Safety Tips for Paddle Boarding on Rivers

Table of contents

1. How to prepare for paddle boarding on the river
2. Necessary equipment to ensure your safety on the river
3. How to deal with rapids
4. How to deal with currents
5. How to deal with sweepers and strainers
6. How to deal with an emergency situation

Paddle Boarding on Rivers

For a lot of paddlers, rivers are the most accessible place for paddle boarding. Imagine paddling down a twisting tree-lined river with your family or by yourself with a cool summer breeze blowing in your face.

It is nice to paddle on a river. But it’s not always glamorous. Rivers can become dangerous within seconds. So it’s important to know all the potential dangers that you might encounter and how to prepare for them and deal with them when they actually happen.

How to prepare for paddle boarding on the river

To ensure your own safety when paddle boarding on the river, you need to be properly prepared and research your route to familiarize yourself with it. Before you head out, make sure you already know all the potential hazards you might encounter and how to handle them properly to safely paddle on the river.

There are a variety of tools and applications you can use to gather information of the river you will be paddling on. But the information provided by these tools are not enough to ensure your safety. If possible, talk to a local paddler, they should be able to provide you with some helpful info that you can’t get from those online tools because they know the place better. You can look for local paddlers from canoe clubs or Facebook groups.

Before actually going out, check the weather forecast and see if the conditions are suitable for paddle boarding. Pay extra attention to windspeed and rainfall as they can have a huge impact on your paddling experience and can lead to danger easily and quickly. 

Paddle boarding on rivers is one of the occasions where you can use a partner. It’s not safe paddling by yourself. With company you will have someone looking out for you and provide help when needed. And it’s more fun paddling with company than alone. Also, let someone know where you are going and when they can expect you to return.

If it is your first time paddling in a new area, consider getting a guide or joining an official tour to stay safe and gather useful information on the river.

Necessary equipment to ensure your safety on the river

There are several pieces of equipment that you shouldn’t go paddle boarding on rivers without.

Life Vest - Life vests, or life jacket, personal flotation device is a must for paddle boarding. They can keep you afloat and even save your life if you fall into the water. 

Proper Clothing - If you don’t know what to wear for paddle boarding on rivers, the safest choice is to dress for immersion. You might not fall in, but it’s important to be prepared. Don’t dress for the air temperature, dress for the water temperature, this is especially important if you are paddling out on a cold day.

Your Phone in a Waterproof Phone Pouch - Bring your phone with you so that you can call for help in an emergency situation. And make sure to put it in a waterproof phone pouch for protection.

How to deal with rapids

Rapids are dangerous for a paddle board. You need to have knowledge of them in order to stay safe when you encounter them. You should always approach rapids with extra caution. Fast flowing water makes it hard for paddlers to maintain balance and your board and fins are very close to the bottom of the river, and there’s a high chance they might end up colliding with a rock.

Rapids form over sections of a river where there is a steep gradient, usually where the river becomes shallower with rocks exposed above the rlow surface. If you use a planning tool, be sure to mark the location of rapids on it. 

Luckily, you can see and hear them from far away when you are approaching rapids. If you do find rapids ahead, the right thing to do is to find somewhere to safety exit the river before the speed of water increases. If you still want to proceed with your SUP trip, walk along the riverside to find a safe point away from the rapids to re-enter the river.

However, if you have proper equipment and someone else with you, you can try to tackle gentle rapids with just a few tweaks to your technique.

  • Take a wide staggered stance rather than the usual parallel position.
  • To better maintain balance, bend your knees to lower your center of gravity. If needed, you can also put one of your knees down quickly.
  • Continue to use your paddle to help direct yourself.
  • If you feel that you are about to lose balance, drop both of your knees down or just sit down on your board.

Keep in mind that the safest thing to do is always to find somwhere to exit the river and walk past the section of water instead of trying to negotiate the rapids on your paddle board.

How to deal with currents

Currents are hard to predict and can be extremely dangerous. Sometimes you might be able to spot surface currents, but there are often undertows that can’t be seen.

The best protection you can have again currents is a personal flotation device. If you fall into the water because of the current, your life jacket will keep you afloat and your head above the water, just stay calm and swim to safety.

You should also take the strength of currents into consideration when planning your route as paddling into a strong current can be very slow progress. If it’s an out and back loop, just paddle into the current on the outward leg and paddle with the flow of water on your return.

How to deal with sweepers and strainers

Sweepers refer to overhanging obstacles on the river, usually tree limbs and branches, whereas strainers are obstacles underwater, like submerged branches. 

Sweepers are usually very obvious, but if you are distracted by something else, they might knock you off your board. But most of the time you should be able to get past them easily. Usually they are found at the sides of rivers, so if you paddle in the center, you should be able to avoid them.

The real danger comes from strainers underwater when you fall into the water. You can easily get caught up on the branches, or worse, held underwater. Also there’s a chance your leash will get caught in a strainer. So you might want to consider using a quick-release leash to prevent you from being pulled in by a strainer. 

How to deal with an emergency situation

The odds of accidents are rare, but you still have to be prepared for them. If you find yourself in an emergency situation, the most important thing is to stay calm. 

When planning your trip, you should go through all the possible dangers you might encounter when paddle boarding and take time to prepare for different scenarios. 

Generally, there are a few things you can do when in an emergency situation:

  • 1.Stay with your board if possible
  • 2.Call for help, some PFDs will come with a safety whistle, use it to alert others nearby. If your PFD doesn’t have a whistle, bring one yourself or use some other sound making device.
  • 3.If you can’t get back on your board, make sure your PFD is inflated if you use an inflatable one. Float on your back and try to swim to get to land.

To ensure your safety on the river when paddle boarding, one of the best options is to take a river/water safety course so that you know all the possible dangers and how to deal with them correctly.


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