10 River Surfing Safety Tips

River surfing movie safety tips

We traveled to some of the top waves on every river surfers list but this wasn’t just another surf holiday. If we were faced with a scary situation or a wave that made our stomachs churn we had to push through the fear; we had a river surfing movie to make. The only way to balance out the fear was to be confidant in the choices we made to ensure our safety. Here’s 10 sexy river safety tips to take with you on your next river surfing adventure.

  1. Have a Surf Buddy

No matter how experienced you are it’s important to always go surfing with another person. Always make sure your buddy has made it safely to shore or the eddy before taking your turn on the wave. There are many things that can go wrong in the river and having someone there will be the determining factor for you or your surf buddy’s survival.

  1. Know Before You Go

Exploration and finding yourself on new river waves is a huge part of river surfing but it is important to talk to people who know the area before jumping in. If it’s your first time on a new river going with a guide or talking to other river users like whitewater raft guides or kayakers is recommended. They can point out hazards, advise on best flow rates and give you tips on access.

  1. Be Prepared

This can mean checking the weather, flow rates, or simple things like making sure you have eaten enough to maintain the energy you need.  Writing out a packing list or surf checklist is a handy exercise.  As you go out more, you will have more experience on what to bring so add it to the list.

  1. Think Responsibly

Yes, in Can I Surf That you did see us drinking beer on the river bank.  To be totally honest having a beer after a good paddle almost goes hand in hand for us.  And sometimes a beer before hand can help calm some nerves but obviously alcohol and rivers can be a deadly combination.  We certainly wouldn’t have a few drinks and drive and the same applies for the river.  We’re on the river for fun times but it’s important not to get carried away. Alcohol is just one example of many when it comes to responsible thinking on the river.

  1. Well Equipped

River Surfing was born from both ocean surfing and kayaking.  Because of this, the gear we use are the results of a combination of both style and safety.  The river presents new dangers not found in the ocean and we need to equip ourselves accordingly.

Must haves:

  • Wetsuit (Proper Thickness)
  • Helmet
  • Lifejacket (Coast Guard Approved) 
  • River Safe Leash System (Or the leash-less option)  
  • First Aid Kit on shore
  • River Knife and Phone


  1. Trees & Other Hazards

Fallen trees, also known as strainers, are where the majority of all river drownings happen. When on the river be aware of this and other hazards (i.e. rock sieves, bridge pillars, and undercuts), use your best judgment to determine if the risk is worth the wave and try to avoid all hazards completely. We recommend taking a river safety course such as ‘Swift Water Rescuewhere you’ll learn what to do in just about any river emergency.

  1. Etiquette

River surfing etiquette comes down to using the river in a responsible way and having respect for all river users.  It’s more than being polite, learning things like who has the right of way is like the rules of the road for a river.

  1. Know your limits

River surfing is very much about pushing your limits and boundaries and achieving new and great things but from a safety standpoint you have to know your limit. If you’re on the bank thinking “just one more” make sure you have enough gas in the tank for not just another ride but for a long swim. Keep yourself fed and hydrated with an eye on energy levels.  If you’re in colder water your muscles are working harder than usual so prepare for shorter sessions.

  1. Look upstream

The common rule on the river is those moving downstream have the right of way. I don’t know how many times I was in the zone, not paying attention, and nearly got laid out by a raft. Sometimes moving to one side to allow passage while remaining on the wave isn’t enough; I’ve experienced rafts purposefully trying to take me out. Kayakers will often wait above the wave until your turn is up (they want to get a surf in themselves), this is where hand or board signals come into play. Arms, paddle, or board held vertically in the air is commonly understood that the line is clear and horizontal means stop or not clear.

  1. Set an example

Whether we are aware of it or not the what we do on the river is seen by others.  Many are new to the sport of river surfing young and old and when they arrive on the scene those with more time on the river are looked at on how to act.  Making good decisions or poor ones will be followed by those watching.

Remember that ‘we are river surfers’.  Safety starts with good decisions and influencing the future of our community. Our community includes everyone from athletes to renegades who play by their own rules but together we shape the future of this sport we love so much.  


Here are some articles you may find useful regarding proper river surfing gear:

‘Your Life on a Leash’


‘The Lowdown on Leashes’



Written by Brittany Parker and Jacob Kelly Quinlan in association with Can I Surf That and Surf Anywhere.