Kayak and Canoe Safety for Beginners

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Alright, you got your boat and paddles. You are about to embark on your long awaited adventure. The sun is shining and you are ready to jettison off the shore. But first, you need to know some kayak and canoe safety for beginners. Whether you are rocking the boat in the deep blue or taking the lazy river, safety is necessary for you to have a good time.

In my previous work, you will know that I wrote about canoe camping tips. If you are kayaking or canoeing sometime soon, then the advice discussed there will be sure to help you. Check it out for more beneficial information.

My Top 5 Tips

By far, these are the five tips I follow before heading onto the water.

  1. Always bring a life jacket for everyone on board. While it is certainly freeing to go without a life jacket (I like to take mine off too), you need to bring life jackets for safety. Even if you are a good swimmer, no one can keep themselves afloat in rough waters.
  2. Paddle to places appropriate to your skill level. I am a competitive person, so I tend to push myself. Sometimes it is to my detriment like when I injured my leg wrestling, but that is a story for another time. The point is that, when you are kayaking or canoeing, people get into trouble because they cannot handle what nature is throwing at them. If the water is too fast or too rough, they could be taken away. Stick to what you know.
  3. Learn how to re-enter your kayak from the water. Canoes and kayaks have a tendency to flip over. Once you are in the water, you need to get back in there. You can either learn to do so from in the water or be close enough to shore to make land and climb back aboard.
  4. Dress for the conditions. I live in Santa Cruz and the water can be very cold here, so you will never catch me swimming without a wet suit. If I were to swim for a prolonged time without a wet suit, then there would be a risk of hypothermia. In cold weather, you need to be more conservative. If it is hotter out, be sure to bring a hat and related gear to protect yourself from the sun’s rays.
  5. Paddle with friends. Experiencing nature alone is magical. It feels like you are an adventurer stepping into a brave new world. You are the rugged explorer. When it comes to kayaking and canoeing though, a buddy can go a long way in protecting you. If something goes wrong, they can call for help or step in to save you.

Gear to Keep You Safe on the Water

In addition to following the tips laid out above, keeping this gear on board your boat will work for you in a variety of ways.

Rope can be utilized in almost every aspect of your canoe or kayak. If you need to tie yourself to shore, then it can take care of that issue. If you flip over your boat and need to get back into it, some rope can help you reel yourself back towards it. The best rope while out on the water will be nylon or have a plastic coating because the water will be less likely to mess up the fibers.

Personal flotation device (PFD), this is essential. You must not go kayaking or canoeing without one for everyone aboard. This is usually a life jacket or vest. The most important feature is that it fits to your chest size, the circumference of your chest at its broadest point. A size too small will not work, while one too large will slip from atop you.

Waterproof bag, when I go kayaking, I always bring a snack and some water with me to prevent myself from becoming hangry. If you feel the same way, then a plastic zip lock bag or a dry bag will be sure to keep your food and valuables safe from the water.

Whistle, I have no doubt you can yell quite loudly, but a proper whistle will provide the high-pitched screech necessary to be heard above rushing water or any other noises. People may or may not hear you shout, but they will definitely hear a whistle. When carrying one, make sure that it is within easy reach.

Helmet, depending on how rough the waters are, you may or may not need a helmet. For something like a lazy river, you do not need one. If you are going white water rafting, then you will definitely need one to protect your head from other’s and in case you bump your head on some rocks.

Knife, these are quite versatile. If you get caught in some vines or something tangling you, then a knife can cut you loose. They cut through anything that stands in there way. A good kayaking knife will clip to your pfd for easy access.

Sun protection, if you have skin sensitive to the sun’s rays, then you will want to protect your skin. Skin cancer is no joke. Supplies include a hat, sunscreen, and lip balm. If it is windy out on the water as it often is, then the lip balm will prevent your lips from drying out.

Proper footwear, whether the water’s bottom is rocky or sandy, you will likely be stepping onto something at some point. You definitely do not want to tear open your feet on something sharp, whether it be a rock or a piece of glass. At a minimum, be sure to bring sandals. For something sturdier, consider some shoes or water booties.

Preventing Drowning, the Ultimate Aim

When in anybody of water, you have to prevent drowning. But what if you end up falling out of your kayak or canoe and you lose control? What are your options? Playing out this scenario in your head beforehand will save you a lot of trouble down the road. Because once it happens and you know what follows, you can act decisively.

Firstly, know how to swim. This is your biggest front line defense against drowning. If you know how to swim, then you have won half the battle. If in the water, you can start swimming to the shore. You should not be kayaking or canoeing if you do not know how to swim. It is just not safe. Take swimming lessons and get comfortable in the water before kayaking or canoeing at all because it is quite common to fall into the water while kayaking or canoeing.

If there is a current, swim diagonally with the current. You are going to run into trouble if you swim against the current. It will drain you of energy and increase your chances of drowning. Consequently, swim with the current diagonally towards the shore.

Remain calm. Situations get worse when people panic, so keep your cool. If you do feel yourself losing control, then start to tread water. Ask yourself, what would a lifeguard do in this situation? Think clearly and act rationally.

Drowning is often a silent phenomenon. In movies, drowning is seen as violent and very obvious. Unfortunately, this warps people’s perception of the reality of drowning. Instead, look for the other signs that include inability of the drowning person to speak, inability of the drowning to keep their mouth above the water, their inability to speak, and a stiff body with arms pushing down against the water.

Final Thoughts

Being safe on the water is essential to having a good time. Once you take care of safety, heading onto the water is a fun activity. When the sun is shining and you are paddling, the day seems boundless. The warm air fills your lungs and exhale with a breath of joy. You are ready to have a safe, fun journey.

If you have any thoughts, questions, or you think I missed anything, do not hesitate to comment below and please do share this article. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

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24 Comments on “Kayak and Canoe Safety for Beginners”

  1. Hi Alex,

    Thank your for the thorough information and tips! I had no idea there was so much to consider. I love the pictures in your post! Your information and pictures inspire me to go on a water adventure – a safe one. Is there any way you can come to Ohio? 🙂

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    1. Hello Nora,

      Yes, there is quite a lot to consider. I appreciate the compliment on the pictures. It is good to hear you plan to head onto the water soon. I do plan to travel to Ohio at some point, but I am busy with school at UCSC.

      Thank you so much for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!


  2. Excellent advice. I love to be outdoors and the tips on kayak and canoe safety are on point.

    You cover all the major aspects of staying safe while sporting around on the water. Dressing appropriately for the water temperature is very important and I think a lot of people overlook this. Even if the outside temperature is very hot, the water could still be very cold. Sometimes we don’t realize how hypothermia can sneak up on us.
    Great post!

    1. I appreciate you for sharing Brett. You do need to be safe on the water. It is critical. Appropriate dress matters. Hypothermia can be quite the surprise.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  3. Hey Alex,

    I think practicing entering the kayak from the water is a tip that a lot of people overlook. It kind of stinks when you fall out, but knowing how to get back in the kayak from the water can be harder than you think. I once fell out the kayak and tried to get back in and ended up knocking someone out.

    However, I do have a question about paddles. Which kind of paddles would you recommend? I have been kayaking a couple of times. The first time paddles didn’t work very good and my sister complained that they were falling apart.

    1. Hey Garen,

      It is very important to practice entering and exiting a kayak from the water. You could save yourself a lot of trouble down the road. That is quite the story. I cannot believe you knocked someone out!

      Some good paddles are critical for first time kayakers. For you, I would recommend the SeaSense X-Treme II Kayak Paddle. It’s sturdy, reliable, lightweight, and inexpensive. They can be disassembled for easy storage and float on top of the water in case you lose your grip of them. I appreciate your question.

      Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

  4. These are all great tips, thanks for sharing! I will definitely reference this later on, as I wouldn’t have even thought of most of this stuff before reading this. Any lakes/rivers in the US you’d recommend for a vacation?

    1. I am glad to know you found this article helpful Will. It is always good to know someone has learned from the article.

      For a great lake/river place to vacation at, I would recommend Crater Lake, Oregon. It is quite beautiful. In a previous article, I looked at the top national parks in Oregon. You can find a link here. I appreciate the question.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  5. Hi Alex

    This is one of the best articles I have read about kayaking safety!!! I love kayaking but will only ever use an open kayak as I can’t do the body roll so play safe.

    The whistle is something I have never heard of and what a brilliant idea = so safe. You are doing a great job here Alex and your articles are so informative. Loving this site thank you

    1. Hey Vicki, it is good to hear you enjoyed the article. A body roll is quite hard to master. In general, if you are using a closed kayak, you can get out of it with relative ease, but not as much as a closed kayak.

      A whistle is very important for safety. Its noise carries itself above the fray. I am glad to hear you enjoyed the articles and the site. Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

  6. Hi Alex. I love your site. It’s vibrant and colourful. It makes you want to grab that canoe and start paddling.

    You have included some great safety tips, especially the one about drowning. I remember many years back when I was only eighteen, how close I came to drowning. My parents had gone on an overseas trip and I decided I wanted a racing catamaran . Even though I had no experience, I took it out on one of the many lakes that surrounded the area I lived in. Can you imagine my horror when it started to sink while I was negotiating a deep canal. I had forgotten to put the plugs in the base of the cat. Yes, we do need safety equipment and I was lucky I was a good swimmer. Jim

    1. Hey Jim,

      I am glad to hear you enjoy the site. It is always great to receive a compliment.

      I am glad to hear you did not drown. It is a good thing you are a wiser person because of the experience. The ability to swim is essential whenever you are out on the water. You saved yourself because of it. I appreciate you for sharing the experience. It is a good word of warning for others.

      Thank you so much and I hope you make it a great day!

  7. Yes, a lot of people watch movies and completely underestimate how powerful nature is. Lol my girlfriend is one of them. She tells a story about how when she was younger. Maybe 13 she stepped into a creek because the current didnt look that fast and it didnt look that deep. Apparently she got kicked by the water and ended up sideways in the air and hurt her foot really bad when she landed. When I told her “yeah you realize it was you against thousands of pounds of water right?”

    She always gets so mad. End point. You’re at nature’s mercy. Respect it.

    1. You are right that people always underestimate how powerful nature is. I appreciate you for sharing the story. It is a good anecdote to make people think twice. 

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  8. Hi Alex,

    My husband just bought one, lol. Oh boy, here we go! I’m not a great swimmer, so we’ll be in very calm water. And I never take off my life jacket, haha.

    I remember years ago when we went white water rafting. We were in a large group with a guide. I was one of the inexperienced, so I got to wear the “red” helmet, LOL. But that’s ok. They kept a good eye on me when we flipped.

    Thanks for the great advice,

    1. Hey Suzanne,

      It is great to hear your husband just bought a kayak/canoe. They are a blast on the water. Just stick to calm water and you should be fine. Be sure to always keep that life jacket handy.

      That is quite a funny story. I do not think I could wear the red helmet like you. At least when you flipped, they had your back.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!


  9. Ow wow, your pictures are really stunning, especially the one with the yellow boats. What really stood out for me is your suggestion how to swim, to swim diagonally with the current. It would not even cross my mind to do that, will be too panicky and I actually thought the opposite, to swim against the current. Thanks for that great tip, it was worth reading. I am definitely taking the whistle and proper footwear next time. I never thought of those items as a necessity either. Happy kayaking!

    1. I appreciate your comment Milla. When caught in the current, you want to swim at an angle, diagonally. Many people do not realize this important tip. It is good to hear you plan to take proper footwear and a whistle the next time you head into the water.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  10. Hi Alex and thank you for a nice walkthrough on kayak and canoe safety. There is a lot here that everyone should know, but it is important work you are doing – to set it in stone once and for all. However, there are some of the items on your list I am going to go get at once, e.g. the flotation device. In a dire situation that one can save lives – when the life jacket is not enough!

    1. I am glad to hear you enjoyed the article Gaute. I always aim to be thorough in everything I write, down to the smallest detail. It is good to hear you plan to get a flotation device. Everyone needs one on a kayak or canoe.

      Thank you for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  11. Well no I didn’t get my boat or paddles yet!

    However, I have been looking to get one and I am definitely looking for safety tips. I’ve been kayaking once in my life and nobody expressed any of these safety tips.

    “If there is a current, swim diagonally with the current.” This is interesting, I didn’t know that and think most people would try to swim in the opposite direction!

    Remaining calm is easier said than done but it does make things worse to panic and this is true to most situations in life!

    I guess my question would be related to equipment, it’s important to have safe equipment so do you suggest any kayaks to purchase for a beginner?

    1. It is no problem that you do not have a boat or paddles yet. It is a lot to think about. A boat is a big decision. 

      I am glad to hear you enjoyed these safety tips. For a lot of people, swimming with the current is a new one. I learned that one about 10 years ago, so I have known of it for a while now. You are right about remaining calm. It is really hard to do. If there is one thing you should do to help remain calm as much as you can, it is to focus on your breath. Control your breath and then you can go from there to safety.

      For a beginner, I would recommend the Malibu II Kayak. My Dad bought a home on a lake well before that and he wanted to get a boat, so we got the kayak back in 2008 or 2009 at a discount. It is one great kayak to say the least. Be aware that it is meant for warm water, so it can be quite cold on the kayak during the winter.

      I just love it though. For a teenager with destructive tendencies, it has held up to bumps and scratches galore. I still have it. It can take one or two people. In a future article, I plan to write a more detailed review of this lovely kayak. I have very fond memories of this kayak to share. In short though, when you have this kayak, your summers will be a joy.

      Thank you so much for sharing and I hope you make it a great day!

  12. Wow! The photos are so inviting. It makes me want to plan a river trip this fall. It’s all about having fun when messing around in boats … I really like the advice that it’s a good idea to actually know how to swim .. it’s obvious and yet there are so many folk who go out in boats and don’t know how to swim … safety first. 

    1. I am glad you liked the photos. They really help get people in the mood to kayak.

      Not enough people are safe when they are on a boat. Some people do not know how to swim, yet they get on a kayak! It is a shame.

      Thank you for sharing Julie and I hope you make it a great day!

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