What Should You Do When Approaching a Low-Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?

  • By: Josh Rosenberg
  • Date: July 18, 2022
  • Time to read: 8 min.

Many people are afraid of low-head dams that’s why they do not take risk of riding a kayak there. For your information, they are not so dangerous but you must be aware of the hazards related to them. It is because some kayakers and canoers may have to face some issues especially when the weather is not stable or the kayaker is a beginner.

Do you know what should you do when approaching a low-head dam in a canoe or kayak? Surely not if you are a beginner but the experts might be aware of it. We suggest you stay away from low-end dams for your safety. 

Please continue reading this guide if you are interested in learning everything about low-head dams and what to do when you approach one. Let’s begin!

Purpose of a Low-Head Dam

We know that there is a reason behind every single thing in the world. So, the same is the case with a low-head dam. If you are wondering what is its purpose, let us tell you the objective behind its construction is to create a barrier in a river system that controls the water flow of the river.

We can say that a low-head dam aims to change the height of the river level. These dams control the water flow for outlets of larger still water systems. 

Characteristics of Low Head Dams

You might have heard most deaths are caused due to low head dams in the rivers that’s why they are also known as killers. Low height – which is characteristic of low head dams, is usually about one foot to fifteen foot drop off. This specified height helps the water to flow over the top of the dam.

Below the surface, the water falling from the low head dams create highly aerated currents which result in trapping the people and many other things against the face of the dam. That’s why it is risky to go near it as it takes no time to kill you. It will also be difficult to find the dead body from it. 

When you visit it on a kayak, it is not easy to escape from it so never ever think to underestimate it. Always wear a life jacket when you visit any water body no matter if it is risky or not, whether you are a beginner or an expert, a life jacket is a must.

Hazards of Low-Head Dams

We suggest you never be over-smart and think there is no existence of the low head dam near the water body you are going to have a trip on because it is not visible. Some people do not even bother to have a look at the map to spot this dam. Let us tell you even if people find it out on the map, it sometimes becomes difficult to spot when you are preset on that water body. 

So, the following are some of the hazards that are associated with low head dams. Let’s have a look at them!

Difficult to Spot

As we have mentioned earlier, it is very difficult to spot the low head dam because of its lower height. We know that these dams sit under the surface of the water and are considered to be difficult to spot. We can say these dams are nearly invisible no matter what the weather condition is. 

If you are on a kayak or a canoe, it will be impossible for you to see a low-head dam until you are on top of it. And we know that if we reach its top, we not only risk our life but we kill ourselves. If you have a canoe, it might be quite easy to spot the low-head dam but totally impossible when you are riding a kayak. 


We know that when an area is dangerous, it is marked clearly and visibly. You may sometimes notice a red notice board near a dangerous area but when we talk about the killer low-head dams, there is no notice board around. These dams are unmarked that’s why people fail to keep track. 

We can provide you with some indication about these dams so you could avoid getting near them and save your life. These are typically weir-like structures of stone or concrete masonry. It would be best if you also see their pictures available on the internet before visiting a water system near them.

Strong Currents

Are you aware of the currents in the water bodies near low-head dams? If not, you must learn about it and know about these strong currents. Many people underestimate them and think that they are capable physically to overcome these currents. If you think the same, you are totally wrong!

We can say that the size of the dam is not killing but these strong currents are! These currents are the forces that are created by the water flow. These are so strong that they such everything and ruin what comes in their way. 

What to do when approach a Low-Head Dam?

What to do when approach a Low-Head Dam

When you approach a low-head dam unintentionally, you might get scared of what to do next. So, before having a ride to any water body where the low-head dam is closed, you must have a look at this guide. It will surely be helpful for you to take you out of critical situations and protect you from the hazards associated with such dams especially when you are kayaking.

We have gathered a set of pieces of advice so we could share it with all of you. We hope these tips will be helpful for your fishing trip. There are many things you need to consider when riding on different water systems. These things are mentioned below:

Check Out the Water System

Before having a ride on your kayak or canoe at any water body, you must have to search about that water body. Research is the most important thing to do because it will let you know different facts about that water body.

You can check out its maps and the weather condition for which it is suitable to have a trip alone or with family. You can also find out what type of kayaks would be the best for having an amazing ride on that water body such as a river, lake, etc. 

Observe the Surroundings

Observations of a person are the most important thing especially when it is about your safety. You have to observe the surroundings of the water body where you are deciding to have a ride. For this purpose, you have to be vigilant when canoeing or kayaking. 

Observing the surroundings will be helpful for you to find out a low-head dam before getting too close to it. So, it will provide you with enough time to avoid this dam.

Stay Away from a Low-Head Dam

We would suggest you stay away from the low-head dam at any cost. You must be thinking how would I know where this dam is and how could I stay away from it. Let us tell you when you research the water system to have a trip, you must also check out the presence of a low-head dam near it too.

If there is any low-head dam near that water body, you can check it out before reaching there. You can also keep a map with you and mark out where this dam is present. Move away from this dam when it is quite near.

We suggest you not go close to it for capturing its pictures or look at it at least once in your life. It is because it is like risking your life for your personal pleasure. So, make a rule not to go near the low-head dams when kayaking or canoeing on any water system. 

Never Descend the Dam

It is recommended to you never think of descending the low head dam with your vessel. No matter if it is calm and easy to do so but on the other hand, it is a death trap for you. It’s not that easy how much it looks like. 

We can say descending the dam is like getting into the web yourself and getting stuck. So, be smart and avoid low-head dams at every cost. 

Consider Your Safety

Your safety should be your first priority no matter what is coming next. We already said stay away from the low-head dam but if anyhow you are coming closer to this dam, start pulling the paddles and try your best to paddle away from the low-head dam.

We suggest you not simply paddle back against the current to turn around first. It is because it will make it difficult for you to go away from this dam. 

So, you have to try turning to the right or left and try your best to reach the nearest bank or shoreline. It would be best if you use the force of the current for gaining momentum!

Wear a PFD

Sometimes, the weather condition does not let you handle your kayak efficiently which makes it difficult for you to handle the kayak from going to the low-head dam. When you wear a PFD, you can save your life if you are lucky!

A PFD does not guarantee the safety of your life but it helps you escape from the low-head dam. But keep on trying until you reach the bank. If you are a beginner, you must have a PFD, plus it is also recommended to the experts as well. 


What should you do when approaching a Low-Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?

You must try paddling backward and stay away from the low head dam to save your life.

What Major Hazard is created by Low Head Dams?

The major hazard created by a low head dam is risking your life. You may even die there without letting others know.

Why researching the water body is necessary before having a trip there?

You must research the water body before having a trip there to find out whether there is a low head dam nearby or not. If yes, where is it located, and how to stay away from it.

What makes a Low-Head Dam a killer?

The strong currents caused by the water flow make the low head dam a killer.

Is it easy to spot a Low Head Dam?

No, it is very difficult or even impossible to spot a low head dam.


To sum up, a low head dam is very dangerous so you should avoid going near it. Never think of becoming a pro and go near it because it takes no time to take you in. It would be best if you enjoy kayaking on the water body instead of exploring this killer dam!

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