Multi-day rafting trips are the best. Spending all day on the water with your best friends in the middle of nowhere, facing down dangerous rapids and fighting off bears and mosquitoes can create a powerful shared experience and give you memories to treasure for the rest of your life.
Wait, the people on the trip are more like acquaintances?
You only met them for fifteen minutes at the boat swap?
They’re friends of friends?
You picked them up on a Facebook boating group and have never met them before in your life?
How far in the middle of nowhere did you say this trip was?
For people who love being on the rivers, it’s unnatural to imagine turning down an invitation to go boating, but the wilderness can create strange boatfellows, and not everyone’s expectations of a good time, or even a safe time, are the same.
When you join up with a group for the first time, or maybe even the fifth time, it’s a good idea to get the right information up front. Don’t be shy about asking, because the trip leader’s response will tell you all you need to know about how much of their ‘poop’ they have ‘in a group.’ Chances are that everyone else in the group will be glad you asked.
1. Who on this trip knows how to fix people?
River trips are the best because they often take you to places that are largely inaccessible to the outside world, and that includes ambulances. The people mooning each other on the big, floating pieces of rubber around you are the ones who will be ‘first responding’ to any accidental injury or medical emergency.
Knowing who has the most experience with backcountry medicine (first aid, CPR, WFA, WFR or WEMT) or is a traditional medical professional—nurse, doctor, paramedic—becomes important. In a medical emergency, too many cooks can kill the soup, and one person needs to be comfortable taking charge. If no one on the trip has any formal medical training at all, that is an entirely different kind of problem, which is totally fine until it’s not. If YOU are the only person with medical experience, consider whether that is a responsibility you are willing to shoulder.
Red Flag Response: “Oh, don’t worry, my friend gave me a great first aid kit like two years ago, and the rangers have opened it more than I have. I’m pretty sure it’s somewhere in the kitchen box…”
2. Who on this trip knows how to fix boats, unpin them, or otherwise scrape shit off the fan?
Other emergencies which often, but not always, precede medical ones include swimmers, boat flips, boat wraps (pins), and other yard-sale events.
Has anyone on the trip had formal guide training or taken a swiftwater rescue class? Five years of private boating experience where they’ve gotten lucky every time is very different from actual lessons in how to manage, or prevent, worst-case scenarios. Bad swims happen when the group isn’t prepared for basic risk-management. A boat flip is not a trip-ending emergency until no one in the group was prepared for it.
Red Flag Response: “Don’t worry about that stuff, I’ve never flipped a boat.”
3. What time does happy hour start?
The expectations surrounding libations on the river are infinitely variable, but central to the experience for everyone involved. Ask this question to learn who on the trip is comfortable with light drinking, heavy drinking, or no drinking. Moving water carries inherent risk, and while seasoned guides may be the worst for getting drunk as a skunk, you can bet they only do it when they are safe at camp.
The trouble begins when people start running rapids under the influence, or treating a wilderness river camp like their backyard blackout BBQs. Understanding, ahead of time, what the rules are for this particular expedition is essential to the safety and fun-factor of all involved.
Red Flag Response: “All day every day!”
4. Should I bring my own mess kit?
This question is meant to open the conversation about how meals will be handled. There are so many different approaches and strong preferences about meals and the way to organize a kitchen and clean-up, that it’s important to be clear. Will the trip leader be organizing and shopping for group meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Maybe the food is being outsourced and coming in prepackaged coolers (popular for trips more than a week long). Is there a kitchen box with individual dishes and plates for all, or will you need your golden spork and beloved tin bowl/mug/shot glass?
Again, if you are with a seasoned boater/TL, or floating with friends who all have lots of experiences together, the answers to these will be clear and immediate. For short trips (only one or two nights), this may not be as big of a deal. But if you have food allergies, you definitely want clear expectations—or just plan your own meals to be safe.
Red Flag Response: “Just bring whatever you want, and we’ll all share.”
5. When is it my turn to do the dishes?
Ever been on a trip where three people did all the work, got super bitter and resentful, and the rest of the group had no idea why? Chore schedules, especially cooking and dish-pit rotations may sound like something only Type As would think up. Yet, setting clear expectations around who is supposed to be doing what and when eliminates the social drama that often leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Besides making sure that all the work doesn’t fall on a few shoulders, it also has some surprising benefits. Most people who are newer to the river may just not know how much work it takes to run camp, but most are also happy to learn. Splitting chores gives everyone a chance to contribute to the trip, while also letting people know when they can relax and take off on their own instead of feeling guilty that maybe they should go help the person angry-washing the saucepan.
Red Flag Response: “Oh, just whenever you’re in the mood.”
6. How much is this going to cost exactly?!
The money talk is another one that, if not approached directly, can end rafting relationships quickly. Ask the trip leader how much the permit fee per person was, how much an equal share of the food costs is, and discuss the shuttle cost, or gas, as well. A good trip leader will save receipts for anyone interested, or provide a clear breakdown of all the costs. An exceptional (and experienced) TL will share a budgeted spreadsheet from previous trips, as well as the in-progress budget for this particular trip.
You will also need to be upfront about costs with anyone you carpool with, whether they drive or you do. Make sure that you get at least a solid estimate before the trip launches because occasionally there are serious misunderstandings if a certain style of trip leads to higher costs.
Red Flag Response: “Let’s just have fun on the river, and everyone will just pay what they think is fair.”
Scenario B. The financial spreadsheet is immaculate. The last line says, “Trip Leader fee.”
On a side note, and because I personally have to include this disclaimer, under no circumstances should a private trip ever be paying the trip leader or any individual a guide fee, as that would turn that person into an outfitter and violate private boating regulations on almost every waterway in the country.