Mississippi River Boating (all your questions answered)

Boating anywhere that you have not gone before can always be an adventure. That is even more true when boating a down a river or waterway that you have never been down before. In this article I will cover some common questions about boating the Mississippi river. 

The Mississippi river is 2,320 miles long according to the Environmental Protection Agency.. It starts at Lake Itasca and ends at the Gulf of Mexico. It is 3 feet deep at its source and is 200 feet at its deepest point in New Orleans. 

Can You Boat Down the Mississippi River?

The short answer is: yes, you absolutely can boat down the Mississippi river. You cannot, however take more than a kayak or rowboat on the upper 482 miles of the Mississippi river. 

The navigable section of the river begins at Coon Rapids Dam in Minneapolis. You can use a motor boat from that dam down the remaining 1,838 miles of the river until you hit the Gulf of Mexico. 

Traveling the Mississippi by boat could be a great adventure or it could be a horrible failure depending on your planning. If you just grab your boat and hit the water you would be fine in many areas but as you get closer to the mouth (bottom) of the river the places to stop and fuel up are few and far between. 

There is one section where it is over 400 miles in between places to fuel up on the lower Mississippi. If you don’t plan ahead and make sure that you take everything into account your dream journey could turn into a nightmare of floating powerless down the Mississippi hoping to find a place to refuel.  

Can You Boat Up the Mississippi River?

Barges and other large craft boat up the Mississippi all of the time so it is certainly possible to go up the river if you have a large enough boat/motor.

Boating up the Mississippi is a much taller order than boating down. If you have to boat up the Mississippi it can be done but it is difficult and would require a large boat with very large motors. 

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Not only would you have to fight the current while traveling up the Mississippi but you would also have to fight the debris flowing downstream as well as the other boats that would be going with the current at a much faster pace. 

The real question would be, should you boat up the Mississippi not can you. Assuming you are planning on using a recreational boat, I would strongly advise against going up the Mississippi. Not only will it take a much longer time while fighting the current but it also won’t be a very pleasant trip as you have to fight the other boat traffic, debris, and even worry about barges and large boats that will be going upstream much faster than you. 

If you need to get to the upper Mississippi a much better route is taking the Great Loop rather than fighting the mighty Mississippi upstream. 

Can You Kayak Down the Mississippi River?

Absolutely, you can definitely kayak down the Mississippi river. A kayak or similar sized boat is all you can use for the top 482 miles of Mississippi. Once you hit Minnesota, you will have to navigate while avoiding many barges, towboats, and motor boats. As you get further down the river you will have many areas where the current will be quite fast and it can be difficult to navigate but it certainly can be done.  

There have been multiple people who have kayaked down the Mississippi. In 2017 there were even 2 teenagers who kayaked down the Mississippi in 51 days over the summer! You can see some of their videos and daily logs from their journey on Facebook.

How Long Does It Take To Travel the Mississippi River By Boat?

The time it takes to go down the Mississippi depends on where you are starting at, the speed you travel, and how many hours you travel per day. 

Assuming your boat goes 15mph you can travel 180 miles a day if you travel 12 hours a day. If you start at the Coon Rapids Dam in Minneapolis you would be able to reach the Gulf in a little over 10 days. 

Obviously that wouldn’t be a very enjoyable trip if you are traveling 12 hours a day for 10 days straight so if going down the Mississippi is more of a pleasure trip for you and you are looking to take a more leisurely pace it could easily take a month or more to go down the Mississippi by boat. 

Can You Travel the Whole Length of the Mississippi River?

Yes, you absolutely can travel the whole length of the Mississippi river but it will require a kayak or rowboat for the top 482 miles. After those top 482 miles you can use pretty much any motor boat to travel the rest of the way down the river. As you get closer to the Gulf it can become a much less enjoyable ride so many people choose to take the Tennessee-Tombigdee. 

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You can stay on the Mississippi the entire way but there aren’t many places to stop for fuel on the lower section and you will have a lot of barge and tugboat traffic to deal with as well. 

Can You Float Down the Mississippi River?

Floating down the Mississippi as in the days of old sounds like a great idea… in theory. However in real life floating the entire way down is less than ideal and would most likely be impossible with the river’s current state.

If there was a major catastrophe that caused all of the boat traffic on the river to stop then floating down the river without a motor wouldn’t be a problem. With as many barges, tugboats, etc. that currently use the Mississippi for travel, free floating down the entire river would not be the best idea. 

Is it possible? Yes, you could float the river, but you would have to spend all of your time hugging the shore and trying to keep your boat from getting beached by the wake of the barges. 

How Long Would It Take to Float Down the Mississippi River?

According to the National Park Service, it takes water 90 days to flow from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico. Source

That timeframe doesn’t take any stops into account however so if you are a normal person attempting to float down the entire river it would take you approximately twice that long (6 months) to float down the Mississippi. 

The thing with that 6 month time frame is that means you have to spend 12 hours EVERY DAY for 6 MONTHS floating down the river! No days off and no rest periods beyond your 12 hours of sleep/rest at night. 

In theory, floating down the Mississippi sounds like an amazing idea and it might be cool for a few days… but floating on the river for 6 months straight? Not so much. 

Houseboating Down the Mississippi

Houseboating down the Mississippi is an enjoyable way to spend the summer. Many boat owners prefer to avoid the lower Mississippi and use the Tennessee-Tombigdee to get to the gulf. 

The problem when houseboating down the Mississippi is the lowest section of the river is quite busy with barge traffic and other large boats. There are virtually no marinas or places to dock along the way as well so you would be required to anchor or push your boat ashore for overnight stays. 

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Since there aren’t many places to dock you would also have to have enough provisions on board for the journey in between marinas which on a houseboat could be a month or more depending on your houseboat’s max speed. 

The other issue with taking your houseboat down the Mississippi is what do you do once you get to the Gulf. Turning around and boating back up the river will be difficult if not impossible for most houseboats. The other option is to stay a while in a place along the river or in the Gulf or keep sailing and complete the entire “Great Loop”. 

The Great Loop would be incredibly difficult to do in a houseboat as you spend a good deal of time on the Atlantic as you go up the east coast before heading inland again. Most houseboats would not do well in the ocean and losing your houseboat to a giant wave would not be something I would want to worry about. 

If you want to go down the Mississippi in your houseboat be sure to plan ahead on how to get it back to the top! 

Whatever boat you use on the Mississippi it is always a good idea to plan ahead on don’t “fly by the seat of your pants”. Boating down the Mississippi can be done in a large variety of boats from small to large but planning is important no matter the boat size. 

If you only have a couple of months to boat the river make sure the boat you choose will get you to the mouth before your time runs out. 

You also need to consider the weather. Many times in the spring the Mississippi will flood many towns along the way so marinas may be closed and there can be much more debris as well. 

In 2019 there were places along the Mississippi that crested above flood stage 6 times in the year! Source

If you were trying to use those marinas in places that are flooded you don’t want to be surprised by them being closed so planning is the best way to ensure your trip down the mighty Mississippi is as enjoyable as possible. 

As always, 

Happy Boating!

Matthew Robbs

I love the outdoors and especially spending time with my family. Whether on a boat or at the beach, my happy place is near the water.

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