Kayak Safety: How Safe Are Kayaks?

Kayak Safety

One of the things I love the most about kayaking is that it can be as safe or as adventurous as you want it to be. From leisurely paddling a flat calm lake to paddling the ocean, witnessing beautiful marine mammals to running class IV rapids in the Grand Canyon, kayaking can be zenlike or or adrenaline-filled.

You’ll have to decide for yourself how “adventurous” of a kayaker you eventually want to be, but first let’s answer one of the top questions most beginner have, “How safe are kayaks?”

Are Kayaks Safe? Modern kayaks are very safe. Today’s kayaks are manufactured with quality production materials and designed for stability, improved buoyancy, and maximum performance. This makes today’s kayaks safer than ever. How safe kayaks are ranges in risk from recreational to ocean to whitewater kayaking.

Why Is Kayak Safety So Important?

Any water activity, whether it’s kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding, rafting or just lazing down a river in an innertube, will have an inherently higher risk level than sitting on your couch on dry land. The simple fact that you’re on the water increases your risk of things like hypothermia, collision injury, or drowning.

But before you go running for the hills in panic, much of what makes kayaking and kayakers safe on the water is the seriousness with which we approach the sport. Because being one of the smallest vessels on the water means you have to take responsibility for your own safety.

Here are some inherent risks involved in all water sports, including kayaking.

Avoiding Collisions With Other Vessels

It’s frustrating, but every year a kayak and kayaker are either run over, capsized or swamped by larger vessels that aren’t paying attention, fail to notice the kayak, or are operating motorized vessels while impaired.

This comes with the territory in kayaking and it’s why we as kayakers must make our kayaks and ourselves as visible as possible out on the open water. In addition, we need to carry audible and visual signaling equipment to warn boaters and other vessels of our presence.

Preventing Hypothermia

As you enjoy the world of kayaking, you’ll hear time and again more experienced kayakers warn you of the dangers of hypothermia—lowered body temperature due to exposure to the elements.

While it’s true that much of kayaking is done in the hot summertime, it hardly matters how hot the air is if you fall into freezing water, or simply get wet and can’t dry out.

On a recent kayaking and boating trip to the Columbia River in Washington state, I was surprised by how cold the river water was compared to the 100 degree heat we were paddling in. You see, the Columbia is mostly snow runoff from Canada and that water doesn’t warm up much all the way down to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon.

If you end up in the water for a long period of time, the air temperature won’t prevent hypothermia. So we need to dress for the water, not the weather. (OMG, I said it again!)

Reducing the Risk of Drowning

It’s always hard to talk about such a fun sport in terms of drowning, but if we’re going to be real, we have to.

Look, the reality is that when you’re kayaking, you may be surrounded by water, miles from or near shore, in the confines of a narrow kayak whose average length is somewhere around 10’.

Your small kayak is not the island of safety you might want in an emergency.

And if something happens, like getting run over by a speeding boat, or your kayak sinking from damage, a wave, or … sorry, a shark biting your kayak, what will you do then?

If you’re unconscious, you are not swimming to shore.

The single best thing you can do to prevent drowning on the water is to wear a life vest specifically designed for kayaking. I know what the law says—I’ve researched and written more kayaking laws articles than I ever thought possible—and no, in many cases and many states you don’t have to wear your life vest.

But why not just wear your life vest while kayaking? Because you certainly aren’t going to have an easy time putting it on in a real emergency.

End of soapbox rant…

Simply put, there are inherent risks on the water, you’ll need to be prepared

What Are Five Safety Precautions You Should Take When Kayaking?

There are a lot of safety precautions to think about and remember before any kayaking trip. Here are five primary precautions you should ponder prior to paddling (sorry, I couldn’t help it. All this safety… just needed some humor):

  1. Don’t get in over your head – Kayak in water and weather that’s within your experience level and capabilities. There’s no one to impress in kayaking but yourself. And the ocean, rivers too, have no mercy when it comes to how they treat … everything.
  2. Check the weather, water temp, and bring a map – Check out a weather report for the day and area you plan to kayak. And review a map of the surroundings and bodies of water you’ll paddle. NOAA has a coastal waters temp map and there are other maps Like the United States Geographical Survey (USGS) real time water temperature map. Familiarity with the area goes a long way in preventing problems. And if conditions change for the worse, don’t be afraid to pull your kayak out of the water and head home.
  3. Tell someone when and where you’re going – Make a float plan for your trip. State who where and when you will begin and return from your paddling trip. Share your float plan with someone you know will call the cavalry should you not report back on time. This job used to fall to my mother, because we knew that she worried. The search and rescue has been called in more than once, but I’d rather have them show up unneeded than late for an emergency.
  4. Prepare to get and stay wet – Dress for the water temperature not the weather or air temperature. This one will get pounded into you, but it’s hard to put a wetsuit on when it’s 80 and sunny out. But if you’ve ever kayaked Monterrey Bay, you’ll know that water is cold.
  5. Paddle with other people – Never paddle alone, especially if you’re a beginner. There are too many things that can leave you in need of a helping hand, rescue, or a tow to shore. Bring a paddle partner, boat buddy, or whatever you want to call them, but don’t kayak by yourself.

I’d say that’s the top 5 things to prepare for on any kayak trip. Here are more that I’d consider equally important, after you have those top 5 handled.

Other Kayak Safety Precautions

Wear your life vest. I’m gonna say it again, a kayak safety vest that’s floating away from you is worthless. Just wear your life vest when you are kayaking. Someday, it might save your life.

Know the air and water temperature. It’s easy to read an air temp and water temp report before you go on your trip. But your car’s dash temp gauge and a little thermometer you can submerge in the actual water will give you a better idea of the actual temps once you get there.

Check the Wind. The wind can make paddling your kayak easy or super hard, depending on the direction it’s blowing. Make sure you know which way it’s blowing when you leave and which way it’s supposed to blow when you’re going to be paddling back.

Check the Tide. Once you start kayaking in the ocean, the tide is going to play a major role in when and which direction you paddle on your trips. The tide can make paddling almost impossible. If you have to paddle against it, you’ll feel like you’re paddling as hard as you can and going nowhere. Schedule trips to return at slack or incoming tide so you are paddling with the current instead of against it.

Stay in Sight of Shore. Until you’re advanced and want to venture far from shore to tour, fish, or adventure, paddle within easy visible distance of the shoreline. This will do a few things: the shoreline is a big confidence builder, the shore is where safety is should you need it, signaling for help is always easier when you are near the shore.

Wear a Helmet. In many kayaking conditions, a helmet is super appropriate. Rivers, the ocean, and even choppy days on the lake can all be a good time for a kayaking helmet. I know that many of us won’t wear a helmet for most of the days we go paddling. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea.

Don’t’ Drink. It might be fun to enjoy a cold one or two at the end of a long day of paddling. But don’t drink and then kayak. Not does drinking impair your ability to paddle, it also makes you more prone to hypothermia. If that’s not enough, you can get a DUI on a kayak!

Learn to swim. I get that there are many people who never got the opportunity to learn how to swim, but if you’re going to kayak for any longer than that “one time” when you and all your friends did it just to say you did, you should learn to swim. It may not only save you, but you could save someone else’s life some day.

Learn Basic First Aid. Speaking of saving lives, one of the best kayak safety skills you could have is to learn and know basic first aid. There are a host of small issues that can turn into big issues without proper first aid care. And if you’re paddling in remote areas, first aid and eventually life-saving skills are a must.

Know the Wildlife.

Bring essential kayak safety equipment. We’re going to go into this in more depth in the next section, but there’s some essential kayaking safety equipment that many of us still overlook on our kayaking trips.

Kayak Safety Equipment

What is in a Kayak Safety Kit?

  • Life Vest/PFD
  • Bilge Pump
  • Kayak Whistle
  • Knife
  • Kayak Safety Flag
  • First Aid Kit
  • Navigation devices
  • Cell Phone
  • Two-way radio
  • Flares
  • GPS and/or map and compass
  • Flashlight/Headlamp
  • Kayak Safety Light
  • Tow Bag
  • Anchor
  • Dry Bags
  • Float or Bladder Bags
  • Extra Paddle
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Kayak Sandals/Water Shoes
  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Dry Clothes
  • Towel
  • Helmet
  • Spray Skirt
  • Extra Paddle
  • Duct Tape
  • If Found Sticker on Your Kayak

Read local and state paddling laws, because some states and some areas like Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) have specific requirements for what safety equipment you have to have on your kayak.

Florida for instance.

What safety equipment is required on a kayak in Florida? At minimum, Class A vessels (recreational boats less than 16′ long) must have one Coast Guard-approved Type I, II, or III Personal Flotation Device (PFD) for each person on board. On the high seas and coastal waters, kayaks also must carry Visual Distress Signals such as flares.

50 State Kayak Rules and Regulations Articles

We wrote articles summarizing the major kayaking rules and regulations of all fifty states. Things like life vest requirements, kayak registration, and safety gear requirements. It’s a good resource to get the broad information about paddling rules in your state. (Always make sure you check your state’s government Department of Natural resources as well to find all the latest information.)

Well, we’ve talked about kayak planning and preparation safety, and touched on some of the kayak safety equipment you should carry. But what about your kayak? What’s the safest kayak? And what the safest kayak color, for that matter?

Safest Kayaks

Before we call out the safest kayak, realize that any kayak is only as safe or as risky as the person or people paddling it and the decisions they make while doing that. A safety mindset in kayaking is more important than the safest kayak. Because you can safely paddle the least expensive inflatable kayak, with leaks and terrible paddles if you stay mere feet from the shore of a calm lake in summer.

But flip that around. Try paddling the best built, most expensive, maximum performance sea kayak in an El Nino winter storm while out of site of the shoreline. It’s not going to end well.

What Type of Kayak is Safest?

A sit-on-top kayak is the safest type of kayak you can paddle. In most conditions, sit-on-top kayaks are very stable and they won’t fill with water or sink if they flip over. If you do flip over, a sit-on kayak won’t trap you underneath it. Also, sit-on kayaks are great kayaks for beginners.

Are Inflatable Kayaks Safe?

Modern inflatable kayaks are built to be very safe using durable materials and well-engineered designs. Inflatable kayaks are great for most kayaking conditions and waters, including lakes, rivers and ocean inlets. Their materials resist UV rays, punctures, and sinking.

Are Tandem Kayaks Safe?

Tandem kayaks themselves are very safe, especially sit-on-top ones. However, there are a few added safety precautions you need to take to ensure your tandem kayaking experience remains safe. Learn to get in and out of the kayak together, coordinate paddle strokes, and prevent tipping or flipping by constantly communicating.

Are Fishing Kayaks Safe?

Most sit-on-top fishing kayaks are safe, wide, and stable platforms for all kinds of fishing conditions. However, kayak fishermen need to take some extra precautions to remain safe.

No sudden movements when standing up in the kayak, doublecheck your kayak and equipment before heading out into the ocean to fish, and don’t drag bait or caught fish behind your kayak to avoid attracting sharks.

Which is Safer Kayak or Canoe?

A canoe is not necessarily safer than a kayak. However, by design, canoes are more stable than kayaks. But kayaks are more maneuverable and are more easily paddled by one paddler. Canoes can carry more weight and gear than kayaks, but they can’t handle rough water conditions like a kayak can.

I’ve paddled many canoes and kayaks over the years and if you backed me into a corner, I’d say my canoes make me feel a wee bit safer than the much smaller and less roomy kayaks.

Best Kayak Color for Safety

I wrote an entire article on the best kayak colors. Summarizing that article, visibility is the number one kayak safety feature that you want to have. It’s above cool, camo or any other color style of kayak you can think of. By far visibility could save your life in any rescue operation should you need rescue.

And the most visible and therefore the “best” kayak color for safety is fluorescent green. Next is orange then yellow then robin’s egg blue and on down from there.

Tipping and Flipping

Do Kayaks flip over or tip easily? Most recreational and ocean kayaks don’t tip over or flip very easily—they are remarkably stable. That’s not to say that they can’t tip over, but you’d have to be in rough water, fooling around taking too much risk or be struck by another vessel or marine mammal to tip a kayak all the way over.

Kayak Stability is one of the most important factors when you’re buying your first kayak. Shop for stability and safety first. Then, once you’ve mastered some advanced paddling techniques you can trade up for a performance kayak.

Can you get stuck in a kayak if it flips? You can get stuck in a sit-inside kayak if it tips over. A sit-in kayak has an open cockpit hole that you sit inside. Depending on how tight that hole is around your waist, you could get trapped inside your kayak if it flipped over and you were unable to get your legs free from the cockpit.

This is why I recommend sit-on-top kayaks for all beginning kayakers. Because until you learn to remain clam and Eskimo roll if you flip over, a sit inside kayak isn’t as safe as a sit-on-top kayak.

Another safety feature of sit-on-top kayaks are the self-draining scupper holes built into the bottom of the hull. These holes allow water to drain from the cockpit area. There’s more to it, including when you would want to use kayak plugs to block the scupper holes. So we wrote an in-depth article on kayak scuppers.

Is Kayaking Safe for Non-Swimmers?

It’s not that kayaking is unsafe for non-swimmers, but compared to a beginning kayaker who knows how to swim, non-swimming kayakers will face more challenges, potentially harbor more fear, and must take extra precautions each time they go out kayaking.

As a non-swimming kayaker, you simply must wear an appropriate and proper-fitting kayak life vest at all times.

If you can’t swim and you find yourself in the water, how are you going to get to that PFD strapped under a bungee cord on the bow of your kayak?

If you’re a non-swimmer, you should take a kayaking lesson for your fist time. If you find out you like kayaking and want to get into the sport further, take some swim lessons first. You won’t regret it. Knowing how to swim will not only improve your kayak safety skills, but it will increase your enjoyment of the sport.

Is Kayaking Safe For Beginners?

By following the basic safety precautions outlined in this article, kayaking can be very safe for beginners.

Bluntly, if kayaking weren’t safe for beginners, it probably wouldn’t be as globally popular as it is. That being said, beginners need to take kayak safety very seriously. Because kayaking can be as safe or as dangerous as your experience and willingness to follow safety precautions make it.

And just like non-swimmers, beginning kayakers should consider taking a lesson for their first kayaking outing.

Ocean and Sea Kayaking Safety

You could write a book on kayaking in the ocean safely. And you’d have to cover a host of topics like the tides, waves, wind conditions, nasty marine life like sharks, hypothermia, and how to avoid needing to be rescued to name a few.

Simply put, kayaking in the ocean is … different. The sea requires more respect, more attention to detail, and more focus on bringing proper gear and wearing proper clothing. In short, you need to be a pretty good beginning kayaker before you head into the ocean to paddle.

I’m not saying you can’t go in the ocean right away. I’m just saying it’s a lot less safe than the shallow shores of a lake. For sure if you’re going ocean kayaking as a beginner, go in a group with an instructor or guide who’s familiar with the area you’re going to paddle. And pay attention to things like the tide, wind and marine life.

For your first time, it’s probably best to rent a sit-on-top ocean kayak.

For my family’s first ocean kayaking trip, even though we owned kayaks already, we rented sit-on Ocean Brand kayaks that were appropriate for the waters and our individual skill levels.

I took my family on a wonderful paddle of Monterrey Bay along the cannery row buildings and it was one of the most memorable kayaking trips we’ve been on. But, we happened to have a family friend who was a kayaking instructor at that very spot along to guide us and tour us through the waters unharmed and very safe.

Not only was our kayaking trip safer, but it was more enjoyable to be shown things we would’ve missed had our friend/guide not been there to point out marine life and other landmarks to us.

Safe Wind Speed For Kayaking

A safe wind speed for kayaking is a wind under 10 knots. But when you’re dealing with wind, it also depends on the direction of the wind. A 10 knot wind in your face when you’re paddling back from a long day trip will be a rough and tough paddle.

Before we met, my wife went on a kayaking trip with a friend of hers. The paddle out to an small island just off the coast was pretty simple, but the paddle back against wind and tide wiped them both out. She related the story to me with the footnote that she wasn’t sure until they got to shore that they were going to make it back in. And I remember thinking, Lucky

Kayak Safety Wrap Up

Kayaking is one of the most enjoyable and beneficial sports you’ll love trying and improving your skills participating in. Just remember that there are several kayak safety rules you’ll need to understand before you go. Take it easy when you first start out and only get bolder as your skills improve and not before.

Learn the basics, practice, practice, practice, and don’t skip on even the smallest kayaking safety measures. Because the outdoors, and especially rivers and oceans require more attention to detail and continual kayak safety than you might think.

Just remember the 4P’s. Plan, prepare, and paddle with people.

We’ve covered a lot of kayaking safety topics. When, where, how, and with whom to safely kayak. But one thing I left out was how to safely transport a kayak. I think that’s probably better covered in this article.

What are the three golden rules of kayaking?


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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