How To Kayak Without Knowing How To Swim

How To Kayak Without Knowing How To Swim

One of the best things about kayaking is that it’s one of only a few sports that can really be enjoyed by almost anyone. And while it might be a little scary at first, even non-swimmers can learn how to kayak without knowing how to swim.

The good news about kayaking if you’re not comfortable in the water is that your vessel is designed to keep you from swimming unless you absolutely want to.

That being said, there are several personal choices you can make that will make kayaking safer for you if you don’t know how to swim.

We’re going to use this guide to cover some of those choices and also offer general kayaking safety tips for anyone that isn’t super confident in their swimming skills.

As you read through this guide, keep in mind that some of these tips will be useful for all types of kayakers.

So, even if you know how to swim sufficiently, you might learn a thing or two about improving the safety of your kayaking approach for yourself, and for your fellow paddlers. Ok, let’s get started!

How To Kayak Without Knowing How To Swim

At first glance, not knowing how to swim may seem like it would exclude you from most water activities.

But kayaking is a little different and we’re going to provide some general guidelines that all non-swimmers should follow when embarking on a kayaking adventure.

Choose A Proper-Fitting Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Wearing a proper-fitting PFD is an essential safety tip no matter how much experience you have as a kayaker. It’s definitely a must-have kayaking accessory if you’re going to paddle without knowing how to swim.

The best kayak life vests will keep you afloat if you do happen to go for an unexpected swim.

That’s why even kayakers that know how to swim like to make their lives easier by wearing a PFD that allows you to minimize the effort exerted to stay afloat and, instead, focus on getting back into your kayak.

When you’re looking into kayaking PFDs, you’ll probably notice that there are actually five different classes of life vests out there. Generally speaking, you should look for a PFD of the Class III or Class V variety for kayaking.

But you’ll also need to look into the buoyancy provided by a given life vest in order to make sure that it will support your body weight in the water. This requires a bit of a mathematical calculation, but the good news is that it’s not a very complicated one.

Because about 80% of the average human body is water and another 15% is fat (on average guys!), your PFD will need to support the remaining 5% of your weight that’s actually heavier than the weight of water.

For example, let’s say your total body weight is 200 pounds, which means your body consists of 160 pounds of water (200 x 0.8 = 160) and 30 pounds of fat (200 x 0.15 = 30). That leaves ten pounds of bone and muscle that your kayaking PFD will need to support.

Most Class III life vests are rated for a minimum buoyancy of 15.5 pounds and most Class V PFDs are rated for a minimum buoyancy between 15.5 and 22 pounds for an adult. So this should be plenty adequate for a 200-pound person.

Wear Your PFD Properly

Let’s be clear about one thing: simply buying a PFD that’s the right size and buoyancy rating is going to do you no good if you don’t know how to wear it properly.

Once you know how to fit up a PFD correctly, you’re probably going to notice how many of your fellow paddlers out there are doing it wrong.

PFDs come in a lot of varieties with zippers, buckles, and a combination of the two. But the starting point for putting on any kayaking PFD properly is to put both of your arms through armholes and your head through the head hole.

From there, you should zip up any and all zippers and buckle any straps before you go any further. Once everything is zipped and buckled, you’ll need to pull tight on the straps that are on the side of your body until your PFD is snug on your chest.

As you’ll see from the photo above (which illustrates improper PFD fitting), the easy test for whether your PFD is snug enough is to lift up on the shoulder straps.

If your PFD is tight enough, you shouldn’t be able to pull those shoulder straps up any higher than the tops of your ears.

Depending on the design of your PFD, you may also find it useful to have a partner check the tightness of your PFD for you. But if you’re more of a visual learner, check out this short video detailing proper PFD fitting!

Take A Kayak Lesson (Or Go On A Guided Tour)

There’s no substitute for learning new kayaking skills from an experienced professional.

And even if you know the basic paddle strokes to get your kayak from point A to point B, having an instructor or guide by your side is a great way to conquer your fear of falling into the water.

For folks that can’t swim, we’ve found that the fear of drowning is often more debilitating than the actual act of getting back into a kayak.

That’s why having someone who can remain calm and walk you through the process is so important for kayakers who can’t swim.

Guided tours can also be great for kayakers who can’t swim because kayak guides will often be able to give you a few tips and tricks to help you remain in your kayak throughout the day.

Talking to other people on your tour can also be a great way to forget about your fear of falling in the water.

Choose Your Location Wisely

If you don’t know how to swim, choosing your kayaking location is also a really important part of designing a safe experience for yourself. If you’re looking for a little location inspiration, be sure to check out some of the best kayaking destinations for beginners in the United States!

But those are certainly not the only great kayaking destinations for folks that don’t know how to swim. The honest truth is that there are probably a few awesome spots right in your backyard, so long as you know how to choose them wisely.

For starters, choosing a proper kayaking location if you don’t know how to swim is all about minimizing the risk of capsizing. This translates to choosing calm, flat lakes or slow-moving rivers that don’t have a lot of wind, waves, or rapids for you to navigate.

Wind can be one of the harder criteria to account for because it can change so much throughout the course of the day.

This is why many kayak guides trust apps like Ventusky to help them predict wind speed and direction and plan their kayaking routes accordingly.

But if you don’t know how to swim, your key here is to reduce the number of natural factors that could cause you to go for an unexpected swim.

That’s why lakes, ponds, and wide, slow-moving rivers are going to be better locations for you than coastal waterways, open ocean, and whitewater rapids.

Paddle With A Partner

The buddy system is one of those age-old safety techniques that many of us have learned from a very young age.

But, for some reason, we tend to forget the value of having an adventure partner when we get a little older and, perhaps, more experienced in our preferred methods of outdoor recreation.

That said, kayaking alone if you don’t know how to swim is not recommended for obvious reasons. If you do find yourself in a troubling scenario, there’s tremendous value in having another paddler with you to help you work through it.

This can look like another paddler that you share a tandem kayak with or someone who has their own kayak and is willing to paddle alongside you (as shown above).

Just make sure you’re comfortable and can trust your paddle partner in a pinch before you head out on the water with just anyone!

Consider The Benefits Of A Leash

You’ve probably seen these leashes more commonly used for surfing or paddleboarding. Indeed, the photo above depicts a surfer because not that many kayakers utilize leashes to keep their craft attached to their bodies.

The extent to which leashes are used for kayaking is usually limited to paddle leashes, which are designed to keep your paddle attached to your kayak. This type of leash is mainly deployed as an accessory for the best river fishing kayaks.

But there’s no reason you can’t utilize a standard surf leash to secure yourself to your kayak. The major benefit of doing this is that your kayak won’t float away from you quickly if you happen to capsize on a particularly windy day.

That being said, this safety technique is really only recommended for kayakers on flatwater where there is minimal risk of your kayak pulling you into an unsafe situation.

For whitewater kayakers or ocean kayakers, it will often be better to remain separate from your kayak if you capsize.

There are also several different leash designs that you can consider if you want to kayak safely without knowing how to swim.

While most leashes are designed to Velcro around your ankle or calf, there are also varieties that secure using a belt-style strap that wraps around your waist.

There are pros and cons to both of these leash types and, for starters, the danger of the ankle leash is the extra weight of a kayak when compared to a surfboard or paddleboard.

This can cause your kayak to pull uncomfortably on your ankle and it’s one of the reasons why belt-style leashes can feel more secure.

But, on the other hand, ankle leashes tend to be easier to remove quickly if you find that you need to separate from your kayak.

Waist-belt leashes are a bit harder to remove and may keep you attached to your kayak longer than you desire in an emergency situation.

Kayaking Safety Tips

In addition to the insights above, there are also some general kayaking safety tips that should be considered by swimmers and non-swimmers alike.

These tips will help you improve your safety on the water and enjoy more pleasure paddling experiences.

Practice Self-Rescue Techniques

Every kayaker (no matter the experience level) should take some time every year to brush up on his or her self-rescue skills. These skills are imperative for getting back into your kayak after a planned swim or an unexpected capsize.

Self-rescue techniques can differ slightly depending on the style of kayak you’re paddling and your body type. Techniques like the wet exit and how to get back into a kayak once it’s flipped over are essential skills that all kayakers should master before embarking on long kayaking adventures.

The best way to practice and master these skills is to find a shallow body of water or a community pool in your area that will allow you to practice.

Then you can get a few friends together to help each other and provide friendly feedback on technique and execution.

The good news is that there are probably several kayaking skills courses available in your area. And once again, if you’re more of a visual learner, be sure to check out this video on how to self-rescue in a kayak!

Choose Your Kayak Wisely

Choosing your kayak is also super important to minimizing the risk of you going for an unexpected swim once you’re several hundred yards away from the shore. This is true regardless of whether you know how to swim or not.

In general, a wider kayak is going to provide more stability for beginning paddlers and folks that want to kayak without knowing how to swim.

A wider kayak distributes weight over a larger surface area and makes the kayak less susceptible to rocking with waves and your own body movement.

That being said, choosing between a sit on top kayak and a sit-inside variety is also an important consideration for kayakers that don’t know how to swim.

Many sit inside kayaks will keep you drier while you’re sitting in the cockpit, but they can also be less stable and they are much harder to climb back into if you capsize.

Sit on top kayaks are incredibly beginner-friendly because they offer great stability and they also drain water out of the cockpit naturally using their scupper holes.

This design makes them easier to right and re-enter than most of their sit-inside counterparts.

Check The Weather (Early and Often)

Checking the weather early and often is an important safety tip for kayakers of all experience levels and swimming abilities.

Things can change on the water quite quickly and the risk of going for a swim when you don’t want to will only increase if you’re out on your kayak in bad weather.

We mentioned Ventusky earlier, but you can also utilize the regular weather application on your phone to check air temperature, the chance of precipitation, wind speed, and wind direction before you head out for a paddle.

While we always recommend checking these things the night before your paddle, it’s also a good idea to double-check again in the morning.

Things can change significantly overnight and having more weather information at your disposal is never a bad thing.

Plus, if you purchase a small dry bag or waterproof phone case, you’ll be able to bring your phone along with you safely.

This will allow you to continue to check the weather during your paddle so that you know when it might be time to turn around and cut your paddle short to avoid high winds, rain, or other inclement weather.

Final Thoughts

We hope you enjoyed these tips and tricks for learning how to kayak without knowing how to swim and we encourage you to add all of these techniques to your tool kit so that you can deploy them whenever you need them.

But if you take only one thing away from this guide for non-swimming kayakers, it should be the importance of getting a proper-fitting PFD and wearing it correctly. No other tip in this guide will improve your safety on the water more than this one.

In our opinion, far too many kayakers suffer the consequences of paddling without PFDs every year. Nowadays, the best kayaking PFDs also look cool and have useful pockets for you to keep snacks or tools readily accessible while you’re on the water.

So please, please, please don’t neglect the importance of wearing a PFD if you’re kayaking without knowing how to swim. Then, choose your location wisely and make sure you enjoy your time on the water as well!


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Peter Salisbury

Pete is the Owner of Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, he grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him skiing in the mountains, reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.

Welcome! I’m so glad you are here :-) I’m Pete. I am the owner of I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, I grew up kayaking, fishing, sailing, and partaking in outdoor adventures around the Great Lakes. When I am not out on the water, you can find me skiing in the mountains, reading my favorite books, and spending time with my family.