Water Trail Safety Guide

The rapid onset of high winds, fog, storms and other dramatically changing conditions on the lower Columbia can transform a seemingly easy paddle into a dangerous, and even life-threatening, situation. Be prepared for the worst scenario and make safety a priority when planning your trip.

Adequate preparation is critical to safe paddling. Be prepared for the worst scenario and make safety a priority when planning your trip. Check out the information below for resources.


  • General Paddling Safety Guidelines

    Adequate preparation is critical to safe paddling. Be sure everybody in the party has the training, skill, and experience, including self- and assisted-rescue techniques, for the trip you have planned. Learn as much as you can about the route and any hazards before leaving. Always wear a well-fitting life jacket while you're on the water. Get an up-to-date weather forecast.

    Be alert for larger, motorized boats. Stay along the river’s edge and steer well clear of the shipping channel. If it is necessary to cross the shipping channel, do so quickly, in a direct line, and in a group. Leave plenty of room for barges, tankers, and ships. They may appear to be moving slowly, but they will be on top of you before you know it. Their ability to maneuver and stop is limited.

    Read more about general paddling safety.

  • Carry a Chart

    The Lower Columbia River Water Trail Web Site should not be used for navigation purposes!

    For on-water navigation purposes carry a NOAA Marine Chart. For trip planning purposes, you can also utilize the Water Trail Interactive Map with a navigation chart background. Simply switch the base layer to Navigation Charts. 

    Six NOAA charts cover the 146 miles of the Lower Columbia River Water Trail. 


    Charts show undulations of the coastline in detail, as well as underwater rocks, mud flats, aids to navigation and details like powerlines and bridges. For additional details, paddlers should carry topo maps as well. Maps are better at showing the landscape's elevation, contours such as valleys and mountains, plus the location of town, roads, houses, and other land based developments. Paper copies of NOAA Marine charts for the Lower Columbia River are available at many local paddling shops and online.

  • Check the Weather

    For current weather conditions see the NOAA National Weather Service Pacific Northwest 7-Day Zone Forecasts. The site provide provides up the minute weather for a number of lower Columbia River communities. Tailor your forecast to your paddling destination. 

    You can also try the National Weather Service Marine Forecast phone:  503-861-2722. This recorded phone line is updated twice daily at 8:00 am and 2:00 pm and provides weather as well as river stage and tide levels for the Columbia River. 

    Wind and fog are special factors to consider when planning a paddling trip.

    Wind: Generally blow from the west or northwest in the summer and are greatest during the afternoon, making mornings the best time to paddle. In the winter, southwest winds tend to bring rain, and easterly, down-Gorge winds bring cold air. Topography and differences in temperature and air pressure can also create strong, localized winds.

    Fog: Fog can be extremely disorienting. Familiarity with the area or strong compass skills are necessary to navigate in these conditions. Leave room for error. Do not aim for small waypoints, such as a small island or the end of a peninsula. Shoot for large targets, and once you have reached them, proceed along them safely to your next destination. Do not cross shipping channels in the fog.

    Finally, remain flexible and and open to schedule changes. Being overly committed to your schedule can encourage rash decisions and more chance-taking. Take your time, be safe, and pay attention to weather!

  • Check the Tides

    While tides are strongest closer to the estuary, tidal influence extends all the way up to Bonneville Dam. Tides can significantly alter the strength of the river's flow and make paddling easier or harder. You can use the NOAA Tide Predictions map to find the tides near your destination. You can also click on any site in our Water Trail maps to obtain a link to daily tidal information for the closest available NOAA tide gauge.

  • Create a Float Plan

    You can help to ensure your safety on the river before leaving by filing a float plan with somebody. This plan should include the names of party members (paddling alone is not recommended), departure and return times and destinations, route, description of equipment and gear carried by the party, and phone numbers for emergency contacts like the Coast Guard.

    Check out the Float Plan Central™ web site administered by the US Coast Guard Auxiliary to learn more about Float Plan. Or simply dowload the US Coast Guard Auxiliary Float Plan Form, fill it out, leave it with a friend, and go paddling!

  • Be Aware of River Hazards

    The Columbia is a mighty river, by volume, the second-largest in North America. Its lower stretches capture the powerful flow of its thousand-mile length. Unpredictable weather, winds gusting across an expansive surface and heavy commercial shipping traffic create a unique brew of paddling hazards. 

    Be aware of special Columbia River cautions: Read More

  • Understand River Navigation

    Know how to read Columbia River waterway markers.

    Buoys depicted on marine charts are like road signs, identifying your location and the safe boundaries of the shipping channel. When moving downstream, green can-shaped buoys mark the right edge of the channel, while red cone-shaped ones mark the left. Buoys are also valuable for predicting where larger vessels will travel so you can keep clear of them.

    Orange range markers on land indicate safe passage for ships and barges; two aligned markers indicate the shipping channel.

  • Carry a Waterway Access Permit in Oregon waters

    In Oregon waters, any watercraft 10 feet or longer, including canoes and kayaks, must carry a Waterway Access Permit. Your permit helps pay for boat ramps, restrooms, parking areas, docks and other non-motorized boater needs. Find out more and purchase your permit online.

  • Plan a Portage Around Bonneville Dam

    Bonneville Dam presents a serious barrier for paddlers traveling from the Northwest Discovery Water Trail to the Lower Columbia River Water Trail. A paddler has two options: portage and locking through.

    The Corps of Engineers highly recommends portaging non-motorized vessels around Bonneville Dam instead of locking through. Paddlers should secure portage services well in advance and portage around Bonneville Dam should be supported by vehicle as heavily traveled roads, minimal shoulders and long distances make pedestrian –based portage unsafe and impractical. To portage:

    The upstream portage site is at the Cascade Locks Marina, approximately four miles upstream of Bonneville Dam in Cascade Locks, Oregon. Restrooms and telephone are available. The downstream portage site is the Hamilton Island Boat Ramp located on the Washington side of the river, approximately ½ mile downstream of Bonneville Dam. Cross the Bridge of the Gods at Cascade Locks to access Washington State. An alternate upstream portage site is the Skamania County Fairgrounds in Stevenson, WA. This site has no boat ramp, but is relatively easily accessed from both land and water. They fairgrounds are accessed by water by going under the railroad and highway bridges at Rock Creek, approximately five miles upstream of the dam. There are restrooms, but no phone service. 

    Locking through: 
    The Corps of Engineers highly recommends portaging non-motorized vessels around Bonneville Dam. However, non-motorized craft on the Columbia River may be locked through if moored to a motorized assist vessel, all passengers are on board the assist vessel, AND the lock operator deems all other conditions safe (i.e.: prevailing weather patterns, vessel sizes, experience levels, etc). Here are links to more information:

    How to Lock Through Bonneville Dam

    NOTE:  The river between the Cascade Locks Marina site and the Skamania County Fairgrounds site and the navigation lock at Bonneville Dam is narrow and there are NO TAKE OUT POINTS.