Common Paddling Commands

If you’re coming Vail rafting with Timberline Tours, our expert guides will give you important paddling tips and essential rafting safety advice before you go out on the river. But it’s always good to have a bit more advance know-how. While each raft guide has his or her own style for guiding paddlers, you can expect these common verbal paddling commands:

Paddle Forward

Most simply, the paddle forward command requires every paddler in the raft to paddle forward, in sync and at the same time. If you’ve listened to your guide’s paddling tips prior to going out on the river, you’ll know that it helps to engage your core muscles in addition to your arm muscles when paddling. The front two paddlers in each boat should watch each other to dip their paddles in the water at the same time, and every other paddler in the boat should paddle in sync with their leaders.

Paddling Commands on Gore Canyon Colorado

Paddle Backward

This command also requires everyone in the raft to paddle at the same time and in sync with lead paddlers–but in a backward direction. When paddling backward, or back-paddling, it may be easiest to think about leaning forward, positioning the paddle in the water behind you, and then pulling the paddle through the water as you sit upright and engage your core muscles for a strong stroke.

Left Back

When a raft guide calls out the “left back” command, those on the left side of the raft will back paddle, BUT those on right side of the raft will continue to forward paddle. This command will be confusing unless you’re able to recall quickly which side of the boat you are on. If you’re on the right side of the boat, and the guide calls “left back,” don’t be temped to back paddle…because if you’re sitting on the right, a “left back” command still requires those on the right side to paddle forward. Right?

Right Back

The opposite of “left back,” the “right back” command requires those on the right side of the raft to back paddle, while those on the left side of the raft should continue to paddle forward. Guides use the “left back” and “right back” commands to help turn a raft quickly, so make sure you’re ready to translate the command into the action that relates to your side of the boat.


Once guides give a command to paddle, they’ll often have paddlers keep paddling until they call the “stop” command. While it’s a simple command, “stop” can be an important way for guides to control direction of a raft once it’s lined up in its ideal position. In the middle of high-intensity rapids, you might be tempted to just keep paddling, so listen carefully for the “stop” command to help keep your raft on track.

High Side

A guide will often yell out a “high side” command to keep a raft from flipping when it hits an obstacle, such as a rock, or when it gets stuck against an obstacle. Move quickly to the high side of the boat when you hear this command, throwing all of your body weight toward that side of the boat. Guides will often follow the words “high side” with “right” or “left” to indicate the high side of the boat–just in case it’s not obvious. The idea behind this command is that when paddlers move to the high side of the raft, the weight distribution toward that side will help keep the raft from flipping.

Whitewater Rafting Vail Colorado
A “lean in” command may help you through a rough section of river, but if your guide has commanded you to paddle, keep paddling until you hear the “stop” command. | Photo: Rapid Image Photography,

Lean In

Guides often use the “lean in” command when a jolting hit is imminent, such as when hitting an obstacle, going over a steep drop, or hitting a big wave head on. All paddlers responding to this command should brace themselves by leaning down and toward the center of the raft. As guides will explain in the paddling talk, it may be appropriate to grab the safety line that runs around the outside of the boat with one hand while continuing the cover the paddle’s T-grip with the other. Responding quickly and effectively to a “lean in” command can help keep you in the raft through a rough section of river, but be prepared to pick up and begin paddling again according to your guide’s commands as soon as you’ve made it through.


Timberline Tours is the Vail-area’s premier whitewater rafting and backcountry jeep tours outfitter, also offering stand up paddle board (SUP) and duckie river trips on Colorado’s Eagle, Colorado, and Arkansas Rivers. All of our guided trips are open to Vail, Colorado visitors, locals, families, and corporate groups.

To book your Vail, Colorado adventure, call Timberline Tours at (970) 476-1414, or email us at