Navigating 'complicated' rivers/lakes

Hello fellow paddlers!

I’m a confident flat water paddler, but most of my outings are on reservoirs or simple rivers with little opportunity to get lost. I’m in the mid-Atlantic area.

In mid-February I’ll be heading down to Florida to get a break from the cold weather and do some paddling. We’re staying on Rainbow River near Dunnellon, but I’ll also venture to Crystal River, Homosassa, etc. Some of these rivers have what I think of as complicated sections, with the waterway splitting into numerous paths, around islands, tributaries coming in, etc. Not only will they be unfamiliar to me, but I have had little experience navigating these environments. Please don’t misunderstand; I’m looking forward to it. I just want to be careful.

I’d like to know what kind of tools/strategies my fellow paddlers recommend. For example, is a handheld GPS considered indispensable? I’d hate to buy something that expensive to use just for two weeks. I suppose I might use it again if I had it, but like I said most of my paddling is out/back on easily navigated rivers.

Things I’m considering:

  • Bringing my Boy Scout (i.e., ancient) orienteering compass. This would be a backup to my phone, but also something I could refer to more frequently/easily since I wouldn’t have to worry about getting it wet.
  • Purchasing a deck-mount compass for my boat. Obvious advantages over the orienteering compass. I’m reluctant to make too much of an investment since who knows when I’ll travel so far afield again. However, it might still make the most sense.
  • Smartwatch. I’ve often considered getting an Apple watch for its heart rate function. Also getting directional/compass features might convince me to pull the trigger. However, I’m having difficulty determining exactly how useful that feature is on the Apple watch. If you’ve used it let me know. I’m not keen on a different watch such as a Garmin since I doubt I’d have much other use for it.
  • My phone. A great tool which I’ll bring regardless, but with known limitations for kayaking. Taking it out of its waterproof case each time I need to check it is the primary concern. On the other hand, showing my location on the map is extremely valuable if I’m lost or uncertain.

Open to all constructive suggestions. My decision seemingly comes down to what compass is sufficient, and whether or not I need a map/chart feature on top of that.


Build your confidence by paddling some new rivers. Larger rivers often have braided sections and many islands. Always take the drop you can see instead of the one you can’t. All of the channels end up in the same place. Stay on the larger ones if feasible.

It is hard to get lost on a river. Phones don’t work in remote country in the West. A GPS might be of some benefit, but I rarely use one. Get some good maps.


For more info about the Apple watch and other smart watches read this thread:

I bought a Garmin Instinct on sale for its GPS ability but find it very useful in other ways also.

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I use my iPhone when paddling. It’s always in a Lifeproof case 24/7 anyway, no need to take it out of the case to use (it’s in the case now and I’m sitting in my car!). For what you need Google Maps or Google earth is sufficient but you can download real navigation software like Navionics for $20 (I think, I’ve had the app for a while and am not sure what the cost is now) I have paddled all of the places that you are planning to go and some of them can be a bit confusing. If you’ll be paddling in tidal areas like Homosassa and Crystal River you’ll want to download a tide app as well. Florida’s coastal waters are shallow and can be impassable at low tide, especially in the winter with low water levels and offshore winds.

A lot of good information already shared. I would add to look for some local knowledge. Local paddleshops/liveries can give you some info or perhaps there are paddle guides available.

I’d suggest a detailed map of the area you’re going to be paddling and a compass, plus a GPS. If you’re going to rely on your phone as a GPS, make sure the area you’re going to has cell coverage, and save your location of where you put in. Also, make sure you bring along some extra battery chargers, so you don’t have to worry about your phone battery dying.

First, if it is a real risk of getting lost, best to have 2 means of finding your way. Your phone could be one. If you feel comfortable piloting (using landmarks and such) paired with a chart and compass, that would make a good second.

You could download and print charts from online, but I would suggest looking for fishing maps at local retailers or online. Out west, we have Fish-n-Map ( which I like a lot. For $10 or so, you get a chart for a relatively large area printed on waterproof paper. Presumably similar exists for the areas you are going to.

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Perhaps some pre-trip recon with Google Earth or Maps satellite view? Have a look from above of expected paddle areas for landmarks and river paths and channels. You can also measure distance in advance for better planning.

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I got me a fairly cheap Garmin eTrex 10. No maps on it but, what I can do is plot out a route on Google Earth and upload it to the GPS. If I’m feeling organized I’ll print the Google Earth page with the route on it too, for “situational awareness”. It’s an easy process once you get the hang of it. The GPS was around $100, maybe a touch over. I kind of like having it anyway, even on trips where the route is straightforward, to check on progress occasionally. Prior to that I used to use my phone but the battery drain was a factor, plus having to deal with the waterproof case and the poor visibility in sunlight.
I also got one of those suction mounts, and my Prana has a perfect little flat spot in front of the “glove box”, so I kind of have a dashboard! I do sometimes find myself looking at the GPS perhaps too often, but it’s good for making sure you’re on the right route and also for staying straight on longer crossings.

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With Google maps, you can download the maps for a large area to your phone for use when in places without cell signals. The GPS will still work, and the app will show your position on the map. Third party aplications that use the Google maps api may not let you use the downloaded maps, ymmv. If navigation is critical (avoiding getting lost in wilderness for days/weeks/…), having more than one tool is important. Hard copy maps in a waterproof bag will work long after your phone and GPS run out of battery

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That thread is indeed helpful but doesn’t seem to touch on Apple watch navigation. It does sound like several contributors like their Garmin GPS watches. Perhaps I will reconsider.

A good GPS with a track back feature and the appropriate maps or charts will generally allow you, when zoomed in, to precisely follow your way back through braided river sections. It can save you from going up dead ends.

If paddling in wilderness areas, especially by myself , I would want some way to signal for help, and not necessarily depend on cell coverage, like a Spot Satellite Communication Device. Many of these have GPS capability as well. A bit expensive for a single trip, but who knows in the future.

Local knowledge is important. Check with local outfitters or clubs for detailed knowledge. Some rivers can only be done one way at times, some can be blocked by deadfall or vegetation, river levels can be too high or low. All these can change from week to week.

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I use a Garmin 78C to record distance and speed to gauge how we are doing primarily. It also has a return function that can guide you back the way you came. In 7 years of using it I’ve never had to hit that button. Qruiser uses her garmin watch. The screen on both is miserable small and hard to read in the sun. I could not navigate using the map. Phones…need service. AND it isn’t that good unless you are near an interstate or a city. Pluss there is that small screen and the sun problem.

We use maps, compass and local knowledge. For local knowledge we refer to others in our two paddling clubs and the Florida Paddle Trails Association. Some of our members are paddling the CT and they are familiar with those coastal areas. Local outfitters can be helpful but you have to work a careful area there. They want paddlers to experience the water but they’re earning a living…

For maps Google maps is a good planning tool. But A Top Spot map from the local bait store, outdoor store, fishing tackle store, etc. will give you more water data to use. For the coastal areas of Homosassa Area, Cedar key, Yankee town, Crystal River etc would be the map # N201. It won’t tell much about Dunnellen/Rainbow river.

Rainbow river…we will be leading a trip there in November. Guess you’ll go home by then. Our standard paddle there is to launch at the N. Florida Ave boat ramp, where Hwy 411 crosses the Withlacoochee River. Come early 0830, it gets crowded. Don’t park on grass, ticket. Paddle upstream and turn left into the Rainbow River, clear. Withlacoochee is coffee colored. Paddle upstream to the spring head and return. It’s about 10 miles. Load boats on cars we usually park them in the back lots. Then cross the street and have lunch at the Blue Gator Tiki Bar and Restaurant.

If that’s too much, Put in at the KP Hole. It is a county park. $$$ to park, launch and paddle. No glass, bags, etc all lunch reuseable containers. No throw away water bottles. Then drift down to one of the take outs. You can get out at Blue Run , Park directory | Marion County, FL , and eat at Swampy’s. Or you can go to the city ramp at N. Florida Ave boat ramp. Don’t forget to arrange for a shuttle.

Now if you are staying at the State Park, its easier to start there. Of course the SP boat launch is almost right across from the KP Hole so you still have a mile to go up to get to eht spring head. KP Hole attracks a lot of divers. They can be a navigation problem more like manatees. Restrictions at the state park are the same. Don’t land at SP unless you have paid admission to SP and or have a annual pass.

The Withlacoochee River is another paddle I’d recommend. Launch at the N. Florida Ave Boat ramp. Paddle up stream. Follow the current. The main channel has the most width and current. We go up about 4 or 5 miles and return. Follow the current back. There are lots of islands. But it all comes back to the bridge if you follow the current. Note current is 1 mph +/-. Not much traffic on this paddle. Rainbow is crowded on weekends. Even in the winter.

Paddling the Withlacoochee to Lake Rousseau is and adventure. If you do it, I haven’t, report on it. Paddling the Lake Rousseau is an adventure. It is the lake at the end of the cancelled Cross Florida Canal, in the 70s. It is now part of the “green way” . Should be ducks and other birds that migrate there. There is a paved bike trail that go from the Lake R dam to the coast. Nice ride. There are a lot of bike trails in the area. See Rails To Trails for listing. Paddling up the old Withlacoochee from the coast , Bird Creek Boat ramp, can be fun. See Yankee Town.

More later after a break…


Florida Paddle Trails Association…You can read their stuff. There are paddles in the Crystal River area. See CT for a coastal paddle route past this area.

Crystal River area… The river, nice. The coastal shore nice. The bay , OK. The Crackers Bar and Grill…one of my favorites… . But the whole thing about paddling to see the manatees is just a bad example of over touristing and crowds. You might think I don’t go there much and you are right. But it is a checklist kind of paddle.

Launch at Hunters Spring Park. Come early make your time at the launch short. Lots of outfitters launching there. Best time is middle or beginning of week. NOT weekends. Come early for parking. Don’t park on grass. Paddle up into Hunter spring see if any there. Paddle out and go left when in the bay. Paddle around the marina on the point and into the canals near the houses to Three Sisters Springs. Look up the rules before you go. Sometimes they will let you paddle up into the springs. Some times not. Sometimes you can snorkle with them. If the day is warm they manatees will leave the springs looking for warm water and food. Islands in the bay often have animals swimming around.

This is the height of the tourist/ “seasonals” season. That area gets its share and then some. The crowds can be a little overwhelming for the people that take care of the areas and they can be “short” with people that don’t behave properly. Do your research and it should be OK.

You can paddle the Kings Bay, the river and have no problem with navigation.


Keep in mind that for narrow braided streams through heavily wooded areas, even a GPS will be of limited help. This was a trip with lots of impassible strainers, so a wrong turn meant having to turn back and trying a different fork.

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The Pax! One of my favorites, although I admittedly usually stay to the lower, more readily navigable stretches.

I know the everglades is complicated, I once helped a paddler figure a route during the race across and around Florida a few years back (watertribe/Ultimate challenge) through the many channel choices.

But it doesn’t get much more complicated than the Yukon River in the vicinity of the Yukon Flats, with hundreds of channels and choices to be made between gravel shoals and around islands. It all changes each year. If you just follow the current you will eventually find your way downstream, but to travel the fastest and most efficient way requires considerable study of maps, Google Earth, and plotting the route on a reliable GPS mounted where it can be continuously monitored.

Having likely paddled all the water that you are going to be looking at, my recommendations are:

  • Water proof phone case that allows use of the phone while inside. Preferably one that floats - - — Google maps
  • app (to show put in and launch details - as well as other paddlers experiences).
    As from above; mind the currents and keep an eye on the tides (if coastal).
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I just use a phone, similar to @Nunio but specifically an app called Geo Tracker by a Russian developer that looks like it leverages Google Maps. Good app and free, tracks your speed and mileage and doesn’t eat much power.

Note that most Galaxy phones are waterproof so I just keep mine in my pocket.
I accidentally tested my S9, 3 feet under for over an hour, no problem.

As far as braided channels go, a rule of thumb is take the one that appears to have the most current.

Choosing a channel that seems to have the most current can be tricky unless you haave previously studied what happens after that, as I learned very well on several trips on the Yukon with potential short cuts away from and bypassing the longer path original main channel. If it is initally a narrow or shallow entry, the current can appear to be swift at first, beckoning you to enter. But if the channel later widens out much, then you end up in virtually dead broad slow water and have no current to speak of, cursing your choice. Been there, done that. Learned.

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