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Drinking While Kayaking: What You Need to Know

When you finally get a chance to get away from it all, paddle out on your kayak, and enjoy the day, you might be tempted to take along a little liquid enjoyment as well. So, what should you know about drinking and kayaking?

Drinking While Kayaking: Natural Consequences

Statistics show time and time again, that - unfortunately - alcohol and water activities just don’t mix. While pop culture is full of images of party barges with loaded coolers and carefree boaters or kayakers, reality often tells a different tale.

As we’ve mentioned in What Should You Not Do While Kayaking, the statistics are grim. The majority of boating and swimming deaths are attributable to alcohol in some way.  But maybe you are wondering why. It isn’t just recklessness or heedless folks on vacation. There are some biological reasons why alcohol and water activities are often a bad combination.

  • Dehydration: You can literally get drunk faster on water than on land. The combination of wind, sun, and exertion can lead to dehydration. This can cause alcohol to have a greater impact. The same number of drinks on land can affect you differently on the water.
  • Fatigue: The same combination of sun, sand, and surf - with the addition of alcohol - can lead to lack of energy and sleepiness. Not a good combination when your safety depends on your ability to be alert and active.
  • Hypothermia: Alcohol can impact body temperature (or your perception of temperature), which increases your risk of hypothermia if you fall into cold water and stay there too long. Which just might happen because alcohol also leads to. . .
  • Poor coordination/vision/balance: So what?, you might say. Happens all the time with drunk people. They tend to fall down or wobble. And that might be ok on land. But when your tumble lands you in a body of water, the consequence could be catastrophic. Rather than a bruise from falling down, you could actually drown. Alcohol affects your inner ear and makes you more prone to lost balance, capsize, and inability to self-rescue. And since you are out on the water, rescue from other sources might take some time.
  • Slower reaction: Your ability to think clearly and respond appropriately and quickly is vital on a kayak. Being aware of the weather, natural obstacles, and other boaters may come naturally – until you are impaired by alcohol.
  • Heightened risk taking: We all know that one guy. . . Get a couple of drinks in him and he can take on the world. Alcohol leads to way too many “hold my beer” moments that just aren’t healthy when combined with kayaking. Foolish overconfidence can lead to terrible consequences.

Drinking While Kayaking: Legal Consequences

If that isn’t enough to make you think twice about saving the party until the shore, it is important to know a few other consequences as well.

While you might be tempted to think that your kayak is exempt from laws governing “vessels”, you might want to think again. Every state and the district of Columbia have BUI (Boating Under the Influence) or BWI (Boating While Intoxicated) - depending on the terminology used in that state - laws. While there are differences in testing and penalties, all states will take action if you are found to be impaired on the waterways.  This applies to any drug, alcohol, or even medicine that can compromise your ability to pilot on the water.  

Defining a “vessel” is a little murky, especially with the explosion of popularity in kayaking. So you need to know the laws for your state. However, any federal waterways consider kayaks to be “vessels”.

  • Motorized - Anything with a motor is considered a vessel. So even if you have a little trolling motor on your kayak, you will be subject to the same rules as a boat with hundreds of horsepower.
  • Non-motorized - This can be up for interpretation. Some states specially exempt watercrafts that are “non-motorized”, “powered by paddle or oar”, or “manual-powered” so a kayaker may be clear from a BUI/BWI. However, other states are less clear and include “anyone operating a vessel”. The Coast Guard enforces federal law that states ALL boats (from canoes to rowboats to the largest ships) are prohibited from BUI.

Blood Alcohol Limits

Most states align BUI with DUI and consider 0.08% to be the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC). If you have a BAC higher than that, you are considered legally intoxicated and are subject to BUI consequences. In Colorado, Wyoming, and North Dakota, a higher BAC limit of 0.10% is allowed for operating a vessel, but in Utah the reverse is true and they hold a lower limit of 0.05% for watercraft.

However, these rules do change, so it is always important to do your due diligence and know the laws for anywhere you are kayaking.


The effects of BUI, like DUI, are stiff and far-reaching. Consequences meant to prevent this behavior from happening again so repeat offenders are likely to see steeper and steeper repercussions.

Penalties vary by state but they can include jail time of up to 2 years, fines as high as $3000, and temporary or permanent loss of a boating license.

Drinking While Kayaking: Bottom Line

Keep your day out kayaking from turning tragic and be prepared. Save the drinking for back on shore - at a boathouse, beach, or backyard. If you are taking a cooler on the water, load it with water, lemonade, electrolyte replenishing drinks, or non-alcoholic beer and avoid the alcohol until you are back on land.

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