Paddling Safety & Tips

Being prepared before starting any trip on the Mississippi River Water Trail.  Below are some tips and reminders to keep your trip safe and enjoyable. 

  • Wear your life jacket.
  • Be prepared to swim.
  • Never boat alone.
  • If you collide with an obstruction, lean toward it.
  • File a float plan with a relative or friend. Download an example float plan
  • Paddle within your experience and fitness levels.
  • Confine your first few outings to calm backwater areas.
  • Consider taking a paddling safety course.
  • Be familiar with capsize recovery techniques.
  • Carry the right gear.
  • Always check weather forecasts and river conditions before setting out.
  • Paddle in groups whenever possible and know the experience levels of those in the group. Remember: a group travels as fast as its slowest member.
  • Dress for the water temperature not the air temperature. Waters of the Mississippi River are first to cool off and last to warm up. For river temperatures for Locks and Dams 22 & 24 visit the USACE gages.
  • Do not use alcohol or drugs when paddling.
  • Conditions change – water levels, currents, winds and waves can vary day to day.
  • Stay alert for submerged objects and be prepared for unruly currents around bridges, wing dams, and other structures.

Hazards on the Water

Commercial Boat Traffic

Commercial traffic, like tugs and barges, operate all year and at all hours. They consist of strings of barges pushed by towboats commonly known as a “Tow.” Tows upstream of the final dam #26 in Alton can tow a maximum of 15 barges (3 wide and 5 long), and typically do. A fully loaded 15-barge tow can carry the same weight as 900 tractor-trailers, which inhibits their maneuverability. For this reason, commercial tows have the right-of-way in the main channel of the river. It is important to give them lots of room since they cannot move out of the channel to steer around you and may need up to one and a half miles to stop. In addition, it is important to stay out of the tow “blind spot” which can extend several hundred feet in front of and near the sides of a tow.

Here are a few recommendations for paddlers regarding tows:

  • Periodically look around for barge traffic, especially behind you as these vessels can be very quiet as they approach.
  • Stay clear of the tow blind spots, do not assume they can see you.
  • Because of their wake and “wheel wash” it is recommended to stay as far away as possible and let the vessel pass you before you continue your trip.
  • Tows operate in the channel between the green and red navigational buoys.  When a tow is approaching, paddle outside of these buoys to provide sufficient room for the tow.
  • Do not cross in front of an approaching vessel. Wait until they pass and for the water to calm. Bends and curves in the river are especially challenging for large boats to navigate. Stay out of their way and resume your trip after they have cleared the turn or bridges.
  • If you are using a VHF marine radio, you may communicate with tug pilots and commercial captains on channel 13.

Five bursts of a horn from a tow lets you know the operator is in trouble.

You may also encounter ferries that transport vehicles across the river. If you are paddling past a ferry landing, time your crossing to wait for the turbulence to subside before you cross behind the ferry.

Recreational Boat Traffic

Recreational boats usually only operate during warmer seasons and are more common near marinas, boat ramps, weekends, and in the main channel. These boats can be unpredictable with regard to their heading, consequently it is important to react early upon their approach. Once you identify a boat heading in your direction, make a noticeable turn to the right or towards the riverbank, allowing these boats to pass on your left. Your directional change will provide them with a larger profile of your kayak, making it easier for them to spot you. If a recreational boat continues to approach close to your position, wave your paddle above the kayak left and right to get their attention.

Periodically look for recreational boats approaching from behind you and turn to the right to provide right-of-way for them to pass on your left. Never assume you can cross in front of a rear approaching recreational boat as it is difficult to determine their speed towards your position. 

Fast passing boats will leave a large wake that you should prepare for when paddling. Stay loose and ride these waves while continuing to paddle.  If necessary, point your kayak perpendicular to the approaching waves, paddling through them head on versus from the side. When it is necessary for a group of kayaks to cross the navigational channel it’s best for 3-5 kayaks to cross in a tight group, while the rest continue downstream along the near bank.  As the first group clears the channel and turns downstream, the next group crosses the channel, then the next, and so on.  This prevents kayaks from stringing out and blocking the entire channel, causing an unmanageable situation for recreational or commercial boats.

Things to Bring

It is important to have the right supplies when paddling on any waterway.  Be sure to have the following when paddling on the river. 

  • Lifejacket
  • Drinking Water
  • Map
  • Sunscreen
  • Food
  • First aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Bug repellant
  • Marine radio
  • Towel
  • Small trash bag
  • Cell Phone
  • GPS Unit
  • Complete change of clothes

Top 10 Tips from ACA

  1. Take an on-water Course – whether it’s a safety or skill development course, an ACA on-water instruction course provides the information you need for canoeing, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, rafting or safety & rescue.
  2.  Wear Your Lifejacket – Expect to capsize and swim occasionally when paddling a canoe, kayak, SUP or raft? Learn more about PFDs and how they might just save your life.
  3. Cold Water Safety – Cold water is extremely dangerous! Learn more about protecting yourself in this environment
  4. Rules of the Road – What paddlers need to know when sharing the waterways
  5. Safety Check – Safety tips you need to consider the next time you head out on the water
  6. Practices, Ethics and Conduct – Key points on how to appropriately share, and enjoy our natural paddling resources
  7. Know Your Limits – Good things to contemplate before you leave shore
  8. River Paddler’s Guide to Rescue – The basics, just in case…
  9. Best Practices for Paddlers and Paddlesports Programs
  10. Trip Preparation and Planning – Getting ready to schedule your next trip? Learn more useful tips