An empty tank is required for this zany and fun mode of locomotion. It’s called "tanking." You're probably wondering what exactly that means. It involves floating down a river in an empty cattle tank, a large steel or plastic vessel used to provide livestock with drinking water. It’s clearly time for the cows to moo-ve over and make room in their tanks for some adventurous voyagers.

Those engaged in the water sport of tanking usually sit in lawn chairs and use paddles to navigate downstream in their improvised circular craft, frequently spinning like they're on a merry-go-round. A tank can usually fit up to six passengers. Think of this water sport as a distant and unkempt cousin of canoeing.

Tanking seems to have been born in the cattle-filled state of Nebraska, though it’s started to migrate throughout neighboring states. For example, the River’s Edge campground in New Richmond, Wis., about an hour-and-45-minute drive from Rochester, provides a tank rental experience on the Apple River for $25.

Two members of Rochester’s Traverski Ski, Sport & Social Club, Chris Anderson and Steve McNaughton, have gone tanking with their friend Tim Troxel on the Upper Iowa River near Cresco, Iowa, from his parents' farm. Troxel, whose first tanking expedition was about 20 years ago, learned about tanking from a brother-in-law who would float down the Platte River.

“The most common reaction is ‘What?!’ ” says Troxel, about the response he usually gets when he tells someone about the unique water sport. He resorts to pictures to explain.

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“I feel cow tanking is the in-between of canoeing and tubing,” he says. “The big difference in cow tanking versus canoeing is that people are looking at each other instead of one person talking to another person's back.”

He says the cooler in the middle makes a great leg rest.

You might be wondering how you “steer” a cattle tank as it spins down the river. It’s definitely a team effort, because if only one person paddles, the tank just turns in circles.

“The paddlers have some impact, but the river current really determines where you’re going for the most part,” McNaughton says.

Troxel recommends scouting a river with a canoe or kayak before trying a tanking trip. He also suggests allowing much longer traveling times than a usual float trip might require.

Anderson says that sunscreen, swimsuit, water bailer, drinking water, a cooler full of sustenance, and a waterproof camera are all essentials for a tanking trip.

McNaughton has been thankful he’s taken a “dry bag” to keep some things safe from the water in case the tank capsizes. He’s also quick to add that some Super Soaker squirt guns don’t hurt, either.

Remembering one tanking trip, McNaughton recalls using the tank as a picnic table for a lunch break.

“There was even a cave to explore along the way on this particular stretch of the Iowa River,” he says. “It's exciting because you could tip or sink, but we all pitch in to help each other out of any dangerous situations. A snake fell out of a tree into a tank once, too, which added excitement and screams.”

For Troxel, the appeal of a tanking trip is telling stories with a bunch of friends.

“Going down some Class 1 rapids, going through a herd of cows [watering in the river], or seeing a bald eagle or two makes cow tanking exciting,” he says.

In one memory of a tanking trip recorded in the Traverski Ski, Sport & Social Club’s newsletter, Anderson writes, “Our tank was nicknamed ‘Titanic’ as we sprung a leak.”

The leak was repaired with duct tape and gum.

“The river was low and slow, but it was relaxing when we weren’t hitting bottom,” she writes. “We had water wars; dodged branches, birds, and live wires; blew bubbles; talked to cows; and got some sun.”

The Zumbro River is beckoning, and local farm supply stores sell appropriate tanks for about $320, so we might see some circular crafts in our local waterways soon. This is one endeavor where you are actually a success if you tank, so it's time to say “Cowabunga, dude!” and take a wet trip down river.

Want to try it?

  • River's Edge (Richmond, Wis.): A day of tanking costs $25 per adult. At least four people must reserve a tank in advance.
  • Traverski Ski, Sport & Social Club (Rochester):

  • Buy your own: If you want to do it on your own, you can buy a stock tank at most farm supply stores for about $300.