River Safety

Oxfordshire is a county of rivers, canals and waterways; do you know how to be safe on and around the water?
girl and boy kayaking

Footpaths, towpaths and bridleways run alongside Oxfordshire's rivers, waterways and canals. They are used every day of the year by people commuting, fishing, or just hanging out and having fun. They are also popular for canoeing, punting, kayaking, narrow-boating and swimming.

Enjoy rivers and canals safely:

  • Don't cycle or walk on flooded towpaths or meadows.
  • Only go into the water if it is warm weather and safe.
  • Look out for your friends and make sure everyone is OK.

Crucial: Water is especially dangerous if you have been drinking or taking drugs.

Waterways are wonderful, but there are risks. You may fall in the water. This can be very risky when the water is cold or fast flowing, or you are ill, tired, or have been drinking or taking drugs. If you go in the the water, you risk sudden changes of depth, strong currents and injury from underwater hazards hidden by in murky water. You also risk drowning, infection by dirty water or becoming chilled (even on a warm day).

Instant expert: A great way to learn how to manage risks on the river is to try out canoeing, kayaking, gorge-walking, sailing or other activities. You can find information about activities for young people in and around your local rivers and waterways on Activities Oxfordshire.

Fun on the river

There are lots of ways to enjoy Oxfordshire's waterways, like boating, punting, rowing, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and pleasure-boating. But every year there are accidents. Young people are especially at risk, because they are more likely to enter the water and take risks. If you are having fun in or around a river:

  • Stay out of water unless you know it is safe.
  • Make sure you can get help and have access to safety equipment.
  • Never enter the water alone
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs as these make accidents more likely.

Crucial: Don't forget to protect your skin from the sun!

Swimming in rivers

People wading or jumping into rivers risk sudden changes of depth, murky water and fast currents. You could also be injured from unseen objects under the water, infection by dirty water, and becoming chilled (even on a warm day).

Rivers are risky all year round. During the winter, the water is cold, the currents are strong and floods can hide banks, or sweep you off your feet. During summer, unexpected shallows, mud and contaminated water can get you stuck, injured or ill. Cold shock is a risk all year round, whatever the weather.

Instant expert: When you enter cold water, you risk cold shock. This is where your body is shocked by the change in temperature and starts to shut down. This can happen right away or after you have been swimming for a while. It happens to all kinds of people, including fit, healthy people and strong swimmers. Cold shock makes you feel weak, tired, breathless and can make you lose consciousness. It is a major cause of drowning. Be aware of the risk.

Floods and Freezes

Some parts of Oxfordshire flood in wet weather. This causes inconvenience and damage, but can also be dangerous:

  • Unexpected floods or currents can knock you off your feet or bicycle.
  • Floods hide the edges of waterways, so you can accidentally enter deep water or stray off paths.
  • Flood water is dirty and murky, covering obstacles and dangers like storm drains

During winter, ice and snow on rivers, floodplains and meadows can look tempting, but it's very dangerous. Snow hides dips and ditches, and ice is rarely thick enough to walk across. Don’t risk falling in, stay away from the edge of the ice.

Crucial: Cold and wet? You may feel fine, but still need to get warm and dry as soon as possible, especially if you are ill, hungry, thirsty, tired, or have been drinking or taking drugs. Resting where you are is very risky, especially if you are still beside the river - water levels can rise quickly at any time of year.

Respect the rivers

Cold weather, wet clothes and water (even shallow water) can kill. Exposure, hypothermia, drowning and accidents claim lives every year. Symptoms of hypothermia include violent shivering, clumsiness, falling over, slurring your speech and becoming angry or irrational.

Alcohol increases the danger of hypothermia, and the symptoms are easy to confuse with being drunk. Alcohol and drugs are more risky in cold conditions.

Cold weather, snow, water levels and floods can all quickly get worse. If you need to travel, it helps to take a charged mobile phone and have an emergency plan. And always make sure you look out for all your friends.

Got your back - plan check tell remember

This video from the #gotyourback campaign is all about looking after your mates when you are out and about.

Got Ya Back | Plan Tell Check Remember


We have a Health and Safety Week the week beginning Monday 16th July. Would anyone be able to come into school this week and talk to the children about water safety?

Hi Zara, thanks for your comment. You can access great water safety resources for schools (and book a talk from a trained volunteer) at https://dpw.rlss.org.uk/schools/  - you'll need to register.

I've also passed your enquiry to our local community safety team, in case they know of other local organisations which offer talks or sessions.

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