Jun 07 2011

Playing it Safe on the River, Part 1

Tubing is a great way to cool off and have some fun on a hot summer day. Within the last few years more people have discovered this and are taking advantage of the Cache la Poudre River, both in the city and up in the canyon northwest of Fort Collins. Knowing where to buy tubes may be easy to figure out, but more important safety information may not make it to the public as easily. Each year I see tubers neglecting more and more basic river safety measures, and with some recent deaths on the Poudre and other similar incidents around the state, there is a great need for increased communication to the general public to ensure a fun and safe experience out on the river.


When I am on the river I am usually in a kayak or on a raft, though I still love to hop in a tube when the water is low. I was a rafting guide for four years, have been kayaking for the last seventeen, and work for a water resources consulting firm that specializes in engineering work in the river environment. When I am out on the river I draw from a lot of knowledge and experience acquired over the years through my various interactions with water. In the rafting and kayaking realm there are a lot of resources and forums for learning about the safety aspects of whitewater boating. Though tubers are not floating down as difficult of water, the same safety measures apply to all users of a river. I hope this information helps start the communication and education needed to help everyone enjoy our rivers safely.

The information presented here applies to Colorado, and specifically the Poudre River, though some of the general recommendations could be applied anywhere.



Before tubing on a section of river understand what you might encounter downstream. Is this a mild float? Are there some rapids that I will encounter? Are there dams I have to walk around? Are there specific areas to avoid? Knowing the section of water you will be tubing on increases your safety. A classification (I-V) is assigned to a section of river to help whitewater boaters understand the difficulty they can expect to encounter. Class I consists of easy moving water. Class V, for experts, contains extremely difficult rapids and significant hazard to life in the event of a mishap. The class is also affected by the flow, so be aware of increasing difficulty with higher water. Though some expert tubers with appropriate safety gear have attempted more difficult water, it is best to stick to the Class I – II range during low flow.


In Colorado water comes from snow melting in late spring and early summer, with the occasional large rain event adding to that. Because of this, rivers here have a somewhat predictable season. During the winter months there is little flow because the snow is not melting in the mountains. The flow increases as the temperature warms up around April and May. Flows typically reach their peak sometime in June, and then slowly recede as the snow in the mountains melts away in the summer. By September, rivers are back to their winter flow. On rivers that are damned or have tributaries with reservoirs, this pattern may be altered.

The flow on a river is measured in cubic feet per second (cfs); this is the volume of water moving past a specific point every second. There are gages throughout the state that measure the flow of rivers. The graph below shows the average flow of the Poudre through Fort Collins. On the Poudre the flow in the canyon would be much higher than the flow in Fort Collins due to water being diverted out of the river after it exits the canyon. In the canyon downstream of Poudre Park, there is a large rock with bright orange markings designating various water levels by half foot marks. This is used by the local whitewater community to determine the level of the river. Of course, as you use a river more and more you will learn to recognize if the water is high or low based on your own visual reference.

clip_image002Information obtained from USGS gage 06752260

Knowing the flow will help you understand what the river will be like and when it is best to go tubing. June typically means high water and is not the ideal time to be tubing. Flow information for the Poudre can be found at the following locations:

Or by Phone, Department of Water Resources WaterTalk:

  • 303-831-7135
    • Division #1
    • Poudre flow at Fort Collins #18
    • Poudre flow at canyon mouth #19

Part 2 of this series


1 ping

  1. Tom Wheeler

    What do you think the CFS range should be for safe tubing from the filter plant to picnic rock?

    1. Dusty Robinson

      Ultimately it is going to depend on your ability, familiarity with that section, skill level on the water, and what type of tubing you will be doing (fun relaxing, or a little more adventure).

      Let’s assume you just want a fun, refreshing day on the water, you will be going with some friends, some of whom have not been, and life jackets are probably not involved.

      Anything below 1.5′ on the rock report should be good. (www.poudrerockreport.com) If you are checking the gage at the canyon mouth I would say anything lower than 300 cfs. Most years we see this flow in August, but this year it might be late August or even September before it drops that low.

      If any of the listed assumptions change so would the appropriate flow.

      People usually start tubing at much higher flows, and usually are fine. It’s when something unexpected happens that the high flow would pose a problem.

      If you want some higher water I would recommend a life jacket, and make sure you are educated on what to do in case something does go wrong.

      Have fun and be safe.

  1. Playing it Safe on the River, Part 2 » Hydraulically Inclined

    […] 2 of 2, (Part 1) Written by: Dusty Robinson on June 9, 2011.on May 15, […]

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