Wisconsin Trail Guide Logo
Advertising Image

Paddling Safety

Exercise Common Sense.
Know your abilities and limitations.
Know the difficulty of the river, stream, or lake.

Before You Paddle

Plan your route
Plan a route that is suitable in both distance and difficulty for the experience level of your group.
Notify Someone
Tell someone where you are going, when you expect to return, and if possible, how they can reach you.
Check the weather before you embark. Always wear appropriate clothing for the weather conditions. Always wear a wetsuit in cold weather. Avoid paddling open bodies of water on especially windy days.
River Levels / Streamflow
Check the water levels. Avoid paddling a river if it is at or near flood stage. Very high water levels often create the most dangerous conditions for paddling. Conversely, avoid paddling a river if levels are very low, you may end up stepping out and pushing your canoe or kayak for long stretches.
If you have any doubts about the water levels, contact a local outfitter or ranger station and ask. Most of the rivers in this guide have contact info for river levels.
Check your Gear
Always check your equipment before each use for signs of damage or failure.


Wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) / Life Jacket
1. A Type III PFD is the most common for canoers and kayakers, and the most comfortable for the paddling motion while worn.
2. Federal law requires that one PFD per person be on board your canoe or kayak. The US Coast Guard recommends that you wear your PFD at all times when paddling!
3. Federal law requires children under the age of 13 to wear a PFD while on the water. Though not mandated by law, children should wear Type I or Type II PFD's.
4. Make sure your PFD is properly fitted for you.
Wear Protective Headwear
Wear a helmet anytime you are paddling in whitewater.
Wearing some type of footwear will reduce your risk of injury to your feet, open-toed sandals are not recommended.
Equipment Check
Always perform a final equipment check just before you paddle. Make sure your PFD is nice and snug without being too tight. Have a partner grab the top-back of your PFD (Type III) and tug straight up, the top of the vest or jacket should not be able to slide above your shoulders.

River Safety

Know the limits of your paddling skills as well as the experience and limitations of everyone in your group. Never exceed them. Be honest with yourself!
Expert paddlers will constantly stop and scout, and so should you. Scout any whitewater where you cannot see a clear route through from upstream. Always land and scout any whitewater that you are not familiar with. If you have any doubts after scouting, portage.
'Reading' Whitewater
Never run whitewater unless you can see a clear path through. Know the limits of your boat maneuvering skills and your swimming abilities.
Yield Passage
Always allow the boat ahead of you to pass through any whitewater before you enter it. This will avoid compounding any problems if the boat ahead of you runs into trouble. It's never a good idea to T-Bone a boat that may be stuck in the middle of a rapids!
Occurs when a canoe or kayak becomes caught up against an obstacle and turned sideways to the current. If this happens:
1. Lean your body downstream, in the same direction as the current. The force of the current under a broadsided boat will tend to cause it to rollover in the upstream direction.
2. Carefully rock the boat back and forth, try paddling at the same time.
3. Carefully try shifting your weight.
4. Use your paddle to push off the obstacle.
5. Only exit your boat as a last resort. Do not step into the water downstream of your boat!
6. When you are free of the obstacle, immediately maneuver your boat parallel to the current.
Self Rescue
Know your limits as a swimmer and self-rescue, especially in whitewater. If you end up swimming in whitewater:
1. Try to stay upstream of your boat.
2. Float on your back, keep your feet pointed downstream.
3. Always face downstream.
4. Try to swim for an eddy, unless necessary, try to avoid swimming on your stomach.
5. Do not try to stand up until you reach shallow and/or slow, calm water.
Deadfall and overhanging tree branches that drag in the current are commonplace in Wisconsin rivers. Always avoid situations where you can be knocked off your canoe or kayak or become trapped if you're swimming. If you are caught in a strainer and knocked out of your boat, the force of the current rushing through can push you underwater, and keep you there.
NEVER paddle over a dam, or approach one, either from upstream or downstream
Alcohol and Drugs
Avoid alcohol and drug use when paddling.
Alcohol and drug use are a contributing factor in the majority of boating deaths in Wisconsin.
Never Paddle Alone
A little graphic at the end of the page