Floating the Main Salmon River Safety and Gear

There are always inherent risks associated with backcountry and river recreation. The Middle Fork and Main Salmon Rivers are not suitable for the inexperienced boater. Accidents can happen in seconds, but emergency assistance can take many hours, even days. Self-rescue and survival skills, equipment and preparation are important.

Many natural hazards exist and conditions can change at any time, such as high and low water, named and un-named rapids, sudden weather changes, blocked river channels, falling rocks and trees, fire, wildlife, plants, insects, avalanches, landslides, blowouts, cliffs, large boulders, jagged rocks, water currents and temperature, ledge hydraulics, holes, eddies, whirlpools, strainer logs, exposed or submerged undercut rocks, boulder sieves, standing waves, etc. Floaters should be prepared to portage around unexpected obstacles. There is no requirement for the Forest Service to remove obstacles from the rivers. All visitors to the Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness should be prepared to deal with the effects of natural events. You are about to experience a functioning, dynamic ecosystem that will evolve and change as nature molds and sculpts its landscape.

Considering these and other factors, it is the responsibility of the boating party to exercise good judgment involving decisions to launch, and decisions regarding daily activities once on the river. For these reasons, we ask that you predetermine your capability to float the river when planning your trip. A competent, experienced boatman should be present in each boat. Competent is defined as meaning “having run a boat equal in size, type and handling characteristics as the one taken on this trip.” Experience is defined as “having run 50 miles of a classified river of similar character and hazardous conditions as are found on the Wild Section of the Main Salmon.” We strongly recommend that each boatman be familiar with water hydraulics and white water river running. No one should attempt to run the river in a canoe or kayak unless they have achieved expertise with this type of equipment.

A float boat is a flotation craft designed primarily for carrying a person or persons using water currents and includes the use of oars, paddles, sweeps, or hands to maneuver the vessel, including canoes, rafts, catarafts, dories, sweep boats, kayaks, inflatable kayaks, sport yaks, and inner tubes; however, this does not include life jackets or other personal flotation devices. Boats used should be of rip-stop fabric or equal, in good repair with a minimum of two compartments. Oars, sweeps or other steering mechanisms should be affixed to the boat by a device designed to provide leverage, steering capabilities and loose-free use. One extra oar or blade should be with each boat. All paddles and oars should be in good condition, free from weather checking, knotholes or other defects.

A first-aid kit designed for wilderness survival should accompany each party. The State of Idaho requires that all recreational vessels must have at least one Type I, II or III personal flotation device (PFD) that is U.S. Coast Guard approved and is of the proper size for each person on board. Type V PFDs are designed and approved for restricted activities and are only acceptable for the sport for which they are designed and so labeled. Children 14 years of age and younger on board vessels 19 feet or less must wear a PFD. The Forest Service recommends that PFDs be inspected for strength and condition and that PFDs be worn at all times on the river.

Boats should not be overloaded. All equipment should be tied off from the floor of the boat. The boatman should have ample room to maneuver the boat from a stable position. Water level should also be a consideration when loading. All personal items should be placed in waterproof bags and secured to the boat.

Your camp gear should be sturdy enough to withstand the rigors of the river travel and light enough to avoid overloading your boat. Patching equipment for major repairs should be present in each boat. We recommend that your food supply contain as many non-perishable items as possible. It is not uncommon for temperatures to reach 90 degrees or more in the canyon. All fresh food should be packed on ice in a well-insulated cooler.

Before making a final decision on the items you plan to take, we recommend that you pack all gear in your inflated boat. This may influence you to leave some gear at home or to acquire a larger boat.

A float trip is strenuous activity. All individuals should be physically fit to withstand the rigors of river travel. This precaution will make your trip less hazardous and more enjoyable.

A hazard to avoid is high water. We recommend that trips not be planned to occur when the river is in this stage. The high water stage usually extends through June. Six feet and above is considered high - "Rig to Flip; Dress to Swim." Dress appropriately for bad weather or sudden immersion in the river. Proper insulation is essential. When water temperature is less than 50 degrees, a wetsuit or dry suit with booties is essential for protection.


If you become separated from your boat, keep your feet in front of you with your knees relaxed and let your life jacket keep your head above water. An exception to floating feet first—if there is a log strainer (tree) across the river. In this situation, you should go head first to get through the strainer. If in a rapid, let the river carry you until you reach calmer water where you can work your way to shore. Do not waste energy fighting the current.

On the shore

Be alert for rattlesnakes, falling rocks or trees, poison ivy, ticks, wasps, bees and yellow jackets, and other various flora and fauna. Black bears should always be considered unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Expect the unexpected. A black bear will usually detect your presence and flee the area before you notice--unless the bear has been conditioned to people and their foods. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear. When hiking, make noise to announce your presence. Keep all foods, soaps and other smelly items away from tents and sleeping areas. Finally, maintain and leave clean camps. For more about camping with bears, check out this website: www.bebearaware.org. Also be alert for cougars and wolves.

We recommend treating the water you drink because it is always subject to contamination. The recommended method of treatment is to filter or boil all water prior to consumption

The Wild Section of the Main Salmon River has jet boat traffic. Be advised of their presence. Listen for their sound; it is often easier to hear them than for the jet boat captain to see a floater. Keep your group together to avoid long waits for upstream traffic to pass by. Secure your boats while parked at shore. Be aware that there is fewer wakes when a jet boat can keep up speed and stay on plane when they have to slow down for float traffic. Cooperation between float parties and jet boat operators has been very successful, if all parties follow simple courtesy rules.

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