Kayaking Safety: How Not to Find Yourself Up the Proverbial Creek
Learning some essentials will help keep you out of trouble
Kayaking: What’s not to like? Kayaks are easier to learn to paddle than a canoe. And whether you paddle quiet ponds, swift rivers, the ocean or big wilderness lakes, kayaks put you close to the action, where you can feel the mystery — and power — of the water.
But for that same reason, they can also be dangerous. To stay out of trouble, follow these tips.
Wear a lifejacket. This goes whether you’re sea kayaking on the ocean, running class IV whitewater, or drifting on a pond. “Bringing and wearing a life jacket is number one,” says Kelsey Bracewell, safety, education and instruction coordinator for the American Canoe Association (ACA).
According to the ACA, 48 percent of kayak fatalities occur when paddlers are not wearing life vests. Experienced kayakers are four times more likely than inexperienced paddlers to wear their life jackets.
Not only does a life vest keep you afloat if you capsize, it also helps keep you warm in cold water. There are comfortable life jackets galore, with ample cuts around the arms so paddling and other arm movements are easy.
Practice tipping over. Most kayaks are built to be reasonably stable. Still, they are small, narrow boats. A careless move, a bump on a rock or a big wave can knock you over. In warm water and a safe swimming area, practice tipping over and swimming your boat to shore. “It’s important to know what to do if you tip yourself over and how to help someone else if they tip over,” says Bracewell.
Ocean and lake paddlers should practice getting back into their own boats and helping rescue and right other paddlers. River paddlers should know how to hang onto their paddles, grab a bow or stern loop of their overturned boat and swim it to shore. In heavy, dangerous rapids, they may have to let go of the boat and swim to safety without it.
An expert kayaker will know how to do an “Eskimo roll” to turn a capsized boat upright. It’s a valuable skill if you’re planning to paddle difficult water.
Know what kind of water you’ll be paddling on. If you’re kayaking for several hours on a big lake, what's the weather forecast? Are high winds or lightning likely? Where would you go in event of a storm?
If you’re setting out on a river, how long will it likely take to reach the take out? How difficult are the rapids (if there are any)? What does the take out look like from the water?
Be aware that some rivers get a lot wilder as the water level rises. A stream with easy class I rock gardens can become a pushy, continuous stretch of class III waves and hydraulic holes with high water. Read your guidebook, and call the state natural resources agency —or check the U.S. Geological Survey to determine water levels before setting out on an unfamiliar stream.
Says Bracewell, “For people who don’t have a trained eye, the rapids might look similar. Do your research before you get there.”
Watch out for dams and obstructions such as downed trees. Even low dams can flip or trap paddlers and their kayaks in the recirculating current at the base of the dam. And current can pin you and your boat against the limbs and branches of a tree lying across the river.
Wear a helmet if you’re paddling difficult rapids. It can protect your head from being smashed against the rocks if you capsize.
Prepare for the cold. “The day you forget to wear a jacket or layers or a wetsuit is the day that you get wet,”says Bracewell.
Kayaking often involves cold water. Dumping in even 60-degree water on a cool day can open the possibility of hypothermia, a potentially dangerous lowering of core body temperature.
If you’re kayaking in icy, challenging water (such as big ocean waves or difficult rapids), you’ll want to invest in a drysuit, or a waterproof paddling jacket and wetsuit. “If you don’t have that — because those things are expensive — dressing in layers, dressing in fleece, dressing in synthetics, things that aren’t cotton, will help you stay as insulated as possible,” says Bracewell.
Learn to recognize the signs of hypothermia, such as shivering (in the early stages), impaired judgment and clumsiness. If the water is cold and the day is cool, bring high-calorie snacks, dry clothes and a lighter to start a fire.
Know your (boat’s) limits. Short, chubby “recreational” kayaks are great for traveling quiet streams and paddling small lakes. They’re inexpensive, easy to paddle and handy to haul. But they aren’t suitable for difficult rapids or the big waves of an ocean or large lake. They are not as fast and seaworthy as true sea kayaks, or as maneuverable as whitewater boats. Because they generally don’t have flotation or sealed cargo holds, if they swamp, you are sunk. Literally.
Use your recreational boat only on small lakes and placid streams. If you want to paddle rapids, get a whitewater kayak. If you want to paddle big, windswept lakes or the ocean, buy a sea kayak with sealed bulkheads and waterproof compartments. Or as Bracewell says, “When you purchase a boat, read the fine print.”
Don’t go it alone. Especially if the paddling is challenging — difficult rapids, big waves or cold water — travel with others. If a kayak flips, rescue the paddler first and the boat second, after the paddler is safely on shore.
If you do paddle alone, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. Says Bracewell, “If I don’t show up three or four hours later, does somebody know to come looking for me?”
Keep practicing. “Getting out there and paddling is the paramount way of getting better,”says Bracewell. Your time on the water will count for even more if you paddle with people who are better and more experienced than you are. Take a class, join a paddling club, or simply make friends with people in the local paddling community.