New Mexico offers a range of paddlesports opportunities, from adrenaline-pumping whitewater rafting to mellow river floats. New Mexico’s small mountain lakes are popular with paddlers all summer long. In fall the larger reservoirs become quieter, calmer, and less crowded.
Some canoeists and kayakers find paddling is an excellent way to fish or view wildlife. Others enjoy camping with their boats. And some have even been known to enjoy the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta from the Rio Grande.
New Mexico’s lakes and rivers require different skills, preparation, and safety equipment for paddlers. We recommend you take courses to learn the laws, emergency procedures, navigation rules, and paddling techniques—all of which will enhance your paddling experience.
Before You Go
Kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, inner tubes, and any other watercraft capable of being used for transportation on the water are subject to state boating laws and regulations. You are urged to boat responsibly to prevent accidents, minimize impacts, and avoid conflicts with other boaters. The following guidelines will help you prepare before you head out on your paddling adventure.
Know the laws and keep yourself and others safe. Take a course to increase your knowledge of paddle sports safety, emergency procedures, and navigational rules. You can join workshops offered at local swimming pools and parks departments, community colleges, and military recreation centers. Group outings are organized by the American Canoe Association, the Adobe Whitewater Club of New Mexico, and various internet meetup groups. Many commercial outfitters and free online courses are also available.
- Paddle Sports Safety Course (free)
- American Canoe Association-approved Paddlesports Safety Course ($29.50)
Carry Essential Gear
Carry the essentials for safety, emergency communications, and comfort. At a minimum, state law requires you to carry and wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket, a paddle or oar, and a sound-producing device such as a whistle or horn—even on a paddleboard.
In addition to items required by law, you should wear sun protection and bring a headlamp with extra batteries, first aid kit, knife, dry bag, hydrating fluids, and a throw rope. Remember that many lakes and rivers are in remote areas where cell phones do not always work. Other essentials depend on your vessel, the lake or river, and the length of trip and should be researched in advance.
Check and Understand the Weather
Check the weather frequently before and during your trip, keeping an eye on current conditions. Check river flows and lake conditions, weather warnings, and forecasts. It is important to understand how these elements affect your ability to operate your vessel. Seek information from locals in the know, heed warnings, and avoid unsafe areas. Anticipate changes and go to shore when rough weather threatens.
- Explore the National Weather Service website
- View current river flow rates
- View current boating conditions at New Mexico State Parks
Protect Against Cold Weather Shock
Although New Mexico is a desert state, the water can be quite cold. Many lakes are fed by melting snow. Several rivers are located downstream of large dams that release cold water from deep below the lake’s surface.
Always dress for the temperature of the water—even on a hot day. The biggest risk after an accidental fall overboard is not hypothermia but cold-water shock. Sudden immersion in cold water can trigger the “gasp” reflex. When a person’s head is underwater, the “gasp” reflex causes water to enter the lungs. Cold water shock is a major contributor to the death of New Mexico boaters who entered the water unprepared. Paddlecraft have a higher risk of capsizing and swamping. Be prepared and always wear a life jacket—it is the law!
Be Visible to Other Boaters
Paddlecraft sit low on the water, making them difficult for other boaters to see. Paddle to be seen: Wear bright neon and contrasting colors, put highly reflective tape on paddles, use a flagpole, and carry a bright light at night.
File a Float Plan
Study your intended route before you head out and let someone know your plans. Include names of everyone going, a description of your vessel, put-in and take-out locations and waypoints along with the approximate time the group should arrive at each, what time you are returning, and what to do if you do not return when expected. Estimate travel time generously. Make this a routine every time you go out on the water.
- Download a free float plan template from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary
Avoid Alcohol and Drugs
Situational awareness is key to safety on the water. That means always staying alert. Operating any vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, is not only unsafe—it’s illegal. New Mexico’s Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law applies to all vessels including kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, rowboats, and inflatable fishing rafts.
Leasburg Diversion Dam, only 10 feet high, poses a serious danger to paddlecraft operators.
Watch for River Hazards
A paddle trip downriver can include these river hazards.
Low-head dams: These structures are difficult to see and can trap river paddlers. Consult a map of the river before your trip and know where dams are located. Always carry your craft around them. Currents above low-head dams can sweep vessels over the dam. Currents below can suck vessels back toward the face of the dam. The recirculating currents and turbulent waters can swamp vessels and drown boaters. Low-head dams on the Rio Grande, Pecos River, San Juan River, and Animas River divert water into canals. The canals deliver drinking water to major cities and irrigation water to farms.
Rapids: When approaching rapids, go ashore well upstream and check them out before continuing. If you see dangerous conditions, carry your craft around them. Properly designed and fitted helmets should be worn when running rapids. When water levels are too low or too high, rapids can become dangerous or impossible to navigate. View river flow rates.
Strainers: These river obstructions allow water to pass through but stop and hold boats and people. Strainers can include fallen trees, overhanging branches, debris piles, and submerged fences. They can flip your boat and pin you underwater against the object. Even when then current is slow, give strainers as much room as possible.
Label Your Paddlecraft
If you own paddlecraft, keep your contact information in your boat, on a sticker, or in some other way. When unoccupied paddlecraft are found adrift, it’s assumed someone is in danger and a search is launched. Calling the owner can help prevent unnecessary searches and free up resources. Or the call could help rescuers gather information that helps with the search. The U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary provides free identification stickers at its boating safety classes and at other boating events.
- Purchase a waterproof identification sticker from the National Safe Boating Council
On the Water
- Paddle with a group. Go out with at least three people and stay close enough for visual or verbal contact. If a paddler gets injured, one person can stay with him or her while the other leaves to get help.
- Stay near the shore when there’s a lot of boat traffic. Approaching wakes head on will help keep water out of your craft and avoid capsizing.
- Expect the unexpected—you may capsize or fall out of the boat. If you fall in a river, keep your feet off the bottom and pointed downstream to avoid getting snagged or stuck.
- Scan ahead and look for hazards like overhanging branches and trees, rocks, low bridges, or rapids.
- When in doubt, get out and scout! Don’t take a chance of paddling rapids or currents you are not used to. Make sure to check for rocks that are dangerously close to the surface.
- Know how to rescue yourself and others in the event of a capsize. Consider carrying a throw bag, rescue kit, and a towing system.
- Self-care is important so you stay alert. Know your limits, stay hydrated, etc.
Rentals, Instruction and Local Practice
Check local colleges, parks and recreation departments, outdoor stores, and outfitters for upcoming clinics and pool sessions. Rangers at your local New Mexico state park may know of privately-owned rental companies and outfitters that are familiar with local boating conditions.