Although normal kayaking is not an extreme sport there are inherent dangers that come with it. Most dangers associated with kayaking effect novice paddlers. However, even experienced kayakers can fall prey to the hidden dangers that lie in wait on and in the water. So, it is beneficial for you to understand the type of dangers that exist if you plan to take to the water in a kayak and the simple steps you can take to protect yourself from falling victim to them.
- Is kayaking dangerous?
- Common dangers all kayakers face
- Dangers associated with sea kayaking
- Dangers associated with river kayaking
- Health dangers & how to prevent them
Is kayaking dangerous?
When compared with other leisure and sporting activities kayaking is not an extremely dangerous past-time to be involved in. In fact, with proper preparation and training kayaking can be a very safe pastime.
However, as with all water-based activities kayaking does have dangers associated with it that you need to be aware of. The good news is that with the correct preparations and the right attitude you can avoid most, if not all, the dangers that kayaking brings.
Below we look at the most common dangers you are likely to encounter while kayaking and how you can avoid them. We also look at the dangers involved in specific kayaking activities such river kayaking and sea kayaking.
Common dangers all kayakers face
Below are the most common types of dangers every kayaker might face.
- Capsizing. When your kayak flips over in the water and you find yourself facing the bottom of the river/lake/creek/ocean.
- Obstacles below the water and on the water surface. These obstacles come in both natural and man-made forms.
- Undercuts. These are hollow depressions in a body of water that a kayak can plunge into.
- Other water users. Other water users pose a real threat to kayakers especially large vessels that may not be able to see a small kayak.
- Adverse weather conditions. Conditions on the water can change quickly creating an unfavorable paddling environment.
- Drowning. Obviously this is the biggest danger to all water users.
- Shock. The body can go into shock when your kayak capsizes in cold water due to the instant change in temperature.
- Hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when a person is exposed to cold conditions for a prolonged period.
- Sun stroke. Sun-stroke, also known as heatstroke, is brought about by excessive exposure to the sun, when the body’s temperature rises above 40 Celsius.
- Exhaustion. Paddling can take more physical effort than beginners realise. Exhaustion can mean you can’t paddle and more and drift.
- Dehydration. Dehydration and exhaustion often go hand-in-hand.
Let’s break these dangers down and see how you can avoid them completely or at least take precautionary steps to be able to deal with them if they occur.
Dangers in the water
Capsizing: Capsizing can occur due to a number if reasons (that we will cover as we progress in this article). If is important to learn how to roll your kayak so you can readjust your kayak to an upright, above water, position.
A visible obstruction is any object that you can see in the water.
Sweepers are the most common type of natural obstruction a kayaker will encounter. Strainers are easy to see and come in the form of low hanging tree branches that lie on top of the water. These tree branches are still attached to the tree and form a barrier to your kayak.
As well as running the risk of injuries from brushing against the tree bark and branches sweepers can also cause a boat to capsize if you lose your balance trying to deal with the branches. It is possible for a kayak to become trapped in a sweeper by the current.
The rule-of-thumb for dealing with obstacles in kayaking is to avoid them completely.
Unseen obstacles below the water surface:
Hidden obstacles are by far the most common form of danger a kayaker will face because steps can be taken to eliminate most other forms of danger. The only precautions a kayaker can take when it comes to hidden obstacles is to be aware of what to do when he or she encounters them.
However, there are obstacles that you may encounter that are usually visible but that are difficult to see if you are kayaking at night (see our guide on night kayaking).
Strainers are the opposite of sweepers and lie under the water. They are the most common form of hidden obstacle a kayaker is likely to encounter. They are often difficult to see especially at night.
Strainers are obstacles that allow water to pass through them but will stop a solid object.
Strainers can be natural, like tree branches roots or debris, or man-made, like grates. Strainers are very dangerous for kayakers. Natural strainers can be especially dangerous because they can be made up of tree branches and/or roots that are tangled in a complex web under the water. It is all too easy to get caught in this web.
If a kayak does get trapped by strainers while submerged it may be impossible to free it, or even free yourself, due to the force of the current and/or being tangled in the strainer.
An undercut is a term that is used to describe an underwater depression that is hollow. Like strainers undercuts can be difficult or impossible to see until you are just about to be caught in one.
When a kayaker encounters an undercut his/her kayak will plunge into it bow first.
If you ever get caught in an undercut try to stay calm and paddle your way out of it as best you can. It is possible the undercut will capsize your kayak so you should ensure you are wearing a PFD.
While white water kayaking undercuts bring additional dangers which we will cover later in this article.
Other water users:
A potential collision with another vessel is something every kayaker should be aware of. Other water users may be difficult to see and may find it difficult to see you. This is especially the case at night or in open water such as the ocean.
Large ships will probably not even see you in a small kayak.
Never try to paddle across the path of a ship as they can be faster than they appear to be.
Simply take an alternative route or wait until they’ve passed.
Even small vessels pose a problem if you are in crowded waterways or in conditions with reduced visibility.
If you plan to paddle in open water or reduced visibility ensure that your PFD or clothing is bright and reflective, if possible. Having a spare reflective paddle that you can switch to will help with this.
While out on the water weather conditions can change quickly. A calm, smooth paddling environment can quickly turn hostile when fast winds pick up or heavy rain starts to pour down.
It is important you know ahead of time what the forecast is for the area you plan to paddle in and to take appropriate precautions.
Dangers you bring with you
There are a number of common dangers that kayakers face due to human error that can be easily avoided.
Inexperience brings dangers of its own.
Beginners to kayaking can get into trouble, or even get injured, simply because they lack the skills needed to engage in their current activity.
This is also down to inexperience.
Using the wrong technique, at the wrong time, can lead to strains, sprains and other injuries to joints, muscles and tendons.
Incorrect choice of waterway:
Again this goes down to inexperience.
Trying to navigate a challenging waterway that requires skills that you don’t have will lead you into trouble. Always be aware of the skill level that is required to kayak on waters that you intend to use. Never try to kayak in waters that you are not skilled enough to paddle in.
We covered essential kayak equipment before but you may find that you need specific gear for specific waterways and conditions.
Lack of safety equipment:
Having the wrong equipment is sure to be challenging even for the most experiences kayaker but having no safety equipment at all is a surefire way to get into serious trouble.
A personal flotation device (PFD) is an essential must-have item for every kayaker. In the USA, the law requires that a PFD is always worn.
At night and in reduced visibility you are also legally required to have at least one white light attached to your kayak which is visible from all angles and from at least 1 mile away.
A helmet, although not legally required, should always be worn when navigating rapids.
Dangers associated with sea kayaking
Below are some of the specific dangers associated with kayaking in the ocean. Please be aware that the above dangers still apply also.
Wrong type of kayak:
Unlike some other small recreational vessels, like a Jon boat for example, a kayak is well suited to the ocean – at least a specific type of kayak is.
Touring kayaks, also called sea kayaks, are specifically designed for ocean and long haul usage, such as camping.
You should not attempt to take to the ocean in a kayak that has not been designed for the purpose.
There are two types of currents that can cause problems for kayakers – rip currents and tidal currents.
A rip current is a thin strip of water that’s moving quickly away from the shore, somewhat like a fast-moving river.
A rip current can be anywhere from just a few feet wide to several yards wide.
A rip current will usually propel water 50 – 100 yards out from shore. This water can be moving fast. With speeds up to 8 feet per second a world class swimmer wouldn’t be able to swim against them and back to shore so you shouldn’t try to do it either!
Science Direct states that tidal currents are “… the periodic movement of water driven principally, though not necessarily exclusively, by a head difference created by out-of-phase ocean tides at each end of a restriction.”
To put it in simpler terms tidal currents that are currents created by the rise and fall of the tides.
Dealing with both rip currents and tidal currents:
Problems usually arise for kayakers when they try to use brute force to move past or through ocean currents.
Don’t panic if you get caught in an ocean current. Trying to force your way will drain your energy and cause you more problems.
However, there will be times when you will be forced to paddle against the current if you get caught in one. In such situations you should avoid paddling directly against the current as this would be akin to moving on a treadmill and making zero headway.
One solution is to allow the tide to bring you further out to sea and before starting to paddle parallel to the shore until you can begin to change direction towards shore or until you can find help.
If you find that you need to navigate waters against the flow of the tide in your normal travels the best option is to stay in shallow waters close to the shore as the current will be slower there.
If you come across a point of land jutting out, try to sprint around the point by using a very quick stroke rate with powerful forward stokes.
Drifting too far from land
As mentioned above when dealing with ocean currents it is all too easy to find yourself too far out to sea when kayaking in the ocean.
If this happens don’t panic.
Frantically trying to paddle against the current will simply result in exhaustion with very little headway made.
When you find yourself too far from shore follow the advice given above about dealing with ocean tides.
Waves and choppy waters
It is very easy to misjudge waves in the ocean and an unpredictably large wave can knock a kayaker overboard or even tip the entire kayak.
For most kayakers a wave as high as three feet will not pose much of a problem. However, as the waves increase in size the challenge of navigating them increases.
Beginner kayakers should not take to the ocean with a view to riding the waves. There are specific techniques and paddling styles that experienced ocean and surf kayakers use to ride waves.
Start slowly and build your skill level before tackling large waves. You can even take courses in sea kayaking or surf kayaking to help you develop your skills more quickly.
The same applies to very choppy water.
The ocean is filled with very large ships. Expect there to be traffic even when you think you are reasonably close to the shore.
Although you should be aware of speed boats and other similar sized vessels the real danger often comes from large ships. A cargo ship or cruise ship creates a wake that can unsettle your kayak. But be aware that the ship may not even be able to see you.
As we already mentioned, don’t try to cut across the bow of a large vessel. Paddle around it or wait until it passes.
The sea is filled with things that are not friendly to humans, be it deliberately or accidentally. This especially applies to humans in a very small boat that sits close to the water surface.
Sharks are the most obvious fish fiend to be on the look out for but larger marine mammals can also cause trouble for a small kayak. Whales can create huge and sudden movements in the water that can easily capsize your boat.
Keep an eye out for the larger and more dangerous of the ocean population and keep a respectful distance.
Jellyfish can also pose a problem if you capsize and end up in the water.
Dangers associated with river kayaking
White water kayaking, also called river kayaking, is arguably the most dangerous type of kayaking there is.
Although there are fairly safe places to enjoy white water kayaking there are just as many that are extremely dangerous and only for the most brave and experienced paddlers.
White water kayaking can be extremely dangerous.
If you intend to venture into the world of white water kayaking go with a professional or club that know the waters and can steer you to safer areas.
Riding rapids in a kayak, known as white water kayaking, is a popular activity among river kayakers.
White water kayaking can be exhilarating and rewarding but be aware that it is definitely not for the novice. It is also not for the solo paddler.
Never white water kayak alone!
Rapids are difficult to navigate and take a certain level of competence and skill.
Undercuts are all too common in areas with white water and can be very dangerous because the undercut is formed from rocks.
So, if you encounter a undercut in white water you will not only have to survive the plunge into a hollow and deep area of water but you will also have to avoid the jagged rocks. Plunging into a white water undercut can result in serious injury or even be fatal.
Health dangers & how to prevent them
If you succumb to any of the kayaking dangers mentioned above what are the potential outcomes you can expect?
Common health dangers
Drowning is, obviously, the biggest health danger kayakers face.
Before kayaking, especially for prolonged periods or in challenging environments, you should ensure that you are a strong swimmer and in good physical shape.
Simply relying on your PFD to save you is not enough!
If you plan to take up kayaking as a hobby please be sure you take an advanced swimming course first. It does not matter what age you are, it’s never too late to learn to swim.
The body can go into shock when your kayak capsizes due to the instant change in temperature.
A wetsuit or drysuit can help protect you from shock and hypothermia.
Hypothermia occurs when a person is exposed to cold conditions for a prolonged period.
Falling into ice cold waters and being unable to get out quickly can lead to hypothermia very quickly.
Sun-stroke, also known as heatstroke, is brought about by excessive exposure to the sun when the body’s temperature rises above 40 Celsius.
Drinking plenty of water and wearing UV protection on your skin will go a long way to preventing sun stroke. Also try to avoid paddling challenging waters during the hottest parts of the day.
Paddling can take more physical effort than beginners realise.
Exhaustion can lead to you losing complete control of your kayak and being victim to drift as well as leaving you unable to physically deal with any problems that arise.
Expending so much energy paddling, especially for long periods in challenging water or high heat, (or both), can quickly deplete not only your body’s energy reserves but it can rob it of much needed fluids.
When kayaking, especially in warm weather, it is very important to have a water bottle close at hand and to use it regularly.
Common kayaking injuries
Hitting an obstacle, or another vessel, in the water will likely lead to an injury of some kind.
I know this sounds like pretty obvious advice but the best way to avoid impact injuries is to avoid hitting anything in the water by following the advice already given in this article.
It takes physical effort to paddle a kayak especially if you are moving against the current.
Sustained pressure on one, or both, shoulders can cause strains. This not only causes pain but can lead to trouble if you find yourself in a fast moving current and do not have the strength to paddle against it.
If you feel muscle fatigue or strains developing take a break and allow your muscles to rest.
Paddling is a repetitive motion that can lead to repetitive-strain injuries.
Not only can this be dangerous, if you face muscle fatigue in challenging waters, but it can have a long-term negative impact on your health.
The best way to protect yourself from developing sprains and strains is to develop good paddling technique and to keep your body fit and healthy.
A regular workout routine that targets key muscle groups used in kayaking will go a long way to preventing injury.