What River Guides Put in Their Ammo Can

By Joe Ballent

Crossed Oars SS Indigo Luke

A guide never heads onto the river without their trusty ammo can(s)

When I first began working for Holiday River Expeditions, I had several goals to strive for- not the least of which was obtaining my guide license and some serious river time.  I was in my late teens, unloading grocery trucks in the warehouse and dreaming of the day when I’d have a boat and set of oars to call my own while bringing guests down the river with Holiday hospitality that is both typical and renowned.  Other rites of passage awaited, taunting me from the end of the tunnel like so many hints and beacons of adventure; a low-profile-cut ‘guide’ life jacket, and awesome river knife and accompanying sheath.  One of the most tantalizing benchmarks of professional river life was a symbol of the lifestyle itself; my very own ammo can.

A Guide’s Ammo Can

Every ‘real’ river guide had at least one ammo can for personal belongings and medical supplies.  These backcountry totes represented to me the hard, rugged life that held some mysterious power over us.  Each guide’s ammo can(s) said something about them.  The paint job and/or accompanying stickers was a statement about how much or little they took themselves seriously, bumper sticker panels revealed refined tastes in, well, gas station bumper taste, and the more well-traveled guides even boasted chipped paint and the coveted “Where The Hell Is Maybell Colorado?” bumper stickers.  Like gunslingers of the new west, real guides bristled with river gear and weathered ammo cans of many sizes and shapes.  I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one and stock it to the brim with whitewater essentials.

After shedding my fair share of sweat in the warehouse, the day finally came when I had an ammo can to call my own.  I remember lovingly spray-painting it Holiday Red and White, and feeling a deep sense of pride when the paint began to wear on a particularly satisfying Westwater Canyon trip.  I was gaining river miles and river pride.

Lodore Journal Game Ammo Can TugOWar

In addition to storing guide necessities, ammo cans are also used for a fun game of “ammo can tug-of-war”!

But enough romanticized nostalgia- on to the important part.  Namely, what to put in an ammo can?  How to best arm yourself for the adventure ahead?  My own buffet of tools fluctuated over the seasons, adjusting itself per trip and per set of experiences.  Some staples remained, while some less-expected items frequently found their way into my cockpit.  Here’s a brief snapshot of what a guide might have in their metallic storage compartment:

A first aid kit.

Holiday River guides are required to have, at minimum, a nationally accredited Wilderness Advanced First Aid or Wilderness First Responder certification, accompanied by a fully stocked first aid kit that includes such essentials as anti-bacterial ointment and treatment for everyday boo-boos and the hopefully-avoided but still-anticipated more serious cuts or scrapes.

Headlamp.  Laser Light Show.

A headlamp is pretty self-explanatory.  A fellow guide by the name of Tim Burdick took portable light fixtures to the next level when he brought a personal rotating laser light projector and busted it out at camp one night.  The luminescent patterns played across the trees at camp like some alien fireworks show and we probably could have been entertained for hours had exhaustion not trumped amusement. But, if you’re on a stargazing trip, you’ll want to leave the laser light at home and stick with your trusty red-light headlamp so your eyes are well adjusted to the dark for prime star viewing!

Channel Locks are a guide necessity

A guide always has their channel locks with them in the kitchen

Channel Locks.

Another quintessential river guide tool, and an absolute must-have when it comes to dutch oven cooking (by the way, Holiday lasagna remains one of the best meals I’ve ever had in my life).

Deck of cards.

Sometimes the camp vibe just calls for a good old-fashioned game of cards.  Some high school kids on a youth trip showed me several of the coolest magic tricks I’ve ever seen (and have never been able to duplicate).

Knot book.

Guides practice all sorts of knots and rope management skills

As a climber, I ended up with this one by default.  It was great to bring along a piece of cordallette and refresh some knots on the drive to and from the launch or take-out.



These are some of my essentials and things any self-respecting guide won’t be caught without. But ammo cans certainly weren’t limited to these items. Some guides got even more creative…


In my time between river days in the town of Green River, UT, I happened upon some pretty amazing things on the side of the road or at campsites.  One of the more significant (and something I still have to this day) was a hunting monocular, still fully functional.  It made for some fun cross-river viewings on trips.


My most common use of a multi-tool was actually on personal camping trips when my crew would come up short on silverware and someone would poach the swiss-army-knife-sized blade on my multi-tool to chop veggies for tin foil dinners.  Not extremely glamorous, I know, but essential.

Lighter and matches.

Holiday River Expeditions sends each trip with heavy duty stoves and dutch ovens, so this was more for my personal use.  But you can never be too prepared, right?

Lodore Canyon Food Dutch Ovens

Dutch oven cooking is a staple on any river trip

Water purification tablets.

Freshwater is another commodity Holiday makes sure guests have in total abundance (along with soda and gourmet feasts).  So again, this was more for personal backcountry adventures.

Fabric patch kit.

The only time I ever needed to utilize my performance shell-fabric patch kit was on a puffy down coat that had a hole punched in it by the claws of an overly-friendly dog I met.  She had no ill intentions; just hopped up to say hello to me and inadvertently compromised my shell.

Medicine bag (for sentimentality).

I was lucky enough to participate in several of Holiday’s youth trips done with specific populations, and one trip in particular yielded an extremely introspective and fun activity in which all participants made medicine bags for each other, filled with selected stones representing our strengths and weaknesses.  It served as a good reminder of the sincerity of youth, who seem to take more away from these trips than the rest of us.

Bonus Round: Rig Bag

Whatever didn’t fit in the ammo could either fall by the wayside or had to be stashed somewhere else.  This is where the rig bag comes in handy.  The rig bag serves to carry larger, boat-specific items (like a stake, extra bowline, sponge for cleaning the boat, hand soap, and more).  However, given that the rig bag had plenty of space to spare, other ‘less necessary’ items tended to make their way into mine.  For example;

Whitewater Rafting Snacks

GORP – the best river snack for guides and guests alike

An extravagant surplus of GORP.

To the layman, GORP is Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.  To many guides, it was the sweet fuel of river life, and I often threw an unfairly large container of it into my rig bag to ensure neither I or my guests went snack-free during long flatwater stretches.

Waterproof digital camera.

I learned once, and only once, to never attempt cross-boat aerial transport of items greater in value than whatever you’re willing to take out of your pay for the trip.  A guest had been kind enough to use my camera to take some pictures of our flotilla, then attempted to throw it from her inflatable kayak to the cockpit of my raft- a distance of a whopping three feet.  Unfortunately, since the camera was thrown via slingshot effect thanks to the lanyard attached, it attained the necessary speed but the wrong direction and in all likelihood resides at the bottom of the Green River to this day, unknown award-winning photos unseen upon its waterlogged SD card.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse into the everyday ins and outs of gear on the river.  Remember; Go With The Flow, and see you out there!


Joe Ballent found the river- or it found him –when he was only 16.  He began guiding with Holiday in 2008 and has enjoyed the unique privilege of getting involved with Holiday’s youth trips, including the University of Utah Hospital Burn Camp program.  His writing has been featured on various outdoor online communities including mountaintechs.com and backcountrybeacon.com.  Joe works with troubled teens full-time but manages to find trouble around the country and world in his free time.  He is an outdoorsman by trade, a romantic by choice, a guitarist in a band, and an outlaw in Europe.