5 ways to stay safe on a family canoe trip this Summer

Few things beat a paddle down the river with the family on those sweltering Summer days. As an activity that promotes team work, effective communication and the acquisition of numerous outdoor skills, it is unsurprisingly that swathes of families around the world take to the rivers once school is out. That said, nothing comes before safety, and river safety comes with its own wave of nuances. Provided that the sternsman (that is, the person sitting in the stern and assuming the role of captain) has the necessary skill set for downriver canoeing, here are 5 tips for staying safe on the river this Summer.

1. Know the river, know your route

Before anything else is considered, it is imperative that you know the river. This means knowing where your entry and exits are, if there is any white water and if there is, exactly how it needs to be navigated, being aware of what is coming and what needs close attention paid. It is so important that there are no blind spots on the river – sections where you do not know what is coming and how the water is moving. Even when you are familiar with how the river runs, you also need to be aware of any variable factors that may effect and change how the river is flowing. Severe weather in nearby mountains could produce sudden surges and changes in hydraulics – making the river faster and the current stronger. Recent storms in the region could also down trees across the river, creating deadly sweepers. Having an overall awareness of current weather patterns in the region as well recent weather is paramount.

2. Double check vessel suitability

Once the route has been determined, it is important to consider the suitability of your proposed vessel. It is not uncommon for inflatables to be seen on rivers that should be navigated by fibre glass, plastic or wooden canoes, and invariably end up needing help. A canoe with a keel is well suited to flat water paddling – as you would on a lake – but is not ideal for downriver as it is less manoeuvrable and more likely to flip. When renting or purchasing a canoe, be sure to check its suitable for down river excursions, if that is your intention for it.

3. Make sure everyone wears a properly fitted lifejacket

Before placing a toe into the canoe, make sure that everyone has a properly fitted lifejacket. No matter the level of swimmer or comfort with water, everyone needs to be in a lifejacket. At least one person should have a throw bag – and be practised in its use – and well as a whistle and a knife attached to their lifejacket. For children, it is imperative that it is not too big and has a strap between the legs that makes the lifejacket slipping over their head impossible. If a canoe unexpectedly flips it can be frightening for everyone, and knowing that your little ones will be kept visible on the surface, and that a powerful current will not pull their jackets over their heads is extremely reassuring. Check kid’s lifejackets, and then check them again.

4. Pack properly

Be sure that you pack all that you know you will need, and that which you hope you will not need. Particularly if the excursion is more than a few hours, covering all eventualities is really important. Some basics would include plenty of water, snacks, sun screen, sun hats, a first aid kid, a way to communicate with those outside of your family/group, extra rope, dry clothes, dry towel and a dry bag to put these items in. Many canoes will have a place to clip the dry bag too, so you need not worry about it unintentionally floating away. Fast moving weather – especially in mountainous regions – or unexpected flips, are ways to get wet and cold quickly, and if you are in the wilderness far from your exit point, it is important to have a means to warm up.

5. Take frequent breaks

Take frequent breaks and opportunities to play and refuel. A fun activity after-all, it is good to take a break or two, cool down in eddy or section without a strong current, cliff jump and refuel with food and drink. After an hour or so the novelty of paddling will wear off for kids, so breaking up the day with fun breaks is a great way to keep them enthusiastic about paddling. Furthermore, drinking plenty of water on a hot day is a must, and making sure to eat enough to stay energised and focused is important. As an adult on the trip, it is easy to neglect your own needs – skip a meal or two – in favour of keeping the kids safe, fed and watered, only to later find that you’re desperately low on energy and strength. Stop, rest, eat, drink and play.

Whatever corner of the world you find yourself in this Summer, stay safe on the rivers, but also seize the opportunities to have fun in the outdoors with the family.

Nadine Robb is Owner and Instructor at Hakuba Ski Concierge. Hakuba Ski Concierge is a boutique ski school in Hakuba, Japan.

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Comments (6)

  1. Jane says:

    For young children, like those in the pictures, a family canoe trip would be a great big adventure. You can see from their excited faces that it’s a holiday they would remember for the rest of their lives.

    • Nadine Robb says:

      Thank you for your comment Jane, I couldn’t agree more! With activities such as canoeing it can be easy to discount them as options when we have small children. But, with the right knowledge, skills and preparation, there is no reason why many memorable days on the river cannot be enjoyed by the entire family!

  2. Janet Gordon says:

    Perhaps the greatest safety feature in the age of Covid is that these trips are out on the water and away from crowds.

    • Nadine Robb says:

      Absolutely Janet – there is another reason to take to the waterways this summer, one that is extremely relevant for the moment. Forget packed beaches, paddling is the perfect way to put some distance between your group and another.

  3. Alex says:

    Agree with taking frequent breaks. Stop and savour where you are going in. After all this is one of the best ways of travelling slow.

    • Nadine Robb says:

      It absolutely is, and taking frequent breaks will offer enough variety to keep the kids engaged! Finding a nice eddy, rock hopping spot or sandy beach will be the best way to encourage interaction from the kids with their surroundings.

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