10 Tips for High Water Paddling

Kayaking on whitewaterHigher water does NOT directly translate to more fun… BUT certainly can be a hoot and a half with good pre-trip planning, knowing your own limits and being smart with your gear.

Here are some things to know about high water & boating on high water.

  1. KNOW THE FLOWS: Years with bigger snow-pack & unexpected spring storms may give rivers higher than predicted flows. Three great sites we use regularly in California to check river flows are Dreamflowswww.cnrfc.noaa.gov, & CDEC.  (Do realize that flow sites use gauges that may be located below the run you plan to do… water can be higher then what the gauge is showing).
  2. CATCH IT ON THE WAY DOWN: It has always been good advice to catch high water on the way down as opposed to on the way up for many reasons related to the information given below, so again, watch the gauges for when flows start dropping.
  3. DEBRIS & NEW WOOD: California has been in a 4+ year drought.. we have not seen high flows for several years, and the amount of debris coming down could be very significant as logs and other debris both at and above the previous high water lines and coming down side creeks enters the systems in increasing amounts as the water rises.  After new re-licensing on many rivers including The South Fork American, new reservoir operating does not require that debris be held back in the reservoir but instead, it can be released through the system.
  4. PADDLING IN MUDDY WATER: On many runs such as the South Fork large fires have occurred since last high water, this in its worst case can add debris, wood, and ash… adding obstacles to poor viability.  in the mellower cases can change the look of the water too muddy brown which can be harder to read since there isn’t a large contrast between blue and white to your eye making it hard to see “holes” and gradient. Not to mention for those of us who roll with eyes open… it is disconcertingly dark
  5. RAIN on SNOW: In a scenario such as this with warm temps and rain above 8,000 feet elevation causing melting snow as well as direct rain run-off water levels will tend to escalate quickly with a compounding effect as the water moves downstream and short length creeks add to the water coming from higher up.
  6. PADDLING IN THE TREES: Water WILL be up in the brush and trees making shore access (ingress and egress) for swimmers or rescuers, avoiding strainers etc. difficult or impossible in many areas.
  7. FUNNY WATER: High water can significantly alter the appearance, dynamics, and consequences in many parts of the rivers. Areas that are normally full of nice swimming rocks and safe eddies may now be strewn with big holes where the eddy rocks once were.  Big features can disappear and become flattened while rapids can run together making recovery from a swim extremely difficult.   Boils can appear out of nowhere as surges occur compressing water against the river banks. Be prepared to run the river like you have never seen it before.
  8. Swimming is NOT A OPTION: On higher flowing or flooding rivers, swimming is not something you want to happen.  Rapids can run together & Eddy lines become wider blocking your ability to get to shore either as a swimmer or while bamboozling a boat.
  9. Combat Rolls ONLY: This is the roll that has been tested in dynamic conditions.  A roll that is pool worthy or even worthy in a calm eddy in the river is not a proven roll. Remember 80% of rolling is your headspace and unless you have had unpredicted rolls in the river with success you won’t know how that roll will play out in pushier dynamic situations you might find at high water.
  10. Gear Retrieval & number of paddlers: High water is a great time to make sure you have a solid crew of folks and enough boats.  The single boat is not really ever a good idea but can become a serious hazard at high water.  Whether you are rafting or kayaking having multiple boats can expedite gear recovery and shorten peoples swims.  High water can pull boats, paddles, and people away from containment quickly.  Always go for the swimmer first but keep in mind, gear can often jettison downstream quickly.  To help minimize swims for yourself and gear loss, make sure your gear is well fitting & well marked. This way you don’t blame the swim on the boat or an imploded skirt and should it leave your possession hopefully it will find its way back to you.  Gear is often harder to find in flood conditions as paddles can get stuffed into sieves, and boats can travel miles quickly.  The good news/bad news is eventually it may reach a reservoir..  but maybe not in the condition you last saw it in.

REMEMBER… True friends don’t let friends paddle above their skill level.


There is always more you can take for high water paddling, but here are a few essentials I would want when paddling at higher flows.

  • PFD that floats you  (IF it is faded or squishy, the jacket will likely not have enough float even at regular water… it is time to get a new PFD!)
  • Throw Bag
  • Whistles
  • Fire Starting Kit
  • Space Blanket
  • Spare Paddle
  • Extra Layer
  • Food & Water
  • Float bags