Staying safe during paddling season

With recent warm temperatures, restless paddlers are ready to put canoes and kayaks in the water. Early spring paddling can provide solitude, exercise and an opportunity to see amazing wildlife, but extra precautions are needed to stay safe.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommends that paddlers wait for warmer weather to allow the water temperatures to rise slowly. It could be several weeks before water temperatures are ideal and safe as water and air temperatures continue to change.

“Air temperatures may feel warm in early spring, but the water is still dangerously cold and can be deadly to boaters,” said Todd Robertson, Iowa DNR River Programs Water Trails Coordinator. “Cold water shock and hypothermia can set in quickly if you are not dressed and fall into the cold water.”

Stay away from strainers and sweepers — wood or branch piles — deadly hazards that can pull a paddler under or pin them underwater. These are usually found on outside river bends where currents are strongest.

Review these simple safety tips before you head out on the water.

  • Check your canoe or kayak for any needed repairs or maintenance after it's been stored for several months. Look for holes and leaks, make sure all hatch lids fit snug and securely and check your paddle blades for signs of cracking or splitting.
  • Wear your lifejacket at all times when underway. Dust off your life jacket and make sure all buckles and zippers work properly and look for holes and tears. Replace the life jacket if it has damage that cannot be repaired. Wear a life jacket at all times while on the water, regardless of your swimming ability. Not only do they help keep your head above water, they help maintain warmth.
  • Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Plan as if you were to be in the water at some point because “paddlers are just in between swims.” A wet suit or dry suit is a must. Do not wear cotton clothing — it fails to insulate when wet. Opt for synthetics or wool. Dress in layers so you can peel a layer off if overheated.
  • Always bring along a dry bag with a complete set of extra clothes you can change into if you get wet, a first-aid kit and a protected cellphone or weather radio. Get out of wet, cold clothing as soon as possible. Pack plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • Let a friend or loved one know where you are going and when you are expected to return. It will be easier to find you if you need help.

While waters remain open to paddlers, social distancing is still required to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The Iowa DNR recommends the following:

  1. Limit paddling groups to fewer than 10 people.
  2. Keep at least 6 feet of distance between you and other paddlers and avoid popular areas where people may congregate.
  3. Only touch your own gear.
  4. Avoid sharing snacks/water.
  5. Bring along hand sanitizer.
  6. Plan your shuttle carefully. Stick with only your immediate family in your vehicle.
  7. Explore the Iowa DNR’s interactive paddling map at https://www.iowadnr.gov/Things-to-Do/Canoeing-Kayaking/Where-to-Paddle to help you plan your paddling trips.