Lifesaving Kayak Safety Tips for Beginners: Boating Safety

It’s hard not to notice those colorful kayaks cradled on the tops of vehicles, in truck beds or in kayak racks. In fact, kayaking has become so popular in recent years that the community is still growing. Paddlers of all ages have taken to the lakes, rivers and even the ocean. However, I’ve noticed lately that most paddlers don’t practice kayak safety! 

Kayak safety is a huge must even before heading out on the water. Regardless of how beautiful the weather is or how calm the seas are, paddlers need to take precautions and their personal abilities seriously. Because, while kayaking is a fun and gratifying outdoor experience, that fun can quickly turn into disaster if you’re not prepared or know what to do.

As Veteran Coast Guard First Responders, we’ve rescued a lot of kayakers on the water. However, some of those search and rescue missions turned into search and recovery missions.

So, to keep you from becoming a statistic, we’re sharing basic lifesaving kayak safety tips that could save your life out on the water.

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Kayak Safety Tips That Will Save Your Life

Take a Safe Boating and Kayaking Class

Kayaking Class

If you’re new to kayaking, we highly recommend you take a boating course or even a kayaking class. They are instructed by professional Coast Guard Auxiliary members or U.S. Power Squadron. Sometimes, local parks and recreation departments may offer a kayaking safety course. They will teach you everything about kayaking from basic rules of the road on the water, kayak safety and how to get back into your boat after capsizing.

Check out Salt Strong‘s video on how to get back into your kayak should you either fall out or capsize.

If you’re not in a location where kayak safety courses are offered, here’s Perception Kayak‘s video Kayak 1010: What beginner kayakers should know

If you’re a beginner, we highly recommend joining in on a kayaking adventure tour first. As they say, ‘safety in numbers’. Kayak tour professionals are almost always trained in water lifesaving and very proficient in kayaking. These kayak tour guides are usually experienced kayakers themselves and can  render assistance should you need it.

Learn or Know how to SWIM!

Swim Class - Learn to Swim

Unfortunately, most people who run out to buy a kayak, paddleboard or canoe, don’t think of the ramifications if they were to fall off our out of their watercraft or boat. Poignantly said, you need to know how to tread water, float and swim at least a couple hundred yards. Otherwise, should you fall out of your kayak, you’ll just be a bobber out there which is a risk in itself if you’re not visible.

Check your local YMCA, Red Cross or other organization to see if they offer swimming lessons. Practice in a closely monitored or guarded pool before going out in your kayak.

Kayak Identification

Kayak Safety - Derelict Kayak

Now let’s discuss why your kayak needs proper boat identification. According to a U.S. Coast Guard report, “billions” are wasted in unmanned kayaks. Also known as derelict vessels, each report requires the Coast Guard to search for the owner taking countless hours and over $113,000 per Coast Guard asset. That figure doesn’t even include asset reporting for local police, fire and oftentimes, DNR (Department of Natural Resources).

I can’t tell you how many Search and Rescue cases where we would search endlessly for missing persons simply because their kayaks were found washed up on a beach or floating upside down in the water.

So, to alleviate these unnecessary search efforts, we highly recommend placing personal identification labels with your name, phone number AND emergency contact info in permanent marking where it can be clearly identified. Also, I advice you to cover it in clear tape to help prevent the information from smudging or rubbing off. The identification label also helps identify your watercraft in case of loss or theft.

Some states have boat registration requirements for kayaks, canoes and other water craft; even inflatable kayaks. Also, regardless of which state, you will need to register your kayak if it has a trolling motor or some type of mechanical propulsion. So, once you get your kayak, research your particular state to ensure it is compliant with local, state and federal registration and maritime laws.


Leaving your loved ones your itinerary of intentions, location and estimated time of return is the smartest thing you can do before heading out on the water. Regardless of boat size, whether it’s motorized or without a motor, or how long or short your paddle excursion is, we highly encourage every kayaker to leave a Float Plan.

Always On Liberty - Boating Safety Float Plan

A Float Plan is an information sheet that you should fill out and leave with your contact back home prior to getting underway. You need to list your launching point, intended route, destination and your ETA (estimated time of arrival). Your float plan should also include the description of your kayak; color and size and identifying marks. This information will assist law enforcement and search and rescue assets should you fail to return.

Unfortunately though, most kayakers ignore this lifesaving kayak safety must. So, print and complete your float plan information sheet in entirety. Leave it with a loved one EVERY time you head out on the water.

5) Use the Buddy System

Two Kayakers

Paddling with a buddy can help save your life. As the saying goes, ‘safety in numbers’, kayaking with a group makes you more visible on the water. And, should one of you become injured or need help, you have each other to get back safely.

Wear Your PFD or LIFE VEST

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We can’t stress enough to ALWAYS wear your Coast Guard approved personal floatation device anytime you stop foot into your kayak. This advice extends to those who also canoe, raft or paddle board as well! Because it’s not a matter of IF you’ll capsize or fall in the water but WHEN.

As search and rescue first responders, most body recoveries from kayak incidents were not wearing their PFD. Just because you may only be a hundred yards from shore, always keep in mind, “if it can happen, it will!”

When you fall out of your kayak or boat, you become a vulnerable liability due to injury or disorientation; disallowing you to rewrite or re-board your kayak. Depending on where you’re paddling, air and water temperatures and how long you’re in the water, you can fall victim to hypothermia. Hypothermia leads to fatigue, unconsciousness and even death. When you become unconscious, you will sink to the bottom if you’re not wearing your PFD or kayaking life vest. It may take days to find you, if at all.

So, be totally prepared for that moment. Even if you’re the most skilled swimmer, wearing your PFD or life vest could save your life. We understand they aren’t the most comfortable, stylish or sexy looking. But, being dead isn’t sexy either.

Oh, and if you forget your personal floatation device or life vest, a lot of boat ramps throughout the country provide a life jacket that you can borrow. The point is a life vest is a must-have anytime you get underway on any watercraft; including kayaks!


Always On Liberty - Life Jacket Loaner Station
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Guidelines in choosing your PFD:

    • Must be Coast Guard approved on the label
    • Sized that it fits properly
    • Brightly colored for visibility
    • Have working buckles and securely sewn in straps

Like kayaks, paddle boards, rafts or canoes, we suggest writing your name and emergency contact phone number on your PFD for the same reason as labeling your kayak or watercraft.

Kayak Safety - PFD

We also recommend replacing your personal floatation devices or life vests every couple years as the sun degrades the fabric and materials they’re constructed with. Age and elements may affect it’s buoyancy. But, whatever you do, never get in a kayak without wearing a properly fitting life vest or personal floatation device.

Since we’re on the topic of PFD or personal floatation devices, we offer another kayak safety tip. We recommend keeping a throwable floating cushion inside your kayak or boat. Should your own personal life vest fail, you still can use your external floatable cushion for buoyancy. As well, you can throw it to a fellow kayaker or boater who’s unintentionally entered the water.

DRESS Accordingly

Always On Liberty - Kayak Safety - Dress Appropriately
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One important thing about kayaking is you want to dress for immersion, visibility and weather. Consider wearing bright colors. It doesn’t make sense to wear all dark colors on your paddling adventure. In the event that you fall in, you won’t be visible to other boaters or rescue resources. So, wear a brightly colored brim hat to keep the sun out of your eyes and protect your head from UV rays. But also, to make yourself visible.

Also, wear wick-away, UV resistant, brightly colored shirt and quick-dry trousers just in case you fall in the water. They will dry quicker than jeans or cotton fabrics. If you’re going to be paddling for long periods of time or in cooler water, investing in a wetsuit may not be a bad idea. Also, wearing polarized, glare-free sunglasses are a must! Don’t forget your croakies so your sunglasses or your prescription glasses don’t sink should they fall off your head into the water.

You’ll need to apply a high SPF sunscreen as the sun’s glare is intensified on the water. And if you’re going to be kayaking or paddling through the bayous and shady inlets and coves, insect repellent might be a good idea to apply as well.

And, in your kayak bag, consider packing a lightweight, waterproof jacket . Temperatures on the water can quickly change with a cold front or breeze. If you’re going to take your smartphone, a floatable waterproof phone case is a great idea!

Know your Abilities and Limitations

Kayak Safety - Know your Limits

While enjoying a beautiful warm sunny day paddling, it’s easy to forget or even over-extend your personal limits or physical capabilities on the water. While you may not be a stellar athlete, kayakers like yourself, should at least be in good health, well rested and properly nourished. It’s also smart to do some simple stretches before stepping into your kayak. After all, you’ll be sitting for quite a long time depending on your kayaking adventure.

When you’re out paddling on that beautiful lake or river, be mindful of the distance that you’ve paddled away from your departure location. Also, pay attention to your time spent on the water. Sun, wind, and other elements can bring on fatigue.

As we mentioned earlier, you may be paddling down current heading out and battle against the current coming back to your destination. So, knowing your physical endurance plays a big part in practicing kayak safety. If it means sitting out for a day because you’re not feeling up to par or you have an injury that will prevent you from safe boat handling, then so be it. There will be another day to paddle.


Always On Liberty - Capsized Kayak

No matter the size of the body of water, as a kayaker, you need to respect the water. Being frank, the sea never gives up her dead. And that’s why it’s so important to practice kayaking safety points in this article.

All watercraft operators, kayakers and canoe paddlers included, need to be cognizant of the water temperature, depths, wildlife in the water as well as onshore, and visible and underwater obstructions. Also, be aware of ever changing currents and tide variations. Always stay within close confines of land. And, if you’re going to be ocean kayaking, be aware of riptides and higher swells.

One important thing to remember. You may be paddling down current heading out and battle against the current coming back to your destination.

Be aware of your natural surroundings. And take my piece of advice, plan your return no later than sunset. As again, there are certain maritime regulations regarding lights and navigation. But also, we’ve found that later in the day, other watercraft and boaters seemingly lose sensible judgement through alcohol consumption and fatigue which may put you at greater risk of collision, capsizing or worse.

Pay Attention to the WEATHER

Always On Liberty - Kayak Safety - Weather
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Prior to heading out on the water, always check the day’s weather forecast and take a look at the weather radar on your smartphone weather app. If it looks like a storm is in the immediate forecast, it may be best just to wait it out or go another time or day. Also, be aware of off-shore winds that may make it difficult for you to navigate or return to shore.

It’s imperative that you know how to recognize weather changes and read the clouds. Pay attention to changing wind directions and wind speeds. If you’re paddling in an unfamiliar area, ask the locals if they are prone to afternoon storms or other weather you may need to know.

And while these are predominently for campers and RVers, some of these RV Tips for Weather Emergencies also apply to kayakers, paddleboarders and canoe paddlers as well.

Follow Safe Boating Navigation Rules of the Road

Kayak Safety - Boating Rules of the Road

Even though a kayak basically just navigates closer to shore, it’s still imperative to know the Navigation Rules of the Road. Know that as a boat operator, you’re subject to maritime laws. You need to know what to do when paddling around ships, boats and other watercraft, swimmers, divers and obstructions. You are responsible for your own safety and kayak. Should you disregard those boating rules of the road, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, but others on the water as well.

As per, “The Navigation Rules are much like the rules of the road on the highway. They establish a consistent way to navigate safely and avoid collisions when two boats are crossing paths, are on course to meet head-on, or when one boat wishes to overtake another.”

That’s why we recommend staying away from power boat traffic. Because many power boats and jet ski operators simply take on the “I don’t care about anyone else” attitude. Or, they don’t know the rules of the road themselves. And, it goes without saying, many have been drinking alcohol as well.

Stay out of the drink! (Literally!)

Kayak Safety - BUI

When I say “Stay out of the drink”, that means to avoid alcohol consumption before and while operating or piloting any type of watercraft.

BUIs and BWIs are serious business on the water; even for kayakers. Boating while impaired or under the influence will earn you a free ride on a Coast Guard or local police boat to get charged. Or worse, you may end up counting steps on the stairway to heaven.

So, refrain from consuming any alcohol before and during your kayaking adventures. Even drinking just a couple beers or alcohol impairs thought, reasoning and ability to make sound judgements. Alcohol may cause a kayaker to become disoriented and lost. But also, combined with the sun and dehydration, the effects of alcohol are magnified on the water.

As per, “Every boater needs to understand the risks of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI or BWI). It is illegal to operate a boat while under the influence of alcohol or drugs in every state. The Coast Guard also enforces a federal law that prohibits BUI. This law pertains to ALL boats (from canoes and rowboats to the largest ships) and includes foreign vessels that operate in U.S. waters, as well as U.S. vessels on the high seas.”

As cited above, boating while intoxicated or under the influence is an arrestable offense! You can be cited on the water for intoxication just the same as operating a motor vehicle operator under the influence on the roadways. Local, State or Federal maritime law officers will take you into custody and impound your watercraft if you prove intoxication over the legal limit.

In other words, if you’ve been drinking alcohol, are intoxicated or impaired, stay out of your kayak! Like getting a DUI in a motor vehicle, watercraft operators (including kayakers) are still subject to inebriation laws on the water. These BWI laws are not a joke! They are put into place to save lives; including your own.

If you’re going to take something to drink, take a water bottle instead. Save those boat drinks, booze and brews for after hours.


Kayak Safety - Hydration

It’s ironic that it’s possible to become dehydrated on the water. Several things come into play; exertion, heat, direct sun, and length of time you spend on the water. Especially on hot sunny days, you’ll need more water to replenish your body.

So, it’s important to plan your water consumption. For every hour that you plan to be on the water, you should have at least 8-16 ounces of drinking water per hour to avoid dehydration.

Stay away from sugary drinks such as soda and sweet beverages. While they may provide you a quick energy spike, you’ll end up having a sugar crash leaving you fatigued and dehydrated. And, if you don’t know already, dehydration leads to mental confusion and can result in loss of consciousness.

And lastly, never drink the water you’re kayaking in as it contains stuff in it that will make you ill.

Wrapping Up these Kayak Safety Tips

Always On Liberty - Pulling kayak out of water
Photo by Always On Liberty©

So, that wraps up our kayak safety tips. While kayaking is fun, you should always be mindful that the water, whether it’s the ocean, lake, river or even a pond, can be unforgiving if you don’t practice safe boating. By following these safety rules will spare your loved ones that knock on the door from law enforcement. Paddle safe!

DISCLAIMER: We are not spokespersons for the United States Coast Guard. However, we share our knowledge and past experiences as former Coast Guard First Responders and proponents of boating safety, lifesaving, search and rescue and maritime law enforcement.

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Other important safety tips:

Bicycle Safety Tips: Ride Safely on Roads and Bike Trails

10 Campfire Safety Tips

Camping Safety Tips

Camping in Bear Country? Safety Tips That Could Save Your Life

Space Heater Safety for RVs, Boats & Tiny Spaces

Always On Liberty - Kayaking at Sunset
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