family tubing on river

How to keep river tubing safe and fun

When it’s hot outside, lazily floating down the cool Truckee River in a raft or tube seems like the perfect summer day. While it can be great fun, river floating can also result in serious injury — or worse — if you don’t take some commonsense precautions.

The Reno Fire Department’s main concern is your safety, but they want folks to enjoy the river too. “The Truckee River offers enjoyment and fun for the Reno community, but it is not without risks,” says Reno Fire Department (RFD) Captain and Water Entry Team Leader Kevin Joell. “Every summer, the Reno Fire Department responds multiple times to persons in distress along the river. This ranges from people caught in rapids, to severe lacerations from broken glass. The easiest way to avoid these situations is to stay within the levels of your skills and equipment. The number one safety tip we constantly reinforce is to never do a river trip without wearing a personal floatation device.”

Don’t underestimate the Truckee’s power

When the Sierra snows start melting and feeding our creeks and lakes in spring and early summer, the Truckee gets feisty. Many folks who see it passing through serene urban settings underestimate its power, venturing in unprepared and sometimes getting in trouble.

Early in the season, flow rates are high, rapids are bigger, and the current is fast. April and May of this year saw river flow rates (measured in cubic feet per second, or cfs) in the 4,000 cfs range. When flows are this high, you should only consider entering the river in a raft with an experienced guide trained in swift water rescue training and wilderness first aid. By contrast,

the flow rate on August 23 was 541 cfs, making it a much calmer and safer time to float.

Joell has this general advice, “Most July and August flows are safe for tubing, but every year is different.”

Takeaway: Tube in late summer when
river flows are reduced

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What to wear tubing

According to the RFD, the most important item to have when tubing the Truckee, is a personal floatation device (a PFD or life vest). They also recommend wearing a helmet and sturdy shoes – and that does not include flip-flops, which can get sucked off your feet within minutes. Good footwear can provide traction when getting in and out of the water or walking in shallow water, helping you keep your balance and keeping your feet from getting cut up.

Michelle R. has seen what happens when people tube without appropriate footwear. “I gave a ride to four college students returning from tubing barefoot. Turned out one had lost a ton of blood from a rebar cut and was about to lose consciousness,” she shares.

Because you’ll be exposed to the sun for hours, wearing sunscreen is a must. A rash guard-style shirt is another great option for protecting your skin and doesn’t need to be reapplied every few hours.

If you choose to wear a hat or sunglasses — great options for sun protection — make sure they are tied on securely.

Did we mention the Truckee is snowmelt? That means the water can be real cold depending on the time year. If you’re tubing in early summer, you may want a wet or dry suit because water temperatures can be in the 40s. By late July and August, temperatures tend to be in the mid to upper 60s, not exactly bath water, but no risk of hypothermia.

 

Essential attire

Optional attire

Life vest

Sunscreen

Secure footwear

 

Helmet

Hat secured under chin

Sunglasses secures with a leash

Wet suit

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Make a plan

The RFD advises to never go into the river alone. Make sure everyone in the group knows the take-out location, and have a plan and meeting point in case you become separated from each other. Always let a friend or family member who isn’t tubing with you know where you are going and when you plan to return.

It’s also recommended that you preview your route to learn what obstacles lay ahead in the section of the river you’re tubing by walking it or driving it. If there are significant obstacles, plan to get to shore and portage around them (a portage is section where you get out of the water and pass on land).

“I’ve kayaked the sections from Farad pretty much all the way to the Patagonia warehouse,” says Karl M. “Other than the normal hazards of whitewater boating (rocks, holes, strainers, pinpoints) the other hazards are the diversion dams. They are mandatory portages.”

Takeaway: Know what you’ll encounter ahead
of time, have a safety plan

Technique

Mason P. has helped guide groups down the river and has this advice. “If you end up out of your tube in river, keep your feet downriver so you can push off obstacles.” And if you’re heading into downtown Reno, he has a warning. “On a tube you’re going to flip in the water park in downtown. EVERY tube does, so hold on to your gear.” Or, might we suggest, get out of the water before you hit the water park features. 

Having your body in this downstream position can help prevent you from getting a foot or ankle wedged in rocks or vegetation which can lead to a joint strain or broken bone.

Takeaway: If you’re out of your tube, keep your
feet downstream, head up and aim for the shore

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Other safety concerns

We recognize that taking the party to the river with a cooler of alcohol is a popular idea, but consuming alcohol on the water is never advised due to drowning potential, as well as the need to navigate hazards.

Jim K. admits to tubing a time or two with a cooler of beer in his youth and sustaining some bumps and bruises along the way. With age comes wisdom. “If I was to do it now, I would leave the booze behind and definitely have a life vest with me,” he says. “I saw many people get hurt.”

Short ropes can be used to tie gear together or to a float tube, but never tie things together with a long length of rope in between. Dangling ropes can get snagged on obstructions in the riverbed and cause a safety hazard.

Hydrating for a day on the river is a smart idea, but it’s never a good idea to bring glass. Broken glass can cause severe bleeding, to you and others recreating in the water. Put drinking water or other hydrating beverages in plastic, watertight bottles for the trip.

Takeaways: Skip the booze, avoid
long ropes, no glass
 

If your river tubing or other summer activities result in a bone or joint injury, consult with an orthopaedic specialist at Great Basin Orthopaedics by calling 775.786.1600. You will get both an accurate diagnosis and a treatment plan designed to get you back to doing what you love.