Paddle sports are a favourite outdoor activity. There’s a lot of fun to be had boating, but there’s also the potential for things to go fatally wrong.
Experienced paddlers can recognise hazards early on, and they have the knowledge, paddling skill, and know the safety and rescue practices to remain out of harm’s way. With experience and skill development, comes good judgment, and seasoned paddlers know when and where it’s safe to get in the water.
But if you’re just starting out kayaking, there’s a lot of hazards that could catch you off guard. So, with this in mind, we’ve compiled our ten golden rules for safe kayaking.
1. Check Weather Reports Frequently
During the lead up to your trip, check the weather several times, and even check the weather during your trip if possible. Smartphones make this super easy to do.
Heavy rainfall upstream from your location can cause sudden surges in river levels and cause lazy, meandering rivers to become raging torrents in a short time. Fast moving water carries extreme risk, and the waves, eddies and strong currents require advanced training to navigate.
If you’re on a lake, even a slight pick up in wind can make paddling extremely difficult and even lead to capsizing.
2. Remember Safe Boarding Practices
Before you even get out on the water, you need to get into the kayak safely. Always keep three points of contact with the boat. That could mean placing one foot in the cockpit while holding onto the rim with both hands.
You should also move slowly and crouch down to keep your weight low to balance easily.
If you’re riding a tandem kayak, the heavier person should go at the stern (back). The rear paddler should get seated first while the front passenger (riding at the bow) steadies the boat. The rear passenger can then steady the boat while the front passenger gets in. When you exit, reverse the procedure with the stern passenger getting out last.
3. Remain Vigilant to the Changing Dangers
You should always be aware of your surroundings and be on the lookout for hazards developing. If you’re sharing the waterway with larger boats, be cautious that they may not be able to see you. Larger vessels travel at great speeds, so you need to stay alert and be ready to move out of the way at the drop of a hat.
River paddling conditions can also change rapidly. What was a slow, gently winding river can quickly gather pace as you approach rapids or waterfalls.
4. Dress for the Water Temperature
Wearing weather-appropriate clothes that are comfortable to move in and warm even when wet is common sense, but you’d be surprised how many first-time paddlers show up in a cotton hoody. Experienced paddlers know to dress for the environment, and more so, how to dress for the temperature of the water – even if you don’t capsize, you’ll always get a little wet.
A leisurely paddle on a sunny day may only call for a short sleeve shirt, shorts, sun hat, and sunglasses – a pretty relaxed outfit. However, cold water paddling will require a wetsuit and maybe even a wind and waterproof jacket.
You should also choose suitable footwear that will allow you safe passage to the water edge and will stay on in the event of a swim. This rules out sandals – they’re okay for the beach but no good for kayaking. A comfortable pair of running shoes will do the job.
5. Pack Maps and Guides Even if You’re a Local
Trip planning 101: check in on your local paddling community websites, notice boards, and other local paddlers for updates of water conditions and possible hazards before setting off.
Also, plan your route before you go and be sure to check your whereabouts often. Even if you know this particular stretch of backcountry like the back of your hand, bring along a map and guide book for the area.
6. Prepare for Poor Visibility
Kayaking at dusk or dawn or in foggy conditions will require you to take it slow and be extra careful to avoid mishaps. Depending on the severity of the conditions, you may want to rest on the shore to prevent a collision or getting lost.
Wearing bright, reflective clothing will help you remain visible.
It’s also wise to carry a flashlight as well as a whistle or small air horn in the stowaway compartments of your kayak (along with the rest of your safety essentials). By doing so, you can signal other boats that may not have seen you, or call for help if you find yourself in a tricky situation.
7. No Drugs or Alcohol
Don’t paddle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. PERIOD.
It may be fun to chill with a few beers at lunch or while paddling, but it’s not wise, and it puts you and your group in unnecessary danger. Just wait until the end of the day when you’re back in dry land to start the celebrations.
8. Your PFD Is Your Insurance
Many people pack their life jacket on the boat in case of an emergency. But guess what? If you don’t wear it, it doesn’t work. Kayaks and canoes are easily tipped, and you can’t rely on being able to swim or re-enter your boat – it could be swept away in rough conditions.
Always wear your personal flotation device (PFD) even if you think the water is too shallow to drown. Depths can be deceiving, and conditions can change quickly.
When you drive, you wear a seatbelt. When you kayak, you wear a life jacket. Form the habit! And while we’re lecturing, you should also ensure your PFD is a snug fit and has the right amount of buoyancy for your weight.
9. Always Be Ready For a Capsize
Do you know what to do if you capsize? Are you capable of emptying your kayak and re-entering in deep water? You need to assess your current skill level and even take a course on rescue procedures if you feel the need to upskill.
Tipping is never a pleasant experience. The water is likely to be cold, and you may even swallow a little. You may also be in minor shock or injured. At such times, it’s important to remain calm and remember your training. By practising capsizing and getting back in your boat in a safe environment, you’ll be able to do so out on the open water confidently.
10. Know How to Keep Warm in Cold Water
If you capsize in cold water and lose your boat and the shore is too far away to swim, you should try to preserve your body heat. Hypothermia is a very real risk.
If you’re by yourself, cross your arms across your chest and then bring your legs up into your chest, so that you’re in a ball.
If you’re in a group, huddle together to preserve warmth.
Wrapping It Up
Every paddler is responsible for their own safety. Even experienced kayakers need to take time out to remind themselves of basic safety. Accidents can and do happen. Remaining vigilant and always being prepared could just save a life.
I hope you’ve found our list of kayak safety tips useful. If you’ve got any of your own, please share them in the comments below. Safe paddling!