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Home > Visit a Gateway > By Activity > Paddling the Chesapeake > Paddling the Chesapeake: Boating Safety
Paddling the Chesapeake: Boating Safety

An instructor helps a child put on her life jacket.Safety is everyone's responsibility and should not be taken lightly. Though many of the water trails within the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network are suitable for beginners, there are segments that contain whitewater. But on any type of water, accidents can happen. It is important to review these safety guidelines before paddling and to learn the appropriate techniques needed to safely use kayaks or canoes.

[ Planning | Gear | Safety | Weather | General ]

Planning Tips

  • Review the water trail map. Trail maps are available at many Gateways sites and online - some trails may require their use.
  • Know where your float trip will take you, where to get out, and emergency routes in case of mishap. Make sure you understand how to identify and avoid any hazards marked on the map.
  • Plan your day. Allow enough time to complete your trip under daylight hours.
  • Find out about river conditions - if the water is flooded, low, or normal. A flooded river is often dangerous and should be avoided. A low river may expose logs, stumps or rocks, requiring any liftovers, which make the trip slower and more difficult. Note: Links are provided on Chesapeake Bay Gateways water trail websites to US Geological Survey water flow information, as available. Additional water flow information may be obtained at: .
  • Know the tides. Coastal rivers are affected by tides. Paddling against tidal flow makes a trip difficult. Note: Tidal information links are provided on Chesapeake Bay Gateways water trail websites on rivers subject to tides.

Gear Tips:

  • Always wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket.
  • Dress for the day and be prepared to get wet. Meaning, if the weather is cool, dress warm and bring an extra set of dry cloths sealed in a dry bag for emergency use.
  • Bring a spare paddle or pole and rain gear.
  • Wear shoes. Old gym shoes or shoes with tops and sides offer the most protection. Avoid sandals.
  • Use a sun hat on bright warm days. Wearing a wool stocking hat helps slow heat loss from your body on cool, wet days. Take along a windbreaker or rain gear.
  • Carry at least one signaling device on every trip - a flashlight, strobe, three flares, horn/whistle, cell phone, VHF radio, bright flag or a mirror are some key items to have along.
  • Biting insects can be numerous during the warmer months. Bring repellent.
  • Other essentials: a first-aid kit, plenty of drinking water, sunscreen and lip balm, waterproof matches, toilet paper, a multi-tool, hand pump and sponge.

Safety Tips :

  • Avoid canoeing or kayaking alone.
  • Please read important safety information and refuge rules prior to paddling the trails.
  • Paddle water appropriate to your skills. If you are a novice paddler unfamiliar with an area, consider hiring a local guide for your first trip.
  • Plan for safety. Leave your paddling route and return time with a relative or friend. Some Gateways may require that you check in prior to embarking on your trip.
  • Learn to control your boat - be able to stop the boat at any time and know how to land on shore.
  • Learn to recognize river hazards: strainers (downed trees or branches reaching into the water); dams with hydraulic reversals; bridge piers; barbed wires across rivers.
  • When in a group, assign a lead and sweep boat - preferably both boats should be manned by experienced paddlers: no one passes the lead boat or falls behind the sweep.
  • Stay in your canoe/kayak if it becomes stuck. Try shifting your weight carefully as you push off with your paddle or pole.
  • Stay away from dams. It is illegal and dangerous to boat near them.
  • Kayaks and canoes are not easily seen by other boaters. Try to stay out of the shipping channels, and be as predictable and visible as possible.
  • Never paddle farther from shore than you are prepared to swim.
  • During fall and winter, waterfowl hunters are active on or near many Gateways. Check before arriving for exact dates and seasons.
  • In an emergency, stay with your canoe/kayak.

Weather Tips:

  • Check weather conditions or marine forecast before launching your canoe/kayak ( don't go if the weather is beyond the abilities of the least experienced person in your group).
  • Stay alert to changing weather conditions while paddling.
  • Get off of the water during electrical (lightning) storms.
  • Canoe close to shore. This lessens the chance of being caught by sudden changes in weather.
  • Winds can affect canoes/kayaks — especially on wide or coastal rivers. Check the wind direction compared to tide flow. If tide and wind are traveling the same direction, water conditions are often somewhat calm. When the wind is traveling against the tidal current, waves will be created.

General Tips:

  • Respect private property when boating. Land only on public areas or where you have permission to be.
  • Don't litter or pollute the water. Use the Leave No Trace ethic.
  • Don't cut living trees or harass animals.
  • Be careful with campfires. Use camp stoves when possible.

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