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Why Are Low Head Dams Dangerous to Small Boats and Paddle Craft?

Fact checked by William Hart

why are low head dams dangerous to small boats and paddle craft

Aside from having a middle-sized vessel, traveling in small boats or paddle crafts like canoes or kayaks is a popular recreational activity for boating enthusiasts. While there are many amazing places for these activities, some locations are not suitable for commuting.

Low head dams are one of those sites. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If you are a licensed boater, you have probably come across the question of “Why are low head dams dangerous to small boats and paddle craft?” in your exam. Still, it’s necessary to understand about these “drowning machines” properly so you can avoid unwanted accidents.

If you are looking for an article that can provide details and knowledge about low head dams and their dangers, this is the right place! In this post, we will compile all possible information about low head dams.

Moreover, further notices and guides will be highlighted to make sure you and fellow boaters are safe while approaching low head dams. Continue reading to learn more!

Table of Contents

What Are Low Head Dams

Low-head dams, also known as run-of-river dams, are artificial constructions that are best defined as low-profile concrete walls spanning the whole width of the river through one side to the other.

The main difference between low head dams and traditional dams is that they lie underwater. Their walls are completely submerged and parallel with the water’s surface, which explains the term “low-head.”

In spite of their usefulness, low-head dams could be deceptive in their threat. The water surrounding them may look calm and appealing; nevertheless, moderate to high flows over such dams produce severe turbulence and re-circulating currents which can sweep victims underneath and drag them back to the dam wall in a repeated cycle.

The following part of the post will list and explain some significant characteristics of low-head dams that create hazards. To understand these features clearer, take a look on this video:

Low Head Dams: Hidden Dangers

Dangerous Features of Low Head Dams


1. Extremely difficult to identify

Full-sized dams with gigantic spillway gates appear frightening, yet you’re aware of their presence.

Low-head dams, on the other hand, can be practically unnoticeable under the suitable conditions. They float beneath the water surface and are impossible to detect. You won’t notice a low-head dam until you’re on top of it, whether you’re in a paddle craft or a kayak.

Therefore, understanding what to do while reaching a low-head dam should be an instinctual reaction, since you might only have seconds to enact.

2. Rescue process will not be easy

It is quite tough to escape if the kayak becomes stuck on the low-head dam. The whirling machine begins to draw down on the kayak, making it difficult for you to maneuver. As a result, the odds of rescue are quite limited. The rescuing boats are likewise swallowed by the machine.

A private float device may be the only option that rescues you in such scenarios. Even if you’re rafting on a little stream, wearing a PFD is a good idea. It will assist you in floating. This will never, however, ensure that you would not be caught at all.

3. Debris and the boiling zone

If you are on a kayak, the pressure from the strong stream may draw it and cause it to sink. The greater danger is that it needs enormous power to escape this torrent, and you can’t swim away either. That explains why so many low-head dams are labeled “drowning machines.”

Another possibility is that you become trapped with the vessel inside the boiling zone. You should expect to come across twigs, branches, rocks, tires, and other garbage, all of which can strike you.

Safety Tips While Facing Low Head Dams


So, what should you do if you see that you’re reaching a low head dam on your paddle craft or know one is coming downstream? Below are the steps to follow.

  • Determine the safe routine

Before venturing out to a new river, try to identify low-head dams in advance. As previously said, they might be difficult to notice on the surface, so recognizing where they are beforehand is critical.

In certain circumstances, a buoy or a sign indicating the position of a low head dam may be present. But most low head dams will not be marked, so remaining aware and keeping an eye downstream will be the greatest protection.

  • Swim back to the shore

If you are aware of an incoming low head dam, or if you manage to pinpoint one ahead, go back to the shore. It is not wise to face any low-head dam.

Find a location on the coast where you can swim to and exit the kayak as soon as possible. Jumping out from the kayak isn’t the best position, but it’s a tiny price to pay when presented with something known as the “drowning machine.”

  • Portage your boat

Travel across the dam naturally once you’ve successfully gotten to safety. Take a walk on the riverside or any of the nearby roads. Remember to be cautious when choosing a path and bypassing the low head dam.

Bring your boat, but make sure it doesn’t get close to the dam. There should not be a strong river nearby that may sweep it away. If necessary, you can sail in a small region and save some effort.


Avoiding the low-head dam is always crucial. But if you ever find yourself reaching a low-head dam in a paddle craft or small boat, you may use the above instructions to know what to do and stay safe.

Did you enjoy the article on why are low head dams dangerous to small boats and paddle craft? Do you want to add anything else? Please let me know and leave a comment below.

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