Can You Go Kayaking Without Knowing How to Swim?

Kayaking is a popular way to explore the outdoors, but what happens if you don’t know how to swim?  Can you still enjoy a relaxing day paddling your favorite waterway? The short answer is yes. In this article, we will discuss how to go kayaking without knowing how to swim. 

Maybe it’s a fear of water, or you never had a need to learn how to swim.  We will take a deeper look and discuss tips and options to help non-swimmers enjoy a day on the water. As long as you are okay getting wet, you can still go kayaking even if you don’t know how to swim.

Kayaking without knowing how to swim

Of course, knowing how to swim has its advantages when you are surrounded by water. Kayaks are designed to keep you upright, but if you end up overboard, don’t panic.  If swimming isn’t your jam, there are precautions you can take to stay safe.

Tips for kayaking if you don’t know how to swim

Being prepared and having the right gear goes a long way to a successful kayak trip, whether you know how to swim or not.  With a bit of prep work ahead of time, you can take steps to have a positive experience.

Let’s take a look at some strategies to help you enjoy a safe paddling excursion.

Choose the right life jacket

Whenever you are enjoying watersports, one of the most critical pieces of equipment is a life jacket. Regulations vary by region, so it’s a good idea to know the rules where you will be paddling.

A personal flotation device (PFD) will keep you floating if you accidentally end up in the water. Even if you a strong swimmer, it’s crucial to wear a life jacket. A PFD keeps you afloat, so you can focus on re-entering your vessel.

You must have a life jacket that fits you properly. If the life jacket doesn’t fit you well, then it may not work as designed. The life jacket should be snug, so it won’t come off, but not fit too tight on you.

Some PFD’s have zippers on the front, some have buckles.  Be sure your life jacket fits comfortably around your chest. Other things to look for with a PFD are buoyancy and make sure your arms will have a good range of motion. 

If you are stuck in the water and don’t know how to swim, a life jacket can be a lifesaver. Click here for more information on top-rated life jackets.

Take a kayak lesson

Honestly, all kayakers should take lessons at some point.  If you are a non-swimmer, a kayak lesson might be right up your alley. You can learn basic techniques like paddling and turning so you won’t end up in the water. 

A kayak lesson might also include a wet exit and re-entry, which will be invaluable if you don’t know how to swim and find yourself overboard. You will learn how to hold on to your kayak so you can get back on (or inside) as quickly as possible.

A kayak instructor will teach you how to handle different conditions to be prepared, so you don’t end up in the water. No matter how prepared you are, there is still a chance you can end up wet depending on water and weather conditions.

Start slow

Take it easy when you are getting started. If you can’t swim, start kayaking close to shore, like waist-deep water, where you can quickly enter and exit your kayak if necessary.  You can paddle a kayak in very shallow water, and it’s a good idea to start slow.

After you get more comfortable, you start to venture out farther.  For a non-swimmer, it can be scary to be in a little boat surrounded by water. Take it easy, and stick close to shore to help ease any fears you might have.

Choose a calm body of water

If you plan to kayak and don’t know how to swim, do yourself a favor and choose a calm location to paddle.  It’s essential to help yourself stay safe by avoiding rough water.  If you need inspiration on where to paddle, click here to find a kayaking spot near you.

You can find all kinds of locations to kayak, not just for folks who don’t know how to swim.  There are probably some calm waterways in your neck of the woods.

Choose a spot that will help reduce the risk of capsizing.  Ideal areas are calm lakes or slow-moving rivers and inlets.  You don’t want areas that have rapids or a lot of choppy water to navigate. Try to choose a spot that is sheltered from the wind.

The wind is a wildcard because you might not know when the wind will pick up and make the water rough. Or, in extreme cases, the wind might even tip your kayak over.

If you want to go kayaking and don’t know how to swim, stick to calm water, not whitewater or the open ocean.

Practice a wet exit and re-entry

Part of taking a lesson (mentioned earlier) might involve a wet exit and re-entry. Either way, you need to know how to get back on your kayak if you end up overboard, especially if you don’t know how to swim.

Re-entry is a vital skill that all kayakers should master. Depending on the type of kayak you are paddling, techniques for getting onboard will vary.  A great way to hone your skills is to practice in waist-deep water. 

You can gradually try your technique in deeper water until you are comfortable with the process.

If you have a group of people you kayak with, you can all take some time and practice together. You can get feedback from other paddlers on the best techniques to use. 

Another option is to talk to local paddle shops, which might offer classes on exit and re-entry.  Once you have mastered falling out and getting back on your kayak, you will be ready to go.

Hang on (to your kayak)

If your kayak has some kind of bulkhead, it can float, even when it’s full of water. If you can’t swim and you end up in the water unexpectedly, hang on to your boat. 

You can use the kayak as a flotation device (in addition to wearing your PFD) and hang on.  If possible, you can hold on to the kayak’s stern and kick your way to shallow water. There you can tip the kayak over to get the water out and re-enter.

Anyway, the point is, you can hang on to your kayak until you can make your way to shallow water, or someone can get help.

Go with a friend, guide, or group

If you can’t swim, you might want to consider kayaking with other people. You can go with a group of friends or a guide. Kayaking with other people is a great way to spend time, and you can keep an eye on each other.

A guide can help you explore places you might not otherwise know about, and they should be well educated in kayak safety. If you are worried about kayaking without knowing how to swim, buddy up!

Monitor the conditions

Depending on where you are kayaking, water and weather conditions can change rapidly.  Wind and rain can put a damper on your excursion if you are not careful.

Changing tides or a heavy downpour can change the water conditions quickly. Wind can create very rough conditions, and your kayak could capsize or take on water.

You can use an app to monitor water levels and flow and check the weather for your area.

Pay attention to the weather forecast and watch the water levels so you can be prepared, or even postpone your trip if necessary.  If swimming is not your strong suit, keep an eye on the conditions so you can have a successful trip.

Use a stable kayak

The right kind of kayak can be crucial to keeping you on the water, not in the water, if you don’t know how to swim.  Of course, this holds true if you are a strong swimmer or not.

Generally speaking, a wide kayak is more stable than a narrow kayak. A wide kayak has more of the hull in contact with the water and evenly distributes weight.  This makes the kayak more stable and less likely to tip over.  Most recreational kayaks are pretty stable.

That brings up the discussion of a sit-inside kayak vs. a sit-on-top kayak. Sit on top kayaks offer good stability and are very easy to re-enter if you fall in the water. They also have scupper holes that help water drain out of the kayak.

Sit inside kayaks are better for speed and tend to be more agile, but are more challenging to get back inside if you go overboard. 

If you don’t know how to swim, a sit-on-top kayak is a good option because they are easier to get back on if you fall out.

Stick to your plan and route

Stick to areas you are familiar with.  Don’t deviate into unknown waterways where you may run into conditions you might not be familiar with like rapids or low head dams.

If you are an experienced kayaker and don’t know how to swim, you have probably encountered and avoided obstacles before. But if you are a beginner, it’s best to stick to familiar areas.

If you are kayaking with a guide or other folks who know the area well, that’s an excellent way to explore new territory. Otherwise, if you are kayaking and don’t know how to swim, stick to your route.

Is kayaking dangerous if you don’t know how to swim?

You can still go kayaking if you don’t know how to swim. Swimming is not a requirement for kayaking. It’s an advantage to know how to swim, but you can still enjoy kayaking if you don’t know how to swim.

Being comfortable with water, and wearing a life jacket, goes a long way towards a successful kayak trip.  Another great skill is to be able to re-enter your kayak if you tip over.  By following some simple protocols, you can have a lot of fun kayaking if you don’t know how to swim.

Wrapping up

Woman kayaking without knowing how to swimPin

Kayaking is a fun outdoor activity. If you don’t know how to swim, you can still enjoy this watersport.  Following some simple steps will help you have a successful day on the water.

If you are a non-swimmer, take note of the following when you go kayaking:

  • Always wear your life jacket (PFD)
  • Go with other people or a guide
  • Pay attention to weather and water conditions
  • Paddle a stable kayak
  • Learn how to re-enter your kayak

Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Get out there and enjoy some time on the water!

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not 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.