For me, summertime is synonymous with water. I’m either fishing with my family in Mammoth Lakes or rafting with friends on one of the many rivers in the West. One crucial lesson I’ve learned is that the water is in control—and it can take you by surprise. Whether you’re wading, swimming, or paddling, it’s important to follow a few basic principles to stay safe. Prepare yourself for unexpected situations and ensure that you and your family have an enjoyable time around lakes, rivers, and streams with these six essential guidelines.
1. Wear a personal floatation device.
Regardless of how experienced you are around water, a personal flotation device (PFD) is essential when you’re paddling, rafting, boating, or wading into water above your knees. Many states require by law that children 12 years or younger wear one, but teens and adults should buckle one on too.
Even if it’s hot outside, water below 75°F can feel much colder and cause the body to go into shock—a hazard for drowning. A PFD will keep you afloat should you panic or struggle to swim because of the water temperature. It’s especially important to have a PFD around rivers, which can appear calm but have fast-moving currents underneath their surfaces. If you’re swept off your feet, a PFD can prevent you from being pulled under or bring you back to the surface so you can swim to safety.
“Moving water gets underestimated,” says Bruce Lavoie, risk management director at OARS, a guided adventure company. “Where people find a lot of trouble is not necessarily in huge whitewater that looks dangerous and scary but in calmer, gentler waters.”
PFDs come in different styles. Some are full-zip vests, while others only wrap around your neck. Make sure the straps are snug enough that you or your child won’t slip out. You can rent, borrow, or buy PFDs. Many waterfronts across the country display info boards with pegs stocked with these flotation devices. California State Parks Sgt. Eric Dales, who supervises Folsom Lake and the Gold Fields District, says anyone is free to use the public PFDs.
Smart Tip: The easiest way to find PFD rentals or borrowing programs is to search online for “lifejacket rentals” or “life jacket loaner programs” near your home or destination. Many local outfitters offer rentals by the day. The BoatUS Foundation also has a loaner program search for children’s PFDs on their site.