What To Do If Approaching Low-Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?

Low-head dams can be very dangerous and difficult to spot, but what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak? In this article, we will explain what you should do to pass a low-head dam in your canoe or kayak safely.

Directions at a Glance

If you are in a rush, here are our instructions at a glance:

  1. Avoid the dam
  2. Put on a personal floatation device
  3. Paddle to shore
  4. Walk around the dam with your canoe or kayak in hand
  5. Get back into the water at a safe distance from the dam

What is a Low-Head Dam?

A low-head dam is a man-made dam that usually spans the entire width of a river. The purpose of a low-head dam is to control water levels. These water levels help to improve local water supplies and irrigation.

Low-head dams can be difficult to spot because they often appear flat as you approach. The artificial dam can even occur under the water, making it nearly impossible to spot from the surface.

river arno cascading over a weir

Low-Head Dam Risks

Low-head dams can pose great risks to canoers or kayakers. As water pours off the dam, hydraulic or boil is created. The boil pulls surface objects towards the dam and often traps them under the water.

This boil can pull your canoe or kayak into the dam after passing over and trap it under the water. Even strong paddlers may not be able to escape the boil. This poses a major threat to your safety. If you are trapped under the water, you will drown and die.

To make matters worse, other items like debris or branches get trapped in the boil as well. These items can further hinder your escape and even hit you and knock you out.

According to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, low-head dams caused 75 incidents, 57 deaths, and 19 injuries in 2019 alone. These figures show the real dangers of low-head dams.

What to do when Approaching a Low-Head Dam

What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak? Here is what you should do to escape its boil safely:

1. Avoid the dam

Most importantly, you must avoid the low-head dam. Do not ever try to go over it. No matter how experienced or strong you are, a low-head dam can be lethal. Do not let ego ever come in the way of your safety.

2. Put on a personal flotation device

As soon as you spot a low-head dam, put on your personal flotation device if you are not already wearing one. Even though you will try to avoid the dam altogether, you will want a flotation device in the case that you do not escape the dam.

Life Jacket

Personal flotation devises come in several levels:

  • Type 1, Off-shore life jacket: Type 1 life jackets offer the most protection. They tend to have 22 lbs. of buoyancy and are best for open, rough, or remote waters. This floatation device will be the most helpful if dragged into a boil.
  • Type 2, Near-shore buoyant vest: Type 2 flotation devices offer around 15.5 lbs. of buoyancy and are good for calm, inland water.
  • Type 3, Flotation aid: Type 3 floatation aids are the most comfortable personal flotation devices, but they only offer up to 15.5 lbs. Of buoyancy and are not suitable for rough waters. On a river, you will have to tilt your head back to avoid going face down in the water.
  • Type 4, Throwable device: Type 4 throwable aides are ideal only when help is nearby. These floatation devices will not offer adequate help in boils because they will be nearly impossible to hang onto.
  • Type 5, Special use device: Type 5 flotation devices are made for specific activities and are not suitable for low-head dam protection.
  • Type 6, Hybrid device: Type 6 floatation devices need inflation and are great for continuous wear. These devices can be as powerful as level 1, 2, or 3 devices, but you will need time to inflate the device.

3. Paddle to shore

Once your personal flotation device is securely fashioned to your body, you will want to paddle to shore immediately. Do not wait until you see the low-head dam to go to the bank. At that point, it may be too late, and you might get dragged into the boil.

It does not matter which side of the bank you paddle to, only that you get to a bank. This action may save your life.

4. Walk around the dam with canoe or kayak in hand

Once you get to the bank, get out of the water, and bring your canoe or kayak with you. You may want to dry off your kayak before grabbing it because you will need to hold it while you walk for a bit.

Walk along the bank with your canoe or kayak. You will need to walk completely past the dam. To make sure that you are a safe distance from the dam, walk past it for several yards. If you get into the water too close to the dam, you can still be dragged into the boil.

5. Get back in the water at a safe distance from the dam

Once you are a notable distance from the dam, you are safe to get back in the water with your canoe or kayak. It is recommended to keep on your personal floatation device at this point just in case.

If you are safely traveling away from the dam without any fear of the boil, you can continue canoeing or kayaking in peace.

Kayak on the river


What should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak? Simply put, avoid the dam.

Put on your personal flotation device and paddle to the bank as soon as possible. Then, get out of the water and walk your canoe or paddle along the river until you are well past the dam. Only once you are a safe distance from the boil should you get back into the water.