If you’re taking your kayak out into Louisiana’s Cajun Coast, floating beneath the Spanish moss, you really don’t have much to worry about. However, if your idea of kayaking is hitting up Little White Salmon in Washington, you better believe that there are some dangers involved. In terms of the big picture, is kayaking dangerous?

It can be and that largely depends on where you are kayaking and your level of experience. According to the 2020 Recreational Boating Statistics, released by the U.S. Coast Guard, kayaking incidents accounted for 15% of all boating deaths in registered vessels across the United States. That’s a pretty hefty number.

Even when you are on the flattest and calmest water, there is always the risk of flipping over in your kayak, something that many expert kayakers practice dealing with, to flip their craft back over before they drown. It’s not always as easy as you think to get out of your seat.

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If you’re looking for a durable kayak for your child, we’ve written an entire article covering the 8 best kids kayaks.

The risks associated with kayaking

Photo by Aaron Lee / Unsplash

As we just mentioned above, capsizing, or flipping over, is one of the primary dangers involved in kayaking. It’s certainly the thing that beginner kayakers need to worry about the most, as beginners shouldn’t be tackling class IV white water rapids.

  • Capsizing (flipping upside down)
  • Getting lost
  • Inexperience
  • Exhaustion
  • Undercut rocks
  • Strainers and Sweepers
  • Spending too long out in the sun
  • Hypothermia
  • Wrong or lack of proper equipment

As you can see, there are a lot of things to look out for and if you’re a beginner, it can all seem a little intimidating at first. Fortunately, you can offset many of the things on this list with a little preparation and basic training skills for when you are out on the kayak.

Getting lost in a kayak

Getting lost out there on a river somewhere is a lot more frequent than you think. Beginner kayakers may be on a river that is right around the location where they have lived all of their lives, however, living all of your life in a certain area doesn’t mean you know the surrounding wilderness.

The important thing to know is, that it’s more likely that you will get lost on a large lake or kayaking in the ocean than you will on a river. You may get lost on a river, but you’re always close to shore, for the most part, and you will always come out somewhere.

If you don’t have a lot of boating experience, it’s easy to lose your place and forget or lose sight of the landmarks on the shoreline. If you’ve ever been swimming at the beach, you’ll know how easy it is to end up a long way down the shoreline from where you entered.

Keep the shoreline at a visual distance at all times and always bring a compass with you. Pay attention to the sun as well. Where is it when you go into the water? Make sure it’s in the opposite position when you want to find your way back. You can’t always depend on the sun, especially when it’s directly overhead, but it’s a good visual aid in the morning and evening.

Inexperienced kayakers

This is probably the number one most dangerous aspect of kayaking. Beginners taking on too much at once and getting themselves involved in areas where you should be an experienced kayaker are the reason that ‘inexperience’ is responsible for a fifth of all kayaking deaths in 2020.

If it’s your first time in a kayak, there is no reason to prove yourself or go out into situations that clearly call for more experience. If kayaking is something that you’re serious about, consider joining a kayaking class, such as this one, administered in Florida.

Kayaking classes will run you through all of the fundamentals of kayaking so you don’t end up out on the water with no clue how to handle adverse situations. You also want to practice recovering from a capsize because that’s certainly something that you may have to deal with one day.

Don’t allow yourself to become exhausted

There are a lot of muscles involved in paddling and you can quickly discover that it takes a lot more out of you than you expected. That doesn’t include things like dehydration, too much exposure to the sun, and adverse weather conditions, all of which can contribute to exhaustion.

Being exhausted and out on open water is not a pretty place to be, especially when it’s a  long way back to the shoreline or the car. Think about it this way, most swimmers die from drowning after getting caught in a riptide because they simply become too exhausted to swim any longer.

If you’re not completely energized and ready to go, you shouldn’t even bother going out on the water, to begin with. In the early days, as a beginner, don’t stray too far from your home base. Take it easy at first and discover how much your body is willing to endure.

Undercut rocks pull kayaks down

Undercut rocks are rocks that have space carved out beneath them from years of rapidly flowing water erosion. This changes how the current flows around and under the rock. If you approach a large enough undercut rock, it has the potential to drag your kayak down as it follows the flow of the water underneath the rock.

This is where your Personal Flotation Device, buoyant helmet, and proper shoes come in. When something like this happens, you can quickly abandon the kayak, with the help of the buoyancy created by your equipment.

The dangers of strainers and sweepers

Strainers and sweepers aren’t some foreign, alien entities or monsters that lurk below the water’s surface. Sweepers are low-hanging branches that dangle down over the water and even though they may look rather harmless, they may be enough to capsize you.

Strainers are the exact opposite, trees or logs that are submerged, which makes them difficult to see and you are more likely to encounter them when you are close to the shoreline. If you spot a strainer, usually given away by a few branches barely sticking up out of the water, you want to navigate directly into them if you don’t have enough time to go around.

It’s important to know where you are going and have a little bit of experience when navigating certain waters. If you can, always bring an experienced kayaker with you when you go out on unfamiliar waters.

Too much sun exposure

Almost nothing is as exhausting as having spent too much time out in the sun. This is something that can easily happen if you are out on a kayak for a long time. That’s not to mention heatstroke and sunburns, exacerbated by dehydration if you forgot to bring some water along.

You can combat this by making sure you have plenty of sunblock on and also have some on you in the kayak. You can also reduce your exposure by wearing bright clothing, not sun absorbent clothing. Also, wear a hat and if hats aren’t your thing, wear one anyway. Sunglasses help as well, especially the ones that block UV rays.

You’d be surprised at how much your eyes can hurt when exposed to too much UV light throughout the day.

Hypothermia in the cooler months

You may feel like you are dressed pretty warmly but nothing hits you like a cannonball quite like a dip in the water during the colder months. If you happen to be a long way from your departure point, you also run the risk of hypothermia.

Hypothermia is a drop in body temperature associated with the inability of your body to warm up again. When you go out in a kayak during the winter, or even early spring and late fall, wear a wetsuit underneath your clothes. If you capsize, the wetsuit will efficiently protect your body from both cold shock and ultimately, hypothermia.

You should also take a crash course in dealing with hypothermia or just avoid going out on the water altogether when it’s getting pretty cold outside. Small bodies of water get colder a lot quicker than the Gulf of Mexico will so keep that in mind as well.

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We’ve written an article covering what to wear to stay warm while kayaking.

Lacking the proper equipment or simply not wearing it

Even if you are kayaking on relatively calm water, you always want to wear a properly fitted PFD, along with a helmet that has some buoyancy to it, and the proper shoes for kayaking. All three can potentially save your life.

Even if you capsize in a calm pond, you don’t know what’s directly beneath you and you can easily suffer a concussion, if not something worse. Your PFD, along with the rest of your gear, is one of the most important things you can bring with you.

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We’ve written an article on the 5 best kayaking life jackets for women.

Final thoughts

As you can see, there are a lot of dangers in and around the sport and recreational activity of kayaking. However, almost all of it can be minimized through proper preparation, wearing your protective equipment (fitted correctly), and taking some beginner courses before you set out on your first adventure.

Happy kayaking if you’re not completely scared away 🙂