Your Guide to Safely Exploring Colorado's Waters

By: Staff Writer
Updated: May 24, 2024

Taking a dip in Colorado’s pristine waters can be a refreshing way to spend a summer’s day. Set amid views of the Rocky Mountains and bluebird skies, our alpine waters offer endless ways to soak in the beauty and adventure that Colorado has to offer.

Our state boasts over 2,000 lakes and 90,000 miles of rivers, providing ample opportunities to experience our crystalline waters. Whether you’re rafting through thrilling whitewater, stand-up paddle boarding on a calm alpine lake or anything in between, planning ahead and practicing water safety is paramount for an optimal experience. Find your confidence in exploring Colorado’s waters by being prepared, having the proper training and following these guidelines to safely recreate in our lakes and rivers. Or, hire a professional guide to take care of the technical things so you can focus on soaking in one of our many natural wonders.

Pro tip: Colorado's volunteer backcountry search-and-rescue teams offer their services free of charge, so don’t hesitate to call if you are lost or injured. Their team is available 24/7 for all who need them and they can be activated through a 911 call or a satellite-messaging device.

Know Before You Go

If you plan to add a trip out on our waters, do a little research beforehand to ensure you have the best adventure possible. Check the current water data — from water temperature to stream flow rates — before heading out and make sure you’re prepared with the right education and gear. It’s also important to know the risks and how to safely avoid or navigate them.

First, Understand the Risks

It doesn’t matter what your activity of choice is — kayaking, SUP, rafting, fishing or swimming — recreating in Colorado’s waters can be inherently hazardous.

Possible risks include, but aren’t limited to: getting carried away by currents, being caught in a storm, injury, cold water shock, hypothermia and drowning. Rivers pose the biggest threat as an environment that is constantly changing and contains many other hazards that may be hidden.

Be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back, in case something goes wrong. That way, if you're overdue, your trusted friend or family member can contact the sheriff’s office that covers the area.

Seek Education & Training

There are many types of education opportunities available to water-sport enthusiasts — from basic water safety to professional-level certifications. No matter your interests (motorboats, whitewater rafting, etc.), select a class based on your age, activity and skill level.

If you’re wanting to feel the wind in your hair as you jet about open bodies of water, then the Colorado Parks and Wildlife boater safety course may be for you. Anyone seeking to operate a motorboat, personal watercraft or Jet Ski must be at least 18 years-old, however, those as young as 14 may be able to use a motorized vessel as long as they have earned a boating safety certificate from an approved boater safety course. While this course fulfills the requirements for youth operation, it’s still a good resource for all safety-conscious boaters to take part in.

For those looking to go with the flow on a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard, it may be a good idea to take a course that will familiarize you with Colorado’s waters and teach you basic rowing techniques, swimmer rescue and flip recovery.

Ready to take a course? Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado Rafting Company, Colorado Whitewater, KODI Rafting, Canyon River Instruction, Dvorak Expeditions, Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center, Swiftwater Safety Institute and Outward Bound all offer water safety education opportunities. 

Remember: If you’re not feeling confident in your ability to navigate a tricky situation on the water, invite an experienced friend, find a local coach that can help you hone your skills over time, or hire a licensed guide who is responsible for keeping you safe. 

Choose Your Destination With Care

Just because a favorite lake or stretch of river has been an easy feat in the past doesn't mean it’s going to be a safe bet on any given day. It’s important to research your destination ahead of time to ensure it’s a good fit for you and your group. If you’re heading out on the river, familiarize yourself with the twists and turns, as well as the terrain of your chosen stretch by scouting out the route and observing the rapids. Check recent trip reports as part of the risk-management process to learn about unique hazards to be aware of, difficulty level, length and flow range. The more prepared you are, the more relaxed your trip will be, especially when plans start to change.

Colorado’s environment will keep you on your toes as conditions develop quickly. Things won’t always go to plan, and you should be willing to stay home or pivot from your desired destination if conditions dictate. Recreating with safety in mind requires flexibility, patience and a team-focused mindset. Always have a plan B in case a river or lake is closed for any reason, or if you encounter dangerous conditions. 

Check the Water Conditions & Weather Forecasts

Colorado’s weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly. Investigate daily weather conditions online with the National Weather Service. Planning ahead and keeping an eye on changing weather will ensure the safest and most enjoyable time possible. Your trip experience deserves the best conditions, so pair your plans with an optimal climate and remain flexible. Explore alternative destinations when extreme weather or unfavorable rapids are expected.

As afternoon showers and snowmelt work their way down through the Rocky Mountains, the water levels of our rivers can change quickly and without notice through spring and summer. Our high season typically runs from May to July, while lower water can be found from August to September, however, caution should be given no matter the month to avoid being caught off guard. Even if the river’s current appears calm, do not underestimate its power and overestimate your swimming abilities — all it takes is just six inches of water to knock someone off their feet. 

Check the current water conditions before embarking on your rafting or tubing adventures to ensure that your preferred stretch is an adequate match for your skill level. 

And remember, while our days are warm and sunny, our high altitude and cool nights lead to colder water temperatures year-round. Water below 68 degrees Fahrenheit is considered dangerous and can quickly lead to cold water shock from something as simple as falling off your paddle board. When your body hits the water, cold water shock can take effect in a matter of seconds. The sudden change in body temperature can cause a rapid increase in breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, as well as cause cognitive impairment. We recommend calling the managing entity of the body of water that you plan to visit to make sure that the current temperatures will make for a comfortable outing.

Invest In or Rent Proper Equipment

Whether you’re on a stand-up paddle board, rafting, kayaking, canoeing or riding in a motorboat, it is required by law that all passengers of a water vessel have a life jacket and should wear it. This is for your own benefit as they will keep your head above water through the tussle of various levels of rapids and currents. They’re also equally important to wear on even our calmest waters, regardless of your skill level, to keep you from drowning in the quick onset of cold water shock. And if you’re headed for the river, where rocks, boulders and logs pose difficult obstacles, always bring a helmet to avoid head injury.

Remember: Be sure to wear a life jacket, even if you’re a passenger. Accidents on the water can happen quickly and there is usually not enough time to grab a nearby life jacket and put it on before it’s needed. 

And while we don’t recommend heading out on the water alone, should you find yourself in such a position, be prepared for anything. Bring a waterproof pack equipped with rescue-gear, navigational tools, a communication device, first-aid equipment, a headlamp, extra food and water, additional layers, a fire-starting tool and an emergency shelter. As you pack, ask yourself if you would be able to survive overnight in case of an accident.

No matter if you’re flying solo or in a group, always bring a satellite-communications device, because cell phone service isn’t reliable in Colorado’s remote areas. 

Recreate Responsibly

Ready to go? Here are three ways you can take care — of yourself and others — while recreating on Colorado’s waters.

Be Aware

It’s easy to lose yourself in the moment while enjoying a day on the water, but keep in mind that your activities could be putting other people, as well as any infrastructure, at risk. For motorists, follow boating speed limits and keep an eye out to avoid collision with other recreationalists or floating debris. It’s good to be aware of your surroundings and what’s going on around you, but the best way to reduce the chances of accidents is by being sober, even if you’re a passenger onboard. Alcohol impairs judgment, balance, vision and reaction time on the water, which can increase fatigue and the dangers of cold-water immersion. Environmental factors for boating can also intensify the effects of alcohol, drugs and medications. A good rule of thumb is that one drink on land is equivalent to three drinks on the water.

Bathroom Etiquette

So you’re out on the water and you have to use the restroom. It happens to the best of us. But where do you go when there’s no toilet around? Make your way to shore and find privacy at least 70 steps from the water’s edge and trail (if there is one). Be prepared with a disposable WAG bag (found in most outdoor stores), and conveniently pack out your waste. Alternatively, dig a 6- to 8-inch cathole to do your business in and then bury it. Disguise the hole with dirt and natural materials when finished. Pack out used toilet paper and wipes whenever possible to minimize your impact on the environment. Otherwise, bury toilet paper deeply in the cat hole.

Clean, Drain & Dry

Love our natural resources and water recreational opportunities? Help ensure the continued use of our public waters by helping prevent the spread of aquatic nuisance species. Water vessels (like kayaks, canoes, boats, paddle boards and rafts), trailers, equipment and shoes can transport invasive water species from one place to another if not properly decontaminated after each use. 

Before leaving a body of water, remove any visible plant or plant fragments as well as mud or other debris from all of your equipment. These remnants routinely contain other organisms that may be an aquatic nuisance species, and plant fragments and animals can survive in mud many days out of water. Then, clean, ​​​check and dry off all parts of equipment that c​ame in contact with water.

Be sure to drain every conceivable space or item that can hold water, including engines, jet drives, live-wells, bilge, ballast tanks and transom wells. Empty bait buckets into the trash, and away from the body of water, and drain water out of kayaks, canoes and rafts.

Allow everything to completely dry before launching into your next body of water. And there you go! You’re ready for your next trip out on the water.

This story was developed in partnership with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.