Paddling the Mighty Mo in South Dakota

A canoeist paddling  the Missouri River at sunset.
A canoeist paddling the Missouri River at sunset. Charlie Llewellin
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Whether you’re a kayaker or canoeist, paddling the Missouri River in South Dakota (aka the Big Muddy) is definitely something that should be on your bucket list. It is the longest river in the US, after all, beating out the Mississippi River by 139 miles. Because of wind conditions and ever-shifting sandbars, navigating the Missouri is a challenge and, therefore, not the best choice for beginners, or even most novices. However, experienced paddlers will find river heaven in the waters of the Mighty Mo, as locals call it. With some preparation, research, and the right skills, paddling this river is a rewarding challenge that adds a well-worth-it notch to any paddler’s belt.

Kayaking the Mighty Mo.
Kayaking the Mighty Mo. Roderick Eime

Preparation is Key

Weather that changes at the drop of a hat, strong currents, and long distances between launch sites make traversing the Missouri River a challenge that requires a healthy amount of preparation before you hit the water. Whether you’re headed out for a day trip or longer, there are a few essentials that you’ll want to make sure you have:

  • Adequate watercraft - There are some rivers out there that are great for a river float, but the Missouri isn’t one of them. Stay away from anything inflatable, even for just brief moments of your trip—there are a bunch of obstructions just beneath the surface that can (and will) easily tear any type of inflatable device. Stick to hardshell canoes and kayaks only. If you don’t have one, there are plenty of places along the way that you can rent from, so don’t let owning adequate watercraft hold you back.

  • Appropriate clothing, footwear, and products for a variety of conditions - From rain to intense sun and much in between, there’s a variety of conditions you can encounter. Make sure you’ve got at least a long sleeve shirt and long pants, a full change of clothes, a hat, sunglasses, and a rain jacket along for the ride. In addition to clothing and footwear, you’ll want to bring along pretty much anything you’d take with you camping—things like insect repellent, sunscreen, a First-Aid kit, flashlight, matches, and trash bags to name a few. You should include a tent and sleeping bag, too, even if you’re only planning a day trip. Getting stranded due to weather conditions is a real possibility.

  • Plenty of water and healthy snacks - You’ll want to be hydrated and energized for the excursion ahead. As experienced canoeists and kayakers know, paddling for hours is no easy feat. Granola, dried fruit, nuts, dark chocolate, peanut butter, energy bars, and gels are good options because they’ll keep you fueled up and they're also highly portable, but pretty much anything you’d bring with you on a hike or backpacking trip is a good option for this epic river trip. Bring enough for at least a few days in case bad weather gets you stranded.

  • Lifejackets/PDFs -  Not only do you need them for every person in your party, but you’ll need to actually wear them at all times. While it’s tempting to forgo them as an experienced paddler, the Mighty Mo is unforgiving and demands respect. You’ll also want to make sure that your swimming skills are up to par, too, just in case.

A canoeist paddling  the Missouri River at sunset.
A canoeist paddling the Missouri River at sunset. Charlie Llewellin

Know Before You Go

While packing properly is essential, arming yourself with as much knowledge about what you’ll encounter along the way is the best pre-trip prep you can do. Here’s everything you need to know about the essential characteristics of the Mighty Mo:

  • The river can be quite deep, over 20 feet at some points.

  • Sandbars are one of the biggest challenges. There aren’t any rapids, but because of strong currents and extreme weather changes throughout the year, sandbars shift and move constantly (which is also a great thing about paddling the Missouri—it’s never the same trip twice).

  • Sunken trees are another common obstacle. Uprooted trees along the banks often fall into the river and get stuck, with that reach to the upper layers of the river.

  • Any eddy is a likely indication of an obstacle under the surface. Being on the lookout for eddies will make your trip a smoother one.

  • The river usually flows somewhere between three and five miles per hour.

  • Two sections of the river (39 miles from the Randall Creek Recreation Area at Pickstown to Running Water, and 59 miles from Gavin’s Point Dam to Ponca State Park in Nebraska) are designated national recreation areas.

  • The shores of the Missouri River in South Dakota are lined with least terns and piping plovers which are both endangered species. Protecting these birds and their nesting sites is the basis for many of the posted warning signs along the shores.

Sunset along on the Big Muddy.
Sunset along on the Big Muddy. Ruiwei Qi

And there you have it, all the essentials you need to know to successfully paddle the Mighty Mo. However, there’s certainly more research that can be done by anyone interested in conquering the Missouri River. The South Dakota Game and Fish Department has published several invaluable resources, like this guide . There are also great books about the excursion written by fellow canoeists and kayakers, like Canoeing the Missouri River, which you can actually access online here .

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