Learn how to read the river in this blog post from Wildway Bushcraft

Reading the River

Canoeing is one of the best ways of exploring the wilds. More than that though it enables you to relax; to linger and to sit back. It connects us to an earlier way of life where explorers of old would traverse waterways in search of trade, knowledge, and lands anew; plus, it’s just darn good fun.

With all of this in mind, this week’s blog takes a look at how you can read the river when out canoeing. This doesn’t just mean being able to spot the rapids, it also means being able to pick out good places to set-up camp. First, though, we’re just going to recap some basic safety stuff.

As always, feel free to read the whole blog or click on the section that interests you the most.  

Join us on a once in a lifetime trip as we embark on a five-day canoe expedition of the River Spey.
Click here for more information.

Basic safety when canoeing

Canoeing: Basic safety 

There are a number of canoeing accidents on the river each year,  what makes them even more tragic is that the majority could probably have been avoided.

Whenever you go out paddling it’s very wise to adhere to some basic rules of safety and carry some basic safety equipment with you. British Canoeing, the governing body of paddling sports in the UK recommends that whenever you go out paddling you;

  • Let others know where you’re going (same as you would if you were wild camping).
  • Be certain that the journey you’re doing is one that is within your capabilities.
  • Make sure that you never paddle the river alone.  

In addition to the above precautions, it is always wise to check the state of your equipment before every outing; check the weather forecast and to ensure that your boat has the buoyancy needed to keep it afloat should it capsize.  

Join us on a once in a lifetime trip as we embark on a five-day canoe expedition of the River Spey.
Click here for more information. 

Basic safety equipment

The safety equipment that you need to take with you should, at a bare minimum, include the following:

  • Small First Aid Kit
  • Buoyancy Aid
  • Bailer/sponge
  • Phone (in a waterproof bag)
  • Drinking water and snacks
  • Suitable clothing for the weather

For more information have a look at the British Canoeing page on safety.  

Key river features you need to know 

canoeing trips with Wildway Bushcraft

Now that we’ve covered some very basic features it’s time to take a look at key features of the river that you need to know.

Remember though, being able to really read the river relies on practice, lots and lots of practice.  First though, a word on the types of hazards that you are likely to come across on the waterways of the UK.

Three common hazards for canoeing

There are three common hazards that you are likely to come across when canoeing. Rapids are not included as they are obvious features that you’re likely to encounter. 

  • Sweepers
    Sweepers are overhanging branches or trees. While these might be easy to spot the current of the river can carry you into the bank and into the path of these sweepers.
  • Strainers
    Strainers are underwater objects, such as roots, collapsed trees, plant matter, etc. that can easily trap underwater objects – such as capsized canoeists.
  • Undercuts
    Undercuts are parts of the bank, underwater, that protrude further than the part of the bank above the water. Typically made of rock or earth undercuts can act like strainers and trap objects beneath them.

River Feature: Eddies

Eddies are spots on the downstream side of an object that has acted to interrupt the current, for example, boulders. Because of the way the current works the water in Eddies can often be flowing in the opposite direction to the rest of the river. The water in Eddies can be calm and still or, on occasions, violent and swirling. Eddies are also a fantastic space to catch fish such as trout.  

River Feature: Upstream ‘V’s 

A ‘V’ shaped flow of water that faces upstream should be approached with caution. Where the point of the V is facing upstream the likelihood is that there’s an object is at the point of the ‘V’ and is forcing the current either side of the point. Hitting the underwater object that’s forming the ‘V’ is obviously not a good idea, it could even flip the boat.

River Feature: Downstream ‘V’s

Where the point of the ‘V’ is facing downstream it indicates a (relatively) safe passage through the rocks, the safe passage being the middle or point of the ‘V’. 

River Feature: Constricted channels 

A constricted channel is a point where the river narrows sharply.  Water through this point will be flowing faster than at the previous section of the river that you were on. This is due to the same volume of water being forced through a narrower opening, this increases the pressure and therefore the speed of the water.

River Feature: Weirs

Weirs are man-made features that essentially act as a dam and hydraulically recycle the water. Weirs are exceptionally dangerous and should not be attempted without an expert guide on hand (if at all). 

Join us on a once in a lifetime trip as we embark on a five day canoe expedition of the River Spey.
Click here for more information.

Choosing a wild camping spot on the river 

Learn how to read the river

Wild camping alongside your canoe and the river that you’re paddling is one of the greatest joys of the outdoors.  In this section, we’re going to look at how to choose a good spot to wild camp along the river.  First though remember to ensure that you are abiding by the laws of the area, which in England and Wales means obtaining the landowner’s permission.  

  • Check the weather
    When camping near to waterways it is worth checking the weather [
    learn how to read the UK weather in our blog here]. If the weather is looking stormy, or if there is a lot of snow higher up the hills then it would be worth moving away from the river.
  • Check the height of the river
    Check the height of the river before pitching up. If the river is already very high then any overnight rain, even if it’s not torrential, could cause you to wake up with a tent in the middle of a river.
  • Be aware of wind tunnels
    That little piece of lowland between the rugged mountain peaks might look ideal but can act as a wind tunnel.  Consider how exposed your pitch is, particularly if camping alongside a loch, and the impact that the wind is likely to have on the temperature. In particular look out for Cols. These are  an ancient pathway formed by glacial movement and are the lowest crossing point between two ridgeways. Learn more about Cols here, be aware though; what constitutes a Col is a little bit like the debate between Munros, Marilyns and Nuttalls.

For more information on how to choose a wild camping spot read our blog ‘Where to camp? Tips for tents and shelters in the UK‘. 

Extra considerations when wild camping with canoes

Make sure that your equipment is properly packed! For more information on how to pack a canoe read our blog on what to pack for a canoe trip. Having found a suitable bank to spend the night make sure you secure your canoe, you don’t want to wake up in the morning and find your canoe drifting downstream.

Coming up

In next week’s blog we will be taking a look at foraging and fishing along Scotland’s rivers. In the meantime, in case you missed it,  learn all about how to pack for a long distance canoe trip in our blog: ‘Packing for a long distance canoe trip, what to take and what to leave behind’. 

Join us on a once in a lifetime trip as we embark on a five day canoe expedition of the River Spey.
Click here for more information.

Wildway Bushcraft river Spey

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