It is quite possible that this is on of the most important decisions a boater faces on the river. When, where, for how long? These and others are the dilemmas one is challenged with in an uncertain and dynamic environment like the incredible whitewater rivers we paddle.

I remember looking at the Nantahala falls on my first visit to the river. I stood there and calculated my line for a half an hour. All of this decisive gendering resulted in the neophyte standard; flip right, swim, and text book self rescue. Nowadays the only time I scout Nantahala falls is to offer “experienced” advice to my friends that are taking the plunge early in their kayaking careers.

So when should you scout? And when is scouting not necessary? We have brought together a diverse group to chew on this topic. Joining me are Craig, Juliet, Matt and a guest appearance by Jimmy Blakeney. Here is what we have to say about scouting:

What determines whether a rapid is worthy of scouting or not for you?

Steve: To put it simply I believe the best advice is to do what makes you comfortable, but never take any rapid on any river for granted. Scouting is absolutely a situational endeavor. Many factors play into extent and fashion of looking at a particular rapid. Rapid characteristics, river flow levels, Capabilities of paddlers in the group, time of day, weather, and the list goes on with these factors, again totally situational. With a good solid group of boaters where everyone has knowledge of the given river or rapid, or having someone with extreme latent knowledge of the run explain rapids to the point of everyone in the group having a clear picture and understanding of what a rapid entails and are all comfortable with going ahead, there is little need for everyone to get out of their boats, walk over slippery rocks and spend valuable daylight on inspecting a rapid well within the scope of manageability of the entire group.
Jimmy: If I can’t find a way to see the bottom of the rapid, I scout. The only time I don’t is if I’m following someone that I fully trust down a run.
Matt: It’s all visual. Of course, depending on the gradient/horizon lines. Most rapids that you paddle up to and can see, you’ll run without scouting- but if there’s something you can’t see, then you definitely want to scout it.
To scout or not to scout…while that is the question, the real answer here, without caveats, is IT DEPENDS.

What factors does the answer depend on?

1) First, type of river: I’d separate it into two general categories: more creeky-like rivers where there’s only one channel, and wider, bigger rivers, where the lines may not be conveniently placed nearest the last attainable eddy. The dynamic is different tin Drop-Pool runs. Take Tellico creek- you have big eddies to stop in before going on to the next section.
2) Is it continuous? There’s another question. Take the example of my recent adventure on the Rio Lipeo, in Argentina. You have a quarter mile of class IV river, visibly clean- then you come around a curve and see that the gradient gets a whole lot steeper- You pull all the tricks to stop at the last eddy to get out and scout- only to discover another continuous quarter mile of class V rapids. Good to scout these.
Craig: If the riverbed in general has really hard or steep stuff; or if a given rapid is a horizon line…
Juliet: On my first run down a river, I am all for scouting rapids-even if they end up being wide open and good to go. On something steep, my ability to see the bottom of the rapid is a big determinant in whether I scout of not. If I know that there is a particularly large, significant rapid I know it will be worth getting out and scouting. It also depends on who I am paddling with-if I am with someone I trust and see their line through a rapid, and read their body language that it was not a big deal, then I will leave the eddy I was sitting in and follow on.

How do you decide between boat scouting and getting out and scouting?

Matt: Here again, when you boat scout- you need to feel comfortable enough going into the eddy that’s right above the rapid that you can’t see. If you don’t feel comfortable going into the eddy that’s right above the rapid that you can’t see- then you want to scout it. On the other hand, you also can’t limit yourself by going down to the last eddy- since getting there may not give you sufficient time to make the line you want. For example, if you have a big wide river, and a horizon line. Sometimes it’s not in your best interest to get into the last eddy. In a creek- it’s, again, all visual.
Jimmy: Your skill level often determines this. For many big rapids, it is possible to find a little nook or slack water just above the drop so you can see the landing zone without getting out of your boat. These types of ‘boat scouts’ often require expert skills due to the small margin for error of you mess up. I guess you could classify boat scouts just like you do rapids, and your skill level determines how hard of a boat scout you’re willing to do. Regardless, if you can’t see the landing from your boat, you get out to scout.
Juliet: Depends on where you can stage from on the river. If there is not a good place to boat scout, then it is well worth getting out and taking a look from shore.
Craig: If I can’t creep close enough to the edge in my boat to look I’ll hop out. You have to find a safe eddy low enough to see; where you can still run the line or get out once you look down there.

Once you have scouted a rapid, how do you determine whether to scout it again or not?

Craig: If it changes frequently or if I don’t really remember the details I might rescout something. Or if it is always has big consequences. I never scout Pillow since first time because you can roll at bottom, but always scout Mike Tyson’s Punchout because I don’t want to crash at all.
Steve: Sometimes I have those rapids that for one reason or another I always get out and look at. There is only a handful out there on the familiar runs, and these rapids might not necessarily be the hardest I run, but because of one factor or another I just like to look!
Matt: IT DEPENDS on 1) the degree of difficulty, 2) Familiarity with the river- a river that you know well at ranges of 1000 to 10000 CFS – you shouldn’t need to scout… 3) The fluctuations/potential changes: Although I’ve spent a lot of time on the river, I always scout the biggest rapids (2 in inferno canyon, throne room, terminator and casa de piedra) on the Futaleafu. The reason is that as the river changes so dramatically season-to-season and even day-to-day, so do the lines. In creeks, you always want to scout for logs.
Juliet: Probably three key factors are: 1) if the rapid is known to have wood in it or has had a big flood and the rapids are the kind that if you paddle into it, you are committed; 2) how difficult the rapid is. If it is really hard I am all for getting out each time to just make sure I have a visual on the line I want to take. And watching a ‘probe’ go first sometimes gives you an added reassurance; 3) if the water levels tend to change a major rapid. I learned a hard lesson this year in Costa Rica, running a rapid that I had run over and over again for fourteen years. The water level changed, probably an nth degree more than I was familiar with and the rapid changed drastically. I could have stopped above it in a last-minute eddy to give it one last glance before heading into it and didn’t. I went into it with 100% focus on what my line was (I have never taken this rapid for granted) and the change took me totally off guard and I paid a big price for just paddling into it.
Jimmy: That’s a good question and one of the toughies. It’s a judgment call really. If you’ve run a creek a lot and know what to expect, you don’t have to scout every time. However, if there’s been a really windy day, or an ice storm, or really high water, you have to be extra careful cause new strainers may appear, or rocks could’ve moved.

What kind of changing conditions would make you rescout a rapid?

Matt: WATER LEVELS (and frightened paddlers)
Steve: Don’t forget that river levels can change rapids dramatically. The Ocoee at 3500 c.f.s. is a much different river than at a normal flow, about half of that. Or the Chattooga at 1ft. versus 2ft. No matter how many a boater has run a rapid at a certain level, it very well could look different and have new hazards with more or less water. Sometimes the difference between a favorite play spot and a serious pour over is not a great amount of water. River levels and translating those levels to understand what a rapid contains should be understood before even putting on.
Craig: If I think there could be new rock or trees I rescout, or if the water levels make a big difference there.
Jimmy: See above and also really cold weather, because ice can be a big hazard! I’ve been on trips where we started a run and all the drops were clear, but as we entered a shaded part of the gorge all of a sudden the creek was covered in ice bridges. Someone got caught in one and we ended up hiking out, the whole creek was frozen over further downstream.
Juliet: I think the above mentioned apply here also.

How much gut instinct plays into your decision to scout or not?

Matt: There’s definitely times when I decide to go, just looking at the surrounding environment- even though I can’t see it. It depends on the character of the river really. But a good rule of thumb is to say that, if you can’t see it, SCOUT IT.
Jimmy: How much gut instinct plays into your decision to scout or not? For me it’s more calculated than that. Once I’ve thought about the things mentioned above, my “gut” instinct tells me what to do. Sometimes you take a bit of extra risk depending on how your feeling on the creek, but I try to always err on the side of caution…trying not to get too comfortable out there. When we’re running Manns creek (my home class V creek in West Virginia) day after day, you can become complacent. You have to remind yourself the dangers are always there, and are always changing, so you don’t inadvertently put yourself in a bad position.
Juliet: I think a lot of my gut instinct is determined by the caliber of boater I am with. If I have an implicit trust of the boater/s I am with (meaning I know them well because I have paddled with them for years), I am a lot more comfortable on running things on the fly. I can read off of their body language and make my own decision. And just because someone I know runs something on the fly, does not always mean that I do. I always bring my two feet along in case I need to check something out!
Craig: I usually put everything I know about the run into a decision to scout; my gut would be to scout if I don’t know enough. I usually know all I need, I get instinctual if I can’t see enough or water does something weird where I can see it. I almost always see enough to run a line and go for it. A total lack of visibility is usually the reason to scout.
Steve: I have even found that when I look at rapids too intensely, I often psych myself out and have problems running it. The times I scout medium, or just go ahead with what I know, I have found that instinct and momentum do me very well. This theory generally works on low to mid volume rivers and creeks where rapids are characteristically shorter and require few moves, or a sequence of short moves. On big water however, where rapids can be hundreds of meters long and would take a long time to scout, wave top scouting works great. In Most cases these rapids, once committed to, can be seen entirely from the top. This allows for any hazards i.e. giant holes, boulders, etc. can be seen and negotiated on the fly. This is not always the case though. Knowledge of serious hazards like Killer Fang Falls being around some bend half way down the run, approach with caution.

Any other words of wisdom?

Jimmy: A huge part of creeking is mental. Confidence is key, but it’s a double edged sword. When you find yourself getting confident and feeling solid, that’s the best time to re-evaluate and be extra careful, cause there’s a fine line between confident and cavalier.
Craig: (After a day running the Raven’s fork) If I am really scared but know the line I have somebody check for trees and then I paddle off it before I realize what I am doing. It worked all day yesterday.
Matt: With the great amount of focus most put into running a rapid at the peak of their abilities, we rarely get ourselves into trouble. It is the case however that most of the horror stories we hear of or experience occur when paddlers become complacent. This goes for everybody to remember, one boater’s Section III of the Chattooga, is another’s Section IV, is another’s Narrows of the Green. Perceptions are everything.
Juliet: Scouting is not an ego thing. It is a part of paddling. Anyone who refuses to scout because they are too good for scouting is not a good paddling partner. And in asking someone about your ability to run something or not, beware of the words “oh, you will be fine.” If you get out to scout a rapid and do not see your line, don’t run it. On the other hand, you can get wigged out with too much scouting. If you know the rapid, know the line, know the conditions-don’t keep scouting. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and run a rapid that makes you nervous to prove to yourself that you have the ability to run it.
Steve: Whatever you decide to do, don’t forget the time tested, best safety precautions we have out there: Sound educated judgment. Hindsight is always 20/20. Never become complacent. And get as much knowledge of your destination as possible. That is half the Battle.