Compared to most other outdoor activities, the risk of getting hurt while kayaking is low. However, because kayaking deals with water, bad situations have the potential to become very serious very quickly.
This guide is to help both experienced and novice paddlers avoid some of the most common safety mistakes you can make out on the water. Like any other aquatic adventure sport, knowing the risks and being prepared will help you get the most out of your trips while keeping safe on the water.
Kayaking Safety Mistakes to Avoid (What NOT to Do)
1.) Not being aware of changing weather
Weather conditions can change very quickly, especially out on the water. Paddlers that overextend themselves and get caught out in bad weather can find themselves in trouble.
While getting caught out in bad weather on dry land may be unpleasant, getting caught out on the water in bad conditions can be downright dangerous. The rougher the conditions are, the higher the chances of capsizing or getting your kayak swamped with water.
How to fix it
It’s important to check the local weather forecast and be aware of the forecasted weather for the entire time you’ll be on the water.
Don’t just look at the temperature. Pay attention to the wind strength and direction as well. Consider how exposed your paddling area will be to the wind.
Everybody knows how unreliable weather forecasts can be, so trust your own senses when you’re on the water. Even if the forecast is good, keep an eye open for deteriorating conditions and head in if they’re getting worse than you’re prepared for.
2.) Not being aware of tides & currents
When paddling in areas with tides or currents, it’s important to know how strong and in which direction they’re headed.
It can be a rude awakening if you’ve been paddling with the current for the last hour or two only to realize that you have to turn around and paddle into the current the whole way back. This really becomes an issue if it’s getting dark or you’re nearly exhausted.
Even a current of 1 or 2 miles per hour makes a big difference when you’re paddling against it.
If you’re paddling a river, it’s important to know how the river is flowing. A placid river can turn into fast-moving white water if there is extra water due to rain or snowmelt further upstream.
How to fix it
If you’re paddling in coastal waters, check NOAA’s tides and currents map before heading out.
If you’re paddling a local river, check the USGS flow conditions for the river closest to your paddling location. You can see whether the flow rate is normal or above/below the average for that river. You can also call the National Park Service and ask them for information.
3.) Not dressing for submersion
You’ve heard of the phrase ‘dress for success, right? Well, that’s exactly what you don’t want to do when you’re kayaking.
The reality is, capsizing is always a possibility when you’re out on the water. It’s particularly problematic if the water is cold and you’re not prepared.
Cold water will suck heat away from your body up to 25 times faster than the air of the same temperature. Hypothermia can be a real risk even in water as warm as 60°F.
How to Fix it
Assume that you’ll get wet or even be fully submerged in the water. Don’t dress for success; dress for submersion.
If water and air temperatures are warm, it’s less of an issue. If it’s not warm, you need to learn how to dress for kayaking in cold conditions.
4.) Not wearing a PFD (personal flotation device)
According to the US Coast Guard, 78% of all reported boating fatalities in 2014 were due to drowning. Of those drowning victims, 84% were not wearing a PFD.
It’s estimated that PFDs could have saved the lives of over 80% of boating fatality victims.
How to Fix it
The most common reason people don’t wear or take off their PFD is that it’s uncomfortable.
This is a good reason to invest in a PFD made specifically for kayaking. They’re compact and designed to give the freedom of movement needed for paddling.
Pick one up and wear it when you’re on the water. It’s a worthwhile investment.
5.) Mixing booze with kayaking
Alcohol is the leading factor in boating-related deaths and is responsible for 16% of boating fatalities, according to the US Coast Guard.
Operating a boat with a blood alcohol content of .08 or higher is also illegal. And, if you’re wondering whether or not “boating” includes kayaking, it does.
While it may make you feel warm, Alcohol actually increases your risk of hypothermia by:
- Expanding your blood vessels, which causes you to lose heat quicker from the surface of your skin.
- Suppressing your body’s shivering reflex, which is how your body naturally tries to keep warm.
The decrease in coordination and ability to think clearly is also a huge disadvantage in an emergency situation.
How to Fix it
This one’s pretty simple. Just don’t do it. Kayaking and booze don’t mix.
Kayaking Safety Tips
Now that we’ve covered some of the most common safety mistakes paddlers make, here are some tips to help you further improve your safety out on the water.
1.) Know your limits
Be honest with yourself about your level of experience and fitness. If you’re not comfortable with certain paddling conditions, don’t push it.
Challenging yourself and improving your skills is one of the greatest joys of kayaking, but practice in a safe environment where help is nearby. Don’t practice new skills when you’re isolated or in bad conditions.
2.) Know the limits of your boat
Each type of kayak is intended for a certain type of paddling. Recreational kayaks are stable but slow and don’t handle rough conditions well. On the other hand, sea kayaks are built to handle the rough conditions of open waters but are fairly unstable.
Know how your kayak was designed to be used and respect its limitations.
It’s also important to be aware of the condition of your boat. Inspect it regularly for damage or wear that could impact its seaworthiness.
3.) Lower your risk of hypothermia
While the majority of boating fatalities occur due to drowning, becoming hypothermic by being submerged in cold water is a significant factor.
Hypothermia impairs your motor functions and causes you to become exhausted, making it difficult to swim and keep your head above water. If you get cold enough, you’ll lose consciousness.
Fatalities from freezing to death in the water are rare. The reason is that if you’re hypothermic and too tired to swim or lose consciousness, you’ll drown before you ever get a chance to freeze.
Take hypothermia seriously and learn how to lower your risk.
4.) Be visible
When you’re out on the water, it’s a good idea to make yourself visible. This not only improves your chances in the event of an emergency but also helps motorized water traffic spot you and give you the space you need to be safe.
Bright colors on your kayak, paddle, and clothing can go a long way.
If you’re paddling at night or near dusk or dawn, the US Coast Guard requires you to use either a flashlight or lantern with a white light so other boats can spot you. A headlamp may be a better option as you’ll need your hands for paddling.
5.) Be aware of local boating rules & regulations
While there are federal kayaking regulations you need to be aware of, your local paddling area may be subject to specific rules. It’s a good idea to call your local authorities and find out if there are any special rules you need to follow.
6.) Take a paddling class
Not only will a paddling class help you improve your paddling technique, you’ll also learn how to avoid and deal with emergency situations.
You’ll also meet other paddlers in your area, which is a nice segway into the next tip…
7.) Paddle in groups
There is safety in numbers out on the water. You’re more visible and can keep an eye out for each other.
A second kayak also makes recovering from a capsize much easier by helping to keep the capsized kayak stable while the paddler re-enters.
8.) Create a float plan and tell a friend
Come up with an itinerary for your trip and share it with a friend or your family. Ideally, you want to give your float plan to the person that will realize you’re not back soonest.
Your float plan should include:
- The names of each person in your group
- Your planned route and where you will put in and take-out
- Your planned departure time and return time
It’s also a good idea to leave instructions for what to do if you’re out past your scheduled return time.
9.) Practice rescue techniques
Capsizing is an ever-present possibility when you’re on the water. It’s important to know how to reduce the chance of capsizes happening and how to recover from one.
Check out this instructional video for a good primer. It’s best to take some time to practice capsize recovery in a controlled environment.
10.) Be prepared with the right safety gear
Being prepared with the right safety gear can make all the difference in an emergency situation.
The amount of safety gear you bring on your trip will depend on the type of trip you have planned. Consider:
- Distance from shore
- Exposure to wind and waves
- Ease of access
The safest type of trip is where you’ll be paddling within comfortable swimming distance from shore and in an area that is sheltered from wind and waves. Additionally, it’s best if the area has easy access so spending a night in the wilderness isn’t a possibility. In this safe scenario, your PFD and a whistle should be sufficient.
As paddling conditions become riskier, you’ll need to bring more safety gear as well as have the training to know how to use it. Here’s a list of gear you should consider bringing.
Kayaking Safety Gear List
- PFD (personal flotation device) – Look for one specifically designed for paddlers.
- Whistle – Use for signaling to get somebody’s attention.
- Light/headlamp – Essential if you’re paddling near dusk or dawn.
- Bilge pump – Remove water inside the kayak (sit-in kayaks only).
- Spray skirt – Keep water from splashing inside the kayak (sit-in kayaks only).
- Dry bag – Keep your water-sensitive gear or clothes dry.
Recommended for extended or more challenging trips
- Paddle float – Use for self-rescue in the event of a capsize. Learn how to use it.
- Float bags – Inflated inside the kayak to limit the amount of water that can get in and keep the kayak afloat during capsize (if your kayak doesn’t already have bulkheads).
- Change of clothes – Store in a waterproof dry bag.
- First aid kit – Buy a paddling-specific one or build your own. Store in a waterproof bag.
- Paddling knife – Corrosion-resistant knife clipped to your PFD for cutting straps and lines.
- Tow line – Use to tow other exhausted or injured paddlers.
- Throw bag – Use to throw a line to when you can’t safely get close and pull them away from danger.
- Paddle leash – Tether your paddle to prevent it from separating from the boat during a capsize.
- Flares – Use in emergency situations to signal the need for help.
- Compass/GPS – Especially useful for unfamiliar areas. Preload maps before your trip.
- Radio – Use for weather updates during extended trips and calling for help.