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Kayak Safety Checklist

Kayak Safety Checklist

We all like to catch fish but without a doubt the most important part of yak fishing is returning safely from your outings. I must preface this write-up with a disclaimer – I am not a safety expert. I continue to learn from my own miscues and from the guidance of others on the water, including: fellow kayakers, power boaters, divers and more. The more discussion on our NEKF Safety Forum the better. The following I hope serves to make newbies aware of our basic safety issues, and experts hopefully will think about an issue they may not have previously. This does not cover everything nor does it go in depth into many subjects. Just the topic of self-rescue could be a major write-up on its own. Do not just rely on this for your safety information. Check out other yak and paddle websites, read the safety forum, and continue to learn and share from your own experiences. There is no substitute for time spent on the water.

Every year there are many paddler deaths and most could have easily been averted with some basic knowledge and appropriate gear.

Fortunately the vast majority of kayak fishermen and women are ready for the conditions in which they fish. I do not want to make it sound like kayak fishing is a life or death experience. Paddlers need to work within their comfort level and there is plenty of opportunity for folks with all skill abilities to get out and catch fish and enjoy a great time on the water. The following is geared towards fishing the salt but much of it applies equally to freshwater yak fishing.


Most accidental paddling deaths result from drowning.

WEAR YOUR PFD (personal flotation device)!!!

We cannot stress this enough. Buy a comfortable PFD, most of us use a Type III PFD, designed for comfort during paddling. Make sure it fits snugly and be sure to test it in the water. It is the law that you have a PFD on board and you must wear it from September 15 and May 15.
However, a PFD alone is not enough, be sure you can swim well! If you cannot swim please take lessons. Eventually you will end up in the water and being comfortable in the water will make everything much easier.

Exposure to cold and hypothermia must be the second leading cause of fatalities. Once you are in the water you rapidly lose heat to the water, you will always be paddling in water that is colder than your body temperature so you need to be prepared for immersion. In the summer during daylight hours you may be fine with just a bathing suit if you are good with self-rescue. However, the colder the water the less time you can spend in it before you are incapacitated. The most dangerous time of the year is in the spring when water temps can still be incredibly cold but the air temperature can be quite high. YOU MUST DRESS FOR THE WATER TEMPERATURE, not the air temperature. This means well-insulated dry gear or a wet suit.

Whatever you decide to wear be sure to check it out during the warm water months so you have confidence you can go overboard and stay protected, you do not want water getting into any dry setup.

If you end up out of your yak you need to be able to get back in. We call this self-rescue. There are ways for others to assist but it is essential that we all know how to quickly do it on our own, especially during cold water conditions. For most of us it will be very rare to tip but it can happen quickly even if you are paying close attention to your surroundings. An ocean swell may set you down on a rock you did not see, a large boat wake or rogue wave may suddenly take you for a ride, or landing a big fish may cause you to tip – whatever the reason, be aware that it happens.

Be sure to practice your technique and remember that with all your fishing gear and leashes it will be more difficult to self-rescue than with just your bare boat. There are lots of discussions on Sit-on-Top (SOT) versus Sit-inside (SIK) kayaks so I will not get into it here. Both can be safe fishing boats but most of us choose SOTs. With a SIK you need more gear for a self-rescue, a bilge pump is essential and a paddle float can help. With a SOT be sure your hatches are secure while on the water so if you do flip you don’t take on a lot of water. To be extra safe a bilge pump should even be carried on an SOT.

These three things are probably the most important for staying alive on the water:



Every trip out you need to do some planning. If you are in a calm estuary you are familiar with it might not take much to properly prepare but if you are fishing a new water at night you better do your homework.

Be sure to monitor the weather and tides. There are lots of sites with weather information; it is good to check different sites. I especially like to check the Doppler radar and see it in motion just before heading out. This will let you know what storms may be out there and where they are heading. Paddling and fishing can be dramatically affected by winds, tides, and currents. Know what you are getting into. A paddle with the wind and current can quickly take you miles away from your launch site.

Getting back when your arms are tired, against the current, and against a headwind can become quite a battle. Keep aware of changing conditions and anticipate.

Plan where you expect to fish and what you expect your timeline to be. Be sure to let someone on shore know where you are going and when you expect to return. A good way to do this is to create a written float plan and leave it with that person or perhaps a marina or baitshop. At least leave the information in your car. I would not leave it on your dash for anyone to see because it could invite someone to break in if they knew how long you were going to be gone. The police can always get into your car.

Make sure you have all your gear in order and know how to work it. Have your batteries charged, lights functioning etc. I will discuss more gear you need a little later. I find it is helpful to have a checklist to run through so you don’t end up at the launch site and find out you do not have something – it happens to be best of us.

Plan to fish with others if possible, especially in a new area. Most kayak fishermen are very willing to share their knowledge about fishing their local waters. Also just being on the water with others and sharing information and seeing different rigging setups will be very helpful. There is safety in numbers but you still need to be responsible for yourself. If you are in a group decide what VHF and/or FRS channel you will use to communicate.

The basics on these websites are free and you can print hardcopy to bring with you.
Something not to overlook in planning is making sure you have the proper setup for transporting your yak. It is your responsibility on our roads to make sure your yak does not fly off while you are cruising down an interstate.


You will need to add stuff to your PFD. At a minimum you need a plastic whistle designed for boating, a dive knife, a small compass, and a waterproof strobe light or other light. This stuff can be attached to zippers and clips that may come on your PFD. You can also add little retractable leashes such as those used on fly-fishing vests. Most PFDs also have one or more pockets but it is still best to have this stuff attached and not loose in a pocket. The whistle can be used to let other boats know where you are or to call assistance in case of emergency, five or more repeated blows on the whistle serve as an alarm. The dive knife can let you cut free of entanglement in leashes or other lines. The compass will help you orient towards shore at night or in heavy fog, and the light will help rescuers find you. By having this stuff on your PFD, even if you are separated from your yak you will have some of the basics for assistance with a rescue.

Every person will have their own list of gear and what is presented here is only a partial list and each yakker will need to adapt their gear for their own needs. For instance, if you only fish rivers you probably don’t need a compass. There is an endless assortment of safety gear and I suggest you check out the selection at a well-stocked marine or paddling shop. Take the opportunity to paddle and fish with others whenever you can and see what works for them.

paddle leash is essential for all paddlers in all conditions. A spare paddle is good to have, especially if you are alone. An anchor with enough line to get to and hold the bottom is a good safety item. Besides helping you fish a good spot it can keep you from floating away if you do end up without a paddle. It you beach your yak for any reason it is a good idea to put out your anchor so you don’t lose your boat.

Besides having a PFD compass you should have a deck-mounted orother compass to help navigate. Most of us find having a GPS unit is very helpful, especially for returning during a foggy outing. However, a GPS unit is no substitute for the compasses and the knowledge of where you are on the water. It can be helpful to have nautical charts or other maps with you on the water.

Some items are just universal items to have regardless of outdoor activity and these include sunscreensunglassessun or winterhatsbug repellentextra clothing or raingear in a dry bag, a good supply of fresh waterfood and so on. If you wear glasses put on a safety strap so you don’t lose them. I like to keep my cell phone in a small dry box that I keep in the cockpit (along with my digital camera). A cell phone may help in an emergency but saltwater can render it useless in a hurry and their signals and connections are not reliable.

submersible marine VHF radio is a great item to have and I consider it essential for those who kayak alone or go off-shore. You can get up-to-the-minute weather reports on demand, communicate with your fishing partners, and call for help from the Coast Guard or other boats. I keep mine on my PFD so I will always have it with me. I know I need to get in the habit of communicating with fishing partners more often, especially at night when you can get separated very quickly.

Night fishing has its own set of issues. Basically you need to know your yak and how to fish off it and have lots of experience to be safe out there. By law a light must be on board any yak between sunset and sunrise. A headlamp or handheld light is essential. You really should have a pole mounted white light in the stern that is above your head and many of us also use bow side lights (red port & green starboard). Regardless of if you expect to be out at night it is a good idea to have lights on board in case of emergency or heavy fog. I also keep a spare flashlightextra batteries, an extra suction cup white light, and glow tubes in my safety box.

I always have my dry sealed, floating, gear box on my yak. Besides the extra lights and batteries, this is where I keep sunscreen, extra food bars, bug repellent, my wallet, my car keys and more. If I flip this is the box I make sure I retrieve. I have the same box filled with my fishing lures and other fishing loot. I keep both bungeed to the yak so they will not float away if I spill.

Other items I keep in here are: small airhornleatherman, signal mirror, space blanket, flares, spare eyeglasses, lip balm, paracord, duct tape wrapped around a thin wooden rod, first aid kit, matches, lighter, binoculars and more. The signal flares and mirror are especially important to note and could be very important in being found on the water. There are also dye cartridges to release on the water, smoke signal flares, personal rescue beacons (EPIRBs), and more that you can purchase. You will need to judge what you need depending on where you go.

It is very helpful to have a bow line to assist if you need to be towed or just for pulling your boat out of the surf. A floating throw line can help you in a rescue of another. Helping others on the water, especially in heavy surf will be difficult and you need to be aware that you can be put into jeopardy when helping others. This is especially true if a frantic swimmer tries to climb on your yak.

For most safety gear it is stuff to help you float safely, keep you warm, help you be located, or to help you once on shore. If you make it to shore in an urban area you probably don’t need matches to start a fire but if you are on an extended trip on a remote lake you may well need to start a fire. I figure it is best to have it and not ever need it. I also want to be able to help others if they don’t have the appropriate gear.


You really need to be prepared for what can happen out there. Thunderstorms can suddenly appear. Try to keep on top of the weather reports and trust what you see the sky doing. If a storm does appear or you see lightning head for shore right away and seek cover. If lightning is near you stow or drop your rods and other vertical things as low as you can get them on your yak down and keep your own profile down. Use common sense, if thunderstorms are forecast stay near your launch site. Surf can kick up to dangerous levels in a matter of seconds when a squall goes through. Of course it is safest to not go out but in the northeast thunderstorms are forecast almost every day during the summer months.

Fog can quickly create a hazardous situation. Have the right gear on board (compass, GPS, airhorn, lights, chart etc.) and check the weather ahead of time. Be especially careful of other boats. Something to consider is having some sort of radar deflector so you are “seen” by larger power boats. I was told by an owner of a big boat that “we don’t even see you out there”. I don’t know much about deflectors but they should be looked into. Stay out of the main boating channels if possible and choose a highly visible yak such as orange or yellow.

Power boats operated by negligent boaters are one of the hazards we have very little control over. Boats can come dangerously close, watch out for wakes and be ready to reel in line if necessary. Try and avoid areas congested with boat traffic. Fortunately much of our best fishing is in tight among the rocks.

Huge fish can be a challenge. Don’t get pulled off your yak. Just picking up a 30 pound weight from the side of your yak can be difficult never mind a 30+ pound fighting fish. This article does not really go into fishing safety but as always, watch out for bluefish teeth and sharp hooks. A small first aid kit can certainly come in handy. Also anticipate what will happen if you get slammed by a cow striper and have a plan for what to do if you get towed into rocks, surf, boating channels etc.Be very aware of currents and tidal changes in spots like breachways, river mouths, jetties, rips etc. These places are often productive for fishing but sometimes you need to stop fishing and concentrate on paddling. These places are also frequently very busy spots for other boats too.
Surf entries and landings can be very dangerous and it is best to practice without your fishing gear. Fortunately many of the areas we fish have protected launch sites.

Always be prepared to go in the water. Some folks feel you should be tethered directly to your yak at all times except for when you are in the surf zone. Others do not – another thing to ponder . .


I have thrown out a lot of information out in these pages and, as I stated in the beginning, I am not an authority on safety. Many of you spend much more time on the water than me. Some things were probably left out and many were only mentioned in passing. Let me know if anything I said was wrong. There are many opinions on some of the topics that were raised. Be sure to seek out other sources of safety information and please share your experiences so we can all work towards safer outings.

Everyone needs to be current and well-versed with boating regulations and navigation and the following sites will help. Do you know what a dive flag looks like? If you are trying to avoid large boats do you know which side of a green can you should be on? How do you treat a person for hypothermia?

Continue to learn and use your common sense. Kayak fishing is typically very safe and enjoyable. Work into your own comfort zone. If you are a newbie practice in protected waters, don’t try and fish exposed ocean at night by yourself until you have racked up some serious fishing hours. Stay within your own abilities, paddling can be hard work.

Have fun, catch big fish, and be safe!

Last modified: August 23, 2021