How to be a Trip Leader


So, you got yourself a river permit. Maybe you were one of the chosen few to receive a ‘congratulations’ in the mail, or maybe, like the rest of us, you refreshed your browser for the 605th time and snagged a cancellation.

Either way, you have access to a great time on the river and about twenty-five new best friends. This year, you feel ready to take on the mantle of trip leader (‘TL’) for the first time. You’ve seen it done right (and wrong) enough times in the past and are looking forward to the challenge.

Then, somewhere between shuttle calculus and the graphic estimation of groover capacity, you realize you have no idea where to begin. Planning for multiple people to thrive and survive on the river for several days is overwhelming even for veteran TL’s. While every river is different and every group of boaters has their own flavor of crazy, there are a few things that all good TL’s know how to do.

Let’s start with a few assumptions about your future trip: You selected rivers about which you are knowledgeable. You feel that you are up to the technical skills needed for the trip, and are comfortable with the water levels for that time of year. If this is not the case, then we will assume you have already invited or impressed an expert into your trip who will be in charge of the technical questions of river running and reading the rapids.

This ‘How To’ guide will focus more on the logistical side of trip leading, and a few leadership skills which keep the trip running smoothly. If you need to learn how not to flip, try reading Andy H’s awesome guides to technical boating skills.

The Guest List 
Who gets the invite? Many people participate in the ‘permit party’ idea, where you all put in for the same date and agree to go as a group if anyone gets it. If that’s the case, you better invite everyone. If you’re building a group from the ground up, however, the guest list is up to you.

Experienced boaters with their own gear are almost always welcome. If someone gave you an opportunity to boat a new stretch a while back, it’s thoughtful to return the favor. But as a TL, you also have the option to offer an opportunity for the less-experienced or even boatless people who just love being out there. 

You know who makes the river fun for you, so start there and cast a wide net.

Count on losing 20-50% of the original list along the way, and don’t take it personally, ever. Busy lives and unexpected things happen. As TL, it can feel personal when someone backs out of a trip, but it’s almost certainly not.

How (and When) to Communicate
I’ve always been told (and tried to abide) to give people a month’s notice per night of the trip. For example, a five-night trip on Desolation Canyon planned for late July requires that you send out the first invitations as soon as you get a permit in February. For a one-nighter on the weekend, a month is often sufficient. People’s calendars book up quickly, though. Your best bet is to send out a ‘save the date’ sort of email as soon as possible, and then work on the logistics as things get a little closer.

A month out from the trip, you should have a reasonably clear picture of water level and know who will be showing up at the put in. Now the emails begin to get a little more complicated. At this moment, please banish the phrase, ‘Well, you all know what to bring’ from your vocabulary. As trip leader, it is an essential, and sometimes annoying, job to assume nothing. Veteran river-runners will not mind being reminded and will appreciate your thoroughness. For the ‘playing-it-cool’ newb on the trip, your anal-retentiveness may literally save his life.

Instead of losing vital information in a long chain of email responses, experienced TL’s have a few digital tricks to make sure their ducks know where to go and what to bring.

The Excel Spreadsheet This is a classic, time-tested way to keep track of essential ‘group gear’ items. Send the group a complete list, and then let individuals sign up next to the ‘dish buckets,’ ‘shade tarp,’ ‘groover,’ or ‘major first aid.’ On a second tab, be sure to include a comprehensive list of personal gear. And on a third tab, it’s a good idea to lay out the requirements for gear which must be present on each boat.

The Groover, or river-toilet, is a particularly important piece of ‘group gear.’ For large groups or long trips, multiple groovers may be necessary. Do the math to figure out how many to bring. To calculate ‘user days,’ multiply the number of people by the number of days, and then refer to the manufacturer’s recommendation. The popular Eco-Safe style toilet can handle about twenty user-days. The BLM has some more ideas about river toilets. Because the river-toilets are usually buried under a duffle pile, or inaccessible during the day, make sure that each boat brings their own ‘wag-bags’ for emergencies.

The Facebook Group If there’s a major generational divide in your guest list, this may not work for you, but more and more outdoor trips are being ‘staged’ on Facebook. Starting an Event and inviting everyone to that page will allow you to start needed discussion threads relating to shuttle, launch times, meals, etc. There’s even the option of starting a ‘poll’ for the group gear question. You can pin an important post to the top of the page to make sure everyone checks it. The only thing to watch out for is the algorithm will likely mute you unless everyone you invite chooses to ‘attend,’ so include that in your first message.

The other benefit of a FB event is that it creates a ready-made platform for sharing all the awesome photos after the event. Just…maybe don’t set viewing to ‘public.’

Feeding the Masses
First, decide how you want to run the meals. For big trips, and long ones, group meals are a must. You will not have enough cooler storage for everyone to bring their own, and the cost is much more that way. Besides, without group meals, the sense of community really suffers as everyone drifts away to their own cook area, or jostles politely for a position at the stove.

Lunch is the only exception to this. Sometimes even in large groups, it can work just fine to ‘float lunch’ with everyone taking care of their own. Inevitably this creates far too many leftovers, but for long river days, it can keep things moving. 

Sometimes small groups of friends can do it different ways. Maybe one pair or family ‘sponsors’ each meal, shopping for and carrying all the ingredients, or occasionally everyone does just bring all their own food. If there are more than ten people or two nights, however, group meals are the way to go.

The Guide to the Group Food Buy
1. Identify special food needs and allergies first, then keep it simple. Go with basic recipes everyone knows, and just bring along a well-stocked spice kit.
2. Next, break down each meal into its parts and write them down. For pasta night, your initial list might look like: pasta, sauce, pre-browned beef, veggies, salad, dressing, garlic bread, dessert. Do this for every meal.
3. For your actual shopping list, expand upon each meal, writing out all the ingredients necessary. Then, write down each item from the ingredients list once, and put a tally next to it for each time it appears in a meal. So, say you have onions for breakfast burritos one day, then onions on your burgers another night, then goulash. The onion would have three hash marks beside it.

4. To purchase the right amount of each ingredient without having too much left over, I plan for 1.5 servings per person per meal. For example, if cheese has six tally marks next to it, and there are ten people on your trip, you will need to purchase 90 servings of cheese (6x10x1.5). In this particular example, it sounds like your groover will not get a lot of use, but remember that each block of cheese probably has at least ten servings in it—use the servings count on the back of any packaging to divide into your total servings.
5. Shop with common sense, too. Every now and then, this trick doesn’t work, and vegetables and fruit don’t usually have servings labels. If you’re shopping and it doesn’t make sense, go with your gut and don’t actually buy fifteen bottles of ketchup.
6. Never hesitate to get someone to check your math, either, and make sure you don’t forget to leave room for ice.

Awkward Conversations
True or False? As trip leader, you will be able to make everyone happy, and will never have an awkward conversation. FALSE.

 The larger the group, the more likely you will, at one point or another, feel a bit like a negotiator at an international arms treaty. Or a wedding planner…where all the guests smell funny.

There is no way to get around this completely, and an element of leadership is necessary along with all the logistical coordinating. To avoid getting bogged down in drama, remember that you’re all just trying to get on the river. If it doesn’t work for someone this year, it will next year. Sometimes you’ll have to make an executive decision, and you don’t need to apologize for it. Sometimes, you’ll have to realize that a compromise is better, and put your own preferences to the side.  

Keep the main thing the main thing, whether it is the Main, the Middle, or the Green. You’re getting out there to have a great time on the river.

Safety Never hesitate to speak up if behaviors would put someone’s life at risk. Insist on a scout whenever you feel it is needed, and encourage boat order and spacing. Having a competent boater in the sweep position has saved a lot of small mistakes from becoming major disasters. It’s always fine to defer to more experienced boaters in the technical aspects of the trip. In fact, it might make things easier on you to designate someone as the whitewater leader if you don’t feel totally comfortable in that role. 

It’s also important to identify who in the group has the highest medical certification relevant to the backcountry. For example, a podiatrist has a great deal of schooling under their belt, as does an anesthesiologist, but an EMT or even a WFR has more training in the arena of remote medical emergencies. ‘Backcountry,’ as far as wilderness medicine is concerned, is anywhere that ‘definitive care’ is more than an hour away. Quickly brief the group on this emergency hierarchy to avoid wasting precious seconds on ‘too many cooks in the kitchen.’ This doesn’t need to be a long conversation; a simple, ‘Hey, Amy is a paramedic, so if anyone gets hurt, she’s in charge,’ is enough.

Leave No Trace This conversation is on you, as well, TL. It’s awkward AF to ask people older than yourself to pick up their trash or not throw food in the river. But just do it, and more people than you know will respect you for it, not to mention you’ll be saving this gorgeous environment from human impact disease. Practice what you preach, and always step up to the camp sweep before launching.

Camp Chores Every river trip involves a lot of ‘doing’ every day, all day. Rig, row, de-rig, cook, clean, do it again. How you choose to organize river chores and cooking/cleaning duties is a very personal decision, varying from group to group. 

My one hard and fast piece of advice is to at least address it directly before the trip starts. Your crew may not be into a ‘chore rotation,’ and with smaller groups, this may not make sense, but just by asking the simple question, ‘How do you guys want to handle cooking or camp chore duties?’ means that everyone is aware of it. One way to quickly build up resentment and ruin the trip for three of you is to pretend you don’t mind doing it all.

If your arrangement for chore assignments was casual, be sure to speak up and ask for help if things seem to be getting a little one-sided on day two. Many times, people aren’t aware of what needs to get done, especially if they’re new to the river, and are happy to pitch in whenever asked.

The Money Talk Keeping the costs equalized between everyone on the trip is essential. As TL, you’re basically donating your time, and cannot ask for compensation or discount on costs. First of all, it’s your friends, so no. Also, if it turns out that goods are being exchanged, or someone walks away with a profit, then suddenly, your private trip falls under the ‘outfitter’ umbrella, and you have a whole new world of permits and regulations. In fact, if a ranger sniffs out that someone is ‘guiding’ the rest of the group to their financial benefit, you may be facing some hefty fines.

The biggest cost, perhaps besides shuttle, is often food, so save your receipts from the group buy and divide it evenly. Do your best to collect money ASAP, and definitely before everyone drives home. As soon as you get into service, download Venmo. It gets weirder to have to text someone weeks after the trip.

Trip leading is a commitment for sure, and often an act of service for our friends and our rivers. The sense of pride that comes from this leadership role is powerful though, and when you look around and see the people you love hanging around the campfire, telling stories from the day, it feels good to know that you helped make this happen.