Is Kayaking Dangerous? 13 Real Kayak Dangers & How To Avoid Them

I’ve noticed that people – especially beginner kayakers – tend to have many safety-related misconceptions about kayaking.

Some don’t give potential risks a second thought. And on the flip side, some will freak out about things that aren’t even real, actual threats.

If you’re among those wondering is kayaking dangerous, I’ll level with you:

Yes, kayaking carries some inherent risks – but the point of this article isn’t to scare you.

It’s to encourage you to think things through, plan your routes, follow the safety rules and make informed decisions when out on the water. 

What Are The Risks Of Kayaking – And How To Avoid Them

risks of kayaking yellow sign warning of danger

Okay, let’s dive head-first into the not-so-relaxing – and potentially fatal – side of kayaking. 

Real Risk Vs. Perceived Risk – And Why It’s Important To Know The Difference

Please remember that your safety always comes first on a kayak. Yet there’s a fine line – one that’s crucial but often hard to draw – between perceived risks and the real dangers of kayaking.

Perceived risk is best described as how dangerous a particular scenario or situation seems, but it doesn’t tell you much about the actual risk involved. Skydiving is an excellent example of an activity that carries a high perceived risk.

The real risk is the actual danger behind a specific situation or activity – the actual risk involved – rather than our perception of it.

It’s when you fail to distinguish the two and, worse yet, match the perceived risks with “real” ones that disaster usually strikes.

And since we’re already here to discuss everything that could go wrong on your kayaking trip, let’s address the elephant in the room:

Can you die kayaking? 

I’m guessing that’s what you actually want to know, and the answer is – yes, kayaking can be deadly when circumstances conspire against you. Accidents do happen; sometimes, you make the wrong call, and sometimes, water has different plans and doesn’t care about your expertise.

But even with all the dangers of kayaking involved, your chances of going paddling and living to tell the tale are pretty high.

Driving a car is, statistically speaking, far more likely to cost you your life. But you still drive to work every day, don’t you?

I don’t see why kayaking should be any different.

1. Drowning 

kayaking risk of Drowning - man struggles in water

The “can you drown while kayaking” question is one I get all too often.

And yes, you can.

There are certain risks all on-the-water activities carry; drowning is one of them. It’s one of the most obvious dangers of kayaking, even more so if you’re paddling in deep waters alone and unprepared, or you’re not a good swimmer.

Should you kayak if you can’t swim, then? 

Knowing how to swim can be an advantage, but it’s far from an essential requirement. As long as you don’t have a fear of water, that is.

Strong swimmers aren’t immune to drowning, anyway.

Drowning prevention begins with a correctly-fitted life vest, capsize drills and self-rescue training, and knowing how to cope with fear and regain control in a potentially life-threatening scenario.

2. Hypothermia & Cold Water Shock 

Cold water never seems that bad from the comforts of your kayak, but that’s the thing – it preys on the careless and the unsuspecting.

Sudden immersion in dangerously cold waters – a water temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit and below – can quickly render you incapable of moving or controlling your breathing.

The first minute of exposure – when cold water shock kicks in – is the worst, setting the stage for hypothermia. Cold shock feels like something’s ripping the air from your chest, paralyzing your muscles, and inducing vertigo and disorientation. 

As core body temperature continues to drop, loss of swimming ability, confusion, exhaustion, and unconsciousness set in – and can lead to a fatal outcome.

If you end up in cold water, remember the 1-10-1 rule:

  • One minute to regain control of your breathing
  • Ten minutes of meaningful movement to attempt self-rescue
  • One hour before you lose consciousness due to hypothermia

Wear appropriate clothing – a wetsuit or a dry suit – coupled with a PFD, pack a change of clothes, and paddle in a group; better safe than sorry. 

3. Getting Lost (Especially At Sea)

sea kayaking - lost at sea - life buoy floats is grey and moody water

Open waters, although mesmerizing, can be a dangerous place for a kayaker. There are no landmarks, it’s hard to maintain a sense of direction, and you often don’t realize how far you’ve paddled.

You’d be surprised how fast you can move and how much distance you can cover in a touring kayak – and barely notice it.

And then it hits you:

You’re lost at sea – and don’t have the slightest clue how to go back. 

It’s an easily preventable kayak danger, though:

When sea kayaking, paddle in a group whenever you’re hitting the open ocean. If you’re set on paddling solo, stay in sight of the shore, keep track of time and distance, and use GPS – or kayak compass – for navigation. 

4. Weirs & Low-Head Dams

Low-head dams, aka “Killer in our river” or “drowning machine” – which nickname do you like more?

I wish I were joking, but I’m not; that’s how the paddling community refers to low-head dams. And with such lovely nicknames, you know it’s one of those dangers of kayaking that could – easily – cost you your life.

These man-made contraptions were built to help control river levels. They’re often unmarked, hard to spot in time, filled with debris, and impossible to escape due to the destructive hydraulic forces that keep dragging you underwater. Worse yet, the boil’s washing-machine-like turbulence often renders PFDs useless. 

Low Head Dams: Hidden Dangers

Avoid low-head dams at all costs  – get to shore – and never ever – try to paddle over it; that’s the best advice I can give you. 

5. Drinking & Paddling

Alcohol still reigns as the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, amounting to a staggering 23 percent of deadly outcomes. Even more so, alcohol is detected in the blood of up to 70 percent of all drowning victims.

If that’s not a sobering fact, I don’t know what is. 

But boating under the influence isn’t limited to alcohol alone; recreational drugs and even some prescription medications are a no-no, too.

If it impairs your ability to navigate the waters safely and effectively, it’s considered a federal offense

I don’t have any particular tips for you here. Just don’t mix drinking and kayaking; your safety – and the safety of those you’re sharing the waters with – should always come first. 

6. Inexperience: Overstepping Your Ability 

Recognizing you bit off more than you can chew a little too late is another notable kayak danger.

Overstepping your abilities in a fit of overconfidence and choosing a paddling environment that’s beyond your skill level is a recipe for disaster. 

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned kayaker, remember:

The route you’ve chosen to paddle should always match your skill level. 

Talk with local paddlers, do your research, check out our interactive map of local kayaking locations, identify potential hazards, check water and air temperature, winds, currents, and tides; anything can help you assess the situation.

Don’t mistake luck for expertise. Be realistic about what you can – and cannot – accomplish as a kayaker.   

If you’re a beginner paddler keep to slow moving and calm waters for your first time, such as lake kayaking –   leave the class v rapids for another day. 

7. Adverse Weather Conditions & Sun Exposure

Kayaks give you a beautiful, up-close-and-personal view of the environment – but don’t provide much protection from the weather.

Kayaks and storms – thunder, lightning, high winds, and heavy rain – are a horrible combo. Poor visibility, sudden temperature drops, the chance of getting struck by lightning, winds that toss your kayak around; things can get bad fast.

Double-check the weather forecast, keep an eye on the sky, and take action as soon as the weather starts to change.

Oh, and one more thing:

Too much sun can be every bit as dangerous, putting you at risk of heatstroke, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. Drink water – lots of it – wear a sun hat and light-colored clothes, and lather yourself in sunscreen.

8. Capsizing

Most – if not all – dangers of kayaking are somehow related to capsizing. Pretty much any potentially deadly kayaking situations will involve flipping the kayak over and, worst-case scenario, getting trapped under it.

Solo - The story of the Tasman Kayaker Andrew McAuley

But do kayaks tip over easily? 

Well, capsizing isn’t a matter of “if” – but when it will happen. It’s not uncommon to go from a relaxing paddle to fighting-for-your-life mode in seconds.

My number one safety advice – besides wearing your PFD and learning how to perform self-rescue, that is – is to stay calm. Panicking makes things worse, causing you to forget everything you know about – well, anything. 

9. Water Conditions: Waves, Tide & Current 

hazards of kayaking - waves overcome kayaker

You’re on the water, left at the mercy of waves, rip currents, changing tides, and the elements, putting all your trust in that plastic kayak of yours.

How’s that for the dangers of kayaking? 

On a more serious note, oceans are unpredictable environments. A series of enormous waves coming at you could overwhelm your ‘yak and cause you to capsize.

Getting Through Waves - Basic Tips - Kayak Hipster

Moreover, tidal and rip currents both have the potential to get you off course and far from where you started. You’ll have to put up a fight.

So, remember to plan your kayaking route; don’t count on “reading” the waters as you go. Discovering an unexpected class III rapid in a cheap inflatable is the kayaking equivalent of walking into a death trap – and remember changes in weather conditions can quickly turn a sleepy class II rapid into a class IV nightmare.

10. Hazardous Obstacles: Strainers & Sweepers

The thing about on-the-water obstacles is that you can’t tell if what you’re seeing is merely the tip of the iceberg.

You might see the branch, but who’s to say there isn’t an entire tree just below the surface? 

Sweepers – low-hanging branches and other obstacles jutting out across the water surface – are often accompanied by so-called strainers

Strainers – created by underwater obstacles, like fallen trees and undercut rocks. They allow water to flow through them, but like a sieve, will strain the river of debris; trapping anything unfortunately to be pulled into it path by the current.

will strain the river of debris, boats, animals, and people, by “filtering” the water through the gaps in the obstruction

It’s the things that you don’t see that are often the deadliest. 

Undercuts – portions of the bank that overhang the river, creating an entrapment – often remain invisible until the last second, too.  As a result, kayakers often unwittingly get stuck in undercuts.

Stuck in an Undercut on the Amot Gorge (#23 Carnage for All 2019)

As with low-head dams, it’s best to avoid on-the-water obstacles, keep your distance, and never paddle alone.

If you are going to paddle in whitewater, make sure you understand the basics.

11. Other Watercraft (Especially At Night) 

I know you love your ‘yak and all, but let’s be real; it’s not the biggest or easiest-to-spot boat out there.

That might not be an issue in broad daylight or small rivers with little to no “traffic.” But if you’ll be sharing the waters with sailboats, powerboats, jet skis, or big ocean ships, you have to be sure that others can see you.

A small kayak is guaranteed to bear the brunt in case of collision:

Ferry Collides With 10 Kayakers in NYC

The US Coast Guard requires kayakers to display a 360-degree white light from dusk to dawn to serve as a primary navigational light and improve your visibility. Reflective clothing is welcome, too. 

12. Wildlife

It might be something small and annoying, like mosquitos and other bugs, a beaver, or an overly curious goose. Perhaps it will be an occasional snake or two. Or it could be something big and frightening, like sharks, alligators, and, depending on where you’re paddling, a bear.

Hammerhead Shark Attacks Kayak Fisherman

Waters – and land that surrounds them – are teeming with life. If you kayak regularly, sooner or later, you’ll encounter wild animals.

I won’t give you the “there’s no reason to be afraid” cliché; you’re sitting in a tiny boat and have nothing but a plastic paddle for defense.

However, keeping a safe distance, avoiding the young – because there’s probably an agitated mother nearby – and paddling away should make for a relatively harmless encounter.

13. Improper Use & Incorrect Equipment

A “life jacket” won’t save your life per se; what a PFD – or personal flotation device – does is keep you afloat. It’s not some magical cure-all.

You’re in charge of everything else, from making sure it’s rated for your size to double-checking if it fits correctly. Otherwise, the PFD can’t do its job – and could even make the situation worse.

So, you’ve got a kayak that fits the intended use and paddling environment, a well-fitted PFD, a helmet, and appropriate paddle size; anything else you might need?

It would help if you kept essential boating equipment – including a kayak light for navigation, a “noisemaker,” a first aid kit, and visual distress signals – on board, too.

Preparation is half the battle. 

And if kayaking in cold water, invest is an dry suit and some thermal under layers – saying dry can mean saying alive.

And remember, what equipment is deemed at essential will depend massively on the type of kayaking, water and weather conditions, for example; whitewater kayaking has it own specialized gear requirements which differs from the equipment required for kayaking touring.

How To Make Kayaking Less Dangerous: Safety Tips For Paddlers

Kayaking Safety tips - letters handing by cord spelling tips

I get that this was a long – and potentially frightening – read. But again, my intention wasn’t to scare you. 

I’m a firm believer that, even with all the risks and dangers it involves, kayaking is as safe as you make it. Being prepared, rather than having to paddle your way out of an unsafe scenario, is generally your best bet.

And the rules of kayak safety are simple:

  • Always wear your PFD – even if you consider yourself a strong swimmer – and make sure it fits right.
  • Learn basic safety techniques, including recovering from a capsize and rolling your kayak, and work on your paddling skills.
  • Wear a kayak helmet to protect your “thinking equipment” from unwanted head-on encounters with rocks and logs. 
  • Dress for immersion – not the weather
  • Don’t mix drinking and paddling; boating under the influence is a bad idea.
  • Create a float plan – an outline of your trip – and inform someone about the planned return date and time.
  • Avoid kayaking in bad weather or challenging water conditions unless you have the skills and experience to do it safely.
  • Don’t head out alone; it’s generally best to paddle in groups of at least three people.
  • Watch your hydration levels, and be sure to drink plenty of water. 

Is Kayaking Dangerous? A Quick Summary

You came here today with common – and perfectly valid – concerns. Is kayaking dangerous? What are the most common risks? Is there a chance I might die kayaking?

As I’ve said before, yes, kayaking carries certain inherent risks, but it’s only as dangerous – or as safe – as you make it.  

  • Do your research and plan your route
  • Use your head, stay alert, stay safe
  • Know – and respect – your limits
  • Never skimp out on safety gear, including the mandatory life jackets
  • Choose the right paddle and kayak for the job
  • Learn how to correctly paddle a kayak – take paddling lessons if needed
  • Never kayak alone, and watch over each other.