Kayaking is a fantastic sport. It’s a great way to make new friends, stay fit, and explore amazing new landscapes. As with with any sport involving water, however, there are some risks.
Sudden changes in wind and visibility can make for hazardous kayaking conditions; not checking the weather in advance or wearing the proper attire can leave you vulnerable to a range of hazards, from sunstroke to hypothermia.
The best way to enjoy kayaking is to be prepared for those risks and plan ahead. To help you out with this we’ve created the “Golden Rules of Kayak Safety,” a useful list of tips to help you safely enjoy your kayaking adventure.
Work as a Team
Kayaking, especially if you are a beginner, is best done in a group. Even experienced kayakers can get into trouble when going solo, as weather and water conditions can change rapidly. Heavy rain upstream can turn a placid river into dangerous set of rapids while sudden changes in wind direction and speed can make paddling exhausting and potentially capsize your kayak. If a risky situation does develop, it’s best to have other people you can rely on to keep you safe.
Going out on the water with an experienced guide allows you to safely gain your own kayaking experience and learn tips and tricks from other, more experienced paddlers. It also allows you to share your emergency gear. Sharing gear lessens the chances of vital equipment getting lost if you need to abandon one of your kayaks.
Plan Your Route
The best way to mitigate the risks of kayaking is to have a solid plan in place and to follow it through. Plan your route thoroughly beforehand, taking into account the relative skill level of all the people in your party. As a general rule, try to stick to areas of water that are protected from wind and waves and that are within easy swimming distance from the shore.
If you plan to go sea kayaking, it’s essential that you attend a sea kayaking course in advance so you are prepared for the unique challenges of that particular environment. Sea kayaks are a specific type of craft and picking the correct one for your journey is vital, as is learning to paddling techniques for the open sea.
Always tell someone who is staying on dry land where you plan to go, how long you think it will take, and how many people are going with you.
Check the weather conditions repeatedly during the lead up to, and ideally during, your trip. Heavy rainfall upstream of your proposed route can lead to you kayaking in dangerously fast-moving water, while an increased wind speed can make paddling very difficult. The best way to deal with risky situations is to anticipate and avoid them.
Practice Your Basic Safety Maneuvers
Before heading out on your first adventure, it is vital that you understand and can execute necessary safety maneuvers such as rolling your kayak and re-entering your kayak from the water. It’s best to practice your drills in calm, shallow water and in the company of a more experienced partner until you’re confident you can pull them off yourself.
If you’re not confident in your ability to roll or re-enter your kayak, then it’s advisable to stay within easy swimming distance of the shore. Here are three basic safety maneuvers that you can get practicing.
- The Capsize – Capsizing is one of the main risks in a kayak and it’s essential you learn how to deal with it. Exiting a sit-on kayak in the event of a capsize is reasonably straightforward. In the case of a sit-in kayak, you will need to understand how to release the spray deck and push yourself out of the cockpit while underwater.
- The Wet Entry – Once you’ve exited the kayak, the next step is to re-enter it. Entering a kayak from the water is significantly more difficult than from land and requires practice to get your technique right. Wet entries are much easier if you have a partner who can brace your kayak for you.
- The Eskimo Roll – Rolling your kayak is a slightly more advanced maneuver that allows you to bring yourself back upright after a capsize without exiting the craft. Rolling is something that is best learned from an experienced instructor and practiced in a pool or other area of flat water.
When dressing for your kayaking expedition, it’s important to wear the correct clothing for the conditions. Remember, you’re dressing for the water as well as the weather. It might be a warm and sunny day when you set out, but immersion in cold water can rapidly lower your body temperature.
If you’re paddling in deep water or cold conditions, then a wetsuit and gloves are a must. Thermal clothing worn underneath will help to keep you warm, and wearing multiple layers will give you the best effect.
If you’re planning on spending an extended period of time on the water, then protecting your skin from UV rays is critical. Always apply a high UV-blocking sunscreen before kayaking. If you’re out on the water for more than 30 minutes, then it’s best to wear a long-sleeved shirt and a sun hat.
Shoes are an important part of your gear that many people overlook. A good pair of shoes for kayaking is as usable on land as the water. You need to be able to scout and potentially portage your kayak in them, and they should stay on your feet in case of a capsize. If you’re off paddling in cold water and it looks like your feet will be regularly getting wet, it might be worth investing in some neoprene booties.
Always wear a helmet when kayaking, especially when attempting to navigate fast-flowing or white water. The helmet also protects your head from underwater rocks during a capsize or falls while exiting and entering your kayak from the shore.
Bring the Right Equipment
Having the right equipment with you can make the difference between staying safe and finding yourself in a dangerous situation. If you’re heading out with a kayaking club, make sure to read their recommended gear list. When in doubt, find someone to ask. To help you out, we’ve assembled a list of essential equipment that will help to keep you safe.
- Personal Flotation Device – A PFD is critical to staying safe, and most countries require kayakers to wear one. When buying a PFD, it’s best to go for one that is specifically designed for kayaking. Getting a kayak-specific PFD will ensure maximum comfort and won’t impede your paddling. Always try your PFD on over your usual kayaking clothes to make sure it doesn’t restrict your movement.
- Paddle Float – The paddle float is an inflatable device that is attached to the blade of your paddle. Once inflated, paddle floats serve as an emergency flotation device and allow the kayaker to stabilize their kayak when they are trying to re-enter it from the water.
- Rope and Rope Bag – Rope is an essential port of kayaking safety equipment. It has a wide range of uses, such as securing a kayak to a bank, participating in a rescue or even tying yourself to a capsized kayak while awaiting rescue. The rope bag keeps the rope dry while allowing it to be stowed neatly and safely.
- Air Horn/Whistle/Flares – In case of emergencies, always bring some method of attracting attention to you. Air horns and whistles can be used on rivers and lakes while flares are more useful in low light conditions or when sea kayaking.
- Dry-Bag – Dry-bags stop essential equipment from getting wet and, by trapping a small amount of air in them, also prevent it from sinking. Use your dry-bag to store extra clothes, sunscreen, water, and your first-aid kit.
Once you’ve assembled your equipment, make sure it is stowed where you can easily reach it in an emergency and that you can unpack and use it with your PFD and gloves on. Inform the rest of your group what equipment you have with you and where it is stowed so they know where it is should they need it.
One of the most enjoyable parts of kayaking is the beautiful environments that you get to experience, from placid lakes and rivers to majestic sea cliffs and hidden beaches. But while you’re taking in the beautiful landscape it is also important to stay vigilant for potential hazards.
Be aware of changing weather conditions and how they might affect your journey. Maintain communication with the rest of your group and check in with everyone on a regular basis. Regular contact allows you to spot signs of dehydration or sunstroke early and treat them.
Watch out for other people on the water. Larger crafts can move at significant speed and represent a real danger to kayaks as you are not always visible to them.
Being alert and aware of potentially dangerous situations means you can avoid them entirely and get back to enjoying your trip.
Keep these golden rules for kayak safety, from working as a team to bringing the right equipment, in mind. This will help you have even more fun on the water, since you’ll know you’re prepared and ready for any emergency or risk. Remember the age-old saying: Safety first.