It is worth pointing out that paddling on the Missouri River is often not as complex as is initially perceived from shore. The reverse hydraulics and swift water zones are concentrated at the points of the wingdams and in most cases a paddler can maneuver to avoid much of the "pushy water" found in these areas.
Certainly barges and boat traffic found on big river systems can present unique challenges, however, these elements can be seen well in advance on the open river and appropriate evasive action taken. Paddling the lower Missouri River is in many ways analogous to being on a very long moving lake. The challenges to paddlers are similar to those found on open water lakes, such as the effect of high winds, exposure to storms and general isolation from shore. Almost without fail, first time paddlers on the Missouri River find themselves relaxing within minutes, as the intimidation felt from shore simply melts away.
Paddling on the Missouri river involves the same rules that apply to any prudent boating in respect to watching the weather, wearing a life jacket at all times and being vigilant of obstructions and hazards in the river. Please review the safety section on this site and remember that you are ultimately responsible for your own safety.
The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for maintaining shore-based beacons (signposts) along with in-river buoys marking the channel for the entire lower Missouri River. Learning to read this system will allow a paddler to tell where the channel of the river is located.
Navigation Aids Sheet
Of special interest to paddlers is the fact that the shore beacons also have the river mileage posted on them. These are usually given as miles from the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (near the city of St. Louis). Such mileage indicators can be typically found every 1-2 miles on the river. By observing them, you always know in general where you are. This combined with the knowledge of the mileage of your take-out point and you can determine how well your trip is going and estimate how long it will take to get to your destination.
Understanding the navigation system also lets you know exactly where a barge will have to travel if you encounter one. The barge will have to stay in the river channel. Typically a paddler will move away from the channel, to the side of the river and wait for the barge and its waves to pass by. Remember, they cannot steer around you, therefore you must move out of the way of any barge traveling the river.
There are a series of gauges on the Missouri River that provide real-time river level information. The gauges are all relative to the site they are located. When the Boonville gauge reports 14 feet, it does not mean the whole river is 14 feet deep, rather this value is simply the depth at the location it is measured. However, these gauges will allow a paddler to determine a general river stage as guidance when planning a paddling trip. The trip planning tools section of this website has information and links to the river gauge data for the Missouri River. Actual depth of the river channel typically ranges from 10-20 feet, with a sharp decreases in depth outside of the channel. Of note to paddlers is the river level at which the wing dams are exposed. When the tops of the wing dams are out of the water, the current is often more predictable for paddling, with the water behind or below the wingdams typically slower than the main current.
However, every stretch of the river is different and you are encouraged to become familiar with the effect of river levels on the section you intend to paddle. As a general guide, when the Boonville gauge is 10 feet or lower, many sections of the wing dams are exposed, or are very near the surface. Higher river levels often will overtop the wing dams and can result in stronger eddy lines and current features, such as boils and reverse hydraulics. As a general rule of thumb, the river channel is more defined when the tops of most the wing dams are exposed.
Numerous sandbars will appear on the stretch of river from Glasgow to Weldon Springs at river levels below 7-8 feet on the Boonville gauge. These sandbars often have fine white sands that rival a Caribbean beach and offer ideal campsites and places to stop. Please do not litter, as these sites can be the jewels of a paddling experience on the river. Sandbars located between the river’s banks are typically open to public use. The lands beyond the river’s banks are mostly private property. Careful review of the maps provided on this site will help to avoid trespassing on private lands. When camping on a sandbar, keep in mind that the river can come up fast and be prepared for what you would do if the river wants to take your sandbar back!
A special attraction of the Missouri River is its remote setting. However this means a paddler must plan carefully and be prepared to be self-reliant.
The current on the river is typically around 3-5 mph, and this can help your craft to travel down the river. However, even a slight upriver wind can slow down your boat dramatically and negate the boost the current is providing. Given ideal conditions, an experienced paddler who keeps the paddles moving and does not stop too long at any point could cover 10-20 miles in a day. However, a better trip is perhaps 5-15 miles, which allows a group to loaf around on the sandbars and let the current do most the work. Keep in mind that night on the river is for expert paddlers only, so plan your trip accordingly.
With experience you will begin to find what distance is right for you. A good strategy is to start with small trips and work your way up. Many expedition paddlers, traveling long sections of the river, will paddle 40 miles in a day with favorable conditions. Keep in mind that there are often no practical ways to cut a trip short. Access points can be10 or more miles apart and most of the river bottomlands are agricultural lands or are undeveloped. A trip on the Missouri River involves a certain amount of commitment.
Winds often blow up the river valley. Wind speeds can at times be greater on the river than reported for surrounding land areas, due to the fetch offered by the open river. An upriver wind can slow your progress down the river substantially. Be prepared to factor this wind effect into your trip planning. It is not unusual for a canoe to have to be "worked" down the river, regardless of current, as a result of a strong upriver wind.
Another weather factor to consider is fog. Any time of year a fog can build up on the river. This is especially pronounced in the evenings and mornings of autumn. It is not unusual to wake up on a sandbar and find the river socked in with fog. In such an event, you will have to wait several hours for the fog to clear before you can safely get underway. Traveling the river in a heavy fog would be a folly and should not be attempted. It is a good idea to factor this into your trip planning and allow a time cushion for overnight trips, in the event you are fogged in one morning.
Severe weather can be a major factor on any open body of water. The Missouri River is a big wide open river and is more like a lake in this respect. A Missouri River paddler needs to take the same weather precautions that apply to lake or ocean travel. Please review the safety section for more information.
Most elements of boat selection and gear are up to the experience of the individual paddler. Paddle-camping is very similar to backpacking, with limited space and a premium on function in adverse conditions (a stove that still works, after becoming covered in wet sand for example). A review of the substantial guides on backpacking is an excellent resource for river camping with a canoe or kayak. Bringing a change of clothes in a dry-bag is highly recommended. Dry clothes can make you feel 100% better after a long day on the river and could save your life in the event of an emergency. Note: Cell phone coverage on the river can be surprisingly good and so a waterproof case for your phone can be a good investment.
A touring kayak is an ideal vessel for paddling the Missouri River. These boats are fairly fast and maneuverable and offer a lower profile to the wind than typical of a canoe. However, kayaks shorter than 10 feet can be difficult to steer, as they tend to track to one side with every paddle stroke. Canoes can be a good choice due to increased storage space and the ability to access gear while on the river. In comparison, many kayaks have closed storage compartments that require you to open them from shore. There is no one magical boat for the Missouri River, however it is a very good idea to check that your boat has floatation. This is often provided in the form of foam blocks in the bow and stern of a canoe, or a closed storage area with bulkhead on a kayak. The current on the river is very strong and could easily take full control of a capsized boat that did not have some type of floatation.
High-end composite and wooden boats are fine for the Missouri River, as the risk of hitting rocks can be minimized by staying clear of the wing dams or shore revetments. Plastic boats offer the advantage of being both cheaper and resilient to abuse. Any good outdoor shop should be able to help you make a good boat selection. Keep in mind, that the trusty canoe you have in the back yard will probably work just fine. Going down the Missouri River in an inner tube or small inflatable raft is truly a bad idea. These vessels have severely limited directional control required to safely avoid barges, recreational boats or other hazards in the river.
Zebra mussels are an unwanted invasive species in North America. These small, striped mollusks have created problems on other big river systems such as the Mississippi River. Once established, they compete for resources with native species, can clog river intake structures, and create other unwanted problems. In many places, explosive population growth has led to heavy encrustation of boats, docks and native mussel species.
It is possible to accidentally transfer the juvenile form of these mussels on your boat or paddling equipment. If you have paddled other locations, please take the time to properly clean your equipment prior to launching on the Missouri River or its tributaries. Further information on these organisms and prevention tips can be found at http://www.mdc.mo.gov/nathis/exotic/zebra/