River Safety

A cartoon image of a river with rapids in a mountain valley forest setting

Rivers and streams can be a refreshing way to cool off in the summer. Know how to protect yourself.

Whether you’re swimming, tubing, or just getting your feet wet, it’s important to know how to protect yourself from river and stream hazards.

Before you go:

  • Check to see what water activities are allowed, what is prohibited and why. Flooding, water conditions, contamination, or other hazards may be dangerous or harmful to your health and safety.
  • Check water and weather conditions. Summer thunderstorms can happen quickly. Be prepared by checking the weather conditions and knowing what could happen.
    • Water quality could be impacted by many things, including algae blooms, chemical spills, or other contaminants. Read signs and heed posted warnings.
  • Travel with a buddy. Never swim, wade, or play in/around rivers and streams alone.
  • Tell someone where you are going, when you expect to return, and where to call if you don’t.

When you get there:

  • Watch out for hazards such as flooding, muddy water, trees, debris, cliffs, or low head dams or bridges. Avoid swift water.
  • Keep a close watch on children, even if they are far from the water. Supervision of children is especially important as they can quickly enter the water and get in trouble when your attention is diverted, even if only for a moment.1
  • Avoid rock hopping or climbing around waterfalls. Rocks may be slippery, especially when wet.
  • If you choose to cross a stream by going through it or over rocks, study the area. Consider where you will land if you fall. Never cross above rapids, falls, or dams.
  • Don’t jump off waterfalls or dive into waterfall pools. Unseen objects, such as logs and boulders, may be under the water’s surface.2
  • If you fall into fast-moving water, do not try to stand up. The force of the water will push you over and hold you under. Instead, lay on your back with your feet pointing downstream and toes pointing up toward the surface. Always look downstream and be prepared to fend off rocks with your feet. Most drownings result from getting a leg or ankle caught in an underwater rock ledge, between boulders or snagged in tree limbs or other debris.¹
  • If you don’t know how to swim, wear a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) that meets U.S. Coast Guard requirements.¹

Common River and Stream Hazards

If you have a water-related emergency:

  1. Call 9-1-1 for help.  Time is of the essence. Be ready to tell the 9-1-1 operator the circumstances of your emergency (e.g. where you are located, the number of people impacted, etc.).
  2. DO NOT attempt a rescue by jumping into the water. Many people have drowned while trying to save someone. Only a person who is trained in water rescue should enter the water to rescue someone in trouble.1




1National Park Service. River and Stream Safety. https://www.nps.gov/articles/river-and-stream-safety.htm

2U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Water Safety. https://www.fs.usda.gov/visit/know-before-you-go/water-safety.

³Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. Low Head Dams. https://dwr.virginia.gov/boating/education/lowhead-dams/

American Red Cross: Swimming Safely in Lakes, Rivers, and Streams. https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/water-safety/lake-river-safety.html