What Should You Do If Approaching a Low-Head Dam In A Kayak?

Kayaking is a popular outdoor activity that many people enjoy. While kayaking provides both mental and physical benefits, some hazards can ruin your day on the water.  But, never fear, we’ve got you covered.  Today we will discuss what you should do if approaching a low head dam in a kayak.

For the most part, kayaking is a pretty safe outdoor activity as long as you follow some simple guidelines. You should always wear a life jacket when you are on the water and need to pay attention to your surroundings.

One hazardous obstacle you might face is a low head dam. With that said, we will look in-depth at what to do and how to stay safe if you encounter a low head dam.

What Is a Low Head Dam?

A low head dam is also referred to as a “drowning machine” and needs to be taken very seriously.  Dams come in all shapes and sizes, and some of the most dangerous are the smallest. 

What sets a low-head dam apart from other dams is its low profile, as in they don’t stick out of the water. At least with big dams, like Hoover Dam, you see it and know it’s there.

A low head dam is characterized by its low height (thus the name “low-head”). The dams are fully submerged, span from bank to bank, and water flows freely over the top. You can typically expect a 1 to 15-foot drop over the dam.

That is what makes low-head dams so dangerous. It’s not necessarily the dam’s size that is the danger. It’s the strength of the current.

Low head dams have a variety of purposes, including irrigation control and hydroelectric power [1].

Why Are Low Head Dams Dangerous?

Difficult to spot

Low head dams can be very deceiving; the water around them can appear calm and peaceful.  An unsuspecting kayaker might not know they are headed right for one. 

But flows over the dams create extreme turbulence and dangerous conditions. The water can push unsuspecting swimmers and kayakers underwater, pull them back to the dam, and repeat that same cycle. A kayaker often can’t see them until it’s too late.

Unlike other, bigger dams, low head dams don’t stick out like a sore thumb, so they can be tough to spot. If the lighting is low, the water is murky, or there is other debris in the way, a low-head dam can be tough to see.

When you are in a kayak, you are sitting lower, so it can be challenging to spot a low head dam. It’s not necessarily the

Not marked

Many times when you approach a dam, it will be marked as such. You might find signage, or buoys, to warn a kayaker of the dam ahead. 

Often a low head dam is not marked. Some states have maps of low-head dams, but many don’t.  You can check out the National Inventory of Dams for more information about your area.

The point being, a low head dam may or may not be marked, so it’s up to the paddler to be cautious.

Strong current

The water that goes over the dam creates a current that recirculates, kind of like a washing machine. The current pulls a kayaker and/or a kayak against the dam. This current is known as the “boil.” If a kayaker is caught in this current, they may not be able to swim away. 

Other debris

You may also find tree branches, garbage, or other debris is caught in the boil and is drug back into the dam.  This is especially true after a strong storm that may include high winds and/or heavy rainfall.

Weather can play a dramatic part in other debris being in the water, which can complicate matters when a paddler encounters a low head dam.  If a paddler is caught in the current along with other debris, that can be bad news.

Difficult to rescue

As you can imagine, all of the factors we just covered can make it very difficult, if not impossible, to perform a rescue from a low head dam.  Even if a paddler is wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) or is a strong swimmer, rescue is still complicated.

The turbulent waters make it really hard for rescue teams to get in there and perform a rescue. 


Low-head dams are dangerous because:

  • It’s an obstacle you might not be able to see until it’s too late
  • There is a nasty drop on the other side that you are most likely not prepared for
  • The current is turbulent and extremely hard to get out of, even if you are wearing a PFD and you are a good swimmer

What should you do when approaching a low head dam?

Stay safe

Even if you are wearing a PFD, that might not be enough to save you if you are stuck in a turbulent current of a low-head dam.  But, you still need to make sure you have a life jacket that fits you well.  It’s better to have a life jacket on than not.

If you come across a low-head dam and have some warning, don’t try to go over it. Some folks might think they can pull it off, but that is not a wise decision.

Check the conditions

Watch the weather for storms that might be moving into the area. A low-head dam presents enough challenges on its own, but storms can add an extra element with high water flow and debris floating in the water.

If there has recently been a storm or heavy rainfall in the area, then be wary of kayaking in that area. You can also check the area to see if there are any known low head dams before you set out.

Paddle away if possible

If you have the opportunity to paddle away, then do it. Turn your kayak around and get out of there as quickly as possible.  You might still drift toward the dam, so urgency is the key.  You can either paddle back to your launch point or try to get to shore so you can make a plan on how to proceed.

Pay attention (Avoid)

We mentioned earlier, it can be challenging to see a low head dam because it might not be marked, and they are also tricky to spot. Do your best to pay attention to your surroundings. If the current speed up for no apparent reason, you might be lucky enough to see it before it’s too late.

Walk around (Portage)

If you can avoid a low head dam, one option is to portage around the dam. Paddle to shore; take your kayak out of the water.  Then see if there is a way to walk around the dam, on land, and relaunch when you are out of harm’s way. 

Keep in mind; you might have to portage again, the opposite direction if you need to paddle back to your original launch point.  

Keep your distance

This goes without saying, but if you are lucky enough to notice the dam, then keep your distance.  If you have researched ahead of time and know there is a low head dam, keep away from it. The best way to not get sucked in is to stay far away.

Tips to Avoid Low Head Dams

Plan your route

If you are kayaking in unfamiliar territory, it’s always best to plan your route before hitting the water.  Visit the area and walk around to take a look at the waterway.  You can ask locals if there are any low head dams or other dangerous obstacles to watch out for.

If you know there is a low head dam on your route, you can make a plan to portage around it.  Every good and safe kayak trip starts with a good plan.

Stay alert

We touched on this earlier, but it cannot be overstated.  Anytime you are kayaking, you need to stay alert. That is one of the best ways to defend yourself and avoid potentially dangerous low head dams. Keep an eye out for warning signs or other signals that you might be headed for trouble.

Don’t go alone

Try to go kayaking with a buddy or a group. That way, you can look out for one another, especially if this is new territory for you.  The more people are looking out for obstacles and hazards, the better.


What should you do if you approach a low head dam in a kayakPin

Low-head dams are hazardous, especially for kayakers.  There is no safe way to navigate the drowning machine.  The best thing you can do if you encounter a low head dam is to try to paddle your way to shore so you can be safe and assess the situation.

Low-head dams are hard to spot, and they are not always marked with a warning sign. The extreme water flow over the dam is a bad place to be. You should always avoid kayaking where there are low heads dams.

Be safe, wear a life jacket and always keep an eye open for potential hazards when you are kayaking.

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.