Water Safety In, On, and Around Rivers

Man with two kids in a canoe, wearing lifejackets.

Swimming, boating, and fishing are popular recreational and daily living activities in, on, and around rivers. Learning to recognize hazards, taking precautions, and knowing what to do if an incident occurs can prevent tragic and avoidable water-related injuries or fatalities.


  • Flooding
    Floods can happen anywhere and at any time of the year, but especially during the spring melt. When riverbanks flood, there is an increased risk of drowning, even with a low volume of water but high-water movement.
  • Currents, rapids, and undertows
    Higher or faster than normal waters—especially during the spring melt—can be dangerous when navigating rivers in a boat. River currents have enormous power and can easily trap even strong swimmers, especially when concentrated around rocks, bridge pilings, and in hydraulics or whirlpools at the base of dams.
  • Boulders and strainers
    Strainers are caused by an obstruction in the river that allows water to flow through, but swimmers and boaters can become trapped or pinned to by the force of the current. Boulders can cause a boat to capsize, and cause injury or entrapment to swimmers.
  • Sandbars and drop-offs
    The sudden change in depth of water resulting from sand bars and drop-offs can cause swimmers to quickly become out of their comfort and swimming ability. Boats can become stuck on sandbars.
  • Steep banks
    Steep or slippery riverbanks can be dangerous and may cause an unexpected fall into water or result in injury.
  • Cold water temperature
    Water in Canada is cold! In cold water, your skin and blood temperature in your arms and legs drop quickly. This can cause you to have trouble breathing, unable to use your hands, and at risk for hypothermia. You may become unconscious, and if you are in the water, you may drown.

two men in a canoe fishing Prevention            

There are several steps that swimmers and boaters can take to stay safe when participating in activities in, on, and around rivers.

Obey all signs related to flooded areas: Avoid flooded roads and stay clear of fenced off areas designed to prevent unsafe travel. If the river water is higher and faster than normal, consider waiting for the water level to return to normal.

Actively supervise children at all times when in, on, and around water. Ensure rescue equipment is available nearby, including a line with a buoyant object attached, which can be used as a throwing assist.

Avoid going in, on or around the river alone. When boating, make sure you are with another responsible boater. Always swim with a buddy in designated safe places and be aware of the limits of your swimming abilities.
When travelling by boat, create a trip plan. Tell someone:
  • The names of everyone in the group
  • Where you are going and when you are leaving
  • When you expect to reach your destination and stops you plan to make along the way
  • When you plan to return 
Always wear a lifejacket when boating.
  • Wearing a properly secured lifejacket will keep you at the surface of the water during an unexpected fall overboard, a boat capsizing incident, or colliding with another boat or object.
  • For swift water activities, wearing safety gear will decrease the risk of injury.  Choose to wear an activity-specific flotation device, gloves, cold-water suit and helmet.  Helmets will protect your head from injuries should you capsize in an area with large boulders. Check your equipment to ensure it is free of tears or missing pieces prior to participating in any swift water activity. 
Stay sober while engaging in river activities. Decision-making skills and co-ordination are important to stay safe on the river.

Get trained: Learn or improve your swimming, basic rescue, and first aid skills. These skills will help you to prepare, prevent and respond to emergencies.

When the going gets rough

Many paddlers and sports enthusiasts love the excitement and adventure of swift water kayaking and canoeing. Swift water environments pose additional challenges to paddling in flat water, such as undertow and strainers—so it’s important to be prepared, learn to recognize the hazards, and how to respond if an incident occurs.
What to do if an incident occurs
Non-entry rescues in swift water or flat water
If your boating buddy needs assistance in the water, provide assistance from your own boat or from the shore.  Avoid getting into the water to rescue some who has fallen out of their boat.
  • Call for help.
  • Provide flotation.
  • Use a throwing assist with a line if possible.
Self-rescue in swift water
 In shallow or rocky waters, float on your back, position your feet downstream at an angle and ride out the current until you are in water that is less than knee-deep. If in deeper waters, roll onto your stomach and swim to shore with the current.
  • Entrapment: If your foot gets stuck in rocks on the bottom, push up off the bottom with your hands and doggy paddle to get breaths. Bob as needed until help arrives.
  • Undertow:   Stay calm if pulled underwater, wait for the downward pull to ease and allow yourself to resurface.
  • Currents: If you get caught in a river current, roll over onto your back and go downstream with your feet first so you won’t crash head-first into a rock or other obstacle. When you’re out of the strongest part of the current, swim straight toward shore. Because of the current, you will actually move downstream at an angle toward the shore.
  • Capsize: If your boat has overturned, hang onto the upstream end of the boat until you can move to safety. 
  • Strainers: If you become caught in a strainer, switch to head-first position, swim faster than the current, and go up and over the strainer. If that is not possible, hold on top and call for help.
Self-rescue in flat water
  • If you experience an unexpected fall into water, turn onto your back and remain floating face up while wearing a properly fitted PDF/lifejacket.  Kick to the shore while calling for help.
  • If your boat capsizes, immediately swim to shore with your PFD/lifejacket on. If it is too far or too risky to swim to shore, stay with the boat and crawl onto the over-turned boat if possible.
This initiative was funded by a contribution from Sask Lotteries.