We can't say enough about safety, even on a river where the conditions are usually mild, not wild. We believe that being armed with knowledge is life, so we encourage you to familiarize yourself with the good stuff on this page, as well as on the pages to which we've provided links.
Wear Your Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
This is probably the most under-valued safety tip of them all. "If you don't wear it, it won't work," is how the old boating safety adage goes. And there's a good reason why that saying has been around for a good long time---it's the truth. FYI: the law requires children under the age of 12 to wear a PFD when floating.
Be Aware of Current River Conditions
We post river conditions in terms of “inches of air space” at the Ponca Low Water Bridge, which is an indicator of what skill level is recommended for floating on a given day. “Airspace” is the distance between the top of the water and the underside of the bridge (you can view a short, helpful video on Ponca airspace here). During the floating season we monitor current river conditions throughout the day, updating our Web site whenever possible to reflect the river's current status. We also provide information about what type of paddling skills may be required to run the river at its observed level.
Be Weather Aware
A river is a moving, living entity influenced greatly by weather. It is a good idea to check weather before launching, especially if you are overnighting on the river. If you’re using an online weather service, here are some handy local zip code numbers: Ponca / 72670 - Harrison / 72601 - Jasper / 72641.
Floating With Children
Floating a river with kids is entirely a personal decision. No one can recommend to you whether you should or shouldn't take them along, as only you know your paddling skill level and your ability to handle whatever river conditions you are presented with, including dealing with obstacles that can cause you to turn over. Children can also be unpredictable in their movements or behaviors, so you also have to factor this into the equation.
The National Park Service rates the Buffalo National River as a Class I/II river, which by common river rating standards means the river is suitable for most any paddling skill level. We personally feel that for Buffalo National River trips, CHILDREN SHOULD BE AT LEAST AGE 6 AND OLDER and that they be capable swimmers, wear personal floatation devices (PFDs) at all times and be carefully supervised anytime around or on a body of water. Please note that we do not screen you during the boat rental process for whether or not you will have children along. We assume that when you rent a boat(s), you have carefully considered who the members of your party are and the risks associated with them coming along. If you have any doubts as to whether or not your kids should float, especially young tots and pre-schoolers, consider enjoying time with them at one of the river's pretty swimming holes, where they can splash at water’s edge or, if old enough, go swimming. And, even at a swimming hole, a snugged-on PFD and adult surpervision are a must. Click here for directions to a swimming hole near Ponca or see us in the office for directions.
BE AWARE: ARKANSAS LAW REQUIRES that children 12 years old and younger must wear a USCG–approved PFD securely fastened to their persons at all times while on any vessel.
High Water Guidelines
Launching in high water or flood stage is a personal decision of risk that you must carefully make, especially if you have other people in your party. Whatever the conditions, be sure your paddling and swift-water rescue skills are up to the challenge and that you are properly geared.
If you're a novice paddler, please take a look at the river and visit with one of our staff members before deciding to get on the river. There are no take-outs between Steel Creek and Kyle's Landing (8 miles), so it can be a long day of paddling when faced with turning over frequently. On the other hand, experience improves skill level. If you're a novice, choose to go paddling on a day when the water is on the low side. You may drag your canoe or kayak a few times on those days, but you should also stay upright in your boat more often than not. :) We highly recommend that novice paddlers take 4 minutes to watch our short video of "Tips On How Not to Turn Over." More than 70,000 people have viewed and been helped by this video; we encourage you to join that number!
For parents: The kids may be jumping up and down, screaming and hollering to go, but if you've not run this river before and the water is on the high or cold side, this may be the day to stand your ground and take everyone on a beautiful family hike. Besides, the Ponca area is home to the best hiking in Arkansas (and arguably mid-America!) and we'd welcome the chance to point you to some of the best trailheads for family adventure!
Cell Phones in the Wilderness
This is still rugged, remote country where cell service is very limited, especially down in the river corridor. Also, at this time, there are NO PAY PHONES IN CAMPGROUNDS. However, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with a Buffalo National River map so you know the approximate locations of campgrounds along the section of river you plan to float. Why is this important knowledge? Because campgrounds usually have other people in them who can go for help!
On an overnight canoeing adventure? Even if the weather is predicted to be sunny and fair, it's just a wise rule of thumb to set your campsite up on high ground with an escape route at your back. You never know when weather occurring upstream will affect the water downstream. Also, don't leave your boat and gear down by the river. Park them above your tent so that if the river comes up, your transportation doesn't float away. Here's a handy "river-is-coming-up" tip: if you see a clear river beginning to cloud or debris such as leaves and limbs coming through, most likely the river is coming up and you should seek high ground immediately.
Local Emergency Numbers
You can find a list of emergency numbers for the upper Buffalo National River at this link.
Have a Question Not Answered Here?
While pertinent, this information certainly doesn't cover all the bases. Visit the American Canoe Association's excellent "Top 10 Paddling Safety Tips" page as a springboard for additional learning and preparedness. Or, call us at 1-800-221-5514 or email us to let us know how we can help make your Buffalo National River trip filled with safe, happy memories!