Boating & Safety on the Missouri River

Please use caution when boating on the river and keep safety in m ind at all times.

When Lewis and Clark traveled the river in 1804 they left no trace of their passage. We hope that all river users will respect the environment and “Leave no trace”.

Before putting a boat on the Missouri River you should become familiar with the system of aids to navigation established by the U .S . Coast Guard. These aids to navigation (signs, markers, and buoys) mark a 300’ wide b y 9’ deep navigation channel maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

By constricting the majority of the river’s flow between sets of rock dikes located on both sides of the river, the navigation channel generally maintains a minimal depth of 9’. The dikes extend nearly perpendicular into the river and may have a downstream “L-head ” on the end . The dikes are often submerged just under the surface of the water and can be a significant hazard to watercraft.

Planning Your Trip

First time Missouri River boaters should become informed of the hazards and challenges associated with boating in swift current.

When you plan your trip, note the area names and public lands along your route on the map. Then use the information to contact the agency and secure detailed maps, information and regulations.

Boaters should prepare a trip plan and inform another person of their travel plans including their destination and estimated time of arrival.

Take a boat safety course and get a free boat safety check from the Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadron.

Inspect your boat to make sure you have all of the required boat safety equipment.

Fuel is scarce on the lower Missouri Rive r. Locate fuel sources before you begin your trip and plan accordingly. Upstream boaters should expect a 15-80 percent reduction in speed and corresponding increase in fuel consumption due to the 4-7 mph current of the rive r.


"Life jackets float … you don't". Life jackets (also referred to as Personal Floatation Devices or PFDs) do save lives and are the most important piece of safety equipment in your boat. Make sure you follow the boating rules for your state regarding life jackets. Be sure they fit snugly to avoid the PFD coming off if you should accidentally fall in the water. Frayed or damaged PFDs should be replaced . Smaller children should wear PFDs made for them . The U.S. Coast Guard label affixed to the PFD will aid in selecting the appropriate type and size.

Boats must be equipped with appropriate emergency equipment (i.e ., first aid kit, oars and paddles, anchor, sound device , fire extinguisher, navigation lights, and 100 feet of line or rope ).

If your boat capsizes, do not attempt to swim to shore . Stay with the craft until the boat can be safely beached . Remember, hypothermia is a possibility during most of the yea r. Life jackets help to minimize loss of body heat.

Avoid sunburn, wear a wide brimmed hat, long sleeved shirt, long trousers and use sunscreen. Sunscreen alone is not sufficient for long exposure to the sun.

Always carry a change of clothing in a waterproof container. Dry clothes could save your life by preventing hypothermia if the clothes you are wearing become wet. It does not have to be "cold " for hypothermia to strike .

Aids to Navigation

Mile Marker Boards are useful navigation aids that help you locate your position on these navigation charts. Mile markers indicate the distance upstream from the mouth of the river (river mile 0), at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The boards are attached to beacons (see below) on the river banks and indicate distances in miles. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers places additional black and white mile boards on trees or posts located along the banks.

Beacons are permanently fixed to a post or other structure along the bank. Lighted beacons are called lights and unlighted beacons are called day beacons or day board s. Because the navigable channel of the river swings back and forth from bank to bank as the river bends, the beacons indicate where to cross or where to stay to the bank. Beacons are located at the beginning and end of each bend and crossing.

Passing Beacon is found at the start and finish of a bend and indicates that you should stay on that side of the river until you reach a crossing beacon.

Crossing Beacon is found at the start and end of a crossing and indicates that you should cross the river and aim for the crossing beacon on the opposite shore.

Buoys are floating aids attached to the riverbed by concrete sinkers with chain or rope. Buoys are maintained b y the U .S . Coast Guard during the navigation season, 1 April through 10 November.

Navigation buoys, looking downstream green "can" buoys mark the right descending channel and red "nun" buoys mark the left descending channel. Keep your boat between the green and red buoys and give them wide berth . Buoys are not always present and may be carried off position by high water, collisions, drift in the riverbed or other causes.

River Hazards

The Missouri River is deep in some areas, but other locations may have rock dikes, sand bars and shallow spots. Snags and floating debris also present hazards that may be difficult to see until you are right on top of them. Varying river levels can expose or submerge hazards with in a short period of time.

As you travel the river, look for water areas with boils or ripples. This indicates sand bars, dikes or possible hazards close to the surface. Maps and ch arts may not necessarily show the location of sand bars because they shift with the flow of the river. At locations where the river narrows, or where there are obstacles in the river, tongues of relative glassy water form inverted 'V's downstream of the obstruction.

Rock dikes are numerous. Th ere is a possibility of submerged dikes that create a hazard for boaters. The location of these dikes are indicated on these navigation charts. Mile markers (white with black numbers) make it easy to track your location. These are placed on the bank you should be favoring . Navigation Markers are provided whenever the channel crosses from one side to another. A rule of thumb is to stay toward the outside of every bend and the dikes should give you no trouble.

Boating & Barges

It is not necessary to get off the river because a barge is approaching. You should move toward the off channel shore (the inside of a bend ) and be alert for rock dikes which a relocated there . Move as far away from the barge as possible and position the bow of your boat perpendicular to the wake . Never turn your boat broadside to the wake created by barges and tugs, they can easily swamp a small boat. Remember, barges have the right-of-way.

Pilots of towboats have a blind spot in front of their vessels and it could take a barge and tow up to 1 ½ miles to stop. These barges also create extreme turbulence up to ½ mile behind the tow. The strong wake may lift your boat onto the rocks, dikes or other hazards. Hydraulics generated by barges can suck under objects including smaller craft so it's best to give them a wide berth. Playing games with this kind of vessel can result in serious injury or even death.

Permits are required for regattas and special events on the river. The U.S. Coast Guard (314-269-2332) or Missouri Water Patrol (573-751-3333) should be contacted to obtain these permits.

Mooring & Anchoring

Never set an anchor in the fast flowing river channel. Current can pull you under and debris (e .g. logs) floating under the surface can hook your line and draw you under in an instant. It can also be difficult to unhook the anchor from submerged obstacles you can’t see . Be sure you can quickly cut or detach the anchor line on your boat if you need to.

If you do anchor in the river, pick your anchorage carefully out of the channel and current. Remember to use a bowline and keep your bow into the wind or current. This will minimize the risk of being swamped by water coming over the transom or back of the boat. The anchor line should be at least seven times as long as the depth of the water in which the boat is moored .

Never attempt to moor to stationary objects such as dikes and moored barges and never approach these objects from upstream. Swift water flowing over, under, and around these objects creates very strong turbulence and undertow currents that may overturn your boat and pull you under.

When stopping, make every attempt to turn your boat upstream into the current and cut the throttle to an idle . The throttle setting will vary with the speed of the current.

Always land your boat facing upstream and pull in parallel to the riverbank. If you try landing facing downstream or perpendicular to the bank, the current will pivot the boat to position the bow upstream and parallel to the bank. A two-point tie off should be used to keep the prop out of the rock and prevent its contact with the bank.


Monitor the local weather forecast before you begin your journey and through out your trip. In the Midwest, storms may emerge abruptly. These storms are often accompanied by strong winds that can easily capsize a small craft. Lightning , heavy rain or hail can turn a pleasant trip into disaster. Watch the sky and be aware of your surroundings for signs of inclement weather. Carry foul weather gear for unexpected storms.

High winds create very hazardous conditions and it is best to exit the river as soon as possible. Facing downstream in a crosswind can be dangerous. Always keep your boat straight into or away from the wind (parallel with the wind) as you head toward the shore.

Carry a portable radio or weather radio and tune it to the National Weather Service for up-to-date forecasts.

Beware of travel on a rising river which often results in large quantities of floating debris that can cause serious boat damage.

Boating & Alcohol

The combination of boating and alcohol can prove to be deadly. Alcohol impairs judgment and reaction time and decreases your body's ability to defend itself from hypothermia.

Alcohol greatly increases the risk of dehydration.

Bring along plenty of drinking water. The rule of thumb is one gallon of water per twenty-four hour period per person.


Swimming and tubing on the Missouri is extremely dangerous and is strongly discouraged . A fast river current (normally 4-7 mph) can quickly exhaust even the strongest swimmer. Inner tubes should never be used on the rive r. There's no way to control them in the current and they pose problems with boats and tugs especially on holidays and weekends when recreational traffic peaks.

Never swim in flood waters, the main rive r channel, around structures like wing dike s or around moored barges. Strong hidden currents, drop-offs, and hidden obstacles make these areas extremely hazardous to swimmers. Swimmers and waders should always wear a life jacke t.

Respect Private Property

Most land along the lower Missouri is privately owned . You’ll see by looking a t the green shading on the map that public lands are very limited . Camping should be done only if you know who’s land you are on and have the land owners permission.

Be especially careful not to moor to drainage structures or to trees that might damage or imperil private levees.

Stewardship & Endangered Species

Human disturbance can disrupt bird nesting, fish spawning, and other wildlife activities. Avoid dragging your boat across gravel bars or through spawning areas. Launch and land only on designated sites. Keep pets under control.

Minimize campfire impacts and dispose of all waste properly. Pack out all of your trash and pick up litter left by others.

If artifacts or fossils are found , leave them in place and undisturbed . Photograph or sketch rock art, but do not touch.

Check your boa t and clean for zebra mussels before taking it from the Missouri River to any other body of water. Signs at launch ramps will provide further instruction.


File a float plan - let a reliable person know where you are going , when and where you plan on departing and arriving , your route and other pertinent information that will enable someone to find you. We never plan on accidents but they do happen. Filing and adhering to a float plan will help if emergency personnel need to locate you.

Administer first aid to accident victims immediately and then call 911 or send for help.

Boaters are advised to carry a marine radio and cell phone or satellite phone for emergency communication with the local Sheriff's office or other emergency response agencies and be familiar with these phone numbers. Cell coverage may not be 100% in rural areas.