Missouri Lewis and Clark Water Trail

River Safety

Boating Safety on the Lower Missouri RiverThe lower Missouri River is really not an appropriate river to learn to canoe or kayak for the first time. It is a very large and powerful river and can present some special challenges for paddlers, with significant changes in both river level and paddling conditions. The best way to get on the Missouri River for the first time is to accompany a paddler who is familiar with the river or with an organized group or guide service. You are always responsible for your own safety when boating. It is important that you familiarize yourself with the challenges presented by the Missouri River.

The Boating Safety on the Lower Missouri River Brochure was produced by the Missouri Lewis and Clark Public Safety Planning Committee. Reviewing this document prior to planning a trip is a good start to a successful and enjoyable Missouri River experience.

The following online boating course offered free by the Missouri State Water Patrol is also a recomended tool. Even though much of the information is targeted at power boaters, the safety principles apply to all forms of prudent boating and there is a section on paddling craft.

Please note paddler hazard at Chain of Rocks on Mississippi River near Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri.


Some additional observations from those experienced with the lower Missouri River:

A Big River

The Missouri River is one of the largest rivers in North America. This statement may seem kind of obvious, but from a safety standpoint this is an important consideration. Unlike a trip on a smaller river or stream, if you capsize in the middle of the Missouri River, you may find yourself quite some distance from shore. Wearing a life jacket is recommended for any kind of boating activity and doubly so for paddling on the Missouri River. The Missouri River is sometimes described as like paddling on a big moving lake. This analogy is valuable, as many of the typical safety issues associated with paddling on a lake are especially relevant for the Missouri River. Wind can be a major factor on the wide-open Missouri River, resulting in waves that can make paddling a challenge. Cold water is also a factor than should be considered on the Missouri River. If you capsize, you may not be able to get to shore easily. During a significant portion of winter and early spring the water is cold. A wet suit is a good idea when paddling on any open body of water in the state of Missouri during these times. More boaters are killed by cold water, than any other cause, often despite wearing a life jacket.

A Working River

Picture of the Missouri River along the Katy Trail.Large barges travel the river corridor and these large vessels have no ability to steer around small craft such as a canoe or kayak. However, if you learn to recognize the location of the river channel that is indicated by the navigation marker system on the river, then you know exactly where a barge must travel. When encountering a barge, a paddler should move to the side of the river and wait for the barge to pass and the waves to settle down. By pointing your boat towards the waves you should be able to let the barge and its waves pass with little trouble. It is worth repeating that barges have legal right-of-way and do not have the maneuverability to avoid your small craft. You must move aside and let them pass.

Another consideration is the hazard posed by barges moored on the river. Stay well clear of these, as the river is rushing under the front of the vessel and could pull a small craft under. The lower Missouri River is a channelized river system. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has constructed rock-reinforced structures along the entire lower river, used to direct the current into a central channel. These “wing dams” or “L-dikes” can create turbulence and strong currents that are best avoided by small craft.

A Fast and Changing River

The current averages between 3-5 miles per hour with a flow that can range between 30,000 - 100,000 cubic feet per second. This gives the Missouri River immense power. Paddlers should keep alert and avoid logs, wing dams and other structures in the river, including navigation buoys. Currents are often strong around these objects and can create an entrapment hazard. When the river is rising, a significant amount of debris can end up in the water, such as logs, trash and even entire trees. It is advised to consider waiting until the river level begins to drop again, as much of the debris will hang up on shore or wing dams, making travel much better. When camping on a sandbar, it is a good idea to know what you would do if the river rises. A good local rainfall can bring the river up several feet in a matter of hours.

A Remote River

The Missouri River presents a special attraction for those who wish to get away from the crowds. However, the distances between access points can be 10 miles or more. It is important to plan your trip accordingly and understand that paddling down the Missouri River often involves an element of commitment. The surrounding bottomlands are largely agricultural or undeveloped and one can paddle miles without seeing signs of human habitation.

Respect the river…it is far more powerful than you are!