Adequate preparation is critical to safe paddling. Be sure everybody in the party has the training, skill, and experience, including self- and assisted-rescue techniques, for the trip you have planned. Learn as much as you can about the route and any hazards before leaving. Get an up-to-date weather forecast.
Be alert for larger, motorized boats. Stay along the river’s edge and steer well clear of the shipping channel. If it is necessary to cross the shipping channel, do so quickly, in a direct line, and in a group. Leave plenty of room for barges, tankers, and ships. They may appear to be moving slowly, but they will be on top of you before you know it. Their ability to maneuver and stop is limited.
Wearing a life jacket at all times on the water is your biggest safety asset -- it will help you survive should you capsize. In both Oregon and Washington, boaters are required to have one Coast-Guard approved life jacket per person on board, and children 12 and under are required to wear life jackets on boats that are underway.
All boats are required to show a white light in dusk, dark or fog. For paddling boats, a flashlight is acceptable. Other useful signaling devices are flares, dyes, glow sticks and signal mirrors. A VHF radio or cellular phone could be used to call for help but may not be reliable in all locations.
Hypothermia can kill quickly when immersed in cold water or when paddling in cold and wet weather. Be prepared to recognize and treat it. Hypothermia occurs when the body’s core temperature drops to dangerous levels. Symptoms include uncontrollable shivering, impaired speech and judgment, confusion, weakness, and drowsiness. Undetected, it results in cardiac arrest and death. Victims often do not realize they are hypothermic and may not alert the party to the danger. If you believe somebody is hypothermic, get them into warm and dry clothing and, if possible, into a sleeping bag. Huddling with the victim to share body heat may be necessary. Also get warm fluids and food into them. Dress for the water and consider wearing a wetsuit or dry suit during cold weather.
Training and Self Rescue
Paddling lessons will help you learn how to use your strokes more efficiently and how to communicate on the water with paddle signals. Learn how to rescue yourself and others, and practice those techniques. Purchase and get proficient at using self-rescue aids like paddle floats. Take a first aid class. Learn the proper treatment of hypothermia.
Recognize your level of experience and look for trips that match your skills, knowledge, and fitness. Even if you're highly capable and in top condition, it's always prudent to paddle with others. Groups should travel close and make crossings together, keep in voice contact, and have someone volunteer as "sweep," responsible for keeping pace with the slowest paddler.
- Life jacket
- Waterproof matches
- Rain and wind protection
- Extra ropes
- Extra clothes
- Drinking water
- First Aid kit
- Nautical charts
- Repair and tool kit
- Cell phone/VHF radio (reception is not guaranteed for either)
- Plenty of food
- Hat with brim
- Tide tables
- Pocket knife
- Dry bags
- Whistle, flares, or other emergency signal devices
Check out these planning and safety resources for more information:
REI’s Paddling Safety Gear List
US Coast Guard
Oregon State Marine Board Safety Page
Ginni Callahan’s Columbia River Kayaking Safety Page
American Canoe Association’s Safety and Responsibility Code for Paddlers