, reducing the necessity for cars to be shuttled to the take out. Deso/Gray, Middle and Main Fork Salmon are a few examples.
Get your shuttle sorted out as soon as you know who is for sure committed to your trip. Build those costs into your up-front costs so it isn’t a surprise later for folks who might be pinching pennies close to the trip.
After you’ve got shuttle and your crew figured out, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty. Do yourself a favor, start a google sheet that is a spreadsheet to help organize. A google sheet is ideal because its shareable and collaborative, unlike an excel doc that might end up being 100 versions of the same document being mailed around by the end of trip planning. Every good trip I’ve ever been on has had a good google sheet ahead of time. If you don’t have a google mail account, it’s time to grow up and get one, its free.
This sheet is the central place where information about the trip is shared. Some major things on there need to be:
- A roster of who is going, contact info, vehicles driving or riding in.
- Emergency Contacts for every trip member
- A roster of boats. Who are the captains, who are passengers. Small crafts?
- A review of required gear - who is bringing what? It’s super important that this is crystal clear to everyone, so you don’t end up at the put-in with too many or too few of the required items.
- Tentative Plan for each day. Chances are, someone on your trip has done it before. They have good beta on campsites, feasible mileage per day based on the flow and how flat or continuous the river section is on a particular day, and alternate plans for sites that may be taken. On long trips, sites are rarely assigned. On shorter trips, the ranger usually assigns sites at the put-in.
- Meal plan for primary group shared meals.
- Allergies, both food and environmentally related.
- Breakdown of costs up front, so people understand what they owe, and to whom.
Once everyone fills out the spreadsheet, you’ll be able to see what you might need to stay away from when it comes to allergies or preferences for food. There are a bunch of different ways people do food on river trips.
For large trips, it’s incredibly inefficient for everyone to make their own meals. The kitchen gets too crowded and way too much food ends up getting cooked. There are a finite amount of pots, pans, and cooking utensils and having to wash them over and over again because everyone is doing their own meals makes the dishwater pretty gnarly. It also makes cross contamination pretty much a sure thing, which is bad for people with food allergies.
Doing group meals also means that you keep the overall cost of feeding 15-25 people down to a minimum, while providing the most food possible for the group.
There are generally two different scenarios for kitchen dynamics:
Some seasoned river folk have a full kitchen set up, and they are very particular about how it’s set up, broken down, used, and cleaned. In some cases, these people are perfectly fine also being the cooks for the trip (they own all this stuff for a reason). If people on your trip are gracious enough to offer this, take them up on it, and figure out how to add value to what they are doing. A general rule is that anyone who cooks shouldn’t be the ones that also have to do the dishes. You’ve got too many hands on deck for them to have to do that.
Other trips either have a hodgepodge of gear from a few different parties that come together to make the kitchen. In these instances, most of the time people take turns being the cook group. Cook groups are usually by boat. Most people don’t go on a river trip on their own, so it makes the most sense to organize cook groups by what boat they are connected to. Cook groups are typically 3-4 people.
There is a lot to talk about with river trip cooking. I am writing a separate blog that delves further into that to keep the focus of this blog on planning. See here for my tips for river trip cooking and meal hacks.
Beyond these major things are the small minutiae that are trip-specific to your group. As long as you don’t overlook the importance of planning your group, shuttle, and meals planned well in advance of the trip, the rest of the details will fall into place as the trip approaches.
A few parting notes about being a good trip leader:
Every good TL I have ever had has kinda acted the same way. There is an intentional talk at the beginning of the trip before anyone launches their boats that is a review of expectations. Even if everyone on your trip has been on a lot of trips, it’s good to address a few things up front:
- Stress the importance of hand washing. On multi-day trips, if one person gets sick, they can get the rest of the group sick. Since the groover is a community thing, many of the viruses or organisms that give you GI problems originate from food or the groover. If there was ever a time to be a germ freak, its river trips. Trust me you don't want your whole trip having Giardia at once. It’s a nightmare that ends the trip in a pretty disgusting way...
- Stress the importance of physical safety and everyone keeping themselves in check. I said this before and I’ll say it again, having someone who parties too hard or takes too many risks is a liability for everyone on the trip. Setting the expectation that we are going to keep ourselves in check keeps everyone on the same page. We can have fun, but we shouldn’t be conducting ourselves in a way where we have a high likelihood of injury.
- Stress the importance of emotional safety. Be supportive of one another. Understand what a river trip is (and isn’t) from the standpoint of behavior. If you end up making a fool of yourself or making other people on the trip feel uncomfortable, you’re stuck with each other until the end of the trip. If couples fight or if single people hit on taken people, that affects the whole group. People have agreed to come on this trip because they feel safe that the TL isn’t inviting a bunch of people who are going to cause problems. Don’t be that problem.
- Stress the importance of respect. We are all here for different reasons. Some folks want to party, some are most interested in the scenery, some are most interested in having a quiet float. If it seems like your music is too loud, or your conversation is too frequent and you are getting the feeling someone wants to be left alone, give them that respect.
- Stress that you are the trip leader, and your word is final on this trip. Be authoritative and show that you can handle that responsibility. If people are arguing over where to camp or whether to run rapids that day or the next, it’s important to make the group vote so you see where everyone stands (everyone must vote), but what the group does is ultimately your decision. Do not let people question this authority or try to usurp it on the trip. This is your trip, not theirs. This happens more than you think, especially when you seem inexperienced and some people in your group have a lot of experience. Let people know that if there is a problem on the trip that isn’t solved by working things out between groups or individuals, that you are the mediator as the TL. You reserve the right that your word is law until the take out.
- End on a light note, that everyone is there to have fun, and that you are all stoked to be there. Crack a beer (or la croix) and cheers everyone. Its river time!
Lastly, as the TL, you are the model that everyone is to follow from a behavioral standpoint. Your group is going to be looking to you for clues for how to behave, how to help, and what the general feeling of the expedition is going to be. Set that tone with your own behavior.
I hope that these ramblings have been helpful for you in navigating your first private permit as trip leader. So much of this are things that I’ve learned from experience that I wish someone told me from the beginning. I have had the pleasure of being a part of some of the best boating groups in Colorado, and have learned a lot from people with many more years of experience than myself.
Until next time, see you on the river!