is kayaking dangerous: man in wetsuit and blue kayak paddles in waves

Is Kayaking Dangerous? 12 Kayaking Dangers and How to Prepare for Them

Kayaking is a popular activity, and each summer a new group of people give it a try for the first time. But, with new adventures comes some new worries. Is kayaking dangerous? And if it is how can I protect myself while on the water? 

Kayaking can be dangerous if you don’t know what to avoid and how to prepare. But, if you’re knowledgeable about kayaking obstacles, prepared for the weather, and carry the proper safety gear then kayaking is an extremely safe and fun activity to enjoy on the water. 

Let’s dive into why can make kayaking dangerous and explore how to prepare and prevent those dangerous situations on the water. 

Common Kayaking Dangers

Since there are so many (12!) common kayaking dangers to prepare for, I thought a nice chart would be helpful to explore them all. 

The chart explores each of the kayaking dangers briefly. But, if you want more information keep reading to learn more about why these are dangerous and how to prevent yourself from encountering them while kayaking. 

DangerWhy is it Dangerous?Preparation
WeirTraps you and your kayak underwaterPaddle to land and walk over the weir instead of paddling over it
Sun ExposureSunburn, Heat Exhaustion, ultraviolet keratitisWear proper sun protective clothing and eye-wear. Be aware of your body temperature and rest
HypothermiaDangerous low body temperature needing medical attentionWear proper clothing and be experiences in winter kayaking
Waves/Tides/CurrentsPull you far away from landPaddle at an angle
Sweepers/StrainersObstacles in the water that can trap you or flip youAvoid them entirely
UndercutArea of water under a bank/rock that will trap your kayakAvoid them entirely
Other BoatsCause waves that can flip youKayak into the waves and know how to handle flipped kayaks
Incorrect PFD SizeMakes the PFD uselessWear a properly sized PFD
DehydrationHarmful to body and healthBring and drink more water
WildlifeCan attack kayakersBe prepared for wildlife encounters
CapsizingGet stuck under waterLearn how to handle a flipped kayak
Getting lostBeing lost in open waterKnowing how to navigate open water

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1. Weirs

If you’re not an avid kayaker, or aren’t really into water hydraulics, then you may have never heard of the term weir. A weir is essentially a small dam created by humans to manage river levels. 

Their size can be misleading, as what appears to be a small obstacle that can easily be paddled over by a kayak, is actually a deadly current that can keep you trapped under the water unable to escape. 

You see, at the bottom of a weir there is a hydraulic (or current) of water that’s meant to cycle the water (and by default you and your kayak) through a series of submersion and resubmersion. In other words, it’ll trap you under the water in a cycle that’s very difficult to escape. 

The best option if you encounter a weir is to paddle to land and walk your kayak across it. If you find yourself already trapped in the weir hydraulic current, then the best option is to remain calm and swim downward or to the side to escape the current. 

2. Sun Exposure

Kayaking typically means you’re going to be exposed to the sun. But what people don’t realize is that when you’re kayaking you’re actually exposed to the sun twice – first from overhead, and second from the water’s reflection. 

Because you’re getting hit with double the sun, you really have to be aware of the dangers of prolonged sun exposure. Of course there’s the standard sunburn, but there’s also heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and something called ultraviolet keratitis that is a sunburn of your eyeballs. Yes, your eyeball! 

When kayaking it’s important to wear sun protection including sunscreen or sun-protective clothing, sunglasses, and a hat to lower sun exposure. You’ll also need to keep an eye on your body temperature and be sure to locate some shade and rest if you’re struggling to cool down. 

If you start to experience headaches, nausea, fatigue, confusion, elevated heart rate,  or anything that doesn’t feel quite right – get out of the sun and off the water as fast as possible. And if those symptoms continue to persist, then get yourself to a medical professional right away. 

3. Hypothermia

Kayaking in winter? Then hypothermia should be on the top of your list of things to prevent. Hypothermia sets in when your body gets too cold, and cold water is one of the fastest ways to drop your body temperature to dangerous levels.

If you’re kayaking in the winter, wearing proper clothing is the best way to prevent hypothermia. Additionally, use a dry bag to pack some extra clothing if you need to switch out to something warmer and dry. 

And don’t try kayaking in winter unless you really know what you’re doing. Winter kayaking is definitely not for a brand-new kayaker. Have some experience before heading out in the cold. 

is kayaking dangerous: man in wetsuit and blue kayak paddles in waves

4. Waves/Tides/Currents

Waves, tides, and currents can be extremely dangerous for primarily sea (or large lake) kayakers. Paddling against the movement of large bodies of water isn’t the easiest and currents, waves, and tides can often drag you much farther from land than you intended and leave you there stranded. 

That’s probably not what you intended for your kayaking trip. There’s no real way to avoid waves, tides, currents other than to just be aware of where you’re kayaking and the weather conditions of the day. But if you find yourself caught in one there are some techniques you can use to help you navigate out safely. 

For currents, don’t paddle away from them. It’s a futile effort that wastes a lot of energy. Currents require that you paddle at an angle until you can escape. 

Waves require a bit of a different approach. You’ll paddle into the waves as you try to make your way back to shore. 

5. Strainers/Sweepers

Strainers and sweepers are fancy vocabulary for obstacles that lie around the water’s surface. Strainers are obstacles lying just beneath the water’s surface, while sweepers are obstacles lying on top of the water’s surface. 

The obstacles are things like branches, downed trees, and rocks that can impede your kayaks flow. Now sweepers are easily avoidable – you can see them, so just paddle around them in order to keep from getting stuck. 

But, strainers are a lot more dangerous. This is because underneath the water these obstacles like branches, grasses, and rocks, can form a tangled jumble. In calm water this isn’t an issue, but in fast moving water getting trapped in a strainer can create a current that traps you under the water. 

If you encounter a strainer in fast moving water, lean into it and not away from it. Leaning towards it make it less likely you’ll tip into it and flip. 

6. Undercuts

An undercut exists when the river bank juts out on top of the water, but beneath that land is a hollow section filled with water. You can also have an undercut that exists beneath the large rocks in the rapids on a river. You can’t tell which banks or rocks have undercuts, making avoiding them if you don’t already know where they are pretty much impossible. 

But, if you hit one it’s going to trap you and take some serious force to escape. An undercut isn’t something you can paddle out from yourself – you’re going to need to be rescued from this situation by someone who is trained in handling undercuts. 

So, the best way to handle undercuts is to avoid them entirely. And since you can’t see an undercut, to avoid undercuts you’ll need to know where they are before ever hitting the water. 

My recommendation for learning where undercuts are is to paddle with a local who knows where they are, or do some research by reading up on the river you plan to paddle to locate them before you head out. 

7. Other Boats

Other boats can sometimes be a  pretty large kayaking danger you’ll want to avoid if possible. Now, avoiding boats altogether is unlikely especially if you’re kayaking on a popular river or lake. And, most larger boaters are respectful of non-motorized watercraft. But, the few that aren’t can cause some serious problems. 

See the issue is that larger boats create larger waves when they pass by. Speed affects this as well, so if the boat moves faster the larger the waves are. Now, most boats will slow down for a kayaker in order to reduce the waves – but every once in a while you’ll paddle past a large boat speeding down the water without regard to smaller watercraft. 

When this happens you need to prepare for some large waves, and these waves have the potential to flip your kayak. 

When kayaking in places with larger motorcraft it’s always good practice to paddle next to the shore to limit the impact of the waves. Also, if you do encounter big waves paddle into them, as it’ll decrease your chance of flipping. And, know what to do if your kayak flips and how to either flip back over or escape safely from the yak. 

is kayaking dangerous. Man in red kayak approaches large rapids

8. Incorrect PFD Use

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs or life jackets) are pretty much required to be in your yak while kayaking in most places.  But, what isn’t mandated is you having a PFD that fits correctly and works for your water conditions. 

If you purchase just any life jacket you’re in real danger of choosing one that isn’t for your size or weight. And, if you end up in a situation where you need a life jacket, having one that fits correctly is essential to ensuring it helps you stay alive. 

There are different types of life jackets and you’ll want to choose the right one for the water you’ll be kayaking in before heading out. If you’re not a strong swimmer and still choosing to kayak then it’s even more important for you to choose and wear a life jacket properly. 

To check the fit of your PFD have someone put two fingers under the shoulder and press up. If it rises to your ears, it’s too big for you and you need a different PFD. 

9. Dehydration

One of the real dangers of kayaking is dehydration. Now dehydration is possible with any outdoor activity, but there’s something about water sports that makes people forget how dangerous dehydration can be. I mean, I’m on the water, so why do I need to worry about water, right?

Absolutely wrong. Due to the increase sun exposure while kayaking you’re more likely to get dehydrated faster. And if you combine that with the sweat from exertion then you’re really putting your body under some stress.

To prevent dehydration while kayaking bring extra water and remember to drink it often! Also, look out for signs of dehydration including loss of appetite, nausea, headache, dizziness, and decreased sweating. If those start to appear get off the water and to a medical professional quick. 

10. Wildlife

The danger of wildlife while kayaking is going to depend on where you’re kayaking. I’ll have to admit, my New England waterways aren’t filled with anything that’s going to seriously threaten my life. 

But, wildlife is always important to keep in mind while kayaking. If you are kayaking in place with alligators, crocodiles, or sharks then you should be aware of what to do if you encounter those while kayaking. 

But, everyone should be aware of the wildlife around us while on the water even if its not a life or death experience. In the New England waterways I frequent, I may experience snakes, beavers, or snapping turtles each with their own dangers (or at least inconveniences) while kayaking. 

The best advice I can give for wildlife while kayaking is know what animals may be there and what to do if you encounter them while on the water. 

11. Capsizing

There’s always a chance that your kayak could capsize when you’re out on the water. It’s well know that it is a possibility when you’re in rough water or kayaking down rapids, but even on calm water its possible with a strong gust of wind or a rogue speed boat going past. 

So, you have to know what to do if your kayak flips, otherwise you’ll be in a dangerous situation if you don’t know how to get back to the upright position. 

Now, there are two ways to handle a flipped kayak. The first is to stay in the kayak and flip yourself back over (which you should practice in shallow water before ever relying on it in real life). The second is to exit your yak underwater and get everything oriented right again from the water. 

Both techniques are entirely viable, and you should be prepared for both in case your kayak capsizes. 

12. Getting Lost

The last kayaking danger discussed here is getting lost. Now, this isn’t a concern if you’re kayaking a river, pond, or small lake, but in larger lakes and the open ocean it’s a serious concern. 

If you’re kayaking in a large open body of water then you may get to the point where you can’t see land. In cases like these knowing how to navigate in the water is extremely important and can be the difference between life and death. 

If you do find yourself lost on the water, then you’ll need to contact the Coast Guard to locate you. If you’re in a really dire situation and no longer have a way to communicate, making an emergency plan before leving is essential so someone knows you’re out on the water and what to do if you don’t come back in time. 

Hopefully you now have a better understanding of how kayaking can be dangerous and how to prepare for several common kayaking dangers. 

Kayaking can be an extremely fun and relaxing activity, but preparing for potential dangers is important to staying safe and enjoying your paddle. 

Are you looking for more kayaking tips? Check out our kayaking tips page to find more articles just like this to help you on your next kayaking adventure. 

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