What Are Strainers On A River? Tips To Stay Safe

Kayaking is a popular outdoor activity that many people enjoy. Unfortunately, not everyone (beginners and experienced paddlers alike) is prepared for unique hazards that they might encounter on the water. Some of the obstacles you come across are natural, and others are man-made. 

Before you head to the river for your next kayaking adventure, you need to be aware of obstacles you may run into, like strainers. I know you might be asking yourself, “what are strainers on a river”? That is the topic we will cover in this article. 

If you have spent much time in a kayak on a river, you know that certain obstacles can ruin your day.  Even on a slow-moving river, strainers are a force to be reckoned with.

What are strainers on a river?

Simply put, a strainer on a river is an object (obstacle) that blocks a larger object but allows water to flow through.  Strainers are aptly named because you can think of them as a strainer (or colander) you would use in your kitchen.

Here is a quick visual. When you boil pasta and pour the water and pasta into a strainer, the water passes through, but the noodles don’t. A strainer lets the water through, but the holes are not big enough for the noodles to pass through.

It’s the same thing on a river with strainers.  Water can pass through, but a person or a kayak can’t. A person or a kayak will be pinned against the strainer and potentially dragged underwater, which can be fatal.

An example is a fallen tree, which traps the kayak. Water pressure from flowing river builds up and can push the kayak underwater, sometimes with the paddler still inside.

Examples of river strainers

  • Tires
  • Shopping carts
  • Limbs
  • Vines
  • Branches
  • Logs
  • Vehicles
  • Fences
  • Fallen trees

Unfortunately, lots of stuff ends up in our waterways.

Why are strainers on a river dangerous?

Strainers are very dangerous and can cause your kayak to flip. Strainers are also dangerous because water flow can pin a person against the strainer or drag them underwater.

The strainer has many holes in it, but none of them are big enough for a kayak or paddler to pass through. As water piles up, the person will eventually be forced underwater.  If you are caught in this situation, you can be in serious trouble.

Even if you are on a river that isn’t moving fast, you could get caught in a strainer, and potentially flip your kayak. If the water is cold, you could be in trouble. The point is, strainers can be dangerous no matter what the water conditions are.

How are strainers on a river formed?

Strainers can be formed naturally or by man-made objects.  Trees that have fallen over, storm grates that cover tunnels, fencing, or other debris are examples of strainers. If a river floods, the bushes by the side of a river can be strainers.

Strainers often occur naturally on rivers’ outer curves where the current erodes the shore, exposing tree roots. The trees then collapse into the water and form a strainer.

How to identify strainers

Sometimes, strainers can be challenging to identify.  One thing to look for is twigs bouncing on the water, from a fallen tree, or other brush.  If you see the top of a car, beware, you are probably approaching a strainer.

There are times when you can see a strainer and work to avoid it. If you know what to look for, you are a step ahead.

What to do if you are caught in a strainer

Being caught in a strainer can be terrifying. In the unfortunate event that you are caught in a strainer, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

First of all, if you recognize the strainer, try to avoid it. It’s much better to try to avoid a strainer altogether rather than try to paddle out of it. Prevention is much better than recovering from a bad situation.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you encounter a strainer when you are kayaking on a river.

If you are already in the water and can’t avoid it, swim forcefully toward the strainer.  Use your momentum to grab ahold the strainer, and hoist yourself out of the water, up onto the strainer. Use a scissor kick to propel your body up out of the water.

The whole process of getting yourself out of danger is using your strength and momentum at just the right time.  It’s important not to panic in this situation. Of course, that is easier said than done.  

You can also try to swim aggressively away from the strainer toward the main river. Use your hands to part the branches around you. Then you can swim to a safe area away from the strainer.


  • One of the best things you can do is to scout your route before you starting paddling.  You can identify strainers and other hazards ahead of time.  There may not be a way to paddle around.  In that case, you might be able to walk your kayak around and re-enter the water after the strainer.
  • Know your skill level before you head out. If the waterway is beyond your ability, then don’t go.
  • Always wear a life jacket. This should go without saying, but wearing a life jacket is imperative when you are on the water.
  • Watch the weather conditions. The weather can change quickly and leave you in a bad situation. The slow-moving river you started kayaking down could become a lot more aggressive if you live in an area with flash-floods, etc. Also, if heavy winds pick up quickly, your kayak could flip, leaving you in the water scrambling.
  • Watch the water conditions.  Water flow can be tough to gauge. You may look at a river and think the flow isn’t too bad, but it is flowing faster than you think in reality. It’s best to know what you are getting into before you start paddling.
  • Go kayaking with a buddy, this way, you can keep an eye out for each other.


River Strainers What to watch out forPin

Strainers on a river are bad news and should be avoided if at all possible. If you know what to look for, you can avoid a bad situation.  A good understanding of the water flow and scouting the waterway before you paddle are great ways to minimize your risk.

If you have specific experience with strainers on a river, share your comments below.

Happy paddling!

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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.