Is Kayaking Dangerous? 18 Risks and How to Avoid Them

Reduce the dangers of kayaking by learning about the risks, such as capsizing, hypothermia, incorrect PFD fitting, and underwater obstacles.

is kayaking dangerous

I was telling a non-kayaking friend about a recent paddling trip over Loch Ness, describing how the high winds and waves nearly capsized us multiple times. Isn’t that dangerous? She asked. I admit, the question caught me off guard. Is kayaking dangerous? 

Well, a U.S. Coast Guard report in 2020 found that kayaks accounted for 15% of deaths in registered recreational vessels. So yes, kayaking can be dangerous. However, many kayaking accidents happen due to a combination of inexperience and poor judgment.

There are risks whenever you take to the water, but this article’s purpose is not to put you off paddling. Instead, it’s to help you avoid dangerous situations and stay safe on the water.

Perceived Risk vs. Actual Risk

Before we get into the risks of kayaking and how to avoid them, it’s useful to understand the difference between perceived risk and actual risk. In short, perceived risk is how dangerous you think a situation is. Meanwhile, actual risk is how dangerous a situation really is. 

For example, you probably assume that paddling close to land on a small flat-water lake or canal is safe. Except for extreme weather, it probably is safe. Comparatively, kayaking through class IV whitewater rapids is always risky, no matter how experienced you are. Hopefully, you perceive it as a considerable risk too.

The perceived risk for many types of extreme sports or adventure sports, including kayaking, is often higher than the actual risk – if you stick to essential safety rules.

The benefit of high perceived risk is that you’re more likely to prepare for the worst-case scenario and play it safe rather than taking unnecessary risks. The downside is that a high perceived risk might make you anxious about getting on the water. Hopefully, this article will help you find the balance.

In truth, accidents happen when the perceived risk is low, but the actual risk is high. By that, we mean when you think a situation is safe, but it’s actually dangerous. Sometimes the dangers are not obvious, particularly when you’re new to watersports. 

For example, kayaking in areas with riptides or pillow rocks. Often these hazards are invisible from the water’s surface, so it’s easy to paddle into a dangerous situation when you’re in unfamiliar waters. 

Matching your perception of a risk with the actual level is a skill that comes with experience. That’s why we always recommend that beginners team up with an experienced paddler, join a kayak club, or take a kayak safety course at the very least. Learning to recognize risks before the situation becomes dangerous will reduce the likelihood of an accident. 

18 Risks of Kayaking and How to Avoid Them

dam danger sign on a river

Now that we’ve covered how your perception of a situation can impact the level of danger, let’s move on to the risks of kayaking. What are they, and what can you do to avoid them?

1. Capsizing

Capsizing is what most beginners worry about, particularly when paddling a sit-in kayak with a spray deck. But how dangerous is it?

Obviously, getting wet isn’t dangerous unless you’re paddling in icy water. Likewise, capsizing a few meters from land in flat water isn’t really a problem. Even if you’re not a strong swimmer, you can hang onto the kayak or splash to land. However, capsizing becomes a problem when you’re far from land in deep water or paddling a river with rocks and rapids.

Experienced kayakers aren’t immune to capsizing either. A large wave, misplaced paddle stroke, or plain old fatigue can easily tip you upside down. That’s why you always need to wear a PFD. 

Wearing a correctly fitted buoyancy aid—and a helmet for whitewater paddling—will seriously reduce the risks associated with capsizing. Equally, practicing capsize recovery techniques should make a capsize irritating rather than life-threatening.

2. Hypothermia and Cold Shock

As we mentioned above, getting wet isn’t dangerous unless you’re falling into cold water. If that happens, the immediate risk is cold shock which occurs when you’re suddenly immersed in cold water (below 15 degrees Celsius). The sudden drop in temperature makes blood vessels contract, forcing the heart to work harder and restricting breathing. 

Think about the reaction you have when jumping into a plunge pool. You gasp for breath, and you can’t move. In the worst-case scenario, cold shock can lead to drowning or initiate a cardiac arrest. 

Hypothermia occurs after the initial cold shock and prevents you from regaining body heat. Shivering, numb fingers and toes, and slurred speech are all symptoms of hypothermia. 

Hypothermia and cold shock are both serious risks for cold water paddlers. Still, you can reduce the risks with a bit of preparation. Either dress appropriately in a wetsuit or drysuit when paddling in cold weather or stay off the water. Bring a float and learn how to recognize and treat the symptoms of cold shock and hypothermia. 

3. Incorrect PFD Fitting

Personal floatation devices can save your life, but only if you wear it and wear it correctly. Storing it by your feet or leaving the zipper and buckles open might be more comfortable, but it won’t keep you afloat if you capsize. Of the reported 95 kayakers that drowned in 2020, at least 70 of them were not wearing a life jacket. 

When you buy a PFD, check that you can adjust it to fit your size and shape. It should feel snug rather than tight, and you shouldn’t be able to slip it over your head without opening or loosening it. Also, check that it’s able to support your weight. PFD manufacturers should always list the weight capacity along with the size.

4. Inappropriate Equipment

Congratulations if you’ve got a correctly fitted PFD, the next step is knowing how to choose a kayak that suits you and the water you paddle on.

Taking a touring kayak down a stretch of river rapids is a recipe for disaster. Equally, trying to paddle a playboat across a large lake will leave you exhausted. So instead, make sure you choose the right type of kayak and paddle for the water you’ll be paddling. If in doubt, ask an experienced paddler.

Likewise, if you’re new to kayaking, stay away from tippy touring kayaks until you’re confident doing wet exits. And, if you’ve never paddled a sit-inside kayak, start practicing in a recreational kayak with a roomy cockpit.

5. Sun Exposure

In the short term, spending too long in the sun’s rays can lead to heatstroke, exhaustion, and dehydration. Not to mention a nasty sunburn! In addition, repeated exposure to intense U.V. radiation can lead to more severe skin and eye conditions in the long term. The American Cancer Society says overexposure to U.V. rays in sunlight cause most skin cancers.

Unfortunately, there’s limited shade when you’re out in a kayak, particularly around midday. Being on the water makes it worse as U.V. rays reflect off the surface. However, it’s possible to avoid the dangerous effects of sun exposure. Always wear UV-resistant clothing (including a sun hat and glasses), a high factor eco-friendly sunscreen, and bring plenty of water.

You can further avoid unnecessary risks by paddling in the early morning or late afternoon throughout the summer. Alternatively, take a break on a shady riverbank or beach instead of sweating through the hottest part of the day.

6. Dehydration

Dehydration is a risk you might not expect when you’re floating on water, and that’s probably why it will catch you out. The combination of prolonged sun exposure and the physical effort of paddling can leave you dehydrated, and symptoms of dehydration include dizziness and fatigue. Neither of which will help your paddling.

Again, avoiding this risk isn’t impossible. Learn to recognize the symptoms of dehydration and remember to bring plenty of water (more than you think you need) whenever you go kayaking. Also, make sure that you can reach your bottle from the cockpit – this is where a couple of carabiner clips come in useful. 

7. Adverse Weather Conditions

As you might have guessed, kayaks don’t offer a lot in the way of weather protection. While a little drizzle won’t do you much harm, kayaking through a storm is never a clever idea. You probably already know that it’s wise to postpone a kayaking trip when the forecast predicts thunder and lightning. Still, high winds, fog, and intense sun can also put you at risk.

Of course, there are days when the weather changes unexpectedly. You might have already started paddling when the sky clouds over. In these cases, learn to read the signs and always err on the side of caution. Stay close to land when the wind picks up, and be prepared to get off the water if conditions worsen.

8. Waves, Tides, and Currents

You may think that big waves are the worst of your worries, but you are just as likely to get caught in a hidden rip tide or current that can carry you way off course. Knowledge of the waters you’re paddling on is the only way to mitigate the danger. That’s one more reason why it’s essential to plan your kayaking route or paddle with someone who knows the area. 

Even your regular paddle route can take you by surprise if you haven’t done your research. Don’t forget that weather conditions on the day and during the days before your trip will affect water levels. For example, class III rapids can become class IV or V after heavy rain. Likewise, a gentle waterway can become a fast-flowing river when it floods. 

9. Strainers and Sweepers

Fun as they might sound, strainers and sweepers are two of the most dangerous obstacles you’ll find on the water, but what are they?

Sweepers are obstacles, usually low-hanging branches that stick out above the water. Aside from the risk of bumping your head, sweepers are often accompanied by strainers.

Strainers are similar, but the obstacles stick out underwater, blocking debris in the water flow. These can range from thin branches to logs or entire trees. Alternatively, strainers might be manmade objects like bars or grates. The point is, they strain the water but trap anything too large to pass through – including your kayak. 

Strainers can be challenging to spot because they’re mostly or entirely underwater. The most important things to remember when dealing with strainers is a) don’t panic and b) try to keep your bow pointed into the strainer. Again, knowing your route and checking waterways after heavy rain and storms can help you avoid both sweepers and strainers. 

10. Weirs/Low Head Dams

Low head dams, or weirs as we call them in the U.K, are manmade constructions that control river levels. Sounds innocent, but these useful river features have earned themselves a couple of nasty nicknames: ‘drowning machines’ and ‘killer in our river.’ So, they certainly deserve a place in this article. 

Why are weirs/low head dams so dangerous? Basically, the effect of water dropping over a weir creates a recirculating flow – a bit like a washing machine – which can trap swimmers and small boats. British Canoeing provides a more detailed guide of how weirs work, the different types, and how to recognize that you’re approaching one.

In the U.K, I generally find that weirs are marked with danger signs, giving you plenty of time to turn back, adjust your course, or get out and portage around. However, you shouldn’t rely on warning signs because weirs and low head dams aren’t always marked. Moreover, signs can fall over or get hidden behind branches. 

On the other hand, it’s worth noting weirs are not always dangerous. Some weirs only have a small drop and a weak pull-back, making them safe to paddle over. Knowledge of the river your paddling on, along with the safety rules for weirs, should keep you safe when kayaking on rivers.

11. Undercut Rocks

Undercut rocks occur when fast-flowing water erodes the rock or mud beneath the surface, creating a sort of balcony for the water to flow under. Kayaks tend to get dragged under, as does other river debris, which can make getting out of the kayak impossible. 

Undercuts are yet another reason to always wear a properly fitted PFD and a helmet whenever there are rapids, even Class I rapids. But, even with the right safety gear, escaping from an undercut or rescuing someone can be extremely difficult. So, instead, take a walk downstream and look for the telltale signs of an undercut before you start paddling.

12. Wildlife

One of the best things about kayaking is that you get the chance to discover what wildlife you share the water with. The most interesting wildlife I’ve ever encountered were a couple of sunbathing seals, jellyfish, and a flock of angry swans—nothing to write home about. 

But disturbing the local wildlife could be more problematic depending on where you live—water snakes, alligators, crocodiles, bears, or perhaps a curious shark. I’d rather not run into any of them.

That said, wildlife attacks on kayakers are rare. Usually, wild animals prefer to hide or give you a wide berth, assuming that you show them the same respect. Most wild animals only attack when they feel threatened. So, don’t try to get close, particularly during mating seasons and after, no matter how good you think the selfie will be!

13. Getting Lost

Although it’s possible to take the wrong turn on a branching river, getting lost is more of a concern when paddling on open water. That includes large lakes as well as the sea. The further you get from shore, the harder it is to pinpoint landmarks you usually rely on, especially when visibility is poor. 

The types of kayaks suitable for open water paddling allow you to cover longer distances than you might expect. This is because it’s easy to lose track of distance. Even more so when there’s a strong tide or current under your kayak. 

Getting lost in open water is definitely a situation you want to avoid, and usually, it is avoidable. Firstly, keeping the shore in sight at all times will stop you from drifting out too far. You can choose a specific landmark and use it to gauge your distance—for example, a lifeguard tower or a pier. 

Additionally, paddling in a group and carrying a waterproof GPS device will minimize the danger if you do get lost. You might also consider installing a compass in front of your cockpit and learning how to use it so that you have a backup. 

14. Exhaustion

Let’s say you’re feeling fit and energized when you start paddling. Sun exposure, dehydration, weather conditions, and the physical exertion of paddling against currents can zap your energy faster than you think. 

Allowing yourself to become tired while paddling will make you more prone to mistakes. How many times have you taken a wrong turn, missed something obvious, or just been generally clumsy after a poor night’s sleep? Depending on what type of water you’re paddling on, exhaustion could be fatal.

Firstly, stay off the water if you feel tired. When you’re already on the water, learn to recognize fatigue before it becomes exhaustion and take a break as soon as possible.

Just like any other sport, there’s always a risk that you’ll strain a muscle or break a limb. However, the latter is uncommon unless you get into trouble in whitewater. Strains in the neck, shoulder blades, lower back, and wrists are far more common due to the repetitive action of paddling. 

Is there a way to avoid this risk? Well, strains and aches are pretty standard after a long day on the water. They’re almost guaranteed for beginner paddlers too. However, building up your distances gradually should prevent serious injuries. Likewise, staying within your ability level should protect your bones, muscles, and joints on rougher rapids.

16. Other Boating Traffic

Kayaks are not the easiest vessels to spot on open water. They’re a speck on the water compared to sailing boats, ferries, and tankers. Plus, with no engine to announce your presence, it’s unlikely that another boater will hear you coming, even on a quiet river. 

Moreover, waterways with high traffic can be a nightmare for kayakers. Firstly, because other boaters may not see or hear you. Secondly, because larger boats can’t turn fast enough to avoid you. The key to staying safe on waterways is staying alert. Look out for larger vessels, make sure you’re not paddling in a shipping lane, and be prepared to adjust your course. 

It also helps to make yourself more visible by wearing bright clothing and adding reflective strips to your kayak. You should also have a kayak light when paddling in poor visibility or passing through tunnels. 

17. Drinking and Paddling

Boating under the influence (BUI) is as dangerous as drinking and driving. We all know that alcohol affects our balance and reaction times, not to mention our common sense. 

But alcohol, along with recreational drugs and certain prescription medications, can severely impact your vision, sense of direction and numb your body to the cold. Those signs of hypothermia we mentioned earlier, you’re likely to miss those after a drink or two.

Aside from that, BUI is a federal offense that applies to kayaks in all 50 U.S. states and Canada, and the punishment ranges from fines to a jail sentence. More importantly, kayaking while drunk or intoxicated could cost your life or someone else’s. Sorry, no tips or tricks for this risk. Stay off the drink or stay off the water.

18. Inexperience

Finally, let’s talk about the number one risk that makes kayaking dangerous: inexperience.  Operator inexperience was responsible for just over a fifth of kayaking deaths in 2020. Pushing your kayaking skills is one thing but setting out in waters beyond your experience level is a risk that’s not worth taking.

Advanced paddlers can tackle rough waves on open water and class IV rapids because they’ve spent years practicing and gaining experience. Before setting out on the water, be sure to choose a route that matches your ability. 

If you’re new to the sport, join a kayaking class to learn how to kayak and stick to calm waters while you get to grips with kayak control. Practice wet exits and capsize recoveries before moving into deeper waters. As you progress, check your routes with experienced paddlers and avoid kayaking alone

The Verdict: Is Kayaking Dangerous?

Just like any other outdoor sport, kayaking has a fair share of risks. Some risks are uncontrollable. After all, you can’t change the weather or redirect currents and tides. But most are avoidable. Following the basic kayak safety rules and planning your trips should keep you out of trouble. 

Remember to plan your route and ask for advice before leaving dry land. Check weather and tide forecasts (know how to read them), tell someone your float plan, and don’t be a hero – there’s no shame in turning around when the weather takes a turn, or you spot a hazard ahead. Always give your full attention to the water and never mix drinking with paddling.

So, is kayaking dangerous? For the inexperienced and unprepared, kayaking can be risky. For the irresponsible, it is downright dangerous. But, for everyone else, kayaking should be a pleasure.