Top 13 Kayak Safety Tips That Can Save Your Life

Kayaking has become quite popular in recent years. Kayakers of all ages have taken to paddle the lakes, rivers and even the ocean. While kayaking is a fun outdoor activity and great exercise, that fun can quickly turn into disaster if you’re not prepared or don’t practice simple kayak safety.

Its hard not to notice all of the brightly-colored kayaks cradled on the tops of automobiles or secured in kayak racks on RVs. You can buy a kayak anywhere from $200 on up to as much as $3000 or more. But unfortunately, most kayakers, new and experienced, may not be aware of the kayaking safety and watercraft rules that will keep them afloat instead of becoming a statistic.

As Coast Guard Veterans, 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 on the water.

Always On Liberty - Kayak Safety Tips

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13 Top Kayak Safety Tips That Will Save Your Life

1) Take a Safe Boating and Kayaking Class

Kayaking Class

If you’re new to kayaking, we highly recommend you take a safe boating class or even a class on paddling. They are instructed by professional Coast Guard Auxiliary members or U.S. Power Squadron. Or if a local organization or business is offering outdoor-specific education, we impress importance of taking one of their instructional classes. They will teach you everything from kayak safety to knowing what to do if your kayak capsized and how to get back into or onto your boat.

Speaking of which, here’s 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 kayaking classes are held, here’s Perception Kayak‘s video Kayak 1010: What beginner kayakers should know. 

If you’re a beginner and don’t feel comfortable going out on your own yet, we highly recommend joining in on a kayaking adventure tour. Of course, you’ll have to make arrangements and pay for the tour but it is a great way to improve your paddling skills with some professional guidance. They typically have very experienced kayakers that know what to do and will render aid should you need it.

2) 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.

3) 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. Each derelict vessel report requires Coast Guard Search and Rescue crews to search for the owner taking countless hours and over $113,000 per Coast Guard asset.

Search and Rescue crews search endless hours and even days for potential 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 putting some sort of personal identification information on your kayak.

If you already own or when you get your kayak, we suggest you legibly print your name, phone number AND emergency contact info in permanent marking on and inside your vessel where it can be clearly identified. Also, cover it in clear tape to help prevent it from rubbing off.

Doing that, your craft is identifiable in case of loss or theft. But more importantly, you’ve minimized the need for search and rescue assets and resources should your kayak be found.

Now, some states do require you to register your kayak, canoe or other water craft; even inflatable kayaks. And, regardless of which state, if you have an electric trolling motor on your kayak, you will need to register it in your state. So, make certain to research your particular state to make sure your kayak is compliant with maritime law requirements.

4) Leave a FLOAT PLAN

Before stepping foot into kayaks or boats, we highly encourage all boat operators, even kayakers, paddleboarders and canoe paddlers, to leave a FLOAT PLAN. Regardless of watercraft or boat, whether it has a motor or not, or if you’re just going out for an hour paddle, leaving a float plan with a loved one is a must.

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 setting sail or getting underway. You’ll list your launch point, intended route, destination and your ETA. Your float plan will also include the color and size of your kayak, identifying marks, and other information that will help assist law enforcement and search and rescue crews should you fail to return.

Unfortunately, most kayakers (and paddle boarders and canoe paddlers) ignore this very important lifesaving kayak safety tip. So, print and fill out your float plan information sheet and leave it with a loved one EVERY time you head out on the water.

5) Use the Buddy System

Two Kayakers

Not only is paddling fun when going with a buddy or larger party, it can help save your life. As the saying goes, ‘safety in numbers’ will make you more visible. And, should one of you become impaired or injured, you have each other to get you back safely. Again though, make certain all of you fill out and leave your float plans with all of your loved ones back home or the campsite you’re staying at.

6) Wear Your PFD or LIFE VEST

Always On Liberty - Kayaking at Lake Havasu

As former waterside lifesavers, we can’t stress enough to ALWAYS wear your life vest or personal floatation device anytime you stop foot in your kayak, canoe, raft or onto your paddle board! Because it’s not a matter of IF you’ll capsize or fall in but WHEN you’ll capsize or fall in.

Unfortunately, not wearing a PFD (personal floatation device) is one of the biggest violations kayakers tend to overlook out on the water. They may think, ‘oh, I’m just a few yards away from land’.

But, when you fall out of your kayak or boat, you become a liability. You may become injured and become disoriented. And you may be subject to hypothermia depending on where you’re paddling, the air and water temperatures and how long you’re in the water. Hypothermia leads to fatigue and unconsciousness. When you become unconscious, you will sink to the bottom and 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, wear your PFD or life vest. A life vest or PFD can save your life! We understand they may hinder movement and aren’t the most stylish or sexy looking. But, think about this. Being dead isn’t sexy either. Oh, and keeping it next to you instead of wearing it won’t help you should you flip your kayak and become immobile to put it on.

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


Always On Liberty - Life Jacket Loaner Station

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.

7) DRESS Accordingly

Always On Liberty - Kayak Safety - Dress Appropriately

One important thing about kayaking is you want to dress for immersion, visibility and weather. Consider wearing bright colors for visibility. It doesn’t make sense to wear all dark colors on your paddling adventure. If you should fall in, you won’t be visible to other boaters or Search and Rescue. So, wear a a wide brim hat or ball cap to keep the sun out of your eyes but also, your hat will protect your head from the hot sun.

Also, wear wick-away, UV resistant, long sleeve shirt and quick-dry pants 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!


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.


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.

10) Pay Attention to the WEATHER

Always On Liberty - Kayak Safety - Weather

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.

11) Know your 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.

12) Follow Boating Navigation Rules of the Road

Kayak Safety - Boating Rules of the Road

Just because you’re in a tiny kayak without a motor, you’re still subject to the boating navigation rules of the road. You need to know what to do when paddling around other boats, swimmers, divers and obstructions.

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.”

In other words, all paddlers and kayakers need to learn and abide by the Coast Guard Navigation Rules of the Road. You need to know what to do when others are on the water with you, around you, and approaching or overtaking your watercraft. You are responsible for your own safety and your boat. Should you disregard those boating rules of the road, you not only put yourself at risk but other watercraft operators as well.

That’s why we recommend staying away from boating traffic, out of deep water and avoid paddling near submerged objects. Stay clear of divers, swimmers and surfers. Just keep your water safety mindset before boarding your kayak and all through your paddling experience.

13) Boating Under the Influence

Kayak Safety - BUI

On the short, if you’ve been drinking alcohol or are intoxicated, stay out of your kayak, canoe and off your paddleboard. Like getting a DUI in an automobile, kayakers and watercraft operators are still subject to inebriation laws on the water.

As per, “Every boater needs to understand the risks of boating under the influence of alcohol or drugs (BUI). 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.”

In other words, refrain from consuming alcohol before or during your kayaking adventures. Drinking even a couple beers and getting underway in your kayak could land you more than in deep water. Alcohol consumption impairs thought, reasoning and ability to make sound judgements and decisions. It’s a fact that alcohol affects are actually magnified on the water because of sun and dehydration.

Adding to that, as cited above BUI’s (Boating Under the Influence) are an arrest-able offense. You can be cited on the water for intoxication just the same as operating a motor vehicle under the influence on the roadways. Local, State or Federal maritime law officers will take you into custody and impound your watercraft; even your kayak if you prove intoxication over the legal limit.

So, if you’re going to take something to drink, take your water bottle instead. Save those boat drinks and brews for when you get back home or to your campsite.

Check out KayakGuru’s take on BWI’s

Always On Liberty - Taking Kayak In

Wrapping Up Our Kayak Safety Tips

So, that wraps up our Paddlers’ Lifesaving Tips. Enjoy yourselves out there but 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 kayaking. We hope you got some great information that will save your life. As well, following these safety rules will spare your loved ones that knock on the door from law enforcement. 

DISCLAIMER: We are not spokespersons for the United States Coast Guard. However, we share our knowledge and past experiences we’ve dealt with during our previous tenures as Coast Guardsmen while conducting Water Safety, Lifesaving, Search and Rescue and Marine Law Enforcement.

Always On Liberty - Kayak Safety Tips-2

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Always On Liberty - Kayaking at Sunset

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