10 Safety Items Every Kayaker Needs

Water safety is my #1 priority when guiding kayak trips.

It’s so important! Here’s why I’m passionate about ensuring my guests have a safe trip.

As a guide, one thing I see every year are paddlers who under prepare. It’s easy to say Oh we’re only going out for a bit, I’ll be fine! Paddlers go out on a local + familiar body of water for just a few minutes and end up in bad situations. It’s easy to get comfortable, take shortcuts and become complacent about what we need to do to ensure personal safety and the safety of those paddling with them. That’s usually the moment where I get tagged in for a rescue.   

The good news? Avoiding accidents is easy! Remind yourself that water safety should be our #1 priority as canoers and kayakers. Each spring, I do a full gear inventory and check of all of my equipment coming out of the winter season. I make sure every piece is in working order, replace items that are showing serious wear and restock the first aid kits on all of my boats and in my truck. Here’s a list of paddling and water safety items to keep in mind as you gear up for the spring and summer season.   

#1 – Personal Flotation Device (PFD)  

personal flotation device is an absolute requirement for paddlers of any age. It’s important for even the most experienced paddlers and swimmers to wear a PFD. Being out on open water presents situations where you may not be able to get to shore. Swift rapids may leave you unconscious or injured, or you could get caught in debris coming downstream.  

Kat’s Favorite

I have a NRS Ninja PFD. The low profile design allows for a ton of arm movement which comes in handy as a guide who has to kick it into high gear quickly sometimes and my knife attaches directly to the front (more on that later!).

#2 – Helmet, Hat or Beanie  

The type of paddling you will be doing will dictate what type of head gear you will need. Whitewater paddlers must wear an approved helmet. Other types of paddlers should wear a hat with a brim. This will shield them from the damaging effects of the sun on hot days as well as help them retain their body heat on cold days. The Woolpower lite beanie is a great choice for retaining heat on those cold overcast days.  

#3 – Proper Footwear 

For paddling, weather and cold water conditions usually call for closed-toe shoes should be worn. Neoprene or wool socks and booties are great for cold water paddling. It’s important to make sure you are wearing good foot protection in case you end up in a situation where you are required to walk. River rocks, sea shells and debris like glass often cause frequent injuries to unsuspecting paddlers because they weren’t wearing proper footwear while canoeing and kayaking. 

Kat’s Tip! I layer my wool socks over my thin liner socks and top with my neoprene boots. The liner socks wick moisture away from my feet as they perspire, and the wool socks add the insulation which lets me kayak in below 50 temps comfortably in December – February.    

#4 – Paddling Whistle 

One of the most inexpensive but highly effective pieces of gear you can carry is a good whistle! When you hit trouble, it’s often hard to yell loud enough for the sound to carry far. The beauty of the whistle is the piercing sound can reach much farther alerting other paddlers and bystanders that you’re in trouble. Be sure to attach your whistle to the outside of your PFD so its within reach.  

Kat’s Favorite

I’ve been using the Fox 40 classic for 12+ years as both a ACA guide and lifeguard. I have one attached to the outside of my PFD and another attached to the exterior of Dagger kayak. It’s whistle chamber is designed to self-clear when submerged in water. It has a pea-less whistle that is intense and penetrating with a sound power of 115 dB. The harder you blow, the louder it gets with force. 


#5 – Hydrating and Fueling 

One of the rookie mistakes paddlers often make is forgetting to pack a water bottle. Even if you’re only planning to be out a short period of time, staying well hydrated is essential. Paddling is a full body workout. It’s quite common for paddlers to become dehydrated due to the combined effect the sun and wind have on your body. As you paddle, you’re exerting a lot of energy – even if it doesn’t feel like it – so be sure to bring water and snacks along so you don’t get light headed.  

#6 – Dry Bag 

You want to pack essential items in your dry bag to keep them safe and dry. Some items I like to keep in my dry bag: a copy of my ID, food, my first aid kit, phone, dry shirt and pants, micro towel, and a map of the area I’m kayaking in (in the event I get separated from my kayak and have to hike out).  

#7 – Rope Throw Bag 

The rope throw bag is a great rescue device. It contains a coiled rope that can be thrown to a swimmer or paddler in distress with the intent of pulling them to safety. You can also use it to tow another canoe or kayak to shore if needed.  

#8 – Knife 

Paddling knives are often designed to be clipped to your PFD so that they are easily accessible. They come in handy for cutting yourself out of tree branches if you get hung-up, cutting rope to tie your kayak up, or filleting a fish for lunch. It’s amazing how many other uses you’ll find for your knife on kayak or canoe trips!  

Kat’s Favorite

I’ve carried the NRS Pilot Knife for several years now. I love that it attached directly onto the front of my NRS Ninja PFD. It has a quick release which makes it easy to cut myself out of branches if I get hung up or carried off course going through a rapid.

#9 – First Aid Kit 

It’s easy to put a first aid kit together yourself or you can buy one of the convenient pre-packed ones that are available in most outdoor stores. We recommend keeping it in your hull or dry bag/box.  

#10 – Sun Protection 

It’s amazing how exposure to the sun while out on the water can really have damaging effects on your body even when it isn’t that hot or sunny out. Sunglasses, sunscreen and lip balm should be worn even on cold days when the sun isn’t out. The lip balm helps protect you from unnecessary discomfort or chapping caused by the wind. 

Kat’s Favorite

I am a huge fan of Sunbum chapstick and sunscreen! I keep my Sunbum chapstick in all of my jacket & vest pockets so I never leave home without it. I’m always concerned about my impact on the environment and I appreciate that they are vegan + cruelty free + reef friendly! 

There you have it friends! The top 10 things you should be packing in your paddling go-kit. Most of them can be kept in a dry bag they are together and ready to go. 

Keep in mind, weather varies from region to region and your gear may need to be adjusted for that. Try to connect with a local group of paddlers in your area! It’s a great way for newbies to learn tips and tricks.  

I’ll be back next week to chat about what to wear – windbreaker, dry top, paddling jacket, wicking layer, bathing suit, wetsuit, and gloves – when kayaking!  

Until then, happy paddling!  

– Katherine  

About Katherine – Kat is an ACA kayak guide and ARC lifeguard with over 12 years of experience paddling the Southeast United States. When she’s not hanging out at Grand Forest headquarters, you can find her exploring Charleston with her rescue dog – Penelope.  

“So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

Norton Juster

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