Tips For Safer Canoeing and Kayaking





Most canoe spills take place in shallow water and swift
current. There is a good probability that a dumped canoeist could hit his
head on a rock or his boat. It is nearly impossible to swim in rapids, or
through downed trees. A life jacket is essential, not only for flotation,
but for hypothermia protection. And by the way, after most drownings from
canoes or kayaks, life jackets are seen floating nearby…empty. You have to
WEAR them!




If you’re on a canoe or kayaking trip, somebody ought
to know if you get into trouble, and the only way that can happen is if you
tell a friend in advance of your trip . Give that person the names of all
passengers or companions, the place you’ll be starting and ending your trip,
when you plan to arrive at your destination and any waypoints in between.
You should also include phone numbers of law enforcement agencies along the
way, with instructions on when and who to contact if you are overdue.




It’s important to know the limitations of your abilities. Be
honest with yourself and your companions. Your life and the lives of those
in your party may depend on how everyone understands each other’s
capabilities. If you overstate your abilities, eventually someone is going
to be counting on help that you won’t be able to give them, so if you’re a
novice, admit it. If you’re a pro, admit that, too. The novices in the group
will feel better knowing you’re along on the trip.




A waterproof weather radio or hand held VHF Marine radio
can be a big help when the skies begin to darken or you get a sudden wind
shift. Check the sky and sea conditions, and NEVER operate in a situation
that exceeds your capability.




Don’t attempt rivers or rapids beyond your ability.
Progress gradually from one skill level to the next. Unfamiliar waters are
no place to test your limits, or try to impress anybody. Each stream or
river presents unique challenges, and dangers. Even well-seasoned veterans
need to become familiar with the body of water before embarking on a




After heavy rains, streams, rivers, and creeks rise
and sweep lots of debris from the shoreline. Debris can become a trap or
hindrance in water incidents. Debris can be found in three levels: on the
surface, suspended in the water and on the bottom. It’s important to
remember that just about any material or object may be in any, or all, of
the three types of debris in water. Suspended and bottom debris is usually
invisible to you, and therefore are especially dangerous.




Boating alone is not recommended. Even though recreational
canoeists often canoe with a single canoe and one partner, or even solo, it
is recommended you canoe with at least three people or two craft. The less
the skill of the paddler, and the less that is known about the stream, the
more important this rule becomes.




Dress properly for existing and expected conditions. Extreme
cold requires wet or dry suits, but in more moderate conditions layered
clothing is recommended. Fabric choices should include those that provide
warmth, even when wet. Cotton should never be worn in cold weather
conditions because they “wick” heat away from the body when wet,
accelerating the affects of hypothermia. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect
your head, neck, and
ears from the




You’ll need a
strap for attaching them to your
This is particularly important during a capsize when
eyewear can
easily slip off and go to the bottom.




Don’t forget shoes. Tennis shoes are best for canoeing and
should be worn at all times. Bare feet have no place in canoeing…the
terrain of the land and the bottoms of streams can be hazardous.




Carry a spare paddle in the boat, and a small PVC
type bilge pump. The pump should have a flotation collar, and is essential
to get a kayak cockpit pumped out before the next wave breaks. Equip your
craft with bow and stern lines. An extra safety throwing line (at least 50
feet in length) can be very valuable. But be careful how you stow these
lines. If the canoe spills, feet can become entangled in loose lines, and
this can lead to serious trouble. There should be nothing around which will
attach someone to a swamped canoe. Loose lines can be deadly. You’ll also
want to pack a First Aid Kit and secure it to the boat. Paddle sports
enthusiasts often operate in remote areas where medical attention is not
readily available. And it wouldn’t hurt to take a first aid and CPR course
while you’re at it. Store small items such as sunscreen and bug repellent,
food and snacks in a waterproof dry-bag, tethered to the boat. When tying
down these items, make sure they are stowed in an area that will not
interfere with the users’ ability to exit the vessel safely in the event of
a capsize. Emergency signalling gear should be stored in the pockets of your
PFD and tied down so that when accessed they won’t be lost.




Add to your comfort and warmth while kayaking by
keeping as much water out of the cockpit as possible. A passing boat might
toss a wake, or just a change in weather can cause splashing into your
quarters. Know how to attach it properly, and know how to remove it quickly
in an emergency.




Distribute the weight evenly. Look for ways to save
space and to leave excess weight behind.




Make sure your boat’s load is balanced, side to side
and front to back. Don’t overload the boat, and if your are carrying cargo,
make sure it’s secured so it doesn’t shift around.




In rapids and restricted passages, keep a safe
distance behind other boats. Don’t crowd, and back paddle if necessary. The
lead boat should pull up and wait after passing a difficult area. If someone
encounters trouble, be willing to stop and offer your
At put-in and take-out points, be courteous and take turns.




Growing up on the Mississippi, I remember the
temptation to get out the canoe and paddle around the streets running swift
with flood waters. But flood waters can exert several tons of force on a
canoe pinned against a tree or bridge pier or the side of a building. A
canoe can be pinned under a log jam or downed tree, trapping its paddlers.
So stay out of flood waters. And if you happen to be canoeing or camping and
heavy rain forces you to leave – don’t try to cross waterways with heavy
drainage. We don’t want to read about you in the morning news.




You don’t have to worry about hypothermia if
you’re boating in water over 98.6 degrees. If you fall into water less than
that temperature, your body will begin immediately to cool in the direction
of the water temperature. If your bod temp gets down to about 85 degrees,
you’re pretty much done for. Cold water causes death in nearly half of the
drowning cases reported. If you do fall into cold water, follow these steps:

  • – Tighten your clothes and try to cover your head.
  • – Act quickly before losing use of your hands.
  • – If possible, right a capsized boat or climb atop it.
  • – Don’t swim unless it’s to reach a nearby boat. Swimming saps heat and
  • cuts survival time in half.
  • – Stay as still as possible. Movement robs you of heat.
  • – Assume a position in the water which minimizes heat loss.
  • – If you’re in the water with one or more persons, huddle together
  • closely.
  • – If you’re a rescuer, don’t apply heat to arms or legs, or give
  • massages or hot baths. The best way to warm a victim is with body-to-body
  • contact and a tight blanket.




Hot weather can be as dangerous as cold water. Carry
plenty of drinking water. The water surface and aluminum canoes cause
considerable reflection on sunny days which may lead to serious sunburn,
heat exhaustion or sunstroke. Everyone enjoys getting out in the sun, but
canoeing in a swimsuit or bikini can be dangerous. Canoeists need to wear or
carry a shirt, blouse or jacket. Hats or other head coverings help prevent
heat exhaustion or sunstroke. Know the symptoms and first aid procedures for
these serious conditions.




In rivers with a current, stay upstream of the boat
to avoid being pinned. Don’t float with your body on the down river side of
the canoe. Staying upstream allows you to avoid being pinned against
obstructions. Even a light current flow can cause you to be pinned between
an immovable object and your canoe. Stay away from strainers (trees and
parts of trees or posts which are submerged and subject to strong currents),
and sweepers (low-hanging branches which touch the water in a current). If
you are swept by the flow against an obstruction, lean your body toward the
obstruction instead of pushing away. Pushing invites the flow to come in and
over the side more quickly.




Be ready for an occasional dunking when you canoe. Don’t
panic. In calm waters, angle your way up to shore instead of paddling
straight. Stay behind the boat, and hold onto it for flotation. Always wear
your life jacket.




If your boat capsizes, don’t panic. Your canoe can be
flipped back over. Over-turned canoes float. First, assure that all
passengers are safe before attempting to retrieve equipment. Stay with your
canoe unless you judge that doing so will be dangerous. If you can stay with
the canoe you can guide it into quiet water. Stay at the upstream end of the
canoe so that if the canoe becomes pinned, you don’t. If possible hold on to
your paddle…you’ll need it later. Don’t try to swim in rapids. Float in
your life jacket on your back, with your feet downstream. If the water is
cold, get ashore quickly.




If someone else’s canoe has dumped offer your
assistance. If it comes down to a rescue, remember…it’s the people first,
then the equipment. If it’s cold, get them ashore, dry them and warm them
immediately. It may not occur to them that they’re uncomfortable because of
confusion. Above all, keep calm and encourage the “dunkees” to do likewise.



  1. Standing up or moving about in a canoe greatly increase the chance of
  2. capsize.
  3. Maintain three points of contact while moving around.
  4. Load the boat properly.
  5. Keep your shoulders inside the gunwales of the boat.
  6. Take hands-on training.
  7. Wear a PFD.
  8. Don’t drink alcohol immediately preceding or during a paddling trip.
  9. Understand your limitation and that of the vessel.
  10. Plan ahead.
  11. Know how to swim.
  12. Never paddle alone.