The 7 Golden Rules of Kayak Safety

Kayak Safety

Despite the fact that all humans start out swimming in their mother’s womb prior to birth, the fact is that water is not our natural environment. Once we start breathing air, we are still drawn back to water over and over again. Consequently, hundreds of people around the world enter the sport of kayaking each year because they feel an innate need to reconnect with Nature and to experience the sensation of floating on water again.

Thus, a kayak is an excellent vessel for this purpose. And there are a seemingly endless number of kayak designs on the market today that are perfectly suited for every type of paddler ranging from the beginner to the expert.

Kayaks are easy to paddle and they make an amazing craft for sightseeing, camping, fishing, and observing animals. However, because water needs to be respected, there are several safety guidelines that all paddlers should observe and adhere to every time they venture out on the water. Follow this council, and the kayaking experience will be maximized dramatically for you and your company.

1. Never paddle without proper safety gear

The single most important rule for kayakers of all experience levels is to never paddle without proper safety gear! Therefore, at the very least, you should always wear a personal flotation device (aka PFD) so that if you accidentally capsize, you can remain afloat without having to swim.

Orange life jackets

In addition, if you do capsize, it’s of paramount importance to have a means of rescuing yourself as well as a means to remove the water from your cockpit. Thus, all paddlers who paddle sit-inside kayaks should also carry both a paddle float and a bilge pump.

Furthermore, while not absolutely necessary, there are some additional safety items that can make your paddling adventures much safer such as a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, a handheld Citizens Band or VHF radio, a Personal Locator Beacon, marine flares, and a strobe light.

2. Always wear a Personal Flotation Device

Regardless of how experienced a paddler you are, you never know when you might accidentally capsize and be forced to exit your kayak because, even if you are an excellent swimmer, staying afloat without a PFD requires effort when you’re wearing clothing.

However, if you are wearing a PFD, then the energy that you would otherwise expend staying afloat can instead be transferred to other tasks such as removing your paddle float from storage and placing it on your paddle’s blade so that you can reenter your kayak. Therefore, you should wear a Personal Flotation Device at all times when paddling.

Plus, if you ever capsize when out on the ocean with currents and the dark of night complicating matters, wearing a PFD will become of paramount importance since the flotation it provides will enable you to reach your Personal Locator Beacon and the marine flares that you should carry in a pocket on your PFD.

Marine Flare used at night.
Marine Flare used at night.

3. Always dress properly

Most paddlers fail to give the clothing they wear when paddling much thought. However, the fact is that exposure to the sun while kayaking can lead to heat stroke, which is a type of hyperthermia and very serious when far outside of range of treatment on the water.

On the other hand, paddling in cool or cold weather without sufficient insulation can cause a paddler to experience hypothermia which can lead to extreme chills and a reduction in the paddler’s coordination and cognitive ability. Furthermore, exposure to spray and/or waves caused by wind as well as sudden immersion caused by an accidental capsize can expose a paddler to cool or cold water as well as cool or cold air.

A dry suit, designed specifically for kayaking, provides a chance to insulate with wool clothing and adjusted for particular weather conditions, while still providing comfort and freedom of movement for paddling.

In addition to choosing the proper clothing for your paddling adventures, it’s also important to choose the correct type of PFD. For instance, when paddling in warm or hot weather, some paddlers choose to wear an inflatable PFD due to their minimalist design. But, when paddling in cool or cold weather, experienced paddlers generally prefer PFD’s which are designed like a vest that is made from soft foam panels encased in a nylon cover.

Thus, by wearing appropriate clothing along with an inflatable PFD when the weather is warm or hot and a foam vest PFD when the weather is cool or cold, you can maintain a comfortable core temperature while paddling and avoid the debilitating symptoms of hyperthermia and hypothermia.


4. Never paddle without a paddle plan

Even if you are paddling close to shore and are not planning on paddling very far or for very long, if you paddle out of sight of other humans, then it is important that you never do so without a paddle plan.

So, what is a paddle plan? Well, a paddle plan can be as simple as informing a family member or friend that you are going paddling and telling them what body of water you intend to paddle on. Or, it can be as elaborate as writing out a detailed itinerary that includes your launch point, your intended direction of travel, waypoints along your route, and your expected time of return.

Either way, the purpose of a paddle plan is to let someone know that you will be venturing out on the water and the direction of your trip. If you fail to return for some reason, then at least someone will know where you went so that rescue personnel will have some idea of where to look for you in the event that you do not return when expected.


5. Beware of the weather

Because the weather can change very quickly in many popular paddling destinations around the world, you should always watch a local weather report for the area where you will be paddling before venturing out onto the water.

Having smartphones equips you with pretty up-to-date information on weather systems and potentials for peril. But, it’s also the case that the forecasted weather doesn’t always sync with the actual weather.

There are weather apps and even decent kayak apps like Strava, Go Paddling and Navionics. The latter is a boating app that incorporates weather data in real time.

Mobile Weather App.
Mobile Weather App.

An ADC will keep you appraised of the barometric pressure and alert you to any approaching storms. Last, should you always pay close attention to the skies above you because sudden thunderstorms can cause torrential rains and abundant lightning strikes and, while being caught out in the rain can be cold and uncomfortable, being caught on the water in a lightning storm can be deadly.


6. Be aware of the direction and strength of the wind

Because kayakers lack powerful motors to propel their kayaks, strong winds can often make it difficult for a paddler to control their kayak as well as to make forward progress. Therefore, both the direction and the intensity of the wind are additional factors that should be considered when planning a paddling adventure regardless of whether you will be paddling on a lake, a river, a sea, or an ocean.

Because strong winds can impede a paddler’s ability to travel in the direction that they want to go, paddling in strong winds should be avoided unless the wind just happens to be blowing in the direction that you want to travel in.


7. Beware of tides and the currents they create

In addition to the direction and intensity of the wind, if you paddle on saltwater, then it’s also imperative that you be aware of both the tides and currents in your area. For instance, while some places only have one high and one low tide per day, others have two high tides and two low tides each day.

Therefore, it is important that you be aware of both the frequency and duration of the tides in your area as well as the times at which they change so that you can use them to your advantage. For instance, by timing your launch according to the tides, you can ride the falling tide (aka ebb tide) offshore to your chosen destination and then ride the rising tide (aka flood tide) back inshore again while expending very little energy since you would not be fighting a current.

On the other hand, if you were planning on paddling up a tidal river, then you could time your launch so that you could ride the incoming tide inland and upriver and then ride the outgoing tide back seaward again.

However, it should also be noted that both ebbing and flowing tides can create dangerous currents where they pass over or around submerged or exposed obstacles. Thus, it is also a good idea to converse with local paddlers to learn about dangerous currents in your area.

Group Of Happy Kayakers

So, despite the fact that we seem to be drawn to the presence of water beyond our need for drinking it to survive, paddling on it and occasionally submerging ourselves in it does impose some inherent degree of risk since water is not our natural environment.

Consequently, wise paddlers learn and adhere to the seven golden rules of kayak safety listed above since always obeying these seven simple rules can not only make your kayaking adventures safer and more enjoyable, they may very well save your life one day.


Need more Kayaking tips?
Read our Guides

What to wear Kayaking?
How to Choose a Kayak?
How to Choose a Kayak Paddle?
Kayak Camping: How to make the most of it
Kayak Gear for Beginners
Kayak Transport: Trailers and Racks

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