Kayak Touring 101: Skills, Safety Tips & Tricks For Open Water Paddling

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Sam OBrien

If you hope to combine your two favorite outdoor activities – kayaking and camping – into one exciting multi-day trip, there’s no better way to do it than by going kayak touring.

Exploring new places, spending time outdoors, and going out of your comfort zone – that does sound like the perfect adventure.

But if you think about it, it becomes clear that this won’t be a walk-in-the-park type of trip. Kayak touring is a whole different ball game.

Read on for advice on; how to prepare, what to expect, and – most importantly – guidelines on how to stay safe! 

What Is Kayak Touring? 

Touring kayak on bank with tent

The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines “touring” as the “activity of visiting several places in a country or area for pleasure, especially as a vacation.” The Collins Dictionary defines it similarly as “the activity of traveling on an extended journey, taken for pleasure, and visiting places of interest along the route.

Throw kayaks into the mix, and the definition of kayak touring becomes pretty clear:

A kayaking activity that involves going on an extended journey on open waters, visiting several places of interest along the paddling route, usually taken for pleasure or as an active vacation.

Ocean exploration, overnight or multi-day camping trips, and even inland water touring on rivers or lakes – all of these are a form of kayak touring. And yes, you’ll need a specialized kayak to pull off a full-blown tour – especially in open waters – which brings me to my next point. 

What Is A Touring Kayak?

Man in yellow touring kayak on open lake

You’ll often hear terms “touring kayak“ and “sea kayak“ used interchangeably. I’m sure I’m guilty of that, too.

But are they the same? And if not, what is a touring kayak, then?

Well, some may argue that they are the same. Others would say that they’re not quite the same; sea kayaks are a variant of touring kayaks that are better suited for rough, open waters.

Not every touring kayak is sea-worthy by default, but many are, hence, the confusion.

One thing everyone agrees on is that touring kayaks look nothing like your average recreational ’yak. 

Touring boats are characterized by longer, more narrow hulls, closed, sit-in cockpits, higher-than-average storage capacity, sealed hatches, and are highly efficient on long-distance trips. Touring kayaks generally track well but will often feature a rudder system or a skeg to deal with choppy water, windy conditions, and currents. 

What’s more, a typical touring boat will measure between 12 to 20 feet in length – tandem models can be up to 26 feet long – all while maintaining a narrow beam of 18 to 28 inches – you will definitely need to invest in a roof rack or trailer for hauling a touring kayak.

Narrow hulls don’t sound very stable, huh?

In a way, you’re right – touring kayaks don’t offer a lot of primary stability.

You’ll find them rather tippy in flat waters, but they’ll feel right at home in rough conditions and waves; a touring kayak’s secondary stability is second to none.  And, remember waves are not a water feature affecting just the ocean kayaker- any open body of water, such as large lakes or fast moving rivers can experience waves.

If your goal is performance, to go further, travel faster, and track straighter, a touring kayak is your best bet – because that’s what these kayaks are made to do. 

Make sure to check out my best touring kayak review roundup for some great recommendations!

Dangers Of Kayak Touring: Is Open Water Kayaking Dangerous? 

Dangers Of Kayak Touring - kayaker in rough water

I believe that understanding the potential dangers of kayak touring is crucial in knowing how to stay safe.

So, let’s get the scary part out of the way, shall we? 

Potential risks and dangers of kayak touring to keep in mind include: 

  • Sudden Weather Changes – Most of us like to complain about weather forecasts, but they can be pretty reliable for the most part. Still, there’s a chance that you’ll be caught off-guard by a sudden thunderstorm, strong winds – accompanied by huge waves – or rain showers. Keep an eye on the sky.
  • Low Air & Water Temperatures – Cold shock and hypothermia are real and potentially deadly risks for anyone kayaking in colder weather, especially when they’re not dressed for the conditions. Hypothermia sets in fast and can kill a person in as little as one hour.
  • Prolonged Sun Exposure – Sun and heat can be every bit as dangerous when you’re out on the water, where there’s no shade or any respite from the Sun’s relentless rays. Dehydration, heat stroke, exhaustion, eye damage, and nasty sunburns are potential side effects of prolonged sun exposure.
  • Unpredictable Water Conditions – Much like the weather, water conditions, although generally predictable, may catch you by surprise. Changing tides, currents, and waves are part of the open-water kayaking experience and can be every bit as threatening as they are thrilling.
  • Boat Traffic – Given that they’re smaller than average boats and sit lower in the water, kayaks are not the easiest to spot on the water. If you’ll be kayaking in an area with a lot of traffic, watch out for other boats – especially the big ones – and make your ‘yak visible to others, or you’re risking a collision.
  • No Land In Sight – You may not realize it, but maintaining a sense of direction on long-distance trips when there’s no land in sight is much more complicated than you think. Getting lost at sea is a genuine risk that you shouldn’t take lightly.
  • Wildlife encounters – If kayaking in-land, you should exercise caution and be wary of any wildlife that might pose a threat, such as bears, alligators or crocodiles. On the other hand, you also risk being bitten by mosquitoes and other annoying pests that can drain your sanity, while spending extended period out on the water.
  • Risk of Shark Attack – Yes, sharks are out there. But fortunately, statistics show that shark attacks involving kayakers are rare. Just 0.35 percent of all fatal shark attacks have been the target of kayakers. You’re still at risk, especially if you look like a tasty treat, but don’t let your imagination run wild.

Essential Skills Needed Before Starting Paddling In Open Water 

graphic showing gauge with an arror pointing to competence

Stay cautious, practice good decision-making, wear the appropriate clothing, and choose your paddling location wisely. Simple, right? 

Here are the basic skills every paddler should possess before taking up kayak touring. 

Suitable Level Of Physical Ability

If you’re a beginner and figured that kayak touring would be a hop-in and hope for the best type of trip, I’m sorry to break it to you, but:

Long-distance paddling is far more physically demanding and requires more technical skill than a short paddle on a nearby lake. 

Putting your skills and your body to the test sounds like an exciting challenge. But you have to be sure that you can handle it. Know your limits and respect them.

In the hopes of helping you assess your level of physical ability and skills as realistically as possible, I’d like to ask you a set of questions:

  • What is your current fitness level?
  • Are you a strong swimmer?
  • How much experience do you have with flat-water kayaking?
  • How’s your kayak paddling skills and stroke technique?
  • Have you developed a kayak training program that focuses on strength, endurance, and core stability?
  • Have you ever paddled long-distances before?
  • Do you know how to do a wet re-entry without assistance?

And since you’ll probably be paddling in a group, remember this:

Your paddling group is only as strong as its weakest link – the least experienced paddler in it.

Safety-Related Skills

Beyond just being in good shape, you have to think about your skills. And no, I’m not just talking about your paddling technique:

Beginners should generally steer clear of multi-day, long-distance trips until they’ve honed their kayaking skills a bit.

I’m talking about safety-related skills – knowing what to do if things go south and you have to perform any form of self-rescue.

Knowing how to perform a wet exit and then re-enter your ‘yak is vital for anyone paddling in open waters. That’s the first and most essential self-rescue technique a paddler should master.

But a wet exit isn’t always ideal; sometimes, it’s better to stay inside your kayak. So, you need to learn how to roll a kayak – the so-called Eskimo roll, a technique you can use to “right” a capsized kayak without getting out of it. 

The Sweep Roll - How to Kayak - Paddle Education

Navigation Skills

I don’t mean to scare you, but as I said earlier, getting lost at sea is easier than you think. There is no land in sight, no landmarks you can use for orientation, only water everywhere you look.

Don’t think for a second that you can go without a basic understanding of marine navigation, such as knowing how to use a kayak compass and read a map. You can’t.

I mean, you can – but you’ll be far more likely to get lost in the middle of nowhere.

So, if your map-reading, compass-using skills are a bit rusty, now’s the time to learn them. It’ll make getting from point A to point B a lot easier and not to mention safer.

Reading Weather & Water Conditions

I’m sure you know how to check the weather forecast – but that’s not what I have in mind. 

Checking the weather forecast and tide predictions is one thing. Reading the weather and water conditions – and understanding how they might impact your trip – is another.

And when you’re preparing for kayak touring, you need to know how to do the latter.

You must understand how weather conditions can affect the water – take winds and waves, for example – high and low tide behaviors and water levels, and the impact of tidal currents

Essential Kayak Touring Gear Checklist 

Graphic of a check list

Having the skills is half the battle; packing the right equipment and accessories is the other. 

Think about it:

What good are your skills if you don’t have the right gear? And what good is your gear if you don’t have the skills to use it properly? 

So, given that I talked about the skills as one part of the kayak touring equation already, it’s only logical to discuss the essential kayak touring gear next. 

Packing for a Kayak Expedition

Here’s a quick overview of the products you’ll need when you head out on a long-distance, open-water adventure:

  • Spare Paddle: You won’t use it much, but it’s still a nice just-in-case piece of equipment. Up the creek without a paddle? Try losing the paddle in the open water, away from the shore, and see how that goes.
  • Kayak Sail; Adding a sail to your kayak transforms it into something completely new. You’ll be able to go further and faster while also giving your muscles a much-needed rest from paddling.
  • PFD: A life jacket is a non-negotiable, must-have, will-save-your-life piece of safety gear every kayaker should own and use whenever they’re on the water.
  • Spray Skirt: It traps warm air in and keeps the cold water out – it’s a simple-but-efficient way to keep the cockpit of a sit-in kayak dry in rough, choppy waters.
  • Visual Distress Signals (Flares): Pyrotechnic visual distress signals, such as hand-held or aerial red flares, orange smoke flares, parachute flares, or non-pyrotechnic visual distress signals, such as electric distress lights and code flags.
  • Noise Makers: Audible distress signals, such as an air horn, bell, or whistle, that can help you draw attention to yourself and be heard by other boaters or rescue personnel.
  • Communion devices; Such as, a waterproof walkie-talkie, emergency beacon, or GPS SOS device can be utilized to communicate your location.
  • Bilge Pump: You’ll need a way to “drain” the cockpit after capsizing or taking on a lot of water due to waves and splashing. Since you can’t use a bucket, a bilge pump – paired with a bailing sponge – is your best bet.
  • Paddle Floats: These small inflatable bags attach to the paddle’s blades and act as outriggers that will stabilize the kayak and allow you to perform paddle float rescue if you end up in the water.
  • Kayak Lights: Kayaks are somewhat hard to spot, even more so on open waters and in low light conditions; a 360-degree white light is a must-have visibility-wise.
  • Navigational Equipment: Kayak GPS, a compass, and charts and maps of the area with your paddling route marked; you’ll need all the help you can get when navigating open waters.
  • Clothing: You can choose to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit, depending on the weather and water temperature, kayak shoes – as in, neoprene boots – a helmet, and kayak gloves. Add a hat and sunglasses, as well as thermal base layers as needed.
  • Dry Storage Bags: You’re out on the water, and the waves are splashing left and right; anything that’s not stored in a dry bag is bound to get wet and possibly damaged beyond repair. Fanny packs are a great option for storing small items that need to be kept dry, such as phone, wallet, and keys. By using a dry bag, you can ensure that your belongings stay safe and dry, even in rough conditions.

There’s a reason why touring kayaks have such a high storage and weight capacity, water-tight hatches and deck rigging – a multi-day trip, let alone a week-long one, is going to require a lot of kayak camping gear, supplies, and food. 

Always Keep An Emergency Kit On Hand 

For one, you’ll likely spend a lot of your time in the middle of nowhere, far from shore. And two, it’s going to be a multi-day trip. There’s a lot that could go wrong in that timeframe – and things you include in your kayaking emergency kit could very well save your life one day.

So, an emergency kit is another absolute must-have. It’s essentially a bailout bag for worst-case scenarios, and it’s supposed to keep you alive and well until help arrives.

Waterproof Survival Kit for Boating, Kayaking & Canoeing

So, grab a dry bag and fill it up with basic survival tools, including:

  • Additional thermal base layers
  • Rescue flare
  • Rain gear 
  • Cold-weather hat
  • LED headlamp
  • Spare batteries
  • Energy bars and other carbohydrate-rich foods
  • Water and water-purifying tablets or squeeze filter 
  • Matches, lighters, and other fire-starting supplies
  • Rope or parachute cord
  • Swiss army knife or a multi-tool
  • Compact first aid kit 

For a ready to go kit, check out the AOKIWO 126 piece emergency kit, it has everything you need in a kayak touring emergency. 

5 Golden Rules Of Kayak Touring: Plan, Plan, Plan – And Then Plan Some More 

Graphic saying 5 Golden Rules Of Kayak Touring

There’s one more thing I’d like to go over with you. Well, it’s more like five, but you get the idea.

I’m talking about the five golden rules of kayak touring that, along with everything else you’ve learned today, will make your open-water kayak touring adventure go as smoothly and safely as humanly possible! 

Rule #1: Plan Your Route 

Planning – as in, establishing your paddling route, rest points, and an alternative route to serve as plan B – means being prepared for anything that open waters might throw your way. In short, planning allows you to expect the unexpected.

When choosing your paddling route – consult the interactive map for this – consider if the water conditions are suitable for your paddling group’s skill level. Is everyone in the group ready to paddle offshore and tackle rough waters, waves, and strong winds? 

Also, have you researched alternative routes you could take if things go wrong and you need a backup plan? That’s another thing to add to your to-do list.

Plan your trip down to the last detail, file your float plan with someone you trust, and stick to it; the open waters are not a place for “winging it.”

Rule #2: Keep Your Paddling Group Together

I generally advise people against paddling alone – and even more so when they are heading on open water territory.

Some of you probably value the tranquility of kayaking solo, but if you want solitude, seek it on a nearby lake. Open waters are not the place for it – not when there’s so much that may go wrong while you’re out in the middle of nowhere.

When you’re kayak touring, you want to be part of a larger group of paddlers.

Stick together and stay within each other’s line of sight as if your life depends on it – because it might. Capsize recovery will be a whole lot easier when there’s someone there to help.

Rule #3: Take Lessons & Learn Essential Open Water Kayaking Skills

If you’re a seasoned paddler, you could probably afford to skip paddling lessons.

But if you have no training in marine navigation, rescue or don’t have the first clue about basic survival skills, you should sign up for basic training. Should things go wrong, you’ll be glad that you did.

No one expects you to complete hard-core, Bear-Grylls-style survival courses. But you should at least learn how to read maps and use a kayak compass, how to perform self-rescue, including a wet entry, and how to keep yourself alive until help comes. 

Rule #4: Pack An Emergency Kit

Given that I’ve already explained which items and supplies belong in a paddler’s emergency kit, this rule shouldn’t be hard to follow. Again, your emergency kit is a vital part of kayak touring gear – one that makes a difference between life and death in unplanned scenarios.

It contains everything you’ll need to survive until help arrives, after all.

You know what to pack – so you’ve already got the basics down. All that’s left now is for you to remember to bring your bailout bag, ditch kit – or whatever else you choose to call it – with you every time you launch the kayak.

Just in case I didn’t make that part clear:

Unless you have the bailout bag on you at all times, you don’t have it, period. Never launch your kayak without it! 

Rule #5: Balance Your Load

It’s vital that you take the kayak’s weight limit into the equation, but you should also add ease of access and weight distribution to your list of primary concerns. 

Keep the weight low and centered to ensure proper trim – the back-to-front and front-to-back tilt of your kayak. Pack the lighter items far into the bow and stern, and keep heavy items closer to the cockpit, near the middle of the kayak. Frequently used items should be kept near and within arm’s reach.

It would be best if you generally kept the deck clutter-free and clear of heavy gear, or you risk making your touring kayak top-heavy and prone to catching the wind. An emergency paddle, a bilge pump, and a kayak compass – that’s about it as far as on-deck storage goes. 

Kayak Touring – A Quick Summary

Man in green touring kayak on open water

Kayak touring can seem both exciting and intimidating at the same time. But as long as you’re following a few basic rules, you can launch your ‘yak with confidence:

  • Ensure that you have the skills and experience needed for long-distance kayaking, and take lessons if required.
  • Think like a backpacker. Bring essential safety-related kayak touring gear and base your equipment choices on weather conditions, trip duration and distance, and group size.
  • Keep an emergency bailout kit on you and learn basic survival skills.
  • Plan your trip based on your skills, weather, and water conditions, file a float plan before taking off, and stick to your planned route.
  • Paddle in a group so that you can have each other’s back.
  • Be aware of the risks associated with kayak touring, practice good decision-making, and take on a safety-focused approach. 
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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.