What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam In A Canoe Or Kayak?

what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak

Kayaking and canoeing are all fun and games until you stumble on technical terrain or watercourse. When you reach these areas, it is pretty necessary that you have all the right skills to get pass through them.

What should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak?


You see, this is a question that tests the knowledge and proficiency of boaters when it comes to handling their boat. Low head dams, after all, are common to many rivers and streams in the United States. You will inevitably encounter them. And sometimes, these encounters can be unexpected as they can be drowned by overflowing waters during flooding season.

Regardless of the situation, a paddler must know how to veer his way out of these dams. If your boat flips over because you were not able to do the right thing while you are there, that's another problem that you should know how to solve, too.

But prevention is better than cure, right? In this guide, I will teach you how to deal with these low-head dams. Let's get started.

Technically, a low-head dam is entirely different from the standard dams that you see on those large watersheds and rivers. Specifically, these dams are designed so that they are not erected above the water. Most of the time, they are just leveled to the water surface. That's where it got its name "low-head."

The structure dam was intentionally made to elevate the height of the water on any side of the river. Specifically, the dam causes some water to spill from its side and on its top. The effects are two areas of water that have different heights.

Low head dams are dangerous because their higher parts work as strainers of water. If you are paddler that have come across this area, there's a good chance that your boat will flip and you will get trapped, too. Even if the water is mild and calm, being stuck in such a situation is quite dangerous.

Another reason why low-head dams can be perilous to boaters (and anyone who come across them) is due to the water vortex they create under the water. Needless to explain, this strong current has the power to pull your boat in the water. If the current is massive, they can even stop large boats from cruising.

Let me tell you one caveat: low-head dams can be placed underwater. As a result, there are many instances where you can't see them at all until you are there. As a paddler, you really have to be attentive and cautious at all times.

Here’s a good presentation why low-head dams are dangerous:

What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam In A Canoe Or Kayak?

Are you still not convinced that low-head dams are dangerous? Well, there's this accident in May 2017 when there were two people who made an attempt to kayak their way over the dam. What happened to them is genuinely grimly as they were caught by the vortex underneath. Both of them died. The body of the first woman was recovered right after while the other one was only recovered on the following day.

So what should you do whenever you encounter a low-head dam? How can you make yourself safe while traversing this obstruction?

Well, the very first thing that you do is avoid it.

Avoid the Low-Head Dam

If you are a kayaker who have high regards to your life, you will never let yourself pass through low-head dams. As I have said earlier, these dams are extremely dangerous. If you detect that there's a low-head dam ahead of you, turn around. Don't come close before it is too late for you. This is the very thing that can save you from fatal encounters.

It is a good thing if you check first the area you are going to canoe or kayak before you bring your boat there. Ask the guides, locals, or nearby paddling clubs if there are low-head dams present in your route. You should always take this kind of precaution because this one is going to save you one day. Being an informed paddler makes the total difference between a fun adventure and a dangerous one.

Once you can see a low-head dam, you have to paddle your way to the closest bank as quickly as possible. After that, take the kayak or canoe and carry them with you. Pass the dam and give yourself a safe distance where you can start your journey again. If you deem that the water is too dangerous pass the point of the dam, just halt already. You don't need to risk yourself. There's a lot of adventures that you can take but never put yourself to any sort of jeopardy.

Always be keen on your surroundings at all times. Be aware of the signs that there is a dam in front of you.

Allow me to summarize the commandments when it comes in dealing with low-head dams. Here are they:

  • Avoid the low-head dam at all cost. Do not ever pass through it or less there's a good chance that you are going to drown.
  • When you see the dam, park your boat to the nearest river bank. After that, pass through the dam until you can reach a spot where it is already safe to paddle your boat.
  • Do not go to flooded rivers. They are good at hiding low-head banks. Some rivers have "hidden" dams that not all people know. Therefore, take this precaution so that you can avoid getting caught off guard.
  • Ensure that you have the map of the route you are going to take. Make sure that it is updated. There's are some instances where low-head dams are built with little knowledge of the people.
  • Be on the lookout. Always take caution and be aware of the signs that there's a dam. Do you hear noises of dropping gushes of water? Is the plane in front of you not leveled to you?
  • Always be informed. Ask the locals and every guide that is familiar with your route. They are the best sources of information that can either give you a green light or a red light.


There's only one answer to the question "what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak" and that is to avoid it. You should never take the compromise just to test your skills out. This is not something that you can take. Canoes and kayaks are built for fun and adventure. They are never made so that you can do death-defying stunts. Be a responsible paddler and stay out in the way of danger.

That's it for now. If you have questions or suggestions, feel free to drop them in the comment section.

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