Embrace America's Rivers

River Safety

Our rivers are wonderful resources and should be enjoyed but they can be dangerous. This page has been developed to give paddlers and boaters basic information about river hazards and provide safety measures. Even with all we know the most important thing that we can all use to be safe on the rivers is COMMON SENSE.

Common River Hazards

Foot entrapment - Catching a foot in rocks on the bottom of the river. May be caused by trying to stand up while getting swept downstream in water mid-thigh to mid-torso deep.

Strainers - Trees or single branches in the current, with river water flowing through, can cause a severe pinning hazard. Strainers many be caused by erosion. Trees can also fall because of old age, floods, and storms. Look for them on wooded riverbanks, along small creeks after high water, often found on the outside of bend, and on less utilized rivers. Always look downstream to spot bobbing twigs or irregular flow patterns.

Man Made Entrapments - Manmade objects in the river are inherently more dangerous than most things natural. Keep an eye out for bridge pilings, low head dams, junked cars, any man made object found commonly in urban rivers, highway crossings, and abandoned dam sites. Make it a habit to visually scan downstream.

Broaches - Getting pinned on a rock, either amidship or at the ends. Avoid sharp rocks that can potentially crease a boat or serve as point to be wrapped by your kayak! Develop the instinct to lean into the rock with your boat and body leaning together.

Undercut Rocks - Undercuts are water features where a slab of rock, or rock shape, forces the current flow to go under the surface. Learn to spot them by the dark shadow on the upstream side of the rock, the lack of pillowing action by oncoming water, and by the lack of a predictable eddy on the downstream side. Most dangerous undercuts are well known by locals, and listed in guidebooks.

Entanglement - Getting tangled exiting your boat is most likely to be caused by ropes, and loose lines, in your boat. Practice wet exits and critically evaluate your outfitting for entanglement potential. Treat throw ropes as potential hazards. Keep them neatly bagged, and carry a knife for rescue.

Vertical Pins - When the bow buries and gets pinned on the bottom after a steep drop. This is not a concern until you are paddling drops of over 3 or 4 feet. Advanced paddlers prevent them by checking the water depth first, and leaning back and performing a 'boof' move to keep the bow up. Paddling boats with a large volume bow reduces this risk substantially.


Dams are built to back up water in a reservoir for a variety of reasons. Dams are hazardous both above and below the dam. These wall-like structures pool the water as it flows over the crest and drops to the lower level.

This drop creates a hydraulic, which is a backwash that traps and re-circulates anything that floats. Boats and people have been caught in this backwash. A person caught in the backwash of a low-head dam will be carried to the face of the dam, where the water pouring over it will wash him down under to a point downstream called the boil. The boil is that position where the water from below surfaces and moves either downstream or back toward the dam. A person who is caught in a low head dam struggles to the surface, where the backwash once again carries him to the face of the dam, thus continuing the cycle.

To complicate matters, these dams are usually loaded with debris, such as tires and logs on the surface and rocks and steel bars just below, posing additional problems should a person get trapped in this dangerous structure.

Dams do not need to have a deep drop to create a dangerous backwash. During periods of high water and heavy rains, the backwash current problems get worse, and the reach of the backwash current is extended downstream.

Small low-head dams that may have provided a refreshing wading spot at low water can become a brutal death trap when river levels are up. Simply put, it is not the drop of the dam which is the lethal danger, but the backwash current. This backwash current is governed by volume of water and flow.

From downstream, you may not realize the danger until it's too late. From upstream, low-head dams are difficult to detect. In most instances, a low-head dam does not look dangerous, yet can create a life-threatening situation. You should always pay attention to warning signs, markers or buoys and keep well clear of low-head dams. If canoeing or boating above any dam, always have an anchor and plenty of line ready in case of motor failure or other emergency. In other words, be ready to put the breaks on.

      Canoeing and Kayaking
  • Be honest with yourself when evaluating your skills (and skills of others in your party). You will have a safer and more enjoyable trip if you choose sections of the river that match your ability.
  • Check on current water levels before embarking on your trip. The difficulty level of certain sections of river can change dramatically with changes in water level. Gentle stretches can become dangerous with high water levels. At extremely low levels, you may find yourself paddling through puddles, dragging the canoe over rocks, or portaging.
  • Know your physical ability, swimming skills and paddling skills. If you are uncertain about how much you can do, start with a short trip.
  • Wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket at all times. Even gentle stretches of water can have wicked undercurrents. Even good swimmers need to wear one.
  • Never boat alone. A preferred minimum is three boats.
  • Scout rapids and make rescue plans if needed. Be aware that on some sections of these rivers, land access may be difficult and help is far away.
  • Learn basic water rescue techniques and first aid. Learn to recognize the symptoms and treatment for hypothermia.
  • Know your limits; do not attempt a section of river beyond your skill level.
  • Pay attention to weather and water conditions. Wear wool clothing or a wet suit and dress for the water temperature. If the water temperature and air temperature combined total 100 degrees or less, wear protective clothing.
  • If you capsize, hold on to your craft and get immediately to the upstream side. Float on your back, feet together and pointed downstream. If you go over a ledge or drop, tuck into a ball. Release your craft only if it improves your safety. Stay upstream away from the boat.
  • Carry the proper equipment including dry clothing and a first-aid kit. Store all extra gear in a secure watertight container.


HAVE SOMEONE HOLD THE CANOE STEADY -you don't want to tip the canoe before you even get out on the water!

CROUCH LOW - keep your knees bent and GRAB THE SIDES OF THE CANOE FOR BALANCE as you walk to your seat

ALWAYS WALK ALONG THE CENTER - keeping your feet on the centerline will help keep the canoe from rocking.

  • STAY LOW - do not stand up or walk in your canoe when you are away from shore.
  • ALWAYS WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET - you never know when you might fall out or tip over unexpectedly.
  • AVOID SUDDEN OR JERKY MOVEMENTS - rocking from side to side could cause the canoe to tip over.
  • BE AWARE OF THE CURRENTS IN THE WATER - you don't want to end up floating farther downstream than you planned. If the current starts to pull you along faster or you see lots of rocks in the water ahead of you paddle away from them or paddle towards the shore.
  • ALWAYS SIT ON THE SEATS OR IN THE CENTER OF THE CANOE - sitting on the side of a canoe will cause it to tip over.
  • AVOID LETTING BIG WAVES HIT THE SIDE OF YOUR CANOE - always try to keep your canoe at a right angle to the waves otherwise the wave might push your canoe over.


  • PADDLE OR PUSH YOUR CANOE TO SHORE - with the help of the other person in your canoe, you can get out in shallow water and flip the canoe to dump out the water and climb in. Your canoe will float even if its full of water until you can get to shore to empty it.
  • ALWAYS BRING ALONG EXTRA CLOTHING IN A WATERPROOF CONTAINER- you want to be prepared in case your canoe tips or the weather changes.


  • SUN PROTECTION - hats, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants
  • MAP - be sure you know where you are so you do not get lost!

TIE ALL YOUR EQUIPMENT TO THE CANOE - put your equipment into a waterproof bag to keep it dry and tie it to one of the center beams in the canoe so that you don?t lose everything if your canoe tips over.

  • Make sure that your water skills and experience is equal to the river and the conditions.
  • Never boat alone. Always have at least one (preferably two) other boats with you on a river trip.
  • Know your limits of swimmers rescue and self-rescue on rivers.
  • Know when and how to swim for the eddy.
  • Reduce injuries by wearing protective footwear and proper clothing designed for river recreation.
  • Plan your trip and stick to your plan.
  • Stay away from the river during high water.
  • Wear a properly fitted Personal Flotation Device (PFD) at all times when you are in or near the river.
  • Be prepared for extremes in weather, especially cold. Know about the dangers of hypothermia and how to deal with it. Know early signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and dehydration in hot weather.
  • Carry a first aid kit and know how to use it. Learn or review medical aid responsibilities and CPR.
  • Watch out for new snags after winter and spring floods.
  • When in doubt, stop and scout. If you are still in doubt? Portage.
  • If you capsize, hold on to your boat unless it presents a life-threatening situation. If floating in current, position yourself on the upstream side of the capsized boat.
  • Dress properly and bring an extra change of clothing with you in a waterproof bag.
  • Avoid overexertion and guard against extreme weather conditions.
  • File a "float plan" with a reliable person indicating where you are going and when you will leave and return. Remember to contact the person once you have returned safely.
  • Do not overload or unevenly load your craft.
  • Do not attempt to stand or walk in swift moving water.


Most boating fatalities don't have anything to do with bad weather or hazardous sea conditions. They typically occur in smaller, open boats on inland waters during daylight hours when weather and visibility are good, the winds are light, and the water is calm. Despite these ideal conditions, passengers fall overboard and many boats capsize, causing over half of all boating fatalities.

Capsizing, Swamping or Falling Overboard:

Capsizing is when a boat turns on its side or turns completely over. Swamping occurs when a boat stays upright and fills with water. Sometimes a person falling overboard from a boat causes the boat to capsize or swamp. Regardless, the outcome is the same?people are in the water unexpectedly.

To help prevent and prepare for capsizing, swamping, or someone falling overboard, follow these guidelines.

  • Make sure that you and your passengers are wearing life jackets while the boat is underway.
  • Attach the ignition safety switch lanyard to your wrist, clothes, or life jacket.
  • Don't allow anyone to sit on the gunwale, bow, seat backs, motor cover, or any other area not designed for seating. Also, don't let anyone sit on pedestal seats when operating at a speed greater than idle speed.
  • Don't overload your boat. Balance the load of all passengers and gear.
  • Keep your center of gravity low by not allowing people to stand up or move around while underway, especially in smaller, less-stable boats.
  • In a small boat, don't allow anyone to lean a shoulder beyond the gunwale.
  • Slow your boat appropriately when turning.
  • Don't risk boating in rough water conditions or in bad weather.
  • When anchoring, secure the anchor line to the bow, never to the stern.

If you should capsize or swamp your boat, or if you have fallen overboard and can't get back in, stay with the boat if possible. Your swamped boat is easier to see and will signal that you are in trouble. Also signal for help using other devices available (visual distress signals, whistle, mirror).

  • If you made the mistake of not wearing a life jacket, find one and put it on. If you can't put it on, hold onto it. Have your passengers do the same.
  • Take a head count. Reach, throw, row, or go, if needed.
  • If your boat remains afloat, try to reboard or climb onto it in order to get as much of your body out of the cold water as possible. Treading water will cause you to lose body heat faster, so try to use the boat for support.

If your boat sinks or floats away, don't panic.

  • If you are wearing a life jacket, make sure that it is securely fastened, remain calm, and wait for help.
  • If you aren't wearing a life jacket, look for one floating in the water or other floating items (coolers, oars or paddles, decoys, etc.) to help you stay afloat. Do your best to help your passengers find something to help them float and stay together. If you have nothing to support you, you may have to tread water or simply float. In cold water, float rather than tread to reduce hypothermia.

If someone on your boat falls overboard, you need to immediately:

  • Reduce speed and toss the victim a PFD, preferably a throwable type,unless you know he or she is already wearing a life jacket.
  • Turn your boat around and slowly pull alongside the victim, approaching the victim from downwind or into the current, whichever is stronger.
  • Stop the engine. Pull the victim on board over the stern, keeping the weight in the boat balanced, especially in small boats. Remember, swimming to shore should be considered only as a last resort. Small craft boaters need to be especially careful to avoid falling overboard. Falling overboard and drowning is the major cause of fatalities for small boats. 
  • To prevent falling overboard:
  • Keep centered in the boat with your center of gravity low in the boat. Always keep your shoulders between the gunwales.
  • If possible, don't move about the boat. If you must move, maintain three points of contact. That is, keep both hands and one foot or both feet and one hand in contact with the boat at all times.
  • Evenly distribute and balance the weight of persons and gear within the boat, keeping most of the weight low. It is extremely important not to overload a small boat.
Sitting on the gunwale, bow, seat backs, or any other area not designed for seating is risky behavior and can result in falling overboard. It is illegal in many states.

  • Attach 7-8 feet of galvanized chain to the anchor. The chain aids in setting the anchor by lowering the angle of the pull as the chain sinks and lies on the bottom. It also will help prevent abrasion of the anchor line from sand or rock on the bottom. Most anchors grip by digging into the bottom when the line is pulled horizontally. Any upward pull may break the anchor loose.
  • Be sure the anchor line is strong and long enough to anchor your boat. A good rule of thumb is that the length of the line should be at least seven to ten times the depth of the water where you are setting anchor.
  • Since an anchor can be a safety device in an emergency situation, store the anchor and its lines in an accessible area. If the engine breaks down, you may need to anchor quickly to avoid drifting aground.

                                                                               More safety tips
Make sure that your watercraft is in good condition. Keep motor tuned. Water is hard on wiring and any electronics is subject to corrosion. Make sure that any corrosion is cleaned and coated. Take extra tools with you.
Some type of communication device is important in the event of an emergency. If you are not carrying a marine radio, a cell phone will often work. Flares and horns are good.
50% of all boating accidents are alcohol related. Drinking while operating a watercraft may not be illegal in some states, but it is stupid in all of them!
Never overload a boat. Most watercraft have a U.S. Coast Guard maximum load rating plate. Heavy objects such as coolers, water and fuel should be considered along with the number of persons allowed in the rating.
Always have an alternate method of propulsion. In canoes and kayaks that means an extra paddle. In powerboats it is an oar. This is important if the motor quits and it is the law in most states.
There is no substitute for experience. If you are new to boating (especially on rivers and off-shore) take and experienced person with you. If you are new and planning a long trip, first take a short one first to "work out the bugs"
Carry the correct fire extinguisher, first aid kit, water bailer and it is very important to carry the correct size anchor with a line attached so that it can be used quickly in an emergency.
Write up a float plan and leave it with a responsible person. Check in from time to time. This can provide valuable information in the event of a search. Click Here to get a printable float plan form by the U.S. Power Squadron.

Check the weather conditions before going out and be prepared for bad weather. Take rain gear and a bailing bucket. With boats equipped with bilge pumps, make certain that they are in good working order before setting out. 

The photo shows a great program sponsored by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers along the Cumberland River. "Kids Don't Float" is the message at the loaner life jacket station. 

Here's a little known fact. 90% (unconfirmed statistic) of men found drowned from falling overboard while fishing are found with their fly open. If you don't want to go below to use a head or porta potti or don't have such creature comforts then get a small plastic pot. Don't stand out by the rail or near the edge of a boat. Its a lot easier to lose your balance than you might think.