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Beach safety

water lapping on sandy lakeshore

Beach safety

Be informed, it could save your life.

The Great Lakes are large, powerful water systems prone to dangerous currents that can threaten even the most experienced swimmer. Rip and structural currents, high waves and other dangerous currents and wave conditions can occur along beaches, near the outlets of rivers and near structures such as piers and breakwalls.

According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project data, since 2010, 965 people have drowned in the Great Lakes. In 2020, 56 people drowned in Lake Michigan, making it the deadliest year on record.

Check current Great Lakes swim risk levels »

Great Lakes Beach flag warning system

Red flag

Stay on the beach, do not enter the water and do not swim.

Yellow flag

Watch for dangerous currents and high waves.

Green flag

Enter the water, but stay aware of changing conditions.

Great Lakes and inland water safety tips

Advantages of designated swim areas

Many – but not all – state parks on the Great Lakes have designated swimming areas that offer additional safety measures and visual cautions. Designated swimming areas are identified by:

  • Markers and/or buoys.
  • Water depth less than 5 feet at the time of installation.
  • A beach flag warning system.
  • Access to lifesaving flotation device and equipment.
  • Other site-specific safety measures, such as electronic messaging boards, signage and public address systems.

*Buoys and markers are typically installed prior to the Memorial Day holiday weekend and removed at the end of the season.

No beach guards

There are no beach guards (or life guards) at state parks, so never swim alone and always keep a close watch over children. It's especially important to bring U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, especially for young, new and inexperienced swimmers.

Additional safety tips

  • Never swim alone, always keep close watch over children and bring U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, especially for new and inexperienced swimmers.
  • Keep close watch of children: Stay within arm's reach and have them wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket.
  • If you see someone in trouble, call for help and throw the lifesaving device or anything else that floats. Avoid entering the water if possible and, if you must go, wear a life jacket.
  • In an emergency, immediately call 911. At Holland and Grand Haven state parks, use the nearest red zone number boards (located on the beach) to help relay your location as accurately as possible.
  • Never jump off or swim near piers and breakwalls because extremely dangerous structural currents can form along shoreline structures.
  • During certain weather conditions, the force of water and waves crashing over the surface can easily wash someone off a structure.
  • Some state parks along the Great Lakes have life jacket loaner stations available.
  • Check local weather reports and lake conditions before and during your beach trip. You can learn about Great Lakes swim risk levels at weather.gov/greatlakes/beachhazards (National Weather Service).

New law prohibits water access from a state-managed beach when risks are present

In an ongoing effort to create more protections for visitors on state-managed lands, Land Use Order 5.1.6 now prohibits people from accessing the water from a state-managed beach when risks to human health and safety are present. This includes situations like active rescue/recovery efforts, severe weather events identified by the National Weather Service, waves more than 8 feet high, water contamination and unsafe debris washing ashore. Such closures will be publicized via on-site signage and/or communication by a DNR employee, such as an announcement over a loudspeaker.

*The order does not apply to people using a self-propelled wave-riding board, such as longboard and shortboard, kiteboard, body/”boogie” board with swim fins, and skimboard, and when using commonly accepted safety rules and procedures.

dangerous currents sign

Types of currents

In the Great Lakes, swimmers are most likely to encounter one of five common currents:

  • Rip currents.
  • Structural currents.
  • Channel currents.
  • Longshore currents.
  • Outlet currents (river channel).

Learn about Great Lakes currents

Flip, Float, Follow diagram

How to escape a current

FLIP:

Flip over onto your back and float.

FLOAT:

  • Keep head above water.
  • Calm yourself down from fear and panic; don't panic.
  • Conserve your energy.

FOLLOW:

Follow the safest path to safety / out of the water.

  • Do not fight the current.
  • Follow the current to assess which way it's flowing. Swim perpendicular to the flow.
  • Too tired to swim, continue floating and try to signal for help.