Is Kayaking Dangerous?
It is noticed that people, especially beginners, tend to have many safety-related misconceptions about kayaking. Some don’t give potential risks a second thought. And on the flip side, some will freak out about things that aren’t even real, actual threats. Kayaking carries some inherent risks which can be minimized to a certain extent by proper planning and following guidelines. This article is not meant to scare you, but rather to encourage you to think things through, plan your routes, follow the safety rules, and make informed decisions when out on the water.
Risks Associated With Kayaking
It’s one of the most obvious dangers of kayaking, even more so if you’re paddling in deep waters alone and unprepared, or you’re not a good swimmer. Knowing how to swim can be an advantage, but it’s far from an essential requirement. As long as you don’t have a fear of water, that is. Strong swimmers aren’t immune to drowning, anyway. Drowning prevention begins with a correctly-fitted life vest, capsize drills and self-rescue training, and knowing how to cope with fear and regain control in a potentially life-threatening scenario.
Hypothermia & Cold Water Shock
Cold water never seems that bad from the comforts of your kayak, but that’s the thing - it preys on the careless and the unsuspecting. Sudden immersion in dangerously cold waters - a water temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below can quickly render you incapable of moving or controlling your breathing. The first minute of exposure when cold water shock kicks in - is the worst, setting the stage for hypothermia. Cold shock feels like something’s ripping the air from your chest, paralyzing your muscles, and inducing vertigo and disorientation.
As core body temperature continues to drop, loss of swimming ability, confusion, exhaustion, and unconsciousness set in and can lead to a fatal outcome. Wear appropriate clothing, a wetsuit or a dry suit coupled with a PFD, pack a change of clothes, and paddle in a group; better safe than sorry.
Getting Lost (Especially At Sea)
Open waters, although mesmerizing, can be a dangerous place for a kayaker. There are no landmarks, it’s hard to maintain a sense of direction, and you often don’t realize how far you’ve paddled. You’d be surprised how fast you can move and how much distance you can cover in a touring kayak - and barely notice it.
You’re lost at sea and don’t have the slightest clue how to go back. It’s an easily preventable kayak danger, though: When sea kayaking, paddle in a group whenever you’re hitting the open ocean. If you’re set on paddling solo, stay in sight of the shore, keep track of time and distance, and use GPS or kayak compass for navigation.
Weirs & Low-Head Dams
The paddling community refers to low-head dams as very dangerous. It is one of those dangers of kayaking that could easily cost you your life. These man-made contraptions were built to help control river levels. They’re often unmarked, hard to spot in time, filled with debris, and impossible to escape due to the destructive hydraulic forces that keep dragging you underwater. Worse yet, the boil’s washing-machine-like turbulence often renders PFDs useless.
Over Stepping Your Ability
Recognizing you bit off more than you can chew a little too late is another notable kayak danger. Overstepping your abilities in a fit of overconfidence and choosing a paddling environment that’s beyond your skill level can be dangerous. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned kayaker, remember: The route you’ve chosen to paddle should always match your skill level. Talk with local paddlers, do your research, check out our interactive map of local kayaking locations, identify potential hazards, check water and air temperature, winds, currents, and tides; anything can help you assess the situation. Don’t mistake luck for expertise. Be realistic about what you can and cannot accomplish as a kayaker. If you’re a beginner paddler, keep to slow moving and calm waters for your first time, such as lake kayaking. Leave the class V rapids for another day.
Adverse Weather Conditions & Sun Exposure
Kayaks give you a beautiful, up close and personal view of the environment but don’t provide much protection from the weather. Kayaks and storms - thunder, lightning, high winds, and heavy rain are a horrible combo. Poor visibility, sudden temperature drops, the chance of getting struck by lightning, winds that toss your kayak around - things can get bad fast.
Double check the weather forecast, keep an eye on the sky, and take action as soon as the weather starts to change. Too much sun can be every bit as dangerous, putting you at risk of heatstroke, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. Drink water, lots of it. Wear a sun hat and light-colored clothes, and lather yourself in sunscreen.
Most, if not all of the dangers of kayaking are somehow related to capsizing. Pretty much any potentially deadly kayaking situations will involve flipping the kayak over and, worst-case scenario, getting trapped under it. It’s not uncommon to go from a relaxing paddle to fighting for your life in seconds. My number one safety advice besides wearing your PFD and learning how to perform a self rescue is to stay calm. Panicking makes things worse, causing you to forget everything you know about - well, anything. You’re on the water, left at the mercy of waves, rip currents, changing tides, and the elements, putting all your trust in that plastic kayak of yours.
Again, kayaking carries some inherent risks which can be minimized to a certain extent by proper planning and following guidelines. Think things through, plan your routes, follow the safety rules, and make informed decisions when out on the water. Go out on there and have fun!