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Scouting the Perfect Kayaking River

Whether you’re kayaking for recreational purposes, to fish, or a little bit of both, it’s important to get a good understanding of the water you’re traversing. To avoid flipping your boat, getting stuck, or finding yourself slowed by unwanted changes in pace along the way, scouting ahead is an important step in the river kayaking process.

Scouting River Water Patterns for Kayaking

While river kayaking is commonly dramatized as exclusively high-paced rapids and raging waterfalls, this isn’t the only speed this activity comes at--it’s very easy to find a calmer, less intense path that you can traverse without the need for a sporting kayak. In fact, most river trips have a nice mix of currents that will provide variety, while still being navigable in a typical kayak.

Understanding the rapids on your course allows you to plan, and possibly customize, the route you want to take. Always keep your end goal in mind (i.e. a casual paddle, sporting for fish, or an adventurous ride), and know that for a standard river kayak, flat water and rapids up to class II won’t be overwhelming for your craft. From there, it’s marking points of current change as well as hazards to avoid that might take you off your path.

How to Scout a River

Making a plan for your river kayaking trip means using all the resources available, from digital “eyes” to your physical eyes.

  • It can start right from the comfort of your couch. Check out your route on GPS or maps that can show entrance and exit points. Knowing how to get on and off the river is of first importance. You can get a lay of the land, look at the general course, and even find some landmarks right from the comfort of your phone or computer.
  • Note the distance you need to travel and any places of possible restriction in the flow of water, bends, squeezes, turns, etc that can affect the pace of the water.
  • With that knowledge in mind, you are better prepared to scout with your physical eyes, best practice says that if you can’t see the whole route with your naked eye, it is best to put in the leg work. Walking the route can ensure a more pleasant (and less hazardous) journey.
  • Start at the exit point and work your way backwards along the bank, as much as possible. Note landmarks, areas of danger, whitewater, etc. If you see places you will need to portage, check that there are places to exit and return to the water and room to maneuver your kayak.
  • The amount you scout is at your discretion. Some prefer to just check for life- or boat-threatening obstacles and run it blind for fun. Others prefer to have the course more mapped out and to have mental check-points along the way for reference. For people kayaking in teams, scouting can be delivered from front runners to those behind as a heads up--being able to adapt quickly as info is communicated and knowing how to traverse different situations is key in this case. You know your skills best, so keep in mind the tips that best match your kayaking style and the purpose of your trip.

What to Scout for in a River

If you spot a hazard along your path, analyze how much of the water is going towards that point and think about how that affects the line you want to take your kayak:

  • How do you need to paddle to avoid where you don’t want to go?
  • Will that involve also combatting the natural current of the water you’re in?
  • Are there features involved that will flip your boat?

A handy acronym to remember in scouting a river is WORMS.

  • WATER: Check the current. Where is the water flowing? That is where you will go too. Depending on the season, more water may be flowing which can change your experience even on a familiar stretch of river.
  • OBSTACLES: This might be the most important step. Check for holes/low head dams (this extremely dangerous situations can trap even the most experienced paddlers), standing waves/wave trains (these can easily swamp or flip a kayak, make sure to head straight into this situation and tackle it head on), strainer (watch for areas with trees, low hanging bushes, submerged logs/rocks that can let water through but not a kayak).
  • ROUTE: Note the path that you will want to take down the river. Look for the “tongue”. This is usually a smooth, green ramp leading into a rapid. Following this path will tend to be the smoothest, least obstructed way through. Another feature to check is eddies. These are areas (usually around corners or behind obstacles) where the water flows against the main current, often in a circular pattern. However, these “whirlpools” can actually be your friend as the water is generally calmer and slower-moving than surrounding current. Use eddies to rest, wait for others on your team, or plan your next steps.
  • MARKERS: Make a note of landmarks or objects that will help you to orient yourself along the course. What you see from the shore can look very different from what is on the water, so choose large easily observed boulders, bends, etc.
  • SAFETY: Always paddle within your limits. Keep that in mind every time you embark your ‘yak. Sometimes that can even change day-by-day depending on your strength, health, conditions, etc. Where a helmet and personal flotation device. Dress for the weather AND water. If you do fall out of your kayak in swiftly moving water, remember to roll to your back with your feet up and pointed downstream. DO NOT stand up and attempt to walk if the water is greater than knee-high. You will risk foot entrapment.


These are helpful points to consider and to prepare for as you’re scouting the river for your kayaking adventure. At the end of the day, you want a positive experience kayaking out on the water and scouting for water / rapid-based hazards help maximize that outcome. Happy Paddling!

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