Colorado Whitewater Boating Safety Tips

As whitewater season approaches, Colorado Parks and Wildlife wants to ensure boaters remain safe while enjoying their whitewater river adventures.
Whitewater rafting
Upwards of 225,000 people each year enjoy whitewater boating on the Arkansas River within the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area each year. Photo courtesy of Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife river rangers who patrol the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) have spent time this spring removing a few dead trees (strainers) from the river below Cañon City so that whitewater boaters will not have to portage around them or worse yet, get entangled in them. 

Now, they want to make sure the people who raft, kayak, canoe, paddleboard or SUP within the 152 miles of the Arkansas in the AHRA from Leadville to Pueblo – and all rivers in the state – are safe when they enter the water this summer.

“Whitewater boating is a popular activity on many Colorado rivers and streams,” said Tappan Brown, AHRA’s river ranger supervisor. “But it also presents risks for anyone unprepared for the powerful and unpredictable flows of a river like the Arkansas, or uneducated in the demands of navigating rivers.”

Safe Boating Guidelines

The river draws many different kinds of people. They are enjoying what they are doing as much as you are enjoying what you’re doing. Please be respectful of others. For more information, please read River Safety and Etiquette at AHRA.

Brown said AHRA rangers want to ensure boaters are safe while enjoying whitewater river adventures. He urges all participants to following these guidelines:

Wear It Colorado logo
  • Every boat, raft, canoe or kayak must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III or V personal flotation device, or PFD, for each person on board. CPW encourages all users to wear a snug-fitting PFD designed for whitewater boating at all times while on the river. A water-ski vest is not designed for swift-water use. 
  • Every occupant of an inner tube, air mattress and similar device must wear an U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD, too. 
  • Helmets are a must for all canoeists, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders in swiftwater. CPW strongly recommends rafters wear helmets, as well.
  • Always use good, quality equipment and carry a first aid kit. Learn first aid and CPR. Bring rescue gear including a communication device and a rope. 
  • Dress for a possible cold water swim and changing weather conditions. Bring extra dry clothes, water and food.
  • Before going, research current river conditions to make sure river flows are at safe levels. American Whitewater has current flows and information for Colorado’s rivers and streams.    
  • Never boat alone. Consider the consequences of an accidental swim. 
  • Be aware of your limitations, those of your fellow boaters and of your equipment. Only paddle in water conditions where everyone in your party is comfortable and confident.
  • If you fall into swift water, do not attempt to stand up. It may result in a foot entrapment and lead to drowning. Instead, float on your back with your “nose and toes” on the surface, pointed downstream. As soon as you can, swim to shore.
  • Scout rapids and unknown sections of the river. Rapids change at varying water levels. Spring floods can carry trees and other debris and jam up a section of a river. Avoid trees in the water. They can entangle boats and lead to deadly entrapments.
  • Keep an eye on children. Never leave them unattended by a river. 
  • Please be respectful of others recreating on the river including anglers.
  • Please follow “Leave No Trace” principles.

For more information, please visit Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Rafting, Kayaking, and Canoeing page.

Social-distancing Guidelines

An important note: Colorado Parks and Wildlife requires boaters to follow all social-distancing guidelines issued by Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Centers for Disease Control and the local government where you will be boating.

First, make sure you are following guidelines to recreate within 10 miles of your home. CPW urges you to check with local authorities to ensure you follow public health rules in those jurisdictions.

Then, respect state guidelines include maintaining a distance of 6 feet from non-family members at all times at parks, on all trails, paved or dirt, while biking or walking.

Do not linger at trailheads, in parking areas, or in other common spaces. Bring your own hand sanitizer because there is no running water available.

Wear a non-medical cloth face mask. No congregating in crowds. Boat only with your immediate family.

Or, when state officials and health agencies agree it’s safe to leave home to boat, go with the pros. Check your local Chamber of Commerce for a list of licensed outfitters that provide river running services or contact the AHRA for those outfitters authorized to operate on the Arkansas River within the AHRA.  

Safety is always a priority when recreating within the AHRA. If you are not familiar with the Arkansas River or current conditions, please contact the AHRA Visitor Center in Salida at 719-539-7289.

River Safety and Etiquette at AHRA
River Safety and Etiquette at AHRA

The AHRA is managed through a cooperative effort between the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Formed in 1989, this partnership allows agencies to provide visitors with recreation opportunities and care for significant natural resources of the upper Arkansas River valley.

Written by Bill Vogrin. Vogrin is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife southeast region.

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