Kayaking is a reasonably low-risk sport, and for most recreational paddlers, serious injuries are uncommon.
However, like any water sport, there is always some risk. Weather conditions can change quickly, visibility can deteriorate, or you can get dragged off course by strong currents and a change in tide.
If you’re lucky, you might never have a dangerous kayaking experience. But, statistics suggest that most kayaking accidents are caused by ‘operator inexperience’. That’s why knowing the basic kayak safety rules is so important.
1. Take a Paddling Class
Paddle classes are ideal for honing the necessary skills. Why? Because they should be run by an experienced and qualified instructor whose job is to keep you safe while you learn. In a paddle class, it’s safe to make mistakes because your instructor has your back.
Additionally, beginner paddling classes are usually on calm rivers, without motor traffic or strong currents, or on small lakes or ponds where you are always close to land. Once you’ve practiced the basics, your instructor can introduce you to more challenging waters.
I learned basic kayaking skills, including capsize escape and essential kayak safety procedures, on a short introductory course before heading out to sea with experienced paddlers. Being able to practice in a safe environment certainly helped me feel confident on the water.
2. Plan an Appropriate Route for Your Ability
Just because you know how to paddle a kayak, it doesn’t mean that you’re ready to tackle any waterway.
Although I confess that I’m sometimes guilty of planning longer routes than I’m physically prepared for, don’t be tempted to do the same. Overestimating your abilities puts you at greater risk of injury. You can find plenty of popular kayaking routes online, and they’re usually graded from easy to strenuous.
Be honest with yourself about your kayaking abilities and plan a route accordingly. When you do want to push your limits, make sure the odds are in your favor; weather conditions are good, you’re well-rested, preferably your route has a shorter alternative.
3. Don’t Go Solo
Experienced paddlers may choose to kayak alone at their own risk, but beginners never should.
When you’re paddling alone, there’s no room for mistakes. If you fall out, there’ll be no one to help you get back into your kayak. If you get injured, there’ll be no one to tow you home. And, if you get lost or blown off course, you’ll have to rely on your navigation skills.
Paddling with a group and never alone is the best kayak safety tip that we can give you. Plus, paddling in a group is a fantastic way to make friends, discover new routes, and learn from more experienced paddlers.
4. Create a Float Plan & Tell a Friend
Plan the main details of your route in advance and share them with someone reliable before setting out. The best person to share your float plan with will (a) realize that you’re not back when you said you would be and (b) can be trusted to take appropriate action if necessary.
Your appointed person could be your spouse, a parent, a trusted friend, or even a local authority. It’s also a good idea to provide contact details for local rescue services and emergency contact numbers for the people in your group.
A basic float plan should include the following information:
- The names of everyone in your paddle group.
- Your planned route, including launch and take-out points.
- Approximately how long you expect the route to take.
- Instructions on when to act and what to do if you or anyone in your group hasn’t returned within an agreed amount of time.
For full-day kayaking trips, you might want to agree to update your selected person every couple of hours or at the halfway point. If something goes wrong in the first hour of your trip, you don’t want someone to wait until evening before starting to look for you.
5. Check the Weather Forecast
Ensure you check the weather forecast for your local area and nearby areas as it can give you an idea of the direction the weather is moving. Check for wind speeds as well as rain, and take a look out the window too.
If there’s rough weather coming, reschedule your trip. If it’s cloudy and bad weather is possible, either reschedule or stay close to your launch point. If you’re already on the water when the weather turns, get to land ASAP.
On a short trip, you can check the weather before you leave. You might want to take an emergency radio for longer routes and multi-day trips if mobile signal is poor on your route.
6. Check Tides & Currents
For kayakers, tides and currents are just as important as weather conditions. Both can change unexpectedly and drag you off course.
Likewise, be aware of tidal rivers and harbors. Getting stuck in the mud because you’ve missed the tide is not only embarrassing but potentially dangerous.
Going with the current on the way out is a common mistake for new paddlers. Yes, you get to enjoy easy paddling at the beginning. But you’ll have to struggle against the current on the way back when you’re already fatigued.
7. Dress for Immersion
You wouldn’t go swimming in a pair of jeans or a winter jacket, so don’t kayak in heavy clothes either. Whether you’re paddling on rapids or a calm river, assume that you’re going to get wet and dress accordingly.
That’s not to say that you should kayak in your swimming suit every time. Instead, dress appropriately for the weather and water temperature. Opt for lightweight, quick-dry clothing instead of cotton or denim, both of which take millennia to dry, and a pair of wet suit shoes or outdoor sandals.
You can fall in at any time, no matter how experienced you are. I recently got wet trying to exit my kayak onto a canal bank and had to continue in wet clothes. In these situations, lightweight and quick-dry clothing will make it easier to get back into your boat and warm up.
Hypothermia is also a severe issue for anyone kayaking in cooler climates. As a rule, if the water temperature is below 60°f (15°c) you should consider wearing a wetsuit or a drysuit.
8. Always Wear a PFD
A personal floatation device (PFD) is an essential piece of kayak safety gear, and you should wear one at all times on the water. Modern life jackets are comfortable and come in various sizes, so there’s no reason not to use one.
When you’re exhausted, caught in strong currents and waves, disorientated, or knocked unconscious in a capsize, wearing a PFD might save your life.
9. Wear a Helmet Where Appropriate
On lakes, calm rivers, or open water, a helmet might be a bit overkill because you’re unlikely to bang your head if you capsize. However, a properly fitted helmet is essential for tackling whitewater and shallow rivers with rocky river beds.
You should also consider wearing a helmet on the river or canal routes if there are low bridges or overhanging branches. As kayaking helmets are relatively lightweight and low-profile, you can strap one to your kayak’s front deck.
The best kayaking helmets are buoyant and quick-drying with excellent drainage. Your bicycle helmet may be better than nothing, but it’s not going to offer the same level of protection.
10. Follow the Local Boating Rules
Familiarise yourself with local boating rules as well as national and regional boating rules. Local authorities may restrict some of your local waterways for safety reasons or to preserve nature and wildlife. If you can’t find the information online or from a local paddle group, just give your local boating authorities a call.
11. Practice Rescue Techniques
Once you’ve mastered the necessary paddle skills, you can start practicing deep water rescue techniques. These should be covered in beginner to intermediate-level kayaking classes.
The techniques you’ll need to focus on include:
- Wet exits: Practice getting out of your kayak after a capsize.
- Self-rescue: When you empty and re-enter your kayak on your own.
- T-rescue or X-rescue: When one paddler helps someone who has capsized to empty and re-enter their kayak.
You’ll need a willing volunteer for this, meaning someone prepared to get wet and hang out in the water for a bit while you get to grips with the exercise. It’s best to practice rescue techniques on calm water and preferably very close to land until you’ve got some practice.
12. Stay Relatively Close to the Shoreline & Visible
Until you’ve got some solid experience under your belt and a group of experienced paddlers to go with, you’ll want to stay close to the shoreline. You don’t need to scrape the hull along the beach or hug the sea cliffs, but you should stay within an easily swimmable distance.
Another kayak safety tip for beginners is to notify the lifeguard on beach duty or stop by the coast guard’s or harbor master’s office before setting off. Let them know your planned route, so they’ll know there’s a problem if they see you way off course. Wearing something highly visible will help people onshore keep tabs on you.
13. Stay Hydrated
Similar to any other extreme sport, it’s possible to get dehydrated while kayaking. Remember to bring enough water for the duration of your trip, plus a bit extra. Putting a water bottle somewhere accessible or attaching it to the front deck should remind you to drink regularly.
14. Don’t Exceed Your Kayak’s Capacity and Capabilities
Some kayaks are designed for specific types of water or particular activities. You wouldn’t take a sea kayak down a stretch of river rapids because whitewater is way outside the boat’s capabilities. Likewise, don’t plan a long-distance excursion on the sea in a river runner or a recreational kayak.
The same logic applies to kayak weight limits. Overloading a kayak will make it sit lower in the water than it should. This will unbalance the boat and can cause accidents, particularly on choppy water.
15. Keep a Lookout for Other Boating Traffic
This feels like an obvious piece of kayak safety advice, but it’s surprisingly easy to get distracted when you’re taking in the beautiful scenery or practicing your paddle skills.
Unlike kayaks, motorboats can move fast and depending on the vessel’s size and speed, the wake can unbalance or capsize you. Additionally, other boaters, including kayakers, may not be aware of how close they are to you, or they may change direction or block your way without warning.
Being on the lookout for other boating traffic will minimize the risk of capsizing.
16. Don’t Drink Alcohol or Take Drugs When Paddling
This is one kayak safety tip that often gets ignored or overlooked, but it really shouldn’t be.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard’s accident report, alcohol causes a significant proportion of boating-related accidents. Although less common, drugs are also a frequent cause of boating accidents and fatalities.
Enjoying a beer while you cruise the water might seem like a good idea. However, alcohol slows your reflexes, impacts co-ordination, and increases your risk of hypothermia. Plus, most of us know that alcohol and sensible decisions don’t tend to go hand in hand.
17. Check Your Equipment for Wear & Tear Beforehand
Unfortunately, kayaking equipment will wear out when it’s used frequently and hasn’t been stored correctly. We recommend carrying out a thorough equipment check at the start of the kayaking season or every few months if you kayak throughout the year. Look out for leaks, cracks, and thinning materials, as well as tears in kayaking clothing.
Assuming that you do a detailed check fairly regularly and after any accidents, you’ll only need to spend a minute or two checking for apparent damage each time you launch.
Essential Kayak Safety Equipment
The following items include the essential kayak safety equipment that we think you should take every time you go paddling.
- PFD: Don’t be fooled by flat water and calm weather. You always need to wear a life vest. Ensure it’s appropriately fitted; your PFD should be snug but shouldn’t rub or restrict movement.
- Whistle/distress flare: For attracting attention and signaling for help. A whistle will be fine in busy or populated areas, but a flare is more effective on open water.
- Compass/GPS: Even on lakes and rivers, it’s possible to lose your bearings, and a compass can point you in the right direction. Many people now prefer an electronic GPS or GPS mobile app, but it’s best to have an old-fashioned map and compass as a backup.
- Communication device: On longer or more remote trips, you’ll need a way of calling for help in an emergency. Depending on where you’re going kayaking, this might mean carrying a mobile phone, VHF radio, or satellite phone.
- First aid kit: A group leader or guide should carry a comprehensive first aid kit, but on independent ventures, you’ll need to take your own. Make sure it’s packed in a waterproof bag, easy to access, and that you know how to use everything in the kit.
- Hat/sunglasses/sunscreen: Out on the water, you’re particularly exposed to UV-rays, and sunburn is a common problem.
- Extra food and water: Kayaking is a reasonably low-impact sport, but fatigue and dehydration can still creep up. Carrying enough food and water for the duration of your trip is vital. We highly recommend taking a bit extra.
Recommended Kayak Safety Equipment
Above, we’ve covered the essential kayak safety equipment. Below are the items you might need depending on your trip’s length and the type of water you’re paddling.
- Helmet: You should always wear a helmet for whitewater rafting or routes with low bridges and low-hanging branches.
- Spray skirt: Like a helmet, a spray skirt isn’t always necessary. However, on whitewater, choppy water, or strong currents, a sit-inside kayak can quickly fill with water and become unstable.
- Bilge pump: Useful when you’ve got a leaky spray deck but essential for emptying your boat after a capsize. However, if you’re paddling with an experienced kayaker who knows deep water rescue techniques or you’re always close to land, you might be okay without a bilge pump.
- Paddle float: Again, if you’re close to land or with an experienced paddler, paddle floats aren’t strictly necessary. However, they will help you clamber back into your boat after a capsize.
- Paddle Leash: This is a useful bit of kit that attaches your paddle to the front of the cockpit so it can’t float away from you.
- Spare paddle: Consider bringing a spare paddle per person or a few spares shared between a group. Again, when paddling close to land, an extra paddle isn’t strictly necessary.
- Towline: Towlines come in handy in several situations. You can use them to tow another kayak, secure two boats together in rough weather, tether yourself while taking a break, or throw it to someone who’s capsized.
- Knife: Useful for cutting leashes or towlines in an emergency. The knife should be rust-resistant and stored within arm’s reach while paddling.
- Light: Necessary for paddling in the evenings, early mornings, foggy weather, or traversing tunnels. It’s tough to spot a kayak from the opposite end of a long tunnel, and you’ll come off worse in a collision.
- Dry bag: Although dry bags aren’t technically safety devices, they’re useful for protecting your electronic safety devices.
- Extra clothing: Being cold and wet is never pleasant, so when you’re paddling in cooler seasons, it’s wise to bring a spare set of clothing, extra layers, and a waterproof jacket.
- Emergency radio: On multi-day trips, this will keep you updated on whether changes and (depending on which model you buy) double as a communication device and power bank.