When you’re out on the water enjoying an afternoon of paddling in your kayak, the very last thing that many of us want is to end up going for a swim. But if you’re planning your first-ever kayaking adventure, you likely have one question on your mind: “Do kayaks flip over easily?”
The short answer is no. Most kayaks—especially those built for new kayakers—are designed with stability in mind, so they’re not likely to capsize for no reason.
We’ll discuss what causes a kayak to flip over, and offer a handful of kayaking tips and paddling techniques to help prevent you from capsizing on your next adventure.
What Causes a Kayak to Flip Over?
There are two main reasons a kayak flips—loss of balance and challenging weather and water conditions. Understanding these factors is crucial for staying safe and dry while kayaking.
Loss of Balance
For many new and intermediate-level paddlers, the most common reason kayaks flip over easily is a loss of balance.
Every kayak design provides a different amount of primary and secondary stability. Primary stability is a kayak’s steadiness while resting on flat water, and secondary stability is a kayak’s ability to stay balanced when edging (i.e. leaning over).
Most kayaks designed for new paddlers have excellent primary stability, which is fantastic if you paddle flat water. But if these kayaks tip over on their side by paddler error or the wind and waves, there’s little chance that the kayak will self-right itself before you end up in the water.
Alternatively, touring kayaks have excellent secondary stability but little primary stability. As a result, anyone paddling a touring kayak needs to be comfortable cruising around in a boat that feels tippy, even though it’s relatively stable.
When someone paddling a sit-inside kayak capsizes in calm water, it’s generally because they felt like they were losing their balance—not because they actually were. Feeling like you’re about to tip over can cause you to shift your weight in odd directions, leading to your kayak flipping over.
As you gain more experience and comfort in a kayak, you are less likely to tip over from a loss of balance. Practice and experience will go a long way toward helping you stay dry during your paddling outings.
Challenging Weather and Water Conditions
While a loss of balance is a common reason a newer paddler might flip over, wind and waves can cause anyone to capsize if they’re unprepared for the conditions.
In fact, foul weather can make it difficult for anyone to stay upright in their kayak, regardless of their paddling ability or kayak design.
Touring kayaks and other boats with good secondary stability tend to be more adept at staying upright in windy conditions. At the same time, experienced paddlers that know how to use the bracing technique (more on that in a bit) are also less likely to capsize in bad weather.
The moral of the story here is that you should avoid paddling in windy and wavy conditions until you’re more confident in your kayak.
As you gain experience on the water, you can start to push your boundaries a bit and set out in choppier conditions. But when you’re just starting out, it’s essential that you get comfortable with your ability to balance on flat water before you try to paddle in not-so-nice weather.
How to Avoid Flipping Your Kayak
Now that you know why kayaks tip over, let’s look at how you can prevent it from happening.
Choose the Right Kayak for the Conditions
The most important thing you can do to prevent capsizing during your paddling adventures is to choose the right kayak. There are many different types of kayaks out there, and not all of them are created equal in regard to kayak stability.
Suppose you’re primarily interested in paddling on flat water. In that case, a recreational kayak with excellent primary stability is likely your best choice.
Meanwhile, paddlers that want to set out into coastal and off-shore environments might want to get a sea kayak with excellent secondary stability. Although these kayaks can feel tippy on flat water, they’re ideal for use in choppy seas.
In addition to the design, consider the kayak weight limit. Overloading a kayak can cause it to tip over more easily. Avoid loading a kayak beyond 80% of its stated weight capacity for a better paddling experience.
Use the Low Brace
When you’re on the water, there are a couple of techniques that you can use to stop yourself from capsizing if you lose your balance.
One of these techniques is the low brace, a paddling maneuver that helps you quickly right your kayak if you feel like you’re about to flip over. The principle behind this technique is that you use the blade of your kayak paddle to stop your fall. You push your upper body back upright using your core if you start leaning to one side in your kayak.
As with all kayak paddling techniques, practice the low brace method a few times on flat water before using it in a windy or exposed environment.
Use the High Brace
In addition to the low brace, one other technique that paddlers have for preventing capsizing is the high brace technique.
The theory behind the high brace is similar to that of the low brace method.
You need to use your paddle blade to stop your fall if you lose your balance on the water. The most significant difference is that the high brace involves keeping your hands a little higher toward your shoulders rather than closer to the deck of your kayak.
The decision to use the high or the low brace is a matter of preference. However, keep in mind that the high brace puts more pressure on your shoulders, so it is more likely to cause injury than the low brace method.
If you want to use the high brace, practice this technique with a coach to ensure you do it correctly.
Distribute Your Equipment and Weight Evenly
While learning how to keep a kayak upright takes time and experience, you can set yourself up for success on the water by evenly packing your kayak.
If all the gear you have on your kayak is unevenly distributed, you’re more likely to capsize if you momentarily lose your balance. This is particularly true in inclement weather but can also happen on a calm lake.
The key is to evenly distribute the weight of your equipment around your kayak. Avoid packing too much weight in your kayak’s bow or stern hatches. At the same time, try to load an equal amount of gear on the starboard and port sides of your kayak.
Consider Adding Outriggers to Your Kayak
You can think of kayak outriggers as additional floats that extend from your kayak and provide extra stability on the water. They come in many shapes and sizes, but their primary purpose is to reduce your risk of capsizing.
Outriggers are best used when your kayak needs to be very stable, and maneuverability isn’t essential.
Therefore, they can be helpful if you’re fishing from your kayak and want to easily stand upright. But they’re not ideal for river paddling or any other situation where you need your kayak to be responsive to your paddle strokes.
Understand Your Limits
Foul weather and choppy seas can cause anyone to lose balance and capsize while paddling. As a result, you must pick the right conditions for kayaking before you set out on the water.
Picking the right paddling conditions requires knowing the limits of your paddling abilities and the limitations of your kayak.
Suppose you’re new to kayaking and have a recreational kayak with limited secondary stability. In that case, your tolerance for windy and wavy conditions will be much lower than that of an expert paddler with a high-quality sea kayak.
When in doubt, make conservative decisions about whether you should paddle in certain conditions—especially if you’re relatively new to kayaking. It’s better to miss out on a day of paddling than to find yourself in a dangerous kayaking situation that you’re not equipped to handle.