Kayaking can be a wonderfully enjoyable activity and for the most part, it is. But like many things in life, there are risks associated with it that cannot be eliminated other than by not participating. However, they can be minimized through preparation, which includes equipment, skills and most importantly good judgment. The principal difference between the weekend pond paddler and the solo expedition adventurist is how far he or she has progressed on the learning path.
So, what are the risks?
The simple fact is that you could die. While statistically that’s much more likely to happen on the drive to the put-in, it’s still a serious concern. According to US Coast Guard and ACA statistics, there are approximately 12 kayaker deaths in the US per year on average, from various causes. That includes ALL kayakers, recreational, sea kayakers, fishermen, surfers and so on. Considering the number of people splashing around in kayaks, that’s actually a pretty good statistic, but of course, everyone would like to see that number drop to zero.
The following is a list of some of the more common risks associated with kayaking. The intent is not to scare you off the water, but to make you aware of dangers that perhaps you hadn’t thought of so you can take the necessary steps to protect yourself.
Common risks associated with kayaking:
PFDs are required for all NSPN activities that are held on the water.
Unless you’ve actually experienced it, it’s difficult to understand how rapidly debilitating cold water is. In 40 degree water – which is common in the spring – an unprotected paddler can lose the use of his or her hands in as little as a couple of minutes! Once that happens, you are no longer able to help yourself and must rely completely on outside assistance. You could live for an hour or more, but you will be helpless and will quickly succumb to hypothermia, loss of consciousness and drowning.
On the other hand, if a paddler is wearing a dry suit and adequate insulating garments underneath (fleece, wool), neoprene boots, a neoprene hood, neoprene or dry gloves, it’s possible to be fully functional in 40 degree water for 30 minutes or more and survival time is measured in hours. Believe it or not, it’s possible to paddle comfortably dressed that way, too!
While it’s possible to minimize the effect of gasp reflex, the more practical solution for most of us is the same as for hypothermia: dress for the water temperature.
This list is by no means comprehensive. Conditions and risks vary with the seasons and from one area to the next, so you should further educate yourself about the specifics of the area(s) you paddle in. It’s also a good idea to take a first aid course – Wilderness First Aid in particular – Make sure you have reliable means of contacting help, if necessary.
Float Plan – A float plan gives you a safety net. No one is going to come looking for you if no one knows you’re lost. A float plan first sets a time for a search to begin, it then makes the search for you more effective by giving the searchers a starting point and anticipated route. A copy of the float plan should be kept in the dash of the car, with each member of your paddling group, as well as back home with your emergency contact person. For a sample float plan, click here.