Learn about these important techniques and tips before hitting the water.
By Trent Jonas
Sitting atop a kayak on the water is a great way to experience nature from a new vantage point. Whether you're embarking on a leisurely journey on a local lake or navigating tricky rapids, there's nothing quite like a paddling adventure. But before you go, there are a few basic survival skills every kayaker should have in their tool belt. You never know when you might get caught in a precarious situation. Here are a few essential skills to know before go.
While the more swimming experience you can get under your belt, the better, it is crucial to know at least a few swimming basics before you head out onto the water under any circumstances. You need to know how to float to keep your head above water, as well as how to propel yourself toward safety. Many organizations offer, such as the Red Cross and the YMCA, offer inexpensive adult swimming lessons across the United States, as do many municipalities. A couple of lessons in a local pool could mean the difference between life and death on a local lake.
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs), or lifejackets, are required attire throughout the country. When you’re out paddling, it’s important not only to have a lifejacket but to wear it. When choosing a PFD, look for one that’s tailored for the type of paddling that you’ll be doing: flatwater, open water, river, angling, etc. You may need pockets and anchor points for specific types of gear, like a smartphone, a flybox, or a compass. Once you’ve picked the type of PFD you want, make sure it fits snugly and won’t rise off your shoulders in the event of a capsize. Practice a few strokes while you’re in the store to ensure that you can paddle comfortably while wearing the PFD—all the fit and customization won’t make a difference if you’re miserable paddling in it.
You may not think that what to wear is such a big deal when it comes to paddling, but it is an important consideration to keep you safe when you’re out on the water. The first thing you need to consider is the materials that you choose. Fabrics like cotton absorb water and do not dry quickly. In cooler weather, this could lead to a hypothermia situation. And if you find yourself in the water, absorbent cotton and similar fabrics are heavy and can weigh you down—something you don’t need when you’re trying to get back into your boat. Choose lightweight, technical materials that are water repellent. In cooler weather, wear a waterproof outer layer. If you’re paddling in a place where water temperatures are cold, like the Great Lakes, consider wearing a dry suit or a wetsuit that’s 5mm or thicker. You’ll also need sun protection. A hat is important, as is sunscreen, sunglasses, and a neck gaiter you can pull over your face to protect from glare off the water. Long sleeves are also a good idea for prolonged paddling in the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest.
If you capsize or are thrown from your boat while paddling, you must know how to get back into your kayak. You can find several techniques for doing so online. Places like REI offer classes that teach you basic techniques like this. Whether you learn the technique from YouTube or take a class, there is no substitute for practicing getting back into your kayak on your own. Start in shallow water, always wear a PFD, and bring a friend along to spot for you.
Rolling your kayak is an advanced skill that can be absolutely crucial in a river or sea kayaking situation where you’re skirted into your boat. You can find the maneuver demonstrated online, but this is not a technique to practice on your own. Either work with a friend in water deep enough to avoid hitting your head on the bottom or take a class from a reputable source like REI. When practicing this maneuver, always wear a PFD and a helmet, and never do it alone.