Is Kayaking in a Lake Dangerous?

If you’re looking to get out and kayak, you may think that a lake is a safer option than sea kayaking. However, not all lakes are created equal and there are some important considerations to look out for before heading out on the water. Kayaking in a lake can be dangerous under specific conditions. 

Kayaking in a large lake can be dangerous because larger lakes have currents and waves that can take over or flip your kayak. But, even smaller lakes can become dangerous under certain weather conditions. But being prepared to handle these conditions can make kayaking in a lake a safe and enjoyable experience for all. 

We’ll dive into these dangerous lake conditions below, before exploring how to prepare for and handle each of them so you can feel confident and safe when kayaking on a lake. 

is kayaking in a lake dangerous - two people kayaking in waves

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Dangerous Conditions in Large Lakes

Kayaking in a lake is not the same as kayaking in a swimming pool. Even though from shore it may appear as if the water is calm and still, just beneath the surface there can be danger brewing for any kayaker. 

The two main causes of dangerous conditions inherent in large lakes are currents and waves. 

The Dangers of Currents when Kayaking in a Lake

Currents are bands of water moving in a specific direction. The current flow of water can be at the surface (surface currents) or much deeper in the water (depth currents). These currents can move very fast and even if the water is calm, strong currents can still exist under the water’s surface. Check out this current map of the Great Lakes to get an idea of how many and how fast currents can be in larger lakes. 

The reason currents are dangerous for kayakers is because they can push your yak much farther away from shore than you intended. In large lakes this can leave you stranded in the middle of the water. It’s nearly impossible to kayak against strong currents, and trying to do so will only leave you too exhausted to get somewhere safe. 

Below we talk about some ways to handle your kayak should you be caught in a current, but the important note here is to not flip. A kayak caught in a current will be pushed somewhere unintended. A human caught in a current can be sucked under the water and drown. So, should you find yourself kayaking in a current it’s important to stay in your yak

The Dangers of Waves when Kayaking in a Lake

We’re all familiar with ocean waves, but large lakes can have waves as well. And kayaking in waves is a completely different situation than  kayaking in calm, still water. 

This is because waves can flip your kayak or fill your yak with water, both of which are potentially dangerous situations if you don’t know how to handle them. 

Depending on the strength of the waves, kayakers who flip due to a wave can struggle to right themselves and their yak and get stuck under the water and risk drowning. For yaks continually hit with water filling their cockpit, this reduces buoyancy and can actually sink a kayak. 

Experiencing either of these in a lake, especially if you don’t know what to do, can be incredibly dangerous. We’ll discuss more below on how to handle these conditions should you find yourself kayaking in waves. 

is kayaking in a lake dangerous - two people kayaking in a lake

Weather Conditions that Can Make Any-Sized Lake Dangerous

Even if you’ve decided to only stick with smaller lakes, without strong waves or currents, it’s important to keep track of the weather. Bad weather conditions can turn an easy, safe paddle into a dangerous one very quickly. The weather conditions you’ll need to watch out for are strong winds, squalls, and lightening. 

The Dangers of Strong Winds when Kayaking in a Lake

Strong winds are not a paddlers friend. Windy conditions can drag you around the lake, flip your kayak, and make it impossible to head in your intended direction.

Just like currents, strong winds have the ability to take your kayak much farther out in the lake than you had initially planned. Not only that, but strong winds can even result in the kayak flipping, which is never good unless you know what to do. 

Paddling in strong winds is incredibly difficult as well, as the wind usually doesn’t just come from one direction. When a wind gust comes, it can turn your yak in a different direction than you intended, and before you can turn it around another one comes from different direction sending your orientation all over the place. It can be hard to right yourself if this occurs. 

The Dangers of Squalls when Kayaking in a Lake

If you’re unfamiliar with the term squall, it just describes a sudden, typically violent storm, which can bring rain, snow, or sleet. It also usually has high winds associated with it as well. 

Anytime there is a sudden weather change, and especially a violent one like squalls, it can be dangerous for kayakers. A squall is often so strong of a weather event that it can prevent visibility due to heavy rain/snow, while the winds drag your kayak around the open water. 

So, you definitely don’t want to get stuck out in a squall. Luckily though, even if they come on quickly, you usually can see the clouds approaching and get out of there before getting caught. 

The Dangers of Lightning when Kayaking in a Lake

Lightning is attracted to water, and the highest point around. As a kayaker on the open water – you and your yak become a prime target for a lightening strike. 

And, although there may be someone, somewhere who has survived a lightning strike on open water – it’s probably extremely rare. You don’t want to be the target of lightning while in your kayak on a lake.

Plus, if there’s lightning, there’s also probably heavy rain and wind – not great or safe conditions for kayaking on a lake. So kayaking when there’s lightning can be extremely dangerous. 

is kayaking in a lake dangerous - person kayaking in a lake towards shore

How to Handle Dangerous Conditions When Kayaking in a Lake

In a perfect world no one would experience dangerous conditions when kayaking on lake. But, we don’t live in that perfect world. So, if we can’t stop them from occurring we should learn how to deal with them when they do occur. 

I will note here that the best way to keep yourself safe while kayaking on a lake is to practice prevention. Don’t go onto water if you’re not prepared for the worst case scenario. Understand the weather conditions, and how to maneuver your equipment if those conditions unexpectedly worsen. This prevention can do a lot to protect yourself and maybe even save your life. 

How to Handle Currents in a Kayak

A current will pull your kayak in whatever direction it’s flowing. You’ll feel this when paddling because it’ll become hard, if not impossible, to paddle in another any direction other than the one you’re being pulled into. 

If your kayak is trapped in a current you want to paddle horizontal to where it’s taking you. So, if you’re being pulled to the east, try paddling north or south. Do this even if it isn’t your end destination. 

Sometimes though, you won’t be able to paddle in any direction other than currents direction. Thats okay. Stop paddling and float with the current for a bit. If you feel it loosen its grip, take advantage of that to paddle horizontally. 

Never try to paddle against a current. You likely wont win, and you will just exhaust yourself. 

How to Handle Waves in a Kayak

Although it may seem counterintuitive, when kayaking in waves you want to hit the waves head on with your boat. Many times I’ll see newer kayakers worried about getting water in their yak, and so they try to line their boat up with the waves. This will not work, and likely will only flip you. So hit the waves head on with your boat. 

You also want to keep your paddle in the water. It’s best if you can insert your paddle on the backside of the wave, because it keeps you moving forward, instead of being pushed back. 

If you’re worried about water in your yak, make sure to always carry a bilge pump with you to pump out any excess water that may get into the kayak due to waves. 

How to Handle Strong Winds in a Kayak

How to handle winds while kayaking is dependent on what type of wind is hitting you. If you have a headwind or tailwind, the best thing to do is to turn your yak in the direction of the wind. 

But if the direction is the wind is the opposite way of where you need to go – you’ll need to just use your strength and your skills dealing with waves to help propel you along. 

If you’re caught in a crosswind, the method is a bit different and relies on your kayak having the right gear. Quality touring or sea kayaks are equipped with skegs or rudders, which can be lowered in cases of strong crosswinds to help keep you on track. So, if you’ll be kayaking in a windy area make sure your kayak has a skeg to help you navigate stronger winds. 

How to Handle Squalls in a Kayak

The best thing to do in a squall is to not be in one at all. If you see clouds rolling in quickly, head towards the closest land as soon as possible, even if it’s not where you need to go. 

Squalls pass quickly, so once you reach land you’ll only need to find shelter there for a few minutes before the squall passes. 

If you can’t make it to land, then the best thing to do is to handle the waves and winds as they occur. You likely wont have great visibility, so this will be challenging. When the squall passes you may be disoriented as to where you are due to the lack of visibility. Carry a compass and know how to use it to reorient yourself. 

How to Handle Lightning in a Kayak

Again, the best way to handling lightening in a kayak is to not have to do so at all. If you hear thunder or see storm clouds rolling in, you need to make your way to land as soon as possible. 

If it is already storming, keep headed towards land. If you actually get hit by lightning in a kayak – well, there’s not really much you can do at that point. So, lets just try to prevent that from happening at all. 

What Do I Do if I Fall Out of My Kayak?

This deserves an entire article by itself, but if you fall out of your kayak you should stay calm and attempt to get back into it as soon as possible. 

To do this, you’ll need to start by turning your kayak over if it’s flipped. This is most easily done from the middle, where you’ll reach over the boat, grab the other side, and use your body weight to flip it upright. 

Once your boat is upright there are a few techniques to get into it. 

  • Method 1: Grab both sides of the open cockpit and with a strong kick under the water, propel your body onto the boat so that your bellybutton is facing the seat. You’ll then flip over and place your butt down in the yak
  • Method 2: Head towards the stern of the kayak. Reach across to the other side and kick your leg up on the kayak. At this point, you’ll be straddling the yak’s stern, with your chest on the boat. From here you’ll slide towards your cockpit until you manage to get inside. 

Before attempting either of these, make sure your paddle is secured to the kayak. If you lose your paddle, your kayak becomes mostly useless for transporting you back. So, its very important to not lose your paddle if you flip. 

You should now have the answer to whether kayaking in a lake is dangerous, what to look out for, and what to do should you get caught in a dangerous situation while kayaking in a lake. 

For other tips like these check out our kayaking tips page so you can be confident getting on the wa

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