Chicago River Water Trail Safe Paddling Guide

The Chicago River is one our greatest natural assets. Running through the heart of the city, the river has served as a means of transportation, commerce and recreation for generations of Chicagoans.    Today, it is a busy waterway carrying tourists on architectural cruises, pleasure boats headed out to Lake Michigan, water taxis bringing commuters to work and barges moving industrial goods as part of our diverse local economy.   

In recent years, paddle craft – such as canoes, rowing skimmers, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards (SUPs) – have become more popular means of recreation on the Chicago River.  Paddle craft trips could include the rustic river bank supporting a variety of plant and animal habitats along the North Branch, or the urban canon of the Main Branch surrounded by world famous skyscrapers, or the marinas and industrial operations with numerous barges lining the banks of the South Branch. 

All watercraft users of the river must be aware that the Chicago River is an active waterway with high traffic volumes.

Always be aware of your surroundings, including the nearest entry and exit points.  Pay attention to other waterway traffic, and do not assume they can see you.  If you are choosing to paddle the Chicago River, you are doing so at your own risk, so know your physical limits. 

The Chicago Department of Transportation has assembled helpful suggestions for recreational groups, expert rowers and paddlers, and emergency responders to create this Chicago River Water Trail Safe Paddling Guide to inform you about conditions unique to the Chicago River.  These are suggested guidelines for planning for a safe and enjoyable trip throughout the Chicago Waterway Trail. 

(The City of Chicago is not responsible for your safety while you are engaged in activities on or near any body of water.  The City of Chicago makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any statements made on this website.)

Kayaking on the Chicago River

Recommendations for Safe Paddling

  • You are required to obey all federal, state and local boating rules and regulations.
  • All paddlers should wear a personal flotation device, more commonly known as a lifejacket.
  • Keep your craft under control at all times. Be a responsible paddler.
  • Stay as close to shore as safely possible and do not paddle down the center of the channel, especially in high-traffic areas.
  • Be aware of your surroundings, especially other boat traffic. Do not cross in front of oncoming traffic.  Leave plenty of room to maneuver.  Large vessels may be traveling faster than they appear and cannot stop or change course quickly.
  • Night paddlers are required to display navigational lighting in accordance with the Navigation Rules: International – Inland (COMMANDANT INSTRUCTION M16672.2D).  In addition, paddlers can affix reflective material along the sides of paddle craft and on paddle blades.  This material will help increase visibility to other vessel traffic. 
  • Make yourself visible.  It is difficult for large vessels to distinguish between reflected building lights or paddle craft. 
  • Do not paddle alone.
  • Be aware of sewer outfalls.
  • Carry a waterproof, handheld VFH-FM marine radio.  This type of radio is equipped with several channels including channel 16, the international distress channel.  A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is another beneficial communications devices which sends a continuous distress signal once activated. 
  • Cell phones should only be relied upon as a back-up communications device in the marine environment.  Check the batteries of all devices before paddling and keep these devises in a water-tight plastic bag that is attached to you.

Personal Safety

  • Mark all paddle craft with personal contact information.  This allows authorities to find owners of paddle craft that may go adrift.
  • Leave a “Float Plan” with family or a close friend.  This plan should contain estimated departure and return times, the planned route and any anticipated stops.  Be sure to notify those at home if plans change. 
  • Be aware of weather conditions before you go out and monitor the weather while paddling.  VFH-FM marine radios are equipped with several weather channels, providing constant updates and warnings. 
  • Carry a sound-producing device, such as a whistle or air horn.
  • Carry a “paddle float” and a towline.
  • Carry a hand pump or other means to remove water from the paddle craft.
  • Bring drinking water, snacks, sunscreen, and rain gear.  A hat is also recommended along with a waterproof bag for extra clothing and valuables.
  • As the Chicago River can contain high levels of bacteria, avoid contact with the water and be sure to wash with soap and water after paddling.
  • Use a paddle leash and attach it to the paddle craft.  If the paddle is accidently dropped in the water it can easily be retrieved.  Users of SUPs should also use a leash to prevent being separated from their board when they fall off.
  • Do not disturb wildlife.

Emergency Situations

There are a couple of emergency situations that you can be prepared for, including: if your vessel takes on water; if you fall out of your vessel; or if you have a collision.

  • If you get in trouble, stay calm. 
  • Know how to re-enter the vessel with and without a paddle float;
  • If conditions safely allow, swim to the seawall and right your boat or look for place you can wait for help;
  • Whenever possible, stay with the paddle craft.  A paddle craft is much easier to spot than a person in the water;
  • Know how to make a rescue stirrup from a towline as you may be offered assistance from a passing boat;
  • If you have a VHF radio, call for help on channel16 or call 911 on your cell phone and be prepared to give your location;
  • Abandon your boat if absolutely necessary.

If you see an emergency you should:

  • Call for help on channel 16 of a VHF radio or 911 on your cell phone and be prepared to give your location and description of the emergency;
  • Remain on the phone with the 911 operator until help arrives;
  • Render assistance to those injured or be ready for assistance from other paddlers or boaters.


Physical Conditions of the River

High seawalls exist throughout the entire river trail system, and can provide a challenge for exiting the waterway.  Be aware of where you are on the trail and your distance to a designated access point.  High seawalls also are conducive to higher wave action from vessels leaving wakes.

Curves and bends in the river, bridge abutments and working barges can create visibility challenges.  Use extreme caution when encountering these conditions on the trail.  Be aware of unexpected vessels coming from the other end.  Remember human paddle craft are low to the water and difficult for larger vessels to see. 

Waterway Traffic

The Chicago River Waterway Trail Map indicates traffic zones, access points and MWRD outfall locations.  Be aware of your zone and surroundings.

The RED zone has the highest volume of traffic.  The ORANGE zone is medium-high volume of traffic.  The YELLOW zone is medium volume of traffic.The GREEN zone is low volume of traffic. 

If you are an inexperience paddler, keep to the green sections of the trail until you become more familiar and comfortable with operating a paddle craft.  RED sections of the trail are not recommended for inexperienced paddlers.  RED trail has the highest volume of traffic, high seawalls and limited exit points.     

River Traffic Conditions Commercial vessels, including tour boats and water taxis are active from March to December.  Industrial traffic, like tugs and barges operate all year and at all hours.  Barges are very slow moving, however can not stop quickly.  When barges are high out of the water, they are unfilled and more challenging for the pilot to direct.  In fact, in high winds, they can blow across the river.  Five bursts of horn lets you know the operator is in trouble.  It is best to keep to your right until the barge passes and water settles. 

Be aware of these vessels when paddling Chicago River Water Trail and know that they cannot maneuver as easily as smaller vessels. Paddlers should stay clear of such vessels.

When encountering larger vessels on the river, be aware of the following:

  • Larger vessels must maintain speed to steer and cannot stop quickly;
  • The pilot’s blind spot can extend hundreds of feet in front of tugboats, or towboats pushing barges.  Do not assume they can see you;
  • Because of their wake and “wheel wash” is it recommended to stay as far away as possible and let the vessel pass you before you continue your trip;
  • Barges must line up perfectly when clearing a bridge, they must be lined up and committed to their approach;
  • Do not cross in front of an approaching vessel. Wait until they pass and for the water to calm;Large vessels have challenges at bends and curves in the river.  Stay out of their way and resume your trip after they have cleared the turn or bridges; 
  • If you are using a VHF radio, you may communicate with tug pilots and commercial captions on channels 16.


Top 10 Paddling Safety Tips

  1.  Wear a personal floatation device.
  2. Take a paddler education course from the Coast Guard Auxiliary or the American Canoe Association (ACA).
  3. Schedule a FREE Vessel Safety Check (VSC) for paddle craft with the Coast Guard Auxiliary or U.S. Power Squadrons.
  4. Larger vessels may not have room to maneuver while operating in the river.  Remain a safe distance away from these vessels, preferably outside established shipping channels. Don’t assume they can see you.
  5. Commercial and Industrial vessels need a lot of time to stop or change direction.
  6. Stay to the right.
  7. Allow extra time and space to cross the river.  If crossing a channel, cross quickly.
  8. Allow bigger boats to pass and the wake subside if you are unsure of your ability to paddle through the waves.
  9. Night paddlers are required to display navigational lighting in accordance with the Navigation Rules: International – Inland (COMMANDANT INSTRUCTION M16672.2D).
  10. Carry a waterproof, handheld VFH-FM marine radio.  This type of radio is equipped with several channels including channel 16, the international distress channel.  A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is another beneficial communications devices which sends a continuous distress signal once activated.

Supporting Information Facts