Reading Rapids Course

Does anyone hold a class just on reading rapids from the shore?

Right now I don’t think I really have the ability to look at a rapid and either decide a line or decide whether or not I should even try to paddle it.


Path of the Paddle

– Last Updated: Jun-24-13 7:41 AM EST –

I don't know of classes for that, but I bet if you went somewhere to take a whitewater class you'd pickup such skills.

"Path of the Paddle" by Bill Mason is quite good at explaining basic rapids-running techniques, as well as planning what line to take and by what methods, but there're two problems with learning that way. First, some people have a really hard time making the connection between drawings and real life. As for myself, the explanations were very clear and helpful, but not everyone learns in the same way, or has the same methods of picturing/understanding such things in their head. The second issue is that modern whitewater boaters don't use a lot of the techniques that Bill Mason did, and have a whole set of new techniques that he didn't have. But for anyone who paddles a fairly long boat (a canoe or kayak that's at least somewhat "traditional" in design), all the techniques are still valid.

By the way, the Path of the Paddle video might be helpful too, adding a bit of "vitality" or "real-life-ness" to the methods explained in the book. The video is far less detailed, however.

I think the most important thing is understanding the techniques applicable to your style of boat, because once you have that part under your belt, you'll see the places for applying those techniques when reading a rapid. In other words, learning to read rapids goes hand in hand with learning to run them.

yes and no
Most all of the whitewater instructional courses I have taken or been involved with have spent at least a bit of time on scouting rapids from shore. I haven’t heard of any course in which this was the sole focus, however.

Nor would it make much sense if there was a course in which this was the sole focus. Scouting a rapid to determine whether or not to run it, and what line to take if one does, is a somewhat complex process that depends on judgement, a frank assessment of one’s ability to execute the various moves, and a realistic appraisal of the consequences if one fails to do so. For most the ability to make these assessments given a more complex rapid is a gradually acquired skill.

Keep in mind that a rapid will look very different from a vantage point 3 or 4 feet above the water surface than it will from an elevated position on the bank. The preferred course might be very obvious when scouting from a height but landmarks might disappear when you start into the rapid. Many rapids require one to be in a certain position at the conclusion so I usually look at the bottom of a longer rapid first and determine where I need to be, then walk slowly back upstream and determine what I need to do to get there. I try to pick out some landmarks that will definitely be visible from the boat as I do so.

At least as important as the ability to scout rapids is the ability to read water from the boat. “The Kayaker’s Toolbox” is one instructional DVD that has some decent material on water reading.

For what it is worth

– Last Updated: Jun-24-13 1:12 PM EST –

I think the best way to learn how to read them is to just start off in easy class class I.
After several runs of easy class I, you'll get the bug for a little more excitement, since you will pretty much know how to pick your line
Then move on to I-II and you'll have the basics.
I found that in Class I it is best to take the smooth V between the white water to keep from hitting rocks and then in Class II, many times the large wave trains which are the most fun is the best route.
I can't advise on Class III since I don't do too much of it on a repetative basis.

Jack L

When I took introductory lessons
We started with observing…throwing sticks into moving water at various spots and the instructor made explanations of what was happening.

But equally important was getting in the boat and transferring what we saw on land to what we saw in the water. The vantage points are vastly different.

I flunked kayak vision. I was so low that I had difficulty transposing what I saw on shore to where I needed to be on the river. So I went to canoe…lol!

What JackL said
Your brain need to take in a lot of data while at the same time you are developing motor skills and muscle memory. This takes time for most mortals. Don’t rush it unless you are truly gifted in other athletic endeavors and don’t mind getting beat up a lot.

Learning by doing starting out on class I also gives you the opportunity to make mistakes in a relatively low impact environment. If you can find a small body of water that is class I you’ll learn more than you will on big wide open river.

My advice…

– Last Updated: Jun-24-13 3:35 PM EST –

You have already received some good advice.

I would suggest the following if it is still available; the Introduction to White Water Canoeing course at Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Even if you are not are interested in doing a "high" level of whitewater, it would be a great learning experience.
No doubt in my mind it will help you to become a better paddler.

Books, video, etc are good tools to use, but nothing teaches better(in my opinion) than being there & physically doing it. Instant feedback.

I enrolled my wife in the course suggested.
Although she had paddled quite a lot in several solo canoes; she had never paddled any real whitewater. She did fine, had fun, and learned quite a lot of information that was applicable to running anything from class 1, up to high class 2 rivers. Well worth the cost, time, and effort in my estimation; I think she would agree.

I also got her involved in 2 days of private instruction. That was also helpful. She had to listen to instruction & get critiqued from someone "other than her husband". She was much less prone to argue, or give excuses to them; that was beneficial to her, and "golden" for me.


Shore Boat Shore Boat
Reading rapids from the shore us useless without feeling how those affect you in the boat.

Lessons are great. But it really comes down to, standing on the shore trying to imagine how to get from a to b, then getting in the boat and trying what you imagined.

Over and over and over. After a while it will start to make sense.

Definitely start with easier rapids and work your way up.

Definitely do it with other more experienced friends and/or instructors to help you understand why some things work and others don’t.

Definitely DO NOT spend too much time on shore looking.

Shore boat, read run, shore boat, shore boat.

I am a little confused with replies
I have read so many times that one should stop and scout rapids before running them. It is at this shore scouting stage where you decide to portage or not. That go / no go decision is what I am really interested in learning because my skills are so minimal.

Right now I can get out and look at a rapid and I can’t tell standing waves from rocks or get a clue if the rapid is a class I, II, or possibly a III because something has changed from when the rapid was rated in a guide.

Does one make the go/no go decision from the water or from the shore?

For a paddler with really minimal skills what kinds of things are you looking for to decide to go around instead of through a rapid?

I have gone through several what I am pretty sure were class I to II rapids, but after doing it I could image all kinds of ways I could have killed myself on a strainer or getting pinned wrong against a particular rock. To my mind it was pure luck that I came out the other side alive instead of dead even in simple rapids like several on the Eleven Point or Current. Maybe I am just too phobic.


the ability to read ww and scouting
are definitely related but not exactly the same thing. “Read and run” is a term used to describe reading rapids on the fly as you paddle through them. This is done by paddlers when they encounter rapids which are well within their skill level.

“Scouting” and “boat scouting” occurs when a drop or rapid is blind, meaning you can’t see where to go or what dangers may lurk out of view. If a rapid is unknown and out of view, it is almost always best to scout.

“Boat scouting” means paddlers can catch eddies, calm sections of water, and plot their course without getting out of the boat. They focus on individual sections of a rapid and travel through it one section at a time.

“Scouting” is done from shore to examine rapids that test the ability of the paddler. In this case, the paddler identifies “a line” or path through the rapid and decides if they want to run a particular rapid depending upon their individual skill level, the danger the river imposes, their confidence level, and fun factor. While scouting paddlers often set up safety. They may station one or two paddlers with a throw rope.

Learning to read rapids is best done by paddling rapids. Scouting rapids is great but the ultimate goal is to run them with confidence without having to scout everything. New paddlers frequently follow more experienced folks as they learn “the lines” on new runs and gain confidence “reading” water.

There’s an old saying, “if in doubt, scout.” If you’re unsure of your abilities or the water conditions then scouting is always prudent. If you’re getting out frequently and unable to distinguish where to go or what the hazards are then you should definitely consider boating something easier or enlist the help of more experienced paddlers so you can be successful.

Of course there are times to scout.
If I have never been in a river before and come to a place where there is a drop off in front and I can’t see which way to go, I’ll be out and scouting in a heart beat.

That is when I find out if I will be running it or portaging around it

Jack L

This is an excellent quesiton

– Last Updated: Jun-25-13 7:28 AM EST –

and the fact that you are asking demonstrates that you have the right frame of mind. My opinion is that classes in paddling are great but they do not substitute for years of paddling experience and good judgment. If you have any doubt about paddling a section you are looking at from the water then you should stop and carry around it or scout it. If after scouting you have doubt - as it sounds you often do at your current experience level - you should carry around it. The concern is that at your current skill level there may be dangers lurking that you don't perceive.

The best way to learn in my opinion is to paddle with other people who are more experienced than you are and who have good judgment and a realistic understanding of your abilities. Have then explain the analysis they are going through when scouting and listen carefully. Over time you will start to see what they see and understand the process of scouting. Also, experience paddling white water in various conditions will build and you will gain confidence. This is not something you learn in a season or two. It takes time.

Also, some people are better then others at scouting. I have been paddling all my life in open canoes and recently in kayaks and I think I am fairly good at scouting and seeing routes, keeping safe, etc. However, even now I recognize that one of my paddling buddies is better than I am. For example, on one trip recently my buddy and I decided to scout a rapid. There was pressure on us to find a route because a carry around the rapid would have involved two days of portaging. But we were in a place were the water was extremely cold and we were 500 miles from the nearest human being and there was zero chance of a rescue if we messed up. We walked along the rapid from a high perch and discussed the decision together. I was unable to see a route that I was comfortable paddling. But my buddy kept looking and he saw a possible safe route - as he explained it to me and we talked I began to see then indeed there was a route and it was well within our ability levels. We discussed all the possibilities in the event of failure. I decided it was safe to run from my perspective. We paddled it with our hearts in our mouths but in the end it was actually perfectly safe - we did not even ship a cup of water in our tandem canoes loaded with 3 weeks of food and gear. But this route was not at all apparent to either of us until a long time looking the rapid over. So the lesson for me was to always remember that I have to make the call for myself but when you have others that are skilled along with you you need to talk things through and listen carefully. Take the time that is needed. In the end if you have doubt don't run it. These can be life or death decisions you are making. Consider not just whether you think you can make it through but also what the dangers are and how you would handle them if you run into a problem. I will run a lot bigger water if the water is warm, if there is a road nearby, etc. If the water is cold and there is no help and the rapid is long etc. then I am more likely to carry.

One last thing - there is no shame in making the decision to carry. It is a sign of maturity. I will not paddle with people who put pressure on others to run whitewater when they are not comfortable. This is no place for big egos that get in the way of grown up decisions. This sport is too dangerous for that sort of thing. An experienced and mature paddler who knows your abilities and who gently encourages you and explains why he/she thinks you are safe to run a section but who also give you the emotional space to make your own decision is what you are looking for.

When in doubt, send out a probe
I have found that if you scout a rapid long enough one of your companions will get tired of waiting, or a stranger will happen along and run it, and you can see what happens to them.

As William Nealy once wrote “Total destruction of the probe indicates a mandatory portage.”

As several others have indicated, the best way to gain the experience and judgement required to assess rapids is by either taking some whitewater instruction or hooking up with some more experienced (but sensible) companions who can make intelligent suggestions for you. Focus on the skills fundamental to running whitewater: reading water, catching and leaving eddies, and ferries. Lift your vision away from the area immediately in front of your boat to look downstream and plan your course. Pay close attention to what the water is doing, where the current is pushing, and how it reacts when it encounters obstacles. Over time as you become more adept at the fundamentals, scouting rapids will be a lot more meaningful. Until then, a course in rapid scouting would be pretty much abstract and theoretical.

Even quite experienced paddlers will sometimes disagree on whether a rapid is a Class II or Class III, etc. Whether or not to run a rapid depends on more than your skill level or the rapid difficulty. If a rapid looks relatively uncongested so that there is little risk of a pin, there is a nice recovery pool at the end of it, it is a warm day, you have competent friends to call on for assistance, and there is a road nearby, you might choose to run a rapid even when there is a risk of a swim.

Class I rapids are typical open and unobstructed. There might be fast water and wave trains with small drops, but nothing large enough to swamp an open boat. The only obstacles might be the occasional rock to avoid but they are easily seen and avoided. Most people with decent flat water boating skills can successfully run these.

Class II rapids vary a lot. Some are relatively unobstructed like Class I rapids but with bigger drops and larger wave trains. These don’t require great boat handling skills. Other Class II rapids are quite technical and channelized and while the water is not pushy, they may require very precise boat control. Those would pose a challenge for you at this stage.

I suspect that if you come across a Class III rapid you will chose not to run it without anyone having to tell you so.

My buddies? used me with regularity

– Last Updated: Jun-25-13 1:25 PM EST –

Me & my old whitewater buddies:

If we came upon a rapid we had never run before, and we thought that the rapid, or the runout might present a hazard; we all pulled over, got out, and scouted for a safe route. If we couldn't agree that it was possible (with acceptable risk) for us, at our current skill level; we portaged.

If there were some who thought they might "go for it"; they just waited. They all knew that once I scouted, there were only 2 options for me; run it or walk it.
They simply waited to see if I was going to get back into my canoe, or if I started hauling, or lining my canoe down the river bank. Often with patience they out waited me. My apprehension often led to impatience, and they had a "probe" to watch.

After they watched my run, they made their decision:
1. No way I'm taking his route; that was a nasty swim he took.
2. I'm going, but I'm taking a different route.
Bob will be there for me.
3. No way I'm going his route, or any route; I'm walking this!

Another scam my buddies? used on me...........
"Bob, you run it first; you're the best with the throw bag & we want you downstream of the rapid when we run it"! I was good; I was the guy I wanted downstream for me. Which does not mean they weren't trying to hustle me.

They knew there was no way I would walk downstream, standby with throw bag, and then walk back upsteam to retrieve my canoe & run the rapid. Too much hassle. I'd run it, swim, and then standby with the throw bag, or I'd run it, make it, and standby with the throw bag.
Either way they got their probe.

Beware of "Probe hustlers".
Some techniques they use:
I gotta get some water.
I gotta pee.
I gotta adjust my outfitting.
I gotta bail water out of my boat.
I don't think I can make this; I gotta see someone else go first.
I gotta take off/put on some clothes.
I gotta get a snack.
I'm gonna have a smoke.
My helmet need adjusting.
I need my sunglasses.
I'm gonna get my camera.
I gotta drink some water; I think I'm dehydrating.
I gotta put a new battery in my camera.
I got rocks in my river shoes I gotta get out.
Throw in some sticks in on river left/right/center, and lets see what happens.
I gotta put on some sunscreen.
I gotta put on some bug repellant.
I think I got a tick in my shorts.
Are we eating at that pizza place tonight?
What time is it?
How far is it to the takeout?
What's the name of this rapid?
Do you think this rapid is class 3?
Is there a bug bite on my neck?
I gotta get gravel out of my canoe.
I gotta reinflate an air bag?
I gotta bone in my leg.
Anybody got any Visine?
Does this look like a blister forming on my thumb?
I gotta find my other glove.
Does this look like a crack in my paddle blade?
How do you like that Werner paddle?
Are those NRS, or Mohawk air bags you have?
Blah, blah, blah..........

Stalling, stalling,stalling...........standing on shore, standing on a boulder; waiting for an impatient probe...........


When in doubt Scout
You might make the go no go call from the water if you see that it’s too much. Or you might decide to stop and scout if you are unsure.

If you are still unsure after scouting then by all means portage.

Every time out with experienced people is a class. Learn from every experience. Surround yourself with skilled people. Paddling is a team sport. I have paddled with many people once, because they pay no attention to safety, theirs or mine.

overthinking this a bit
Caution and good judgement is really important, but honestly, if all you’ve really been on is Class I/II stuff, then there is very little chance that you have encountered any features that carried a significant risk of serious bodily harm and/or death. Obviously there’s always risk associated with WW paddling by its very nature, but no rapid with a “make this move or really bad things can happen” type feature is likely to be rated anything below a IV. So no, you probably didn’t survive those Class I/II rapids by the skin of your teeth, although I can understand that it might feel that way if you’re new to moving water paddling.

You refer to your skills as “minimal.” I wonder, then, do you have at least a fundamental grasp of very basic WW skills such as eddying in/out and ferrying? Without this, I think TommyC1’s point about knowing how things feel in the boat is right on target. Even if you could intellectually analyze and understand what the water is doing in a particular rapid, without some biomechanical experience gained from basic moving water drills, that knowledge would be largely academic.

With all due respect
- I see it differently. I don’t agree with the notion that there is minimal danger not worth worrying about for a neophyte in class 2 and 3 water. After a life time of paddling there have been times, in certain places, when I have had my heart in my mouth paddling a long class two. In my opinion experienced paddlers should convey the reality to people, which is that whitewater paddling is a serious endeavor with all sorts of dangers and should not be undertaken willy nilly with no preparation by folks who cannot possibly be expected to understand, or even perceive, all the risks. I do agree that the risks can be reduced to a reasonable level, (but not eliminated), by people with good judgment who carefully and slowly develop the necessary skills.