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How to Avoid the Dangers of Kayaking

While kayaking is a popular and fairly simple sport to enjoy, it is not without its inherent dangers. As with any activity, it is always best to approach it with respect. Unexpected and hazardous conditions can creep up. And when we aren’t prepared, they can result in dangerous circumstances.

Some of the dangers of kayaking can be avoided or controlled based on equipment and preparation. Others are outside of your control, but are best met with proper planning. Let’s take a look at some of the dangers you can face on the water and how best to meet them.

Avoiding Kayaking Dangers

Know your environment

  • Drowning - if you are undertaking a water sport, there is always a chance of drowning. Particularly if you are paddling alone, in deep water, or with limited/no experience (however, even strong swimmers are at risk of drowning).

Mitigate this risk by wearing a well-fitted PFD, practicing capsize & self-rescue skills, and paddling with a friend.

  • Hypothermia/cold water shock - Cold water might not seems so cold if you are fairly dry and comfortable in your kayak, but it quickly becomes dangerous if you get soaked or submersed. Shock and hypothermia can set in quickly. Before you know it, a pleasant kayak outing can become deadly. Water less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit becomes dangerous in just a few minutes.

But there are ways to reduce this danger. First, always assume that every outing could end up with a capsize. So, wear proper clothing - including a wetsuit or dry suit, if possible. Know your capsize skills and self-rescue techniques. Paddle with a group. And always bring a change of clothes.

  • Lost or swept out to sea - If you are kayaking in the ocean or open waters, this danger can rear its head quickly and unexpectedly. You are just paddling along and before you know it, you have no idea how far – or where – you’ve come.

This is quite preventable, however. Studying your route beforehand, paddling in a group (or with a local), and keeping a GPS or navigation system handy, can bring some peace of mind. Just make sure you know how to use your equipment.

  • Adverse weather - Like some of the other dangers we’ve already mentioned, this one can sneak up on us. A nice pleasant outing can quickly turn dangerous with storms, lightning, and winds.

But, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure (which is true for almost all these concerns). Check before you go! Watch the weather forecast and don’t take chances with thunderstorms. Even while paddling, you can keep an eye on the sky and take action as soon as the weather starts to change. If you see clouds piling up, head back to shore. Better safe, than sorry.

  • Sun exposure - And almost as bad as bad weather is good weather! That beautiful, sunny day poses its own risk! Sun exposure while kayaking is not to be taken lightly. Especially when you are out on the water, those rays can be more intense than you realize.

We can’t control the sun, but we have some control over how much of it we get. Drink plenty of water (dehydration is always a risk), wear protective lightweight clothing (cover exposed skin if possible), and slather exposed skin with sunscreen. And don’t forget to reapply. If you are out all day kayaking, try to work a break into your trip during the heat of the day. Take a siesta in the shade to eat lunch and get out of the UV.

  • Waves, tides, current, low-head dams - Know the dangers of the route you’ve chosen. Waves, tides, and currents can cause capsize dangers or draw you out to sea. But of particular concern are low-head dams/weirs (aka drowning machines or killer-in-our-river!!!)

Low-head dams are short (one to fifteen feet) drops in the waterway that aren’t always clearly visible to the naked eye. However, below the surface that falling water is creating incredibly strong, circulating currents that can trap you against the face of the dam. These forces can be inescapable even for life-jacket clad, strong swimmers.

Take precautions.
  • Research your kayaking route and know the dangers. If you can’t find a map, ask a local.
  • Stay alert and obey all posted signs and warnings.
  • Portage around dangerous areas: leave the water well before the dam. Or turn around well before the structure.
  • Leave a plan with your kayaking location and estimated time of departure/return with a friend/family member.
  • Remember to never enter the water to rescue someone. Call emergency services immediately. Use remote assistance: throw a rope, use a throw bag, and try to pull them to shore.
  • “Keep your distance; keep your life”. Stay a safe distance away from dams - both up and down stream.

Know your equipment

  • PFD - A personal flotation device is not just wise, but often a requirement on many waterways. Make sure it is sized and fitted correctly or it can become a danger in itself.
  • Capsizing - While this isn’t totally unexpected or dangerous, capsizing is rarely on anyone’s to-do list. But, it happens. The danger lies in getting stuck under your kayak or if the water temperature leads to hypothermia.

To reduce these risks, make sure to practice the skills necessary to right your kayak and get paddling again. Also, be cognizant of the conditions and prepare accordingly for cold water.

  • Improper/Incorrect use - The wrong size kayak paddle, inadequate clothing, missing pieces. If your kayak equipment isn’t in order, you pose a danger to yourself and others.

Know the type of kayaking you are undertaking (recreational, touring, whitewater, racing) and prepare for those eventualities.

Know your (in)experience level

  • Skill level - One of the most preventable dangers of kayaking is overstepping your ability. When you overreach, you put yourself in harm’s way.

Know yourself and know your route. Research your plan, keep to calm waters (as you increase your skills), use a guide or paddle with friends.

  • Drinking - Never mix drinking with paddling. Alcohol (and other drugs) impairs your reaction time and decision making. According to Boat U.S. Foundation, alcohol plays a major role in as many as 50% of recreational boating fatalities. In addition, BMJ (British Medical Journal) reports that 30-70% of those who drown during recreational water activity had alcohol in their blood. Those who drink increase their risk of death 10 times more than their non-drinking counterparts.

Save the toasting until you are safely off the water.

  • Other kayakers or water craft - Another danger on the water is quite simply those around you. Bigger boats, intoxicated partiers, even irresponsible swimmers can all pose a concern.

Know your limits. Practice safe kayaking: stay visible and have signaling equipment. Stay off the water if it is too busy or you don’t feel safe.


Kayaking is generally a very safe, fun, aquatic activity. Knowing the dangers is half the battle. When you are prepared, you are less likely to get hurt or stuck. Don’t let the “what ifs” prevent you from enjoying this fabulous activity.

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