How to Kayak Alone: 10 Essential Tips for Safe Solo Paddling

Learn how to kayak alone with our essential tips. We’ll guide you through critical skills, safety measures, and gear to conquer the waters.

How to kayak alone

Embarking on a solo kayaking adventure can offer some of the most rewarding and rejuvenating experiences, as the serenity of paddling through a wilderness setting allows for relaxation, reflection, and a unique sense of accomplishment.

However, learning how to kayak alone presents its own set of challenges and risks that should never be underestimated. In this article, we’ll explore the essential skills, knowledge, and equipment needed to safely and confidently tackle the exhilarating pursuit of solo kayaking.

Venturing into Solo Kayaking: A Word of Caution for Beginners

Solo kayaking is best suited for seasoned paddlers who have already honed their skills and gained ample experience. Although mastering basic kayaking techniques can be relatively simple, navigating the intricacies of more advanced skills is crucial before embarking on a solo expedition.

It is vital for a beginner to paddle with a companion or in well-trafficked areas where assistance is readily available. Take advantage of opportunities to learn from experienced kayakers, absorbing their insights on interpreting and adapting to changing water conditions and their impact on your paddling.

To further enhance your abilities, consider enrolling in a comprehensive paddling course. This will equip you with essential skills, such as re-entering a capsized kayak and executing various paddle strokes, which will eventually pave the way for safe and enjoyable solo kayaking adventures.

10 Tips for Kayaking Solo

man kayaking alone in Patagonia, Argentina

The following ten tips serve as a foundation for solo kayaking, but keep in mind that they do not encompass all the necessary skills, nor are they a substitute for practical experience or in-depth training. Instead, view them as an introduction to the fundamental aspects of solo kayaking that you should be familiar with before setting off on your own.

Like many outdoor activities, kayaking is a continuous learning journey, and it is crucial never to become complacent or assume you know everything about a particular location. Overconfidence can lead to dangerous situations, even for the most seasoned kayakers who have visited the same spot numerous times.

It’s important to remember that when you are kayaking alone, you are your own safety net; help could be hours or even days away. So approach every solo kayaking experience with caution and refrain from taking unnecessary risks.

1. Monitor Weather Conditions

Before heading out on a solo kayaking trip, whether for a few hours or several days, it is crucial to obtain the most current and accurate weather forecast available. This entails going beyond a simple smartphone weather app and seeking a reliable source for marine forecasts, which provide information on wind speed, direction, and predicted water conditions.

In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers real-time marine weather forecasts for coastal regions and the great lakes. Canada’s government provides a similar service, covering the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans.

However, even these reliable sources cannot guarantee absolute accuracy, as weather patterns can change unexpectedly, particularly in temperate and polar regions. Sudden shifts in weather conditions are more likely during fall and spring, so exercise extra caution when kayaking in these seasons.

For multi-day excursions, carry a marine VHF radio or another device capable of providing weather updates. Transmitters located along the coast automatically broadcast the latest forecasts for their respective areas. To stay informed and prepared, make a habit of checking in with these weather stations every evening and morning.

2. Plan Your Route

Meticulous route planning is essential when kayaking, especially when venturing out alone. Solo paddling often allows for greater speed and distance, as you can maintain your preferred pace. However, this doesn’t mean you should attempt overly ambitious marathon days. In neutral conditions, anticipate a kayaking speed of around three miles per hour.

Adopt a conservative approach to route planning, aiming to avoid situations where you feel compelled to paddle through hazardous waters to stay on schedule. Instead, allocate up to six hours for kayaking each day, three hours before lunch and three hours after.

Utilize a marine chart to plot your journey and ensure you have a waterproof hard copy secured beneath your deck bungees. While a digital map on your phone or GPS device can be helpful, having a physical copy as a backup is crucial.

For first-time paddlers in a specific area, consult someone knowledgeable about the region. Inquire about tidal conditions, potential rough water spots, and suitable kayak camping locations. If you plan to paddle in a National Park or other federally or state-managed area, verify any closed zones and adhere to wildlife viewing guidelines.

For more detailed information on route planning, check out our comprehensive guide on selecting an ideal paddling route.

3. Share Your Float Plan

After finalizing your route, create a detailed float plan and share it with a trusted individual. This plan should include information such as the duration of your trip, potential camping locations, and your expected return date and time.

Establish a routine to check in with this person at agreed-upon times, even if there is no new information to report. Regular check-ins reassure that all is well and help identify any issues if you miss a scheduled update. In such cases, they can assist in coordinating a rescue operation if necessary.

Ideally, choose someone who lives near your kayaking area and has some familiarity with the region you plan to explore.

4. Prepare a Comprehensive Safety Kit

aerial view of a man kayaking alone

The duration of your trip will determine the size and contents of your safety kit. Allocate a dry bag specifically for emergency gear and store it in an easily accessible location rather than deep within a hatch.

Equip your safety kit with first-aid supplies for addressing basic injuries, such as cuts, gashes, and sprains. Additionally, include a hypothermia kit with spare dry clothes and a thermal blanket. Ensure you have waterproof matches and a fire starter to create a fire under any weather conditions.

Include water purification or iodine tablets in your kit for emergency situations. Always purify any collected water to avoid illnesses like giardia, which can pose a significant threat in the backcountry.

Store any necessary medications in your emergency kit as well. Even if you don’t have any known allergies, it’s a good idea to carry antihistamines and Benadryl. If available, include an epinephrine pen in your kit as a last resort.

5. Carry a Communication Device

While we’ve highlighted the usefulness of a VHF radio, numerous other communication devices are on the market today. For example, companies like Garmin offer products that enable you to check the weather, access charts, call for help and stay connected with the outside world.

Keep in mind that many of these devices require a subscription to access their full range of features. But their convenience should not be an excuse for taking unnecessary risks. Utilize the emergency button only as a last resort in life-or-death situations.

The popularity of devices such as Garmin’s inReach has led to some Search and Rescue programs being stretched thin due to non-emergency situations. However, when used responsibly, inReach devices are valuable tools for communication and safety in the backcountry.

Whenever possible, carry multiple communication devices. For example, consider bringing an inReach device, a VHF radio, and extra batteries for each. A VHF radio can facilitate quicker assistance in many locations, as mariners typically monitor channel 16 for emergencies and hailing.

6. Dress Appropriately for the Water Temperature

Regardless of whether you’re paddling in the tropics, polar regions, or any other environment, always wear a life jacket. Your swimming abilities and water temperature are irrelevant—a life jacket can save your life, so never embark on a trip without one.

Consider investing in a dry suit for solo kayaking in temperate or colder waters. While they can be expensive and cumbersome, dry suits offer an essential safety margin when you’re on your own. They allow you to stay in the water longer and maintain the crucial motor skills needed to re-enter your kayak.

If a dry suit isn’t a feasible option, wear layered synthetic or wool clothing that wicks water away from your body and retains warmth even when wet. Avoid cotton T-shirts and jeans during kayaking trips.

Always pack spare clothes to change into and store them in a dry bag to ensure they remain dry until needed. For more information, check out our guide on what to wear kayaking.

7. Carry a Spare Paddle

Redundancy is crucial when you’re on the water, which is why many small boats come equipped with a backup engine or kicker. Similarly, when kayaking, always make room for a spare paddle, regardless of the duration of your trip.

Your backup kayak paddle doesn’t need to be top-of-the-line or expensive, but it should be easily accessible from the cockpit and stowable on your kayak.

8. Stock up on Food and Water

Man kayaking in Patagonia

Even if you only plan to be out for a few hours, always pack enough food and water as though you’re preparing for an overnight stay. If you find yourself stranded, facing unexpected challenges, or encountering severe weather, having ample food and water can help deter you from taking risks to reach your destination.

Choose non-perishable, high-calorie food items to maintain your metabolism and generate heat. Coupled with sufficient hydration, this can significantly contribute to your comfort if you’re stranded overnight. Store this emergency food in a separate dry bag alongside your first aid supplies. Oats, energy bars, and candy bars are all excellent options.

9. Master Self-Rescue Techniques

It’s essential to know how to re-enter your kayak if you capsize. While there are numerous ways to get back into a kayak on the water, it becomes more challenging without another kayaker to assist you.

Before venturing out, practice your re-entry techniques in a controlled environment, such as a swimming pool or a protected body of water. If you ever need to use this skill set, the conditions will likely be far from ideal.

Carry a paddle float and store it on your kayak’s deck for easy access. A paddle float allows you to transform your paddle into an outrigger, simplifying the process of re-entering your kayak. Additionally, bring a bilge pump to remove water from the cockpit before safely paddling to shore.

After successfully re-entering your kayak, head to the nearest shore to change into spare clothes and replenish yourself with food and warm liquids.

10. Recognize and Respect Your Limits

While you shouldn’t fear the water or kayaking solo, it’s essential to respect them. A single mistake or lapse of judgment can significantly reduce your margin for error when paddling alone. Paddle with a partner whenever possible, but if you go solo, be extra conservative and cautious.

You will need to rely solely on yourself to handle any challenging situations, and if you feel uncertain about weather conditions or a particular situation, you have no one to consult but yourself.

As you gain more paddling experience, you may find yourself becoming increasingly cautious on the water, particularly when you’re alone. If you have a bad feeling or a voice in the back of your head urging you to get off the water, pay attention to it.

With proper preparation and precautions, a solo kayaking trip can be a liberating and rewarding experience. However, it should only be attempted once you feel confident in your kayaking and backcountry skills.