By: Eli Shostak

Understanding river speak is like reading a trade document written for a particular audience, like a legal briefing or an instruction manual for engineers, and feeling like you are trying to understand a foreign language. Lawyers, doctors, mechanics, and yoga instructors all speak extensively in specifically designed vocabularies which often make pretty much no sense to anyone outside their circle.

As it turns out, guides also have crafty ways of carrying on. Developed over generations, perfected along river corridors, and handed down as an oral tradition from one generation to the next, these words and sayings are common amongst river folk but might warrant a little explanation. 

In an effort to keep you “in the know,” here are a few terms you might hear on a river trip and their meanings. 

PFD stackROCKET BOX: “The first aid kit is in the Rocket Box.” We’ll start with a little history lesson; much of the earliest equipment found floating down western waterways was first introduced for use by the military. Acquired cheaply at surplus stores, resourceful river people repurposed many of the military’s cast off’s and put these items to use on river trips. Rocket boxes ( or their smaller version, ammo cans), once used to house ammunition, provide durable (literally bomb-proof), waterproof, easily storable, and transportable space for everything from groceries to garbage.

CFS: The acronym for cubic feet per second. The CFS tells you the volume of the river. 900cfs is low, while 50,000cfs is high!

PFD: Personal flotation device, or life jacket/vest.

HYDRATION STATION: “The hydration station is by the kitchen.” Desert environments are dry and, as far as we can tell, getting drier. Staying hydrated, a magical state of being that none of us are very good at even in the best situations, is key to having a safe and fun time on any adventure. Boats and camps always have a Cooler of water conveniently located and always accessible, ready to slake a desert thirst and keep you happy. Holiday also keeps snacks, or serves appetizers on at this combination hydration & snack station, because to stay hydrated you also need to keep up on that salt intake as well!throw bag on rafts

THROW BAG: A throw bag is filled with floating rope that is key for any river set-up. It is used as a rescue device to reach swimmers and pull them back toward the boat. Whatever you do, make sure to grab the ROPE and not the BAG!

EDDY OUT: “We’ll eddy out on river left and wait for everyone.” Used both literally (as demonstrated) and figuratively (“She kind of eddied out in Green River after falling in love with the cute melon farmer gal”), eddying out means leaving the flow and pausing the action. Eddies are a hydrologic feature formed when water backfills the space behind an obstacle. The current in eddies often flows upstream or circles around aimlessly, making them a perfect place to not go with the flow.

RIVER SPICE: “Due to the wind, dinner has a little extra river spice tonight.”  Food on Holiday trips is absolutely amazing. My stomach still rumbles when I think back to my first surf and turf night. In fact, many people find that they eat better on Holiday trips than they do at home. However, no matter how expert a crew is, due to environmental conditions, some meals might end up with a little extra river spice (grit) than intended. Never harmful, these additional minerals are probably beneficial to our health. I mean, don’t most guides seem exceptionally fit and healthy?

As experts in their profession, Holiday guides are keenly attuned to the aspects of their vocabulary which might make zero sense to non-boaters and will always ensure folks know what they’re talking about. From cam straps and keeper holes to Paco Pads and Chaco tans, there are a million other fanciful terms bantered about on river trips. Like any traveler experiencing a fun new language, be sure to ask any time you hear a new word or phrase you don’t quite comprehend. And just think, when you get home, you can impress your friends and colleagues with all your fresh new river speak!


Eli Shostak is a Lecturer of Adventure Education at Fort Lewis College. A former river guide, NOLS Course Leader, and sea kayaking instructor, he is a firm believer in the power of shared experiences in wild places. Eli is dedicated to using his expertise in mindfulness, leadership, and expedition planning to facilitate journeys for finding the personal and interpersonal benefits of exploring diverse landscapes. His favorite game to play on trips is called “Knuck Tats,” something you’ll have to ask him about.