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Kayak Safety Gear

Kayak Safety Gear

Appropriate safety gear depends on the environment you venture out in. It can range from immersion clothing to bilge pumps and signalling devices and navigation equipment. When traveling with a group it should include rescue equipment.

1. Whistle

Spend the extra $2 on a water emergency-specific whistle – one that blows loudly even when wet and is made of plastic so it won’t corrode. In some jurisdictions, whistles for emergency use must be pealess; whistles with a pea can freeze up in cold weather.

All kayak, general marine, or diving shops should carry several variations of the same basic design. Most are well under $10. A Fox 40 is probably as good as any.

The whistle should be carried on your person while kayaking. It won’t do you any good in a drybag in your front hatch…thats where the harmonica belongs… to insure you plenty of privacy at the campsite. Most people attach the whistle to their PFD with a lanyard or clip made for the purpose.

Whistle codes

There are several whistle codes that are used to communicate between people. The problem with these codes in paddling, especially whitewater where canyons and river valley walls generate echoes, is that the whistle signals can be confusing. You may let out one blast, but echoes cause another person to hear two or three. Similarly, you can blow three blasts only to have the other paddler miss the first one and think you blew two.

For that reason, do not use a whistle for general communication. It should be reserved for emergency signalling only.

2. Dry bag

In general, anything that is useless when wet, is very inconvenient when wet, is uncomfortable when wet or is destroyed when wet should be in a dry bag or dry box. There are several types of dry bags:

Tapered dry bags 

These bags are tapered in shape. The shape makes them perfect for stuffing into the ends of a sea kayak.

Compression dry bags 

These bags are great for sleeping bags or any other gear that can be compressed. You put your stuff into them, close them and then pull on straps to compress them and expel the air. Some have manually opened and closed air valves; others are automatic.

Small dry bags 

You will quickly learn that lots of small dry bags are more useful than a few big ones. They can be tucked into every nook and cranny of the kayak

Big dry bags 

You might need one of these someday. You will forever fight to get it into the storage compartments. You will forever curse the thing for blocking everything else in the kayak. You will find a substitute for whatever required you to buy this bag.

Dry bags are made of several weights and types of material. For sea kayaking, only relatively light fabric ones are required. The heavier ones that are used in canoeing are overkill. Vinyl (clear) dry bags seem like a good idea until you realize how difficult it is to deal with the sticky surface when trying to load your kayak.

3. Water purification

Water purification is serious business. Water impurities can make you very sick for weeks. Even remote streams can carry contaminants from animal feces that are dangerous to ingest. I carry a simple hand-pumped filter plus iodine tablets as a backup. A backup is required because pumps need periodic cleaning in the field and it’s easy to lose a part (believe me). I put a coffee filter over the end of the infeed tube of my pump. The coffee filter, held in place with a rubber band, dramatically reduces the number of times you have to clean out the pump.

Don’t try to drink seawater.

4. Spare clothing

Its a very good idea to take spare clothing along on every trip. Store it in a convenient and easy to grab location so as you load the boat you will also grab the bag and toss it in a hatch.

I have a dry bag packed with:

  • synthetic pile pants
  • wool socks
  • a pile jacket
  • a wool cap

The bag is stored on a hook right by my boat, along with my first aid kit and emergency ditch kit.

For me, if it’s convenient, I’m more likely use it, if it’s not, I tend to blow it off.

5. PFD

Also known as a life jacket or life vest and, in Britain, a buoyancy aid. This is additional buoyancy that will help you stay afloat in the event that you should wet exit and end up in the water. It is considered best practice that every kayaker wear a PFD at all times while kayaking.

The laws governing the use of a PFD vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction – check with the authorities in your area to see what you must do.

Additionally, a PFD can provide torso protection in surf and whitewater kayakers. Many paddlers consider it a good idea to wear a PFD when walking near whitewater, such as scouting rapids, since you will be protected if you slip or if you fall into the river.

Paddlesport-specific PFD’s are much more comfortable (making them more likely to be worn 100% of the time) than other styles or brands of PFD’s. Some states have additional requirements for PFD’s. For example commercial rafters in Colorado must wear a Type V PFD (the guides can wear a Type III). Most paddlers will use a Type III.

PFDs for sea kayaking and for whitewater paddling can be different even though they look very similar.


Modern PFDs are quite a bit more comfortable than the old ones. You can find PFDs that are made for specific body shapes and there are several that are made with women in mind – these even have built-in cups and jog-bra style fit.

If you find that many PFDs are too hot, consider the low-profile or brick style PFDs. These provide buoyancy in a thick band around the waist and little in the upper chest or back. In addition, inflatable PFDs are now legal for sea kayaking – these would not be safe for whitewater, however. Worn uninflated, they look horseshoe-shaped hanging around the neck. They inflate with a replaceable CO2 cartridge.

A PFD should not ride up on your torso when in the water. If you hook your thumbs under the shoulder straps, you should only be able to pull the PFD up a few centimeters (a couple of inches).

Rescue and towing harnesses

With appropriate training, a rescue PFD is highly recommended for whitewater. Rescue PFDs have features designed to enhance wearer’s ability to rescue other paddlers. These include such features as attachments for a pigtail and a quick-release chest harness.

Some sea kayak PFDs have similar looking items, such as towing straps that resemble a chest harness. Note that these are very different and you should not use a sea kayaking PFD as a whitewater rescue PFD. WW chest harnesses are designed to carry a load of 500 kg (1100 lb) – towing belts are not. Chest harness straps have braking bars to take up load – towing belts do not.

It is reasonable to use a whitewater rescue PFD in sea kayaking, however.


Another aspect of the difference is flotation. Whitewater PFDs come with different amounts of buoyancy. Standard in Canada and the USA is 15.5 lb, while some rescue PFDs can be up to 20 lb or more. If you are particularly lean and muscular, you might appreciate the extra buoyancy of some of these rescue PFDs. That said, there may be higher buoyancy sea kayaking PFDs as well. Consider as well the buoyancy of neoprene wetsuits.


Note that sea kayak PFDs may have more reflective material on them than those for whitewater. Sea kayakers expect to be seen on the water, especially at night. If you get a whitewater PFD for sea kayak use, you could add some adhesive-backed Scotchlite or similar reflective tape. For better visibility in general, international orange is the easiest to see on the water. Bright yellow comes next. Most other colours are harder to see.


Sea kayak PFDs often have (and need) more pockets for things like flares (which should be on the person, not on the boat), hydration pack, snacks, VHF radio etc. Whitewater kayakers can usually stop and get out onto the bank for food and to help others, whereas sea kayakers may remain in the kayak for many hours.


Most jurisdictions require paddlers to use only certified PFDs. If you modify the PFD, technically, the certification is voided. Sewing, cutting, or any other actions to modify should be avoided.

6. Marine VHF radio

Many radio systems use the VHF spectrum. Government channels, taxi cabs, weather radio, business band, aircraft, and amateur radio operators all use parts of the VHF spectrum. What is listed below is actually about the Marine sub-band of the VHF spectrum.

Very High Frequency (VHF) Radio is the standard marine communication system. It is also referred to as Marine VHF or Maritime Radio Telephone.

Many other boats and all commercial fishing boats are equipped with a VHF and the commercial boats are required to monitor channel 16, the International Distress and Calling frequency, all of the time they are on the water, except when broadcasting on a specific frequency. The Coast Guard monitors channel 16, this is the channel to use if you are in distress. In Canada and the US, the Coast Guard monitors Channel 22A as their working channel. A VHF is both an attention getting and a location marking signalling device. It can be used to call for help and the Coast Guard can home in on the signal. Note that in some areas close to the US border, all marine VHF traffic is monitored and tracked – vessels crossing the border while transmitting are noted.

  • The frequencies assigned to marine VHF are listed under Marine frequencies.
  • Channel 16 is the standard “hailing” frequency. Use this frequency when you just want to talk to someone for a while. Get their attention on channel 16 and then switch to a working channel to continue with the conversation. In the US, Channel 9 is also available as a hailing frequency for recreational boaters. It can be used to free up channel 16 for more important hailing.
  • If you are interested in buying a marine VHF handheld, consider the list of marine VHF features available today.
  • Consider the Marine VHF licensing requirement as well.
  • If you are using the radio, ensure that you conform to the standards for terminology and communication. Some of them are covered in Marine VHF protocol.
  • If you wish to obtain a radio to use for casual communications between kayakers, then consider using FRS and GMRS radios – they are inexpensive and FRS is unlicensed. Marine VHF is not a toy and is not intended to be used for casual chatter.

7. Signal mirror

A highly-reflective mirror used to reflect sunlight, moonlight or, in some cases an source of artificial light to a potential rescuer. A good signal mirror can be seen up to 10 mi (16 km) and the flash can be seen up to 50 mi (80 km) distance. The record for a signal mirror is 105 mi (169 km)! Given the size, weight and utility of a signal mirror, these should be considered a standard component in any kayakers kit. Get one and keep it in your PFD pocket.

Not all mirrors are created equal.

  • Good mirrors have an aiming device.
  • Some folks advocate using a used CD or DVD. However, they are not very reflective (you can see thru them, after all). Tests have shown that they are only about 20-25% as effective as a true signal mirror. Do yourself a favour and get a proper, highly-reflective mirror. Commercial signal mirrors are readily available.
  • Standard USCG signal mirrors are 4×5 inches.
  • Standard large mil-spec signal mirrors are 3×5 inches.
  • Standard small mil-spec signal mirrors are 2×3 inches.
  • Mil-spec mirrors float.
  • Glass mirrors are harder (scratch resistant) and brighter than plastic, but are heavier and more likely to shatter.
  • Plastic mirrors should be thick to avoid distortion. Distortion of the reflection will reduce the effectiveness.
  • Some brands have a red side reputed to be useful for generating a red flash with a flashlight. Tests have shown that using the flashlight directly and not using the red mirror is much more effective.

If you don’t have a mirror, you can improvise with any polished object, such as a knife blade. Hold one hand at arms length with thumb extended. Look at the object you are trying to shine the light at and place your thumb in the line of sight. When you shine the mirror’s light on your thumb, the light will now be pointing at the object of interest.

8. Compass

One of the most basic navigation tools. A compass in its simplest form is a magnet that will always align with the north-south magnetic field of the earth. For kayaking, their are two basic forms of magnetic compass available: hiking compass and marine compass. The marine variety is usually better suited for kayak navigation purposes as the direction can be read directly without using your hands.

A compass can tell you your magnetic course – the direction of travel is relative to magnetic north. Used in combination with a chart a navigator can do most of the work required to find their location and determine where to go next. Since most charts are referenced to true north or grid north you will need to correct for magnetic variation to transfer readings between chart and compass and determine headings.

A compass can also be used to determine an object’s bearing.

9. Ditch kit

A kit of safety gear that you carry on you body in the event you get separated from your boat. The kit may be in the form of a waist pack or put in a Nalgene bottle.

This kit relies on the paddler knowing what to do with each item and being able to survive in the wilderness for at least 24 hours. This cannot easily be learned from this web site or from a book. Many community colleges offer wilderness survival courses, as do some outfitters and outdoor companies. If you are serious about wilderness tripping in a sea or whitewater kayak, it would be worth your while to take such a course. At minimum, you should find a good book on wilderness survival and read it carefully.

If you get separated from your kayak, you are likely going to be wet. If it isn’t the hottest period of summer, you’re going to want to get out of your wet clothes and dry them. This means you’ll need a fire. Making a small fire and surrounding it with a wind shield and reflector made from aluminum foil will get you warm faster than trying to build a big fire. You’d better be wearing quick-dry clothes.

If the weather is cold, the ditch kit should be supplemented by some warm clothing. That will significantly increase the volume of the kit.

A compass without a map is of limited value. The problem is that the ditch kit is independent of where you ditch; a map is location specific. So, you need to add the map on the day of the paddle.

Note the items on the PFD. If you don’t have it on your PFD, make sure it’s in the Ditch kit.

10. Paddle

The piece of equipment used to apply power to the water and propel the boat. A kayak paddle generally has a blade at both ends of a shaft. The different variations of paddles differ primarily in the length and width of their blade and the length of their shaft. The “standard” paddle that purchased by most kayakers is often referred to as a Euro paddle. This is to differentiate from traditional paddles such as the Greenland paddle.

Historically some kayaks have been propelled by paddles with a blade on one end only. These are typically called single-blade or canoe paddles. Also, it is improper to call a paddle an oar.

11. GPS

Global Positioning System: a piece of navigation equipment that uses satellites to determine position very accurately. Modern GPSs are small, light weight, accurate and inexpensive. They do not fall into the catagory of standard equipment but anyone venturing offshore or on extended trips should consider purchasing one. They give you a precise and repeatable location. They can help in fog or if you have a marine VHF radio you can relay your position to potential rescuers.

Even inexpensive GPSs can come equipped with charting capability. While these charts can be highly useful, they are not a substitute for carrying paper charts. You should also know how to use a compass and carry one at all times because batteries die eventually and you are using a piece of precision electronics in a saltwater environment.

The GPS unit requires batteries. Batteries that are at least partly charged. Bad batteries in bad fog is a bad idea. Pack extra batteries.

Accuracy of GPS units is variable. Usually, they are accurate to within about 15m, 95% of the time. WAAS can increase accuracy to within 3 meters.

The accuracy of a GPS is also dependent on the operator to some extent. It is important that the operator learn to use the GPS correctly – blind use can get folks lost. See Common GPS errors. You can get used to using the GPS on land.

12. Rescue PFD

A PFD that has a quick-release belt fitted into it, usually with a Cow’s Tail attached to a ring in the centre of the quick release belt in the middle of the back. This can be used as a quick place to clip a tow line to aid in towing a friend’s boat to shore (for longer tows, it is much safer to have a towline attached to a quick-release cleat on the aft deck). The Cow’s tail can also be used to pull someone from the water, or attach them to a line to ferry across a channel (to get back to their boat after a rescue, for example). Whitewater kayakers use the Cow’s tail to attach themselves to a belay if they are performing a rescue with a throw line.

Last modified: August 3, 2019