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Going tubing on a river? Here are the things to know before you go!

Ahhh … 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?

A small group of tubers take a break on their float trip amid the beautiful scenery of the Calamus River near Burwell in the Nebraska Sandhills. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Oh, yes!

Summer river or stream tubing is fun, there is nothing like it! However, some recreational tubers on flowing waters get into trouble and actually end up spoiling their own float trip as well as the reputation of other law-abiding, ethical tubers! In addition, tubing often provides the first outdoor experiences for many people on moving water so there are key points to cover.

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

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, the life jacket is an essential piece of safety equipment to the boater or floater! Wear. Your. Life Jacket!

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. COVID-19 Precautions. An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. Please, do not tube if you or a member of your household has been exposed to COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. If you can, come during the week. For the best experience and to avoid crowds, it is best to plan a tube trip Monday through Friday. Self -transport with vehicle shuttle and use your own inner tubes, if possible. Otherwise, you can use an outfitter. Ask them about the steps they are taking to prevent someone from getting COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states, “If a park, beach, or recreational facility is open for public use, visiting is OK as long as you practice social distancing and everyday steps such as washing hands often and covering coughs and sneezes.” Read more about responsible recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic on OudoorNebraska.gov.

3. 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, learn where you can and cannot go! Appreciate the fact that you are allowed to use the waterway!

4. Know Your Waters. Nebraska water trails info and maps are invaluable references for trip planning. Shuttle and inner tube equipment rentals are available through outfitters. Calculate the distance and time on the water. Check conditions and water levels through local conservation officers, outfitters, state park/recreation area staff or Natural Resources District (NRD) personnel. Flow details can also be obtained through the USGS. To start, you need to realize that 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 or stretches of rivers. Consider stops and a lunch break, along with public access points that are open for putting in and taking out.

5. 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 and safety equipment (life jackets) you are carrying, who is on board, where you expect to be, and when you expect to be there.

6. No Glass and Styrofoam. Please do not bring glass containers or Styrofoam cups or coolers to any river or stream. If lost or discarded, they become hazards to boaters and wildlife. Broken shards of glass can ruin tubing trips very quickly with severe, deep lacerations to feet even through water shoes. Regarding Styrofoam, it is not biodegradable. It breaks into many small pieces and may be eaten by shore birds and fish. The outcome is deadly.

7. Don’t Litter! Littering is against the law, is ugly, upsets landowners, negatively affects wildlife and ruins a natural resource! Take along a durable trash bag, mesh bag or use a cooler where you can put your garbage. 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/water trails. Let’s be eco-friendly and work to keep our flowing waters litter-free!

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

8. 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 does not drink alcohol and closely monitors group members for safety purposes. 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 water for every other kind of beverage you ingest.

9. Before You Sit in the Tube on the Water. Besides the items on your trip checklist like sun block, insect repellent, biodegradable hand soap, hat, sunglasses, water, snacks, cooler filled with ice, rope, Ziploc bags for valuables, etc., there are several other important things to note before embarking on your tubing adventure. All river tubers should be able to swim because there is a risk of getting tipped over 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 to swift channels to undertows. Be weather aware, too! 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. Wear shoes! Tight fitting “water shoes,” river sandals or Crocs should be worn while floating as well as walking in and around the river to protect your feet from rocks and sharp objects. Avoid long dangling ropes off tubes that can get snagged on various objects in the riverbed and cause injury or harm. Exercise caution around bridge pilings; this is where a paddle or long, stout stick comes in handy. Be vigilant for other tubers, oncoming boats, bank anglers and floating debris. 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.

10. Steer Clear of the Protected Birds. All river/water trail 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.

A piping plover. Photo courtesy of Nebraska Birds – Online/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

A summer float trip in an inner tube is a wonderful opportunity to be outside, stay cool, socially distance and have a good time with family and friends. But, planning for a safe float trip begins well before you get on the water and does not end until you return home. By following the reminders and information I have provided, you will better understand how to safely, respectfully and comfortably use a river or stream!

Happy tubing!

Young tubers navigate the waters of the White River at Fort Robinson State Park near Crawford, NE on a summer day. Photo courtesy of Justin Haag/NEBRASKAland Magazine/ Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

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 channels, 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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