Is Kayaking Dangerous? 9 (Potentially Fatal) Hazards to Be Aware of

Is kayaking dangerous? Let's look at the top hazards to be aware of.

If you’re heading out for a kayaking trip, it’s entirely possible that you’ll stay dry and happy all day long. It’s also possible you haven’t spent much time considering the real dangers of kayaking.

Real vs. Perceived Risk

In the professional outdoor world, we talk about perceived versus real risk.

Perceived risk is how scary or dangerous something seems. An activity with high perceived risk is something like skydiving. It seems very scary but is actually quite unlikely to result in harm.

Real risk is how inherently dangerous an activity really is. Something with low perceived risk but high real risk is driving a car. We don’t think much about the likelihood of personal harm, but it’s relatively high.

Kayaking on a lazy river has low perceived risk and relatively low real risk. Kayaking in Class V whitewater, however, has high perceived risk and high real risk.

The trick here is in understanding what the real dangers of kayaking are, no matter what trip you’re going on, and how to manage them. Kayak safety doesn’t need to be complicated!

1. Hypothermia

Hypothermia (hypo = low, thermia = temperature) is effectively a physiological reaction to a decrease in core body temperature. Water is one of the quickest ways to lose core body temperature and prolonged exposure to cold water will have body temps dropping like it’s hot (excuse the poorly chosen pop-reference).

Hypothermia can be combatted by wearing appropriate clothing, which may include a dry suit for extreme conditions. For recreational paddling, consider avoiding paddling during extremely cold months altogether, the risk may not be worth it.

Solution: During three season conditions simply staying near shore, paddling with a partner, wearing appropriate clothing, and making sure you have extra dry clothing appropriately stored in a dry bag is probably enough to prevent issues. During cold paddling months especially, it is important to carry an extra set of dry clothing!

Pro Tip: If you’re entering water or outdoor temperatures which seem unreasonably cold or dangerous, seek a professional guide until you are skilled enough to be safe.

2. Cold Shock

This is the body’s reaction to entering water which is so drastically cold that the entire nervous system becomes over stimulated and can cease to function properly. Physiologically speaking it’s probably a combination of a few more discreet outcomes, but for our purposes, this definition will suffice.

If you’ve ever jumped into super cold water and felt as if your breath had been ripped from your chest and your head was about to explode, then you know the feeling. Sudden immersion in cold water of 60 degrees and below can do all sorts of weird things to the body - including rapidly rendering the swimmer incapable of moving.

Solution: Wear appropriate cold weather clothing if water temperatures are dramatically cold. Acclimatize yourself to cold water by carefully entering cold water to experience the effects (have a partner on hand). Even once acclimatized it’s still possible to be affected by cold shock!

Pro Tip: If you think you’re going to be entering a situation in which cold shock may become a life-threatening issue, please seek professional level training before traveling there!

3. Sweepers

You thought it would be fun to cut up close to that downed tree hanging over the water. Suddenly you misjudge your speed, your girlfriend in the front of the boat gets a branch in the face, everyone loses their balance, and the boat tips.

What was supposed to be fun has now become dangerous and will become even more hazardous if you become trapped against the tree by the current or your boat (or both).

Sweepers are low hanging branches and obstacles which jut out across the water surface. Avoid these with a wide berth whenever possible as they can be deceptively dangerous when something goes wrong.

Solution: Think of sweepers as obstacles and river hazards to be avoided in favor of smart kayaking safety.

Pro Tip: Don’t knock your girlfriend out of the tandem kayak by running her into a sweeper. It just looks bad on you.

4. Strainers

Practically the inverse of a sweeper, strainers are submerged obstacles which stick laterally into the water flow. These are actually even more dangerous than sweepers and will be the end of you if you’re playing around near them.

Strainers are particularly dangerous because they are often entire trees with complex branches and tangles of debris caught under the water. If you happen to get trapped against one while submerged (by the current), it may be impossible to fight the force of the water and free yourself. Drowning is imminent.

Solution: If you find yourself in unavoidable danger of hitting a strainer, LEAN TOWARD IT! You want to avoid leaning away from (upstream) the strainer as this will cause the upstream edge of your boat to tip down. If your upstream edge tips down too far, the water will pull the boat out from under you and flip everyone over. This is worst case. Avoid it.

Pro Tip: Educate your group and your partner about the dangers of strainers, many river paddlers are unaware of their lurking danger.

5. Undercut

Dangers of kayaking in whitewater

Hazards are created by what's beneath the water

In the paddling world, an undercut is an area of the bank in which there is a hollow depression underwater. Sometimes rock ledges or even mud banks can form large undercuts where a submerged swimmer can become trapped beneath a solid shelf under the water’s surface.

Undercuts are often not visible from above the water – they’re usually unknown until just the wrong moment.

Undercuts most often form on the inside of a bend in the river.

Solution: Paddle with a partner and wear a life jacket. Try to stay calm and think your way out of the situation; it’s easier to escape with a clear mind.

Pro Tip: Paddle with someone more experienced than you on the river you’re kayaking. Undercuts are often known to locals!

6. Weir Hydraulics

Why a weir hydraulic as opposed to other hydraulics? Because it’s easy to think that a shallow weir is okay to just “paddle over” despite the massive dangers!

A weir is a special type of manmade river obstruction which can be thought of as a very short or shallow dam. Weirs are often built to help manage river levels where a full dam is not necessary or appropriate.

On the downstream side of a weir, however, is a deadly monster called a hydraulic – a self-circulating current of water which will trap a submerged swimmer in an unending cycle of re-submersion.

Solution: Avoid weirs and paddle around them, treat them with respect or they’ll get you! If you are trapped in a hydraulic, try to relax and swim downward where currents often flow out of the repeating cycle.

Pro Tip: Pull ashore well upstream of a weir and portage respectfully!

7. Sun Exposure

Here’s one to get you thinking – sunburn and sun-induced illness. This can include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, dehydration, and other issues caused by excessive sun exposure.

There is often little or no shelter from the sun during paddling.

Beware of reflected sunlight from the water’s surface as well. This will add problems for the unprepared.

Solution: Wear sunglasses and lightweight long sleeve shirts and pants. A wide brimmed sun hat and sunscreen are recommended.

Pro Tip: Use white or light colored clothing to reduce heat and stick with polyester fabrics.

8. Improper PFD Fitment

PFD is the number one piece of equipment for kayak safety

Ensure everyone onboard is properly fitted for their PFD

Wearing a PFD (life jacket) seems like it is enough just by itself to save your life, right? Wrong.

Life jackets have gone through a name change recently to personal flotation device or PFD. Why? Because they won’t save your life – you have to know how to use them and how to stay safe on the water. They only help you float.

Understanding how to fit a PFD and buying the right one for the job is critical to actually surviving in the water!

Solution: Among other things, make sure your PFD is rated for your size and weight. Have a partner double check the fit of your PFD by putting two fingers under each shoulder strap and lifting up firmly. Your PFD should not slip past your ears.

Pro Tip: Invest in a nice PFD – it’ll be more comfortable and safer than a cheapo. You’ll be more likely to actually wear it if it’s comfy!

9. Avoid Anything Around Your Neck

Necklaces, lanyards, map cases – these all constitute lurking dangers. On the river, the last thing you want to get grabbed by a rock, branch, or your capsized boat is something attached to your neck!

Find other solutions to carrying gear which don’t involve neck straps of any kind. Getting a necklace or lanyard caught while you’re fighting to swim can be a fatal mistake.

Solution: Find a flotation aid for your glasses which doesn’t go around your neck and put the maps in a case attached to the boat.

Pro Tip: Buy a floating buoy for your glasses otherwise you’ll eventually lose them to the river gods. Don’t just attach it around your neck. Some sunglasses are made to float all on their own… SCIENCE!

Conclusion

Some of what we talked about is probably news to you – possibly surprising. Hopefully, you learned something new today which will help you with safe kayaking in the future.

Always offer to educate your friends or paddling partners in a friendly manner if you suspect they’re unaware of river hazards.

Watch out for each other out there and help everyone stay safe while kayaking!

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