[VIDEO] Whitewater Rafting Paddle Commands

Posted May 22, 2023 by Jack Armstrong: grandson of founder George Armstrong

Whitewater rafting is a team sport in which each individual participates in propelling and steering the boat. When you’re out on the water, it’s crucial to listen to your raft guide’s paddle commands. This not only helps you and your crew get down the river but also keeps your raft on the splashiest, most fun route. Working together will move the boat effectively, help you and your friends stay in, and make for an epic day of whitewater excitement. Let’s take a look at some of the most common whitewater rafting paddle commands, and what to do when your guide calls them out on the water!

Forward Paddle

This is the most used paddle stroke of the trip. For a more detailed explanation of the paddling technique itself, please refer to our video focusing specifically on how to paddle in a raft. It is important to remember to follow the person in front of you when performing this stroke. If you are the front paddler, pay attention to the person across the boat from you to maintain synchronized paddling strokes. This will allow the folks behind you to keep pace.

Another key part of the Forward Paddle command is to use your whole body. With your weight primarily on your feet, really engage your abdominal muscles to lean forward and pull back without putting unnecessary stress on your arms. There are a lot of miles to cover on a river trip so it is important to use your energy efficiently.

Back Paddle

Think of the forward paddle command but in reverse! The number one thing to remember when performing this stroke is to use your body as leverage. It is best to place the paddle on your hip and use your body as leverage to pry the water away from you. If you have a small bruise on your hip at the end of the day, you were a rockstar back paddler. When performed correctly, this stroke is the most powerful and efficient while using the least amount of muscle.


When it’s time to stop, simply take your paddle out of the water at the end of the stroke you are currently performing and listen for the next paddle command.

Left Turn

While the guide has unique leverage in the back of the boat, everyone needs to work together as a team to make quick adjustments to successfully navigate the river. The Left Turn command is a combination of the Forward Paddle and Back Paddle commands. 

When performing this command, the folks situated on the left side of the boat will perform a Back Paddle stroke while the folks on the right side of the boat will perform the Forward Paddle stroke. If done correctly, the raft will quickly turn with only a few strokes. A tip to help you remember what you’re supposed to do when a turn is called: if your side of the raft gets called, you will perform the Back Paddle command.

Right Turn

This is exactly the opposite of the Left Turn command. Remember, if the side you’re positioned on gets called, you’re performing the Back Paddle command.

Hold On

Things can change quickly when you are out on the river and it is important to know how to best stay in the boat. The Hold On command is usually given when encountering some turbulent waters, bumping into a small rock or another raft, etc. This one command is not necessarily mandatory, however, it is always a good idea to be alert and lean forward even if you can’t grab something right away.

Get Down

Unlike the Hold On command, this one is mandatory. You may hear “Get Down” in larger rapids where the consequences could be more serious should you find yourself in the water. The sole purpose of this command is to give everyone the best possible chance of remaining inside the raft while keeping the raft upright. To perform this command successfully, you just sit on the floor of the raft. Remember to keep your paddle and your arms inside, and hold on tight, it will be a wild ride!

Over Left or Over Right

Your guide may call the Over Left or Over Right command in a variety of situations. You could hear it when approaching an obstacle or hitting a big wave. The goal is to get as much weight as possible on the side of the raft that’s called. This command is important to practice throughout the day. Even though it isn’t used much, it is imperative that it is performed successfully when it is called. 

And that covers it! There may be a few other commands that your guide might call, but they’ll cover those on the day of your river trip. If you have any questions about these, or other commands, be sure to talk to your guide about them or contact us.

Author Bio

Jack Armstrong

Jack grew up 35 minutes from AO headquarters, and is the grandson of our founder, George. His education includes a film degree and art studies from Biola University, as well as lots of experience breaking camera gear outside. After graduating college, he started an outdoors/action sports focused production company and is largely responsible for our video, photo, and social media content. Jack’s favorite trip is the Cal-Salmon, because of the river’s awe-inspiring beauty and the sweet rapids. When he’s not rafting or playing with cameras, Jack can be found skiing, surfing, visiting art galleries, or eating tacos.


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