Is Kayaking Dangerous? The 11 Dangers & How To Avoid Them

by Jason | Last Updated:   June 4th, 2022
Is Kayaking Dangerous? The 11 Dangers & How To Avoid Them


If you’re new to the sport, you’re probably wondering, is kayaking dangerous? And it’s an understandable question to ask; after all, there are not many people in this world who like putting themselves at risk.

The thing is:

I’ve noticed that many beginners focus more on the perceived risks rather than the actual risks. 

And this is why I’ve come here today:

I wanted to clear things up so you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when kayaking.

Of course, kayaking has risks… every watersport does. But, by understanding the risks and knowing how to avoid them, you can put yourself at ease.

And before I start listing some of the risks you face when you go kayaking, I first want to answer some burning questions:

Can You Kayak Without Knowing How To Swim?

Can You Kayak Without Knowing How To Swim

One question I hear a lot is, “can you go kayaking if you don’t know how to swim?” And I think it’s an important question to answer.

And I suppose the best answer is no, you don’t need to know how to swim, and here’s why:

Swimming isn’t a skill you need to kayak because the idea of kayaking is staying inside the boat. Of course, there is a chance that you might capsize the kayak, but with the right safety gear and people around you, it doesn’t matter if you can swim or not.

That being said:

If you are one of these people that have an uncontrollable fear of falling in the water and can’t hold yourself afloat, then kayaking isn’t for you.

When people panic, they start to sink because the volume of oxygen in their lungs decreases. And even with a life jacket, this can be pretty dangerous.

Remember, you don’t need to know how to swim; you just need to be comfortable in the water, so you don’t sink. If you can do that, you’ll have no issues if you fall in the water with your PFD.

Kayaking Tips For Non-Swimmers

If you’re a non-swimmer and you’re not sure how you’re going to feel in a kayak, here are some top tips for you to follow:

Kayak With A Group

If you can’t swim, it’s very beneficial to go out with a group of people that can. Hell… even if you can swim, you should still go kayaking with a group of people. As they say:

There’s safety in numbers!

Having multiple people with you when you’re paddling will decrease the time you have to wait for rescue.

And this can literally be a lifesaver!

Be Honest With Your Swimming Abilities 

You might not think so, but honestly, there’s no shame in not being able to swim. And there are many reasons why you might not be able to swim.

But when you’re about to go kayaking, it’s not the time to hide the fact that you can’t swim.

If you’re honest with the people you’re fellow kayakers, they can make adjustments to the trip and keep an extra eye out for you. They might even help you with your swimming skills.

And this can be the difference between life and death. 

Get A Life Jacket

Every kayaker should wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) when they are out on the water. In fact, it’s a coastal law to wear one.

And yes, even if people can swim, they still wear one, so you’re not going to feel like the odd person out.

They help you float in the water until rescue can get to you. And if you can’t swim, this can be a game-changer.

So, buying yourself a functioning PFD before you go kayaking can make your mind rest in peace, knowing you’re not going to sink. And this helps to relieve the panic when you hit the water.

Take Some Kayaking Lessons

One of the best ways for a non-swimmer to get acquainted with kayaking is to take some basic lessons. And the great thing is, you can find a calm lake around the US that offers kayaking lessons for beginners.

One of the reasons I like to suggest taking a lesson with a professional is they will teach you how to do a wet exit. 

And the best thing is:

You’re going to be under instruction by a professional, and over time, you’ll start to feel more comfortable in the water.

At first, it’s not going to be comfortable, and you might feel scared. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you will feel.

And this can be very beneficial.

To make things better:

You’re also going to learn the paddling skills you need to help you stay in the kayak, and this can fill you with even more confidence. You could also take a kayaking class in a swimming pool to make you feel more comfortable.

Just Conquer Your Fear

Okay, this one might be easier said than done. But, facing your fears head-on is the best way of getting over them.

It’s also one of the most challenging hurdles you’ll face when kayaking as a non-swimmer. 

Your mind is a funny thing, and when fear grips you, it’s hard to shake that feeling. But, by repeatedly pushing yourself, you will find the panic feels less and less each time.

Take me, for example:

I’ve always been petrified of swimming in the sea, particularly in the parts of the ocean where you can’t see the bottom.

But, I decided to get over this fear by swimming in the ocean. I was lucky enough to live near a beach where the sea was relatively calm. So every morning, I’d swim out with my girlfriend until I started to feel uncomfortable.

Over time, I noticed I could go further and further without panic. And now, it doesn’t bother me too much.

That being said, I still have moments of panic when I think about sharks coming out of the darkness. Hey, we can’t get over our fears 100%.

I’m trying to say that we can learn to manage our fears. And although we will never get entirely over them, we do learn how to manage them.

What Is The Likelihood Of Drowning For Paddlers?

Is Kayaking Dangerous

I need to be honest with you without trying to scare you away from your kayaking trip. It’s thought that 1-5 people that drown from a boating accident are paddlers.

Another statistic showed people were twice as likely to drown in a tiny boat like a kayak or canoe rather than people operating larger water vessels.

But I don’t want you to jump to conclusions just yet!

One of the most significant risk factors that came with people drowning on small boats was that alcohol and recreational drugs were present or they were breaking the rules in some fashion.

Another major cause of drowning was people not understanding how to get out of the kayak when it tips over. And this is why you should take a kayak lesson with people before you jump in a boat.

That’s not the only problem people face:

When kayaking on fast-moving rivers, there are chances that you can get pinned underwater, which is a terrifying experience.

Pinning happens when you capsize your kayak, and the current of the water takes you under a branch. It is impossible to get out of the kayak because you’re stuck between the tree and the river bed.

This actually happened to one of my friends when we were kayaking. Luckily, we were there to see it happen and knew how to get him out. Unfortunately, not everyone is this lucky, and they end up drowning.

But…

Even with all that said, if you follow the rules, kayak with other people, and don’t get drunk, your chances of drowning are meager.

Actual Risk VS Perceived Risk

Okay, before I get into the risks of kayaking and how to avoid them, there’s one more thing I wanted to cover. And that’s the difference between actual risk and perceived risk. 

The thing is:

How people perceive risk doesn’t always reflect the actual risk. In other words, we sometimes think something is more or less dangerous than it actually is.

Perceived risk is how dangerous we think it is in our heads, while an actual risk reflects how dangerous the situation really is.

One of the best examples I can think of is skydiving. In our minds, the risk of hitting the floor feels very high, but in actuality, the chances of falling to your death are scarce.

So, as you can see, the perceived risk doesn’t match the actual risk. And it’s this perceived risk that usually holds them back.

But here’s the thing:

Having a strong sense of perceived risk isn’t a bad thing. It just means you’re less likely to put yourself in a dangerous position where the real risk is high.

And yes, it might be the high perceived risk that prevents you from getting in the water, but it can also save your life.

Most accidents happen when the perceived risk is low but the actual risk is high. And this is because the actual risks are not as obvious. 

And it takes a bit of skill and experience to match the actual danger with the perceived threat. This is why you should always try to paddle with people with more experience when you’re a beginner.

The 11 Risks Of Kayaking And How You Can Avoid Them

Is Kayaking Dangerous

Okay, we’ve covered quite a lot already, but before I leave you, I want to explain some of the risks you might face when kayaking. But more importantly, I want to explain how you can avoid these risks.

Understanding the actual risks of kayaking and knowing how to avoid them is vital if you want to have a safe experience.

So, let’s take a look at the actual risk involved with kayaking:

#1 Capsizing 

One of the most significant risks you need to consider when you’re a beginner is capsizing your kayak, especially if you’re paddling a sit-inside kayak with a spray deck.

And it’s not so much the falling in the water that’s the dangerous part; it’s becoming trapped in your kayak and not being able to exit it.

But that’s not the only problem you’ll face.

If you capsize far away from land or in a river full of rocks and rapids, you could also find yourself in trouble.

Even if you’re an experienced paddler, you can still run into trouble when you capsize.

So to prevent anything terrible from happening, you need to make sure you’re wearing a correctly fitted PFD and a helmet if you’re in whitewater like class IV rapids. 

You should also practice capsizing recovery drills like wet exits and self-rescue kayaking skills. Knowing these techniques could save your life.

The following video highlights some of these kayak self-rescue techniques:

#2 Drowning 

Drowning is a risk you need to think about when you’re kayaking. And that’s because all watersports carry the risk of drowning.

And here’s the thing:

Even if you’re a strong swimmer, you’re not immune to drowning. There could be currents that you can’t fight against, or you might knock your head on a rock.

You could potentially drown in either of these scenarios, so you need to be careful. 

The best way to prevent drowning is to wear a correctly fitted life jacket. It will be able to keep you afloat long enough for you to get rescued.

#3 Hypothermia & Cold Shock

Another prevalent risk when kayaking in cold water is getting hypothermia or cold shock.

Cold shock happens as soon as you hit the water. The quick temperature change can cause breathing problems, confusion, blood pressure changes, and much more. And this can create a hazardous environment if you’re in fast-moving water and cannot get out.

On the other hand, hypothermia happens when exposed to cold temperatures for an extended period.

So, how do you protect yourself from these risks?

Your best option is to make sure you’ve dressed appropriately for the weather/water conditions. This means wearing wetsuits or drysuits to keep you safe and your body warm. If you capsize in the right equipment, you reduce your cold shock and hypothermia risk.

You should also make sure you’re paddling with other people so they can help you if you get cold shock.

#4 Sun Exposure 

It’s not just the cold that can get you; you’re also at risk from over-exposure to the sun. And while you might not think the sun poses much danger, it can actually become a pretty high-risk situation.

Being out in the sun for too long can lead to sunstroke, sunburn, exhaustion, and much more. 

But these aren’t the only things you have to deal with; repeat exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays can also lead to more severe things like severe skin conditions or eye conditions.

In fact, the World Wide Cancer Research website claims that 80% of skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV radiation.

Luckily, there are things you can do to help prevent the sun from harming you. You should always use strong waterproof sunscreen when you’re going out on your boat. 

But you can further your protection by wearing UV-protective clothing, a sun hat, polarized sunglasses, and plenty of water.

You should also make sure you come out of the sun and sit in some shade, or perhaps invest in a kayak sun shade. Maybe take a lunch break on the side of the river to cool down.

#5 Waves, Tides, & Currents 

When you’re sea kayaking, you might be thinking your only dangers are waves, but there’s a lot more to contend with than that. 

Hidden rip tides can easily take you off course and out to sea, which is why you need to have some knowledge of the waters you’re paddling in. 

Knowing and understanding the waters you’re paddling in will help you stay out of danger, which we all want.

#6 Strainers & Sweepers

If we’re talking about the two most dangerous obstacles that will put you at risk, they have to be strainers and sweepers. If you haven’t heard of them before, let’s explain:

If you encounter any of these things, your best bet is to try and avoid them at all costs. You should never try to paddle over them; it could cost you your life.

#7 Other Watercrafts

One problem with kayaks is they are not the easiest vessel to spot when out on open water, especially when compared to motorboats, ferries, or tankers.

To make it worse:

They don’t have a loud engine noise or a horn to make people aware of you, which makes paddling in open water pretty dangerous.

And this means open waterways can be extremely dangerous for kayakers, especially when considering how slow larger boats turn.

To help keep yourself safe, make sure you’re constantly aware of what’s going on around you and be prepared to make sudden changes. You should also try using a brightly colored touring kayak and clothes to help you stand out in the water. 

#8 Improper Use Or Incorrect Equipment 

One thing that will put you at risk that you have 100% control over is using the wrong equipment or not using it correctly.

Here’s the thing:

A life jacket is made to help you stay afloat, but if you have a poorly fitted PFD, it will struggle to do the job. In fact, it could make your situation even worse.

When paddling, you need to make sure you use the proper PFD for the intended use and environment.

You also need to make sure your helmet fits correctly, covers your head, and has the right equipment to deal with cold water.

Check out this article to find out when you should discard a PFD.

#9 Wildlife

Although seeing wildlife when you’re out kayaking can be a beautiful experience, it can also be hazardous.

And we’re not talking about seeing dolphins, sea turtles, or an angry pack of swans. We’re talking about alligators, sharks, or even bears.

The water is always teeming with wild animals, so it’s natural that you’ll come into contact with something.

And I don’t want to alarm you, but there are some things no one wants to encounter.

If you do see anything dangerous, your best bet is to try and keep a safe distance from it and not try and take a closer look.

Luckily, you don’t have much chance of getting attacked by an alligator or a shark, but you still need to be aware of the risks.

You can find out if it’s safe to kayak with alligators here.

#10 Undercut Rocks

Undercut rocks are another hazard you need to be aware of when you’re paddling. They are irregular rock formations that form underwater and can trap trees and other debris.

Unfortunately, trees aren’t the only things that can get trapped here; they can also trap paddlers too. This will often happen in fast-moving whitewater when seeing underwater is tricky. To make it worse:

Intense rapids can make it almost impossible to avoid them because you can’t see the undercut rocks.

If you want the best chance to avoid these undercuts, you need to get to know the whitewater kayaking route you’re paddling on. 

Before kayaking on a river, make sure you check sources, use a guide, and learn as much as possible about the water before paddling it.

You should also never go paddling alone; it’s just asking for trouble. You need to make sure at least one person is available to rescue you.

#11 Weirs & Dams

The final thing I want to talk about is weirs and dams. A weir is a horizontal barrier that runs across the water to control river levels, almost like a dam.

The water flows over the weir and falls to the lower level, creating a dangerous undercurrent.

The undercurrent at the bottom of weirs and low head dams can be highly hazardous to beginner kayakers, so it’s best to avoid it.

If you ever have to get past a weir or dam, you’ll need to take the boat out of the water and walk around them.

Final Thoughts & Takeaways

Is kayaking dangerous? Like any outdoor activity, kayaking has its fair share of risks. Most of these risks are controllable if you have the know-how. I say most of them because you can’t control adverse weather conditions like high winds or currents and tides.

For these reasons:

If you follow the rules and play it safe, kayaking is no more dangerous than crossing the street.

The most important thing to remember is to plan your trip before you leave, follow the safety tips above, choose the right kayaking location for you, and make sure you have all the safety equipment you need.

One of the leading causes of death for kayakers is people that have been drinking, so don’t be stupid, save the booze for when you get home safe and sound.

We also mentioned kayaking if you don’t know how to swim. And although you should be fine, don’t let your pride get in the way. Make sure you let the person you’re paddling with know that you can’t swim.

Frequently Asked Questions 

Is Kayaking Safe For Beginners?

Anyone can learn how to kayak, making it an excellent sport for beginners. It’s straightforward to pick up, so you’ll have the basics down within a couple of hours. 

Are Kayaks Risky?

Yes, everything in life carries risks, including kayaking. You risk sporting injuries such as shoulder or wrist damage. And because it’s a water sport, you also run the risk of drowning. Luckily, your chances of injury are slim if you follow the kayak safety rules.

How Likely Is It To Flip A Kayak?

It depends what kayaks you’re using, but in general, kayaks hardly ever flip over. You are most likely to tip as a beginner because you don’t know how to control your balance, but you’re all good once you’ve been a few times.

Hey, my name's Jason, and before I was a writer, I worked as an outdoor activity instructor where I took groups kayaking and camping. Now I use my personal experiences to share tips and tricks I've learned over the years. For as long as I can remember, I've been passionate about the outdoors, and now I want to share that passion with my readers.