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Canoeing and Kayaking Safety

A few simple rules—along with a lot of respect for the forces out there in the natural world—will help you avoid the kinds of situations that otherwise might cause discomfort, injury, or even death.

  • There is indeed safety in numbers—don’t boat alone. Recommended minimum is three people, two craft.
  • Wear your personal flotation device (lifejacket—PFD). It not only makes good sense—it’s the law.
  • Recognize your limits. Avoid situations that are beyond your boating and swimming ability.
  • Become a competent swimmer.
  • Learn the essential canoeing/kayaking strokes and practice them until they become “second nature.” The safest boater is a skillful boater.
  • Think and plan ahead. Know what hazards you are likely to encounter—rocks, down trees, waterfalls, sharp turns; lake waters that can turn into nasty chop if the wind comes up.
  • Be suitably prepared and equipped—proper footgear, sun protection, raingear, spare dry clothing, rescue line, extra paddle, duct tape, first-aid, map, knife, etc. as your particular trip may require. Secure your glasses.
  • Know and respect the water you choose to paddle. Check River classifications and be sure to find out what the water conditions are or will be at time of launch. Check weather forecasts for the area. Consider recent rains, local and upstream, temperatures, winds, and likely conditions, i.e., afternoon winds, late-afternoon showers, chilling nighttime temperatures.
  • Beware of cold water and weather extremes. Dress appropriately.
  • Be sure your craft is in good repair.
  • Equip your canoe (optional for kayaks) with bow and stern lines, 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch lines 10 to 15 feet long. Fasten securely and leave the free end unknotted and accessible. Do not use these lines to tie in gear.
  • Have a safety plan. Understand your responsibility to help your partner and other members in your group.
  • Keep boats a safe distance apart. Allow the boat in front of you to clear a potentially hazardous stretch before you enter it yourself.

If you spill...

If possible, hold onto your boat and get to its upstream end so you won’t be crushed against rocks. Stay calm and follow rescuers' instructions.


If others spill...

Go after the boater first. In a group, upstream boaters head to shore, go forward with rescue line to the capsize. Downstream boaters stand by to pick up people and, secondarily, gear. Rescue the boat only if this can be done safely. 


Whistle signals can quickly communicate information to every member of the group. Be sure everyone knows the code:

One blast—slow down
Two blasts—go to shore
Three blasts—capsize, take proper action for rescue
Four blasts—approaching powerboat or jetski