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Is It Easy To Drown in a Kayak? Tips and Tricks

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Is It Easy To Drown in a Kayak? Tips and Tricks

Drowning is a real risk when it comes to any kind of watersport. Fortunately, kayaking is extremely safe, but let’s spend some time today addressing this question: is it easy to drown in a kayak?

Please keep in mind that the chances of drowning while kayaking are greater than zero percent. Today, however, we’re going to give you some enlightening statistics to help you realize just how safe kayaking really is.

Plus, we’ll offer some tips and tricks that all kayakers should follow to set themselves up for success on the water. These hints will include stuff about when to go and when to stay home, what kind of rescue gear you should have, and much more.

So let’s hop in (no headfirst diving in this case)!

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Is It Easy to Drown in a Kayak?

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To answer this question definitively, no. That said, smart kayakers know that going out unprepared in certain kinds of weather has a much greater risk than paddling on a hot day with little to no wind.

Statistically speaking, there were 131 unfortunate kayakers that drowned in 2020. That number comes from the United States Coast Guard’s report on 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics.

Of all 534 drowning victims that were categorized in the Coast Guard’s report, only 74 of them were reported to have been wearing a life jacket at the time. Of the known contributing factors to recreational boating accidents, ‘operator inattention’ and ‘operator inexperience’ were the two leading factors.

What this says to us is that unprepared, inattentive, and unskilled kayakers are at the highest risk of drowning while kayaking. Fortunately, there are many ways to kayak safely if you’re new to this sport!

Now, if you want to get technical about the question itself, the odds of drowning while you are still in a kayak may be even lower. Most drowning victims get separated from their kayaks and the flotation they provide.

What’s The Best Way to Prevent Drowning in a Kayak?

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As you can see from the statistics provided above, the vast majority of kayaking deaths can be directly linked to the failure of the kayaker to wear a properly fitted personal flotation device (PFD).

In fact, the executive summary of the report states that 86 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket at the time of your accident. This includes stats from all recreational boating accidents, but it’s still pretty telling.

The important thing to note here is that simply having a PFD somewhere on our kayak isn’t enough to protect you from drowning. You also need to wear it correctly.

It should be tight enough so that it won’t slip off your body and over your head if you go for an unexpected swim. PFDs not only look way cooler these days, but they can even be super helpful for the type of kayaking you like to do (see kayak fishing PFDs).

Nevertheless, anything that saves lives is pretty dang cool in our book, and we don’t think that’s even debatable!

Are Certain Types of Kayaking More Dangerous Than Others?

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The short answer to this question is yes. For many, whitewater kayaking seems to be the most dangerous and, truly, it does offer considerable risk due to its fast-moving nature and the presence of obstacles around many river bends.

That being said, ocean kayaking can be similarly dangerous for a variety of different reasons. Ocean currents and tides can prevent novices from easily returning to their starting points if they don’t plan ahead.

Plus, many intercoastal waterways are laden with motorized boat traffic that doesn’t always practice safe boating techniques. One of the biggest risks for kayakers in these settings is being struck by a powerboat driver that isn’t paying close enough attention.

Generally speaking, taking a recreational kayak out on a calm lake or slow-moving river is going to be the safest method of kayaking. However, all forms of kayaking can be safe if you have the right skills, techniques, and preparation.

How To Know When It’s Too Dangerous To Go Out

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A huge part of reducing your risk of drowning when kayaking is knowing when it’s unsafe to go out. Sometimes, you’ll just have to live with the wasted time when you get to the boat ramp only to realize that conditions have taken a turn for the worse.

The problem with this is that there’s no universal metric that constitutes ‘unsafe paddling conditions’. Because there are many different kinds of places you can kayak, they are all impacted differently by weather.

So let’s look briefly at the main types of waterways you might paddle on and what kinds of environmental factors might make for unsafe conditions.

Lakes and Ponds

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The main environmental factors to be concerned about in this kayaking environment are wind, precipitation, and temperature. Winds that pick up during your paddle can eliminate your ability to get back to your starting point, for example.

Larger lakes tend to be more affected by wind because there is more ability for water to be pushed across the lake’s surface, which can result in large waves when that water reaches a shallow area on the wind-affected shoreline.

The U.S. Coast Guard will issue a small craft advisory on Lake Tahoe, for example, when the average wind speed exceeds 12-15 miles per hour. However, that kind of wind can have less impact on smaller lakes and ponds.

When it comes to precipitation, check the forecast for the chance of impending rain. While that may not deter you on a warm summer day, it should definitely give you pause if the air temperatures are below about 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Speaking of temperatures, you’ll need to consider both air and water temperatures when assessing the safety of paddling conditions. As a rule of thumb, the risk of a cold-related illness like hypothermia increases considerably when the combined air and water temperatures drop below 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

To give an example, paddling on a lake with 60-degree water on a 45-degree day is significantly riskier than paddling on the same lake on a 60-degree day.

Rivers

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The main dangers when kayaking on rivers are obstacles and flow rate. Obstacles are always present and they can change year over year as the rushing water heading downstream moves them around.

Also, depending on the amount of water in the river, obstacles can emerge at low river levels or become more dangerous when the river is flowing. That’s why one of the main metrics that whitewater kayakers pay attention to is called flow rate.

Flow rate is usually measured in cubic feet per second (CFS). For a visual example, a cubic foot is about the same size as a regulation men’s basketball, so you can imagine 1,000 basketballs per second streaming down a river if the flow rate is advertised as a thousand CFS.

The number alone doesn’t tell the whole story, however. A flow rate of 1,000 CFS will look a lot different on a narrow, five-foot creek than it will look on a wide river that is more than 50 feet across at most places.

This means that you’ll need to look at this metric and know how it translates to the specific river you’re trying to paddle. A river can become too dangerous when the flow rate is either too high or too low.

Also, be sure to check local forecasts to be aware of flash flood warnings before you launch on any river. Local guide companies are also great resources to help you translate what 1,000 CFS will really look like on certain rapids once you’re on the river.

Coastal Bays and Inland Waterways

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Coastal bays and inland waterways can both be impacted greatly by tides. Sometimes, the place you launched can become inaccessible when you try to return four or five hours later.

Thankfully, there are plenty of tide charts out there to help you prepare and paddle at the ideal tide for your area. We encourage you to check out our full article explaining tides and how they’ll impact your paddle plans.

While these kinds of waterways tend to be less impacted by currents than the open ocean, they should still factor into your paddle preparation. Currents can make it feel like you’re sailing along when you first start paddling until you discover that you have to fight against them to make your return journey.

A more critical factor when paddling in these locations, however, is boat traffic. Motorized vessels are very common on coastal bays and inland waterways and conditions can impact how well they can see your kayak to navigate around you.

To that end, it makes sense to employ a kayak light to increase your visibility when paddling here. While this kayaking accessory can be useful in a number of scenarios, this is one place that we’d always recommend having some sort of light or headlamp on board.

Also, many coastal bays and inland waterways include shipping channels. For instance, if you’re kayaking in Galveston, you’ll want to avoid the main channel where tanker ships are constantly coming and going throughout the day.

A good rule of thumb when paddling in these locations is to stick to the shoreline and keep a watchful eye out for boaters that don’t seem to recognize your presence on the water. Waving your paddle high in the air can be a great way to signal your presence to other boaters that you suspect may not see you.

The Open Ocean

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The open ocean is right up there with class V whitewater in terms of offering what can be the most dangerous conditions for paddlers. You’ll have to contend with waves, tides, currents, wind, boats, and weather.

The good news about paddling on the open ocean is that a nearby Coast Guard station will usually be able to give you the most up-to-date information on all of these environmental factors.

However, ocean kayaking requires more experienced and technical rescue skills than almost any other type of kayaking (maybe excluding whitewater kayaking). So you’ll need to be familiar with how to get yourself back into your kayak if any of these factors cause you to capsize.

Also, navigation can be trickier on the open ocean than on smaller lakes, rivers, and even coastal waterways. You should strongly consider attaching a kayak GPS unit to your vessel to help you keep track of your heading and know how to return to your preferred landing point.

Tips & Tricks for Kayak Safety

Use The Buddy System

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Perhaps the best thing you can do to increase your safety while kayaking is to always paddle with a partner. While there are ways to kayak alone safely, it’s just good to know that you have a second brain (plus hands and feet) to help you get out of a jam.

If you already have a kayaking friend that you go out with regularly, it is helpful to discuss your ideas of what to do in case of an emergency. You don’t have to cover every scenario, but talking through some basics can help you better understand how each other may operate if a situation does arise.

It is also good to know what each other’s level of training is when it comes to both kayaking skills and wilderness first aid. We’ll talk a little more about this later, but knowing what your partner brings to the table is always a good thing if you guys paddle together a lot.

Take Kayaking Courses

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The next best thing to do to avoid a potentially disastrous kayaking accident is to refine your skills and kayaking techniques. There are a wide variety of courses available for everyone from complete beginners to experts just looking for a few specific pointers.

Perhaps the most pertinent courses to our topic today would be those related to kayak rescue techniques. While self-rescue is always the best way to go because it doesn’t rely on anyone else, there are a number of techniques that you can use to help others get back into their kayak.

Learning techniques like the HI-Rescue and the X-Rescue can also come in handy if you are the one that has gone for an unexpected swim. If you’re struggling to self-rescue, you may be able to talk a helpful bystander through one of these techniques to help you get back into your kayak.

The American Canoe Association (ACA) is a great resource to help you find kayaking courses nationwide. You might also check with your local recreation department to see if they offer any courses during the summer months.

Plan Ahead and Prepare

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The next step to avoid a kayak accident is to plan for the unexpected and prepare for the worst. That doesn’t stop you from staying in a positive mindset and expecting the best, but it will help you have the right gear and equipment on board if things don’t go as planned.

This step will look different for different kayak outings, of course. Planning ahead and preparing for a two-hour paddle on an 80-degree day will obviously look much different than the preparation for a five-day circumnavigation of Lake Tahoe late in the fall.

Still, you should check the weather early and often (including all the relevant factors we mentioned above), pack appropriately, ensure your kayak is in good condition, consider your fitness level, and much more.

Use our printable kayaking checklist to help you stay organized when it comes to compiling and packing gear for your kayak adventure.

Become a Certified Lifeguard

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If you really want to feel more comfortable around any body of water, you might consider taking a lifeguard training course from the American Red Cross. These courses will teach you valuable life-saving skills, but they will also give you helpful techniques for drowning prevention.

At the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about. The more you can do to reduce the risk of drowning when you’re kayaking, the safer and more confident you’ll feel throughout all of your paddle adventures.

Final Thoughts

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In conclusion, it doesn’t take that much in the way of time or energy to prepare yourself for safe kayaking. If you have the right safety equipment and you aren’t paddling in conditions that require more skill and experience you possess, kayaking is very safe.

So we hope you heed the warnings in this article while also remembering that there are a lot of resources at your disposal when you’re learning how to kayak. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us!

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Is It Easy To Drown in a Kayak Tips and Tricks

Author: Peter SalisburyPete is the Owner of KayakHelp.com. 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 KayakHelp.com. 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.