CANOEING ON THE DANUBE
The Danube is Europe's second longest river and undergoes dramatic changes throughout its course. Though big, it is paddled fairly regularly each summer, particularly from Germany through to Hungary. There is also the organised Tour International Danube each year, a huge regatta where a large group paddle the entire length of the river. Their itinerary is extremely useful, outlining distances per day, the locations of locks and more. The 2017 itinerary can be found here. Below are probably just a few of your questions, so if you want to know more just get in touch through our contact page.
What maps did you use?
For the Danube we used the BIKELINE maps for the DANUBE CYCLE PATH (donauradweg) which come in a range of languages and can be ordered online. These maps cover the entire river and are a fantastic scale providing great detail. The maps also act as a concise guide book giving tid-bits of historic information along route. You need nothing more than these maps with the exception of the final 300kms of the Danube where the cycle path leaves the river in Romania. If you plan to canoe this section it is important to get another, up to date, map since the river here is awash with islands and difficult to navigate. To find such maps we suggest you contact Tour International Danube (TID) who apparently provide specific maps for this section.
Do you need a river permit?
No. The Danube is an international waterway and permits are not required. There are certain rules for individual countries that should be adhered to however. In Serbia national flags must be flown (or an equivalent sticker on the canoe). In Austria life jackets must be worn at locks or dams (we strongly suggest you wear lifejackets the entire time, however. We did). In Germany you should have a boat name and address clearly marked on the vessel and should be affiliated with a canoeing body (for us membership of the British Canoe Union (BCU)).
Where are there dams on the river?
The Danube has more than 100 Dams with most in Germany and Austria, quickly petering out thereafter. All of these dams and locks are well signposted and some have buoys that lead you to the river bank. The Tour International Danube publishes its annual itinerary which features all there camp points, along with all obstacles and locks including what bank you should pull in for portage (L or R) and what distance marker the Portage should begin. This information is accurate and definitely worth using, it can be found here on their 2017 PDF file.
N.B. On TIDs itinerary for 15.07.17 in location named 'Cunovo' the description is to portage on the right bank to the old Danube river bed. This complicated section of the itinerary is deceiving, since there are really two options on the right hand side: You can go 'far right' or to a large dam that is on the right hand side but does not go all the way to the river-bank. It is for this dam you want to head and, once closer, you will find sign posts to help you with the portage. In short: at 1852 go right but head for the dam not for the river-bank, here there are signs for canoes.
How do I get around the dams?
There are a two ways around the locks. At most you must carry or wheel your canoe. There will be a ramp, or a series of steps which you can use. Sometimes there will be a trolley waiting there for you and you can wheel your canoe around the dam, and down to a similar dock on the far side of the dam. If there is no trolley, there might be one on the far side, so it could be worth a walk around to see.
On some dams there are shoots that you can slide down in your canoe. Sometimes you will see a bell and rope on the bank near one of these banks or a lever to pull. By ringing the bell you alert the control tower who will open the gate for you. Once this has lowered and the green light shows you can plummet down the ramp. If, like us, you find you are not canoeing during tourist season there may be no one there to operate the ramp. For this you can either carry around or (be cheeky) and go down the slide anyway even though theres not much water on it. but be careful because you don't want to get stuck!
The two locks in Serbia/Romania marked as Djerdap I and II are the only places you may have problems. The lock keepers do not want to deal with canoes and there is no sign posted set up here. We got shooed away from the lock on either side of the dam but eventually convinced the Romanian side to let us in with a cruise ship and go down in the lock. At the second we chatted and were slowed by countless members of authority but were eventually allowed to walk around and place our canoe back in the river on the other side. With these locks prepare for a long wait and a lot of talking, ultimately you have a right to be allowed passed.
Are there other obstacles on the river?
River Traffic is around but as the river widens they pose less of a problem. From Germany to Hungary the traffic is far worse then further downstream and is certainly something to be aware of. There are cruise ships, tankers and some smaller speed boats that you can often hear from fairly far away. Generally try and keep to the right and always stay aware of whats going on around and behind you.
We joined the Danube at Kelheim but we are informed that in the first 200km or so from the source the river passes many light rapids, which do have the potential to damage canoes and kayaks if paddlers are not careful. From Kelheim onwards, however, there are no rapids
What are the border formalities?
Up until the Hungary/Serbia border you are travelling in the Shengan Zone and do not need to do anything when you cross borders. Leaving Hungary you need to be aware and look for the port customs at the nearest town to each border. Leaving Hungary there is a large building on the right hand bank with flags flying and here you 'check out' of the country. In the next town there are similar flags flying on the left side of the river where you can stop and 'check in' to Serbia. This procedure is the same for all borders. Before leaving a country you get stamped out and entering each country you get stamped in.
As an international waterway you should not have to pay for your passage on the water at any borders. However, in Serbia we were charged a fee since we were deemed a leisure boat and had to pay a government charge. Still not sure whether we were conned on that one or not!
We were aware of kayakers in the past who had not needed any paperwork but us, in our canoe, were told we required a crew list for each country. This was a form we were given at each customs office which we would fill out stating our names and information about the canoe (its length, width, make, e.t.c.). It is this form which we stamped in and out at each border.
In short: at each border look for a customs office which will be on the riverside in the closest town. Stop and tell them what you are doing, showing your passports. As an international waterway they will let you pass.
How long will it take?
The average distance per day varies greatly and obviously depends a lot on how much you stop and what you want to see on route. That said, at least 60kms a day was pretty standard with the exception of the slow water for the 100kms upstream of the Djerdap dams in Serbia. Our longest day was just over 80kms. From Kelheim the Danube took us 45 days. The Tour International Danube have an itinerary of 65 days - perhaps more realistic if you want to spend a good amount of time in towns and cities.
Canoe storage when stopping briefly?
Take a long bike lock. When leaving the canoe we would always lock it to something using a long bike lock and took our paddles with us. As for leaving bags in the canoe, we learnt this lesson the hard way. Admittedly the city of Tour on the river Loire is no small village, but we had loads of our gear stolen from our dry bags, including tent and sleeping bags, when we visited the city for an afternoon. From then on whenever we stopped anywhere we locked the canoe and took both of our large dry bags with us. That meant the canoe was left alone with only food in it, easily replaced. Other than Tour we never encountered any problems.
Canoe storage at night?
Canoe club and rowing clubs are fairly frequent from Germany to Hungary and many offer good camping facilities. The TID camping locations, marked on their itinerary, can be useful for this. These are good secure places to stay and meet like minded people. All along the Danube you can find wild camping spots and the further down the river you go the easier this becomes. By Bulgaria and Romania you can camp almost anywhere. We did plenty of wild camping but be aware it is not legal in Germany or Austria so be particularly careful there. Here we simply slept with the canoe rolled over next to our tent. We could also store a few things under it at night time to keep them dry, sometimes using a bike lock to hold everything safely together.
Canoe storage in cities?
Again, use a trusty bike lock and lock the canoe to something. As in the previous question canoe and rowing clubs are ideal places to store your canoe safely. The people there are like minded and keen to help you out. If you are not staying in a club or campsite our advice is NOT to lock the canoe and leave it by the river while you stay in a hotel. Talk to the hotel and ask them about storage, ask in the tourist info, but for safety in the city be sure to find somewhere. We often used the friendly people on couchsurfing.org or warmshowers.org - online communities set up by travellers to help travellers. If your in need of a friend to help you out abroad, these are the websites to use.
What are the options for the delta?
Since we did not follow the delta our answer is quoted from the following website: danubekayak.moonfruit.com (which appears to no longer be active):
"here are three. At Tulcea the channel splits into three main navigation routes, the Bystroe route in the north, Sulina route in the middle and Sfantul Gheorghe route in the south. In addition to this there are literally hundreds of sub channels crossing all through the delta, so you could pick out a route of your own based on one of the three main channels. Take care coming off the main routes as good navigation or sheer luck is needed – we had more of the second. Still, I would highly recommend getting into these narrow channels if you can, as it will surprise you what you find!
From research and local advice we chose the southern channel to Sfantul Gheorghe route. It was a truly magic route, which I would highly recommend. The village of Sfantul Gheorghe is laid back, small…and perfect. There is a superb campsite in town or fancy lodge options if you feel you earned it! Mid-August there is a very alternative film festival in this village, with an excellent party to boot, so if you can time your arrival to coincide with this it will be a fitting end.
On the other routes, the northern route is probably the least frequented. Ending in the town of Bystroe takes in some Ukrainian towns, so if you have a visa it could be very interesting place to travel. The central route to Sulina is the main cargo channel, so may be easiest to navigate and holds the true end point of the Danube in a lighthouse, so if you’re a purist, perhaps this is your one."
What about the Danube-Black Sea Canal?
The Black Sea Canal is a 45km shortcut that took us from the Danube to the Black Sea avoiding the delta. If you are not in a rush our advice would certainly be to take the river route to the sea, taking in the famously spectacular scenery. The canal, however, is accessible to canoes and kayaks with one lock at either end if you choose to take this route.
You are not permitted to enter the locks and there is no set up for portaging, for this you just have to clamber up the banks and do it yourself.
The canal is also called 'the canal of death' due to the great number of slave labourers and prisoners who died there in poor conditions. It is a grim and eerie place. It is a very unique experience but not an entirely pleasant one. Where it finishes in Agigea we were forbidden access near and beyond the lock since it is a large commercial port. To reach the sea is therefore a particularly long portage.
Do I need a water purifier?
We took chlorine tablets which we did use fairly often from Serbia onwards. However, you can certainly get by without, simply by having a decent amount of water storage and topping up whenever you get the chance. For safety it is always best to carry something, just in case.
Have more questions?
Simply get in touch through our contact form.
Following this advice?
These FAQ pages are intended to answer your common questions but reflect out-dated knowledge from our experiences in 2013. Things on the Danube may be different today. James Warner Smith and Nathan Wilkins do not take responsibility for anybody that follows our advice without seeking further, professional guidance and cannot be held responsible for any loss, damage, injury or death that occurs as a result of following this information. Please be cautious, act responsibly and canoe safely.