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Nebraska Canoe Trails Guide

Calamus River | Cedar River | Dismal River | Elkhorn River | Lower Missouri River | Niobrara River | North Loup River | Platte River | Republican River | Upper Missouri River | Canoe Trails Guide with List of Outfitters

Nebraska’s rivers flow gently making them ideal for family outings and an excellent resource for those who are learning to handle a canoe.

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Nebraska’s rivers flow gently, making them ideal for family outings as well as an excellent resource for those learning to handle unmotorized watercraft.

On the International Scale of River Difficulty, Nebraska’s rivers generally rate Class I: Easy. This is defined as moving water with riffles and small waves; few obstacles; risk to swimmer is slight; self-rescue is easy. An exception is the Niobrara River where there are several Class II, III and IV rapids that require portage.

Remember: Only the water belongs to the state of Nebraska. The riverbeds and all adjacent lands are the property of the landowner through which the water flows. Appreciate the fact that you have the privilege of using the waterway. Respect the landowner and their property. Nebraska statutes give you the permission to portage around fences and other obstructions; however, you are responsible for any damage to the property. You must have landowner’s permission to picnic or camp.

River flows vary greatly. Some rivers experience lower water levels during summer due to heat and crop irrigation. Such conditions can turn a float trip into a hike for those who have not planned ahead. In addition, river flows, along with wind speed and direction, and paddler’s effort can result in considerable variations in float time. Trip plans should account for personnel, outdoor conditions and river flow to ensure you reach camp well before sunset.

1. Good planning is imperative for a successful trip. Double-check your equipment, supplies and route.
2. Pack extra clothing, shoes, food, camping gear, etc. in waterproof containers.
3. Evenly distribute your load, with the heaviest gear in the middle, so it is balanced. Secure all gear to the canoe to avoid losing it downstream if you capsize.
4. When entering and exiting a canoe, keep your center of gravity low, avoid standing.
5. Follow the main channel as the current cuts back and forth across the river. Crossing later may mean walking.
6. If you encounter lateral winds, hug the upwind bank as much as possible.
7. Camp only in designated areas. Respect private property. Obtain permission from private landowners before camping on, or entering the water from private land.
8. Trash. Pack it in – Pack it out! Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
9. Only build fires in fire rings. Drown flames and coals after use. If no fire ring exists, use camp stoves. (Don’t forget waterproof matches.)

1. Bridges generally are built at narrow points on the river, which means the water is deeper and the current is faster. Be aware of logs and other debris collected between bridge pilings. Make plans as far upstream as possible and adjust your position in the river. Move to the shore or to a sandbar, if necessary, to safely determine your best route. Back paddling is always an option to slow down, stop, or reverse the direction of your watercraft.
2. High Water. If the river is out of its normal banks, it is not safe to float. Recognize when the water level and current speed exceed your abilities. Floating logs and other debris easily can capsize a canoe or kayak.
3. Jetties, made of rock or pilings, are placed to divert the current and stabilize a downstream structure. Jetties may stick out 20 to 50 feet into the river. If the jetties are below the water level, they will appear as a line of disturbed water. When the current hits these jetties it is pushed away from the bank. Stay clear of jetties and safely navigate around them.
4. Hazards, such as logs, limbs, rocks and other debris, may be exposed or lay just under the water’s surface and can create conflicting currents. Walk around any hazards with which you have doubts.
5. Fences, both barbed wire and electric, extend across some rivers, especially in the Sandhills. These fences are not usually marked. Please understand that there is a need for these fences; do not cut or take them down. When you encounter a fence, STOP and plan your passage. Barbed wire fences can sometimes be negotiated by holding the fence up while going under it. Electric fences create an entirely new set of challenges. Always assume that electric fences are “hot.” If you cannot safely go under the fence, get out and portage.

1. Always wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PFD) – life jacket. PFDs are the most important piece of safety equipment on your float.
2. Wear proper clothing and be prepared to get wet. Layer clothing that can be added or removed during the float, including a long sleeve shirt and pants. Cotton will keep you cooler in summer, while wool will keep you warm and insulates even when wet. Weather is unpredictable, so bring clothing for cold, wet, windy, hot, sunny and humid conditions. Don’t forget rain gear. Pack extra clothing in a waterproof container.
3. Wear shoes. Tight fitting “water shoes” or old gym shoes with tops and sides work well. Pack an extra pair of shoes for the end of the day.
4. Protect yourself from the sun. Bring a wide brim hat, sunglasses and use sunscreen. A long sleeve shirt and pants provide good sun protection, as well. The sun’s reflection off the water can be intense.
5. Stay hydrated. Take more water than you think you will need. It is extremely important to avoid dehydration.
6. Use insect repellent.
7. Know what poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac look like and stay away.
8. Do not attempt to handle wild animals.
9. Pack a first aid kit.
10. Have tether ropes on your canoe in case towing becomes necessary.
11. If you capsize, always avoid the downstream side of the canoe. The current may push the canoe over you or pin you against an obstruction.


Hypothermia occurs when the core body temperature drops to a point where vital organs can no longer function. Survival in cold water depends on many factors, including water temperature, body size, clothing, and activity in the water. Children, because of their smaller size, cool more rapidly than adults. Swimming will cause a person to cool about 35 percent faster than remaining still.

An average person wearing a life jacket may survive 2½ to 3 hours in 50 degree water by staying still. It is important to wear a life jacket, since it will keep you afloat while allowing you to remain still. It will also keep you afloat in the event you are unconscious.

Remember, in an accident, most canoes will float even when capsized or swamped. Climb into or on the canoe and get as far out of the water as possible. Water will cool your body temperature 25 times faster than the air. Do not remove clothing while in the water.

If you tip your craft in cold water and get your clothing wet, remove the wet clothes and find dry ones as quickly as possible. Drying clothing while wearing them consumes a tremendous amount of body heat…heat that is needed in cooler weather to prevent hypothermia.

Understand that even in 60 degree weather, wind and wet clothing can sap a dangerous amount of body heat over several hours. Some 50 percent of the body’s heat is lost through your head, so keep your head out of the water.

  • Each occupant of an unmotorized watercraft must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III or V life preserver on board. Persons under 13 must wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life preserver of suitable size.
  • Each canoe/kayak must have a bucket or sponge for bailing water.
  • Each canoe/kayak must have an efficient whistle or other mechanical sound producing device.

U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle maps can be purchased at:
SNR Map and Publication Store
101 Hardin Hall, 3310 Holdrege St.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska 68583-0961
(402) 472-3471
Or online at:

Dial 911 to reach emergency personnel in the area.

A vehicle permit is required for entry into state park and state recreation areas.

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