Safety on the Lower Mississippi River
The Mississippi River presents many challenges for paddlers, but when properly approached by experienced paddlers with the right equipment it can be the amongst most rewarding paddling in North America.
Summary: Safe Paddling on the Lower Mississippi River involves: 1) advanced paddling experience, 2) good preparation, 3) The Right Vessel and 4) the right equipment.
If you ask anyone who lives along the Lower Mississippi River "is it safe to paddle on the Mississippi River?" the answer you're most likely to receive is "Are you nuts? Have you lost your mind? Its crazy to paddle on the Mississippi River! You won't come back!"
Is this right? Well, yes -- and no. Yes, the Mississippi River is notoriously hazardous. And yes, unfortunately a lot of people have gone out and not come back. The river and its tributaries have probably claimed more lives than all other rivers in North America put together. But, no, it's not crazy. Maybe it could be considered extreme. After all we're talking about the biggest volume river in this quadrant of the planet! You have to do it right. Also, most of the fatalities have been motorized accidents -- many involving ignorance, alcohol, and lack of a life jacket (or a properly worn life jacket).
You can safely paddle the Lower Mississippi River. Ask the thousands of canoeists and kayakers who paddle it every year. Stand Up Paddleboards are fine on the Lower Miss -- using the same precautions outlined below. All you need is the right experience, the right equipment and the right preparations.
The Lower Mississippi River is dangerous like how paddling in San Francisco Bay is dangerous. Like paddling on the Great Lakes. Like Paddling Puget Sound, or the Inside Passage of Alaska, or in Long Island Sound. Think big boats (towboats & freighters), big water, big waves, big hydraulics, changing weather, wind, and cold water conditions (Fall, Winter, Spring).
Climbing a big mountain is dangerous and yet millions of people climb mountains every year. Paddling the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is dangerous and yet thousands of people do it every year. There are certain hazards, and then there are techniques you can learn to either avoid or live with those hazards.
There are many challenges and hazards for anyone on the big river, but contrary to popular opinion it can be done safely. (Note: your most dangerous journey will be driving there!) The Mississippi is the biggest navigation channel in North America. Some people call it "America's Super-highway." Compare it to other highways. You wouldn't get on the interstate highway if you didn't know how to drive, would you? If you didn't have the right vehicle, right? If you didn't know how to read the signs, right? If you didn't know what to do in case of breakdown, right? Okay, its the same on the big river. You won't want to get on the Mississippi unless you know how to paddle your canoe (or kayak or SUP), read the river, and take care of yourself in wilderness conditions. This is NOT the river to learn how to paddle. But for the advanced paddler its an incredible experience. A life-changing experience. An experience of the middle of America like no other.
Safe Paddling on the Lower Mississippi River involves: 1) advanced paddling experience, 2) good preparation, 3) The Right Vessel and 4) the right equipment.
1) Paddling Experience:
Advanced paddlers only on the Water Trail. There are several isolated opportunities for beginner paddlers, for instance paddling in the Helena Harbor or the Greenville Harbor, but main channel paddling should be considered only by advanced paddlers. [Click Here for Beginner's Options]. To do so otherwise would be foolish and would most likely put other people lives in jeopardy (other people in your canoe, your flotilla and those people who might have to provide rescue such as Coast Guard, towboat crew). There are more opportunities for moderate paddlers, such as Buck Island and Choctaw Island, but even moderate paddlers should await long distance travel on the main channel until they have mastered all of the below skills.
Necessary Skills: You must be a proficient paddler familiar with big water conditions such as massive hydraulics, powerful whirlpools, violent boils & eddies. This is the biggest volume river on the continent. You must be comfortable paddling alongside half mile-long towboats who may or may not see you, and will not yield the right of way to you. You must be knowledgable of common towboat navigation practices such as channel crossings, fleeting, the flanking maneuver and etc. You must be capable of long open water crossings, sometimes with strong winds and haystacking & crashing waves. You must be capable of long-distance ferry crossing technique. You shouldn't paddle on the Lower Mississippi unless you are capable of the self-rescue technique. You shouldn't invite others to join you unless you can perform canoe or kayak rescue for others such as the T-rescue, or bailing & re-loading a kayak, and you should be able to teach it to everyone in your group.
You and your group should practice group paddling techniques with a designated leader and sweep boat. There should be communication between vessels whether it be satellite phone, VHF marine radio or paddle and whistle signals. Put-ins and Take outs should be discussed and planned for. All vessels should carry maps, food and water and in all other ways be self-sufficient in case of separation. Even on the biggest river in North America you can quickly lose sight of a canoe or kayak through inattention. The river moves so swiftly that an un-announced 15 minute pit-stop on shore might put miles between you and the rest of your group.
Many of these topics are covered in the Rivergator guide to paddling the Lower Mississippi, but there is nothing that will substitute for experience. Go slowly, take your time, exercise patience and caution. If necessary await changes in conditions (fog, towboat activity) on the bank. Proceed when the coast is clear.
Checklist: Summary of required skills:
1. Proficient with big water conditions:
2. Comfortable paddling in the vicinity of towboats & freighters. Knowledgable of common towboat navigation practices:
passing each other
3. Capable of long open water crossings, sometimes with strong winds and haystacking & crashing waves.
4. Capable of long-distance ferry crossing technique.
5. Capable of the self-rescue technique:
Canoe Solo Rescue
Canoe or Kayak T-rescue
Canoe or Kayak Parallel Rescue
6. Group paddling techniques with a designated leader and sweep boat
7. Communication between vessels:
VHF Marine Radio
2) Good Preparation:
You must be self-sufficient and self contained on the Lower Mississippi Water Trail. Even practiced voyageurs from other waterways will encounter new challenges on the Lower Miss. Experience on the Upper Miss does not necessarily qualify you for the unique hurdles of the Lower Miss.
Every vessel on the river should carry extra food and water. Every vessel should have a travel plan, as well as third person on land for everyone to contact in case of separation. Carry maps and travel plan in waterproof sleeves with a 3-ring notebook, or have them laminated beforehand. On extended long-distance expeditions with large groups the US Coast Guard should be notified and contacted along the route. [Click Here: for Contacting the US Coast Guard]. Read this entire website and contact writer John Ruskey [email hidden] if you have any questions. Research other expeditions by reading printed literature via websites or online blogs for insider's experiences and possible tips.
[Click Here: Suggested Reading]
[Click Here: links to websites]
[Click Here: links to blogs from Lower Mississippi River adventures]
Safe Camping: Pick campsites well above any forecasted rises, but also protected from possible gusting winds, lightning strikes, and heavy rain. Chose campsite sheltered by sand dunes or better yet low trees -- such as stands of immature willows or cottonwoods, which are high enough to block wind, but not so high that they attract lightning or pummel campers with falling limbs or rotten tree trunks. Camping in a depression might lead to a flooded camp with heavy rain. Practice Leave No Trace Camping. Campfires are okay on the Mississippi, but build fire pits down-wind of your campsite, and far enough away from tents that changes in wind won't burn up tents.
The best Mississippi River Camping is found on remote islands, sandbars, towheads, usually sandy places, sometimes it's necessary to make a muddy landing. In inclement weather it might be necessary to find shelter within the forest. This is primitive camping on a river island, no services of any sort. Bring everything you need to make yourself comfortable. Bring your own toiletry. Bring a change of warm clothing, including summer months, when mornings can be cool. It's always cooler on the river.
[Click Here: Leave No Trace on the Mississippi River]
3) The Right Vessel
The first important step in your equipment considerations will be choosing the right sea-worthy vessel for the big river. The word sea is appropriate here. The big river is more like the ocean than it is like the normal "river" experience. The nickname "moving ocean" (from the Amazon) could be applied to the Lower Mississippi. Think wind, extreme weather, waves and wide crossings. Is your canoe or kayak capable of handling these kinds of conditions?
CANOE: For canoes choose an expedition style canoe with high ends to break waves, large capacity for your gear, and plenty of flotation in case of capsize. There are so many canoes available it is bewildering but in general you should go with a canoe sixteen foot or longer, and thirty two inches or wider. The classic Grumman canoe is entirely appropriate for the Lower Mississippi River and has proven itself with many successful expeditions. It was designed using the time-proven "prospector" shape, hence it is very capable in a wide variety of conditions including waves and long passages. Even though its heavy and looks clunky an aluminum canoe has many advantages in a river lined with rip-rap and revetment, and you can pull it up to concrete landings without worrying too much about tearing up the hull. The Grumman company is now defunct, but the canoes last forever and are easily found in the classifieds or yard sales. The basic shape has been adopted by Allumacraft.
Of course there are many reasons to choose something lighter, more elegant, and more expensive. Any tripper or expedition canoe made by Old Towne, We-No-Nah or Bell is going to be excellent for the big river and you will cherish the beauty and quality of construction of the vessel for your lifetime. Spend some time and do your research. Peruse the selections and find something that feels good. If you can't decide, your best route is to attend a dealer day (sometimes called "demo" day) or some paddling event where canoe makers let you try their product. The annual Memphis Outdoors Inc Canoe & Kayak Race is usually followed by a dealer's showcase where this is possible. Also Canoe and Kayak Magazine prints an annual guide to canoes & kayaks that is very useful for comparing product.
KAYAK: If kayaks are your vessel of choice keep the above requirements in mind and find a sea worthy-kayak of longer length and plenty of stability -- and also enough stowage for your journey. Most likely you will end up with a "sea kayak" which is designed for all of the many conditions confronting open water paddlers including wind, large waves, big volume flow, long crossings, and open water navigation. A kayak outfitted with a rudder is handy for crossings, especially on a windy day. It provides some relief for the long-distance paddler, and is very useful to the photographer who might want to maintain direction while letting go of the paddle and grabbing the camera. Lastly, if you plan on sailing your kayak you will want a rudder (or a skeg). Large volume tandem kayaks perform superbly on the big river. Creek boats or whitewater kayaks are fun if you're going for a quick turnaround from some boat launch, but will be slow and require constant paddling attention on the long run.
SUP: Stand Up Paddleboards have become more common on the muddy waters of the Mississippi River in recent years and are proving themselves capable of anything the big river throws your way. You will want a longer and wider paddleboard for the above mentioned rigors of the Mississippi, with attachments for gear. Towboat waves sometimes wash over the feet of a paddler on the SUP, and anything tied down, so wear appropriate footware in cold water seasons, and pack your gear in good quality drybags or the equivalent.
PADDLES: Find a paddle that feels good and will serve you on the long distance. The bent shaft paddle (canoe or SUP) works great for the Mississippi River voyageur because it's light and efficient. Everyone has their personal preferences and material. I like the feel of a wooden handle and wooden shaft, but I also like the way the carbon blade cuts the water and handles the abuse of rocks, rip-rap and concrete ramps. Plastic is at the bottom of my list, aluminum second to the bottom.
LIFEJACKET: I have found so many cheap fluorescent orange lifejackets strewn about the Lower Mississippi River hung up in trees or piled against driftwood, it always makes me wonder who was wearing it and why they lost it. Don't be miserly with lifejackets. Get the best you can afford, especially if you are outfitting your children or a group of friends. If your cheap choice leads to future disaster you will never forgive yourself. Keep comfort in mind while purchasing a lifejacket, but be sure to find something with enough flotation for your weight and possibly long duration rescues. Look for the US Coast Guard approval and classification. A USCG type III lifejacket is appropriate for the Mississippi River. The mesh back style lifejackets are wonderful for long hot summer days, and are preferable in kayaks (they don't push you forward in your seat). If you are a cold season paddler the full wrap-around flotation keeps you warmer. Frequent paddlers might keep two lifejackets, one for hot months, one for cold months. Pockets and attachments are nice for rescue whistle, radio, knife, compass and car keys.
3) The Right Equipment
Being prepared with the right equipment depends partly on the season. The big division is summer and winter. In the Summer you will need sun protection and extra water for hydration. In winter you will need wetsuits, drysuits or other appropriate cold water clothing. The Mississippi runs out of northern climes, so even though it might be a hot spring day in March the river temperature might still be in the 30s or 40s, and your survival time in the case of a capsize is only minutes, much shorter than it takes to swim to shore!
Packing: Dry Bags
The modern dry bag makes river travel so much easier and drier! Bring all personal gear and stuff into waterproof drybags before launching. These are backpack-style bags made of tough waterproof material - great for packing on a rainy day. Dry bags with "open mouth" top require three complete folds to make them water-proof. Be sure to lock all buckles. If you have any questions, check with your supplier.
Be prepared for rain or intense sun UV exposure! Sunlight is surprisingly intense on the river, even in the winter (you get the sun twice - once from above and once reflected from below). Sunburn is probably the number one complaint and has caused more than one Mississippi River paddler very painful days and sleepless nights. Be forewarned! Sunglasses, sun screen, long sleeve clothing and a wide brim hat are all good ideas, especially for anyone particularly sensitive.
Tents & Sleeping Bags:
Make your choices according to season: in summer a light bag and tent with lots of ventilation is best. The sandbars can remain broiling hot far into the night and you will want to maximize the breeze. In winter pack a 3-season tent with fly and a warm winter sleeping bag, preferably one rated to zero degrees fahrenheit or below. In general hollofil or other water-resistant material is favorable over down.
The Mississippi flows swiftly out of the northern states into this region. As such, the water can be surprisingly cold, especially in the early spring. Furthermore, Lower Mississippi water temp is usually independent of local air temp. Imagine a river 45 degrees cold 150 feet deep flowing south at 5 knots - it takes a long time to warm up! When the water temperature falls below 60 degrees wet suits are required for all river travel - necessary because of the long swim that might be involved in case of capsize.
"Don't Forget to Pack"
My top twelve equipment "don't forget to pack" recommendations are
1) Foot Protection you don't mind getting muddy & wet. On the water, Neoprene Boots are the very best, if the water gets in your feet stay warm. My personal favorite is the NRS Boundary Boot 7mm Titanium Tetraprene (not made with petroleum products) which is knee high and very comfortable. Rubber or plastic Barn Boots work almost as well, but your foot will get cold if the water gets in. Easily found at your local Wal Mart or hardware store. For the sandbar, it's nice to have an old pair of dry tennis shoes to change into, or equivalent. Bring extra pair of shoes & pack into drybag to change into at camp.
2) Head Protection for both cold & sun. Remember, you lose 90% of your body heat through your head. Best set-up: bring one hat for sun, and another to put on at night.
3) Water Protection even if it doesn't rain, you might get wet from splashing waves, paddle drips, early morning dew, etc. Start out with polypro layers, top that with fleece or wool, and in case it gets really bad, pack a pair of top-to-bottom rain gear. This combination will provide sufficient all-weather protection, whether it's a full rain or just cold & windy. Remember, it always feels colder on the river, especially in the winter!
4) Wetsuits or Drysuits should be worn when water temperature falls below 60 degrees (generally November through April). Even the most experienced paddler and seasoned athlete might end up a victim of a long cold water swim. Two veteran paddlers who were also tri-athletes inadvertently flipped their canoe within sight of downtown Memphis a couple of years ago on a warm March day. One made it to shore one didn't. Neither were wearing cold water protection.
5) Head lamp for after-dark reading, eating, journaling, finding your way around camp, get one with a red-light option for reading your star chart.
6) Water Bottle. Pack at least one gallon of water per person per day, and maybe more in the heat of the summer.
7) Winter Tip: Pack a thermos filled with your favorite hot beverage. Nothing tastes better on a cold windy day than a sip of hot coffee, hot chai, hot chicken broth, hot miso soup. Refill at lunch time, refill every morning.
8) Sun Protection: Similar to snow sports, winter sunburns are common, especially facial sunburn. Sunglasses, sun screen, long sleeve clothing and a wide brim hat that doesn't blow off in the wind. Low-angle winter light has a sneaky way of getting underneath your hat brim (reflected off the surface of the river).
9) A knife. Useful for everything from cutting steaks to making tent stakes!
10) Notebook, journal, sketchbook, camera. You will want to record some of your experiences and the amazing sights & sounds of the Mississippi River. Always a surprise when you least expect it! You might have life-changing thoughts, ideas for a new business, or maybe just a sweet note to a loved-one.
11) Star-chart: at least one per group. The best sky-watching in the mid-south! Let the campfire burn low and enjoy an ever-changing rotation of the heavens over your sandbar camp, the stars & constellations reflected with mirror-like splendor in the middle of gentle boils & eddies. Watch falling stars seemingly sizzle into the cold dark water. Have you ever seen the entire Milky Way reflected on the face of the river?
12) A Towel. Towels are great for all kinds of things, not just washing your face in the morning, but wiping sand out of your tent, a makeshift pillow, etc.
bring several changes of clothes, and dress in layers in cool evenings. A sweater, jacket, fleece pull over & rain jacket for cool mornings/evenings. Camping close to the river is similar to camping on a Pacific Ocean beach, the day might be warm, or even hot, but it always feels cool by the water's edge, and even cooler if there is a breeze blowing over it.
Wear safety orange when walking over the riverbank into fields, woods or edges of the sandbars. Make extra noise in bushy areas. Be especially cautious around sunrise and sunset.
[ADD: Group Equipment List]
[ADD: Personal Equipment List]
[Tags: Hazards, changing water conditions, wind, severe storms, when to paddle and when to stay off the river, self-rescue, self rescue, signals, etc, etc -- add on later]