Is Kayaking Dangerous? – A Guide to the Dangers of Kayaking and How to Avoid Them

People have a lot of misconceptions about kayaking when it comes to issues of safety. Some people put no thought into the risks involved in paddlesports, while others freak out about perceived dangers that aren’t real threats. Is kayaking dangerous? To answer that, there are a lot of things we need to consider. But first, let’s clarify what the differences are between real danger and perceived risk on the water.

Perceived Danger vs. Actual Risk

People’s perceptions about risk and danger are not always accurate. We might think things are more or less dangerous than they really are. A perceived risk is a concept that describes how dangerous something seems, while an actual risk is how dangerous that thing truly is. If you ask my grandma, she’ll say traveling abroad is incredibly dangerous, but if you ask any 20-something who’s spent a year abroad, they’ll assure you it’s perfectly safe. Their perception of the situation, or perceived risk, doesn’t really have much to do with the actual risk involved.

Kayaking on a flat water lake will probably have a low perceived risk. It also has a low actual risk. Kayaking in class V rapids, on the other hand, has a very high actual risk and hopefully will have the same perceived risk.

The danger often comes when the perceived risk does not match the actual risk. Accidents can happen when people think a situation is safe when it is in fact dangerous. Just recently, a kayaker in Michigan went missing when he attempted to paddle on a flooded river. That particular river is normally quite easy to paddle on, so the perceived risk of danger was (presumably) low. But what many amateur paddlers don’t realize is how drastically the actual danger can increase when river levels rise.

The biggest key in kayak safety is knowing when the risks are real. Don’t be afraid of rapids just because they look scary, but understand the dangers and respond appropriately. Knowing the real risk of a situation versus your perceived danger of it is important.

What Are the Real Risks in Kayaking?

Incorrect PFD Use

One of the biggest mistakes I see (and one that often has a pretty low perceived risk) is people not wearing their life vests when they kayak. This also includes people who bring their PFDs on their boat but don’t put them on, or those who are wearing them but not correctly. If there is one safety tip you remember, let it be this: always wear your life jacket! So many accidents, injuries, and even death can be prevented with that one simple step.

How to Protect Yourself

Never paddle without a life jacket. PFDs should fit snugly without being too tight and should be able to be comfortably fastened. Learn more about properly fitting your PFD here. Check out our favorite life vests for kayaking, too.

Sun Exposure

Another danger that seems like it’s a pretty low risk is sun exposure. While going out for a quiet paddle on the lake might not seem dangerous, if the sun is out it can quickly become a high risk situation. If you’re exposed to the sun for an hour without sunscreen, you’re going to be fine. But if you’re out on the water for longer than that, sun exposure can quickly become a real threat. Sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and dehydration can all be caused just by being out in the sun too long without proper care. Don’t forget that water reflects sunlight, and you’ll be out on a lot of water with a lot of sunlight reflecting onto your skin!

How to Protect Yourself

Always, always, always wear sunscreen on the water. If you can, a hat is also a good idea to protect you from the sun. Keep in mind that sun exposure can be an issue even if it feels cold or overcast outside. Those are often the days when you’ll get sunburned worst.

Dehydration

Often a symptom of too much sun exposure, dehydration can happen whenever you’re on the water. Kayaking uses a lot of energy and it’s important to have proper hydration. Whenever you go out on the water, be sure to bring water bottles. The longer you’ll be paddling, the more water you should carry. Signs of dehydration include dizziness, fatigue, and confusion, as well as extreme thirst, all of which can impair your ability to paddle.

How to Protect Yourself

Always carry extra water with you on the water. The hotter it is outside, the more water you should bring. Be sure to drink while you’re paddling even if you’re not thirsty to avoid dehydration. Remember, thirst is one of the early signs of dehydration, so don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink!

Lightning and Severe Weather

It might seem obvious, but kayaking in a storm is not a good idea. There are times, though, when you’ll be out on the water when a storm starts. A little rain never hurt a kayaker, but if you start to hear thunder or see lightning, get off the water as soon as possible. Water and lightning do not mix well, and if you’re in the midst of it when it strikes, you could end up getting electrocuted.

How to Protect Yourself

If you see lightning, get to shore as quickly as possible and wait it out on dry land. Never opt to paddle in severe weather if it can be helped. High winds and rain can limit mobility and visibility, turning a relatively easy paddle into something far riskier.

Hypothermia and Cold Shock

I have paddled in some cold waters over the years and they never seem quite so bad from inside your kayak. But as soon as you capsize into the water, it’s a whole different story. Cold shock and hypothermia are major risks when paddling in cold water. Even if the air outside isn’t very cold, the water temperature can be drastically different.

Cold shock happens when your body first hits the water. The extreme temperature change affects your body suddenly, causing breathing problems, blood pressure changes, confusion, and other mental problems. If you’re in fast moving water when this happens, it can create a dangerous environment in which you’re not able to respond to threats or get yourself out of the water.

Hypothermia usually occurs after being exposed to cold temperatures for long periods of time. This can happen while submerged in cold water, but it can also happen if the air is cold while you’re paddling and you’re improperly dressed.

How to Protect Yourself

Whenever you’re paddling in cold water, be sure you are properly dressed for it. Wetsuits and drysuits can keep you safe and keep your body warm if you capsize. Never paddle alone in cold waters in case you experience cold shock. Having someone with you can help in the event of capsize.

Strainers and Sweepers

Strainers and sweepers are some of the most dangerous obstacles you’ll encounter while paddling. Strainers are obstacles in the river that allow water to pass through them, but not solid objects (like people and kayaks). These can be man made, like grates and rebar, or natural like logs and branches. If you get stuck in one, the immense pressure from the water can trap you underwater. These have often been deadly.

Sweepers are trees that have fallen from the riverbank but are not fully detached or submerged. Their branches create a type of strainer obstacle, making it dangerous for paddlers.

How to Protect Yourself

If you see an obstacle on the river, avoid it at all costs! Do not try to paddle through or over a strainer. It’s not safe and could end up costing you your life. Also never paddle alone. If you’re with someone, they may be able to help you if you find yourself stuck in a strainer.

Undercut Rocks

Undercuts are irregular rock formations underwater that form traps for fallen trees and other debris. They can easily trap unwary paddlers, too. This happens most often in fast-moving whitewater, where seeing under the water is difficult. Strong rapids can make it difficult to avoid these obstacles even if you do see them.

How to Protect Yourself

To avoid getting caught in an undercut, be sure to get to know your whitewater before you paddle on it. Check sources, go with a guide, and make sure to learn as much as you can before you get on the water. If you see an obstacle, do your best to steer around it and get to shore. As always, never attempt to paddle whitewater alone. Make sure rescue is available should you need it.

Weirs and Dams

A weir is a horizontal barrier across a river, like a dam. Water can usually flow over the weir and cascades down to a lower level. Weir hydraulics is a fancy way of describing the danger of the turbulent water as it goes over the weir. It can be easy to get caught in as a paddler. The undercurrent at the bottom of a dam is notorious for trapping paddlers. It can be incredibly difficult to get out once you are trapped in the flow of a dam or weir. Your best bet: avoid them.

How to Protect Yourself

If you need to get past a dam or weir, take your boat out of the water and portage around them. It’s not worth the risk!

Ships and Other Boats

Kayaks are small and often hard to see. If you’re on a small river or pond, this won’t be an issue. But if you’re on a big lake or the open ocean, visibility can be important. Motorboats, big ships, even jet skis can be a risk to kayakers on the water. If one of those boats runs into you, the kayak is definitely going to take the brunt of the crash.

How to Protect Yourself

To stay safe in these situations, it’s important to stay visible. If it’s dim or foggy, you can attach bright lights to your kayak so you’ll be seen. During the day, you can wear bright colors and stay out of main boating routes to minimize the risk.

Inexperience

One of the things that can prove to be most dangerous is paddling in conditions you’re not prepared for. Most accidents happen because paddlers set out on water they’re too inexperienced to be paddling on. Advanced paddlers might make kayaking under rough conditions look easy, but if you lack experience and technical skills, those same conditions can prove deadly. They know how to handle any difficulty the water throws at them, such as strong and rough waters or even waves if they’re out sea kayaking. Advanced kayakers have the experience to tackles those rapids or waves and know how to overcome any issues such as capsizing in situations that can turn dangerous in a split second.

How to Protect Yourself

If you haven’t taken a kayaking class before, don’t set out on class IV rapids or take on those waves your first time in a kayak. If you’re not sure what your skill level is, start by taking a kayaking class. Stay away from conditions you’re unsure of. Don’t try to show off or take on any new obstacles without proper research, it could cost you your life.

So Is Kayaking Really Dangerous?

Like any sport, there are plenty of risks inherent to kayaking. From dangerous water features to dehydration and sun exposure, a day on the water could easily turn into something precarious. But while there are risks involved, kayaking doesn’t have to be dangerous. Taking the proper precautions and being smart about where and when you paddle can make all the difference. If a river just flooded and you’ve never paddled before, taking on fast-moving rapids probably isn’t the best way to start. But if you’re careful, kayaking can be a fun and safe sport for everyone in your family! Just use your head, do your research, and make informed choices on the water.