Kayak Safety 101: Everything You Need To Know

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Learning about the ins and outs of kayak safety is one of the most important things any apprentice kayaker should dedicate some attention to. Not only will having this knowledge dramatically improve your confidence, it also plays an integral part in becoming a better kayaker. 

This guide will tell you everything you need to know about kayak safety (both the general and important, specific principles), and what you should do in dangerous or sub-optimal situations. 

Key Takeaways

  • Always wear a PFD, know how to swim, and understand the weather and water conditions to ensure your safety while kayaking.
  • You may need different types of safety gear and equipment for different types of kayaking, such as helmets, GPS devices, marine radios, etc.
  • You should prepare for emergencies by having a plan, having a way to contact authorities, and knowing how to perform first aid.

Kayak Safety Essentials: The Three Golden Rules of Kayaking

There are three essential kayaking safety principles that everyone should understand. While some of the information here is common sense, you should always do your due diligence before embarking on any kayaking adventure. 

1) Always Wear a PFD

A PFD stands for a personal flotation device; examples include; a life jacket/vest, life belt, life preserver, or some buoyancy aid. Not only is it sensible to wear a personal flotation device for if you capsize or fall out of your vessel, but it’s also a legal requirement in the United States. 

The authorities state that there should be a PFD for each person aboard the kayak. 

2) Know How To Swim

While it’s not necessary to be a strong swimmer in all forms of kayaking, it’s a good idea to learn to tread water and have a basic breaststroke or backstroke. If you’re kayaking in shallower waterways and calm rivers, basic swimming techniques are all you need. . 

Things get slightly different if you do any sea kayaking, as being caught in cold water out on the sea without basic swimming skills is a recipe for disaster. It also makes learning to recover much easier and helps you avoid panicking in the open water. 

If you’re not a confident swimmer, basic swimming lessons will teach you everything you need to know. 


3) Establish Your Basic Safety Information

Essential safety information is anything that you need to know about the location you’re kayaking in. Always check the weather forecasts and any potential hazards you should know about before embarking. 

If you’re a newbie, one of the most critical kayak safety tips is to avoid going alone. Stick to a group first and build up your abilities and experience.

Before You Go out on the Water

You should do a few things before getting out on the water to practice good kayak safety. While there’s a fair bit to learn here, once you get the basics down, it becomes routine. 

Ensure You’re Using the Right Size Kayak

Having the right size kayak improves safety, comfort, and performance. Generally speaking, your height and weight influence the best size kayak for you as an individual. 

Why is the right size kayak so important? It’s all about proper stability on the water, which is key to kayaking safety. A mismatch between your size and your kayak can lead to imbalance and instability, which increases the likelihood of you unintentionally disembarking your kayak. 

Check out this guide for more about picking the correct size kayak.

Check the Weather

We’re mostly talking about winds when looking at how weather impacts your kayaking safety. Heavy rain can be a hazard and make things more challenging, but depending on the water you’re kayaking on, the wind can have a dramatic effect

Always have a good idea of what the winds will be like for the period when you’ll be kayaking. How much information you need depends upon your location. If you’re on the coast and the winds change erratically, you’ll want to be more in tune with the local weather patterns. 

Take a look at this article for more about wind and how it affects kayaking.

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Make Sure You Know How to Read the Conditions

Reading conditions is all about respecting the environment you’re in. An accurate weather forecast will allow you to plan and understand what kayaking safety precautions you should take. 

For example, if the weather is volatile with sudden winds and a chance of storms, then there’s a good chance that most kayak rental services will close up shop. You should follow their lead and reschedule for another time. 

Understanding the water temperature is also essential; cold water can cause hypothermia and shock. It can even be life-threatening in some circumstances. 

This is especially important when sea kayaking as you’ve got offshore winds to consider, and the sea’s unpredictable changes in weather can completely derail the plans of even the best kayakers. 

Have a look here for a more complete look at ocean kayak safety.

So, reading the weather and water conditions you’re kayaking in is vital to both performance and safety. 

Gather Your Supplies and Safety Equipment

Safety gear depends on the kind of situation that you’re in and the type of waterway you’re on. A good general list of safety equipment for kayaking is as follows:

  • PFD – Your personal flotation device is both a legal requirement and the most important piece of kayaking safety equipment. 
  • Flashlight or Flare – Handy in case it gets dark and you need to improve visibility or attract attention. 
  • First Aid Kit – If you’re going on a long trip, you should take this with you, if you’re staying close to the shore or not far from where you’re camped you might leave it there or in a vehicle. However, at least one person in your party should have one. 
  • Dry bag – While not essential, this can be a very useful piece of equipment. A dry bag is a thick waterproof bag that can keep supplies, clothes, and other equipment dry. 
  • A Whistle – A way to communicate with your family/group in case people start getting separated or a way to help anyone else locate you. 
  • Bilge Pump – This is a fantastic portable pump that fits easily into any kayak. It makes it easy to remove any water that’s made it’s way in. If you capsize at all, there’s going to be lots of water to remove, and without one of these to help, it could be a huge nuisance. 
  • Bring snacks and beverages – This lets you refuel and rehydrate in case you’re on the water for a longer time than planned. 

For longer kayaking adventures and safety on rapids and rougher waters, you will need to include extra safety gear. 

  • Helmet – if you kayak solely on calm lakes or gentle waters this is probably not necessary. However, if you’re on rough waters and river rapids it is essential and it can save your life. 
  • GPS Device/Map – Old school kayakers used the compass and the map to find their way, but Electronic GPS devices are taking over and are handy tools. 
  • Tow Bag – These are an incredible piece of useful kit and essential if you’re kayaking with a group or another person. These are a bag containing tow ropes that you can use to tow someone who is incapacitated in some way. 
  • Float Bag – These are incredibly handy, especially for ocean kayakers. They can be inflated or deflated and inserted into the space behind your seat to keep your gear preserved. 
  • Spray Skirt – Handy if you’re in rougher water or whitewater kayaking. These cover your cockpit and prevent water from filling up in your kayak. These can be easily detached. 
  • Extra Paddle – While this may seem like overkill, it could be very handy if you kayak alone, or if you know your group is going to be heading for unpredictable and challenging waters. Paddles don’t usually break but they’re not indestructible. 
  • A Marine Radio or other means to call for help – a radio is important to alert any rescue organizations if you’re lost or stranded.
  • Extra Snacks – This is something everyone should pack, but is especially important for anyone on a long paddling adventure. You do not want to be caught without any food or water in stressful conditions, and this is especially true if you’re lost. 
  • Sun Screen – Easily overlooked but guarantees that you won’t get a nasty sunburn on longer trips. 
  • Repair Kit – Allows you to make simple repairs and patches that would otherwise cause huge complications in an emergency or cut your trip short. 

Dress Appropriately

What you wear is another element of your safety gear; you should wear the proper clothing and ensure it’s suitable for the water conditions.

Examples are a wet suit/dry suit and layered clothing to keep you warm and to avoid sudden temperature drops in your body from the cold water around you. 

Have a Plan In Place for Emergencies

Just having a plan in case the worst happens can be instrumental to a peaceful and fun kayaking trip. 

Firstly, always tell someone where you’re going and what route you’re taking or what your destination is. 

Secondly, make sure you have a good understanding of the weather, a lot of emergencies are avoided by simply not kayaking out into a storm and then being carried out into the ocean. 

Thirdly, get into the habit of checking you’ll have all the safety equipment you’ll need. This is going to differ based on where you are – a solo ocean kayaker will need more safety gear than a group of whitewater kayakers. 

Always ensure you have a means of calling for help and get to know who the local rescue authorities are charities in your area are. 

Finally, take note of any hazards, is the water known to be treacherous? Is there wildlife you need to be respectful of? Thoroughly researching hazards will mean you know what to do in any given situation. 

A complete emergency plan depends on exactly where you’ll be kayaking, but following the above tips will help keep you safe in emergencies. 

For first aid situations like hypothermia or heatstroke, you have to watch for the signs. Some of the telltale signs of hypothermia are: 

  • Shivering
  • Drowsiness
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Exhaustion 
  • Slurred Speech 

You’re going to need to get them somewhere dry as soon as you can and handle them gently while removing wet clothing or drying them up. You’ll also need to contact emergency services for help. 

If you’re kayaking in hot conditions, without shade or without enough drinking water, then you need to be aware of the signs of heatstroke:

  • Confusion
  • Hot, dry Skin
  • Seizure
  • High body temperature

Get the person to a shaded spot, and sponge them with cold water, or cover them with cool and damp sheets. If you have ice packs, place them on the armpits, groin, and neck. You should contact the emergency services as fast as possible.  

Make Sure to Learn Self Rescue Skills

There’s a whole host of self-rescue skills you can learn. The best place you can learn these is either from an experienced mentor or an instructor

Self Rescue can seem complicated but once you get the hang of it, it shouldn’t take too much time to learn. Rescue skills can be a bit different depending on what kind of kayaking you’re doing (whitewater vs ocean kayaking). 

The foremost self-rescue technique that most learn is recovering from a capsize or the paddle float technique.

Brush Up on Your Navigation

You can learn and improve your navigation by learning routes, looking at weather patterns, and navigating through a route (by using landmarks, etc.). If you need more confidence in finding your way while out on kayaking expeditions, focus on improving your navigational abilities – these are all skills that can be actively improved!

If you’re an ocean kayaker, then at least one person in your group should be a competent navigator, as off shore winds can potentially blow you off course or cause weather that might mean a change in route. 

Kayak Safety When out on the Water

Now, the previous sections had a lot of information to get to but things get a little simpler from here. The best kayak safety tips will emphasize that preparation is key to safety. The less mental space you use to worry about what can go wrong, the more you have to enjoy yourself. 

However, you can do a few things once you’re in the water to practice kayak safety; these usually go hand in hand with better performance!

Practice Good Paddling Techniques for Safety

If you’re a newbie or a recreational kayaker who sticks to calm waters, you likely don’t need to possess the best paddling technique (it always helps, but it’s not necessary). 

However, if you’re a solo kayaker planning a long adventure, or your group is planning on taking on tough rapids and unpredictable waterways, then your paddling technique needs to be good

Know and Stay Within Your Limits

If you’re going to be in unfamiliar waters, then it’s a good idea to stay within your limits, fatigue can cause you to make otherwise avoidable mistakes. 

While it can take a bit of time to figure out what your endurance is, you should test it out on calmer waters before you go on an ocean trek. 

Stay Hydrated

So long as you’ve brought extra supplies (highly recommended), you should have water or a consumable beverage to avoid dehydration. 

You can get so focused on kayaking that you forget to drink. If you don’t have any beverages and you’re halfway into a journey and getting thirsty, your body is already on the verge of dehydration. 

While if you’re on a calm lake or small river it can be easier to stop and get a drink, making sure you have enough water is much more important on longer trips in rougher waters. It’s easy to overlook the need for hydration when you’re focusing on other things like planning the route, etc. 

Remain Calm if You Encounter Any Wildlife

One of the great things about kayaking is that it puts you in touch with the great outdoors in a way that’s hard to match anywhere else. However, that means that you need to be respectful of some of the wildlife that can cause you harm. 

The wildlife depends on the local area, and freshwater kayakers (rivers, streams, etc) in the States need to be aware of snakes and alligators.

Ocean kayakers must also be respectful of marine wildlife, such as orcas. Your local authorities will make you aware of any wildlife to be careful of, and attacks are rare in most cases. 

Any attacks are usually down to desperation or an animal being antagonized and provoked in some way. So, while attacks aren’t common, you should still respect nature in your local waterways. 

Enter and Exit Your Kayak Safely

Depending on the terrain and type of kayak you have, there are better ways to enter and exit your kayak. 

Check out our guide about getting in and out of a kayak, plus some other kayak safety tips.

Generally, you’ll straddle over the top of your kayak seat, squat down into the seat (try not to just drop), and then push off with your hands. 

For getting into your kayak from a dock, you’ll want to find the lowest point of the dock (the taller the dock the harder it’ll be to get into the kayak). 

For getting out, you just reverse the motion for getting in. 

Conflict Avoidance: Understand the Rules and Regulations in Your Area

Understanding rules and regulations are the final step in mastering kayak safety. 

Learn About Your Local Boating Authorities

There are various official authorities in the states that can provide access to helpful information and resources – these include:

  • The NASBLA – The National Association of State Boating Law Administrators. This organization is responsible for vetting the quality of boating courses and instruction. 
  • americancanoe.org – This nonprofit has all kinds of useful information and can help you find the best instructors in your state. 
  • The Coastguard SAR – Search and rescue in the states is done by the Coast Guard (its oldest mission statement). The Coast Guard search and rescue division has a website here

Kayak Safety in Emergencies

In the event of an emergency, you need to know how to act and what steps to take. Let’s take a look at some common scenarios and how you should deal with them.

How To Call For Help

  • In emergencies, people should use HF-FM Channel 16 (156.8 MHz), and dial 911.
  • Use your flashlight or flare to attract attention. 
  • Try to stay calm, don’t waste energy, and protect yourself from the elements as much as you can. The Coast Guard has some of the finest Search and Rescue specialists in the world. 

Have an Emergency Plan

To summarize an emergency plan:

  1. Let someone know where you’re going and tell them when you plan to get there. 
  2. Study the weather conditions. 
  3. Check your safety gear and never kayak without a PFD. 

First Aid

Bring a basic first aid kit, having someone in your group who knows basic first aid is always useful. 

Further Kayaking Safety Tips

Finally, here are some further tips to ensure you’re kayaking safely. 

Where Possible, Avoid Solo Kayaking

If you’re new, or not confident in a route, it might be time to swallow pride and avoid doing it on your own. It’s always safer to kayak in a group. 

For more on solo kayaking and the precautions to take, there’s a guide here.

Get Lessons

Learning from an experienced instructor is the single best way of improving your kayaking. One of the best ways to improve your kayaking skills is to learn from someone with more experience! So, even if you’ve been out on your kayak a few times and you have the basics down, it’s still worth taking lessons to level-up your skill set.

Learn How to Do Basic Repairs

Leaks can be a thorn in the side of any kayaker, especially if you’re an inflatable kayak. It’s important to learn how to do basic kayak repairs in the field, so that you can patch up your vessel well enough to make it to safety in the event your boat is damaged. 

Don’t Consume Alcohol and Paddle

It is illegal in every single state in the USA to operate a kayak while under the influence of alcohol. If you’re caught by law enforcement you’re looking at fines and maybe even jail time


There’s a lot to learn about kayak safety, but it’s important to understand this information as it’s one of the biggest steps to take when becoming a competent, confident kayaker. 

Please share in the comments if you have a kayak safety tip of your own, or pass on this article to anyone who you think might benefit. 

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