Kayak Safety Gear: What You Need and Why
We've all heard stories from around the web about kayaking gone wrong: the experienced swimmer whose empty kayak was found 10 miles off the coast of Florida; the four family members who capsized and later died on Lake Superior despite wearing PFDs; the paddler in Chili who died of hypothermia due to lack of immersion wear. In the US alone, the US Coast Guard reported 4,145 boating accidents and 151 paddlesport deaths in 2018.
No one goes on the water thinking, "Today, I'm going to be reckless and put my life in jeopardy." No, most of us have some degree of awareness that we should approach paddling with safety in mind. But it's one thing to know you should "be safe" when kayaking; it's quite another to undertand just what that means on a practical level.
As part of our research on the most common recreational kayak safety gear, we asked our fellow paddlers for their list of must-have kayaking safety equipment. What follows are the most widely used items, along with a few that may be surprising. Please note that this equipment list is geared primarily to recreational paddling (e.g., flat water, smaller bodies of water), though we do touch on a few sea kayak safety gear items. Sea kayaking and whitewater kayaking -- and, for that matter, SUPing and surfing -- bring their own unique challenges and risks, and we do not explore them in this article.
Kayaking Safety Gear Vs Kayaking Safely
Before we jump in, it's also important to clarify that we're only covering kayaking safety gear in this article, meaning those tangible items you bring onboard or wear while kayaking. We'll tackle the issue of kayaking safety (e.g., knowing how to self-rescue, filing a float plan) in a separate post. It is worth noting here, however, that the US-based paddling industry is working to raise awareness around issues of paddling safety among paddlesports dealers, manufacturers and consumers. They recently released this short video.
For comprehensive information about kayaking instruction and safety, the American Canoe Association, Paddle Canada, British Canoeing, Paddle Australia and dozens of other associations across the world offer great resources.
The Experienced Kayakers' Safety Gear List
Everyone's risk tolerance is different. Some paddlers -- whether due to lessons learned from past close calls or simply based on their personal outlook -- carry a veritable arsenal of safety items in their dry bags and kayaks. (Tampons and tourniquets, anyone?)
Others take along only the bare necessities, counting on luck being in their favor. Of course how much gear they bring depends on the duration of their trip, the time of year, the weather forecast and many other variables. We asked our paddling colleagues from the Church of the Double Bladed Paddle Facebook Group what their most important safety gear was and why, and here's what we learned.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
Whether you call it a bouyancy aid, PFD or a life jacket -- and there is, technically, a difference -- one thing is clear: it is arguably the most important piece of kayak safety gear you will ever use. The US Coast Guard has a classification system for PFDs based on their buoyancy, intended use, and the wearer's size, and you can find a boatload of information on their website.
The bottom line is this: you've got to wear it. Life jackets and PFDs save lifes by providing buoyancy if you find yourself in the water unexpectedly from, say, being overturned by a large wave. They help keep you afloat if you need to jump in to save someone else. And, they keep you floating if you're no longer able to do so yourself due to fatigue, injury, cold or inability to swim.
"I had a PFD in my boat and we got into bad weather/waves unexpectedly. I kept trying to put the life jacket on, but every time I stopped paddling my boat would spin like a top and start tipping. I wasn’t able to put it on safely, so now I wear an inflatable." -- Corey DeHays Wheeler, Florida
A bilge pump will remove excess water from your cockpit or storage hatch from a wave or capsize. A small, manual pump is usually sufficient and can be easily tucked away or strapped down with a bungee and kept within easy reach. The Canadian Safety Boating Council put together a quick video primer on what to look for in a handheld pump. If you're a stickler for a dry cockpit, you can also carry along a sponge to soak up the last remaining drops.
Even new paddles can break or get lost, so many paddlers bring along a spare paddle. Or, if paddling in a group, they bring an extra as a courtesy to other paddlers. Still others bring a backup paddle as a way to change their gear during the course of a longer outing. Most store their paddle on the front deck with bungees so that it's within easy reach, but others store them in the cockpit, on the rear deck, or in a bag or hatch if they fit.
Although most kayaks are engineered to remain buoyant even after filling with water, adding float bags -- various shaped bags inflated with air -- in the bow and/or stern keeps your boat higher in the water when overturned. More importantly, floatation bags displace the water that would normally swamp your kayak, making it difficult or impossible to empty or right it. This short video provides a good overview.
Creative kayakers like to improvise by adding other inflatable devices, but float bags made specifically for kayaks are preferable as they are shaped to fit the curvatures of the boat, are more durable and can usually be secured inside with rings or straps.
"When I first bought my rec boat long ago, I stuck a beach ball in there. A year later I had a flip and the beach ball and factory floatation (material) was floating alongside me. I had a life jacket on and was fine, but hijinks ensued as I made attempts to keep my kayak from sinking (too heavy to lift past rocks to get into eddy). Eventually, I got help to empty the water and be on my way, but now I always put in blow up floatation." -- Lyn Dahlstrom
Paddle Float & Stirrup
A paddle float is an inflatable bag that is used to help paddlers get back into the kayak after overturning. It slips onto one end of a paddle and, when fully inflated, acts like an outrigger, helping stabilize the kayak as the paddler gets back in. Here's a video demo of someone using the technique. Just make sure that the paddle float is within easy reach, such as secured to the back deck, because there's a good chance you'll need to access it when the kayak is flipped.
"I like my paddle float because it serves as a great seat for shore lunch and as a block for yoga. It’s the older style foam block covered with heavy duty nylon. It’s light as a feather and it’s easy to slip under the elastic cords on my kayak deck." -- Sarah Bratnober
Kayak stirrups, or ladders, are another method for both tipping a kayak back upright as well as getting in the kayak itself. There are multiple DIY and commercial types available, as well as techniques for using them, so we recommend practicing in a test environment to see what works for you.
The workhorse that carries much of the kayaking safety equipment is the dry bag. There are hundreds of types available, with different closure mechanisms, sizes and even temperature tolerances. One thing is clear: dry bags can make or break your trip. Use them to store extra clothing, a first aid kit, sunscreen, snacks, water and so much more. Features to look for include material, size, closure type, d-rings for securing to your kayak, durability and portability.
Clothing & Food/Water
Whether the elements are cold, wet, hot or windy, having the right protection on your person or in your dry bag or hatch can't be emphasized enough. Dry suits, spray skirts, extra layers of clothing, sunscreen, corded sunglasses, hats and, in some cases, helmets are a must. Likewise, it's wise to always have drinking water on board, even for short trips. For longer trips or to prepare for the unexpected, have some snacks on hand, also.
Knife, Pliers &/or Multi-Purpose Tool
You never know when you'll need a knife, pliers or other type of handheld tool when you're on the open water. It might be to cut a rope, remove a fishing net from a wild animal, open a snack, clean a fish or use in a rescue scenario. There are tons of styles available, but look for marine grade stainless steel or titanium and a tethering cord. Consider a multi-use tool for other uses such as removing hooks.
"Pliers are a must have. (I) found a poor Canadian goose with a double fishhook in its bill and hooked to its chest. We got it free, but it would have taken way less time if we had pliers. Also, my dry bag is amazing. (I used the) towels we had to cover the poor goose to calm it down!" -- Andrea Ahlson, Pacific Northwest
Communication & Signaling Devices
The choice to bring along a communication or signaling device can literally mean the difference between life and death. Just ask Ellie Jackson, a paddler from the UK. Ellie lost her brother, Dom Jackson, a few years ago when he drowned in a sea kayak accident. "It was winter, he had no dry suit, his phone was in his back hatch and he didn’t have a VHF of PLB. Had he been carrying either one of these or had his phone on a lanyard, he would still be with us today," she says. Jackson now runs a non-profit, Plan B Charity, aimed at raising safety awareness in adventure sports.
When choosing your communication device, there are multiple factors to consider, including your paddling environment, satellite and cell coverage area, and battery life. Plan carefully so that you're bringing what's most effective for your circumstances. Each of these items has the potential to capture the attention of a passersby, alert rescue personnel or communicate with other boaters.
At the most basic level is a whistle. They're small, easy to carry and have multiple applications. The short blast of a whistle can often (but not always) be heard over the waves and wind, and different blast patterns can transmit different messages (e.g., look at me, I need help). Be sure to get a quality whistle and keep it clipped to your life jacket. Get one that does not use a cork ball, which doesn't hold up well in wet environments.
"I use (a whistle) to get the attention of people I am paddling with. When my husband and I surfaced (from SCUBA diving) in the open Pacific, we were in rough seas, being circled by four Silky Sharks. We alerted the Zodiac boat while we deployed our safety marker. The Zodiac Captain heard the whistle, (but) he did not see us until he was within about 50 feet." -- Angela Aldrich
Cell phones are fine for short trips, at least when you're sure you'll be in range. They can be handy for tracking your activity via apps, taking pictures, or using the GPS features. Just make sure you're fully charged before leaving and put it in a waterproof bag or case. Bonus points for bringing a backup charging device and attaching some sort of tether or flotation device to the phone, lest it sink to the bottom of the lake.
For trips on big water or remote locations, prudent paddlers insist on bringing some type of long-range communication device, such as a handheld marine VHF radio. VHF radio is a two-way communications system between ships or from ship to shore. It uses established frequencies for vessels to communicate distress or ask about tides, currents, reefs, port conditions and receive weather alerts.
"I was in the Florida ‘backcountry’ and was supposed to paddle to where my brother was fishing from his powerboat to catch a ride back to Big Pine Key. The chart he gave me was wrong, there was land where there was supposed to be water, and I could not make the rendezvous - leaving me to paddle 15 - 20 miles in the dark to rescue myself. The coast guard and marine patrol got involved... He gave me a radio shortly afterward.." -- Paul Lefebvre, Massachussetts
Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) are satellite-synced devices that send a one-way SOS signal to rescue agencies, along with your location. They have a long battery life and may send a stronger signal than a satellite messenger. Satellite messengers, such as SPOT, are generally subscription based and run on batteries. In addition to sending SOS signals, their chief advantage is the ability to have two-way communication. Both devices can be affected by cloud cover.
Lighting & Visual Signaling Devices
Proper lighting is another way of signaling others. And like every other safety device in this list, what type of lighting you use depends on the nature of your outing. There is standard lighting for kayaking at night and then there is emergency-use lighting, such as pinpoint or parachute flares.
Suction-cup mounted LED stern lights , pole lights that fit into tracks, strip lights or even glowsticks may be sufficient for short trips on smaller bodies of water. Marine LED lights, strobe lights, flares, torches and anchor lighting may be called for in other open water conditions. Keep in mind, there are kayak safety regulations regarding the use of lights at night, so check with the US Coast Guard or your local ordinances for details.
Other visual signaling devices can include shiny objects, such as mirrors, colorful flags and dye markers.
"(I) glued a CD to the inside of removable hatch cover so I could use (it as a) reflect a signal. (I also) carry a long length of bright orange plastic that can be floated on water to make visible for air search (and) keep a bright t-shirt behind seat to grab and wave around make visable." -- Marie Rocheleau Graves
Tow Rope/Tow Belt
A tow rope, suited for fresh- and saltwater environments, often comes in handy when another paddler is too weak to paddle, needs help getting through a rough patch of water, has an injury or has lost or broken their paddle. About 8 to 10 feet (or longer), a tow rope can be carried directly on the paddler in a tow belt or simply coiled up and stored in or on the kayak. As with everything else in kayaking, there are techniques for performing a safe tow, so do a little research and then practice before you're in a situation where you need to use one.
"(I) have used it to give a boost to a slower/weaker member of the group as the weather was only getting worse and another time for directional control to help out someone who didn’t quite know how to use her skeg in bigger waves. Another friend (I wasn’t on the trip) slipped on shore (seaweed on rocks) and broke her arm. She was towed out." -- Paddler
Lost & Found
Whether or not they bring a cell phone or GPS device, some paddlers like to carry a compass. They're particularly well-suited to foggy or overcast environments and when travelling on large or unfamiliar waters.
"I carry a compass whenever I paddle on a medium or larger size lake or the ocean, so if it gets foggy I can at least head in the right direction. I carry a whistle, but I've never used it." -- Heidi Henkel
Another simple, but important measure is affixing and "If Found" waterproof sticker to your kayak. Obviously it helps in those cases where your kayak is lost (e.g., a wind blows it offshore) or stolen, but it's also an important piece of information during rescue operations. Countless kayaks and boats are found floating on lakes, rivers and oceans each year. Being able to quickly identify who the owner of the kayak is lets personnel try to make contact with that person to ensure they are safe or, conversely, lets them know that a person is still missing and is likely to be somewhere in the vicinity of the found kayak.
First Aid Kit
For the uber-prepared paddler, a first aid kit is a must. What's in that first aid kit varies from dealing with simple burns and abrasions (e.g., bandages and antibiotics) to addressing major emergencies (e.g., tourniquets, CPR barriers and splints).
"I always have a large medical kit I make up and carry with specific things. I've had to remove large hooks several times and have bled profusely from sharp fish teeth. Large patches, antibiotics, various tapes, including duct tape. I've stopped bleeding with tight duct wraps whereas gauze or bandaid would not. You could also carry water treatment pills or a filter straw if you run out of clean water." -- Joe Riefski
Other Kayak Safety Equipment
Our paddling safety equipment list is already quite substantial, but there will always be additional items paddlers want on board to feel secure and comfortable. Here are some other items kayakers bring with them or use.