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River Safety For Paddle Boarding

River Safety For Paddle Boarding
27 April 2021

All Images: Red Paddle Co

There aren't many things more relaxing than paddle boarding your way down a twisting tree-lined river, surrounded by wilderness and wildlife. However, as tranquil as these areas can be, rivers can also quickly become quite dangerous. It’s therefore crucial to make yourself aware of the potential dangers, know how to spot them and importantly, how to negotiate them on a paddle board.


One of the most important aspects to paddle boarding safely on rivers is to ensure that you are properly prepared and have researched your route. Being familiar with your planned route and aware of any potential hazards is crucial to a successful paddle.

Online tools, such as ‘PaddlePoints’, are a great way to assess new stretches of water and gather useful information ahead of your trip. However, it is best to not be 100% reliant on them and instead use the tools alongside information picked up from local paddlers. Canoe clubs and Facebook groups are great ways of connecting with locals who can share their knowledge with you.

Before setting off, ensure that you keep an eye on conditions. Windspeed and rainfall are two of the most important, with high rainfall leading to an increase in water speed and more chance of debris, and wind having a big impact on stand up paddleboarders.

Always make sure that you paddle with somebody else and never alone. Also, tell somebody where you are going and how long you expect to be.

If it is your first time paddling in a new area, then getting a guide or joining an official tour is a great way to stay safe, and pick up knowledge on the river.

Stand Up Paddle Board Safety Equipment

There are a few key pieces of equipment that you should always take with you when paddling on a river.

  • Personal Floatation Device - You should always paddle with a PFD. They are crucial should you fall into the water and be separated from your board.
  • Appropriate Clothing - A great way to ensure you are wearing the correct clothing is to dress as though you expect to be fully submerged in water. All being well you won't fall in, but it's important to be prepared for the water temperature just in case.
  • Waterproof Mobile Phone Pouch - Having access to your phone is crucial in an emergency situation.

River paddleboarding


What may be a white water kayakers dream could be impassable for a paddle board, and having knowledge of rapids before you encounter them is crucial to staying safe. Rapids should always be approached with caution. Not only does fast flowing water offer danger, but inflatable paddle boards and fins will always come off worse in a collision 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 flow surface. They should be marked on planning tools such as PaddlePoints, but remember that water levels can change the nature of rivers, and alter their strength and flow.

Rapids are usually easy to spot both visually and audibly. If you do encounter them then the best thing to do is find somewhere to safely exit the river before the speed of water increases. You can then walk along the riverside to inspect the rapids, and most often, find a safe point to re-enter downstream.

However, if you are with others and have appropriate equipment, gentle rapids can be negotiated on a paddle board with just a few tweaks to your technique.

  • Take a wide staggered stance rather than the usual parallel position.
  • Lower your centre of gravity by bending your knees (meaning you can also quickly put a quick knee down on your board if needed).
  • Ensure that you continue to use your paddle to help direct yourself.
  • If you feel unstable then you can drop to both of your knees or sit down on your board.

But remember, if in any doubt, the safest option is always to find somewhere to exit the river and walk around the section of water.


River currents are one of the more unpredictable dangers of river paddling. Whilst it is sometimes possible to spot surface currents, there are often undertows that are not readable.

The best way to protect yourself against currents is to ensure that you wear a personal floatation device. Should you fall in the water, then stay calm and swim to the side of the river.

The strength of currents can also play an important role in route planning, as paddling into a strong current can be very slow progress. If paddling an out and back loop, typically you are best to paddle into the current on the outward leg, and paddle with the flow of water on your return.

Sweepers and Strainers

Sweepers and strainers are often found together, usually in the form of a tree or low hanging branches.

Sweepers are overhanging obstacles on the river, usually tree limbs and branches, whereas strainers are effectively the underwater version, most commonly submerged branches.

Sweepers are easy to spot. The main danger from them is that they may knock you off your board, but as long as you stay in control and negotiate yourself around them they can usually be passed with ease. They’ll most commonly be found at the side of rivers, so staying central is a great way of keeping out of the way.

If you fall into the water, then strainers can pose a serious threat. It can be easy to get caught up on the branches, and in the worst-case scenario, held underwater. It’s also worth considering that your leash may get caught in a strainer, easily pulling you off your board. Quick-release leashes are a good way of preventing you from being pulled in by a strainer. Ultimately the best way to stay safe is to ensure that you give any debris, low hanging branches or fallen trees a wide berth.

river paddleboard

What To Do In An Emergency

If you find yourself in an emergency situation it is key to not panic. Whilst your actual actions will depend on the situation that you find yourself in, it's always useful to remember the following order, 'self, team, victim, kit'.

When planning your trip it's important to prepare a strategy for any potential emergency, and whilst not everything can be predicted, by taking a little time to prepare for different scenarios you put yourself in a good position to manage any incident that may occur.

In general, some key pointers are:

  • Stay with your board if possible.
  • Should you fall in, make sure you alert someone that you are in the water. Some PFD's come with whistles to help with this.
  • If separated from your board, ensure PFD is inflated. Float on your back and try to swim to the bank.

Taking a river/water safety course is a great way of ensuring you are as prepared as you can be for paddle boarding on rivers. You can now also go on specific paddle board safety courses which are a valuable way of preparing yourself for all types of SUP.

Stand up paddleboarding on a river should, and usually will be, a relaxing experience. However, ensure that you are aware of any potential dangers, have taken the time to prepare your route, and gather local knowledge before paddling, so that you can stay safe on the water.

Here are some further useful resources:

Huw Saunders

About the Author:

Huw Saunders - Outdoor Expert

Growing up in rural Wales, Huw has been immersed in the outdoors for as long as he can remember. If not surfing the Welsh coast, he can now usually be found either running or hiking in the Peak District and through the winter, tries to get out to Europe to ski as much as possible.

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