5 Basic Rules to Follow for Kayaking Safety

Check the weather. Get the gear. Hit the water. 

5 Basic Rules to Follow for Kayaking Safety

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced paddler, anytime you head out onto the water, safety must be a primary concern. Water and weather conditions can change at any time, so it is always good to be prepared for the unexpected and know what to do in a challenging situation. From the proper gear to basic kayaking safety skills, here are a few basic rules to follow while you're out on the water. 

Check Weather and Water Conditions Before You Go

Before planning a paddling adventure, check the weather forecast. Then, be sure you check the conditions once more just before heading out. Look for the most localized weather report you can find for the body (or bodies) of water on which you’ll be paddling. In particular, you’ll want to know wind speed, water temperatures, and whether any weather is expected move in while you’re out—and if so, how severe and from what direction. On large bodies of water, you’ll also want to get a wave height report, as that may change where you choose to paddle. For rivers and streams, check the water levels (depth) and flow rate before you go. You’ll likely want to avoid any long shallow stretches or high flow rates (unless you’re an experienced whitewater paddler).

Dress for the Conditions

The air may feel warm on your skin while you’re strapping your boat to your car in the driveway, but on the surface of the water, it can be a whole different story, especially in the early season at higher latitudes or altitudes. Some of the great lakes, for example, have an average year-round water temperature below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This means that when you’re sitting at water level, the air temperature could feel 20 to 30 degrees cooler than the temperature in your driveway. You also need to be cognizant of the sun and wind, and the power of the water to reflect UV rays back onto your skin. So, wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses when you’re out on the water. Consider a long-sleeve rash guard, and always bring a water-resistant wind layer in case a breeze kicks up or it’s colder on the water than you anticipated. Finally, if you’re paddling in the early or late season and water temperatures are much below 70 degrees Fahrenheit, consider wearing a wetsuit, or on colder water, a dry suit.

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Always Tell Somebody Where You’re Paddling

It may seem silly or that it need not be said, however, bad things can happen, and people can’t do anything to help you unless they know where you are. So, before you head out onto the water—even in the mildest conditions—let somebody know what you’re doing, where you’re going, and when you expect to be off the water. That way, you’ll have somebody looking out in case you run into a bit of trouble. 

Always Tell Wear a PFD

This is another of those no-brainers, especially if you’re out on the water solo, but when you’re paddling, always wear a personal flotation device, or PFD. They are required by the Coast Guard, as well as every state in the country. Notwithstanding the law, a PFD will help to ensure you make it back to shore safely in case something happens during your paddle. The good news is that a PFD does not have to be bulky or uncomfortable. Choose a PFD designed for paddling and try it on for fit and comfort before you buy it. As a bonus, many PFDs have plenty of pockets and anchor points to keep things like your smartphone and GPS at the ready and out of the water.

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Know How to Re-enter Your Kayak

One of the most important safety skills you should learn before doing any serious paddling is knowing how to re-renter your kayak from the water in the event your boat capsizes, or you are thrown from the cockpit by a wave, passing wake, or debris in the water. Several re-entry techniques can be found online. Additionally, retailers like REI offer classes in basic paddling safety that include re-entry techniques.