<< Texas River Guide

River Safety

Top 10 River Safety Tips

1. Tell someone where you are going, when you expect to return, and where to call if you don't.

2. Make sure that your water skills and experience are equal to the river and the conditions.

3. Never boat alone. Always have at least one (preferably two) other boats with you on a river trip.

4. Wear a Coast Guard approved type III-V, properly adjusted lifejacket at all times when you are in or near the river.

5. Know your limits of swimmers rescue and self rescue on rivers.

6. Know when and how to swim for the eddy.

7. Reduce injuries by wearing protective foot wear and proper clothing designed for river recreation.

8. Be prepared for extremes in weather, especially cold.

9. Know about hypothermia and how it can affect you.

10. Plan your trip and stick to your plan.

International Scale of River Difficulty

Flat Water

A - Pools, lakes, or rivers with velocity under 2 MPH.

B - Rivers with velocity 2-4 MPH.

C - Rivers with velocity over 4 MPH. May have sharp bends or obstructions.


CLASS I - Moving water a few riffles and small waves. Few or no obstructions.

CLASS II - Easy rapids with waves up to three feet, and wide, clear channels that are obvious without scouting. Some maneuvering is required.

CLASS III - Rapids with high, irregular waves often capable of swamping an open canoe. Narrow passages that often require complex maneuvering. May require scouting from shore.

CLASS IV - Long, difficult rapids, with constricted passages that often require precise maneuvering in very turbulent waters. Scouting from shore is often necessary, and conditions make rescue difficult. Generally not possible for open canoes. Boaters in covered canoes and kayaks should be able to Eskimo roll.

CLASS V - Extremely difficult, long and very violent rapids with highly congested routes that nearly always must be scouted from shore. Rescue conditions are difficult and there is significant hazard to life in event of a mishap. Ability to Eskimo roll is essential for kayaks and canoes.

CLASS VI - Difficulties of Class V carried to the extreme of navigability. Nearly impossible and very dangerous. For teams of experts only, after close study and with all precautions taken.

Essential Canoeing/Kayaking Equipment and Gear

Endlines - Installed on the bow and stern, a line size of 3/8" diameter and 15' long is optimal. Endlines should be stowed to prevent entanglement but be immediately accessible in the event of a mishap.Diagram of canoe packed with recommended items

Endtanks/Endbag - Many canoes/kayaks come with built-in flotation in the bow and stern. The flotation should contour the end of the boat whether it is foam block or an inflatable bag.

Water Bottle - Be sure to drink plenty of nonalcoholic fluids. Dehydration results from excessive water loss. Take at least one quart of water per person per day.

Bailer - Scoop or sponge used to remove lose water from the craft.

Spare Paddle - always carry a spare paddle in case yours is lost or breaks. It may be fastened to the canoe but should be quickly accessible in case of an emergency.

Flotation Bags - To work best the bags should fit the hull snugly with little or no air spaces. Tie the bags securely in the craft to prevent them from popping out.

Thigh Straps - Usually made out of two inch nylon webbing, thigh straps give the paddler more control when maneuvering the craft. Optional class II, recommended class III and above.

Seats or Thwarts - Kneeling provides a lower center of gravity and stability through the triangulation of the legs in the bottom of the craft. The lower the height of the seat the more stability can be achieved. Ten to twelve inches above the bottom of the craft is good.

Throwline/Throwbag - Sixty to seventy feet of soft braided 3/8" polypropylene line to be used for rescue purposes.

Knee Pads - Usually made out of soft foam rubber, knee pads should protect the knees while kneeling. Also, they should affix the knees firmly to the hull. This increases the paddler's ability to maneuver the craft.

Choosing River Clothing

Cold Water

Like standing in a cold shower, cold water can drive the breath from a person upon impact with the water. It disorientates, totally robs a person's strength, quickly numbs the arms and legs, and within minutes the resulting severe pain can cloud rational thought. Finally, hypothermia (exposure) sets in, and without rescue and proper first aid treatment, unconsciousness and death may result. Experts consider water below 70 degrees F to be cold. Some experts use the "100 Degree Rule". If the air and water temperature combined to less than 100 degrees a wet or dry suit is mandatory and the river difficulty is considered one class more difficult than normal (i.e. Class II becomes Class III).

To protect against the effects of cold water, the paddler should select and layer clothing properly. One should know how to spot a hypothermic accident before it happens. Always plan a trip appropriately. Lastly, good paddling skills and equipment can often help the paddler avoid a situation which may lead to hypothermia.

Cold Weather Clothing

Helmet - Wear a good plastic or fiberglass helmet. Make sure that it protects your temples. A helmet is recommended for open canoeists on any river Class III or above.

Whistle - A must for communications. The sound of a whistle carries over the roar of the river and much further than that of the human voice.

Pouch - For storing valuables including car keys for the shuttle car and money for an emergency phone call.

Lifejacket - The lifejacket (PFD) should fit snugly, yet allow freedom of movement. A vest type jacket (type III) is more comfortable to wear, offers better protection to the lower back, and insulates better in cold weather than the inexpensive horse collar jacket (type II).

Dry/Wetsuit - Made of rubberized material the drysuit seals the paddler in a water tight shell. Normal paddling clothes can be worn underneath it. Made of neoprene the wetsuit traps and insulates a thin layer of warm water next to the body. Both suits should protect the high heat loss areas of the arm pits, crouch, and neck.

Sweater - Worn underneath the drysuit. Wool is good. Polypropylene is better. Avoid cotton. It's ability to "wick" moisture will actually make you colder. Layer your clothes so you can put on or take off layers if you get too hot or cold.

Knife - (optional) A knife may be carried to free the paddler in case of entrapment.

Safety Rope/ Throw Bag - Many experts carry a nylon sling with a carabiner or a mini-throwbag which can quickly be used to rescue another boater.

Booties - Wet suit booties with rubber soles are an ideal choice for cold weather. Also, wet suit socks worn inside rubber-soled sneakers or plastic sandals provide good protection.

Pogies - Usually fastened directly to the paddle, pogies or mittens protect the hands and wrists from chilling wind.

Paddle - Select a sturdy paddle, one made of fiberglass and aluminum. Wood paddles should be constructed with fiberglass reinforced laminated wood. A "T" grip gives better paddle control in whitewater.

Warm Weather Clothing

Hat/Helmet - A hat protects from the sun. Wear a helmet in Class II and above rivers.

Sunglasses - Choose a good pair of neutral density glasses, with straps if necessary.

Shirt - Wearing a shirt reduces the likelihood of sunburn. A cotton shirt "wicks" the water which helps the evaporation process cool the body.

Lifejacket - For the summer choose an open mesh design lifejacket for its ability to breath. Choose a vest type or jacket (Type III) for its comfort.

Swimsuit pants - Light weight pants over the swimsuit are a good idea even in summer. The sun reflecting off the water and the bottom of the boat can quickly bake the legs.

Pouch - For storing valuables including car keys for the shuttle car and money for an emergency phone call.

Layering Your Clothing

Layered clothes insulate better in cool weather than a single garment of the same thickness. Two medium weight sweaters offer more protection than one heavy sweater. Cover the sweaters with a paddling jacket for even more warmth. To trap in additional heat and keep water out, the paddling jacket should fit tightly around the wrists, neck and waist. Layers can be mixed to maximize the strengths of each layer. Some canoeist use a farmer john type wetsuit (no sleeves and legs) for their first layer coupled with a sweater and a paddling jacket on the next layer. This allows the paddler freedom of movement with the wetsuit providing extra protection if a paddler is immersed in the water. Also with layered clothes the paddler can easily adjust his comfort and heat loss by either putting on another layer or taking one off.

How You Lose Body Heat

The water environment of the paddler greatly increases the potential the potential for heat losses through evaporation and convection. Layering your clothes combines the best properties of each garment to reduce heat loss. A sweater reduces convectional losses by creating dead air spaces in the fabric. A paddling jacket reduces air flow and reflects radiated heat losses from the body back toward the body. The summer paddler also needs to protect himself by wearing a hat to reflect the sun's radiation. Also, a cotton shirt and shorts help cool the body by evaporation.

Conduction (e.g. hand on aluminum shaft of paddle)
Convection (e.g. wind)
Radiation (e.g. unprotected head)
Evaporation (e.g. wet lifejacket and wet clothing)

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 riverways, 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.

Hydraulics - have evenly formed backwash, water moving back upstream for four or more feet. Holes with more of a wave shape are intimidating, but typically less hazardous than water flowing smoothly upstream. Dams, and hydraulics that are very regular, and perpendicular to the current are far more dangerous than hydraulics angled with one end downstream.

Long Swims - Wearing a tight PFD, matching your ability to an appropriate river, and being dressed for a swim can be excellent defense against a long swim. Another great precaution is a competent group of friends with either a shore or boat based rescue plan.

Recognizing and Avoiding Hazardous River Conditions

Conditions on rivers can change rapidly in Texas. Before setting out, a paddler should know the flow condition of the reach they are about to paddle. During high flows, the whole river reach may act like one long set of rapids. During high flows, the fast current may draw the unsuspecting paddler into other hazards. These include entrapment in floating debris such as logs, sweepers and strainers.

A sweeper is an overhanging branch or tree whose branches extend into moving water from above. Running into a sweeper will push a canoe over or could push and hold the paddler below the surface of the water. A strainer is a submerged tree or branches under the surface of moving water. A paddler could become pinned against a strainer.

Submerged hazards, such as rocks, logs and other debris, are not easily seen in turbulent water. A collision can cause the boat to upset; the hull may be punctured, or the paddler may be injured in the collision.

Once out of the canoe, the canoeist may be overcome by the current or pinned by the canoe. A swamped canoe can weigh as much as two tons and a paddler can be crushed between a canoe and a rock.

Cold water (less that 15° C) can be lethal. During spring conditions or in late fall, the river water is cold, and if you spill you can very quickly be overcome with hypothermia. Even if the paddler reaches shore, wind chill and cold air temperatures can accelerate the dangerous drop in body temperature. Shivering is an indication of the onset of hypothermia, and victims usually become too disoriented to be responsible for their own safety.

A riverbank is often well removed from emergency services and homes where help can be obtained. The tough reality is that you may be on your own to deal with a life-threatening situation. The tough reality too is that a paddler in danger may also be putting a rescuer's life in jeopardy.

Whenever you are on the river, it is important that you are prepared to deal with an emergency. Know where access points are along the reach of river that you are canoeing. Have a map of the reach that you are canoeing. Have a first aid kit and know basic first aid. Finally, a cellular phone in a waterproof bag may be invaluable in contacting help or emergency services.

Low head dams pose a special hazard to paddlers. In the fast waters, an upstream paddler may get too close to the crest of the dam and be swept over. A paddler may also get caught in the backwash current at the downstream side of the dam. Once in the backwash current, the paddler becomes trapped. Paddlers should use portages around these structures, and stay well clear of low head dams at any time of the year.

Boating safety awareness is not limited to the cold-water seasons. There are good solid rules that must be observed by prudent and safety conscious paddlers everywhere. Boating courses are an enjoyable way to prepare for any kind of boating.

Like the Boy Scouts advocate-be prepared. Being prepared before your trip can help avoid potential hazards or result in a positive outcome if an accident does occur. One of the most important considerations is a trip or float plan. Let someone know where you are canoeing, what your boat looks like and when you expect to return.

Spotting a Potential Accident

River accidents don't just happen. They usually result from the interaction of a series of smaller events or misjudgments which culminate in a major accident. Experts analyze accidents in terms of their human, equipment and environmental factors. Usually, any one factor will not lead to an accident. However, the presence of three or even four factors in a paddling situation is a sign of serious trouble. In a sense, three strikes and a paddler may be out. The major factors that can lead to river accidents are:

accident causes

Planning a River Trip

Specific planning must be taken seriously by paddlers in preparation for a float trip. The suggested guidelines that follow should give the paddler an insight into what is to be considered before attempting a cruise on a river.

Leaders preparedness and responsibility

1. Know the river or stream to be paddled. River guide booklets and topography maps are valuable references in trip planning. Have knowledge of the difficult parts of the trip and the location of any low head dams. Be aware of any possible changes in the river's level. One may want to plan alternatives in case the river/stream is too high or too low.

2. Setup locations for put-in and take-out along with a possible lunch break stop. Consider time and distance. Arrange for shuttle.

3. Participants. Limit the size of the group to a number that can be comfortably controlled. Designated group leaders should be experienced paddlers. Decisions on the participation of inexperienced boaters should be based on total group strength. Remember the welfare of the group is a major responsibility, and a balance of experienced paddlers with the less experienced will make for a more enjoyable trip.

4. Equipment. Plan so that all necessary group equipment is present on the trip.

5. Float Plan. If the trip is into a wilderness area, or for an extended period, plans should be filed with appropriate authorities or left with someone who will contact them after a certain time. The establishment of a late return phone number can save time and worry for everyone involved.

Participants Preparedness and Responsibility

1. Be a competent swimmer with the ability to handle ones self underwater and in moving water.

2. Be certain that you have a properly fitted Personal Flotation Device (PFD), and wear it .

3. Be suitably equipped.

4. Keep your craft under control. Control must be good enough to, at any time, stop or reach the shore before reaching any danger. Know one's boating ability. Do not enter a rapid unless one is reasonably sure that it can be navigated safely or that one can swim the entire length of the rapid in the event of a capsizing.

5. Be sure to keep an appropriate distance between canoes (distance will vary depending on water conditions; a good rule of thumb is to always keep the canoe behind in view). Never get ahead of the assigned lead canoe or behind the assigned sweep canoe. Both lead and sweep positions should be held by experienced paddlers with knowledge of the water being traveled.

6. Keep a lookout for river hazards and avoid them.

7. Respect the rights of fisherman and land owners while on your river trip.