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Potential Dangers Of Kayaking And How To Avoid Them

Today I want to talk about the potential dangers of kayaking and how to be safe on the water. Kayaking is a popular outdoor activity, but some people have safety concerns.  If you are well prepared, you can have a fun and safe kayak adventure.

Is kayaking dangerous?  Kayaking can be (and should be) a relaxing outdoor activity. But, you need to take certain precautions. Read on to find out about the dangers of kayaking, including things to be aware of, watch out for, and situations to avoid altogether.

Dangers of kayaking


Paddling away in the sun can make you sweat and lose water quickly. You can easily get dehydrated and not realize it.  You will be exerting energy when you are paddling, so it’s essential to have enough fluid. Dehydration can leave you feeling tired and lethargic.

Even if the temperature is moderate, you can still get dehydrated without enough water. It’s important to have enough fluid with you to stay hydrated and alert so you can have a good day of kayaking.

Sun exposure (overexposure)

You are very exposed with little to no escape from the sun when you are kayaking.  People often underestimate how brutal the sun can be even when it’s not hot. 

Sun exposure plays into dehydration, which we just covered, but you can also get a sunburn or heat exhaustion, depending on the conditions. I live in a warm-weather climate, so a day on the water in the summer can be brutal.

It’s not just the heat that can get you, but the glare from the water can keep you from seeing potential hazards or obstacles.  The best way to protect yourself is to wear appropriate clothing, sunblock, and sunglasses.

Underwater obstacles

It doesn’t matter if you are kayaking on a calm lake or slow-moving river. There may be obstacles lurking underwater than you need to avoid.  Pay attention to things like rocks, tree stumps, or branches.  Depending on water levels, you may or may not be able to see some of these things.  A sharp rock just below the surface could leave you in a bad spot.

I have been kayaking on a slow-moving river, and suddenly I am in six inches of water, due to a sandbar or rock outcrop.  You can often get a sense of obstacles by watching how the water is flowing in certain areas.  If you notice rapids, even small rapids, this can be a clue that rocks or other objects are submerged, and you may want to avoid that area.

Pay attention to your surroundings, including the shoreline. You may notice a fallen tree, which can result in branches that jut into the water.  These and similar underwater obstacles, also known as strainers, can cause your kayak or paddle to get stuck. You could end up overboard without even realizing it.

Above water obstacles

Even objects that you can see above the water can be hazardous.  Things like large rocks or low hanging tree branches can wreck your otherwise calm day on the water.

You might find a tree on the shore with low hanging branches, known as sweepers, and not give it a second thought. If you try to kayak around or under the branch, get too close, and the branch could sweep you into the water.

Rocks are always something to watch out for.  It doesn’t matter if you have an inflatable or hardshell kayak. Rocks can be bad news.  Just because you can see a potential obstacle, it can still be dangerous if you are not careful. Water currents or choppy water can take you closer to an obstacle without even realizing it.

Improper life jacket use

When you are on the water, make sure you wear an appropriate life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD).  There are many different types of life jackets to choose from; you can read more here

Just having a life jacket with you isn’t quite good enough. You need to wear it and make sure it fits properly. The life jacket needs to fit according to your height and weight.  The PFD should fit snug but not too tight.  You also don’t want the life jacket to be too big. The PFD manufacturer should have a sizing chart, so you can get the right fit.

Make sure you factor in the clothes you will be wearing.  An adjustable PFD is an excellent way to go. Depending on the weather or season, you will have a jacket that fits you properly.

Another thing to keep in mind, if the life jacket requires manual inflation, make sure you know how to operate it.  You may not plan on going overboard, but you want to be prepared to keep your head above water if you do.


If you are kayaking in cold conditions, you need to be prepared for the worst, including going overboard in cold water.  Hypothermia takes place when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat [1].

You should take this seriously, and if you are kayaking in cold weather and or in cold water conditions, be sure you are prepared with a wet suit or drysuit.

Now that we have discussed the dangers of kayaking let’s focus on avoiding these situations.

How to avoid the dangers of kayaking

Always wear a lifejacket

It’s essential to wear your life jacket when you are kayaking.  When you actually need a PFD, it’s going to be too late to put it on. Keeping your head above water will help you return to your kayak or get to shore.

Use your kayak as intended

Different kayaks are used for different purposes.  Click here to read more about the different types of kayaks.  The point I want to get across is this; use your kayak as intended.  Recreational and touring kayaks are meant for calm water, like a lake or slow-moving river.

There are other kayaks meant for whitewater.  It’s not a good idea to use a long, sleek touring kayak on a fast-moving river that requires a more nimble vessel. Using your kayak as it was intended will help you avoid trouble.

Kayaks come in all shapes and sizes for different purposes.  Make sure you have a kayak that is the right fit for you and your activities.

Be aware, be smart

Pay attention to your surroundings.  As I mentioned earlier, keep an eye out for changes in water flow.  If you see an area where rapids are forming, there may be rocks, tree branches, or other obstacles.  The water may also be shallow, in which case you can ground your boat.  

A tree that has fallen into the water may have branches that you can’t see and potentially snag your kayak or your paddle.  I have been on lakes where there are numerous tree stumps just below the surface of the water. You have to be careful with things like this, so you don’t run over them and potentially damage your boat.

Be alert when you are on the water, and keep your eyes open for obstacles.

Check the weather

Make sure you are prepared for the weather that day.  You will need to dress and pack accordingly. If there is a big storm approaching, you may want to plan your trip for another day.  Sometimes you can’t completely avoid changes in the weather, as storms can come up quickly.

Just do your best and make sure it’s a good day to be kayaking, and if you can avoid bad weather, that is a good idea.

Plan ahead and navigate

Sometimes people get into trouble kayaking when they are unfamiliar with the area.  This is understandable. It’s best to scout the area and have an idea of what you are getting into.  You can also carry a GPS with you to help you along the way. You can read more about kayaking GPS systems here.

If you are unfamiliar with the area you plan on kayaking, you may even want to make a trip to check it out first without your boat.  There is a lake in my area that my wife and I wanted to kayak.  We took an afternoon drive to check it out. Good thing we did, because there was literally nowhere to launch our kayaks from. The access points to the water were much too rocky and steep, even with a kayak cart

Is kayaking dangerous - Man kayaking on a river Pin

Watch out for boats

If you are kayaking on a large lake, there are going to be boats.  Lots of boats make for choppy water.  I have first-hand experience with this.  My wife and I recently found an area to take a break from kayaking and jump in the lake. 

Just when we decided to get back in our boats, three large motorboats went zooming by.  With waves crashing all around us, we were left on the rocky shore, trying to keep our balance and keep our kayaks from getting completely full of water.  Watch out for other boats. They may not see you in your kayak.

Should you kayak alone?

If you are prepared and someone knows you are out on your own, there is no reason you can’t go kayaking by yourself. If you take the proper precautions, many outlined in this article, you should be just fine. 

Kayaking is a peaceful way to enjoy nature and get away from it all, so by all means, get out whether you are alone or with someone else.


As we wrap things up here, there are a few takeaways.  Taking proper precautions goes a long way to having a safe day on the water.  Is kayaking dangerous?

If you steer clear of obstacles, you can see and pay attention to things that might be lurking under the water, you can have a fun adventure. Make sure you are prepared and aware of your surroundings for a great kayak trip.

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About the author
Steve is the owner of Paddle About, a blog that's all about helping people get out and enjoy nature. He loves to kayak, camp, hike and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not out exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.