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Canoe Safety

The canoe is one of the oldest means of water travel. These boats have remained virtually unchanged in design for thousands of years. But don't let a canoe's simplicity fool you. As easy as it may seem to leisurely paddle a canoe, a journey can quickly become dangerous if appropriate safety guidelines are overlooked.

You can minimize your risk of danger by being smart about where and when you canoe. Choose a lake or river that is appropriate for your skill level. Try to avoid high water (it makes a river run faster), high winds and storms. And don't go out alone -- there's safety in numbers. It is recommended that you canoe with a minimum of two boats.  

When you are paddling a section of a river for the first time you should find out about currents, obstructions like dams or weirs and other information that could effect your safety.  It is also a good idea to let a family member or a friend know about your trip and when you plan to return home.

Before you even step into your canoe, make sure it is in good condition and that you take along the following items:

  • At least two paddles, plus an extra in case you drop or break one
  • Extra ropes or lines
  • A bail bucket
  • A whistle or air horn to signal distress
  • A first-aid kit
  • A dry change of clothes in cooler weather
  • Plenty of water and food
  • A light if you will be out in low-light conditions
  • A personal flotation device (life vest), with a whistle attached, for each passenger
  • Sun protection – hats, sunscreen, long sleeves and pants
  • Map – be sure you know where you are so you do not get lost!
  • A cell phone in a waterproof bag.
Even if you are experienced and careful, it is still possible that you may tip. To avoid having a canoe tipping turn into a disaster tie all equipment to your canoe – put your equipment into a waterproof bag to keep it dry and tie it to one of the center beams in the canoe so that you don’t lose everything.

To get into your canoe, have someone hold it steady. As you step in, bend your knees and grab the sides of the canoe for balance. Walk to your seat along the center of the boat. Remember to remain in your seat. The slightest shift of weight can make a canoe tip. It is important to keep your load balanced. Avoid sudden movements or rocking from side to side.


Once you are paddling wearing a PFD is an absolute must, particularly considering how unstable a canoe is and the risk of drowning and hypothermia. Keep your shoes on to avoid slipping or stepping on sharp objects near shore.

  • Keep an eye out for other boat traffic and keep appropriate distance
  • Heed all safety warnings
  • Try to keep your canoe at right angles to big waves
  • Look out for hazards such as low branches, fallen trees, rocks and debris
  • Be aware of the currents in the water – you don’t want to end up floating farther downstream than you planned
  • Always sit on the seats or in the center of the canoe – sitting on the side of a canoe will cause it to tip over
  • Do not canoe in bad weather or high water
If your canoe does tip over, don't panic. Your canoe will float even if its full of water, and you can wait until you can get to shore to empty it. Stay with your canoe and paddle or push it toward the shore. When you get to shallow water, flip the canoe with the help of another person and carefully climb back in.


River Safety Lesson Plan

Teachers, parents and educators can find lesson plans and materials provided in the Kids 4 the Kaw, the River Safety Lesson Plan developed for the Teens 4 the Kaw or High School. We encourage everyone who works with youth to help us make sure that everyone has a safe and fun time at the river.