How to Drain Water from a Kayak

When you’re kayaking the last thing you want is water accumulating inside your kayak. But, things happen and whether it’s a crashing wave, an accidental tumble, or a passing boat, sometimes that dreaded water makes its way inside your kayak. 

While small amounts of water in your kayak is fine, larger amounts of water can make kayaking uncomfortable and your kayak less buoyant. So, it’s important to know how to remove water from your kayak while you’re out on the water. Certain gear, like a bilge pump, is the go-to for draining your kayak of water, but if you don’t have one with you then learning some manual techniques to remove the water can be helpful. 

Below we will explore different ways of draining water from a kayak to help you be more prepared to handle water inside a kayak no matter what caused it to be there. 

whitewater kayaking flipping - can you remove the styrofoam from the kayak

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Assessing the Situation: Can you Make it to Land?

The dreaded has happened: you have water in your kayak and it’s enough water to make you start to worry. First things first, don’t panic. Take a deep breath and look around. Are you close enough to land to be able to make it with your kayak? If the answer is yes, then head to land as fast as you can move. 

Water in your kayak can be dangerous and removing that water from land is much easier than when you’re still on or in the water. 

But, not everyone can make it to land, and for those cases it’s good to know how to drain water from a kayak while you’re still on the water. 

How to Drain Water When You're in the Kayak

So, what do you do if you’re too far away from land to make it? Well, that’s going to depend on whether you’re in your kayak or if you’ve flipped out and are now in the water. 

If water is accumulating and you’re still inside your kayak then you have two choices (and the one you go with depends on whether you properly prepared to kayak or not).  

Option 1: The Bilge Pump

If you’ve properly prepared for kayaking and have all the gear you need, then you’ll be carrying a bilge pump. A bilge pump is a hand held pump that allow you to easily pump water outside of your kayak. You can use it on land or while you’re in the kayak. 

When kayaking you not only want to carry a bilge pump, but you want to make sure it’s attached to your kayak. Don’t just leave it sitting inside as if you flip, or hit a strong wave, then it will likely fall out and sink to the bottom of the water (and you don’t want that). 

Instead, if you find your kayak filling with water then take out your bilge pump and quickly pump out the water. 

You won’t always need one, but it’s so incredibly useful when you do. I found this out myself when kayaking Bantam River in Connecticut, and portaging a beaver dam caused me to flip, filling my kayak with water. Five minutes of pumping later and my kayak was mostly empty of water and ready to go! 

blue and yellow bilge pump on the bow of a bright green kayak on the water. How to drain the kayak

Option 2: The scooping method

In the case where you didn’t come prepared and don’t have a bilge pump with you then you’ll have to resort to the last option scenario: the scooping method. 

Most people will have brought some type of container on their trip. Whether it’s a water bottle, a soda can, dry bag, or even just a closed shoe – you have something with you to scoop water. 

Now, this isn’t a super fast method or one that I highly recommend. But, if you are completely out of options then this may be what you have to do. Take whatever you have and slowly, scoop-by-scoop, get that water out. 

Now, this only works if your kayak isn’t actively filling with water or sinking due to the water. But, if you just have more water than you’d like in your kayak and want to remove some of it to help you get to land, then this will work. Not ideal, but sometimes we have to do whatever works, and the scooper method will work. 

How to Drain Water From a Kayak When You've Tipped Over

Not only is your kayak filled with water, but now you’re not even in your kayak. This is really close to the worst case scenario for most kayakers, but if you find yourself in this situation it is still possible for you to drain the water from your kayak (so you can get back in). 

If your kayak doesn’t have too much water in it, you may be able to get back inside without draining it first. But be cautious attempting this. Sometimes the weight of the water and combined with your weight will be too much for the kayak. You don’t want to completely sink your kayak and cause it to fully fill with water while attempting this technique. So, only attempt getting back in first if you’re positive the amount of water combined with your weight won’t sink the kayak. 

Draining a Kayak From the Water Solo

If you’re kayaking solo then being in the water with a water-filled kayak is not a great place to be. The first thing to do is assess the situation. The “get to land” advice from above applies here. Swimming your kayak (or even just yourself) to land may be the best and safest option. 

If that really isn’t an option then there is a technique to get some of the water out by yourself from the water, but you’re going to need some serious upper body strength and strong swimming skills. If that doesn’t describe you – then do what you can to get to land or call for help. 

If you want to attempt to drain the water from the kayak then you’ll need to swim to one end of your kayak (the bow end is typically lighter – but depends on your kayak and its shape). From here you’ll lift the end of the kayak out of the water (you’ll need some strong legs to propel yourself and the kayak up out of the water. 

From this position some of the water will start draining, and if not, then turn slightly from side-to-side. Don’t go too hard on this as you don’t want to lose your grip, but a slight turn can get a little more water out of the yak. 

The goal of this is to remove just enough water to allow you enter the kayak and remove the rest with a bilge pump

Draining a Kayak From the Water With Others

If you’re lucky enough to be kayaking with others when you tip and fill your kayak with water then you’ll have other people to help you drain the water from the kayak. This is a much safer situation. 

If the person you’re kayaking with has a bilge pump, then swim your kayak to them and have them pump it out themselves (away from their own kayak so water doesn’t just go from one kayak to another). 

If no one in your group has a bilge pump (come on guys… please don’t be these people), then you’ll still swim your kayak over to theirs. Place your kayak perpendicular to theirs, and slowly slide the filled kayak onto the bow of their kayak (do this carefully and only enough so that the cockpit comes out of the water). 

From this position you and the other kayaker will work together to flip the kayak on its side to drain. 

Now, this only works if the water is calm. Doing this in rough waters with strong winds and waves will put the other kayaker in danger of capsizing too. So only do this technique as the water and weather allows. 

Draining Water from a Sit-on-Top Kayak

You should rarely, if ever, be in a sit-on-top kayak that needs to be drained. Sit-on-top kayaks are designed with scupper holes that constantly drain your kayak of water while using it. 

With that said, these holes can become clogged with debris, or plugged with drain plugs. Scupper hole drain plugs are generally used in rougher waters where the scupper holes would cause more water to enter the kayak from below than drain normally. With that said, it’s my personal opinion that you shouldn’t be in sit-on-top kayaks in rough waters anyways. 

But, I digress. If you find yourself in a situation where your sit-on-top kayak is filling with water then it is essential that you unclog (or unplug) your scupper holes immediately. Doing this should cause the water to drain from your yak. 

scupper holes on blue pelican kayak used for draining water

How to Avoid Water Getting into Your Kayak

Ideally, you want to prevent water from entering your kayak at all. Luckily, there is a piece of gear that can help with this. A spray skirt is an addition you can place on the kayak’s cockpit to cover the opening and prevent water from getting in due to waves (or even flips). 

Spray skirts are essential if you’re kayaking in the open sea, or in any rough waters, but can be placed on your kayak at anytime. If you’d rather be certain to prevent water from getting into your kayak in the first place, then it may be worth adding a spray skirt to your kayaking gear. 

I hope you never find your kayak filled with water, but if you do (and you probably will at some point), then using any of the gear or techniques above will help you empty out that yak and get on your way back to land. Being prepared is essential to ensuring you can kayak safely and enjoy your trip, and now you know a little bit more about how to drain water from a kayak to make your trip even safer. 

If you’re new to kayaking (or just looking for a refresher), check out our ultimate guide to kayaking for beginners or check out any of our articles below! 

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