Paddlers in small crafts such as canoes, kayaks and rafts often put themselves at greater than average risk by failing to follow the same safe practices as other small-vessel operators, and by failing to acquire the skills and knowledge they need to operate small, unstable craft safely. They may be unaware of hazards, such as fast currents, and may not follow proper safety procedures when encountering them.
For safe paddling, follow these guidelines:
- Always wear a life jacket (personal flotation device), and know how to swim in a river current. State law requires each person in a boat to have a life preserver.
- Never paddle alone; bring along at least one other boater. When canoeing, two canoes with two canoeists each are recommended. Three crafts with two paddlers each are even better. If unfamiliar with the waterway, paddle with someone who is knowledgeable about it.
- Never overload the craft. Tie down gear, and distribute weight evenly.
- Never stand in a canoe, keep your weight low and centered. Standing up or moving around in a small craft can cause it to capsize – a leading cause of fatalities among paddlers. If you capsize, just stand up; in most places the water is shallow. In deeper water, remain with the canoe – it floats.
- Leaning a shoulder over the edge of the craft also can destabilize it enough to capsize it.
- Stay alert at all times. Be aware of your surroundings, including nearby powerboats. Be prepared to react when dangerous situations arise.
- Practice reboarding your craft in the water with the help of a companion.
- Dress properly for the weather and type of boating.
- Check your craft for leaks.
- Map a general route and timetable when embarking on a long trip. Arrange for your vehicles to be shuttled to the takeout point.
- Never canoe during a lightning storm.
- Know the weather conditions before you head out. While paddling, watch the weather and stay close to shore. Head for shore if the waves increase.
- Bring a first aid kit, rain gear, insect repellent, drinking water, a sun hat and sunscreen, and a flashlight for evening trips.
- Please leave plants and animals as you find them. Harassing, cornering or feeding any animal can cause it direct harm or stress and reduce its chances for survival. Picking plants removes seeds necessary for the plant to reproduce, food sources for the wildlife and flowers for other visitors to enjoy.
- Use extra caution when fishing from a canoe. Also, pay attention to fishing regulations applicable to any body of water where you paddle. A valid Louisiana fishing license may be required.
- Paddle out what you paddle in. This includes any "biodegradable" trash.
- Do not bring audio equipment with you; experience the natural sounds around you.
- Observe all laws and regulations applicable to picnic and camping areas, hiking trails and other public areas adjacent to your paddling destination. This includes rules restricting open flames and cooking.
Be on the lookout for these potential hazards:
These structures are difficult to see and can trap paddlers. Consult a map of the river before your trip, and know where dams are located. Always carry your craft around them.
When approaching rapids, go ashore well upstream and check them out before continuing. If you see dangerous conditions, carry your craft around them.
These river obstructions allow water to flow through but block vessels and could throw you overboard and damage or trap your craft. Strainers may include overhanging branches, logjams or flooded islands. Strainers are also notorious for causing death by drowning.
If you capsize, follow these guidelines:
- Float on the upstream side of your craft. You can be crushed on the downstream side if you run into an obstruction.
- Do not attempt to stand or walk in swift-moving water. The current could pull you under if your foot becomes trapped between submerged rocks.
- Float on your back with your feet and arms extended. Float with your feet pointed downstream to act as a buffer against rocks. Don't fight the current. Use the current to backstroke your way to shore.
- If the water is cold, take all necessary precautions to avoid hypothermia.
Understanding river characteristics
Rivers are constantly changing. It's up to you to be familiar with these changes. In a river without obstructions, the slowest-moving water is near the bottom and the fastest is near the surface.
Eddies are created behind an obstruction as water fills in the void created by the obstruction. The current behind an eddy is actually moving upstream. Skilled paddlers use eddies as a place to stop and rest.
Hydraulics occur as water flows over an obstruction and a slight depression forms behind it. Downstream water attempts to fill this void, creating an upstream flow toward the obstruction. A low-head dam is a perfect and deadly example of a hydraulic. Avoid hydraulics altogether.