What to Do if Your Kayak Flips – Capsize Recovery Techniques

Learn what to do if your kayak flips with step-by-step instructions for sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks. Plus, essential equipment to have on hand.

What to do if your kayak flips

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Why trust us?

The two most common questions I get as a kayak guide are: “What is the most stable kayak design?” and “What do I do if my kayak flips?”

Luckily the answer to the second question is “you have a lot of options.” But even these simple steps can be challenging when you’re panicking in cold, deep water and gripping your upside-down kayak for dear life.

We’ll provide step-by-step instructions to help you get back into your kayak regardless of the water conditions and the equipment you should always take to aid in this process.

Please note that this article is not a substitute for practicing in a controlled environment. All of these skills take repetition. If mastering them is your priority, consider enrolling in a kayak safety class or experimenting with these steps in a safe area where help is available.

Sit-On-Top Kayak Self Rescue

With their big, open cockpits and raft-like design, sit-on-top kayaks are more forgiving when trying to re-enter. However, rough water, wind, and adrenaline can still make it challenging, so take a deep breath, slow down, and take your time as you go through these steps.

  1. Make sure you still have your kayak paddle! Once you’ve secured it, orientate yourself on the side of your kayak near the middle. Place your paddle between your body and the kayak, so the handle is parallel to the hull. This will keep it from floating away.

  2. Propel your upper body over the kayak and grab the other side. Pull the farside to flip your kayak towards you and right side up.

  3. If available, secure your paddle to the kayak with a bungee or piece of line.

  4. Return to the side of the kayak so that you’re in line with the seat.

  5. Push down on the kayak and kick your legs like you’re trying to get out of a swimming pool. Kick with your legs and push with your arms.

  6. When you can lay across the top of your kayak. Keep as low as you can. The closer your center of gravity is to the water, the more stable the kayak will be.

  7. Staying low, slowly orientate yourself back in your kayak seat. Since a sit-on-top is such an open paddling platform, little water should be in the seat to compromise the kayak’s stability.

Sit-Inside Kayak Self Rescue

Sit-in kayaks are more challenging when it comes to performing self-rescues. You will also need to learn how to do a wet exit if you use a spray skirt.

Compared to sit-on-tops, a sit-in kayak’s primary stability is not as good, and they’re more apt to flip over when shifting your body weight around. The cramped cockpit conditions can also make recovery more complex, so go slow and don’t rush. The faster you try to recover, the more likely you will end up back in the water.

  1. Just like with a sit-on-top, make sure you still have your paddle! Once you’ve secured it, orientate yourself on the side of your sit-inside kayak near the middle. Place your paddle between your body and the kayak, so the handle is parallel to the hull. This will keep it from floating away.

  2. Sit-in kayaks are usually narrower than sit-on-tops, making reaching the other side of the hull easier. Push down on the kayak and lay down across the hull, grabbing the other side of the kayak and pulling it toward you to flip it right side up.

  3. Sit-in kayaks are more prone to having their cockpit fill with water. So the faster you can grab and flip your sit-in kayak into the upright position, the less water there will be to contend with. A cockpit full of water will make the kayak more unstable and challenging to re-enter.

  4. There are several ways to re-enter a sit-in kayak, but my favorite is the cowboy method. 

  5. Place your paddle in your seat and make it as secure as possible.

  6. Spin the kayak until you’re at the stern.

  7. Push down on the stern to submerge it; the bow should be clear of the water.

  8. Keep pushing down on the stern and slide the hull between your legs. Repeat until you’re hovering above the cockpit.

  9. Keep your body low to the kayak as you slide along the hull. The closer you keep your body weight to the water, the more stable the sit-in kayak will feel.

  10. Now that you’re hovering above your seat, carefully remove your paddle, and plop your butt into the seat. Your legs will still be outside the kayak.

  11. You may have to prop yourself up slightly to get your feet back inside the cockpit. If so, go slowly; this is where most people end up back in the water.

  12. Once you’ve got your feet back inside, paddle to shore if possible. The kayak may feel unstable if there’s a lot of water in the cockpit or bulkheads. If it’s too dangerous to kayak, use a paddle float for additional stability and a bilge pump to remove water from the cockpit. Continue pumping until the kayak feels stable enough to paddle.

Accessories That Can Help if Your Kayak Flips

Even the most experienced kayakers often need some help recovering if their kayak flips. Below are four items I never leave shore without, whether I’m going out for ten minutes, an hour, or two weeks. Keep these items close at hand, preferably secured under deck bungees (with one big exception), where they can be easily accessed in an emergency. 

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Can you guess which of these items you shouldn’t keep under your deck bungees? It doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer you are, how warm or shallow the water is, or how long you’ll be out; always wear a PFD designed for your size and weight.

One of my most harrowing paddling experiences was in Hawaii. My wife and I capsized a basic sit-on-top kayak. Unbeknownst to us, there was a crack in the hull, and as the kayak took on the water, it became so unstable we couldn’t paddle it.

My brother was able to tow the kayak to shore while my wife and I swam through moderate chop. After fifteen minutes of hard swimming, we were exhausted as we paddled the waves and ocean currents. I do not doubt that our life jackets saved our lives. I know they can be hot and uncomfortable, but do yourself and your loved ones a favor—never leave shore without one. 

Paddle Float

About the size of a kayak dry bag, paddle floats are easy to fit under your deck bungees. To use them, insert your paddle blade into the slip on one end, and cinch tight. Most floats have two air bladders that can be manually inflated. 

This makes them into a simple kayak outrigger. Placing the float perpendicular to the kayak seat can improve stability in various deep water conditions. Floats can be used to get back into your kayak or, once you’re back in your cockpit, to provide a more stable platform while you pump out excess water. Speaking of pumping water…

Bilge Pump

A bilge pump (small portable hand pump) removes unwanted water efficiently from your kayak. They’re unnecessary if you’re in a sit-on-top as water doesn’t pool in most of these designs. But they’re a vital piece of equipment for a sit-in kayak. If you’re in a tandem kayak, one paddler can wield the paddle float to maintain stability while the other pumps. 

If you’ve spent time in temperate or cold water, odds are you’ll be shivering. Working a paddle pump helps reactivate your muscles and will warm you up for a short period. Once you’ve removed enough water, head for shore, change into a dry pair of clothes, and if possible, have something hot to drink.

Kayak Sponge

Pumps are good at removing large volumes of water efficiently, but once you’ve removed the majority, they become cumbersome and ineffective. A sponge isn’t life-saving equipment like a float, life jacket, or pump, but it can make your paddle much more comfortable.

A sponge will soak up the last water from your kayak cockpit and seat. Once you’re ready to start paddling again, you’ll want to stay as dry as possible, and a simple sponge can add that little bit of luxury to your paddle. They’re great whether your kayak flips or not. If you paddle long enough, the water will inevitably find a way into your seat and kayak.

Frequently Asked Questions

When we think of a kayak capsizing, we often think of a big wave crashing into us and causing us to flip. But in many cases, it’s your reaction to these elements that cause you to flip your kayak. We can’t help but tense up when paddling through rough conditions. Our muscles tighten, and we become more conscious of our kayak tipping on the waves. If the kayak dips too far on one side, we overcompensate, rock the other way, and allow the next wave to catch us off-guard.

The best way to keep your kayak from flipping is to stay calm. Of course, this is easier said than done, and it takes plenty of practice to feel comfortable. So stick with it, and don’t put yourself in conditions you’re not comfortable with. In time, you’ll learn to gauge what waves your kayak can handle and which will spell trouble.

If you’re paddling a sit-on-top, getting stuck in your kayak is almost impossible. If your kayak flips, nothing encumbers you from kicking out from underneath the hull and popping up alongside.

Sit-inside kayaks are more challenging. The cockpit encloses a lot more of your body and, in some designs, can include your legs and lower torso. If your kayak flips, you’ll need to do more work to ensure you can get free. This can be terrifying and disorientating as you try to free yourself upside down.

This is another reason to wear a life jacket. The jacket’s buoyancy will help you break free of the cockpit and send you jetting to the surface. You can help by pushing down on the cockpit’s combing to help your legs come free of the cockpit.

If you’re wearing a spray skirt, you’ll need to perform a kayak wet exit.

Kayaks are naturally buoyant. The hulls of most sit-on-top kayaks have air trapped within them. This, along with their limited bulkheads, makes it difficult for enough water to pool and cause a kayak to sink. Even when the hull of our poor Hawaii kayak was taking on water, we managed to get it to shore, although it was a slog.

Sit-in kayaks also have a lot of buoyancy but are more susceptible to sinking. This is because more compartments can fill with water and, even if they don’t sink, can make them sit so low in the water that you can’t use a pump to bail them out.

Even watertight hatches can take on water when a kayak flips. These, along with the cockpit, can cause them to sink in extreme circumstances. If you’re not filling the bulkheads with gear, you can use a kayak float bag to keep out unwanted water and improve stability.