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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2 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!
    Nora

    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!

      Alex

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