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Ten Tips For Tubers

Leisurely floating on one of Nebraska’s many scenic rivers or streams in an inflated inner tube is a cool, refreshing, relaxing, way to enjoy a hot summer day with family and friends, isn’t it?

Tubers take a break from floating the waters of the Niobrara River east of Valentine, NE. Photo courtesy of Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Oh, yes!

Summer river tubing is awesome! There is nothing like free-floating a river on an inflated inner tube just about the water level with a group of family members or friends!

However, some recreational tubers on rivers get into trouble and actually end up spoiling their own float trip as well as the reputation of other law-abiding, ethical tubers on rivers! In addition, river tubing often provides the first outdoor experiences for many people on flowing or moving water, thus there are things for them to know.

So, for those of you planning to float one of Nebraska’s great rivers on inner tubes this summer, here are ten important tips to help prevent you and your group from encountering any problems on your fun float.

1. Life Jackets and Whistles. A U.S. Coast Guard-approved, wearable and accessible life jacket is required to be on-board that inner tube (it is technically a vessel) and preferably worn. Kids 12 years of age and under must be wearing their life jackets! Also, state law requires all water vessels to carry a noise-making device such as a referee’s whistle. See our current Nebraska Boating Guide publication for other boating laws and regulations.

Much like a helmet to a cyclist, life jackets are an essential part of boating safety equipment and need to be worn at all times!

A life jacket-clad youngster tubing on north-central Nebraska’s North Loup River. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

2. Landowner Permission. Tubers have the lawful right to float the water of rivers and portage around obstructions without causing damage. On the other hand, tubers and other river floaters must have permission from private landowners to access their properties which include river beds, sand bars, river banks and any adjacent lands. You must have the landowner’s permission to pit stop, picnic, fish or camp. Do your homework, know where you can and cannot go! Appreciate the fact that you are allowed to use the waterway!

3. Know Your Waters. Nebraska water trails info and maps are invaluable references for trip planning. Set up a shuttle and equipment rental, perhaps through an outfitter. Calculate the distance and time on the water. To start, shorter trips are better than longer trips. For canoeing times listed, you need to at least double those for tubing. Beginners should go with more experienced tubers who are familiar with the river, or start with gentler rivers. Consider stops and a lunch break, along with public access points that are open for putting in and taking out.

4. File A Float Plan. Make certain you file a float plan with a family member, friend or neighbor. Even if you are just going tubing for just a few hours, let someone know where you expect to be and when you expect to return. If you plan a longer tube trip, text message a written float plan with that trusted person. A float plan includes a description of your tubes, who is on board, a description of the safety equipment (life jackets) you are carrying, where you expect to be, and when you expect to be there.

5. No Glass, Styrofoam or Plastic Sacks. Please do not bring glass containers, Styrofoam cups/coolers or plastic sacks to any river water trail. If lost or discarded, they become threats to boaters and wildlife.

6. Don’t Litter! Littering is against the law, is ugly, upsets landowners, and ruins a resource! Take along a durable trash bag, mesh bag or use a cooler where you can put trash. Have a separate bag or container for recyclables. Secure them to a separate inner tube. Help clean up after those who have not learned how to care for our rivers. Let’s work to keep them litter-free!

Litter-free bank and area along the Elkhorn River near Waterloo, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

7. Alcohol and Tubing Can Be A Dangerous Mix! Alcohol not only contributes to dehydration during the hot summer months, but, it also impacts a tuber’s ability to make sound decisions on moving water with obstacles! It’s always a good idea to have a ‘designated tuber’ in each group who is a strong swimmer, does not drink alcohol and closely monitors the rest for safety. Also, drink lots of water! It’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re out in the sun, even if you are just floating along, so be sure to drink one bottle of cool water for every other kind of beverage you ingest.

8. Your Personal Safety/Comfort on the Water. Besides those obvious “musts” to pack for your inner tube float trip on a Nebraska river (Sunscreen or sun block, insect repellent, hat, sunglasses, snacks, hydrating liquids and paddle) there are a few other things that you need to know regarding your personal safety and comfort on the water. For storage of valuables, a small, sealable dry bag should be used and attached to a tube. At a minimum, bring a Ziploc bag for your personal items. All river tubers should also be able to swim because there is the risk of getting tipped over in the current and separated from your inner tube. Keep in mind that there is no uniform depth in any of our rivers. Expect to find everything from shallow sandbars to drop offs to deep holes. Wear shoes! Tight fitting “water shoes,” river sandals, Crocs or old gym shoes should be worn while floating as well as walking in and around the river to protect your feet from sharp objects. Be vigilant for oncoming boats, bank anglers, traffic congestion, floating debris and fixed obstacles that present hazards. Avoid long dangling ropes off of tubes that can get snagged on various things occurring in the riverbed and cause injury or harm. Be very careful navigating around bridge pilings; this is where a paddle or long, stout stick comes in handy. And remember, if you tip over in your inner tube always try to stay away from the downstream side of it. Strong currents have been known to push larger, heavier tubes tied together over top of people and even pin them against obstructions.

9. Be Weather Aware. Know the weather forecast for the entire river valley you’re going to float, especially upstream. You never know when weather occurring upstream will affect the water downstream. If public access points are closed and sandbars are covered with water, it is not a good idea to be on any river. With darkening skies, claps of thunder, signs of lightning or winds increasing, prepare to get off the river immediately and seek shelter. Always carry a charged Smartphone or iPhone in a dry bag in order to stay abreast of any weather-related announcements (risk levels, watches or warnings), and to call for assistance, if needed.

10. Steer Clear of the Protected Birds. River users are to avoid violating federal and state laws by keeping a good distance from protected shorebirds that are nesting on sand bars. These at-risk shorebirds are the interior least tern and piping plover. Be cognizant of our feathered friends, and do not disturb them. That includes leaving your loud radios and boom boxes at home!

This is a piping plover. Photo courtesy of Birds of Nebraska – Online/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

A river float in an inner tube is a wonderful opportunity to kick back, enjoy nature, soak in the sun, play in the water and have a good time with relatives or compadres. But, planning for a safe river trip begins well before you get on the water and does not end until you return home. Ignore a crucial precaution, and you’ll end your journey, fried, dehydrated, disgruntled or missing your wallet!

By following the tips and information presented above, you will better understand how to safely, respectfully and comfortably use a river!

Happy tubing!

Tubers on the Elkhorn River in western Douglas County, NE. Photo courtesy of Omaha’s WOWT 6 News.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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