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Is Kayaking Dangerous? 15 Dangers To Avoid

Mark Armstrong
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Whether you’re a seasoned paddler or you’re about to take your first paddling strokes in a kayak, you might be wondering:

Is kayaking dangerous?

And the answer is, yes, it can be.

Of all boating deaths in the USA in 2020, 15% of them involved kayaks. Kayaks are second only to open motorboats when it comes to fatalities on the water.

But we’re not trying to scare you out of the water. Here are some of the main risks from kayaking with some tips on what you can do to avoid danger.

Is Kayaking Dangerous? - Pinterest ImagePin

15 Kayaking Risks (And How To Stop Them)

1: Drowning

Drowning is probably one of the main concerns for a lot of people going kayaking for the first time. And yes, drowning is a serious risk for kayakers.

Drownings accounted for 85% of all deaths from kayaking in 2020 in the United States, according to the US Coast Guard statistics. And 86% of drowning victims in boating accidents in the US were not wearing a life jacket.

Drownings can happen for a variety of reasons, such as rough waters, bad weather, capsizing, falling overboard, or other reasons, including inexperience.

How To Get Around This:

A life jacket can be your number one tool to prevent drowning. A PFD (Personal Flotation Device) that fits correctly and is suitable for your activity can save your life if you end up in the water.

Even if you know how to swim, a PFD can provide buoyancy when you’re in difficult waters or in the event that you are knocked unconscious.

2: Severe Weather

Severe weather can be dangerous for kayakers and other boaters. Kayaks don’t offer much protection when it comes to the weather. This means you can be exposed to lightning, hot sun, torrential rain, and strong winds.

With stormy weather often comes rough waters. This can quickly turn your calm lake or bay into choppy waters. Your slow-moving river could become flooded with excessive currents and debris.

How To Get Around This:

Be prepared for the conditions. Check the weather forecast before you plan your trip and keep checking the forecast in the days and hours beforehand, as things could change.

It can be important to prepare for the unexpected by packing emergency supplies and appropriate clothing and extra equipment in case you need to re-route or camp overnight.

A radio with weather alerts can be a useful accessory to take with you.

If the weather is going to be bad, it can be safer to postpone your kayaking trip until the weather improves. Don’t attempt to paddle in unsafe conditions.

3: Cold Water Shock

Cold water shock can lead to death. It can happen to anyone regardless of fitness level. It can even happen in water as warm as 76 degrees. The colder the water, the higher the risk.

Immersion in cold water can cause you to gasp initially followed by a rapid increase in breathing and blood pressure. This can lead to an inability to control your own breathing, which can cause you to become disoriented. It can also cause you to lose the ability to hold your breath, swim or tread water, which can lead to drowning.

This first stage of cold water shock can happen in the first three minutes of cold-water immersion.

After the initial three-minute period and for up to 30 minutes, your body temperature will reduce significantly, especially if you’re trying to swim, which can lead to the loss of breathing, reduction in heart rate, and cardiac arrest. It can also cause you to lose the ability to move your limbs, which can affect your attempt to self-rescue.

> Winter kayaking tips

How To Get Around This:

Wearing a life jacket can be a vital piece of life-saving equipment when it comes to the dangers of cold water shock. When you lose the ability to breathe or tread water, a life vest can help to keep your head out of the water, helping to keep you alive.

It’s also a good idea to dress for the temperature of the water.

> Wetsuits vs drysuits for kayakers

4: Getting Lost

Getting lost on a kayaking trip can be a scary thought. Whether you’re on remote backwaters or on the ocean, it can be easy to get disoriented.

If you’re sea kayaking, it can be easy to get blown off course by the wind or currents. It can be even more disorienting if fog rolls in and you have no idea which way is which.

How To Get Around This:

A GPS navigation device can be an excellent tool for helping you to find your location. A GPS uses satellite technology to pinpoint your exact location and help you plot your way back to where you started or to the next stop on your route.

Many GPS devices have built-in maps and charts that can help with many US locations.

It can also be safer to paddle with another paddler or a group and carry a compass.

Map your route before you set off and make a float plan.

5: Wildlife

Wildlife can pose a serious risk to safety in certain parts of the country. Bears, alligators, snakes, and sharks can be some of the most dangerous creatures you could encounter on kayaking trips in the USA (depending on where you are).

In most cases, wild animals will be unlikely to approach humans. The curious ones that do, may think you have food.

How To Get Around This:

Don’t approach wildlife as many creatures could view your approach as a threat, which may make them aggressive. Try to keep a safe distance from any wild animal and don’t feed them.

If you’re heading into bear country, it can be important to store your food inside a bear-resistant container.

6: Weirs And Dams

Weirs (low-head dams) and dams can be extremely dangerous to kayakers. The water that flows over the dam circulates back on itself (backwash). If you get caught in this backwash, you become trapped in an effect similar to a washing machine spin cycle.

As you get spun to the surface, the force of the water from the flow over the dam and the backwash drags you back below the surface into the rotational churn of this endless cycle.

This can be extremely difficult and sometimes impossible to escape from.

How To Get Around This:

Avoid paddling close to any dams. Large dams often feature dangerous hydraulics. There are often signs near dams warning people to keep a safe distance away.

Low-head dams or weirs should be avoided. If you encounter one on your river trip, it’s safer to portage around it.

7: Capsizing

The fear of capsizing can be enough to put some people off kayaking. And while kayaks can capsize, they’re usually not very easy to capsize.

Most sit-on-top kayaks are designed for recreational use and often have flat bottoms which can provide excellent stability on calm lakes, slow-moving rivers, and flatwater bays. Pontoon hulls and tri-hulls can also offer exceptional stability on flatwater and some rougher waters.

Sit-inside kayaks, such as some touring kayaks, sea kayaks, and whitewater kayaks often have more rounded hulls to create additional secondary stability, Secondary stability is what helps to prevent capsizing in rough water.

How To Get Around This:

It can be a good idea to learn how to re-enter your kayak if you do capsize. If you have a sit-inside kayak, it can be useful knowing how to perform a wet exit or a kayak roll.

Video: How To Do A Sweep Kayak Roll

If you want to avoid capsizing completely, it’s best to avoid paddling into dangerous water. Don’t paddle in conditions that are beyond your skill level.

It’s also a good idea to use a kayak that’s suitable for the conditions that you’re paddling in. For example, don’t use a recreational sit-on-top kayak for paddling along a fast-moving river or in the surf, unless it’s specifically designed to handle those conditions.

8: Alcohol

Being under the influence of alcohol (or drugs) can affect your ability to function. It can have a negative effect on how your brain works. This means you’re less able to make decisions or think clearly. Your coordination is also affected by alcohol use.

This means you can be more likely to get into an accident if you’re kayaking under the influence as it can impair your ability to safely operate a kayak.

As well as being highly dangerous, in most states it’s illegal to kayak under the influence of alcohol.

Kayaking while intoxicated can, in some cases, lead to a large fine and even jail time.

> DUI for paddling a kayak?

How To Get Around This:

Don’t paddle if you’ve been drinking alcohol. Keep your beers till you reach your camp if you’re on a multi-day kayaking adventure. If you’re enjoying a day trip, save the alcohol until you return home.

9: Rapids And Rough Water

Rough water can be dangerous to paddle in if you’re unskilled in those conditions. It can even be dangerous if you have suitable skills.

Whitewater rapids are rated on a numerical scale from I to VI, with VI being the most dangerous and difficult to paddle.

Even expert whitewater kayakers may struggle to paddle in Class VI rapids and in some cases they may be impassable by kayak. Rescues at this extreme class of rapids may be impossible.

Class V rapids are also dangerous and would require expert skills in whitewater kayaking, including rolling and self-rescues.

How To Get Around This:

Don’t kayak in conditions that are too dangerous for your skills and level of experience.

If you plan to paddle along a river, it can be safer to plan your route in advance or walk the section you plan to paddle. Ask local outfitters for advice on specific locations so that you can be aware of potential areas of whitewater or strong currents.

If you do plan to attempt dangerous rapids, make sure you have the skills to meet the conditions. Remember to have sufficient safety gear, including wearing a helmet and, obviously, a PFD.

10: Other Vessels

Paddling in an area where there are other vessels can make kayaking more tricky, as you will need to be more aware of your surroundings for additional safety.

By design, kayaks are low-profile vessels. So it’s not always easy to see a kayak in the water, particularly on open water.

Large motorized vessels can pose a risk to kayakers on any body of water where there’s either recreational or commercial traffic.

As well as the obvious risk of collision (which did happen on the Hudson River back in 2016 when a New York ferry struck a group of kayakers), large boats can also cause wake which could overturn your kayak.

How To Get Around This:

A safety flag can be a useful accessory to mount to your kayak. This can increase your visibility to other vessels.

Don’t paddle in commercial shipping lanes. This can be dangerous. Large ships won’t be able to stop quickly to avoid you, so you will need to avoid them.

If you’re a less experienced kayaker, it can be safer to avoid areas where there might be heavy boat traffic. Lakes that have a restriction on motorized vessels can be a good idea. Or you could paddle closer to the shore or riverbank to keep out of the way of larger vessels.

11: Incorrect Life Jacket Use

The purpose of a life jacket is to save your life in an emergency. But a life vest can only save your life if you’re wearing it correctly and it’s suitable for the type of kayaking you intend to do.

In most places it’s a legal requirement for you to have a US Coast Guard-approved PFD on board your kayak for each person in your boat. All children must wear a PFD.

In most cases, it’s not always a legal requirement that the life jacket is worn to meet the requirements. But in some bodies of water, the life jacket needs to be worn by law.

Additionally, an inflatable life jacket usually always needs to be worn to meet the Coast Guard’s requirements.

Some paddlers don’t wear their life jacket and simply have it in the boat with them. But if you capsize or fall overboard, your PFD won’t be much use if it’s loose in your kayak.

Or some kayakers may not wear their PFD correctly or in the right size, which can be dangerous in a situation where the PFD is required as a life-saving tool.

How To Get Around This:

Your life jacket, or PFD, should be a snug fit. You shouldn’t be able to lift it above your chin when you pull up on the shoulder straps.

Video: How to Properly Fit a Life Jacket

You should also make sure the life jacket is suitable for your chosen kayaking activity. An inherently buoyant PFD will be more suitable for rough water and non-swimmers as it can provide immediate flotation upon entering the water.

12: Strainers Or Sweepers

Strainers or sweepers can be a dangerous hazard of river kayaking. These hazards prevent larger objects from getting through but allow water to pass through.

Many strainers are caused by fallen trees and large objects that have been swept down the river with flooding and have then become wedged in the river.

This can often create fast flowing water through the obstacle which can cause a problem for kayakers. You could become trapped if your kayak is sucked into the strainer.

Strainers could become even more dangerous if the river levels are higher and the hazard becomes submerged, as you could become trapped underwater.

How To Get Around This:

It’s best to avoid paddling towards a strainer. If you can scout the river before you put-in, this can be beneficial. If you happen to see one on your trip, paddle quickly away from it.

If the strainer blocks the entire river, you may need to portage around it.

13: Sunburn

Sunburn is a real threat to anyone who spends time outdoors. For kayakers, it can happen pretty easily if you’re not prepared.

Being in a kayak, especially a sit-on-top kayak, you’re extremely exposed to the sun. You also have the reflection of the sun’s rays bouncing off the water beside you, increasing your risk of sunburn.

The sun gives off UVA and UVB rays which are damaging to the skin and eyes. This harmful UV-light can cause sunburn and skin cancer.

Bad sunburn can blister and be very painful. The more often you suffer from sunburn, the more likely you are to develop skin cancer.

How To Get Around This:

Make sure you wear sunscreen with an appropriate SPF for the conditions and your skin tone. Remember to apply the sunscreen all over your exposed skin, including your hands. You will probably need to reapply the sunscreen after a period of time, especially if you’re swimming or sweating.

Cover your skin with loose clothing and wear a hat to protect your head and neck.

Some clothing has a UPF rating, which can help to prevent the sun’s rays from getting through the fabric to your skin. The higher the rating, the more of the sun’s rays will be blocked. The highest level is generally UPF 50+.

14: Dehydration

Being surrounded by water on a kayaking trip, you may not think about being dehydrated. But dehydration can happen to any kayaker who isn’t prepared for the duration of the trip.

Kayaking is a physical activity so it requires you to keep hydrated more so than if you were simply sitting on a riverbank enjoying the view.

Severe dehydration can cause dizziness, fainting, confusion, and a rapid heartbeat, among other things. This can be dangerous at any time but especially if you’re in control of a kayak.

If you’re paddling in hot temperatures, dehydration can happen faster than in colder weather. Sweating means you’re more likely to dehydrate.

How To Get Around This:

Bring along enough water for the length of your trip and the conditions that you will be paddling in. If the temperature is going to be high, you will need to pack and drink more water than normal.

15: Submerged Hazards

Underwater hazards can create dangerous currents that may not be apparent from the surface or can trap you underneath.

Undercuts, for example, are rocks or ledges that are submerged creating a covered hole under the water, usually in a river. These can be dangerous in fast-flowing rivers where you may not notice they’re there or be able to avoid them.

Undercuts can pose a particular risk if you capsize, as you could become trapped under the ledge or rocks. The force of the water may be too strong to let you swim out to reach the surface.

How To Get Around This:

Scouting the whitewater sections of a river before you run it can be important.

It can also be important for safety to only paddle whitewater runs with at least one other person. This way, if you get into trouble, there’s someone around who can help you or raise the alarm.

Ask local whitewater kayakers for advice on specific sections of rivers and don’t attempt to paddle any river that’s beyond your capabilities.

Feeling Safer Now?

Hopefully you enjoyed discovering some of the kayaking risks and remedies. While kayaking can be dangerous, it can be a lot safer if you know what to expect and can prepare for the conditions.

Always wear your PFD and don’t attempt to paddle in conditions that are unsafe or beyond your skill level.

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