Dress appropriately for comfort and to help prevent hypothermia.
- Consider layering with synthetic materials or wool. Avoid cotton.
- If you're paddling, wear a paddling jacket or shirt with neck and arm cuffs that seal. Neoprene layers are excellent.
- Wear a life jacket, and make sure it fits. A safe life jacket has a snug and comfortable fit. Air-filled or foam toys like water wings, noodles, or inner tubes are not a replacement for a life jacket.
- Swim with someone you’d trust in an emergency. Lifeguards are not present in many of our parks.
- Always enter the water safely. Be careful when you jump into any water.
- Don't dive or jump into water headfirst. If you're going to jump, enter feet first.
Alcohol and Cannabis
- Avoid alcohol or cannabis before and during water activity.
- Drinking alcohol or using cannabis can impair your judgment and ability to make quick decisions.
- Even if you don't plan to swim, avoid alcohol and cannabis when you're near outdoor water areas such as pools, lakes, rivers, or oceans.
- Don't drink alcohol or use cannabis if you are watching children.
Cold Water Safety
Looks can be deceiving. Most waterways in Alberta are very cold, even mid-summer. Falling into cold water causes death by drowning, year after year. To ensure your safety and the safety of others while visiting bodies of water, remember to:
- Wear a lifejacket.
- Dress appropriately for comfort and to help prevent hypothermia. Consider layering with synthetic materials, similar to hiking. Avoid cotton.
- Do not overload your boat.
- Avoid situations where you may fall overboard.
1-10-1 Rule for Cold Water Immersion
Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, from the University of Manitoba, coined the phrase 1-10-1 to describe the three critical phases of cold water immersion.
- 1 minute to get breathing under control
- Once immersed, your body will panic due to the severe cold. You may experience a sudden gasp, followed by hyperventilation.
- It is critical to keep your airway clear. Try to remain calm, focus and get your breathing under control.
- Wearing a lifejacket is critical to keep you afloat and breathing.
- 10 minutes of meaningful body movement
- In the following 10 minutes, you'll slowly lose the use of your extremities starting with fingers and toes. During this period, you'll lose the ability to continue swimming.
- Focus on self-rescue.
- If self-rescue is not possible, concentrate on establishing a way to keep your airway clear. Have a good position to maintain body heat and wait for rescue.
- If your water craft floats, it is much easier for rescue personnel to see than you on the water alone.
- 1 hour before unconsciousness sets in due to hypothermia
- Understanding hypothermia, knowing techniques to delay it, as well as tips for self-rescue and calling for help will improve your chances of survival.
Cold Water Survival
If you are immersed in cold water with no imminent rescue possible, remember these life-saving tips:
- Stay calm and try to be still. Moving increases heat loss in the water.
- Signaling could attract attention - whistles, flares or even waving clothing or a paddle. Be ready to use signals to increase your chance of being seen.
- Keep your body compact (the fetal position) as it decreases the rate of heat loss.
- If you are with others in the water, form a circle facing one another and use the fetal position.
- Consider staying with your watercraft, unless you are sure you can swim to safety. Your watercraft can be used to get part of your body out of the water and is much more visible to rescue personnel.
- Stay mentally strong and fight for survival.
Check Cold Water Boot Camp for additional information on prevention, lifejackets and learning resources.
Safety Tips for Crossing Streams and Rivers
Crossing streams and rivers can be the most dangerous challenge that hikers confront.
- River crossings can be deceptively hazardous. Even a very shallow, swiftly flowing body of water can pack enough force to knock you off your feet.
- Use caution and common sense.
- During storm events and for a few days after, it may be best to wait until water levels drop. Or backtrack to a different trail to get around a flooded area.
- Scout out the best location to cross.
- Don't assume that the blazed line of sight to the other bank is the path you should follow.
- The volume of water flowing downstream is not constant. The best crossing point can differ depending on weather conditions, temperature or new hazards not present during low water when the blazed crossing point was laid out.
- Water levels and current are dynamic. A good crossing point on one day may not be safe on another.
- Avoid “chokepoints”.
- Look at the current and how fast it's flowing.
- Avoid crossing at points where the banks of the stream are narrow. The power of the current will be strongest here and could sweep you off your feet.
- If there's an island or sandbar in the middle of a stream, the current may be more manageable on either side. This could make it a good place to cross.
- Cross at a straight section between bends.
- Imagine the bends of a river forming the letter “S”. The safest place to cross is generally the straight section in the middle of the “S” between the bends.
- If you lose your footing, the current is likely to carry you to the bank on the outside of the bend.
- Speed of a floating stick
- Throw a stick into the water and see how rapidly the water carries it away. If you can't walk as fast as the stick is moving, then it's not safe to cross.
- Attach your bear rope to your pack.
- Tie your bear rope to your pack, with the coil handy.
- If necessary during the crossing, you can let it go and recover it later. If a group is crossing, the rope can be used for rescue.
- Repack and release your pack.
- If possible, repack your load in waterproof plastic bags or stuff sacks to enhance the pack’s buoyancy. If necessary, you may be able to use it as an aid for swimming.
- Before entering a river or stream, release the hip and chest straps on your backpack. This enables you to shed it quickly if you lose your footing and get washed downstream.
- The more body mass you have in a strong current, the less control you have.
- If you begin to cross and the depth of the water is above your thighs, turn around and look for a better location to cross.
- If the current seems too swift, turn back.
- If a river is flooded, wait for it to subside.
- If in doubt as to whether a river is safe to cross, don’t cross. Find an alternate route.
- Keep your boots on.
- Ford with your boots on. Boots provide the traction you need, as well as protection from possible hazards in the water.
- Remove the boot insoles and your socks, and use gaiters. After fording, dump the water out of your boots and put the insoles back in. Put your socks back on and wring out your gaiters.
- Crossing barefoot is never recommended because of sharp rocks or submerged logs. Open-toed sandals are not recommended. They don't protect your toes, can fold in a strong current, and increase drag.
- Use a walking stick
- Always use a hiking staff when fording to provide three points of contact with the river bottom.
- If you don’t have a staff, search for a stout stick.
- A trekking pole can suffice for fording. The narrow tip can get caught between rocks or logs on the river bottom and throw you off balance, so use care. Using one pole and securing the other to your pack will reduce overall drag and complication.
- Don’t cross in long pants.
- Long pants increase drag and won’t keep you dry or warm when soaked.
- Nylon shorts or underwear are best.
- If the water level is low, roll up your pant legs to reduce resistance.
- Cross facing upstream.
- In fast-moving water, move at a slight angle downstream but facing upstream.
- Lean slightly into the current and shuffle-step sideways. Keep both feet, or one foot and your pole in contact with the stream or river bottom at all times.
- Cross as a group.
- If you're hiking with another person or a group, you may want to cross together, holding on to another person’s clothing or a shoulder strap of their pack.
- The strongest person should be slightly upstream to break the current. This makes it easier for the downstream person(s) to help stabilize the pair or the group.
- Keep your eyes on the prize.
- While you want to be aware of where you place your feet, looking down at the current can be disorienting.
- Look ahead for the best route and concentrate on your goal. Don’t rush.
If you fall during a stream crossing
- Get out of your pack ASAP.
- If you can hold on to your pack by a strap without compromising your safety, do so. However, do not risk drowning to save your pack.
- Point your feet downstream and aim for the bank in a diagonal direction.
- Don’t panic. Don't try to fight the current; let it carry you to safety.
Blue Green Algae
After hot, dry weather, lakes can get covered with a greenish film made of millions of blue-green algae cells. Blue-green algae are naturally occurring, microscopic plants that grow in most Alberta lakes.
If the water at the beach is covered with blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), avoid contact.
If contact occurs, wash with clean water as soon as possible. If you, your children or your animals become sick after contact, call your doctor or veterinarian.