So You Want to Raft the Grand Canyon? Part 2
You have read all about the Grand Canyon. You’ve looked at scenic pictures, and you are dreaming of the day you can go on a trip. If you decide that a private trip instead of a commercial trip is the right fit for you, the next step is to apply for a permit and build up your skill set. Since Grand Canyon permits are notoriously difficult to win, developing your river skills and going on other river trips can not only help you contribute meaningfully to your group, but can help you score an invitation on someone else’s private trip.
How to Score a Grand Canyon Invite: Helpful Skills for River Trips
A Grand Canyon trip is long and remote, anywhere from 7 to 30 days in the backcountry. You have to bring everything with you that you might need – food, supplies, a group toilet. This list should include a well-rounded group who, among them, have all the knowledge needed to make the trip fun and safe. Usually, a trip leader is considering these skillsets when sending invites, so you want your “resumé” to be appealing.
Raft rowing ability, or the ability to paddle a solo boat (like a kayak or canoe), is perhaps the most obvious skill set for a boater. Trip leaders are often looking for raft captains who can comfortably row big rapids with a heavy raft or solo boaters who can provide additional safety on the river. Developing your whitewater navigation skills is definitely an asset, however, you may be surprised to learn that it is not the be-all and end-all skill for joining a trip. Each raft typically has space for one to two passengers, and you may be able to join a trip as a raft passenger, especially if you bring one or more of the skills below to the table.
Swiftwater Rescue Knowledge
The more people in a group with swiftwater rescue knowledge, the more prepared a group is to manage situations like swims, flips, and pinned rafts. Taking a swiftwater rescue class is the equivalent to an AIARE 1 course for backcountry skiing, in other words, you should seriously consider it if you are going to spend any length of time (say, 21 days) in a swiftwater environment. This skillset can save your or your tripmate’s life.
Wilderness medicine and/or emergency medicine are especially beneficial in the backcountry environment. Emergency room doctors and nurses, EMTs, and wilderness first responders can all provide invaluable expertise to the group. Taking a wilderness first responder (WFR) course can help you know what to do in an emergency situation where evacuation may take hours to days.
Having a raft can certainly help you score an invite on a Grand Canyon trip, but in my opinion, buying your own raft and purchasing group gear is not the first place to start if you’d like to get into the sport. Rafts and rafting equipment are pricey, and you want to be sure it’s a lifestyle you enjoy before committing. We rented or borrowed rafts for many trips before pulling the trigger on buying our own. That said, my husband and I joke that now our raft gets invites on trips and we are just invited as part of the package.
Backcountry Cooking and Food Planning Skills
I confess that I mostly include this on the list because it is the key point of my own river resumé. Raft trips, as opposed to, say, backpacking trips, are known for excellent meals. You are literally packing everything, including the kitchen sink, so you can go all out on meal preparation. Steak nights, fresh margaritas, multi-course dinners, and Dutch oven desserts are not unusual in the rafting world. However, the Grand Canyon is a longer trip than most, so meal planning, food packing, and cooler management all become challenging. Of course, you can hire an outfitter to do your food pack for the Grand, which saves quite a lot of pre-planning. However, having a person or small group of people on your trip who can manage the food pack can save money and allow you to plan for the cooking experience you want. For example, on our Summer 2021 trip, we planned to do a lot of big hiking and canyoneering objectives along the way, which didn’t leave much time for multi-hour cooking extravaganzas in camp. I planned our entire food pack and dehydrated the majority of our dinners at home to meet our goals for the trip without compromising on good food.
It’s debatable whether your personality counts as a skillset you can improve, however, trip leaders are often looking for a good fit in personality to round out their group and fit the goals of their trip. Group dynamics are a very big consideration for any good trip leader, as personality match or mismatch can make or break the trip. Variables include how hard the group likes to party, any big goals for the trip, and personal characteristics (e.g., gender balance of the trip, political views, etc.). Finding a good fit is important, 21 days is a very long time in the backcountry.
Reliability is one personality trait that is always sought out. Backing out of trips at the last minute or needing the trip leader to chase you down to collect money you owe or fill out information they need is not a good look, and it may jeopardize your chances of being invited on future trips.
Other skills you might have can also be desired qualities on the river, especially if they support any specific goals of the trip. Climbing skills, photography skills, and musical talent all come to mind. People with knowledge of the area, like history or geology, are always nice to have along. Heck, maybe you are a professional masseuse and want to offer the world’s greatest back massages! You probably have some kind of knowledge or skills you can offer that would benefit a trip.
Even if you are new to raft trips and your skill set is otherwise sparse, being a team player goes a long way. Rafting is a team sport, and everyone has to work together to make a trip run smoothly (and this applies to you, too, raft-supported kayakers). Looking for ways to pitch in around camp and making a good faith effort to help whenever you can is an invaluable asset. Really enthusiastic dishwashers are the people I think of first when a permit comes along.
How to Develop Your Skill Set (and Make Rafting Friends)
The best way to develop your river skills is by doing more river trips! Getting out with an experienced group on other multiday rivers will help you learn the systems for river trips, such as how to wash dishes, how to set up the toilet system (groover), how to prevent mice from chewing a hole in your dry bag, or how to rig a raft. You’ll learn Leave No Trace practices for the river corridor. It will help you get comfortable with whitewater and dial in your personal packing list. Your buddy might also let you practice rowing their raft! Ideally, by joining other river trips, you can meet other river lovers who you might go on future trips with. And, if you decide it’s not the sport for you, you know that before committing to a strenuous multi-week trip.
Making rafting friends can take some time. Generally, getting involved in the whitewater community in the western United States will eventually lead you to others who raft or enjoy multiday trips. There are clubs and organizations in many areas (in Colorado, for example, you can get involved with High Country River Rafters or Colorado Whitewater), and local whitewater gear shops sometimes host events where you can learn more and meet others. Social media is another (admittedly hit-or-miss) place to connect with other boaters. Be on the lookout for “permit parties,” which are small gatherings of boaters designed to maximize the group’s chances of someone winning a permit and then inviting the rest of the group. Permit parties usually happen in December or January, as permit applications are due for most Western U.S. rivers at the end of January and for the Grand Canyon at the end of February. Finally, classes are highly beneficial to develop skills such as wilderness medicine and swiftwater rescue and might be another place to meet like-minded folks.
There are lots of resources out there that can help you as you continue to grow your river knowledge and meet other boaters. Here is a start:
- Facebook groups: Grand Canyon Private Boaters (to learn more) and Grand Canyon River Trip Participants Needed (for finding new internet friends who might come on your trip or let you on theirs)
- River Runners for Wilderness (RRFW) has LOTS of nitty gritty information
- National Park Service (Permit application information)
- Grand Canyon Trust (Advocacy organization working to safeguard the wonders of the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau, while supporting the rights of its Native peoples)
- Rowing Lessons: Vary locally. I recommend Canyon River Instruction in Salida, Colorado if you are nearby.
- Swiftwater Rescue Courses: Vary locally and can be found by an internet search for swiftwater rescue + your location. I took mine from Whitewater Workshop near Denver, Colorado and would recommend them (disclaimer: the business is owned by my husband Nik).
- Local whitewater clubs, rowing clubs, rafting shops, wilderness medicine courses to build your knowledge and meet river friends
- Wilderness First Responder (WFR) courses: Offered by many nationwide organizations, including NOLS, Wilderness Medical Associates International, SOLO, and Desert Mountain Medicine
- Dreamflows.com has a list of other permitted rivers to help you plan permit applications
Good luck in the permit lottery and have fun with your new hobby! See you on the river!
Reminder: You can read So You Want to Raft the Grand Canyon? Part 1 here.
About the Gear Tester
Allison is a rock climber who has competed for Team USA in the Paraclimbing World Championships. When the heat of summer precludes climbing, you can probably find her relaxing on a raft or cooking elaborate camp meals. She lives in Colorado and loves to explore with her husband, Nik, and her dog, Cheat.