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Water safety tips to know before you go

Important safety tips for mountain paddlers that could save your life.
The prow of a kayak points at the distant shore of Gross Reservoir on a beautiful Colorado day. Photo credit: Denver Water.


Paddleboarding and kayaking have seen explosive growth nationwide and here in Colorado due to the COVID-19 pandemic as people look for things to do outside of their homes and neighborhoods.

And that, combined with Denver’s continuing population growth and the hot summer weather, means more people are outside and on the water.

Denver Water’s mountain reservoirs are always popular spots for recreation.

Things are busy Denver Water's mountain reservoirs this summer. This was a summer day in 2020 at the Osprey Point Boat Ramp at Gross Reservoir. Photo credit: Denver Water.


But it’s important to remember that enjoying water sports at mountain reservoirs is different from taking that same paddleboard or kayak to a Front Range reservoir. And care is always needed when going out on the water, 29 people drowned in Colorado's waters during the summer of 2020, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Swimming isn’t allowed at our recreation reservoirs, and not because of water quality issues.

“The bottom line is that the water in our reservoirs is too cold for prolonged skin contact,” said Brandon Ransom, Denver Water’s manager of recreation.

Dillon Reservoir is a great place to enjoy Colorado's mountains, but make sure you know and follow water safety guidelines, including the use of personal flotation devices. That water is cold! Photo credit: Denver Water.


Even in the summer months — when the weather is warm and the snow has melted — the average water temperature at Dillon Reservoir sits in the low 60s.

And that’s at the surface of the reservoir.

Water temperatures a few feet below the surface at Dillon Reservoir are typically 10 to 15 degrees colder than the surface temperatures. Water that cold can quickly pose a danger to an unprepared swimmer.

If you’re coming to kayak or paddleboard at one of Denver Water’s reservoirs, there are important safety tips you should know that could save your life.

  • Colorado law requires you to have a personal flotation device approved by the U.S. Coast Guard on your kayak or paddleboard, and children 12 years old and younger are required to wear their PFD. Tickets for noncompliance include a steep fee. Make sure the PFD has a whistle attached to it. You can blow the whistle to alert people in an emergency. Always use a leash to make sure your paddleboard doesn’t drift away if you fall off.
Don't be this person. Colorado law requires a personal floatation device for every person on a watercraft, including paddleboards and kayaks. Photo credit: Denver Water.


  • Be aware of the weather. Afternoon thunderstorms are very common in the mountains and bring winds and lightning. The winds at mountain reservoirs typically kick up every day after 10 a.m. Your peaceful morning floating on a pristine lake can quickly turn into rough water. And you never want to be on the water when there’s lightning.
  • Wind is your friend going downwind but be aware if it’s blowing you away from your starting point on shore. To return to your starting point, you’ll need to paddle back into the wind and that can be challenging — particularly if you have young kids learning how to paddleboard into the wind.
  • Reservoirs can also have very steep drop offs near the shore. It can go from 4 feet to 60 feet deep quickly, posing hazards for people who can’t swim well — or who can’t swim at all.
Denver Water and a Boulder County Ranger, who is under the direction of the Boulder County Sheriff, patrolling the water at Gross Reservoir. Photo credit: Denver Water.


  • Have some kind of foot protection, like sandals or water shoes, when you’re at the shoreline so you don’t cut your feet walking over sharp rocks. Even if you’re just walking along the shoreline with no intention of getting on the water, watch out for slippery rocks and steep slopes. If you go in the water unintentionally, you might have a challenge getting out.
  • Bring a first aid kit with you, as there are no lifeguards or medical professionals on the shoreline ready to respond at a moment’s notice.

And always use the buddy system, meaning stick together and look out for others in your party. If you are heading out on the water alone, make sure to tell others your plan, including where you are going and when you expect to return.

Don’t forget — better safe than very sorry.

Check for guidelines on what activities, including boating, paddleboarding and kayaking, are allowed at specific reservoirs.