Judgment is a really difficult skill to teach. Many boaters take to this sport like bees to honey. Often, they want to progress up the river class scale as fast as possible. Quite often they assume that just because they have a dynamite roll, they can run just about anything. These types of paddlers are an accident waiting to happen (and happen it will). Some recognizable traits are:

  • They are always following, never leading
  • They are always in the hunt for rivers the next grade up but don't know which rivers fit that category
  • They have failed to take Swift Water Rescue training, many don't even carry a throw rope
  • They don't portage rapids, many don't even want to get out and scout as it will make them nervous
  • Most fail to really work rivers in their current skill grade, they just manage to get down these runs

Although this can happen to younger paddlers, middle aged and older paddlers fall into this trap as well. People that have been paddling a very long time and are getting older are subject to another trap. As we age, many of us fail to exercise enough to stay in shape. Our reaction time gets slower as well. Many kid themselves that they can still paddle as good as when they were younger. At first, you end up swimming more often than you used to. As we get older, our balance starts to degrade. It is even more important for older paddlers to increase the time they spend on exercise than when they were younger. Unfortunately, it is often hard to find the time to do so.

There is no doubt that boating gear has come a long ways from the "Good Old Days". With proper training, the learning curve for boating has shrunk a great deal. An unfortunate side effect of this is too many adrenaline junkies really pushing the limits of their skills and equipment. More advanced boaters have fatal accidents these days than when I started boating 30 years ago. Great boaters pushed the limits of their days but did so more methodically - baby steps. For a really sobering education, check out the AW Accident Database.

So how can you identify a paddler with good judgment? This is a really good question. Paddling is like going to an auction, you really need to determine your final bid and walk away when the price is too expensive. In a paddling context, your final bid should include a certain number of swims - say 3 strikes and you are out - time to take off the river. When you need to watch everyone run a drop before you are ready to take the plunge, you probably should walk that drop. If you are having an off-day and can't seem to hit lines that are normally easy for you, consider walking the more difficult and dangerous drops - even if everyone else says you can do it or you have done it many times before. Peer pressure can be really dangerous in this sport, you sometimes need to develop a thick skin. Whatever you do, try to avoid applying peer pressure on others. Good judgment is the hallmark of an expert seasoned boater.

The American Canoe Association has put together several excellent articles in regards to judgment.


Honestly rating your own skill level is a very crucial safety skill. In addition, this is a moving target. When you first start boating, many find their skills rapidly advance. This is quite understandable in class I/II whitewater. The next jump to class III is a big one. Most of us remember our first trip down the Lower Yough - my gold standard for class III rivers. It's one thing to run a single class III rapid on the Lower Gunpowder, Robin's Nest on the North Branch, or perhaps Snap Falls on Muddy Creek. It's a whole different ball game running a complete class III run. Rapids are very continuous, swims are much longer, and manuevering is absoutely essential. This can be a dangerous time for new boaters. They might have a solid roll but lack adequate boat handling skills. They see their friends running more challenging rivers and may be easily lured into rapids above their present skill level. This is where good judgement is crucial - know when to say no.

The seasoned paddler that hasn't gotten out much is another accident waiting to happen. You used to run class V rapids with ease. Perhaps you took a few years off raising the kids. Work may have kept you from paddling regularly and you hardly get any exercise. Do you really think it is wise to start off the season with a run down the Upper Yough? Paddling is not like riding a bicycle, it takes practice and has more serious consequences for the unprepared.

Stepping It Up - The Safe Way

Find local runs you are quite comfortable on and really work them. Most solid class II+ runs have class III (and sometimes class IV) manuevers. Practice back ferries, attainment, slalom gates, and surfing. Practice your roll in moving water. Give playboating a try. Paddle with strong boaters and have them test you on these easier runs. All of these tactics will greatly improve your boating skills and make stepping up to the next level much easier and safer.

Training with an instructor can also help. Most clubs run very inexpensive classes at many different levels. There are also a large number of commercial schools. The Cheat Race Training package by Tom McKewan of Liquid Adventurers is a unique bargain even if you choose not to race. Get references on specific instructors from people you trust - World class paddlers don't necessarily make the best instructors. get someone that fits your unique style of learning and make certain you have a reasonable student to teacher ratio.

Variety is essential as well. Just because you bumbled down the Lower Yough following someone's tail - doesn't mean you are a solid class III boater. Paddle a variety of rivers in your skill range - each have their own learning opportunities. Build big water and technical skills. Try your hand on fun races. I also highly recommend taking turns as the river scout and leading trips. Offering to lead trips provides great learning opportunities and will certainly get you recognition from more seasoned paddlers. We have seen plenty of boaters that blindly follow the back of someone's PFD down the river - that isn't boating. What if your lead catches a one-boat eddy? Can you read and run on your own? Can you quickly identify and catch small mid-stream eddies? If you can't, you really need to build your skills before tackling tougher runs. Here is a nice short article on judgment I wrote with additional references: Judgment.

stretchPaddling can be a very strenuous sport. As we get older, we often spend many more hours at work and less time on exercise. You can compensate to some extent with experience - experienced paddlers learn to work with the river instead of trying to overpower it. When was the last time you practiced aggresive swimming techniques? If it has been awhile, give it a whirl on a local trip. Do you practice rolling? Eric Jackson recommends practicing your roll on every river outing. Taking this course is a strong commitment towards building your river skills. There are many other sources available as well. Practicing tough lines on easier rivers is a safe way to develop solid boating skills. Tom McKewan is a strong advocate of river attainment exercises - a great way to learn how to read rapids and build stamina. When was the last time you performed a gear check? Are you absolutely certain your PFD will still float you adequately?