Susan enjoys writing articles about kayaking safely and how to avoid injuries in the process.
Essentials of Kayaking
I'll give you ten essentials for safe paddling, plus a few more things to keep you safe as you enjoy the water in a paddle craft.
- Wear a Life Jacket
- Carry a Sound-Producing Device
- Carry a Visual Distress Signal
- Bring Water
- Bring Food
- Purchase a Dewatering Device
- Have Rope on You
- Prepare a First Aid Kit
- Bring a Spare Paddle
- Know How to Use a Throw Bag
1. Wear a Life Jacket
The number one piece of safety equipment is your life jacket. When choosing a life jacket, look inside and read the label; make sure it is Coast Guard approved. There are many life jackets made for recreational use such as in a swimming pool. So make sure you choose an approved life jacket and wear it. A life jacket stowed away is of little assistance in an emergency. The United States Coast Guard requires every boater to carry an approved Personal Floatation Device (PFD).
Life Jacket designs are also important to consider and can make them more comfortable to wear for whatever activity you are participating.
- For kayaking, choose a paddle style type III life jacket. This type of jacket has a mesh lower back and increased forward flotation. The backrest in the kayak can cause the life jacket to push upward, making it uncomfortable the mesh design alleviates this problem. A standard Type III works well in canoes and boats without a backrest or seatback.
- Inflatables are available in belt or vest types and come in ‘manual,' ‘automatic,' or a combination of both. The technology of the automatics has evolved from water-sensing to hydrostatic, which reads water pressure to activate the vest. You can still get wet and not activate your vest. Often more comfortable for a paddle board.
2. Carry a Sound-Producing Device
A whistle is the most affordable sound producing device on the market (Amazon, $1.48). Some life jackets even include one. It is important to get a Marine-grade safety whistle that has no moving parts and can produce a sound audible up to one-half of a mile. The type of whistles with a little pea inside the device can fail to make a sound when wet. Another alternative is an air horn though they are considerable higher priced than a whistle. Air horns are available for one-time disposable use or refillable with a built-in pump.
3. Carry a Visual Distress Signal
As most individuals paddle in daylight hours, a daytime visual distress signal can be a safety mirror or an orange/black visual distress flag. Both are acceptable. However, the safety mirror can be seen at a greater distance on a sunny day. If you paddle in the evening, an all-around white light or a headlamp will work (more on night lighting later in the article).
4. Bring Water
Hydration is crucial when out on the water. There is nothing worse than sitting on a body of water and being thirsty. With all the water around us and none of it drinkable, we need to make sure we stay hydrated. A good estimate for water usage is 20 ounces for every 4 hours on the water.
5. Bring Food
Depending on the length of your paddle your food supply would range from a snack to a sandwich or a full meal. Focus on things that do not require refrigeration and are high in protein.
6. Purchase a Dewatering Device
Waves, leaks, and rain, are just a few ways your boat can take on water. A means of getting that water out of your boat is important. A bilge or hand pump, or even a sponge, can make a significant difference.
7. Have Rope on You
A couple of pieces will be useful. The first piece should be approximately the length of the vessel and is used to secure your vessel to shore, or another vessel. The second piece, 30’-50’ in length, can be used in a tow or rescue.
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8. Prepare a First Aid Kit
As simple as bandages, pain reliever, and sting-bite cream, or complicated enought to include splints, scissors, tweezers, and respiratory equipment. Prescription medications are a very important item when making long trips through isolated areas. Make sure this kit is well labeled and stored in a waterproof container.
9. Bring a Spare Paddle
There is nothing worse than being stranded without a paddle. In kayaks or canoes a paddle can be lost or broken quickly when the vessel is rolled or swamped. A spare paddle secured to the vessel will still be there when the vessel is righted and drained.
10. Know How to Use a Throw Bag
Throw bags are available in several sizes: 30’, 50’, 75’, and 100’. The 50’ size is best suited for most paddle craft, lightweight and more compact than the 75’ or 100’ throw bags. A throw bag is most commonly used for assisted rescues of others, but it can be very handy for self-rescue in the event you are the one stranded. It is important that you know how to use one. The video along with practice can assist you in learning this skill.
Additional Safety Items
Here are other items that are useful to have:
Helmet: A helmet is essential in whitewater kayaking or any water condition such as swift, shallow, rocky waters that a kayaker is at risk for being thrown from the kayak. It should have a strap to hold it on and fit comfortably.
Compass: Most useful on open water – such as a large lake or ocean. It is very handy to maintain the desired direction when you are unable to maintain your destination in sight. Electronic compasses, or compass apps on your smartphone, all run on batteries and can leave you lost when your batteries die. A basic magnetic compass requires no power source and works incessantly.
Cellphone: Several apps are available for smartphones that contain weather, river, and lake, information. The Coast Guard has an app that contains all the information you need for a safe paddle, even a Float Plan form you can fill out and send to someone. The only problem with this is service areas and waterproofing the device.
Float Plan: Document your itinerary with a friend or family member so if you are late they will contact the authorities. A post on social media or a text to a friend may suffice. Just make sure someone knows where you are going; when you are going and a projected return time.
Light: In the event, you are paddling late you can use the light to illuminate yourself in the darkness if you hear a power craft in the area. A simple flashlight can be used or a headlamp that is worn by the kayaker. A three-way light is helpful especially if you are with other kayakers. The light can be switched to red and is not blinding to other kayakers. The light can be used as a nighttime distress signal.
Chart / Map: Use charts to plot courses and identify navigational aids. For uncharted rivers and inland lakes, you can print from Google Maps to have an aerial view of the area your paddling.
Radio: Your VHF portable should be waterproof or water resistant. It should be stored in a watertight container when not in use. Battery-operated is preferred over rechargeable, because dead batteries can be replaced while underway, but a rechargeable unit needs to have additional power packs or a means of being recharged. Monitor channel 16 while underway if the radio is operational.
GPS: The best way to find your way to where you want to be, and to find your way back. Battery operated is preferred over rechargeable. Dead batteries can be replaced while underway. Rechargeable needs to have additional power packs or a means of being recharged. Take your GPS with you wherever you go for a while and play with the setting to get used to it, so you will be ready to us it when you need it.
PLB: A Personal Locating Beacon is truly a life-saving device. Be sure to read the instructions and register it properly. Most have long life batteries and need to be tested regularly to be sure they will power up and have a signal.
Questions & Answers
Question: Is it necessary or dangerous to tie a four-year-old child to a kayak?
Answer: Yes, it is very dangerous. You should put a great PFD (life jacket) designed for a four-year-old. If your kayak were to get swamped or pulled under something your child would go with it if they were tied to the kayak. It would be better to have your child bobbing down the river and catch him then to have them pulled under something with the kayak. I have seen people do this also with their pet also, another dangerous practice.
Additionally, make sure you wear a PFD too - it is an excellent choice for a child, and puts you in a position to save them if you should be in a threatening situation.
Question: What kind of life jackets do kayakers use?
Answer: There are Kayak specific life jackets that have a shorter back with mesh on the bottom area. These help the life jacket not push up on your shoulders when the kayak seat hits them. The most important part though when you buy a life jacket is to make sure that it is US Coast Guard approved. It will be stamped on the inside of the life jacket followed by a series of numbers. There is a picture of a Kayak Life Jacket in this article.
© 2017 Susan Sears
Susan Sears (author) on August 18, 2017:
You are like a lot of people and at times this turns into a regret. Thankfully, they have created a lot of options that make a life vest comfortable. Kayak specific life vests are one option. They also makes very thin inflatables - both are comfortable options to keep a person safe.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 18, 2017:
I really hate to admit this, but there are several times I have gone out without a life vest. I know, I know, very dangerous, but the vest can be very restricting and I was just wild, young, and reckless. I'm certainly not suggesting it to anyone. :)
Sharon on May 24, 2017:
Helpful article, I've tipped kayaking and the kayak quickly filled with water. Pump dewatering device would have been very helpful. Thanks for sharing the above safety tips.
DW on May 21, 2017:
K.W. on May 18, 2017:
The Throw Bag video was very helpful.
Jessica on May 17, 2017:
Very informative article regarding water safety.