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. That said, kayaks can flip over if you lose your balance or paddle in very windy conditions.
In this article, we’ll discuss whether or not kayaks capsize easily and what causes a kayak to flip over in the first place. We’ll also offer a handful of top tips to help you prevent your kayak from flipping over on your next paddling adventure.
What Causes a Kayak to Flip Over?
There are two main reasons why a kayak might flip over:
- The paddler lost their balance on the water.
- External forces (e.g. wind and waves) caused the paddler to capsize.
Loss of Balance
For many new and intermediate-level paddlers, the most common reason for flipping over in a kayak is a loss of balance. This is partly because new paddlers aren’t yet comfortable on the water, but it also has a lot to do with how recreational kayaks are designed.
Every kayak design provides a different amount of primary and secondary stability. Primary stability is a kayak’s steadiness on flat water, while secondary stability is a kayak’s ability to stay balanced when heeling (i.e. leaning over).
Most kayaks designed for new paddlers have excellent primary stability, which is fantastic if you’re on flat water because they feel very stable. But if these kayaks get tipped over even slightly 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, sea kayaks have excellent secondary stability but little primary stability. As a result, anyone paddling a sea kayak needs to be comfortable with cruising around in a boat that feels tippy, even though it’s actually relatively stable.
When someone paddling a sea 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, the less likely you are to simply tip over from a loss of balance. It can be frustrating to capsize on otherwise calm water. Still, some practice and experience will go a long way toward helping you stay dry during your paddling outings.
Wind & Waves
While a loss of balance is a more common reason a newer paddler might flip over, wind and waves can cause anyone to capsize if they’re not prepared 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.
Sea 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 different bracing strokes (more on those 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 Prevent a Kayak from Flipping Over
Now that you know why a kayak might flip over, let’s look at how you can prevent it from happening.
Choose the Right Kayak
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 boats are created equal in regard to stability.
Suppose you’re primarily interested in paddling on flat water. In that case, a recreational kayak with excellent primary stability will likely be 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 kayak design, consider the weight limit of any boat you use. Over-loading 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.
Pick the Right Paddling Conditions
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 position on the water that you’re not equipped to handle.
Distribute Your Equipment and Weight Evenly
While learning how to balance a kayak takes time and experience, you can set yourself up for success on the water by evenly distributing the weight of any gear that you take with you.
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 it can also happen on calm water.
The key is to evenly distribute the weight of all of your equipment around your kayak. Try to avoid packing too much weight in either the bow or stern hatches of your kayak. At the same time, try to load an equal amount of gear on the starboard and port sides of your kayak.
The goal is to have a kayak that’s evenly balanced before you hit the water to avoid making things harder for yourself as you paddle.
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 paddle to stop your fall. You push your body back upright using your core if you start leaning to one side in your kayak.
As with all new paddling techniques, be sure to practice the low brace a few times on flat water before attempting to use 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.
The theory behind the high brace is similar to that of the low brace. You effectively need to use your paddle blade to stop your fall if you start to 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.
To some degree, 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. If you want to use the high brace, be sure to practice this technique with a coach to ensure that you’re doing it correctly.
Consider Adding Outriggers to Your Kayak
Finally, consider using outriggers to add more stability to your kayak. You can think of 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 you need your kayak to be very stable, but precision maneuverability isn’t essential.
Therefore, they can be helpful if you’re fishing from your kayak and want to be able to stand upright with ease. But, they’re not ideal for river paddling or any other situation where you need your kayak to be responsive to your paddling strokes.
What to Do if Your Kayak Flips Over
Despite your best efforts, there’s always a risk that your kayak will capsize during a paddling excursion. When this happens, you must know what to do.
There are several ways to recover a capsized kayak depending on where you are, what kind of kayak you have, and whether you have other people with you on the water.
One of the most popular ways to recover your kayak is to do a T-rescue.
This technique requires at least one other paddler to help you get back in your kayak. The idea here is that your paddling partner can lift the bow of your kayak onto their kayak. This makes a T-shape with your kayaks and allows your partner to dump the water out of your boat.
Once the water is out, your partner can flip your kayak over and hold it steady as you climb back in.
Getting back into your kayak if you’re paddling alone requires much of the same technique, but without the help of a friend. When you paddle solo, you need to be able to flip over your kayak and pull yourself back into your boat without someone helping you out. Once you’re back in your kayak, you’ll need to use a bilge pump to get the water out of your cockpit.
Recovering a kayak on your own is not easy, and it takes a lot of practice to do it efficiently. As a result, it’s best to paddle with a partner whenever possible to help each other if one of you happens to go for a swim.