The Ultimate Kayaking Safety Tips – How to Survive on the Water!

We all want to enjoy the days when we’re kayaking, and come home to tell the tale.

Unfortunately, year after year, accidents can and do happen – and fatalities are often the result.

And as cheap kayaks continue to flood the market, more and more inexperienced water users end up getting into difficulty.

We want you to enjoy yourselves – but we want you to enjoy yourselves safely.

That goes for you, and for others around you.

In this article, you’ll find the ultimate guide to kayaking safety tips, so neither you, nor your friends or members of your family ends up becoming a statistic.

Read on for this essential, potentially life-saving advice.

Kayaking Safety Rules – Too Long, Didn’t Read

I get it, you’re in a rush to be out on the water.

With that in mind, I’ve condensed this article into the bullet-points below, so you can do just that.

Here are the most basic precautions you can take to ensure your kayaking trip goes off without a hitch.

  • Plan your route.
  • Consider weather, water temperature, and conditions.
  • Understand and prepare for the dangers.
  • Be confident and honest with your ability level.
  • Dress appropriately.
  • Use the right kayak.
  • Pack relevant supplies and equipment.
  • Notify someone where you’re going.
  • Don’t kayak alone.
  • Avoid excessive alcohol/drug use.
  • Be visible.
  • Wear a personal flotation device (PFD).

Of course, there’s much more to each point than a simple line, so I would urge you to take the time to read the article in full.

It could save your life.

angler fishing from kayak in sunset on lake

Kayaking Safety Rules & Tips

Plan Your Route

First thing’s first, before just loading up the kayaks and hitting the water, you need to plan your route and know where you’re going.

Research local boating laws and restrictions, read reviews from other kayakers for that body of water, and know the kind of terrain and hazards you’re going to be in for.

Relying on an in-the-moment read of the water is all but guaranteed to end badly, so develop a plan, so you know what to expect along your course, and there are no unwelcome surprises.

And have a back-up plan and/or exit route – just in case you get into difficulty, or the situation changes in any way. Have a contingency in place.

Avoid areas of heavy motorboat traffic, sea lanes, and certainly anywhere you’re going to be a danger to shipping.

Kayaks getting struck by larger, more powerful vessels is unfortunately all too common, particularly when a detailed route plan hasn’t been adhered to.

Watch the video below for some excellent advice on how to paddle safely in areas with high water traffic.

Weather, Water Temperature, and Conditions

Having good conditions on the day is imperative to a safe and successful kayaking trip.

You should avoid going out in stormy weather at all costs – particularly if you’re kayak fishing.

And if the wind and waves pick up significantly when you’re out there, you should turn for home ASAP.

Make sure you check the forecast for the full length of the trip – that way you’re not going to be surprised if the clouds suddenly gather.

Don’t overlook sun damage, either, as UV rays and exposure can be a lethal combination if unprotected. Always wear sunscreen on exposed skin, and a decent fishing hat will protect your head, face, and neck.

Learn how high and how fast rivers are flowing – or if they’re too low to be impassible. You can get into difficulty in a heartbeat on water that’s even moderately peppy.

As around for information and tips – you can’t beat local knowledge when it comes to how safe waterways are for kayaking. They’ll know better than anything you can find on the internet.

And here’s something that’s regularly overlooked by inexperienced kayakers – but vitally important. Pay attention to the water temperature, not just the air temperature.

Unprepared and immersed, the body can shut down in seconds in cold water. Even just below a balmy 77-degrees, breathing starts to be affected, and it gets progressively more lethal the lower you go.

Check out this guide from the National Center for Cold Water Safety for more information.

two man kayak fishing in summer

Learn the Dangers

Many kayak accidents and fatalities result in victims being totally unprepared, and a bit of study could have prevented the vast majority from occurring.

Learn the dangers, as understanding what potentially can (and does) occur when you’re kayaking will significantly reduce the chances of it happening to you.

Perhaps the most obvious is the possibility of capsizing, or falling out of your craft in some way. It’s very easy to do – especially if you’re inexperienced. An over-zealous paddle stroke and you’re in.

It’s vital that you know what to do if this situation occurs. Study and practice the techniques in calm waters when and where you can.

Watch instructional videos like the one below, so at the very least you have an understanding of how to recover should you or a fellow paddler end up in the water.

Remember – you must never leave your kayak until it is safe to do so. Not only is it buoyant and will help you stay afloat, but it’s also highly visible and can be seen by rescuers who will be searching for you if you’re called overdue.

Understanding this simple rule might have saved the lives of the family killed in the tragic Lake Superior kayak accident. Read that article for a seriously sobering, cautionary tale.

But it’s not just about capsizing – there are many more things that can go wrong when you’re out on the water – including getting lost, hypothermia, water obstacles and hazards, over exposure, darkness and poor visibility, and more.

And don’t forget about the dangers posed by wildlife – particularly if you’re in coastal waters. Keep your distance as much as possible, and don’t go bothering any young – the mother isn’t going to be far away.

Research, understand, and prepare for them before setting out. Learn techniques and strategies for getting out of common dangers and scenarios. I promise you – it will make a huge difference.

Know Your Limitations

One of the biggest killers when it comes to kayaking accidents is inexperience.

“That looks easy – I can do that.”

People aren’t honest with themselves, and they set off believing to be invincible, only to realize far too late when the inevitable happens, that they perhaps weren’t quite so capable of handling the conditions or circumstances.

Your chosen route, and/or the body of water you’ve selected to paddle in, should always match your skill level and physical ability.

Learn the water rapids classification system, and only attempt a particular class if you’re competent, confident, and experienced enough for that level.

fisherman in sit-on-top kayak with multiple fishing rods

Dress Appropriately

And by that, I mean it’s essential you follow the cardinal kayaking rule:


Even if it doesn’t happen, even if you’re the finest kayaker the world has ever seen, you should wear clothing relevant to the temperature of the water just in case you go in.

This easy-to-read hypothermia table from the University of Sea Kayaking is a great indicator for what you should be wearing depending on the water temperature.

Check out this article on what to wear kayak fishing for some additional advice on comfort and safety (which can also be applicable to recreational kayaking in general).

And this guide for kayak fishing in the winter will do the same but for colder climes.

It’s highly recommended that you consider wearing a helmet or other protective headgear if you’re kayaking anywhere near rocks or other such hazards.

And this is non-negotiable if you’re looking to kayak on whitewater.

Remember, you can be struck from above and below, and low hanging trees and branches on fast-moving rivers can be deadly – so wear a helmet.

Use the Right Kayak

Attempting to use a river fishing kayak in open water is a recipe for disaster.

Likewise, if the craft is cheap, damaged, or inferior in any way, the chances of getting into an accident significantly increase.

There are different kayaks for different water conditions and environments, and whether you’re fishing or otherwise, the principles are still the same.

Check out this review of the best ocean fishing kayaks for an idea of the kind of craft you need on the coast.

These river fishing kayaks are suitable for quieter lakes and slow rivers.

Consider a pedal kayak if you’re not getting any younger, or if you feel your arms would benefit from a rest.

Pedal kayaks are essential if you’re planning on negotiating strong currents and tides, or if you just need a bit of extra help getting safely from A to B.

Remember, as a rule of thumb – shorter kayaks are more maneuverable, longer kayaks are built for speed and distance.

Never overload the kayak, and make sure you learn its maximum weight capacity. Be sure to keep the onboard weight well below that figure and evenly distributed, so the kayak won’t tip or dip.

Suit the right craft to the environment, and you’ll be good to go.

man in white kayak fishing

Supplies and Equipment

“Be prepared” is the Scout motto – and never a truer word was spoken when it comes to kayaking.

Before setting off, you should make sure you have the right supplies and equipment with you for the duration of your trip.

This includes things like food and drink to sustain you, and all the relevant gear you need for whatever activity you’re enjoying.

Take a look at this list of kayak fishing gear to help you out, or this article on the best kayak fishing accessories for some great ideas on what to pack.

Having a decent kayak paddle is essential. Choose something that’s as light as you can afford, which will help keep fatigue to a minimum.

From a safety point of view, it’s a good idea to have a dedicated kit with you, that covers any eventuality.

First aid supplies (particularly when fishing), a safety whistle, signal mirror (or flares), spare paddle, bilge pump, flashlight, and tow-line are all useful inclusions that can come in handy in emergency situations.

Don’t forget the humble cell phone in case you need to call for help. Just remember to make sure it’s fully charged before you get to the water.

However, for some kayak trips, you might be out of range for cell phone coverage, and/or you need help finding your way back. A dedicated kayak GPS device is the answer – so check out that link for more info.

Inform Family/Friends of Your Route

This has pretty much been a key piece of advice for doing anything or going anywhere outdoors since we were kids.

And it’s just as relevant today as it was then.

ALWAYS inform a trusted friend or family member where you’re going and what time you’re likely to be back, so they know when to report a problem if you’re overdue.

Much like actually wearing a PFD, I wonder how many accidents could have been avoided if this simple point was adhered to?

two kayakers in tandem fishing kayak at lake

Don’t Kayak Solo

This is a tricky one, as many experienced kayakers and anglers can and do go out alone without significant incident.

But when it comes to beginners, it’s highly advisable that you take a mate and go as a pair.

That way, if one of you happens to get into difficulty, you’ve got backup for assistance, or someone who can call or go for emergency help if need be.

Always buddy-up when kayaking, at least until you’ve developed the skills, confidence, and experience to safely go out on your own.

Be Visible

The US coast guard requires that all recreational and (non-recreational) water users be highly visible at all times – dawn through dusk, through dawn.

Bright, colorful kayaks are highly recommended – particularly when fishing or kayaking in open water, sea, ocean, and coastal regions.

If your kayak has a more muted color scheme, add a high-visibility flag, light, or other such illuminating markers – which becomes essential if you’re in areas of high water traffic, motorboats, and shipping.

I believe this is a legal requirement from the US Coast Guard, and you could be fined or possibly imprisoned if your vessel isn’t in line with safety regulations.

And your PFD (mentioned below) should be bright with reflective strips for increased visibility – especially in low light conditions.

fisherman preparing for kayak fishing trip

Limit Alcohol and Drug Use

We all like to enjoy the odd beer or two when we’re out on the water, especially if you’ve got an ice-cold fishing cooler to draw from.

But the alarming fact remains – alcohol can be attributed to an alarming amount of kayak accidents and fatalities.

In fact, alcohol has been detected in the blood of as many as 70% of all drowning victims.

Both drinking and recreational drug use can significantly impair judgement, and when we make bad judgements out on the water, lives can be lost.

Enjoy responsibly, know your limits, and don’t overdo it. Better yet, save the boozy refreshments for when you’re back in the bar.

But you should always be taking enough drinking water on board during the day, as dehydration is common, and it can cause all kinds of problems and dangers on its own.

WEAR a Personal Flotation Device

It’s truly astonishing that people need to be reminded of this – considering the data collected on fatalities that could have been avoided if the victim was actually WEARING a PFD.

I capitalize the words WEAR and WEARING, because many recreational water users think that stashing a PFD on board is enough, and that it somehow has them covered.

In reality, there are a shocking number of drownings that resulted in the victim owning a PFD, but stowing it under the seat, strapping it in a bungee cord, or even leaving it back at home.

It’s going to be no use to you whatsoever if you’re not physically wearing it.

Try one of these awesome fishing PFDs, which are great for offering additional storage space for tackle and gear, AND keeping you afloat if you happen to take a dip.

Pets should also wear a life vest, so make sure if you’re bringing along a furry companion, they’re fully protected too.

How many drownings do we hear or read about where the owner was trying to save a struggling pet? Everyone in your party – animal or otherwise – needs to be WEARING a PFD.

It could save your life (and theirs).

fisherman floats on a white fishing kayak in ocean along the coast

Additional Advice

In my experience and understanding, accidents happen because people aren’t aware of the risks, are ill prepared, overconfident, and using inadequate gear (or good gear inadequately).

I’ve seen it so many times.

“Oh, I don’t need that.”

“That’s not going to be a problem.”

“We can make it there.”

“My PFD is uncomfortable.”

“We’ll all fit in, easy!”

The list goes on.

Sure, I understand that safety isn’t the most fun aspect of kayaking, but it’s the most important. Please, don’t just fob this advice off, skim through, and think you know it all.

Furthermore, I would highly recommend taking a paddling skills course – particularly if you’re a beginner.

Having a professional show you the ropes will significantly increase your confidence and ability, and you’ll have a better understanding of what to do in a variety of situations when you’re on the water.

And check out this information pamphlet on the federal requirements for recreational boats for even more tips and advice on this important topic.

angler sitting on fishing kayak on calm water of river


Is kayak fishing dangerous?

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, kayak fishing – and all kinds of recreational water use – can be very dangerous.

That’s not to put the fear of the gods into you, it’s to give you a heads-up that precautions must be taken to ensure your safety and the safety of others around you.

Kayak fishing in particular happens to be one of the most dangerous types of the sport, and accidents and fatalities are very common.

But that’s because people don’t plan well, cut corners, take risks, don’t read articles like this one, and don’t stick to their skill levels and experience.

I’m guesstimating something like 90% of these incidents – including the tragedies – could easily have been avoided. Remember – accidents are caused by carelessness.

How many people drown from kayak fishing?

You can check out some recreational boating statistics for 2019 if you follow this link to the US Coast Guard News.

It might be a little on the macabre side to go hunting for such information, but as I explained above, educating yourself on the risks goes a long way to avoiding them.

Sometimes, a little fear can be the great equalizer – and it helps keep you alive.

What safety gear do I need for kayaking?

I’ve outlined plenty of safety gear options in the article above, but at the very least, make sure you’re wearing a PFD.

Check out the video below for a visual guide on safety gear and equipment when kayaking.

What accidents can happen when kayak fishing?

There are multiple accidents and emergency situations that can happen when you’re kayaking and kayak fishing.

From overexposure to the sun, to hypothermia, drowning, capsizing, knocking yourself unconscious on a low-hanging branch… this list is certainly not exhaustive.

Hazards, obstacles, wildlife, poor weather conditions, and other water users can all negatively affect a day’s kayaking.

Murphy’s law – what can go wrong, will go wrong.

But with a bit of preparation, you can change that to – what can go wrong – won’t go wrong today.


This article has been intended to inform, educate, and guide new (and experienced) kayakers, so they can make the right decisions and choices before, during, and after using the water.

Please, make sure you adhere to these kayaking safety tips at all times, and we can lower accident and fatality figures together.


Leave me your comments below if you have anything you’d like to share with the community on the subject – especially words of wisdom and useful, personal experience.

Stay safe out there – and happy kayaking!

Stuart Jameson

Stuart is passionate about travel, kayaking, camping and the great outdoors in general. He's not quite as enthusiastic about angling as his father was, but out of the two of them, he's yet to hook his ear lobe while fly-fishing, which he sees as an absolute win.

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