What Should You Do If Approaching A Low-Head Dam In A Kayak (or Canoe)?

So you’re cruising along in your kayak, minding your own business. Suddenly you see big warning signs of a ‘Low-head Dam’ approaching.

You’re getting closer, time is running out. 

What should you do?

The Short Answer

1) Avoid.

2) Paddle ashore.

3) Get out of your kayak and walk around the dam.

4) Paddle again but from a good, safe distance on the other side of the dam. You don't want to risk being dragged in.

Read on for the long answer!

What To Do When Approaching A Low-Head Dam vertical

What Is A Low-Head Dam?

A low-head dam (also known as a run-of-river dam) is a man-made structure usually running the entire width of a river. Their purpose is to raise water levels in order to improve water supplies and irrigation in the area. However, the downside to these dams is that they can be particularly hazardous to kayakers, canoeists and swimmers/bathers.

Low-head dams are often very difficult to spot (making them especially dangerous), because they appear flat from the surface as you approach. The actual dam can be located a few feet under the surface of the water – depending on conditions.

As water flows over the dam, a hydraulic (backwash or ‘boil’) is created. This pulls any objects near the surface back towards the dam. So potentially, your kayak can be pulled back into the dam after paddled over it, trapping you against the dam.

All the water flowing over the dam can then pull you and your kayak under the water, making it very difficult to escape.

Here is a video (filmed some time ago) which shows the perils of the boil...​

On top of this, other debris, like branches or pollution can also be dragged back into the dam. This makes your getaway even more challenging.

Low-head dams don’t even have to be that big to cause a potentially fatal accident. Even relatively shallow dams can provide deadly scenarios. It’s not so much the size of the dam, but the strength of the current.

Kayaking after heavy rainfall obviously increases the danger. And with higher rainfall comes more debris – especially branches from trees that may have broken off if the winds were high. This increases the likelihood of becoming trapped.

It goes without saying, that you should wear a PFD (get a good one)at all times when kayaking. But don’t be complacent just because you’re wearing one. You can still be pulled under – yes, the currents are that strong!

Low-Head Dam Approaching: What Should I Do?

There is only one answer here. AVOID THEM!

As soon as you are either warned of an upcoming dam or spot one, paddle over to the nearest bank (that you can walk along) and walk around the dam.

If you don’t know the river well, it is highly recommended to plan your route before setting off. Do not always rely on signs as you journey along, they often don’t exist.

Gather as much information as you can on the river and pay very close to any signs you see as you float downstream. They are there for a reason.

If you’re not from the area, get your hands on good maps and guides and any advice from the locals helps too!

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