Kayaking For Non-Swimmers – Here’s How To Do It

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Kayaking is inherently a watersport, so we recognize the hesitance of non-swimmers when it comes to exploring it. Fortunately, kayaking is an appropriate outdoor activity for swimmers and non-swimmers alike.

To be clear, we do recommend that first-time kayakers that are also non-swimmers take a lesson before renting or buying their own kayak. There is a lot that can be learned from an instructor and it is always good for non-swimmers to learn in a safer environment.

If you take the proper precautions, however, there is no reason why you can’t kayak safely as a non-swimmer. This article will be dedicated to expounding on how exactly you can go about doing that.

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Can You Kayak As A Non-Swimmer?

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Yes! That’s the shortest answer we can give, but the truth is that you need to be safe when kayaking as a non-swimmer. Fortunately, that can be as simple as choosing a quality personal flotation device (PFD) and wearing it before you hop in a kayak.

The biggest risk to non-swimmers that want to kayak is drowning. We don’t mean to scare you by bringing up the elephant in the room, but we’re also guessing you are more worried about that than using the wrong side of the blades on your kayak paddle.

So let’s start by talking a little bit about PFDs and why they are so important to all kayakers (not just non-swimmers!).

Why Are PFDs So Important?

In general, kayaking is a very safe sport when you compare it to some of your options. In all honesty, simply getting to the beach to get into your kayak is more dangerous than kayaking itself.

That said, accidents do happen and a small number of kayakers do pass away while enjoying one of their favorite activities every year. The vast majority of annual kayaking deaths are the result of a failure to wear a kayaking life vest.

No matter how much kayak experience you have, there is simply no way to plan for every unexpected scenario that could occur while you are on the water. That’s why you see very experienced kayak guides still donning their PFDs on calm, flat water.

While it’s not necessarily illegal in all places to go kayaking without a life jacket, it does increase your risk. In fact, some states do require that all users of personal watercraft (which includes kayaks) wear a life vest at all times.

So, in a quick summary, PFDs are incredibly important for kayakers of all experience levels. In our opinion, though, they are an absolute necessity for kayaking as a non-swimmer.

Tips For Kayaking For Non-Swimmers

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If you are a non-swimmer, kayaking safely just requires you to be a bit more conscientious than you would need to be if you knew how to swim. So here are a few tips for kayaking as a non-swimmer!

Get A PFD and Wear It Correctly

While we probably got this point across in the previous section, we really can’t stress it enough. Not only should you get a properly fitting PFD that’s made for kayaking, but you will need to know how to wear it correctly.

If you don’t tighten your PFD down enough, it will simply slip right over your head and off of your torso if you go for an unexpected swim. So, let’s quickly give you a rule of thumb for putting your PFD on properly.

There are multiple different types of PFDs out there. Some secure with straps, others have buckles, some have zippers, and some have a combination of two or even three of these security systems.

Regardless of the exact style of PFD you are working with, you will need to start by putting your PFD over your shoulders. Most can be put on just like a jacket, but some slide over your head and down onto your torso more like a t-shirt.

Once you have your PFD on, go ahead and buckle all of the straps or zip all zippers. If a PFD has three buckles, there is no reason to only secure two of them because it was made that way for a very important reason.

After your buckles and zippers are together, pull all of the straps tight so that the PFD can barely move on your chest. To test it, take your thumbs and put them underneath the shoulder straps.

From there, try to lift up as high as you can to see if the whole vest will move upward. What you are doing here is attempting to mimic what will happen to the vest if you end up in the water.

If you are able to lift the shoulder straps of your PFD above your ears, it needs to be tightened. Snug down all of the straps a bit further and then test it again.

Be sure to check out our article on the best kayak life vests to learn about PFD types and how to choose the correct one for your body type!

Low Entry and Exit

For all kayakers, entering and exiting your kayak is one of the times where the risk of falling into the water is the highest. If you keep your center of gravity as low as possible when entering and exiting your kayak, however, it will reduce your risk.

Plus, it is always good for non-swimmers to enter a kayak in shallow water. By doing this, you won’t have to worry about having to swim or get used to your PFD supporting your entire weight in deep water right away.

Nose Over Belly Button

This is a great tip for all beginner kayakers, but it is especially useful for calming the nerves of non-swimmers. I call it the ‘nose over belly button’ rule and it is used by many kayak guides to teach newbies how to kayak.

When you are sitting in a kayak, your knees should be slightly bent and your feet should be pressed against the foot braces along the edges of the cockpit. This position will allow you to engage your core muscles and those muscles are the most important for keeping you stable in your kayak.

From there, you can think about slightly rotating your body as you are making your paddle strokes. The major mistake that I see a lot of new kayakers make is to lean too far to one side of their kayak or the other.

As you are attempting to increase the power of your paddle strokes, this leaning tendency is quite natural. In fact, getting the blade of your kayak paddle deeper into the water will allow you to generate more power.

The problem is that leaning over too far can bring your center of gravity far away from the center point of your kayak. As your center of gravity gets further away from the center point of your kayak, you are much more likely to capsize.

If you focus on keeping your nose over your belly button and, instead of leaning, rotating your torso, you will be able to remain more stable in your kayak and minimize your risk of going for a swim.

Everything Floats

Another important piece of advice that I like to give new kayakers or non-swimmers is that everything is designed to float if you capsize. That includes you (as long as your PFD is fit properly), your paddle, and your kayak.

If your gear and belongings are also packed inside the right size dry bag and secured to your kayak, you also don’t have to worry about losing any of your personal items. So you can relax and concentrate on calming yourself down and wrapping your mind around getting back in your kayak.

Leave Your Pup At Home

While plenty of dogs are trained enough to remain fairly still in a kayak, bringing your dog always puts your kayak at a higher risk of capsizing. It is simply a matter of increasing the number of variables you have to consider while paddling.

Over time, you may develop additional comfort about paddling with your pup. We would recommend, however, feeling very comfortable with your own self-rescue techniques before bringing a dog on a kayak.

This is especially true for non-swimmers because our natural tendency is often to put our pup’s health and safety before our own. Even the most well-trained pup, however, probably won’t be able to drag you back into your kayak and paddle you to shore.

So it is best to leave your pup at home until you have gained the skills and experience to kayak with a dog safely.

Resources For Non-Swimming Kayakers

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If you are a non-swimmer, it is a really good idea to tap into your local resources when you are learning how to kayak. If you aren’t sure what we mean by local resources, here are a few examples:

Local Guide Companies

Going kayaking with a guide is a great idea for all beginners, but it is a great way to feel safer if you are a non-swimmer. Guides will be able to help you in and out of your kayak safely and give you pointers while you are on the water.

Plus, in many cases, guides will know the weather on your local waterways better than almost anyone. So going for a kayaking adventure with your local guide company will help you learn to plan your future kayak trips around local weather.

Finally, any quality guide company will require their guides to have some level of rescue and first aid training. So that will make you feel more comfortable kayaking as a non-swimmer when you know you are with someone who has been prepared and educated to deal with worst-case scenarios.

Kayaking Classes

Another good resource for non-swimmers is kayak classes offered by local recreation departments, outdoor schools, or non-profits. Most of these classes are offered during the spring and summer months, but they may be available year-round to those that live in warmer areas.

Taking a class will give you a chance to learn new techniques and practice new techniques (i.e. nose over belly button, proper sitting position, etc). Plus, you will be able to get real-time feedback in a controlled, confined environment that is tailor-made for safety.

Kayaking Facebook Groups

We should acknowledge that there are also plenty of experienced kayakers out there that are non-swimmers. For them, the problem definitely isn’t learning how to kayak properly in a safe environment.

However, there can still be some trepidation to head out alone and this is true no matter how much experience you have with any sport or activity. It is even more true when you are exploring a new location or waterway that you are unfamiliar with.

If you are looking for other people to join you on your kayaking adventures, check into local Facebook groups dedicated to people getting together to go kayaking. This can be a great way to find people to kayak with and avoid going alone.

If you do choose this route, it is always a healthy practice to discuss your fears and the fact that you are a non-swimmer before you get on the water. While we know it might be embarrassing, it’s better for your fellow kayakers to know upfront than to find out once it’s too late.

Kayaking Friends

Some of you may not have to resort to hopping on Facebook to find other people that like to kayak in your area. If you have friends that are also interested in kayaking, hit them up to schedule one or two outings every month.

I’m a firm believer that recreation time is better when spent with friends, and this is a great way for non-swimmers to feel more comfortable on paddling adventures. You will have the comfort of knowing there’s someone else on the water with you if something doesn’t go according to plan.

Lastly, your comfort level with close friends often makes them the best people with whom to practice self-rescue techniques. So if you want to gain additional comfort with the idea of kayaking alone, ask your friends if they can accompany you on a paddle during which your intention is to intentionally swim so that you can practice self-rescuing.

Kayaking Accessories For Non-Swimmers

As with most forms of outdoor recreation, the right gear can make all the difference for non-swimming kayakers. Here are a few items we’d suggest adding to your arsenal:

1. PFD

PC Pete Nowicki via Unsplash

Yup, we couldn’t miss one final opportunity to mention this one. It’s impossible to overstate its importance and a fear of ‘not looking cool’ is definitely no reason not to wear a PFD while kayaking.

Fortunately, there are some pretty rad PFDs out there these days that will make you look cool and serve multiple purposes while you are on the water. Some feature bottle holders for beverages or flip-down zipper pockets for fishing tackle.

If you search ‘kayak PFD’, you should have no trouble finding a design that’s rated for your weight. That said, it is also good to understand the different types of personal flotation devices and what each is specifically made for.

2. Outriggers

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Stability is one of the primary concerns for non-swimmers who want to enjoy kayaking. Sitting inside the kayak and paddling around sounds awesome, but falling out probably doesn’t sound so fun.

Outriggers are an accessory that attaches to the gunwale of your kayak to provide extra stability. They extend out and away from your kayak and usually have some sort of foam or inflatable float on the end.

When your kayak tips from side to side, outriggers help to prevent it from rolling. By adding extra flotation at points outside of your kayak’s gunwales, you can increase its stability and increase your confidence level.

3. Paddle Leash

PC Amy Louise Herndon via Flickr

We mentioned earlier that everything floats and, as a non-swimmer, the only thing you should be worried about if you capsize is keeping calm and getting your body into a natural floating position.

That being said, you can take additional precautions by securing your paddle to your kayak with a leash. While your paddle will naturally float on its own, a leash will keep it from floating away from your kayak on a windy day.

The main benefit of this is that it just eliminates one more thing that you have to wrangle if you happen to capsize. Again, the point here is to minimize stress and allow you to concentrate on self-rescuing.

Final Thoughts

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At Kayak Help, we firmly believe that being a non-swimmer shouldn’t hold you back from experiencing the joys of kayaking. You just need to know the right techniques and resources to help you feel comfortable and stay safe on the water.

We hope that you’ve found some tips and helpful insights in today’s guide. As always, we wish you the best of luck on your upcoming kayak adventures and we’d love to hear about where you’ll be paddling next in the comments below!

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Author: Pete DanylewyczPete 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.

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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.

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