Is Kayaking Dangerous?

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Is kayaking dangerous? Like any outdoor activity, there are certain risks associated with a kayak. Of course, you can reduce or even eliminate the danger by using a few common-sense practices.

After logging countless trips on the calm lakes of Quebec and Ontario, the choppy water off the coast of Vancouver, and a myriad of various other waterways around the world, I am excited to share my kayaking safety expertise with others.

Read on to learn about the differences between the perceived and real risks that you might experience on the water. Find out what hazards are most dangerous. Then, find out what you can do to avoid them.

Perceived vs. Real Risk in a Kayak

Many people are naturally apprehensive of water. That is why I find it so important that kayakers learn to recognize the differences between real and perceived risks. The biggest threat is often a paddler’s heightened perception of risk, especially one that isn’t rooted in reality.

Perceived risks are based on a person’s subjective judgment of what’s at stake. Meanwhile, real risks are a present and probable danger. When illustrating the difference between perceived and real risks, I like to point to the fact that more accidents occur on the way to or from waterways than during actual paddling expeditions.

It’s worth mentioning that experienced, skilled paddlers often choose to participate in what they deem as acceptable risks. For example, a skilled ocean kayaker may feel comfortable traversing choppy or rough waves. Rough water is inherently dangerous. However, a talented and well-equipped kayaker can feel comfortable taking on the challenge even though an inexperienced paddler could be injured or even killed in the same scenario.

person white water kayaking dangerous conditions

Many factors can impact a person’s perceived risks. People sometimes participate in risky behavior because of peer pressure, a need to succeed, or a craving for adrenaline. I am going to go over all of the actual dangers of kayaking. By the time you’re finished reading this article, you will have a better idea of what to look for when you’re heading out on the water.

With that said, the risks of paddling do heighten as you get into harsher paddling conditions. As you can see in this U.S. Coast Guard boating safety report, visibility, water conditions, wind, and water temperatures have the potential to cause or worsen water accidents.

Recreational/Lake Kayaking

Lake and recreational kayaking are relatively safe activities, but that doesn’t mean that they can be done without risk. Lake kayakers may become incapacitated, stuck, or overturned due to lack of experience. The weather might worsen suddenly, or you collide with another vessel. These sorts of scenarios could be lethal if the paddler is not wearing a PFD or if the incident goes unnoticed.

Sea Kayaking

Sea kayaking is inherently more dangerous than the recreational kind. That’s because ocean water presents a new set of variables, including tides, currents, and surf. The ocean can be unpredictable. Conditions are constantly changing. Paddlers may become lost or disoriented. Rough water or atmospheric conditions can prevent a paddler from performing a self-rescue. Moreover, a kayak would bear the brunt of the damage if they were to be in an accident with a larger oceanic vessel.

White Water/River Kayaking

Rivers and white water are riddled with hazards, including sweepers, strainers, undercuts, and man-made structures. Paddlers can learn to read rivers. Slight changes in the physical appearance or direction of currents may be used to identify hazards up ahead for a kayak. Paddlers may also opt to do a preliminary shore-based tour of their riverway before dislodging. A quick scouting job will enable you to identify all sorts of kayaking hazards, including the ones listed in this glossary.

Is Kayaking Really Dangerous?

There are plenty of inherent risks associated with a kayak. Once you learn to recognize and avoid real dangers, you will be able to enjoy safe, fun paddles to maximize your kayak safety. When starting out make sure that you avoid using the kayak alone and go with a buddy.

What Are Some of the Dangers of Kayaking?

After over 20 years of paddling, I’ve seen my fair share of kayaking accidents and failures. Here’s a list of the most common dangers of kayaking and some tips on how to eliminate the risks while in your kayak.

Not Using Life Jacket Correctly

Drowning is the leading cause of death for recreational boaters. According to this study published by the JSI Research & Training Institute, it accounts for 80% of kayaking deaths. With that said, properly worn PFDs (personal floatation devices) are capable of preventing at least half of all drowning deaths using a kayak.

Despite these clear and consistent facts, many adult kayakers still fail to wear PFDs correctly, if at all. It seems as though many kayakers are making a decision based on perceived risks. Drowning in a kayak is a real risk. It can occur in any condition and to paddlers of every skill level.

How to Prevent This

Every paddler needs a properly fitted Coast Guard-approved life jacket. You can find our picks for the Best Kayak PFDs here. Your PDF should fit snugly and be in good condition. Remember, your life jacket is no help to you if it is not fastened.

Outside Magazine published an excellent article on how to buy, wear, and use a PFD while in a kayak or other vessel. You can also find plenty of PFD instructional videos online. Check out this one by the Army Corps of Engineers.

is kayaking dangerous


Other Boaters

Kayaks may be small, but that doesn’t mean that the rules to them. You need to make yourself noticeable to other boats, especially large vessels that have the potential to destroy or flip your kayak in the event of a collision.

How to Prevent This

Familiarize yourself with local boating laws and regulations. Wear bright colors at all times, and utilize lights mounted on your kayak when paddling between sunrise and sunset. Avoid the water during times of bad visibility.

Larger waterways have aided to navigation (ATONs), such as nuns, buoys, lights, and beacons. Check out Boat US to learn about some of the common markers. However, you still need to know what to do in the case that you come head to head with another vessel.

Strainers and Sweepers

Strainers are fallen trees that obstruct waterways and often catch debris. These dangerous waterway obstructions have the potential to prevent kayakers from making their way downstream.

Stainers are particularly dangerous when they occur after a sudden bend or when the protrusions do not reach over the surface of the water. Kayakers can come upon them unexpectedly. A boat can easily become pinned between the current and the strainer and get stuck, resulting in a devastating and hard-to-escape circumstance. In rare circumstances, the pressure of the backdraft has pulled paddlers under the water.

Sweepers are low-hanging tree branches that, like streamers, obstruct the flow of waterways. An unsuspecting kayaker may collide with a sweeper. Such an event could lead a paddler to be dislodged from their kayak. Worse, a paddler might be knocked unconscious or become injured, resulting in them becoming unable to keep their head above the water.

How to Prevent This

River runners need to know how to spot and respond to these potentially lethal obstructions. While it is often a paddler’s first instinct to quickly angle themself around a strainer, it’s usually safer to for them to straighten their kayak and back paddle. This way, they can safely make their way past the obstruction with the help of the river current.

Check out this video for tips and tricks on maneuvering past river sweepers. You will be able to utilize the overhead branches to balance your vessel. Always take note of your gear and paddles, as it is possible for them to come loose or dislodged during this sort of incident.

Streamers and sweepers are additional reasons that you should always wear a properly fitted and fastened PFD during paddles. In the case that you do become dislodged, knocked unconscious, or injured, your PDF is the only thing that has the potential to save your life.

You can also beef up your safety by wearing a helmet. A helmet is a valuable piece of protective equipment for kayakers traversing fast or rugged waterways. Just take a look at this to see what happens when you don’t wear a helmet on white water. Head on over to my review of the best kayak helmets to discover five of the most durable, effective, and comfortable selections.

Bad Weather Conditions Like Cold Water

Bad Conditions can put paddlers’ lives at risk. You should always steer clear of waterways during extreme weather conditions, including storms, high heat, and cold air temperature. Just being out on a boat leaves you exposed to the elements. Sun damage, dehydration, hypothermia, and cold water shock are a few of the most common paddling dangers.

According to the American Canoe Association (ACA), cold water, high water, high winds, and storms are some of the most dangerous paddling conditions.

How to Prevent This

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an excellent source for local forecasts, storm warnings, and water conditions. You can also receive forecasts from the National Weather Service, the Weather Underground, The Weather Channel, or your local news channel.

Keep in mind that weather can be unpredictable, and forecasts are merely predictions. As such, paddlers must be able to ‘read the conditions if they want to have safe, enjoyable paddling experiences. The Outdoor Project’s guide will help you learn to recognize patterns, atmospheric pressure, clouds, wind, and more. Pair your boots-on-the-ground observations with official weather forecasts to circumvent being surprised by or caught up in potentially dangerous conditions.

Atmospheric temperature can vary from the water temperature. Dress in layers so that you can shed or add clothing if the weather changes abruptly. Wear clothing that will not become waterlogged. Bring along sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed hat to ensure that you do not get sunburned. Select clothing that will keep you warm and dry even in the event of immersion. Bring a spare set of clothing (protected in a dry bag) so that you are able to change if you do become wet.

You should postpone your trip if the conditions arn’t looking good. Get to shore as soon as you notice signs that conditions are starting to deteriorate.

The Undercut

Undercuts occur when the soft portion of a riverbank or bank-side rock erodes. Debris and trees become trapped under the cavity, leading to the development of strainers or dramatic and unexpected changes to a river’s current. These unexpected and often concealed recessed can even trap paddlers. As you can see in this video, an undercut can lead to a dangerous and potentially even lethal accident.

How to Prevent This

Undercuts are common occurrences on fast-moving and whitewater rivers. You can avoid undercuts by scouting or researching waterways ahead of your paddle. If you do find yourself in the shadow of an undercut, you should edge your kayak toward it. This will keep the water from piling over your vessel or flipping you over. Always paddle with friends so that, in the case that you do become lodged in an undercut, your paddling partners will be able to set up a rescue or call for help.

Lack of Kayaking Experience in Tough Water Conditions

It is dangerous for an inexperienced paddler to attempt to traverse tough water conditions. The vast majority of kayaking accidents occur when ill-equipped or inexperienced paddlers attempt to push the limits.

An unskilled paddler will most likely struggle to overcome a sudden capsizing in rough surf or navigate around a common riverway hazard.

How to Prevent This

Start small and work your way up. If you’re new to kayaking, you don’t want your first ocean outing to be on rough water. Your inability to navigate a mishap may prove to an unforgiving calamity.

There are plenty of situations in which a general lack of skill or knowledge could prove to be dangerous. Newcomers who do not know the rules or are not disciplined enough to judge their physical limitations could find themselves stranded off-shore.

Sign up for a kayaking class or enroll yourself in a skill-based group paddle. You’re sure to pick up some new technical skills. Most communities also offer free or low-cost CPR classes. I cannot stress how important it is that paddlers know basic first aid and be able to self-rescue.

Guy Checking kayak conditions snow

Wrong Kayaking Conditions

Using kayak equipment in inappropriate situations can also prove to be hazardous. An example of this is if you are at a beginner skill level and you attempt a go a class V rapids. A regular sit-in recreational kayak would quickly fill with water if it were brought into heavy surf. Only the most skilled paddlers should be trusted to man a sit-in kayak in the ocean.

How to Prevent This

Only use your kayak for its intended purposes, even if that means skipping over a particularly alluring waterway to stay safe. The right gear can protect you in the event of dangerous circumstances. As Level Six blogger Heather writes, “There are never wrong conditions, just the wrong gear.” Your boat, clothing, PFD, helmet, and other items in your arsenal can make your paddle less dangerous. Never attempt to cut corners and use a kayak in a way that it is not intended to be used.

Wrapping Up

Most people experience a mix of excitement and apprehension when they enter a kayak for the first time. Paddlers of all skill sets must have a solid understanding of the real and probable dangers in different types of waterways. You can increase your on-the-water safety by using proper equipment, picking appropriate paddling locations, and recognizing and avoiding hazards.

Did you enjoy our guide on common paddling dangers and how to avoid them? If so, consider sharing it with your friends and fellow paddlers. You can also play a part in making waterways less dangerous. Check out the rest of our website to find killer gear recommendations and other informative guides.

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