This article features the most important kayak safety tips you need to know before climbing aboard your boat.
I have been kayaking for over 15 years now. Sometimes recreationally and sometimes as a part of our our guided expedition trips that we take city folk on. While nothing major has happened yet (thankfully) a big part of that is because of our preperation.
A big part of kayaking saftey is not throwing yourself into conditions that you are unfamialiar with. This prevents the biggest dangers of kayaking such as hypothermia, drowning and tough external conditions. When it comes to people who have limited experience with kayaks, we only take them out in calm conditions in a smaller body of water. fully equipped with everything they need.
The below list was compiled from our experiences as well as facts from other authoratative sources to give you a birds eye view on what to look for and how to avoid getting yourself caught in tough situations. For more information take a look at the ACA’s safety page for more information. Below, we will discuss all of the kayaking rules, measures, and precautions that you need to take before you go kayaking.
Keep an Eye on the Weather and Tides/Water Changes
Before you go out on a kayaking adventure, the first thing that you will need to check is the weather for the day as well as the tide tables if you live by the coast. Check your local forecast for storms and weather that will be unpleasant for you on the water.
If the sky is cloudy, you may want to wait for another time to go kayaking so that the inclement weather does not cut your day shorter than you planned. Storms are a big no- no to paddle in. My friend and site owner Derek, has gotten caught in a storm or two and let me tell you, the frantic paddle back to shore followed by a booming thunder is not a pleasant experience to be around.
Make sure that you consider any local hazards that may be important to know about, like tides, tricky currents, swells, or other underwater hazards. If you are not prepared for the tide to go out, you may end up not being able to return to where you put the kayak in the water. Wind can also affect the water, so be aware of any strong wind coming with a storm to the area. This is especially true in bays and inlettes by the coast.
One of the first steps you should do when considering taking a kayaking trip is to plan so that your group and your loved ones will know where to find you if something happens. Discuss where you are going and the location where you will be putting your kayaks into the water. Time is also essential, so consider what time you will be putting your kayak into the water and the time you expect to be heading back home.
Print this information out and give it to a loved one, along with the names and numbers of your kayaking partners for the trip. This is called a float plan, and it ensures that everyone has essential details for the trip. You may also want to create a plan of action for someone to begin a search for you if you are not back by a specific time. Make sure that you stick with the plan that you create.
One of the main aspects that you will need to plan is the type of water that you and your kayaking buddies are able to tackle. Not everyone has the same skills when it comes to kayaking and paddling, so make sure to consider this.
As a beginner, you are going to want to stick with mostly flat water that is calm. This will give you the opportunity to get used to paddling and controlling the kayak without the force of the water making it more difficult. If you have never gone kayaking before, it is imperative that you go with another person so that you are not alone on the water if the kayak capsizes.
As your kayaking skills improve, you are going to want to tackle more complex bodies of water. This could mean kayaking on flat lakes as well as moving on to rivers that have a bit of a current. Coastal areas with mild waves could also be considered, but make sure the movement of the water is not too rough so that you will be able to handle it until your skills are more advanced. Try to find water that is not too rocky so that you don’t have to make tough maneuvers in the water at a moment’s notice. It is also important that you survey the area you want to paddle and have a few experienced buddies go with you as well.
Advanced kayakers may want to consider trying out more difficult rapids and waves that will be more challenging to conquer. Rocks and ledges can be found in the water, but make sure that you have the tools to manage these obstacles. Even as an advanced kayaker, you will still want to avoid violent rapids and steep drops that could put you in harm’s way. Only experts should attempt this type of water, and every precaution should be taken in advance to make sure that you are safe if something goes wrong in the water.
When it comes to safety, there are several accessories that you may deem necessary for your trip. Many states have their own set of guidelines that you will need to consider before taking a kayak out on the water. Some regulations will be designed for children, while others will be designed to keep adults safe. Check out this guide to learn some of the lifejacket regulations in your state. In addition to a PDF or a personal flotation device, let’s look at some of the other equipment needs you may have at different skill levels.
As a beginner, you will need the most to make sure that you are prepared for anything that could happen on the water. Ensure that you have the following equipment packed into your kayak before you venture out into the water.
- PDF: If your kayak capsizes, you will be able to keep your head above water easily. In cold water, this will also provide some insulation to keep you warm.
- First Aid Kit: This will help manage any medical emergencies that happen while you are kayaking until you can get to a medical facility to get the injury looked at.
- An Extra Paddle: This will give you something to row back with if you paddle breaks or you lose it in the water. This is often a beginner’s mistake, so it will be helpful to have an extra paddle in your kayak in case it is needed.
- A Paddle Leash: This is an elastic cord that keeps the paddle attached to the front of the kayak, which will be helpful if the kayak capsizes.
- A Bilge Pump: This will help you remove some of the water in the kayak if it capsizes. This will keep the water from collecting, which could sink the kayak.
- A Coast Guard Approved Whistle: This type of whistle is designed to be heard from a good distance away, so if you are in your kayak and you find yourself in a pickle, other people will be able to hear your distress call.
- Paddling Glove: These will help prevent your hands from getting blisters as you paddle.
- Sunscreen: When you are out on the water, the sun’s rays can be harmful to your skin. Make sure you are protected, especially if you plan on kayaking for a long period.
- A Dry Bag: This is a bag designed to keep your personal items dry if the kayak capsizes. This can hold snacks, maps, a first aid kit, or clothes.
- Drinkable Water: It’s essential to stay hydrated during your trip.
As you move to the intermediate stage of kayaking, you will need to bring the same kayaking safety equipment from the above list. This is non-negotialble.
Intermediate kayakers have a more advanced skill set so they will need a few more items to match the more challenging conditions that they may face. This skill level may mean that you are traversing water with rocks either by river or by sea. You are also facing things such as currents, tides and a greater amount of waves. You will need to protect yourself more fully. Let’s take a look at some of the additional gear that you will need to consider.
- A Map: This will help you keep your bearings as you are kayaking. It will help you navigate the river that you are exploring before you start out on the water.
- A Compass: This will help you navigate more open water, so you will be able to find your way back to shore in the ocean.
- Flares: This is an effective way of communicating across a long distance that works both at night and during the day.
- A Radio: Kayakers will want to have a radio with them on the water to track the weather.
- Flashlights: This can grab the attention of passing vessels, especially in low light situations. Flashlights with a strobe feature can be used to create Morse code messages as well.
- A Tow Line: This is a line designed to assist paddlers who are stuck on rocks or other debris in the water. It can also be used to help a kayaker who is too tired to paddle.
- A Float Bag: Also known as a throw bag, this is a flotation device that can be tossed to another kayaker so that they can be pulled to safety in rough whitewater.
- A Helmet: A helmet is an essential piece of safety gear that whitewater and surf kayakers will want to protect their head from rocks or shallow water.
- A Spray Skirt: When you are kayaking in rough water, this is an item that can keep the spray at bay. This means that waves and rapids will not be able to splash above the kayak’s rim and fill the boat with water.
- A Knife: A knife is an essential tool to have if your kayak gets pushed by the current into an area filled with debris. You may need to cut the kayak loose to get free, or you may need to cut a strap if you get pinned under the water so that you do not drown.
When you become more advanced, you will still want the same safety equipment as a beginner to make sure that you come home, but there are some additional items that you may want to consider. These will help you if you paddle farther out to sea and give you a way to repair your kayak if it gets damaged.
- A Repair Kit: This should include things like a multi-tool, duct tape, and anything else that you may need to repair your kayak. The items you keep in your kit will depend on the kayak’s material and the paddle you are using.
- A GPS Device: Knowing where you are located is imperative for kayaking, so if you are traveling far, make sure to have a working GPS. Some GPS systems can also notify nearby vessels if you send a distress signal.
- Navigational Lights: When you travel a reasonable distance, having lights that allow for night navigation can make sure that you get home safely. If you don’t have navigation lights, consider camping for the night if it gets too late to see where you are traveling.
How to Dress
An important part of kayaking safety is knowing how to dress for each type of weather. We explain this in more detail in this article.In the mean time Let’s take a look at some of the basics for each season, as shown in our infograph below.
In the winter, you will want to wear enough clothes to keep you warm while kayaking. Start with some long underwear to give you more layers, and then add a drysuit liner for insulation, a drysuit, and a fleece jacket for added warmth. Thick warm pants will be required as well as socks, a hat, gloves, and waterproof shoes.
In the fall, the temperatures are beginning to drop, so you will want some of the same clothes you would use in the winter. Ideally, you will still wear long clothes for this cooler temperature, but not as many layers. Keep the drysuit liner and the drysuit on, but maybe skip out on the long underwear so that you are not overly hot while paddling. A light jacket is recommended if you are going out in the morning when temperatures are cooler.
Spring is a bit warmer, so you will be able to wear a sleeveless wetsuit to keep you from getting too cold in the water. In addition to that, you can wear light pants or shorts and a t-shirt. Make sure to bring a rain jacket for some insulation in case it becomes chilly during the trip.
Since summer is the warmest time of the year, you won’t need a lot of clothing to protect you from hypothermia. You can wear shorts and a t-shirt or a swimming suit if you prefer. Don’t forget to wear a hat to protect you from the sun, and keep sunscreen on at all times.
Practice Kayak Safety Techniques
Things can go wrong quickly when you’re out there on the water, which is why a good kayaker will need to learn several key safety techniques. These include learning how to roll a kayak correctly and using the appropriate rescue techniques when solo, with a buddy, or in colder waters where hypothermia is a real danger.
When you’re out there on rougher waters, it’s very easy for you to flip on your kayak. Flipping can cause you to drown if you don’t know what to do. This is because you usually only have a short amount of time to free yourself. As a result, it’s much more expedient to roll the kayak back upright so that you can continue paddling.
Learning how to roll a kayak is critical for sit-inside kayaks, and fully understanding the technique will take some practice. We recommend using a pool or other relatively shallow body of water to practice any of the techniques. Calm water conditions are nesciarry to learn properly without hassel. Are you unsure where to begin? The two most popular are the C-to-C and sweep rolls as seen in the video by Paddle TV (great channel) below.
Sometimes, you paddle alone, and when you do, you’ll need to learn the appropriate rescue techniques. Here’s how to use a few when you’re by yourself or with a friend.
With a Friend
Ideally, you’ll always be paddling out on the water with a friend since this provides you with a person who you can rely on when things go wrong. Most techniques require that you use both you and your partner’s deck lines for stability, but learning techniques like the leg hook so that they become second nature will save your life.
When you’re by yourself, there are a few techniques that include the scramble and paddle float methods that can save your life when your kayak capsizes. These techniques are a great supplement to rolling, so learning them is absolutely critical if you are ever going to kayak alone. Having said that I would wait for you to gain more paddling experience before tackling these techniques by yourself.
Cold Water Rescue Techniques
When you’re out kayak fishing on a cold winter day, it’s critical that you understand what to do should you become immersed. An example of this would be when fishing, it’s easy for a large catch to flip your boat, and when that happens, you have mere minutes to correct yourself before hypothermia kicks in.
One of the most important aspects of cold water rescue when kayaking is dressing for immersion, but there are other techniques and tests that you will need to use to ensure that you’re ready for the water.
Kayaking Dangers to Consider
There is a significant difference between a perceived kayaking danger and an actual kayaking danger. There is nothing wrong with being more cautious than you need to be, but the danger comes into play when you don’t see something as dangerous when it is actually a very high risk. For example, a flooded river may seem safe, but the higher water will create a much faster flow that you may not be prepared for. Let’s take a look at some other dangers that you should be aware of before kayaking.
Improper PDF Use
One of the main dangers that people do not perceive as a danger is the need to wear a PFD when you are kayaking. Many people feel that they can swim, so they don’t need to have the floatation device on, but what happens if you get caught in a rapid, and your head hits a rock. With a PFD, your head will be kept above water, but without it, your chance of drowning in the rapids is much higher.
Always make sure that you have on a PFD while you are paddling a kayak. Make sure that it fits snuggly and that it is properly sized to fit your body. Also, check that it is still in good condition before you go out on the water.
Attempting to kayak in water that you are not ready for can be one of the most dangerous things for a beginner to do. Rough water that could be straightforward for an experienced kayaker could be deadly for someone who is not prepared to manage this type of water. Don’t throw someone into the deep end who has difficulty managing these conditions.
Kayaking is not something that can be taken lightly, and advancing to rapid and rough water too soon can make a situation turn deadly in seconds. Make sure that your skill level is up to par before attempting something more dangerous. If you are not sure of your skill level, consider taking a kayaking class to help you feel more comfortable. If you are unsure, don’t try and show off to impress your friends. When in doubt, start off with a kayaking instructor who can show you how to handle trickier conditions.
Too Much Sun Exposure
Being in the sun for a long time has its own set of dangers. Being in the kayak for an hour or two will probably be fine, but if you are out there for more time, you are likely to experience sunburn and dehydration, which can lead to more serious illnesses that you don’t want to deal with. Too much sun can lead to heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
Water reflects the sun, so even if you are covered and feel like you are not getting too much sun, you may be getting burnt without realizing it. Because of this, you can even feel the effects of the sun when the sky is overcast. Wherever you go kayaking, make sure that you always have sunscreen on the exposed areas of your skin.
Dehydration comes from exerting energy when you are experiencing too much exposure from the sun. To ensure that you stay hydrated while kayaking, it’s imperative to bring water in a cooler or some kind of water proof/ weather resistant canister with you that you can drink. The longer you plan to be out in the kayak, the more water you will need to bring. If at any time you begin to feel dizzy, fatigued, or extremely thirsty, make sure that you rehydrate yourself. Better yet, go back to shore and wait until you start to feel better. In fact, even if you are not feeling thirsty, it may be a good idea to take a few sips of water to keep yourself hydrated. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to take a drink.
Hypothermia is a real risk to anyone who kayaks in cold water. You can get it if your kayak capsizes in the water, but you can also get it by being in the cold air after you fall into the water. Make sure you dress appropriately for the weather. A wetsuit is often a good idea for submersion when the water temperatures begin to drop.
If the water is close to freezing, cold shock can take your breath away and cause your blood pressure to rise. The confusion can make getting out of the water more difficult, which can be deadly if you are kayaking alone. For this reason, you always need to kayak with a buddy. It will give you the help that you need if you capsize in cold water.
Many people don’t think to check the weather before venturing out on a kayaking journey, but running into a storm while you are on the water is a bad idea. Mild rain is not going to be too big of an issue, you will just mostly get wet. If you see the rain getting harder or happen to hear thunder or see lightning, make sure that you get to shore as quickly as possible. If lightning strikes near you when you are in the water, there is a chance that you can get electrocuted.
If something happens that causes you to get stuck in a storm, never touch the paddle because it can serve as a conductor for the lightning. Also, heavy rain often comes with wind that can decrease your ability to see, making getting to shore even more dangerous. Your best bet is always to check the weather forecast before kayaking. It can also help to have a radio with you that you can use to check the weather from time to time while you are out.
Fallen Trees and Rocks
Sometimes, rock formations form under the water near fallen trees. These rocks can be difficult to see when you are paddling a kayak, and the fast-moving rapids can cause you to be trapped under the tree. To avoid this, you will need to be aware of the flow of the river to stay safe. Steer clear of any area that you cannot paddle through, and never get too close to fallen trees, especially if you are paddling alone.
Strainers are obstacles that are positioned under the water to make sure that debris does not flow farther downstream. They are designed to stop all solid objects from passing that point, which means that a kayaker could easily get stuck in the net or grates. If you do get trapped, there will be a lot of pressure pushing you under the water. This can be extremely dangerous, so you will want to attempt to steer away from these types of obstacles before you are caught in one. Never attempt to paddle through a strainer; it’s simply too unsafe to risk.
Water is designed to flow over dams with ease, but it can be easy to be taken by surprise as a paddler. In addition to not being able to control the drop, the water past the dam is quite turbulent, which can also trap a paddler and make getting out of the undercurrent quite tricky. If you see a dam nearby, it’s best to travel to the edge and carry your kayak past the dam to a more safe area. Don’t risk going over the dam for any reason.
Ships and Other Boaters
If you are kayaking in the ocean or lake, remember that you are in a small vessel that may be difficult for larger ships to see. Since the kayak is small, you will likely take the most damage from another boat colliding with you. You will want to wear bright-colored clothing and keep your kayak out of the main boating routes in the day. When it is dark or foggy outside, you will need to use bright lights to ensure that your kayak can be seen in the water.
Kayaking Safety Tips
To make sure that you don’t get hurt and reduce your risk of drowning while paddling here are some kayak safety tips that you need to follow.
- If you are a beginner or intermediate paddler, always kayak with a friend. Kayaking alone removes a friend who could help you recover from a kayak that capsizes.
- Always tell people where you are kayaking to and an estimated time of when you will be returning.
- Practice falling out of your kayak and re-entering it from the water before going out. This will help you understand what to do if the vessel capsizes.
- Wear a PFD at ALL times. This flotation device can keep you above water in most situations. In fact, according to the US Coast Guard, 48% of kayakers who drowned were not wearing a personal floatation device.
- Avoid alcohol consumption while you are paddling a kayak. Alcohol and physical excursion do not mix well, so wait until you set up camp for the night to enjoy a drink.
- Make sure you have a kayak that can match the conditions. Make sure to consider your ability and your experience level. Don’t be overconfident in the water. If you are not ready for a challenging situation, it’s better to be safe and know your limits rather than having an issue while you are on the water. Recreational kayaks are designed for calmer water, so make sure not to take one of these vessels into intense rapids that could damage the kayak and you along with it.
- Take a paddling class to help you be more prepared in the water. Practice makes perfect, even when it comes to kayaking. As you advance you can take more specifc classes to meet the conditions you plan to paddle. Such as white water kayaking courses and sea kayaking courses.
- Be aware that kayaking in cold water can be even more dangerous than kayaking in warm water. If the water is below 60 degrees, you will want to consider wearing a wetsuit to keep you warm. Immersion in water that is lower than that can cause cold water shock. This can impair your judgment, strength, and coordination, preventing you from getting back into the kayak if it capsizes.
- Always check your kayak and kayaking equipment before you go out into the water to ensure it is not damaged. This includes your PDF as well because, over time, they can wear and become less reliable.
As you finish up reading our guide, you may still have some questions you are curious about when it comes to kayaking. Let’s look at some of the most frequently asked questions before bringing this article to a close.
Q: Is Kayaking Dangerous?
A: As with anything, there are adherent dangers to kayaking, but if you are aware of the dangers before you go out, then you can be better prepared for them if they happen. Be careful, make informed decisions, and don’t take unnecessary risks while kayaking, and it will be an activity that you can enjoy with friends or family.
Q: What Should I Avoid when Kayaking?
A: While you are kayaking, it’s essential to avoid things like dams, fallen trees, and other debris. These things can cause you to get caught unaware, which means you could be in danger before you know it. Also, avoid rivers that are flooded because the water will have a strong current that you will not be prepared for, even if you have run the river before in normal conditions.
Q: How do I Stay Warm if I Capsize?
A: If your kayak capsizes in cold water, your body is going to lose heat about 25 times faster than it would in warm water. If you are cold when you get the kayak right size up, you may want to search your dry bag for warm clothes. Keeping wet clothes on can still be dangerous if the air is too chilly, so use blankets and dry clothing to warm up gradually or cut the journey short and warm up inside.
How did you enjoy this tutorial? Hopefully, you have learned about some of the dangers of kayaking and how to stay safe when you take a kayak into the water. Feel free to comment about the article, and if you think that it’s useful information, share it on other platforms so that beginners can be informed before they attempt kayaking for the first time.