CanoeBC START   Canoe Safely
in British Columbia


This safety guide recommends the basic knowledge you should have before venturing out in canoes. The brochure is for people who will be paddling known waters. Those unfamiliar with wilderness waterways are advised to first gain experience locally.


  • never canoe alone: the recommended minimum is 3 canoes.
  • watch out for your fellow paddlers, keep an eye on the boat behind you.
  • wear an approved Personal Floatation Device (lifejacket) at all times.
  • learn paddling skills and know your own abilities and limitations; the safest paddler is the skillful one (for both oneself and one's friends); 
  • never paddle further from shore than you're prepared to swim.
  • certain your canoe and equipment are in good condition; carry a bailer, bow and stern painters (ropes) as well as an extra paddle.
  • ensure that your canoe will float even when fully swamped.
  • don't be without an efficient sound signalling device, a repair kit, first aid kit, survival kit, and extra dry clothing.
  • be prepared for all kinds of weather and the possibility of falling in; 
  • bring appropriate and extra clothing (rain gear, wool or fleece NOT cotton, sun protection, runners, wool toque).
  • appoint a trip leader for each outing who has:
    • - knowledge of the river or body of water and expected weather conditions;
    • - the ability to judge when a trip is beyond the proven ability of any participants or their equipment.
      always leave your campsites clean; take your garbage with you; make sure your campfire is dead before you move on.

Transporting Your Canoe

  When transporting your canoe on top of a vehicle, do not rely on roof racks alone. A canoe offers strong resistance to wind even when your vehicle is traveling at slow speeds. Roof racks can be pulled off the vehicle by a canoe caught in the wind. Secure the canoe well, especially with strong bow and stern ropes to the bumpers or framework of the vehicle.

Small Craft Safety





  Large craft may not always see you; pass well to the right of or behind all other boats, especially in narrow channels where power craft may not have a choice of route. Canoes must carry a watertight navigation (white) light between dusk and dawn and "exhibit it in sufficient time to prevent collision with another vessel." Indicate distress by waving a piece of light coloured cloth or a flashlight in a vertical circular direction. Other distress signals may be found in the Canadian Coast Guard "Boating Safety Guide". You will also find interpretation of such navigational aids as buoys and lighthouses in that booklet.
  Watching Your Weight
Do not overload your canoe. There should always be at least 6 inches of freeboard when fully loaded (including paddlers). Secure your gear in waterproof containers to protect contents and increase buoyancy. Keep weight low in the boat.


  When canoeing on open waters, keep large groups together and close to shore. Know the canoe-over-canoe rescues. Be aware of:

o backwash off cliffs along shorelines;
o fast-changing weather conditions;
o offshore winds and currents.

When on the ocean know when and where tidal currents and riptides occur. Tides and currents information is available in booklet form. Know the weather forecast before venturing out. If you capsize far from shore and can't empty the canoe,
stay with it.




Off the river.
Do not proceed.


All Clear
- come ahead

Preferred route

  Heavy spring runoffs in British Columbia, usually persisting into July, cause rivers to be swift and frequently lethal. Cold water (below 15oC / 60oF) will render you helpless in minutes. Additionally, dangerous obstructions such as deadheads, overhanging branches, sweepers (fallen trees), log jams, rapids, falls and gravel bars should be watched for and scouted on land. Paddling rivers requires skills and equipment additional to those used on lakes. Acquire these BEFORE venturing onto moving water.

To promote a safe journey:

  • split into small groups and distribute expertise at front
    and back of the group
  • keep well spaced out and never pass the lead boat
  • follow the route of the lead boat; know and use river signals; communicate directions to the canoe behind you
  • avoid outside bends on rivers where undercut riverbanks and roots are characteristic
  • if you capsize, hold onto the paddle and the upstream end of the canoe; float on your back, toes pointed downstream; know self-rescue procedures
  • follow the instructions of your rescuer

International River Grading System

The relevant grades of an international 6-point standard for classifying the difficulty of rivers and rapids for open canoes are described below.

Grade One
Suitable for novices.
Easy. Waves small and regular; passages clear; occasional sand banks and artificial difficulties like bridge piers.

Grade Two
Suitable for intermediate paddlers.
Quite easy. Rapids of medium difficulty; passages clear and wide. Occasional boulders in stream. Open Canadian canoes may ship water in places.

Grade Three
For expert paddlers in open Canadian canoes.
Medium difficulty. Waves numerous, high, irregular. Rocks and narrow (clear) passages. Considerable experience in maneuvering required. Advance scouting usually needed. Canoes will ship water, and unless equipped with spray covers will require frequent emptying.

Grade Four
Not suitable for open Canadian canoes.
Difficult. Long rapids, powerful irregular waves; dangerous rocks, boiling eddies; passages difficult to reconnoitre.



Hypothermia is abnormal loss of heat from the body's inner core. It is the number one killer of outdoor recreationists. It can kill you in your boat, in the water, or on the shore.

Hypothermia is caused by exposure to cold, aggravated by water, wind and exhaustion.

- nibble high energy foods throughout day-long trips
- avoid exposure; protect yourself from wind and water-choose clothing with hypothermia in mind
- terminate exposure; be wise-call a halt to the trip in bad weather conditions; get out of the wind; make a shelter; never ignore shivering

Early o uncontrollable fits of shivering
Advanced o vague, slow, slurred speech
- uncoordinated movements in boat
- lack of reaction to water obstacles
- drowsiness, apparent exhaustion
Final o unconsciousness

Believe the symptoms, not the victim-a common symptom is denial. Immediate, drastic treatment is demanded before hypothermia reaches an advanced stage. Only prevention can save lives in the field.

Patient chilled:
- get victim out of water and wind and into warm, dry clothes; a wool toque is especially useful as up to 50%
of body heat is lost through the head
- have the victim exercise vigorously (stride jumps,
push ups, running on the spot)
- do not let them drink alcohol!

Patient impaired, semi-conscious or worse
A patient in advanced stages of hypothermia cannot be treated in the field. Prevent further heat loss, but do NOT try to rewarm, as this can create a deadly medical crisis. Evacuate the patient to a hospital as quickly as possible for medical treatment.

Watching Your Weight
Do not overload your canoe. There should always be at least 6 inches of freeboard when fully loaded (including paddlers). Secure your gear in waterproof containers to protect contents and increase buoyancy. Keep weight low in the boat.

Paddlers' Ethics

  • Help canoeists maintain a good image and rapport with other outdoor users.
  • Use only marked access points and public land for getting to the water and taking rest stops.
  • Keep lunch spots and campsites clean, do not put refuse of any type into the water; pack out all garbage you generate or find.
  • Respect the rights and needs of other users and landowners.
  • Give fishermen a wide berth; disturbing the fish in the area as little as possible will be appreciated by your fellow river user. Paddle quietly down the far shore if possible; don't play in the fisherman's rapid!-there are other rapids for you.
  • Do not approach, feed, or harass wildlife.
  • Take only photos, not souvenirs.
  • Minimize your impact on the environment: educate yourself on how to do so.
  • Help conservationists to protect and improve our natural water environment.