Canoe & Kayak Paddling Safety Essentials

Know and follow these basic safety tips so you can fully enjoy paddling for a lifetime.

paddling safety

There’s nothing like being on the water enjoying nature, enjoying company, getting some exercise, throwing a line in.

Paddling is one of the lowest-risk activities you can do. But there’s still risk involved. Each year there are, unfortunately, a few accidents and even fatalities.

So what can you do to keep you and your family safe on the water? The best protection is prevention. Know what the risk factors are, and know what you can do to reduce those risks…

Being on the Water

Of course, there would be no paddling sports without water! The key is to approach it with respect. Know your personal limits. As your skills improve you can be more adventurous, but never lose your respect for the water you’re on.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF: Don’t paddle without your life jacket! And don’t just have it in the boat—wear it. Most drowning victims each year failed to wear a life jacket (also known as a PFD—a personal flotation device).


If you live in a northern climate or paddle during the winter in warmer regions, be aware of both the water and air temperatures when you paddle. The rules of thumb are:

  • Is the water temperature below 60º F (15.5º C)?
  • Is the combination of water and air temperature below 120º F (50º C)?

If the answer is yes to either, hypothermia can be a risk, even if you’re wearing a life jacket.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF: The best protection is to wear a dry suit or a wet suit under your PFD. In the event of a capsize or other unintentional “dip” you’ll be better able to retain your body heat. And if you stay closer to shore, you can swim for it.

Hazardous Water

This can include both river and ocean conditions where currents are a factor, as well as submerged trees and other natural objects (called strainers) in the water. High winds and large waves can be a risk on flat water.

paddling safety

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF: Pay attention to recent rains, which may have caused higher water levels and faster currents. Stay away from water that’s above your skill level. Learn the basic paddle strokes and be able to do them well. If you’re out on a multi-day trip, wait out bad weather rather than risk injury or the potential of drowning.

Collision with Other Objects

Besides the water itself, there’s also risk in colliding with stationary objects. The most common are rocks, whether you’re in a river or lake. The shoreline can be hazardous, especially in currents. And if you’re in an active boating area with large motorized boats, you and your canoe or kayak can be hard to see.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF: Again, pay attention! Be able to maneuver your boat easily by practicing your strokes. When you paddle in high-traffic areas, wear bright colors so you stand out.

Paddling Alone

Most paddlers love the serenity of being on the water alone, at least at times. If you’re one of them, take extra precautions for safety, knowing there may be no one around to help if you end up in trouble.

HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF: Paddle with others! But if you do go solo, it’s even more important that you know and follow the safety tips we’ve been talking about. Beyond that, let others know where you’ll be, your route, and your timeline. Know and practice self-rescue.

Canoeing and kayaking are wonderful, life-long sports for the whole family. Knowing the risks involved and always practicing safety will ensure years of enjoyment.

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