Whether you prefer kayaking or canoeing, paddling the Missouri River in South Dakota — also known as The Mighty Mo' — deserves a spot on your bucket list. It’s the longest river in the U.S., after all, beating out the Mississippi River by 139 miles. Wind conditions and ever-shifting sandbars can make navigating the Missouri River a challenge and, therefore, not the best choice for beginners or even most intermediate paddlers. However, anyone with serious experience on water will feel right at home on the Mighty Mo'. With some preparation, research, and the right skills, paddling this river is a rewarding challenge that adds an impressive notch to any paddler’s belt.
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. Whether setting out for an extended trip, or just a couple of hours, there are a few essentials that you’ll want to make sure you have:
Adequate watercraft – Some rivers provide a perfect leisurely float, but the Missouri River isn’t one of them. Stay away from anything inflatable, even for just brief moments of your trip. The river has obstructions just beneath the surface that can easily tear any inflatable device. Stick to hard-shell canoes and kayaks only. If you don’t have one, you’ll find places along the way where you can rent, so don’t let owning adequate watercraft hold you back.
Appropriate clothing, footwear and products for a variety of conditions – Conditions range from rain to intense sun during any given day on the water. Make sure you bring 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 even if you’re only planning a daytrip. 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. 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 and they're also highly portable. However, pretty much anything you’d bring with you on a hike or backpacking trip will work for this epic river trip. Bring enough for at least a few days in case bad weather gets you stranded.
Lifejackets/PFDs – 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 forego 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.
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’:
- 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. Incidentally, this is also what makes paddling the Missouri River such an adventure – 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 just below the surface.
- Any eddy is a likely indication of an obstacle under water. Stay on the lookout for eddies and your trip will go much smoother.
- 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 Missouri National Recreational River.
- 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.
- In South Dakota, four large reservoirs were created on the Missouri River from dams near Pierre, Fort Thompson, Pickstown and Yankton.
And there you have it, all the essentials you need to know before successfully paddling 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, Fish and Parks has published several invaluable resources, like this guide. You can also find great books about the excursion written by fellow canoeists and kayakers, like Canoeing the Missouri River, available online here.