Paddle Rafting Commands and Training

Paddle Rafting Commands and Training

March 29, 2019 – Aaron Cavagnolo

While your safety talk is the most important conversation you have before a rafting trip, the paddle talk is almost as critical. Some would argue it is more important. A strong paddle talk, thorough paddle training and strong rafting commands will get your crew performing at a high level making it much more fun to guide your raft down the river.

Your choice of paddle commands can make it easier for your crew to consistently respond. I prefer to have commands that are simple, clear, and start with different word: forward, back paddle, right turn, left turn, stop, get down, back-on-the-job, over right and over left. The “overs” start with the same word but it hasn’t seemed to be a problem and I’ll go into detail later about prepping your crew to perform them well.

If this is all a little overwhelming the easiest way to improve your paddle training is to take a guide school or paddle on Cherry Creek or another technical class V river for a commercial company. Paddle boating guide schools focus on how to create great paddlers and what that means. The guides working class V rivers have spent years refining their safety talks due to necessity. On these trips you’ll learn what the leaders in the industry are teaching their paddlers.

The Basic Paddle Rafting Strokes and Commands

Forward paddle

Typically the most used command is forward paddle. A tripod position with weight on the feet, leaning forward and minimal weight on the butt while paddling aggressively will help keep people in the boat. Some key points of focus include making sure the paddle shaft is perpendicular to the water, people lean forward to start the stroke and finish their strokes before their hips so that they can keep their weight on their feet and have better balance.

In the front of the boat paddlers many times want to have their paddles follow along the bow of the boat at an angle rather than reaching straight forward and pulling straight back. If the front right paddler follows the bow of the boat she will drive the boat to the left making it much harder for the guide to keep the raft on its desired route.

It is also important for paddlers to realize that they need to try to get the whole blade in the water every stroke and that requires a lot of adjustment in their waist as the raft tips side to side and forward to aft.

Back paddle

The key to back paddling is to slide your bottom hand up a bit and hold the paddle against your hip so you can use it as a fulcrum. Many times before doing a back paddle I’ll tell the paddlers “Be ready to back paddle” which means I want them in position to do a back paddle. They are leaning forward with the paddle shaft on their hips and the blade of the paddle behind them out of the water next to the raft ready to paddle.

Preparing to Back Paddle

From that position when a back paddle is called the paddle is dropped into the water as the paddler moves their bodies backwards and pulls with the paddle T hand bending the shaft of the paddle on their hips.


Right turn and left turn our mirror images of each other. When a turn is called, the side that is called back paddles while the other side forward paddles. For example, with “right turn” the right side of the boat back paddles and the left side of the boat forward paddles.

If you want your paddles to be more advanced on the turn strokes the person in the bow forward paddling can follow the front tube during a turn to increase the efficiency of their stroke in helping turn the boat.


For the stop command paddlers take their paddles out of the water and discontinue paddling.

Weighting the Boat Commands

Get Down

The “get down ” command is designed to have all the paddlers get their weight off the outside tubes and sit in the bottom of the raft while still holding onto their paddles with two hands. This command makes the boat and paddlers much more stable. First it makes the center of gravity much lower so it is harder for the raft to flip and less likely for people to fall out of the boat. Secondly and sometimes under appreciated by taking all that weight off the outside tubes, the tubes ride much higher and are less likely to be caught by currents, sucked down and potentially causing flips, dump trucks and swimmers.

Back on the Job

Back on the job is a command to tell paddlers to get back to their paddling positions after a get down or an over. A key part of training this command is to ensure the paddlers keep their hands on their paddle T’s while regaining a paddling position.

Overs (Hysides)

Overs are used to weight one tube of the boat or the other. When an “over right” is called the people on the right continue to sit on the right tube and the people on the left tube move across and get their chests on the right tube in a position in front of the person that normally sits across from them. Once again make sure people are keeping their hands on their paddle T’s as they perform this command and make sure they are trained to stay on the tube until they hear back-on-the-job.

Over Right!

Personally I’m not a big fan of the high side command. Overs should be called before the raft hits a rock or wave so that the downstream tube is pressed deeply into the water and the upstream tube is lifted out of the river so it will not catch water and get pulled deep causing the raft to flip. Most rafts flip upstream so overs are almost always towards the downstream tube. By the time a tube is the “hyside” it is too late and people will most likely be swimming or the boat will wrap.

In addition overs are useful to low side boats through narrow shoots. They can also be used when a boat is perched on a rock to shift weight around and free the raft. A hyside command would be confusing in these situations.

Team Paddling

It is helpful to discuss with paddlers that it is more important that everyone paddles consistently and together rather than paddling just as hard as they can. Paddle teams need to be predictable so the guide will know how much power they are going to get every time a command is called. The front two paddlers are the key to this. They both need to enter their paddle into the water at the same time to the same depth, the same distance in front of the rafts, pull for the same time and exit together. if everyone behind follows the person in front of them the boat will surge forward.

Having the front two paddlers keep in sync can be tricky. Some people like to designate on of the two as the lead paddler and have the other follow. This works well on big volume rivers. I prefer to have the downstream paddler be the lead paddler that way both paddlers can be looking downstream so that can anticipate hits by waves and rocks. So if the bow of the raft is pointed to the right shore the left side paddler is the lead paddler and if the bow is pointed to the left shore the right side paddler is the lead paddler.

Concluding Thoughts

Having a well trained paddle crew will make you a better paddle guide by allowing you to have more precise lines and do a better job of keeping people in the boat. Take time at put-in to work through all the rafting commands with your crew. Also be sure to practice and use the commands through out the day. If you never use a turn and then call one late in the day chances are your crew will not perform it as well as if you had been using them consistently.

Think about the tone of your commands. It’s ideal when your voice sounds calm, confident and clear when in big rapids and stressful situations. Typically your paddlers will have more than enough adrenaline and slowing your commands and promoting calm will help your team paddle together.