Complete Safety Guide to Kayaking or Canoeing [year]

Boating, whether with a kayak or a canoe, helps you relax and spend quality time with friends or family.

It is also a great solo experience that can help you unwind and completely relax.

But you need to take safety measures because being in water can be dangerous too.

Know the Risks

There are many risks involved. Your boat can capsize and if you don’t know how to re-enter it, you may need to call for help. If you don’t have a whistle or some means of communication, it may be hard to get help and you may end up panicking.

If you are too far away from the shore, the danger increases manifold. It requires a certain level of experience and skill to get back to the shore.

Here is how to prepare for any challenging situation you may encounter on your kayaking or canoeing trip:

1. Be Safe & Smart – Check the Weather Before Going Kayaking

Before you hit the water, check the weather. Is the water going to be cold? Is it going to be windy? Check the weather forecast for the day and take proper safety precautions.

For example, if the water is cold, wearing a wetsuit and using a spray skirt can guard you against water from errant waves and keep you warm. This is crucial because immersion in cold water can cause hypothermia. Moreover, when you decide to paddle in cold water, it is always better to stay near the shore.

If it is warm, wearing a full-sleeve shirt can protect your skin from the sun. You may also want to wear a hat when it is sunny. It is important to check the wind patterns. You will have a hard time getting back on shore if there are off-shore winds.

2. Remember to Pack Safety Gear

PFDs / Life Vests / Life Jackets

Make sure you carry life vests or life jackets with you. A study by University of Maryland shows that 80 percent of fatalities in recreational boating can be avoided if the operators wear a life jacket. This study is based on the US Coastguard’s Boating Accident Report Database.

If you feel that a life jacket restricts your movement, try buying a kayak specific buoyancy aid or personal flotation device that allows for freer movement.


Apart from your life jacket, you should also carry a whistle. In case of emergencies, you can immediately signal other kayakers and call for help. If you want to catch someone’s attention, whistle once. If you want urgent help, whistle thrice or as many times as it takes someone to come over.

Mobile Communication Device

A whistle is not always enough, as sometimes you can be out of range from fellow paddlers. In this case, a mobile phone can help if the network coverage is strong. Otherwise using a VHF radio is also effective. Make sure your device batteries are charged before you leave home. Moreover, make sure to keep your communication device in a readily accessible pocket or hatch.

A Bilge Pump
Having a bilge pump can help you remove nuisance water from the boat. It ensures your safety if the boat capsizes.

In case you can’t paddle your way back, you can throw the towline to a fellow kayaker and ask them to help you reach the shore. Or you can save another kayaker with your towline.

Time flies fast when you are having fun kayaking. You don’t want to stay till dark only to realize you can’t clearly see in front of you. A headlamp can help you see in your front clearly and avoid branches or rocks if it gets dark.

Spray Skirt
In cold weather, a spray skirt can shield you from water spray from an errant wave.

If you are an experienced paddler and want to tackle rough waters, wearing a helmet is an essential safety precaution to guard against rocks or other objects.

First-aid kit
In case of an unexpected accident, you should have basic first-aid supplies such as

  • Shears & tweezers
  • Safety pins & vinyl gloves
  • Various hypo-allergenic plasters
  • Sterile water
  • Resusci-Aid & thermometer
  • Antiseptic wipes
  • Woven bandage
  • Micropore tape
  • Paracetamol Tablets
  • Low-adherent dressings

Dry Bags
You may need some dry bags to keep your various supplies and gear dry.

Compass and Map
When you get lost, a compass can help you find the shore. You can use a digital map on your phone or carry a physical map to guide you on your trip.
Also, you should carry a proper repair kit in case any of the chamber gets punctured.

Paddle Float
A paddle float helps you re-enter your kayak/canoe after it capsizes. It is also used for reentry and roll or to train a kayak roll. Here is a video that shows how to use a paddle float when you capsize:

Boat sponge
You never know when errant waves can spray water over your boat. If this is the case, a boat sponge can come handy for drying up the accumulated water inside the boat. Bilge pumps tend to leave some water and sand behind after use. A boat sponge can help you clean the residue.

3. Choose a Safe Paddling Location

If you are a kayak beginner, don’t plan a trip on rapids, don’t go chasing waves and don’t kayak when it is windy. Experienced kayakers can handle waves up to four to six feet high – but beginners shouldn’t even try tackling them.

Here are the paddling locations you should target if you don’t have experience:

  • Calm water
  • Small water bodies such as ponds, small lakes
  • Areas where experienced paddlers are present for help
  • Areas without powerboats
  • Areas close to the shore

4. Learn the Kayaking essentials

Know your level of experience when it comes to kayaking/canoeing. Before you go in the water, learn how to do a self rescue and a T rescue.

You should know how to save yourself from unexpected accidents such as the boat tipping over or one of the chambers getting punctured.

Learn how to get into the boat again after falling into water. Re-entering the kayak or canoe isn’t easy for beginners and needs time and practice. Moreover, re-entering a sit-inside kayak/canoe is harder than re-entering a sit-on-top kayak/canoe.

Emptying your boat
Emptying your kayak when you are on water is another major challenge. This is even harder when there is no bulkhead. A bulkhead is an airtight and watertight compartment within the hull that gives added buoyancy to the kayak. The bulkhead divides the boat into separate compartments so that it doesn’t overflood with water and sink in case the boat flips.

Entering a canoe
If you are using a canoe, learn how to enter the canoe while keeping your balance. If you are a beginner, ask someone to hold the canoe while you enter it. Keep your knees bent while entering the canoe and grab the sides for balance while making sure to put your feet in the center. Walking on either side will disturb the balance of the canoe.

Don’t Make Any Sudden Movement
Always be cautious when shifting your weight or moving inside the canoe/kayak. Making sudden movements can shake the boat off balance.

When your kayak or canoe tips over

In case your kayak flips:

  • Don’t panic
  • Don’t leave your kayak, stay close
  • Flip the kayak, use help if you have a fellow paddler
  • Climb back in
  • Get to the shore and remove the water

5. Don’t Kayak/Canoe While Intoxicated

Don’t try to enjoy the evening by drinking alcohol or any other intoxicant for that matter. Know that kayaking requires your full attention and mental acuity. Going into the water when intoxicated is extremely dangerous.

According to the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, “boaters can be prosecuted if their actions on the water are seen to be endangering other vessels, structures or individuals and they are under the influence of alcohol.” In the US, 19% of all boating fatalities in 2018 were due to consumption of alcohol.

6. Let Your Friends/Family Know Your Whereabouts

When you decide to hit the water, let your friends or family know about your itinerary. Let them know the location where you’re going and how much time you will spend there.

7. Check Everything Before You Go

Before you put your boat in water, make sure to check the kayak/canoe for any wear and tear. You don’t want to step into water only to realize one of your air chambers is punctured.

8. Weight

Make sure you carry an appropriate amount of weight on the boat. Carrying weight much higher than the permissible limit can lower the kayak/canoe in water and affect its stability and handling. It would be dangerous to cross the weight limit by a sizable margin.

9. Water and Food

Kayaking or canoeing is fun but also consumes energy. So bring a good amount of water and food on board to stay hydrated and energized at all times.

10. Ask the locals if trying a new area

If you are going to paddle in an area that is new to you, it is important to ask the locals about its state of shoreline, currents and weather conditions. Let them know what kind of a spot you are looking for. Ask fellow paddlers for more information.

Final Word

There are many risks associated with kayaking or canoeing. Although it is a fun sport, it still requires some prudence and preparation on your part.

Make sure you learn the basic rescue methods and techniques that come in handy when you capsize.

When you’re ready, don’t forget to have fun!

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