Is Kayaking Safe For Non-Swimmers? Everything You Need To Know

There is no shame in being a non-swimmer. Some people simply didn’t have the chance to learn how to swim as children, while others may still be working on overcoming a very real - and, I should add, common - fear of water. Whatever your reason might be, know that it is fine - and it definitely shouldn’t be something that prevents you from giving kayaking a try. Yes, kayaking for non-swimmers is doable - and there are ways to make it safe
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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Nessa Hopkins

ACA-Certified Kayaking Instructor

Vanessa is a certified kayaking instructor, has taught over 500 people how to kayak, and is a senior member of the American Canoe Association. By combining her deep understanding of the sport and a background in journalism, she offers a wealth of experience and expertise to our growing water sports community, promising to educate and inspire paddlers of all levels.

Can you go kayaking if you can’t swim? It’s a common question among those interested in the sport but lacking swimming skills. While it’s always recommended to learn how to swim before engaging in any water-based activity, the short answer is yes, you can kayak even if you’re not a swimmer.

However, it’s crucial to understand the risks involved and take appropriate safety precautions to minimize the dangers. Non-swimmers who kayak face a higher risk of drowning if they capsize or fall into the water, as they may panic or struggle to stay afloat.

In this guide, we’ll explore:

  • The risks and challenges non-swimmers face when kayaking
  • Essential safety gear and precautions for non-swimmers, such as wearing a well-fitted life jacket at all times
  • The importance of learning basic water safety skills, like floating and treading water
  • Tips for choosing the right kayak and paddling environment for non-swimmers
  • The benefits of taking kayaking lessons or guided tours for added safety and support

By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of the risks and safety measures associated with kayaking as a non-swimmer, enabling you to make an informed decision about whether to pursue the sport.

Key Takeaways

  • Can you kayak as a non-swimmer? While it would be better if you knew how to swim, it’s not a prerequisite. As long as you are comfortable in the water and can float (with the help of a PFD, of course), there’s no reason why you shouldn’t give kayaking a try.
  • Is kayaking safe for non-swimmers? Kayaking – like most water sports – can be linked to certain risks, one of which is drowning. However, understanding these risks, taking the necessary precautions, and being prepared, can make kayaking safe for non-swimmers.
  • How to stay safe kayaking as a non-swimmer: Wear a PFD, work on overcoming your fear of the water, take lessons to master the basics of kayaking, choose a suitable kayak and location such as a calm lake, and avoid paddling alone.

Do You Need To Know How To Swim To Kayak?

Group of friends on the river in bright red kayaks

Knowing how to swim is definitely the preferred option here. That said, it is not a prerequisite for kayaking. 

Technically speaking, you don’t need to be able to swim to kayak. What is far more important here is that you’re comfortable being on the water and able to float – with the help of a life jacket, that is. 

The thing is, there is a high chance you’ll end up in the water at some point taking an unexpected swim. It’s just one of those things that go hand-in-hand with kayaking. And when it happens (it’s not a matter of if), you want to ensure that you can remain calm and get back into your kayak, or at least keep yourself afloat until help arrives. 

That brings me to my next point: 

Wear a life jacket. 

Honestly, I’d insist on you wearing it even if you were a strong swimmer. But for non-swimmers? A PFD becomes non-negotiable. 

Kayaking | How to T-Rescue || REI

Another thing that helps if you’re a non-swimmer looking to get into kayaking is having someone a bit more experienced by your side. And by “more experienced,” I mean someone who’s skilled paddling-wise, can swim, and is capable of performing a rescue should things go south. 

Is Kayaking Safe For Non-Swimmers?

Father throws giant flotation device from kayak to son in the water

The short answer is yes, kayaking can be safe for non-swimmers, provided you take the necessary safety precautions. While knowing how to swim can certainly lower your risk of drowning, it’s not an absolute requirement for enjoying kayaking.

It’s important to recognize that kayaking, like any water sport, carries inherent risks – the primary one being drowning. However, this risk can be significantly mitigated by always wearing a well-fitting personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket.

In fact, statistics show that out of all fatal boating accidents where drowning was the cause of death (accounting for 81% of fatalities), a staggering 83% of victims were not wearing a PFD.

While we can’t say for certain that a PFD would have changed the outcome in every case, it’s clear that wearing a PFD dramatically improves your chances of survival in the water.

So, as a non-swimmer, the single most important thing you can do to stay safe while kayaking is to wear a PFD at all times. This will keep you afloat if you do end up in the water, even if you can’t swim.

Beyond that, there are several other precautions you can take:

  • Choose a stable, beginner-friendly kayak to reduce the risk of capsizing
  • Paddle in calm, sheltered waters close to shore
  • Avoid paddling alone – always go with a buddy or group
  • Take lessons to learn proper technique and safety skills
  • Work on getting more comfortable in the water

By following these guidelines, non-swimmers can significantly reduce their risk and enjoy kayaking safely.

8 Tips For Kayaking As A Non-Swimmer 

Whether you know how to swim or not, the basics of kayaking safety are more or less the same. It is mostly a matter of learning a few essential techniques, getting the right equipment, knowing and respecting your abilities, understanding the risks, and acting responsibly while on the water. 

With that said, here are some essential tips for kayaking as a non-swimmer

1. Always Wear A Personal Flotation Device PDF (And Make Sure It Fits)

Life vest - man demonstrating a properly fitting pfd

Wearing a life jacket is the single most important precaution you could take as a non-swimmer who is getting into kayaking. I can’t stress this one enough: 

The PFD could make a difference between life and death in certain scenarios. As such, it should be viewed as must-have, may-save-your-life-one-day equipment, regardless of whether you can or cannot swim.  

Besides, it’s not really a matter of preference, anyway; a PFD is required by law

There’s no excuse for not wearing a life jacket, especially with all the variety in designs, shapes, and sizes available today. I mean, there are even plus-size options for the big-and-tall folks. 

How To: Fit a Life Jacket

On that note, you’ll have to ensure that it fits you based on your chest size and, to some degree, your weight. 

2. Never Paddle Alone

Group of people on the river in colorful Sit On Top Kayaks

As much as I enjoy the tranquility of a solo outing, I am well aware that kayaking alone is rarely – if ever – a good idea. 

There is safety in numbers.” 

That’s a mantra that kayakers should generally stick to and go by at all times, regardless of their skill level. But it becomes crucial when you’re a non-swimmer. 

For one, having an experienced kayaker by your side will make you a bit more comfortable. And two, it means you’ll have someone there to assist you when things don’t go according to plan. 

I consider myself an experienced paddler, and I still get that little confidence boost when I hit the waters with a friend rather than alone. That’s coming from a former competitive swimmer – which says a lot about the importance of kayaking in a group as a non-swimmer. 

Besides, it’s way more fun when you have others to share the experience with. 

So, if you already have friends who are into kayaking, hit them up; I’m certain they’ll be happy to take on the role of your paddling buddies. 

And if you don’t? 

Well, you can always join a local kayaking club or find a bunch of like-minded individuals online – on forums and in Facebook groups, for example. 

3. Take Kayaking Lessons & Work On The Basics

Beginner kayakers taking a lesson on the beach

Okay, you don’t know how to swim, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to get into kayaking, there are certain skills you’ll have to work on before hitting the waters. 

Taking the time to learn the basics of kayaking is a matter of being prepared – and heading into this responsibly. 

Granted, the intention here is not to lull you into a false sense of security. The waters will always be unpredictable, and kayaking – much like any other water sport – will always come with certain risks

But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, once you have mastered the fundamentals of kayaking and rescue techniques, you will feel more comfortable in a kayak – and, as a result, you will be able to make sound decisions, rather than going straight into panic mode when things go wrong. 

On that note, you’ll want to work on the following – preferably with an accredited instructor and in a controlled environment:  

  • How to hold a paddle correctly 
  • How to perform basic forward, reverse, and sweep strokes 
  • How to get in and out safely 
  • How to perform a wet exit 
  • How to perform a self-rescue and recover from a capsize 
Kayaking | How to Self-Rescue || REI

4. Pick Your Kayak Wisely – Stability Is Everything 

Swimmer or non-swimmer, beginner or not, choosing the best kayak can be a daunting task. So, if you are struggling with this right now, rest assured that it has very little – if anything – to do with your experience. It’s a tough decision to make, period. 

Heck, I’ve been doing this for years, and even I am left scratching my head when it’s time to buy a new ‘yak.

That said, I do have some advice for you: 

One, when deciding between a sit-on-top and a sit-in ‘yak, I would generally recommend the former. SOT kayaks are usually easier to use – and, thus, more beginner-friendly. Plus, the open deck design of a sit-on-top kayak means you’ll find it easier to pull yourself back onboard should you capsize.    

That’s not to say that sit-in ‘yaks don’t have any perks. You’ll definitely find it easier to stay dry in a closed-off deck, especially if you pair it with a spray skirt – which makes them more suitable for colder climates. 

Two, if you’re new to kayaking or can’t swim, stability should be your top priority when choosing a kayak. Wider kayaks are typically more stable and therefore less likely to tip over or capsize. And when it comes to a stable kayak, sit-on-top yaks usually have the edge over sit-inside ones in this respect. 

Most recreational kayaks with a width of 30 to 34 inches, and a length of 9 to 12 feet, would be a good choice stability-wise. 

Oh, and another thing; you can always opt for a tandem kayak. That way, you’ll have a kayaking buddy with you at all times – which should make this whole ordeal a lot less stressful and your kayaking adventure more fun.

5. Consider Fitting Your Kayak With Outriggers 

You’ve likely used training wheels when you were learning how to ride a bike. Well, while I admit that this might not be the best analogy I’ve come up with, technically speaking, you can consider outriggers the kayaking equivalent of those training wheels. 

The whole point of using outriggers is to give your kayak’s stability – as well as buoyancy – a little boost. I mean, they’re called “kayak stabilizers” for a reason. 

It’s not that your kayak would be tippy without them; it won’t. 

However, when you’re a non-swimmer trying to get the hang of kayaking, the added stability can make a world of difference. Plus, you’ll feel a lot more at ease in a ‘yak that’s virtually impossible to capsize.

How to build a kayak stabilizer.

Oh, and if you’re working with a tight budget, don’t worry. There’s always the option of making a pair of stabilizers yourself – if you’re good with DIY stuff, that is. 

6. Try To Conquer Your Fear Of The Water

Man worrying about swimming lessons

To conquer fear, you must become fear.” 

I’m hoping there are at least a few people who get this reference. But for those of you that don’t, it’s a quote from Batman Begins. 

All jokes aside, though: 

I do believe that overcoming your fear of the water – whatever the root causes behind it might be – will be crucial if you plan on getting into kayaking. 

There’s simply no way you are ever going to be comfortable with being in a ‘yak if you’re terrified of being on the water in the first place. 

Now, I should add that the fear of the water – or thalassophobia, for those who prefer the “official term” – is actually pretty common. In fact, as much as two-thirds of Americans report that they’re afraid of deep, open water – and 46% are even scared of going into the deep end of a pool. And, to add to it, 55% of people aged 15 and older reportedly cannot swim unassisted.

That is to say; you’re definitely not alone in this. 

But if you want to give kayaking a try, addressing that fear should be the first item on your to-do list. 

For one, spending every second of your outing thinking about how you might fall into the water – even if there is no reason to believe so – will ruin the experience for you. And two, being terrified and panicking when you do fall in will only cause you to act irrationally and potentially put other fellow kayakers around you in danger, too. 

Here’s what might help you overcome your fear of the water

  • Start small; the shallow end of a swimming pool will be enough to help you get used to being in the water 
  • Learn how to float on your back (with the support of a PFD) 
  • Get comfortable with being submerged 
  • Learn how to hold your breath underwater and blow bubbles out of your nose 

7. Pick A Suitable Location

Couple kayaking in very shallow water

There’s one piece of advice that seasoned paddlers and instructors often share with beginners – and I feel like it would apply here, too: 

Never paddle any further than you’re capable of swimming back. 

Given that you can’t swim at all, ensuring that you don’t go too far during your kayaking adventures becomes even more important and points to another consideration – picking a suitable location that aligns with your current skills and abilities. 

Ideally, you should stick to calm, flat, shallow water – namely lakes, slow-moving rivers, or even calm, sheltered bays – if the conditions allow it. That way, even if you do fall in the water, you will find it much easier to rescue yourself and get back on your ‘yak. 

So, yeah, that means you’ll have to skip the Class IV whitewater rapids – and stick to something more non-swimmer-friendly.  Anything that’s too deep, fast-moving, or open is generally a bad idea.

Wind, waves and currents are likely to present the biggest challenges for non-swimmers – especially those who are scared of water, too. So if it looks like the wind is picking up or there will be a strong current during your outing, postpone or change the location.

Also be mindful of how quick both the water and weather conditions can change; so pay special attention to the forecast before you head out. 

It’s better to be safe than sorry, right? 

8. Don’t Be Tempted To Use A Leash 

There are certainly instances where using a leash is a good idea; many paddle boarders use it to tether themselves to their SUPs. 

I get that doing the same with your kayak sounds great – well, in theory, at least. But in practice? It’s actually a pretty risky thing to do – especially if you have a sit-in kayak. 

Think about it: 

What if you capsize and it ends up filling with water? A leash would mean you’re basically tied to a sinking boat – one that will not hesitate to drag you down with it. 

Sounds like a horror story, doesn’t it? 

Another potentially dangerous scenario is getting trapped in hazardous river obstacles – such as sweepers or strainers, for example – with no way of getting out because, again, you’re tied to the boat. 

Even if you were an experienced swimmer, this would be an incredibly dangerous situation. But, for someone who doesn’t know how to swim, this could, quite literally, turn out to be deadly. 

The only appropriate use of a leash here would be to secure your paddle to your kayak so that it doesn’t float away. It’ll be one thing less to worry about in the event of a capsize, which will allow you to concentrate on getting back on board. 

Kayaking For Those Who Can’t Swim: A Quick Summary 

Being a strong swimmer is certainly the preferred option here – but you don’t necessarily need to know how to swim to enjoy kayaking. Kayaking for non-swimmers can be perfectly safe and fun – so long as you can get over your fear of the water and take the necessary precautions: 

  • Always wear a properly fitted PFD 
  • Paddle with an experienced kayaker (who knows how to swim) 
  • Take a kayak lesson and learn the basics of paddling 
  • Pick a kayak that’s stable and beginner-friendly 
  • Choose a suitable location (relatively shallow and calm water) 
  • Fit your kayak with outriggers for additional stability and buoyancy 
Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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