Skip to main content
Olivia Hudak

By: Olivia Hudak on June 16th, 2022

Print/Save as PDF

Boating on a River (Do’s and Don’ts)

Recreational boating has become increasingly popular in the last handful of years. More first-time boaters entered the lifestyle than ever before when Covid forced everyone to isolate themselves.  Boating is a way to spend time with your family doing something fun and adventurous while being shielded from public spaces.


When exploring new waterways or learning to boat for the first time, you’ll understand that not all bodies of water are created equal. What I mean is that no two bodies of water are the same. People boating on a lake will have a much different experience than someone who is boating on a river. This rings true for all the different types of water and different types of boats


It’s important that you know how to navigate the body of water you plan to boat on.  In this article, I’m going to explain the dos and don’ts of boating on a river. Whether you’re new to boating or new to the river, I hope that this article will help you know what to expect before you take off from the dock.  


Boating on the River

Rivers are much different from your average lake or reservoir. They are constantly changing and can be very difficult to navigate if you aren’t used to this type of water. For instance, I had a rude awakening the first time I ever drove a boat on a river. It was so much different than any other place I had ever boated before.


I was a strong boater at the time but I wasn’t prepared for what the river had to offer. I wasn’t aware of the many obstacles that would be thrown at me. It was nothing like boating on a lake. I was a complete novice even after many years of boating.


It took a lot of research and time to feel confident boating on the river. It was almost like I had to completely relearn how to drive a boat again. In the end, I was glad I took the time to research and learn all about the river before heading out for a second time. 


My experience drove me to write this blog. I hope to educate you on how to drive a boat on a river safely because it isn’t like other bodies of water.  You need to know what you’re getting into before you head out.


There are many different aspects to driving a boat on a river that you’ll need to be aware of. From how to identify obstacles to knowing the safest route, so let’s dive in.


Map the River

Just like any other body of water, it’s always good to know the lay of the land or water in this case. Rivers are great at hiding unforeseen obstacles which is why I highly recommend talking to an expert. Find someone who regularly boats on the river you’re planning to explore and see if they can give you pointers from a local perspective.


An expert could be anyone from the staff at the local marina to fishermen to someone who has lived and driven boats on that river for years. It will be beneficial to talk to an expert before taking your boat down to the launch


This person will be able to point out things like depth changes and underwater obstructions. For example, there’s a river nearby that everyone in my area boats on.  This river is home to an orchard that lives below the surface


Had I not learned about this obstacle early on, there’s a good chance my propeller would have encountered a tree or two. Something like that could cause severe damage to my boat and prop. I would’ve had no idea had I not talked with an expert before heading out on the river.


Another great asset to have while boating on any new body of water is a depth map. This will help you navigate to avoid any shallow areas that may be unmarked throughout the river. A map is useful to have even if you have been on that river previously.


A crucial part of boating on a river is knowing where the dams are. This is very important information to have no matter what river you’re boating on. Always know where the dams are so you don’t get too close and use caution whenever you are near them.


Something that may be an afterthought when it comes to this is if you lose power to your engine, you could be in danger. If you cannot get the boat started and it begins to flow with the current, you could eventually find yourself at the dam and in a very sticky situation.  


The River Moves

The river is always flowing and the movement is referred to as the current. Current in a river can be subtle or extreme depending on the environment. Different factors influence the speed of the current in a river. 


One factor that is fairly easy to check is whether the dam is open or shut. Dams are opened or shut based on variables that alter the water levels above and below the dam. The reason it is opened or shut is to maintain safe water levels everywhere. For example, a lot of rainwater will cause water levels to rise which is why it is important to move that water downstream. 


Also, even if the current is fairly slow throughout the river, the current tends to speed up quite a bit the closer you get to a dam. Water is flowing quickly with a lot of force in these areas so make sure you don’t get too close. 


Always be aware that narrower passages in the river will create a faster current. There is less area for the water to flow in this situation which causes the current to speed up. Be aware of this if you are boating in a narrow area of the river. 


Several other variables will alter the speed and force of a current in a river as well. The weather will play a big role here, so always research the weather and the river you plan to boat on before dropping your boat in at the launch. It will make everything much easier for you in the long run. 


Be Aware of Obstacles

Always pay close attention to underwater obstacles in a river. It’s very easy for logs and debris that are bobbing at the surface to move downstream. These obstructions can cause a great deal of damage to your boat so you’ll want to avoid them at all costs. 


Obstacles also include the things found underwater. Maybe a tree fell into the river and now it’s hiding barely below the surface. Or there could be a dense patch of marine growth that will wrap itself around your propeller. Whatever it could be, do your best to avoid such situations. 


Not all rivers are the same, but often, rivers attract seaweed. This is because of the constant influx of minerals from the moving water. These weeds can be very thick and long. When they wrap around your prop, it prevents you from being able to turn.


Luckily, there are ways to get weeds out of your prop so don’t panic. First, I would recommend putting the throttle in reverse and gradually increasing the speed. Sometimes the change in prop spin direction is all you need to get the weeds out of the propeller. If that doesn’t work, you can also turn the boat off and pull the weeds off yourself. Be sure the boat is completely off before manually removing weeds that are wrapped around the prop otherwise it could be extremely dangerous. 


Sometimes hazards are unavoidable and end up wreaking havoc on your boat. If an accident happens with an obstacle, move to a safe place and examine any damage. Make sure the boat is safe to run before heading back out on the water. As I mentioned before, you do not want to be stuck on a dead boat that’s floating with the current.


Safety Equipment

There are specific boat accessories that you should have on board your boat before cruising on the river. Just like any body of water, some regulations and laws vary depending on where you are. Always be sure you know exactly what you need to have to comply with the law.


Particularly on a river, I recommend making sure you have a paddle with you. In case of an emergency, if your motor stops working, you need to have some way to get safely to shore. The current will keep you moving down the river which could be very dangerous.


Another piece of safety equipment that would be beneficial to have on board your boat is a depth meter. A depth meter will help you stay aware of changing water depths. It can also help you avoid unexpected shallow areas in the river.


You can never have too many safety devices on your boat. It’s a good idea to research what works best for other boaters in the area so you can be prepared. Preparing before heading out on the water will help keep you and everyone else on your boat safe and happy.


Take it Slow

It never hurts to take the first river cruise at a slow pace. This will help you understand the waterway so you can be as safe as possible. Think about it, if you accidentally hit a tree stump going 5 mph, you may have to replace your propeller but that will likely be it. If you hit a tree stump going 30 mph, the damages are likely going to be much worse. 


Map out the river on your boat and get a feel for the current. Take plenty of time to learn how to maneuver your boat with the current in the river. In the long run, it’s worth it. Go slow and enjoy learning the ways of river boating.

LC (1)

About Olivia Hudak

Avid boater and Barletta Boats team member, Olivia is no stranger to the water. She was on the MSU wake team through college and continues to to ride the wake in her spare time.