Below, we’ll highlight some of the most important pieces of safety gear you should keep on your kayak or canoe at all times. These critical pieces of gear are the bare minimum that will keep you safe.
Use this guide as a jumping off point to flesh out your specific safety equipment and prioritize safety while you’re out on the water.
- Basic Safety Gear You’ll Always Want with You
- Rescue Gear to Keep Close at Hand
- Communication and Signaling Gear is Always Important
Basic Safety Gear You’ll Always Want with You
To kick things off, let’s run through some of the most important basic safety gear you need.
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)
While PFDs can come in the form of life jackets, life vests, or even a life ring, in this section we are talking specifically about life jackets. A primary PFD should be your main flotation device; however, any of the other options mentioned previously are great for secondary aid, and are also called a : type iv” PFD.
Life jackets are personal flotation devices you can wear. Life jackets are designed with buoyancy to bring you to the top if you fall into the water, and they’re even made to turn you to a face-up position if you are knocked unconscious.
A life jacket prevents drowning and is recommended for children and weak swimmers. An offshore life jacket is even more buoyant, and is designed to keep a person afloat in rough waters where rescue may take some time.
There are also inflatable PFDs that come in a multitude of styles similar to life jackets. An inflatable PFD, or a “type iii” PFD, is a good option for kayakers and canoers, even though they are not specifically designed to flip unconscious people onto their backs in the water.
They allow for greater range of motion and increased comfort, and are commonly used for sports where a conscious person often enters the water intentionally.
Have a regular schedule of maintenance on your PFDs. Soggy or deformed padding will not be of much use to help you avoid drowning.
The US Coast Guard states that an approved PFD is required on every canoe or kayak.
Float bags add extra buoyancy and are especially useful when you are kayaking or canoeing in rough and rapid water (like whitewater).
They work to create built-in bulkheads and are filled with air, allowing your boat to ride over rocks, to prevent swamping completely, and to help your kayak or canoe stay upright in the water.
Spray skirts are basically waterproof barriers that keep out water, wind, rain, and anything else that could find itself inside your kayak or canoe cockpit. They may not seem necessary in warmer weather, but the first time you go kayaking in colder weather you’ll be grateful for the barrier that keeps the elements out and your body temperature up.
Unless you are going to be spending time exclusively on flat lake or pond water with no waves and no wind, you’ll want to have a spray skirt handy at all times.
A high quality helmet is another piece of safety equipment to have on hand while kayaking or canoeing.
You might not need to bring helmets if you are paddling around on lakes or ponds with calm, flat water. But if there are going to be any rapids — and any rocks — you want to make sure that your cranium is well protected!
You can make your own, buy a paddling-specific kit, or get a more general kit; it really doesn’t matter. They’re a must-have because you always need access to essential first-aid supplies, like antiseptic creams and emergency drinking water.
An important part of using first-aid kits involves knowing how to use the supplies that are contained within them. Take time to familiarize yourself with what is inside your kit before you need it out on the water.
In addition to a personal first-aid kit, consider bringing a kayak repair kit if you are boating in inflatable kayaks.
Rescue Gear to Keep Close at Hand
To make sure that you can get through any emergency with the best odds of coming out unscathed, keep this gear in your kayak or canoe.
Paddle floats attach to the blade of your canoe or kayak paddle. They work sort of like an outrigger, making it easy to stabilize your kayak or canoe for reentry.
You don’t need them attached to your paddles 100% of the time, but they should be close at hand in the cockpit so that you can snap them into place quickly if needed.
If you become separated from your paddle you can (quite literally) find yourself up a creek without a way to get home! Paddle leashes guarantee that even if you are physically separated from your paddle, you will be able to retrieve it.
A Bilge Pump
If your kayak or canoe has capsized, getting the water out quickly will become your most important task.
Bail buckets work too, but nothing gets the job done faster than a bilge pump. Stuff the end of the hose in the water inside your vessel, start pumping, and get that water out of your boat ASAP.
Tow lines are carried by most paddlers because they don’t take up too much space, and they’re good pieces of gear to keep around even if you don’t necessarily need to be rescued.
You can always throw them out to a fellow paddler, have them hook on when you are tired, and take turns paddling to bring each other to shore. Throw bags are a great choice for tow rope that can also be used for a rescue if one of your fellow paddlers was to capsize.
Razor Sharp Knife
You never know when you might need a knife to slice through straps, tow lines, fishing lines, or anything else you might get tangled in while you’re on the water. Of course, they also work great to cut up lunch, or pop the top off your beverage of choice.
Communication and Signaling Gear is Always Important
Getting yourself out of a water emergency is vital, and to do this you’ll likely need some sort of communication gear.
A high-quality radio is a key piece of equipment that gives you an opportunity to reach out to potential help, track and monitor weather reports, and navigate more effectively than you would have been able to on your own.
If you purchase a radio with Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) you can use it to send an electronic distress signal so the Coast Guard can locate and rescue you.
In addition to a radio, there is a coast guard requirement for small vessels to carry a sound producing device, such as a whistle or horn. The purpose of a sound producing device is to alert commercial vessels to your presence, but it can also be a valuable piece of equipment in an emergency situation.
Battery Backup for Mobile Devices
A battery backup for your mobile devices (like a battery bank) is another essential. This should be fully charged and kept in a waterproof container that has a flotation aid so that it won’t be lost if it goes overboard.
Make sure the battery can provide power to both your cell phone and your radio, if possible. You can also consider purchasing a satellite phone if you often go kayaking a long distance from shore where phone signals are weak.
Signal Flares and Foil
Signal flares, signaling foil, brightly colored clothing, and waterproof lights are all visual distress signals that should be stowed inside your kayak or canoe at all times. Visual distress signals help you to get someone’s attention visually, and can be helpful if the Coast Guard is called in or if you need to be located from the air.
The common recommendation is to carry three flares, which gives you two backups in case one misfires or gets dropped in the water. The more responsibility and forethought you show, the higher your chances of being rescued.
Navigational lights are also important, as they can keep you going in one direction if you find yourself on the water after dark. Navigation lights for night use can also turn into a lifesaving visual distress signal if you are unable to make it back to the shore on your own.
Do I need to keep my kayak or canoe safety kit onboard all the time?
It’s a good idea to get into the habit of always having your kayak and canoe safety kit onboard, even if you don’t think you need it for this run out on the water. The time you leave it home is almost always the time you’ll need it most.
Am I legally required to have all of this gear stowed away?
Different states, different towns, and even different waterways have specific regulations and rules about the safety gear you need to have with you when you are kayaking or canoeing their water.
Check local regulations to see what safety equipment is required in your area. The US Coast Guard requires all boaters to have a Personal Flotation Device with them at all times, though.
What’s the number one thing I should do to stay safe when kayaking/canoeing?
The most important thing you can do to stay safe when you are kayaking and canoeing is to tell someone on dry land where you’re going to be and when you expect to be back.
If they don’t hear from you at that specific time they’ll know to call in for extra help. They’ll also know where to send the rescue team.