Your kayaking safety should be one of the first considerations when you head out to the water. There are a number of laws and safety suggestions to follow to help ensure that your kayak adventures remain safe and fun.
First, the United States Coast Guard laws for kayaking safety
- The Coast Guard requires you to have a PFD (Personal Flotation Device). Wearing a PFD is arguably the single most important measure to take to keep you safe on the water
- A sound signaling device is required. You need to have a whistle or a horn so you can safely signal to other vessels to let them know your whereabouts and intentions. It can also be useful to get help if necessary
- A white light is required on your boat if you are out in the hours from one hour before dusk to one hour after dawn or in weather with compromised visibility.
Now some other measures not necessarily required by law, but still very important for your kayaking safety
- Get instruction. The type and amount of instruction you will need will depend on your kayaking goals. But you should at least take a class on the basics. Proper paddling technique, getting in and out of your boat, and what to do if you take on water is the bare minimum of what you should learn. If your goals include paddling in open water, paddling a full-sized boat, etc., then you should get more involved instruction that addresses self-rescue, rolling, and more advanced paddle strokes and skills including; trip planning, navigating, reading weather, etc.
- Don’t go alone. When possible always paddle with a pal. There is safety in numbers and having someone assist you getting back in your boat is much easier than self-rescue. Make sure you both (or all) know how to perform both.
- File a float plan. Be sure that someone on land knows where you are going, whom you are going with, and how long you anticipate being out. Check in with that person when you are safely off of the water. They should have instructions to report your information to the authorities if you don’t make your check-in.
- Know your waterway. What obstacles will you need to contend with? Is it flat water? Is it open water? Is there a lot of boat traffic? Is it tidal? How exposed to the weather is it? Water is very complex and hardly ever still. It is important to understand how the waters you are going to paddle behave and how that will affect your kayaking.
- Dress for the water temps. Make sure that you dress appropriately should you end up going for a swim. We rarely plan to end up in the water (especially when it’s cold), but it does happen. Wear wicking fabrics so you will dry more quickly and make sure that you are dressed warmly enough that if you find yourself submerged for an extended period that you will avoid hypothermia. Warm air temps do not necessarily indicate warm water temps, so if you are paddling in the fall, winter, and spring, you might want to think about a dry suit. For more information on how dry suits protect you, check out this post.
- Bring a phone or depending on where you are heading, a VHF radio. Make sure it is in a waterproof bag if it is not waterproof itself. And make sure that it is secured to you and accessible. Note that phones and many radios do not float. Keep that in mind when you decide where and how to store yours. And if it is stowed safely in your boat, but you get separated from your boat, it does you no good.
- Be realistic about your limits. We are all for pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, but be realistic. If you have only ever paddled in the harbor, a 10-mile open water paddle might be a bit ambitious for your first foray into open water paddling. Like they say of climbing mountains, getting to the summit is only halfway there. Remember that you always need to be able to get back. Keep aware of changing conditions such as wind, tides, currents, etc. that could impede your ability to return safely. Not being aware of these things is a major cause of people getting into trouble.
- Consider hydration and nutrition needs for your anticipated outing. If you are going for a casual paddle in sight of your launch with your car, lounge chair, house, and supplies, clearly this isn’t a big deal. But if you are going on what you anticipate will be a 4-hour adventure, that’s different and requires different planning. And keep in mind that your planned 4-hour outing could end up affected by weather or tides and could end up longer than you anticipate.
- Don’t forget the sunscreen or to cover up. The sun reflecting off of the water is very powerful and can cause sunburns much more easily than you would imagine.
Follow these tips, and you will have a good handle on kayaking safety. Coming home in one piece is the most important thing. Taking these steps will help ensure you do.