River Safety

These guidelines were adapted from the American Whitewater Affiliation and modified specifically for Canyonlands National Park. This code has been prepared using the best available information but is only a set of guidelines. Attempts to minimize risks should be flexible and not constrained by a set of rigid rules. Varying conditions and group goals may combine with unpredictable circumstances to require alternate procedures.



  • Be a competent swimmer, with the ability to handle yourself underwater.
  • Wear a life jacket. A snugly-fitting vest-type life preserver offers back and shoulder protection as well as the flotation needed to float safely in water.
  • Wear a solid, correctly-fitted helmet when upsets are likely. This is essential in kayaks or covered canoes, and recommended for open canoeists and rafters who anticipate an upset.
  • Do not boat out of control. Your skills should be sufficient to stop or reach shore before reaching danger. Do not enter a rapid unless you are reasonably sure that you can run it safely or swim it without injury.
  • Boating alone is discouraged. The minimum party is three people or two craft.
  • Have a frank knowledge of your boating ability, and don't attempt rivers or rapids which lie beyond that ability.
  • Develop the boating skills and teamwork required to match the river you plan to boat. Most good boaters develop skills gradually, and attempts to advance too quickly will compromise your safety and enjoyment.
  • Be in good physical and mental condition, consistent with the difficulties which may be expected. Make adjustments for loss of skills due to age, health, and fitness. Any health limitations must be explained to your fellow boaters prior to starting the trip.
  • Be practiced in self-rescue, including escape from an overturned craft. The Eskimo Roll is strongly recommended for decked boaters who run rapids Class IV or greater, or who paddle in cold environmental conditions.
  • Be trained in rescue skills, CPR, and first aid with special emphasis on the recognizing and treating of hypothermia. It may save your friend's life.
  • Carry equipment needed for unexpected emergencies, including foot wear which will protect your feet when walking out, a throw rope, knife, whistle, and waterproof matches. If you wear eyeglasses, tie them on and carry a spare on long trips. Bring a boat repair kit. Do not wear bulky jackets, ponchos, heavy boots, or anything else which could reduce your ability to survive a swim.

Despite the mutually supportive group structure described in this code, individual boaters are ultimately responsible for their own safety and must assume sole responsibility for the following decisions:

  • The decision to participate on any trip. This includes an evaluation of the expected difficulty of the rapids under the conditions existing at the time of the put-in.
  • The selection of appropriate equipment, including a boat design suited to their skills and the appropriate rescue and survival gear.
  • The decision to scout any rapid, and to run or portage according to their best judgment. Other members of the group may offer advice, but paddlers should resist pressure from anyone to paddle beyond their skills. It is also their responsibility to decide whether to pass up any walk-out or take-out opportunity.
All trip participants should consistently evaluate their own and their group's safety, voicing their concerns when appropriate and following what they believe to be the best course of action. Boaters are encouraged to speak with anyone whose actions on the water are dangerous, whether they are a part of a group or not.

Top of page


A river trip should be regarded as a common adventure by all participants, except on instructional or commercially guided trips as defined below. Participants share the responsibility for the conduct of the trip, and each participant is individually responsible for judging his or her own capabilities and for his or her own safety as the trip progresses. Participants are encouraged (but are not obligated) to offer advice and guidance for the independent consideration and judgment of others.

River Conditions: The group should have a reasonable knowledge of the difficulty of the run. Participants should evaluate this information and adjust their plans accordingly. If the run is exploratory or no one is familiar with the river, maps and guidebooks should be examined. The group should secure accurate flow information; the more difficult the run, the more important this will be. Be aware of possible changes in river level and how this will affect the difficulty of the run.

Equipment: Group equipment should be suited to the difficulty of the river. The group should always have a throw line available, and one line per boat is recommended. The list may include: carabiners, prussik loops, first aid kit, flashlight, folding saw, fire starter, guidebooks, maps, food, extra clothing, and any other rescue or survival items suggested by conditions. Each item is not required on every run, and this list is not meant to be a substitute for good judgment.

Group Spacing: Keep the group compact, but maintain sufficient spacing to avoid collisions. If the group is large, consider dividing into smaller groups or using the "buddy system" as an additional safeguard. Space yourselves closely enough to permit good communication, but not so close to interfere with one another in rapids.

A lead boater sets the pace. When in front do not get in over your head. Never run drops when you cannot see a clear route to the bottom or, for advanced paddlers, a sure route to the next eddy. When in doubt, stop and scout.

Keep track of all group members at all times. Each boat keeps the one behind it in sight, stopping if necessary. Know how many people are in your group and take head counts regularly. No one should paddle ahead or walk out without first informing the group. Boaters requiring additional support should stay at the center of a group, and not allow themselves to lag behind in the more difficult rapids. If the group is large and contains a wide range of abilities, a "sweep boat" may be designated to bring up the rear.

Do not cut in front of a boater running a rapid. Always look upstream before leaving eddies to run or play. Never enter a crowded rapid or eddy when no room for you exists. Passing other groups in a rapid may be hazardous, it's often safer to wait upstream until the group ahead has passed.

Float Plan: Plans should be filed with a responsible person who will contact the authorities if you are overdue. Knowing the location of possible help and preplanning escape routes can speed rescue.

Drugs: The use of alcohol or mind altering drugs before or during river trips is not recommended. It dulls reflexes, reduces decision making ability, and may interfere with important survival reflexes.

Instructional or Commercially Guided Trips: In contrast to the common adventure trip format, in these trip formats, a boating instructor or commercial guide assumes some of the responsibilities normally exercised by the group as a whole, as appropriate under the circumstances. These formats recognize that instructional or commercially guided trips may involve participants who lack boating experience. Also, as in all trip formats, every participant must realize and assume the risks associated with the serious hazards of river boating.

Top of page


Rivers contain many hazards that are not always easily recognized. The following are the deadliest:

High Water: The river's speed and power increase tremendously as the flow increases, raising the difficulty of most rapids. Rescue becomes progressively harder as the water rises, adding to the danger. Use reliable gauge information wherever possible, and be aware that sun on snowpack, hard rain, and upstream dam releases may greatly increase the flow.

Cold: Cold drains your strength and robs you of the ability to make sound decisions on matters affecting your survival. Cold water immersion, because of the initial shock and the rapid heat loss which follows, is especially dangerous. Dress appropriately for bad weather or sudden immersion in the water. When the water temperature is less than 50 degrees F., a wetsuit or drysuit is essential for protection if you swim. Next best is wool or pile clothing under a waterproof shell. In this case you should also carry waterproof matches and a change of clothing in a waterproof bag. If, after prolonged exposure, a person experiences uncontrollable shaking, loss of coordination, or difficulty speaking, he or she is hypothermic, and needs your assistance.

Strainers: Brush, fallen trees, undercut rocks or anything else which allows river current to sweep through can pin boats and boaters against the obstacle. Water pressure on anything trapped this way can be overwhelming. Rescue is often extremely difficult. Pinning may occur in fast current, with little or no whitewater to warn of the danger.

Ledges, Reversals, Holes, and Hydraulics: When water drops over an obstacle, it curls back on itself, forming a strong upstream current, which may be capable of holding a boat or swimmer. Some holes make for excellent sport. Others are proven killers. Paddlers who cannot recognize the difference should avoid all but the smallest holes.

Broaching: When a boat is pushed sideways against a rock by strong current, it may collapse and wrap. This is especially dangerous to kayak and decked canoe paddlers; these boats will collapse and the combination of indestructible hulls and tight outfitting may create a deadly trap. Even without entrapment, releasing pinned boats can be extremely time-consuming and dangerous. To avoid pinning, throw your weight downstream towards the rock. This allows the current to slide harmlessly underneath the hull.

Top of page

  • Test new and different equipment under familiar conditions before relying on it for difficult runs.
  • Be sure your boat and gear are in good repair before starting a trip. The more isolated and difficult the run, the more rigorous this inspection should be.
  • Install flotation bags in non-inflatable craft, securely fixed in each end, designed to displace as much water as possible. Inflatable boats should have multiple air chambers and be test inflated before launching.
  • Have strong, properly sized paddles or oars for controlling your craft. Carry sufficient spares for the length and difficulty of the trip.
  • Outfit your boat safely. The ability to exit your boat quickly is an essential component of safety in rapids.

It is your responsibility to see that there is absolutely nothing to cause entrapment when coming free of an upset craft. This includes:

  • Spray covers which won't release reliably or which release prematurely.
  • Boat outfitting too tight to allow a fast exit, especially in low volume kayaks or decked canoes.
  • Inadequately supported decks which collapse on a paddler's legs when a decked boat is pinned by water pressure.
  • Inadequate clearance with the deck because of your size or build.
  • Loose ropes which cause entanglement. Beware of any length of loose line attached to a whitewater boat. All items must be tied tightly and excess line eliminated; painters, throw lines, and safety rope systems must be completely and effectively stored. Do not knot the end of a rope, as it can get caught in cracks between rocks.

Provide ropes which permit you to hold on to your craft so that it may be rescued. The following methods are recommended:

  • Kayaks and covered canoes should have grab loops sized to admit a normal sized hand.
  • Open canoes should have securely anchored bow and stern painters consisting of 8 - 10 feet of line. These must be secured in such a way that they are readily accessible, but cannot come loose accidentally. Grab loops are acceptable, but are more difficult to reach after an upset.
  • Rafts and dories may have taut perimeter lines threaded through the lines provided. Footholds should be designed so that a paddler's feet cannot be forced through them, causing entrapment. Flip lines should be carefully and reliably stowed.
  • Know your craft's carrying capacity, and how added loads affect boat handling in whitewater

Top of page


If you swim, hold on to your boat. It floats well and is easy for rescuers to spot. Get to the upstream end so that you won't be trapped between a rock and your boat by the force of the current. Persons with good balance may be able to climb on top of a swamped kayak or flipped raft.

Release your craft if this will improve your chances. Actively attempt self-rescue whenever possible by swimming for safety. Be prepared to assist others who may come to your aid.

When swimming in shallow or obstructed rapids, lie on your back with feet held high and pointed downstream. Do not attempt to stand in fast moving water; if your foot wedges on the bottom, fast water will push you under and keep you there. Get to slow or very shallow water before attempting to stand or walk. Look ahead! Avoid possible pinning situations including undercut rocks, strainers, downed trees, holes, and other dangers by swimming away from them.

If the rapids are deep and powerful, roll over onto your stomach and swim aggressively for shore. Watch for eddies and slackwater and use them to get out of the current. Strong swimmers can effect a powerful upstream ferry and may be able to get to shore.
If others spill and swim go after the boaters first. Rescue boats and equipment only if this can be done safely. While participants are encouraged (but not obligated) to assist one another to the best of their ability, they should do so only if they can, in their judgment, do so safely. The first duty of a rescuer is not to compound the problem by becoming another victim.

The use of rescue lines requires training. Never tie yourself into either end of a line without a reliable quick-release system. Have a knife handy to deal with unexpected entanglement. Learn to place set lines effectively, to throw accurately, to belay effectively, and to properly handle a rope thrown to you.

When reviving a drowning victim, be aware that cold water may greatly extend survival time underwater. Victims of hypothermia may have depressed vital signs so they look and feel dead.

Top of page

Last updated: December 20, 2019

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

2282 Resource Blvd.
Moab, UT 84532



Contact Us