The question of safety accompanies almost everyone who goes kayaking for the first time. Your friends will be happy to regale you with stories of various unpredictable situations that happened to them, and on the internet, you will find many chilling stories.
Hence, the decision to go kayaking for the first time in your life may not be easy and may be associated with many doubts. However, if you want to increase your feeling of safety, follow some simple rules. We will present them in the following text.
1 – Check the route before rafting
You can use the Google Maps satellite view to check the rafting route. See how the riverbed is shaped and how the glades are located. The satellite map also shows ports (places where you’ll have to go ashore and haul your kayaks). The more you know about a particular river, the better. Make sure the route – and especially the number of crossings – matches your capabilities. On our website under Kayaking, you can find descriptions with kayak rental locations of the best routes in each state of the USA that we have researched, the routes can be with kids or for professionals.
2 – Adapt to the weather conditions
When going rafting, always check the weather conditions of the day and adjust your clothing accordingly. It’s best to wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothing and be prepared for any circumstance. You will need special sports shoes for water (they can’t be wellingtons – they will pull you to the bottom in case of capsizing), a thin fleece, a jacket or a raincoat and a set of spare clothes (here is more information about what to take for kayaking). If the weather is forecast to change choose a shorter route, to reach the base safely. When weather conditions are very bad (strong wind, threat of thunderstorm) or the current of the river is strongly swollen, resign from going on the water at all.
3 – Take a first aid kit
An emergency first aid kit will come in handy on any rafting trip. It should be packed tightly, so it won’t get wet. It’s also a good idea to have someone among your participants who knows how to give first aid – and it’s even better to learn how to do it yourself.
4 – Learn about equipment and paddling techniques
Before setting off, try to find out more about the kayak, which you will sail – its parameters, capabilities, and weaknesses. Ask the rental staff about potentially difficult situations and how to deal with them. Ask also for instruction on getting in and out of the kayak, paddling techniques, and ways to avoid obstacles on the route. You can learn more about steering a kayak in our post First kayaking trip. Kayak steering and safe boarding.
5 – Choose your kayak paddlers appropriately
If possible, a single pair of kayakers should consist of a more experienced person and a beginner. This rule is difficult to fulfill if all participants of a canoeing trip are taking part in it for the first time. However, most often there are several people in the group who have had contact with water sports. These people will learn to paddle faster, so it’s a good idea to pair them with novices. As for the distribution of people in the kayak, at the back sits a more experienced person, heavier and stronger, and at the front – a beginner, lighter and having less strength.
Personal composition of particular crews should be established already at the stage of planning a canoeing rally, especially if in canoeing rally children are to take part (here more on the subject of children on canoeing rally), and the route itself should be chosen according to participants’ abilities and skills. It’s worth remembering that a group of people should always go canoeing. You shouldn’t go alone – in case of a capsize or other unforeseen circumstances, it’s harder to get help.
6 – Appoint a leader, determine the order of settlements
In a group of rafters, you need a rafting leader. In critical situations, he will make decisions, and the group will have to obey him. He should be the most experienced kayaker, and ideally, he should also know the route of the trip.
During the canoeing trip, the leader is always the first (other groups are not allowed to overtake him). The leader is followed by the least experienced participants and the more experienced ones close the line. It is also necessary to decide which of the teams will always be the last. Other participants of the canoeing race must make sure not to lag behind. The last group should also have a first aid kit with them, which allows them to provide help efficiently in case of need. The distance between the settlements must be such that you have at least one settlement in sight in front of you and one behind you; the settlements must also not be stretched too far along the canoeing route so that they can find each other easily. The rafting leader and people from the last settlement should also be in phone contact with each other.
7 – Wear your safety vest
Before setting off, you and every other participant of the canoeing trip will receive a safety vest from the company renting the canoe. During kayaking trips, you have to wear the vest all the time. Even though it may hinder movement or not match other clothing, it can save the life of someone who cannot swim. It can also help an excellent swimmer to carry help to another person or an experienced kayaker who suddenly faints and falls into the water. Vests are mandatory for children and people who feel insecure because they do not know the river or cannot swim well. During cold weather or wind, a vest can also provide an extra layer of insulation.
8 – Protect your equipment
It’s better to be prepared for a bad scenario and then be pleasantly surprised if your stuff gets wet when there’s a rollover or it starts to rain. So pack your luggage properly. Put your electronics or cameras in a special waterproof case (you can buy one at any sports store). Larger items such as clothes or shoes should be packed in trash bags. For greater safety, we recommend the use of rubber bags or 30-liter bags specifically designed for water sports. In the event of a possible rollover, such a bag will float on the water, protecting your belongings not only from getting wet but also from drowning.
9 – Always swim during the day
Start rafting at such a time as to finish at least an hour before dusk. In the dark, you will not notice any obstacles on the river – stones, tree branches, dams, and water rapids. In the dark, it is also more difficult to provide effective first aid in case you, someone from your group, or someone else gets into trouble.
10 – Remember the basic rules of movement
When you’re paddling across the lake, stay close to the shore and put more effort into paddling so that the wind and current don’t push you into the middle of the lake. If there are larger waves on the lake or a motor boat passes you by, the safest thing to do is to position the kayak with the bow “on the wave” (that is, perpendicular to the wave).
When you are paddling on a river, watch the water surface in front of your kayak. Waves and eddies indicate underwater obstacles that must be avoided.
When overcoming obstacles, bends, and footbridges, you can help yourself with a paddle or hands, pushing off from trees, branches, or river banks. Swim under footbridges at the point where the distance between the water surface and the bottom of the footbridge is the greatest. If the footbridge (or another obstacle above the water) is low, lie down in the kayak, paddle along with it, and help yourself with your hands. In places where the river bottom is rocky, you need to swim where it is deepest so as not to damage your kayak.
When approaching obstacles in the case of inexperienced crews, it is best to apply the rule that only the person sitting at the back paddles and steers. Be especially careful when approaching transverse obstacles – for example, tree trunks lying across the river current. Do not let the current push you against such an obstacle. If this happens, do not lean away from the obstacle so that the river current does not overturn you – you should always lean towards the obstacle.
Do not kayak through dangerous places – such as half-submerged logs, visible eddies, water steps and thresholds, locks, and weirs. To avoid them, get ashore and carry your kayak by land to the other side of the obstacle. If the water level is low, stick to the current of the river in order not to settle on the shoals. If you stop on the shoal, check with a paddle the degree of siltation of the bottom and only then get out of the kayak.
11 – Keep distance between the kayaks
On canoeing trips, you should keep a proper distance from other canoes. It is about 10-15 meters. This will allow you to more safely overcome obstacles, such as fallen trees. The river flows at a certain speed, pushing the canoe, and in places where the current narrows, it can easily collide with other kayakers and as a result – capsize. That is why you should keep a safe distance from other kayakers and carefully watch the current of the river in front of you. At the same time, you need to keep visual contact with the crew in front of you and the crew behind.
If there is a blockage on the river, swim to the shore, stop and wait for the crew of the canoe that caused the blockage to overcome the problem. You can also back out by paddling backward. If you paddle forward and try to avoid the blockage, you will be hindering rather than helping. It is also worth agreeing in advance with all participants of the canoeing on the command given in the case of a blockage by the leader and passed on – for example, “stop on the water”).
In case of capsizing of the kayak, you should act similarly. The crew closest to the injured gives the command to stop, the most efficient crews provide assistance to the injured, and all other crews swim to the river bank and wait there for the development of events.
12 – Behave carefully in a kayak
Once you are in the kayak, behave carefully and sensibly. Be careful when getting in and out of the kayak, because during these activities most capsizes happen. When you get in or out of the kayak, set the bow against the current of the river. Such an arrangement will also help you reach the shore more easily.
When you are in the kayak, sit in the cockpit, do not squat or stand on straight legs. Do not jump from the kayak into the water. Do not sit on the side of the kayak, do not swing from side to side, or push off other kayaks with your paddles. You can damage the equipment or expose yourself to capsize. When kayaking, do not try to stop the canoe by catching branches of trees or bushes growing on the shore – this is also a common cause of capsizes.
13 – Remember about other people on the water
Pay attention to other people using the river – participants of your rafting trip, other rafters, as well as people swimming or fishing. Always help people who are in trouble. Various unpredictable situations can happen on the water, so you should be able to count on each other.
14 – The larger craft always has priority
A kayak is a small boat. It has greater maneuverability than other vessels, so the driver is required to give way to boats or motorboats. Always keep a good distance from the largest watercraft (ships, barges, ferries).
15 – Alcohol only after rafting
Emphasis: “alcohol only after rafting, around the campfire“. Never get in a kayak after drinking alcohol or using other drugs. They will cause an extension of your reaction time, meanwhile, during kayaking, you have to react or decide immediately. Drugs may also cause, that you will start to ignore the obstacles or will start bravado leading to risky behavior. Drinking alcohol also accelerates the loss of heat from the body and severely dehydrates it, especially in the sun. We discuss this topic in more detail in the entry about alcohol in kayaking. And instead of stronger drinks, it is worth taking an adequate supply of water.
We hope that our entry has familiarized you with all aspects of safe participation in kayaking. The more aware you are of all the risks and the more attentive you are to what is going on around you, the greater the chance that the canoeing trip itself will go without any major problems and you will take home only good memories.
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