Strainers on a river are a dangerous obstacle for kayakers, boaters, and anyone else on the water. Using this short guide, you should understand what makes a river strainer so dangerous, along with having the ability to identify and navigate a river strainer.

What is a River Strainer?

A river strainer is any number of obstructions in a river that allow water to pass through but will catch and hold objects along with people.

It’s helpful to think of a river strainer like a colander you’d find in your kitchen.

Water can be drained, but anything else will be stuck. This means a boat, a kayak, a person, etc. aren’t going to be able to pass through whatever the obstruction is.

To make a long story short, a river strainer is not good. They are dangerous and really should make a kayakers list of top things that should be avoided on the river at all costs.

There are even certain times of the year when a kayaker should be extra aware of possible strainers on a river. Springtime can bring an increase in these strainers because of the thawing that is occurring.

Normally, a spring thaw will bring with it higher waters and eroding river banks that can deposit debris into the river current. In a narrow section of the river, this debris can get bottlenecked and clogged, creating the perfect river strainer.

Examples of a River Strainer

You might think of a river strainer as just a jumble of branches are fallen trees in the river. While it’s true that is this a very common river strainer, there are even more objects and obstacles that can create a strainer on a river. Some you might even be surprised to see.

Here are some possible river strainers you might encounter as you paddle a river:

Tree limbsFallen treesTiresVehiclesFencingLarge rootsGuard rails

A river strainer is also similar to what is called a “sweeper”. A sweeper in a river will have usually fallen on the outer bank of a river. A strainer and a sweeper are very similar, but the strainer is usually located in the body of the river and the sweeper is on the bank.

However, both the river strainer and the river sweeper can trap you in the same way, especially if they are located on the outer bank of the river bend.

How are Strainers on a River Dangerous?

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Strainers in the River Body

A strainer won’t always be located at the bend in the river. At times they will also be in the body of the river. If the strainer is large enough it could be blocking a majority of the river pass.

If you find yourself headed straight on toward a strainer there is only one thing you can do according to Swiftwater Rescue: exit your kayak and swim downstream straight toward the strainer.

Exit your kayak and swing downstream directly at the strainerThe moment you get to the strainer grab ahold and pull your body up while kicking in the water for momentumAttempt to launch your body over the top of the strainerDo your best to clear the strainer and swim to safety

Getting Caught in a Strainer: What You Should Do

If you find yourself caught in the strainer, there is not much you can do besides fighting to swim out and away from the strainer.

It’s critical that you’re wearing a suitable PFD. Also, having a river knife can help if you become tangled and pinned. Finally, wearing a helmet can help protect against any impact from knocking you unconscious.

Final Thoughts

The best tactic for strainers on a river is to simply avoid them altogether. Having others there in your kayak group to help in the worst-case scenario is a good idea.

Checking out any river beforehand to identify strainers or other obstacles is always a good idea. This is true even if you’re familiar with the river since a new season and spring thaw can bring erosion and high waters with it.


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It’s truly important to always wear a PFD any time you kayak and take all basic safety precautions.