Kayak Safety: 10 Important Tips On How To Stay Safe While Kayaking?

Have you always wanted to kayak, but worried about how safe it was? Don’t panic as you’re not alone! This fear has kept many people from exploring this fun and exciting sport. The first step of overcoming this is educating yourself on kayaking safety, so you can avoid dangerous or ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

Have you always wanted to kayak, but worried about how safe it was?

Don’t panic as you’re not alone! This fear has kept many people from exploring this fun and exciting sport. The first step of overcoming this is educating yourself on kayaking safety, so you can avoid dangerous or risky situations before they happen

So, take a deep breath and read these 10 kayak safety tips. And I promise, by the end of this article, you should feel much more confident on the water!

Tips For Kayaking Safety – Key Takeaways

  • Never kayak alone – its more fun (and safer) with a friend
  • Don’t drink and paddle – recipe for disaster and against the law
  • Pack an emergency kit – make sure to pack communication device
  • Dress for water not the weather – Invest in a drysuit or wetsuit
  • Master the basic safety skills – paddling stoke, rolls and self rescue technique
  • Always wear a life jacket – no ifs, buts or maybes
  • Pick a suitable location – paddle to your experience and ability
  • Tell someone your plans– create and file a float plan
  • Check the water and weather conditions – check prior and on the day
  • Make sure you can see and be seen – it’s worth investing in kayak lights

Are Kayaks Safe?

Kayakers in safety lesson

Ok so let’s address the elephant in the room; Are kayaks safe?

The short answer is yes.  But only if the kayaker is properly prepared, suitably trained with adequate gear and equipment.  And to put things into context, all water sports come with a level of risk, whether that is actual or perceived – and kayaking is no exception to this rule.

Here are some of the risks and dangers that every kayaker should be aware of.

  • Drowning
  • Hypothermia & Cold Water Shock
  • Getting Lost (Especially kayaking at sea)
  • In-water Hazards such as Weirs & Low-Head Dams
  • Wildlife; Alligators, Bears or Shark attacks
  • Adverse Weather Conditions & Sun Exposure
  • Motorized boat traffic and other paddlers
  • Capsizing

And yes, kayaking can be deadly if you’re not careful. Accidents can happen when paddling, but in the majority of cases they are preventable.

Statically speaking, driving a car is much more likely to put you in life-threatening danger if you drive carelessly. And even the odds of that happen are small, but they’re far greater than your chance of dying while kayaking.

In all honesty, kayaking is safe if you’re aware of the risks and follow some safety precautions

So let’s talk about how to be as safe as possible on a kayak.

Top 10 Kayak Safety Tips for New Paddlers

Tips and tricks red square grunge textured isolated stamp

Tip #1 – Wear a Kayaking Specific Life Jacket At All Times – No Excuses!

I’m continually amazed at how many people I see out on the water without a personal flotation device – it’s completely crazy.   Regardless of your swimming abilities or kayaking skill level; wearing a well-fitting, properly maintained, and suitable buoyancy aid could save your life.

According to USCG statistic; Those who died while boating in 2019, 79% drowned.  Of those drowning victims, only 86% were wearing a life jacket at the time of death.

When choosing a PFD, check product labelling for weight and size guidance. It should fit snugly and not be possible to move the buoyancy aid – fit by adjusting the straps, then lift from the shoulders. If it slides up, try a different style or tighter fit.

The Proper Way to Fit a PFD (Life Jacket)

Choose a brightly colored life jacket with pockets to store your emergency commutation device and any other equipment. Attach a whistle to your life jacket, wear a strobe light so you can be seen at night or alert others of your presence

Bonus tip – Type IV PFDs make a great investment for kayakers who often paddle in open water. They can used to rescue at fellow paddler, or pet, who’s fallen overboard and become separated from their kayak.

Tip #2 – Never Drink Alcohol and Paddle

A law book with a gavel - Kayak DUI Law

In the United States and many other countries, paddling a kayak while under the influence is against the law – and may result in a fine or possible imprisonment for repeat offences.    DUI / BUI punishments aside, there’s still plenty of good reasons to avoid boating under the influence

A sobering fact is alcohol remains the primary cause of boating accidents with fatal outcomes.  Alcohol is a depressant, it slows your response times, impairs decision making and negatively effects coordination.

This makes you far more likely to lose your balance, be less aware of hazards or take silly risks whilst out on the water. The result of which could be a capsizing or another dangerous situation that you might struggle to get out of.

Tip #3 – Always Wear Appropriate Clothing For The Conditions (And Your Needs)

When deciding what to wear for a kayaking trip, you must take into account the time of year, water temperature and weather conditions as well. Clothing should be able to provide protection from the sun, wind and other elements.

During warm weather, it’s best to wear light, comfortable clothing and a hat. Wear clothes that are made of breathable material. Cotton is not the best choice because it doesn’t allow heat to escape from your body, leading you to sweat more. Plus, it takes forever to dry so you stay cold and wet longer. On top of this, when it becomes heavy from being soaked, then swimming becomes more difficult.

As the sessions change and the air and water temperature drops, it is wise to wear a wetsuit and gloves or mittens, as the risk of cold shock or hypothermia is increased.

What Hypothermia Does To Your Body And Brain

A wet suit traps a layer of water next to your body, which helps provide insulation from heat loss. However, in temperatures lower than 60 degree Fahrenheit a wetsuit starts to lose its thermal effectiveness.

If you will be paddling in cold water, or if the air temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s best to wear a dry suit. But it’s important to remember, although a dry suit will keep you dry it provides limited insulation –  so thermal under garments must be worn.

Tip #4 – Always Tell Someone Where You Are Going and When You Will Be Back

So you have chosen a suitable kayaking location, mapped out your planned route, identified any hazards, checked the weather and water conditions –  but what happens if something goes wrong? How will you get help?

Float Plan 101 – What is a Float Plan? Why You Need One? What Information Should Be Included?

Well, this is where a Float Plan comes in.  But, what is a Float Plan?

A float plan is an accurate, detailed summary of a kayaking trip that covers

  • Who is going?
  • Where are you going?
  • When will you be back?
  • What to do if you don’t return?

Do you always need to create one? No. If you only plan to head out on the water for a few hours, there is no need, a text message or note will be sufficient. But if you’re planning a longer boating excursion, you should create and file a float plan

Aim to include concrete details and specifics about your outing as should you not return, it will give the authorities a head start when launching a search and rescue mission in an emergency.

File the float plan with at least one responsible, trustworthy individual. Choose a person you can trust to contact the authorities if you don’t arrive as expected. It can be a family member, friend, or the local marina.

Should plans change during your trip, maybe due to bad weather or an unplanned delay?! Keep the guardians in the loop – failure to do could see the authority alerted unnecessary!!

Lastly, don’t forget to close out your float plan. Do a final check-in as soon as you reach your destination to let your float plan guardians know you arrived there safely. 

Tip #5 – Make Sure You Can Be Seen

A part of staying safe out on the water is ensuring other people can see you –  especially in low light conditions such as dawn or in poor visibility like when it’s raining.  If you are kayaking on large bodies of water, it’s likely you’re going to be the smallest boat or vessel.

Top tips of being seen;

  • Make sure your kayak is brightly colored and not camouflaged by vegetation or water color.
  • Reflective tape is a good way to make your kayak more visible at night. Apply reflective tape in front, back, and around the straps of the PFD; as well a strip on each of your paddle blades, the bow and stern of your kayak – in order that you will be seen by other kayakers or boaters from a distance at night time.
  • If kayaking at night, you also want to make sure there’s red and green running lights on the kayak, so others vessel know your direction of travel
  • Always carry some form of noise maker, a whistle or air horn to alert other watercraft of your presence – should they fail to see you and stray too close
  • Also, wear bright clothing which is easy to spot from a distance.
Kayak Lights For Night Fishing - Rules and DIY Kayak Light Pole / Sidelights

Tip #6 – Always Carry an Emergency Kit

An emergency kit is critical for any paddler. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced kayaker, it’s important to always have this on hand and should be part of your essential kayaking gear. After all, it’s supposed to keep you alive until help arrives – so best not to forget it!

It should include;

  • First-aid kit
  • Signaling devices (e.g. signal mirror, flare gun and flares)
  • Food supplies for several days
  • Water containers or filters – to provide fresh drinking water from the ocean
  • Compass or GPS unit  – with maps of your area on it in case you get lost
  • An axe or hatchet
  • Sleeping gear and emergency shelter
Marine VHF Radio Overview & Exercises with US Coast Guard - Weekly Kayaking Tips - Kayak Hipster

If you need help it’s important to have a way of contacting others, so carry a mobile phone or, if possible, it’s worth investing in a VHF radio – just make sure to store it in an easily accessible dry bag.

A worrying fact, according to the RNLI in the UK, is; a large proportion of those who died while kayaking, did not not have a means of calling for help – don’t become another statistic.

Tip #7 – Choice A Suitable Kayaking location

Screen grab of adding a new kayaking location to map

It’s important to pick a kayaking location based on you skill level and ability; both physically and technically – paddling above your skill level is a real risk and could

Start out at a place where you’re familiar with the water, and work your way up as you improve.

If you’re a beginner, keep to shallow water, such quiet lakes or rivers. If sea kayaking, try to stay close to the coastline within calm bays that are shielded from off-shore winds.  Wind can quickly turn serene flat water into a choppy roller coaster of waves, which can easily capsize an inexperienced kayaker.

Determining your route; identifying any hazards like low head-dams and then charting portage spots; safe places to get in and out, and possible wildlife encounters are all important when you’re planning a kayaking or canoeing trip.

Lastly, unless you have a death wish, please do not test your beginner-level skills in whitewater rapids.

Tip #8 – Learn Basic Kayaking Safety Skills

Before you go on your kayaking adventure, make sure know how to kayak, and by this I am mean learn and master the essential skills and safety procedures; I suggest taking a course – check the American Canoe Association website for an accredited trainers in your area.

A class will teach the basics such as how to brace in rough water; what equipment is needed for river vs lake kayaking or ocean paddling; essential paddle technique; and the fundamentals of how to roll a kayak

But without question,the most important – and essential – self-rescue technique to master is how to perform a wet exit and then re-enter your kayak.

Kayak PFD Sizing for Kayak Fishing PFD or Recreational PFD (Part 1)

Make sure to practice re-entering a kayak until it is second nature, as this one technique can really make the difference if you capsize in cold water – if anything it can help keep panic at bay.

Tip #9 – Check The Weather And Water Conditions

Being prepared is key to maintaining a safe kayaking experience.  Plan ahead and always review the weather forecast and sea conditions before you set off on your trip. And be willing to cancel your excursion if the forecast is unfavorable.

Check for:

  • Wind speed and direction
  • Wave size, height, period of waves in feet or meters; also look at charts displaying where these waves will be breaking
  • A storm warning (or high risk weather front) from NOAA
STUCK In Storm 2 Miles OFFSHORE While Kayaking!

Although its possible to kayak in the rain, should there be any sudden changes in weather whilst on your trip, or there are any signs of impending danger such as; rough waters offshore, lightning strikes nearby. Then, abandon your trip immediately and turn back or seek shelter – but make sure to update your float plan guardians on the change of plans.

Tip #10 – Never Kayak Alone

If you’re kayaking alone and something happens to go wrong then the risk of rescue is greatly decreased.

You never know when an accident might happen because luck just isn’t on our side all the time… so it’s best not to chance fate by putting ourselves into dangerous situations like this.

So please take my advice: don’t kayak alone

Lost Kayak at Sea | National Geographic

Plus they are some good benefits of kayaking with a partner, such as;

  • It’s an good opportunity catch up with a buddy
  • A shared experience with worth two of a solo one
  • Should one kayaker capsize, or fall out of their boat, the other person can stay close by while they right themselves or provide assistance.
  • If one of you has an accident then the other can get help.

Kayaking Safety Tips – Summary

The most important thing to remember is that kayak safety always comes first.

Kayaking is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, but it does require some planning and preparation. By following these kayak safety tips, you can avoid many of the most common accidents that occur while on the water.

Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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