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Half the Fun, but Most of the Headache: The Shuttle

By Eric Johnson
For some great shuttle disasters, checkout Mountain Buzz

Wherever you go, there you are.  –your mom.

We all know the above platitude to be true. But, as river-runners, we also know that wherever you go on a river, your vehicle isn’t,” which brings me to the present discussion: the shuttle. 

As long as rivers don’t run in loops, which they never will, the shuttle will be a necessary part of multi-day river trips.  And while the shuttle presents itself as a simple story problem (get a vehicle from point A to point B), it frequently becomes the most problematic part of any river trip. So many things can go wrong. From forgotten keys to flat tires and from bad roads to packs of wild dogs–the shuttle is fraught with peril.  So, in this article I want to look at some of the ways a vehicle shuttle can go wrong and how a little foresight and planning might have saved a lot of trouble–or not. 


  • Bad Roads | Many class III and IV multi-day rafting trips start and end on class V roads.  Many of these roads are legendarily bad: think the Sand Wash road or the Corn Creek road–both of which could be paved with the tires they have popped. Additionally, some of these roads are not well-marked.  Getting lost is a real possibility.   

Semi-Pro Tip: If you can help it, don’t drive roads called “Wild Cat Road” or “Jeep Trail #7.”  Often shuttles have a couple of options from point A to point B.  Don’t necessarily take the shortest route.  Take the one that will get you and your vehicle where you need to go in one piece.  And drive slowly! 


  • Weather | Once while floating the ABC section of the Green River, we took out and loaded the rafts only to find, a few miles later, that we were trapped behind a flash flood, which subsequently deposited a foot of mud across the Brown’s Park Road.  At no point in the trip had it rained on us, but obviously it had rained somewhere. Also, if you find yourself waiting for a shuttle (see “miscommunication”) it will rain or snow on you. 

Semi-pro tip: Anticipate the weather to be worse than you expect.  If it might rain or snow, it will rain or snow.  Don’t let people tell you that it never rains in the desert. It does. 


  • Mud | More specifically, Gumbo.  Not the kind with rice and shrimp.  I mean the generic catch-all for all types of soils that get soupy, sticky, slippery, and shitty when wet, which basically includes all types of soil.  Rain, notwithstanding, rivers and gumbo go hand in hand. And while gumbo often looks dry and cracked on top, it can be a bottomless wallow beneath.  Last weekend, we drove my van across a seemingly dry two track, and launched on a river.  The shuttle driver, following the same two track, sank the van axle deep in the mud.  Looks can be deceiving. Double check. 

Semi-pro tip:  If you find yourself at a launch or takeout saying, “I bet I could get closer to the river.” Stop.  Carry your gear or risk spending the next few hours extricating your vehicle.  Four wheel drive can help, but it can also get you deeper into trouble.  If you find yourself stuck, don’t spin your tires. If you are high-centered, you will have to dig. To get traction for your tires use a floor mat, driftwood, your jeans, whatever you can find.  If you have an air compressor with you, you can lower the tire pressure.  This can sometimes help in mud or sand. 


  • Miscommunication | Remember that game, telephone?  The information would start as one thing, but by the end of the line it was something totally different.  This sort of miscommunication can happen in any shuttle situation.  Professional shuttle services require paperwork, which helps to minimize miscommunication, but does not totally eliminate it.  A Dodge “Ram” can become a Dodge “Van.” “Nope, didn’t see one in the parking lot, Sorry.” 

Semi-Pro Tip:  Don’t fill out paperwork last minute on the hood of your truck.  Most companies have forms you can download off the internet. Do it well before the trip. Take your time and get it right.  If you are doing a private shuttle, have a meeting and tell everyone on the trip how the shuttle will go and answer questions at the meeting.  That way if there is an error, someone might catch it. 

  • Keys | Keys are “key.”  You should treat them like the sacred objects that they are.  There are a number of unfortunate scenarios involving keys. 1.)  You arrive at the takeout and remember that you left the key for the take-out vehicle safe and sound with the launch vehicle. Whoops! 2.) Someone shuttles you and they accidentally keep the key. 3.) Your shuttle company hides the key so well that you can’t find it anywhere. 4.) The river steals your keys during the trip. 5.) Your keys get locked in the vehicle.

 Semi Pro Tip (in order).

    1. See “hitch-hiking”
    2. Climb to the top of the highest hill that might get you cell service
    3. Keep looking (see “miscommunication”)
    4. Do you know how to hotwire? 
    5. River banks usually have rocks.

***For God’s Sake get a spare set of keys***


  • Mechanical Failure |  It’s not if…it’s when.  Both your vehicle and your trailer are shuttle disasters waiting to happen.  I won’t list all that can go wrong, but I will say that an empty trailer might as well be made out of tinker-toys. 

Semi-Pro Tip:  Keep your vehicle serviced. Keep tools handy. Make sure your tires are good and your spare has air.  As for your trailer, drive slowly if you want to keep your fenders attached.  Also, running out of gas is not a mechanical failure—it’s a “you” failure.


  • Crime | Shuttles can involve leaving a vehicle unintended in an isolated location.  Nine times out of ten nobody is going to mess with your vehicle.  But shit happens.  I’ve heard a story of some paddlers who did a quick overnight on the Carson only to find their brand new Subaru torched to ashes.  I’ve also heard of slashed tires; A couple of break-ins and a few stolen items, but I’ve never been a victim, myself (fingers crossed). 

Semi-Pro Tip: If you are paying someone to do your shuttle, choose a company that will keep your vehicle on their lot until the take-out day.  Many shuttle companies will do this.  If you are doing your own shuttle, lock your vehicle–or don’t.  I know a guy who leaves his truck unlocked with two packs of cigarettes on the seat and a note that says, “thanks for letting me park here.”  He claims to have avoided losing anything but the cigarettes.  


  • Hitch-hiking | Hitch-hiking is both a shuttle option and a last-resort for when everything has gone wrong.  Hitch-hiking can be an efficient and cheap way to run a shuttle.  But in the age of Covid-19, hitch-hiking might not be a great option.   Even under the best conditions hitch-hiking can be hit or miss.  Nowadays it might be impossible. The most common problem with hitch-hiking is that nobody will pick you up.  A less common problem but a more common fear is that the “wrong person” will pick you up.  My worst ride was a barb-wire artist who claimed to have met Jesus, which really wasn’t all that bad. 

Semi-Pro Tip: I never travel without a piece of cardboard and a sharpie.  A scribbled message might make someone stop for you.  Another good idea when you’re hitch-hiking is to wear your PFD; this is almost as good as a sign.  It says, “I’m a boater…” at least some people might interpret it that way.   If worse comes to worse and nobody is stopping, pull the Walt Blackadar trick and step into the middle of the road.    You will either get a ride or you won’t need one. 


Please know that this list of shuttle problems is in no way comprehensive.  There are so many other things that can go wrong, but also just as many ways to deal with those unforeseen problems.

In the final analysis, remember, a bad shuttle is a good story.


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