MO River Paddling Guide

Whether you’re new to river racing, or just in need a little refresher – we’ve put together some helpful info on navigating in moving water to get you race ready! First, paddling the Missouri River means steering clear of stationary objects in the water. The main objects to watch out for: Navigation buoys, wing dikes, parked barges and bridge pilings.

Navigation Buoys: These big, heavy steel objects are in place to mark shallow spots in the river. The two different types in the Missouri, red nun buoys and green can buoys, are anchored to the riverbed by a long cable, meaning they often drift in wide patterns. As you paddle downstream, allow for a significant distance between you and these buoys, keeping the green on your right and red to your left.

Wing Dikes: These are rock structures that have been built into the river to force the water away from the banks, thereby narrowing the channel and speeding up the river. Wing dikes are almost always found on the opposite side of the navigation channel. The water directly behind a wing dike is typically calm, and can be a good place to answer nature’s call. However, be careful to avoid colliding with a wing dike, as the force of the current can pin your boat and cause it to capsize.

Parked Barges: Barges are typically hard to miss, but you should be careful to allow a significant distance between your boat and a parked barge because water continues to pass under the raked front end, and can easily pin and/or pull under a small boat.

Bridge Pilings: Also not hard to miss, but the current around bridge pilings can be surprisingly strong so it is best to stay as near as possible to the middle of the space between them.

Note: Due to the excessive spring rainfall, the River level is unusually high this year. High water levels increase the speed and strength of the current. Extra caution is advised.

Traffic on the Missouri River is mostly recreational. To manage wakes, keep your bow pointed into the oncoming wave, and be sure your gear is secure and properly balanced. Though to a much lesser degree, there is also some tow and barge traffic on the river as well. Tows and barges are typically hard to miss in the water, but should you see one approaching, it is best to make a course for the non-channel side, and then begin to assess the size of the wake. A heavy barge headed upstream creates the biggest wake, while a lighter barge headed downstream makes almost no wake at all. Wing dikes can be good shelter for refuge from a larger wake.

Boats:  Make sure you are visible to local recreational boats.  Turning sideways to the current makes a bigger display.  Point your bow into the wake the boat leaves behind.  Wave a paddle above your head if you don't think you're visible.

Current:  The current is deceptively strong on the Missouri.  It can catch you off guard and make a tippy canoe into a tipped over canoe pretty quickly.  Keep you center of gravity low and weight balanced evenly across the canoe.

Wind: If your canoe is perpendicular to the current and you get caught by a strong crosswind, the canoe will tip easier. Head winds can be exhausting and you may want to consider where on the river you can escape the wind as you move downstream.  Of course, every time you go around another bend it all changes.

Fog: There may be fog at the start of the race.  If there is substantial fog, we will delay the start of the race for 15 minute increments until it clears.  If you should encounter a thick fog bank during the race, it is recommended that you pull over and wait for it to clear.  Fog is extremely disorienting, and there is nothing to say there won't be a motor boat headed upstream at you in the fog.

If you should capsize on the river-RELAX and float first.  Let your PFD float you as you regain calm.  DO NOT attempt to swim upstream or against the current.  Attempting to fight the current will only kick in your panic reflex, not to mention it is impossible.  Once you get an idea of where the current is going, you can attempt to hold on to your boat and move slowly to shore following the current.  As soon as you are in a safe situation, call one of the numbers above and a support boat will come pick you up.

If you see a fellow paddler in trouble, please offer assistance if possible and call one of the numbers above to advise on location.  We are all safety boats out there.  

It usually is hot, so It’s also important to remember to take proper measures to protect yourself from heat and sun.  Be sure to replace fluids often, and monitor your water supply carefully. If you feel you are beginning to overheat, beach your boat and take a swim. Alert the nearest safety boat of what you are doing. Also, be sure to apply sunscreen liberally to avoid burns – which further reduce your body’s ability to regulate temperature.

Anything can happen, pay attention to building clouds and especially lightning. The bank is the place to be if you see lightning.

Recommended Racing Gear:

  • Food (Protein bars are a good bet)
  • Sun Block
  • Hat
  • Sun Glasses
  • Missouri River Map
  • Cell Phone
  • Line or Rope suitable for towing
  • Knife
  • Ample supply of water
  • Life vests


Check out these links for more useful information about paddling on the Missouri River:


Lewis and Clark Water Trail Page

River Miles

Missouri Canoe and Floaters Association


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