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Old Bald Cypress Tree Pedernales River State Park, photo by TRPA member Alexander Neal

Safety Training 5-Part Print Package

Top Ten River Safety Tips – Participants Preparedness and Responsibility Common River Hazards – International Scale of River Difficulty – Know Before You Go – Glossary of Canoeing Terms

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 life jacket (PFD) 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.

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.

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.

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.

Know Before You Go

  1. Wear a life jacket properly fitted to your body and appropriate for the water you are paddling.
  2. Ensure all PFD’s have an audible signaling device, i.e whistle.
  3. Check the weather, understand 4 W:   Wind speed, Water temp, Weather full forecast, Wave height.
  4. Understand and bring clothing/gear appropriate for the 4Ws.
  5. Let someone responsible know the who, what, where, when, what of your trip plan.
  6. Bring food and water appropriate for the duration of the trip.
  7. Wear environmentally friendly sunscreen.
  8. Leave drinking of alcohol or use of drugs off the water.
  9. Be courteous to other paddlers and to landowners. 
  10. Respect private property along Texas Rivers.

Pre-Trip Preparation

Provide a WEATHER ASSESSMENT to everyone in group for duration of trip. Share what to do in case of bad weather.

Wind Direction & SpeedWater TemperatureFlow Rate
Forecast for trip duration Air Temperature125 degree rule
Wave Height & IntervalWeather AppWave/Wind App


  • Float Plan:  the who, what, where, when of your planned paddle. File with Group Emergency contact person, if in a park or remote area, file with the jurisdiction authority (Park Ranger, BLM, county sheriff, etc)
    • Include names, gender, age of participants
    • Description of what each participant is paddling, color, type of boat
    • Detail launch and takeout locations, all planned stops along the way with start and expected end times
  • Identify Roles & Responsibilities
    • Ensure Trip Leader and Sweep are identified and understood by all participants
    • Communicate to each participant what their role is and what to do in case of on water emergency


Glossary of Canoeing Terminology

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