How to Stay Safe in Your Kayak on a River

Kayaking on the river is a special experience that's enjoyable year-round. Whether you're whitewater kayaking, heading out for a gentle paddle, or doing week-long tours, safety should be paramount. 

It's important to consider safety whenever you're kayaking regardless of whether you are paddling in a large lake or small body of water, but it's extremely important when you head out onto flowing water. The river can be a treacherous place if you lack experience and knowledge. Water levels and flow rates can change like the tide, so it's important to take the correct safety precautions.

In this article, we'll be looking at how you can ensure you're kayaking safely on the river whether you're heading out for the weekend or a longer trip. We'll be looking at safety concerns with equipment and discussing the steps you should take when you head out on flowing water. Enjoy!

Making Sure Your Equipment is up to the Task

Your equipment is what separates you from the depths, helps you navigate the water, and it may save your life in an emergency. 

Making sure your equipment is up to the task at hand is the step to take in safe kayaking. You wouldn't use an open top kayak for whitewater just as you wouldn't use a whitewater kayak for a 7-day camping tour. 

So what do you need to head out kayaking on a river and how do you make sure your kit is up to the task? 

Let's take a look...

1. Is Your Kayak Fit for Your Activity?

As we mentioned, you wouldn't use an open top kayak in whitewater and you wouldn't use a whitewater kayak for a long-distance tour. 

You must make sure that your kayak is up to the task at hand. In regards to river activities, you want to make sure you have the right kayak for touring & camping, whitewater kayaking, casual weekend paddles, or kayak fishing. If you don’t have the right kayak for the job and it could put you in danger, don’t head out on the water.

2. Do You Have the Right Buoyancy Aid?

Buoyancy aids are essential pieces of kit for any kayaker regardless of what kind of environment you're paddling in. However, do you know which kind of buoyancy aid you need? Your weight, activity, and environment can affect which kind of buoyancy aid or life jacket you need, so listen up here.

Make sure the floatation device you have is suitable for your weight. A jacket that is suited for someone lighter or heavier than you will compromise your safety. 

Know the difference between a life jacket and buoyancy aid too. A life jacket is made to keep your head above the water regardless of whether you’re conscious or not but it’s not easy to swim with.

A buoyancy aid helps aid your flotation. They won’t keep you afloat if you’re unconscious but they will help keep you afloat while you swim to shore. Usually, buoyancy aids are the go-to floatation device for river kayakers. However,  if you’re whitewater kayaking a life jacket with a high buoyancy will be required.

3. What Other Equipment is Useful on the River?

There are a range of other kayaking items that are useful for safety, comfort, and efficiency on the river. We'll be outlining the ones that'll keep you safe on the water, but some of these double up for comfort and efficiency too.

Spray Skirts help keep water out of the cockpit of your kayak. These will help reduce the chances of hyperthermia in cold weather and will prevent you from taking on too much water if the going is rough.

Battery Packs provide you with a backup power source to charge your phone and torches. This will ensure you’re always able to call land and signal for help even if your electrics lose charge.

Dry Bags help keep your kit dry. Using a dry bag to store a spare set of clothes and your electronics such as phones and troches will ensure you can recover easily if you capsize. 

Paddle Leashes prevent your paddle from floating downstream if you get into trouble on a set of rapids. This ensures that you don’t get stuck without a paddle while out on the river

7 Tips to Stay Safe in your Kayak on the River:

Now you know about equipment safety, we'll share 7 essential tips for the river kayaker. Follow these tips closely and practice them every time you head out onto flowing water.

1. Plan Your Route

Before you even begin to put paddle to water on a river you should plan your route. You should find out about rough depths along your route, any weirs or locks, areas of fast water, and areas of high boat traffic. This way, you'll know exactly what to expect along your route and be able to plan how you're going to tackle certain sections.

Planning your route will also help you find spots for breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as camping locations if you're on a tour. Planning your route effectively will not only help keep you safe but it will also make your excursions run smoother, ultimately making them less stressful and more enjoyable.

2. Monitor Weather Conditions Before and During Your Route

Another important preparation to make before you get your kayak out and head down the river is weather. No one enjoys paddling in a storm, but the weather can be more than just uncomfortable on the rivers…

Rain affects the river levels and flow rates and even if it’s not been raining where you are, if there has been bad weather further upstream it can affect the river further downstream. Rivers can become extremely dangerous extremely quickly if a substantial amount of water comes down.

You should keep an eye on the weather forecasts in the lead up to your outing as well as throughout your trip (if you’re heading out for several days). If possible, keep up to date on the river levels and conditions as well. Websites such as provide information on several rivers in Ireland, so definitely utilize tools like this.

If ever you think the river may be too high, the flow too fast, or you think the upcoming rain is going to affect the conditions drastically, don’t head out. There’s plenty of stillwaters here in Ireland that are far safer to paddle on in times of poor weather and river conditions.

3. Know Your Abilities

Number three, know your abilities!

This should be common sense really but I must add it just in case. Don’t head out into whitewater or on tours that put you way out of your depth. If you’re not confident, head out with a guide, get some training, and gain your confidence with others first. 

Negligence can kill and the water isn’t something to play around with, so make sure you have the skills and experience before you take on a challenging stretch of river. 

4. Keep an Eye on What’s Ahead of You

Once you’re out on the river it’s important to keep an eye on the horizon. It’s easy to get distracted by the wildlife on the banks but always keep an eye out ahead of you. If you’ve planned your route and know the system you’ll know roughly what stage is coming next. However, the river and its users can change all the time. 

Looking far ahead of you while you’re kayaking allows you to note potential hazards and act upon them before they become a problem.

5. Consider Paddling in Pairs or Groups

Another consideration, especially if you’re relatively new to kayaking, is paddling in pairs or groups. Not only is kayaking a great way to spend time with friends and family, it’s far safer to navigate tricky river systems in groups rather than alone.

If you’re the beginner or you’re not particularly confident in your kayak, definitely get in touch with your kayaking friends, family, or local kayaking club to venture out in a group.

6. Pack the Essentials

Whether you’re heading out onto the river for a day trip, a camping weekend, or a weeklong trip, make sure you pack the essentials. If the water on the river you’re paddling isn’t drinkable (after boiling of course) then be sure to bring plenty of drinkable water or plan out where you’ll get your drinking water from along your trip.

Food is the next essential. Make sure you have plenty of it especially if you’re touring. You burn through a lot of calories when you’re kayaking and food is your fuel! 

Other essentials include spare clothes in dry bags, camping gear for overnighters, cookware, and battery packs to keep your phone charged, which leads us to our final tip…

7. Notify & Stay in Contact with Land

Before you head out on the river, notify a couple of people and let them know where you’re going, when you're going, and how long for. Keep in contact with them throughout your trip and of course, notify them of any problems. 

Having someone that knows where you are that expects a call every evening is a priceless safety factor that could save your life on the river. If something goes wrong and you don’t contact your “land buddy” they will be able to notify rescue and help guide a search team to your last known location.

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