Trip planning thought process
Above is the thought process I apply when I’m thinking about running a trip. Below is each of the these thought processes broken down and explained. Pre trip planning is a huge factor for us all to have safe and enjoyable days on the river and is crucial for when things go wrong. Hopefully this will get you reflecting on your past trips and help you plan future ones.
Number in Group:
You’re probably wondering why this is first, when I started to make this, it seemed fitting to put it first as its probably one of the only factors that doesn’t change and that you have a clear answer to from the get-go. You’re going to be going by ratios set out by your national governing body or your employer to comply with risk assessments.
This must be one of the biggest factors we must think about. This is not about your ability it’s about the group as a whole and them as individuals. What do they want to get from the session as individuals? What experience do they have? Do they have any medical conditions? What kit do they have? Are they paddling one or two days or more? Are they having to travel far just to come paddling for the day?
Where you paddle:
We have now considered the group’s ability and can start to look at where we are going to take them paddling. There are a lot of considerations in this category and these should be based on the group’s ability and wants/needs. We need to think about what grade of river we should paddle with this group? How far we are going to paddle? How much time we have on the water? What features are going to be hazards to us?
We should also consider as the Leader, am I comfortable paddling this river? Have I paddled it before? Am I the right person for the job? Do I have the appropriate experience? Am I comfortable looking after this group alone? When was the last time I paddled? Have I picked up any injuries?
Weather Forecast and River Levels:
All of the above is great but this can all be thrown out the window when we start to look at weather forecasts and river levels if these are going to affect the Where you paddle. Then we need to rethink our plan and go back to the group’s ability and assess where is going to be best as alternative or making that hard decision not to paddle at all.
What risks do we need to consider to help us make these decisions? I tend to be looking at weather forecasts at least a week in advance and I don’t just look at one forecast I tend to look at 3 or 4 to get an accurate idea of what’s going to happen. The area you look for your weather forecast is key for example Dartmoor. When I look at forecast for paddling the Dart Loop I don’t get the forecast for New Bridge or Buckfastleigh, I look at the forecast up in Princetown as that’s the high point on Dartmoor and has all the tributaries that feed into the Dart. Very often it’s been raining hard up on the moor but very little to no rain in Buckfastleigh. You can also get frost or snow up on the moor but nothing down in Buckfastleigh and if this thaws out during the day we could see an unexpected spike in the river levels if we haven’t considered this.
(Local knowledge: for at least two of the rivers in south wales if the rain falls high in valleys, instead of pouring gently down the valley as you would expect, it diverts, rushes through an old mine and pops out in the Valley next door which may have had much less rain.)
This leads nicely on to lag and spikes. Each river has a point in which how long it takes the river to fill up, Spike and then begin to drop off again. There are so many factors that make this happen and you are going to have to watch weather forecasts and river level apps to get a clear idea of why this happens. The things that cause this are: How much rainfall. Run off time (how long it takes to hit the ground and go into the river). How saturated is the ground already? Are there any other tribs flowing into the river? The thing to also remember is a river can spike, drop and spike again and again and again if the right conditions present themselves.
(Local Knowledge: the River Dart typically takes 6 hours to rise to peak and 6 hours to fall. HOWEVER the moor is made from peat so once this is saturated the rain stops seeping into the ground and working its way to the river and simply flows off the top, down the hill and in. This demonstrates why it is so important to be watching weather forecasts for at least a week beforehand.)
I’m going to use Dartmoor as an example here and specifically the Dart Loop section. When people look at the river level for the Loop people tend to go on the River App and find the Dart Loop gauge, but, where is the Dart Loop gauge getting its reading from? It gets its reading from the Upper Dart gauge at Dunnabridge. Now this will give us an accurate reading of what the river level will be above us and what will end up joining us but the problem is this gauge won’t take into account the river Webburn, the tributary that joins the Dart Loop, which is before where all the main features start. If this trib is flowing the loop could be a completely different level to that that is showing on the Upper Dart gauge. So, when I look at the gauge for the loop, I actually look at both the Loop and Lower Dart gauge, this allows me to consider what’s coming from above and also to consider what’s happening ahead of me.
If I was paddling open water in canoes the big factor for us is the wind. We need to work out what direction its travelling at our venue of choice and whether it’s going to change, what wind speeds are predicted and if they are going to increase or decrease throughout the day. Once we have all this information we are going to look at the lay of the land and if there are going to areas of shelter we can launch from or go to but thinking about the weather forecast we have in front of us and tactically planning where we should be at points in the day to work to our advantage.
Once I’ve decided a suitable section of river to paddle for the group, I will then go on to find out if there are any new hazards that I need to be aware of and if they are going to affect my plans. You should already have an idea of what features there are on the river when you looked up where your going to paddle in the guidebook but what guidebooks won’t tell you are if there are any changes or new hazards which do happen especially after high winds and high water levels. So where is best to look for these changes/new hazards? The best place is Facebook groups dedicated to that area. What we must always remember is that when you are paddling you must take every day as a new day of paddling; how do you know that new hazards haven’t formed over night or even between laps?How do you know exactly the location where that photo of the hazard was taken from that Jerry posted on FB is if you haven’t paddled the river before? Maybe Jerry was a random dog walker with no experience about paddling and got the wrong name of the river or wrong feature it was on before or after?
(Local Knowledge: this is another reason that having an idea of the recent water levels can be important. If there are no new hazards posted about but the river has been in flood twice during the week with potentially very few paddlers between weekends, the lack of warning doesn’t mean that there isn’t a hazard, it may just mean you’ll be the first to find it).
Access and egress points – where are we going to start and finish our journey? What’s the access agreement? Do we need to do a shuttle? Which end has the bigger car park for us to leave more of our cars in, so it isn’t stopping others getting on the river or blocking the road? Can we share lifts to reduce the number of cars/fuel money/pollution? Who has the keys for the bottom shuttle - Where are they being kept?
Evacuation points, Land Contact and Nearest Hospital:
Now is a good time for us to think about what ifs? What if the river did spike too much for our group to handle? What if someone gets injured? What if we lose a piece of equipment?
- What you want to do is look at the section of river your planning to paddle and break down the river into sections where if things start to go wrong you know you can get out safely. These evac points should be marked footpaths on OS maps leading to buildings, main roads or to you access or egress point. These could also be high points where you can get phone signal.
- This is someone who isn’t paddling, they don’t need to be in the location where your paddling but you should be in contact with them updating them to where you are going, how long you plan to be on the water and what to do if you don’t hear from you and, at what point they should raise the alarm to the emergency services.
It is key that if at any point you change your plan you must let your land contact know of these changes!
- If someone does get injured and its not life threatening like a cut that may need some stiches or an impact to the head its worth knowing where the nearest hospital is to get these things checked over as not all hospitals in the locations we are equipped to deal with certain injuries and this could cost you time in getting the right medical services for the injury.
(Local Knowledge: With evacuation points it can be really important to know which side of the river to be on. Just because you got on from the river left bank it certainly doesn’t mean this is the best escape. Knowing this may help you to make big decisions quickly if you know you cannot evac from the side of the river you are on and not in a position to cross the river. For example on the Upper Dart river Left is the best way out until you get below Combestone Island and from then on River right gives you access to the fire road all the way down to the get off. Similarly, if things escalate it is important to be able to tell the emergency services which bank you are on)
Now we have our plan before we even leave the house, we need to decide what we are going to take with us and that comes down to the groups experience and ability and where you are going. What we don’t want to do is over pack our boats and hinder our own performance as a leader but at the same time we need to take the right amount of kit to cover the what ifs. Can we distribute our kit between the group? Who in the group is already carrying things?
After all this planning I then reflect on the decision I’ve made, I may even ask friends or colleges on their opinions especially if I have any doubts in my mind. If the doubts aren’t cleared up after this, this is a sign to me that we shouldn’t go paddling or that I need to come up with an alternative plan.
Similarly, reflection after the trip is just as important, while it may help some people to write things down it typically isn’t practical to have a mood room in the house where you go and make detailed notes and meditate. For me, I just have a critical think on the way home, or during the shuttle, was anything avoidable? Was the ability/level/grade mix the right combo? Were there any signs early on I missed at the time that I can now recognise? Hindsight is a wonderful thing but only if you use it to apply to the future.
This is thought process is what I have developed over the past 10 years of paddling, I’ve added bits in and taken bits away but have concluded this is the simplest form of planning a day or couple of days of paddling. There may be other factors you consider such as hot weather, snow melt, rivers being too low to paddle and the list can go on and on but I feel with this basic outline you can add in these factors and make safe decisions on what do with these elements and we are always here to give advice. Some factors may not be in this as these could be things I think about during the next stage of the process or these things only flag up when it’s happening. What I hope though is that you can go away from reading this and reflect on pass decisions you have made and even start to plan for future paddling trips.
Words by Joshua Telling and Tom Botterill