It's all about safety and following the laws. Your enjoyment on the water will increase when you follow these safety steps and understand the regulations. For paddling instruction and canoe schools, please visit the bottom of this page.
Iowa DNR wants you to be safe on the water. A good first toward knowing what you need to know on the water in paddlecraft is the American Canoe Associations " SmartStart" brochure. To order paper copies for your group, please e-mail email@example.com. Any time you go out on the water, wear your PFD! See safety tips at the bottom of this page.
On-Line Paddle Safety Boating Course
Check out this free resource and improve your safety knowledge when it comes to paddling. This course is NASBLA (National Association of State Boating Law Administrators) approved. All new paddlers should take this free course and it is a great review for the experienced. Register for a free account and get started today! Free Paddling Course
Be safe, and be prepared. Accidents, sometimes deadly, occur at low-head dams every year. Check this recently updated map of dams on major rivers in Iowa for the segment of river you plan to use.
See our DNR River Programs Drowning Machine brochure that explains why dams are deadly and tips that will help you avoid these hazards on Iowa's rivers.
Safety and Responsible Paddling Tips
The American Canoe Association and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources urges all paddlers to boat responsibly to prevent accidents, minimize impacts, and avoid conflicts with residents and other river users. We offer these guidelines for responsible paddling.
- Wear a properly-fitted lifejacket while on the water. Never paddle under the influence of alcohol or unprescribed drugs.
- Paddle with a group, not by yourself. Leave a "float plan" for your trip with a friend or relative.
- Dress appropriately for weather and water conditions, including air and water temperature. Avoid conditions for which you are not prepared.
- Learn about and study your route in advance, especially hazards that are beyond your skill level.
- Carry a supply of food and drinking water adequate for your trips length.
- Be able to read the water and effectively steer and propel your boat. Learn how to rescue yourself and others in the event of a capsize.
- Do not stand up in your boat, and avoid weight shifts that may cause capsize. Do not carry more weight or persons than your boat is designed to safely accommodate.
- Know where the dams are!
- Know and understand your river levels and flows, as well as the weather forecast. Remember, rain that has fallen upstream will be coming downstream!
- Watch out for newer paddlers. Offer advice, be supportive, share your knowledge and make them feel welcome.
- Obey local rules and regulations. Use only public lands and access points
- Respect private property. Never trespass to gain access.
- Be considerate to others while on the water. Give anglers a wide berth.
- Be considerate to local residents.
- Give back to the waterway. Participate in a river cleanup, or volunteer for a local watershed organization.
- Avoid introducing non-native species. Clean your boat and gear between trips.
Leave No Trace Ethics
- Dispose of waste properly. Never litter. Always pack out your trash. A good habit to develop is to always take a mesh trash bag so you can pick up around the access points. Always leave it cleaner than you found it.
- Use a portable toilet or other approved method to pack out solid human waste and paper products. Dispose of liquid waste 200' from water and away from camps and trails.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces whenever possible. Minimize impacts to shore when launching, portaging and scouting.
- Avoid building campfires, except in established fire rings or in emergencies. Building a fire on sandbars is fine as long as you leave no trace of it the following morning.
- Respect wildlife by observing from a safe distance. Leave artifacts and natural features undisturbed.
Laws and Regulations
Meandered, Non-Meandered, and Navigable Rivers
These terms can be confusing, but are important in understanding what the rules are for where you can be and where you can't:
A Meandered river is one in which adjacent land owners own the land above the high water mark. Land below the high water mark is public, giving citizens the right to explore sandbars at leisure without worry of trespassing. Land above that level is usually private, and should not be utilized by people navigating streams except when portaging around an obstruction.
View a map of meandered rivers and legal boundaries of meandered rivers to learn more.
A non-meandered river, on the other hand, is one in which private landowners own all the land adjacent to and underneath the water-including the bottom, sandbars, and banks. Most river miles in Iowa are designated as non-meandered. A 1996 attorney general opinion, however, permits activities incidental to navigation on non-meandered rivers, such as, fishing, swimming, and wading when the river is considered navigable. This law also allows for trash clean-ups and the need to portage obstructions in the rivers.
A navigable river is defined by state law as one "which can support a vessel capable of carrying one or more persons during a total of a six-month period in one out of every ten years." Most rivers and larger creeks in Iowa, including non-meandered rivers, are considered navigable. State law expressly allows boating traffic down to one-person vessel such as kayaks on navigable streams.
The required navigation lights must be displayed between sunset and sunrise and whenever the weather reduces visibility.
Manually Powered Vessels When Underway (Manually powered vessels are boats that are paddled, poled, or rowed)
If less than 23.0 feet long, these vessels should exhibit a white light visible for 360° around the horizon and visible from a distance of at least one mile away if operating on natural lakes, Corps of Engineers impoundments, border rivers, or impoundments on inland rivers. If this light is partially obscured due to the nature of the vessel, an additional white light must be on hand to be shown in sufficient time to prevent a collision. This secondary light could be a head-lamp or even a flashlight.
General Boater Education
Visit the boater education page to read through the handbook and learn about all laws and regulations.
American Canoe Association (ACA) Classes for 2013 (IDNR Canoe Schools)
2013 IDNR Canoe School dates have been announced! These classes will fill up fast so it is highly recommended that you reserve your spot now. Space for these popular classes are limited and the first class is already sold out. If you are a Naturalist and lead groups out on the water and down river, then you need this class. Read all about it now and sign up today. 2013 paddlingschools (revised).doc 2013 paddlingschools (revised).pdf
For a list of ACA paddling classes Iowa Whitewater Coalition is hosting, go to IWC Paddling Classes.
CanoeSport Outfitters (Indianola)
Seatasea Watersports (Cedar Rapids)
CrawDaddy Outdoors (Waverly)
Streamdreamer (Des Moines)
ISU Canoe and Kayak Club