Why are Low Head Dams Dangerous to Small Boats and Paddle Craft?

Safe water sports and adventure sports are becoming popular all over the world. Using a kayak and going for river rafting is yet another exciting option available for you. Although it brings up the thrill and adventures, rafting at a certain location can prove to be dangerous. When you are traveling with a kayak with the current and high speed, you must keep away from danger. Once such a common situation is low dam head. It may become a challenge for you. Here is a guide on what you should do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak that you can go through.

What is a Low-Head Dam?

Before you start on the river raft, you need to know about what a low-head dam is. They are some artificial structures that can cross through the entire width of the river. They usually run with the full width of the river. Most importantly, the Low-Head Dams are built to raise the water levels of the rivers. It helps mostly the rural areas to get a higher amount of water supply to meet their requirements. However, for most of the people using a kayak, this can be a nightmare to come. They are also capable of drowning the entire kayak.

Why are they Dangerous?

  • Difficulty in spotting

Most of the low-head dams are present in the river artificially. Usually, it is around a wide area of the river. However, there is no marking present at all. When you are traveling at a higher speed, it is never easy to recognize where a low-head dam is present. Usually, they are flat and it becomes flatter as you approach closer. Precisely, the actual dam should be located just a few feet under the surface. This is why you won’t be able to see it and only the water pressure could be the possible way of marking this. According to the research, there are almost 2500 dams all over the country which do not have any markings at all.

  • Backwash or Boil

When the water flows over the dam, there is always a hydraulic pressure created. This is also commonly known as a boil. This hydraulic pressure is often referred to as backwash. The mechanism of the backwash creates a strong circulating current around the surface. If you are traveling with a kayak, it may get attracted to the pressure because of the strong current. As a result, the kayak starts to drown. The bigger risk is that it takes humongous force to get away from this current and you may not be able to swim away either. This is why most of the low-head dams are known as drowning machines.

  • Difficult Revive

If the kayak gets trapped on the low-head dam, it is highly difficult to get away from this. The whirling machine starts to pull down the kayak and makes it rather impossible for you to move. This is why the chances of rescue are very slim. The machine also swallows the rescuing boats as well. Probably the only thing that could save you from such situations is the option of having a personal float device. Wearing this will help you to float. However, it may never guarantee you that you will not be trapped at all. The PFD is a great practice to wear even if you are rafting on small streams

What should You do While approaching Low Head Dams?

  • Avoid it

Avoiding the low-head dam with a surprise, but it is probably one of the best ways to get you to safety. Of course, there is no safe technique to get over the low-head dam. This is why you must avoid it at any cost. Although not every low-head dam is marked, there will be some floating signals at the major dams. Make sure you spot them and immediately turn the kayak in the opposite direction. This will save you from any type of fatal accident. Once you are trapped, there is no way out.

  • Paddling to the Shore

If you find any low-head dam warning sign near you, you must keep the kayak safe and secure. Of course, you won’t be able to completely turn back the kayak as there is a mere current flowing around. This is why getting out of the water should be the primary step to focus on. Once you are facing such a situation, you need to spot the nearest bank available. Make sure that you can safely land the kayak and walk around the dam. Start paddling as fast as you can so that your speed is always higher than the pull of the low-head dam.

  • Carry the Kayak

If you are successful enough to get yourself back to safety, you need to cross the dam naturally. Taking the road option or the bank would be the safest way out to avoid the low-head dam. You need to pull the kayak across the dam to make yourself at a safe place. Make sure that you can pull the kayak at a safe distance away from the low-head dam so that there are no strong currents around. Start again from an area that is not so wide around. You will be able to save up a lot of effort as well.

Tips to avoid the Low-Head Dam

  1. Before you start with the procedure of river rafting, start collecting information from the local guide. This will help you to start planning up the route. Of course, you will get to know about the dams that represent around.
  2. The next thing that you need to do is to keep an eye. Finding a Low-Head Dam will not be difficult if you are aware of them. Usually, they are built around concrete walls and you can simply keep an eye on such unmarked locations.
  3. Look for the weather conditions. The low-head dams start working when the water level is high and this is why you must stop rafting after heavy rainfall. Always try to raft when the weather is clean and there is no potential increase in water.


Getting always from the low-head dam is important and this is why taking precaution steps is always a major factor to consider. You can take the guide above on what you should do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak which will help you to stay safe. Adventure is fun, but staying safe is always important.

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3 years ago

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