Going It Alone
While it is generally accepted that kayaking, like hiking, should be done with others for safety’s sake, kayaking alone can be done safely if you are prepared and are careful. Nothing can replace the reliability of another human’s assistance in case of an emergency, but with knowledge, experience, and diligence, many emergencies can be avoided or minimized, and alternatives are available in lieu of a kayaking partner.
Kayaking in a group can be very fun, but sometimes you may just want to go out to a creek or lake and enjoy the quiet and beauty of nature by yourself. Without the distractions of other boaters and conversations, you can notice a lot more of your natural surroundings and feel more in tune with them. You can focus more on the water’s conditions, which is especially important in flowing waterways such as creeks and rivers. You will see more fascinating vegetation along the banks, perhaps a kind of tree you’ve never seen before, or one that has grown majestically old and unique in its stature. You will begin to observe the way the water flows, the bends and inlets of the shoreline, what lies below on the creek bed when the water is shallow and clear. Nothing brings one closer to nature than reclining in a boat alone, letting the flow carry you slowly along the waterway as it courses through wooded valleys or wild fields, with no other sounds than that of the gently flowing water and the light chitter of the birds.
What You Will Need
The first thing you will need is a kayak and paddles. The focus here is on recreational kayaking, therefore a recreational kayak is recommended. A recreational kayak offers a larger cockpit, and so offers more leg room, more bodily mobility, and is much easier to slide out of if the boat tips over, which prevents you from being trapped upside down with your head underwater. A sporting kayak has a much smaller cockpit that locks you and your legs in and takes more skill to exit when the boat tips. It is also used for negotiating high level rapids and playing in the rapids and eddy currents. I do not suggest this type of activity when kayaking alone. The recreational kayak is much better suited to lone ventures on creeks and rivers.
The next most important item is the personal flotation device (PFD), also called a life jacket. A good PFD will keep you afloat when you are out of your boat, whether intentionally or by accident. The PFD should fit comfortably, be large enough to fit midway across the chest and stomach, and the straps should be able to be closed so that the jacket is tight enough to remain secure in the water and not slip off or ride up your torso. The packing in the front will help to keep you floating on your back with your face up out of the water should you strike something and be knocked into the water unconscious. When storing and handling the PFD, be sure not to let it get punctured. Any holes or perforations in the jacket will allow water into it and saturate the packing, weighing it down and making it useless for floating. Dispose of a PFD with any perforations and get a new one. Always wear your PFD when kayaking no matter if in a group or otherwise. It is especially important when alone, and even more so in flowing water such as a creek or a river. Flowing water has much more weight and power than you would think, and can carry you distances or downward with considerable strength. A PFD will give you more buoyancy to resist and stay afloat in flowing water.
Your cell phone might turn out to be an invaluable piece of equipment, and you definitely want to take it with you when kayaking alone. If you should be deep into the wilderness or any other remote area and capsize and lose the boat or get injured, you may have limited mobility and be far from help. In such a case, being able to make a phone call for help can be a life saver. Get a transparent dry pouch for your phone. The phone pouch is made of polycarbonate and allows you to keep your phone handy by clamping it to the front of your PFD while keeping your phone dry.
You will probably also want to take a dry pack with you. With a moderate or large dry pack you can store water bottles (which you should always take along), food, dry clothes, or anything else you might want to stow aboard. Also made of polycarbonate, the dry pack will keep your items dry from dripping paddles and being dumped in the water. It is a good idea to use a short cord and clamp to secure the bag to the boat, so that if you capsize, the bag will stay with the boat and not float away on its own.
Waterproof whistles are sold for the purpose of water sports and are a good item to have on the water. If you become stranded somewhere, blowing the whistle will produce a loud, high-pitched sound that can be heard at some distance away, and increases the chance of getting help. They usually come with a strap to hang around your neck, but it might be more secure to place it in a pouch on your PFD and keep it zipped until you need it.
While not necessary, an anchor can be a useful item for a more enjoyable trip. A small 3 or 5-pound anchor is good enough for a kayak. Attach the anchor to the boat with a decently long cord and clamp when ready to moor, but when not in use keep the cord loose in the boat. It is a bad idea to have long lengths of cords attached to the boat while navigating as they can entangle you if you capsize and keep you attached to the boat as it floats down the river – a very dangerous situation as your boat can drag you into rapids or rocks, or trap you between it and a rock. Once you pull up to the shore and attach your anchor cord, simply toss the anchor in the shallow water or onto the shore. You will be able to sit in your kayak, stationary, while enjoying the scenery or a sandwich.
Getting There and Back Again
When going kayaking with a group, transportation is rarely a problem even on flowing waterways, as some members of the group can park their vehicles upstream and some downstream. Then when getting out downstream, kayakers can carpool with the others to get back to their cars. But when going out alone, you do not have that luxury. If you go kayaking by yourself at a lake, it is no problem; there is no current to fight against, so you can easily paddle back to your parking spot and your car. But when you go to a creek or a river, you face a challenge; the water flow will resist you one way or the other, and may carry you many miles away from your car. How do you get back?
With solo kayaking on flowing water - creeks and rivers - there are three methods. The first is to park in one spot, kayak downstream, then paddle upstream back to the car. The second method is to park in one spot, paddle upstream, then kayak downstream back to the car. The third method is to kayak only downstream, and use a ferrying method to get the boat back to the car.
The first method I do not recommend. By starting off going downstream, you are taking the easiest direction first. When going with the direction of the stream, the water flow will carry you over problem spots such as shallow depth, rapids, and fast-flowing sections that you may not be able to move through when paddling back upstream. You may find yourself easily traversing a couple miles going downstream, only to find out on turning around that you can’t paddle through those shallows because your paddles keep striking the stream bed and can’t get any purchase in the water. Or you might find sections where the flow is just too strong to paddle against. Or the set of rocks you easily floated through on the way down don’t allow enough room for your paddles on the way back up. If you encounter any of these situations, you would have to get out and wade, if shallow enough, and tow your boat upstream until it is deep enough to paddle again. Or you might have to take your boat to shore and port it upstream past the trouble spot. In other words, drag your boat and everything in it by foot along the ground. This is not too difficult if the walk is short and the area is clear, but it can be rather laborious if you have to port the boat hundreds of feet through rough or narrow terrain, or impossible if the shore is bordered by a steep bank, cliff, or dense vegetation that gives you nowhere to walk and nowhere for your boat to be pulled along.
The second method is much more reliable. Because you are paddling upstream first, you are first presented with any obstacles that you can’t overcome. You may encounter any of the above problem areas – shallows, fast flow, rocks – and you always have the choice to simply turn around and float or paddle back down the section you just came up on and know is navigable. You can also try to port around the problem spot if you want a longer trip and hopefully there won’t be too many more problem spots further upstream. But at any rate, the return trip back to the car will always be easier this way since you will be returning downstream with the current.
The third method of kayaking alone is to only kayak downstream. It is much more enjoyable than having to paddle up against the current, as it takes much less energy and you can relax most of the trip as the current will carry you along. Most of the paddling necessary is small course corrections as you dip the paddle on one side or other occasionally with a gentle pull or push to keep the boat straight. The downside of this type of trip is that you must get your kayak back to your vehicle from however far away you’ve traveled from it, which can often be several miles.
One way to handle this is to drive your car to the put-in spot, park there and kayak from there. When you get out at your take-out spot, leave the kayak there and walk back to the car, then drive the car back to the kayak to take it home.
The other way is to take a bicycle along. You will need a bike rack on your trunk if you’re driving a car, since your kayak will already be on your roof rack. You first drive to the take-out spot, drop the bike off there, then drive up to the put-in spot, park the car there and go kayaking. When you reach the take-out spot, leave the kayak there and ride the bicycle back to the car. Mount the bike on the car, drive to the kayak and put it on the car. Riding your bike back to your car will save a lot of time and effort compared to walking back to it.
In both instances where you’re leaving your bicycle and your boat alone, you should have a long length of chain and a lock. Find a spot a little distance off the road where it’s hard for people driving by to see, and use the chain to lock your bike or kayak to a tree. Also have camouflage tarp large enough to cover your kayak and cover your kayak or bike with it so it blends in with the scenery. These precautions will go a long way from having your equipment spotted, and if someone should happen to find your bike or boat, the chain and lock will prevent them from easily taking either if they are so inclined to try.
Another factor to consider in the self-ferrying method is location. In choosing locations to put in and take out, look at a map of the area you want to kayak in. Try to find a stretch of the creek that meanders a lot. When a creek curves back and forth on itself, like a wavy ribbon, it greatly increases the length that it flows along, and therefore increases the distance and time of your kayaking trip. If along that same length of creek you can find a road that travels along it, but stays more or less straight, your trip on the road back to the car will be substantially less distance than what you kayaked on the stream. So if you can find a situation where you have a curvy, meandering creek and a straight road along it, you can get fairly lengthy trips in your boat with little effort bicycling back to your car afterwards.
A Tip on Creek Conditions and Record Keeping
Nothing ruins a trip faster than going through all the effort of mounting your racks, boat and bike on your car, driving out to a creek, putting your kayak in and finding out the water is too shallow to navigate in. The trip is ruined and so is half your day. If you only knew the creek conditions before you set off, all would be easy. Fortunately, you can do that.
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has a site where you can get up-to-date information on streamflows for almost any stream or river in the United States. Simply go to the USGS water data site (linked above), select your state, then find the waterway where you want to kayak. The site will give you detailed information on the gauge height and discharge of the creek or river section in question. Most of the data is updated to within a half an hour, so you can know what the current height (depth) of the water is at the gauge point and how strong and fast the water is flowing. The height will let you know if the water is high enough to navigate, or if it’s too shallow. Whenever you kayak, makes notes of your trip afterwards in a journal. Remark on how well or how poorly the trip went, and especially note if the water was too shallow to paddle through, then get the data off the USGS site and record that as well. You can use your journal information for future trips by consulting your journal, checking the current condition on the USGS site, and determining if the water is currently deep enough to kayak, providing you’ve already been there and recorded your experience. This can save you many wasted trips if the data on USGS shows the creek section to be too shallow at that time.
Also keep an eye on the discharge rate. If it is radically higher than usual, and you also know it’s been raining a lot lately, then the creek is likely in flood conditions or at least flowing very high and fast. Such high volume water flows are dangerous to boat in and you should never try kayaking in such conditions. If you get to a creek and you see the water flowing by fast and high, do not get in the creek. Best to just call it a day and wait for safer conditions.
When done safely and smartly, kayaking solo can be relaxing and cathartic. It is a great break from the routines of daily life to get out in nature and just let the flow carry you wherever it goes. Enjoy the peace and quiet of the waterways of the outdoors, and happy kayaking to all!