◊ Safety Gear

Another section on this site, http://lposka.7ich.com/home/safety-considerations, complements this section.

We start with cautionary comments:
  • Items of safety gear do not make you any safer, unless you learn to use them and routinely practice with them
  • safety items must be stored/located so you can easily get at them when needed e.g. a vhf radio stored in a hatch is of little use when you and the kayak are separated - if you can't get it, you don't really have it
Nearly everything you take on a paddling trip has safety ramifications - the kayak itself, paddles, food and water, compass etc. In addition, you need common sense and intuition, typically built through experience i.e. memorable mistakes. But here I focus on those special items which one would term safety gear. The list was created with an ocean environment in mind. Nevertheless, many of the items make sense in a large lake environment such as Lake Pend Oreille, especially in the more remote areas of the lake. I'll write a few words about each item (exposing my biases/preferences) and leave it to the interested reader to search elsewhere for more information. The items I'll discuss briefly are these:
  • paddle float
  • reentry stirrup
  • extra paddle
  • pump or equivalent - and sponge
  • a buoyant heaving line at least 15 meters long (e.g. throw bag or bagged tow line)
  • pfd (personal flotation device)
  • whistle or equivalent
  • knife/scissors
  • tow belt
  • marine (vhf) radio
  • first aid kit
  • patch & tool kit
  • appropriate navigation lights if traveling when dark or in fog
  • compass
  • assorted tethers
Certain jurisdictions will typically require some of this gear. Canada, for example, requires sea kakayers to carry the following (or equivalents):
  • pfd (personal flotation device)
  • a buoyant heaving line at least 15 meters long
  • whistle/horn
  • manual pump or bailing device
  • navigation lights if traveling when dark or in fog
Further, in Canada, you may not use a marine radio until certified via the appropriate test. I found the course and certification process quite useful. Check with the local coast guard for requirements where you will be paddling. Experienced local paddlers and paddling clubs are also good sources of information.

Paddle Float

A paddle float allows a capsized kayaker to create an outrigger (paddle plus paddle float) to aid reentry into the kayak, typically for unassisted self rescues. There are perhaps two categories of paddle float:
  • solid foam with permanent cover (quicker to deploy)
  • inflatable (less bulky to stow when deflated)
I typically prefer the solid foam style and consider it safer, because it doesn't require the extra time for inflation. Further, it is possible that the inflatable version has been somehow damaged and won't inflate properly. Of course, the careful kayaker will always check all gear beforehand and repair as needed. I heard of at least one instance where a capsized novice became a bit frenzied and was hyperventilating and quite unable to inflate the paddle float. A capsize event in very cold water might affect a more experienced paddler similarly.

When do I not prefer the solid foam style and recommend the inflatable? If the boat is narrow and low, your weight may be too much for the foam float. In general you might be too heavy for the foam float. In these cases, you might sink the foam float too low beneath the surface and have a somewhat insurmountable kayak to climb. The inflatable provides significantly more flotation and would be a better choice in these circumstances.

Once one has a dependable roll, it is a significantly easier reentry task in rough water than the paddle float reentry. Note that even a kayaker with a bomb-proof roll may want the paddle float option in certain circumstances.

Kayak sponsons could play a similar role in reentry, but I haven't tried them and cannot offer an informed opinion.

Reentry Stirrup

A length of rope or a kayak car rack tie-down strap can be adjusted to provide you with a stirrup to aid in reentry. To deploy this when needed, I loop a strap around my coaming adjusting the length so that the other side hangs into the water where i can step into it, essentially using it as a stirrup. A person who is disabled/injured can often reenter the kayak with this aid - in addition to the paddle float outrigger. I adjust the loop to fit my leg length, but leave it adjustable so I can help someone else in an assisted rescue scenario, by looping it around that person's kayak coaming and then adjusting the length appropriately.

Extra Paddle

Even if you use a paddle leash and are convinced you won't lose your paddle, it can be broken. It's not that hard to carry an extra paddle. At the least, you can carry a half paddle if you have one made to come apart - or a canoe paddle.

Pump or Equivalent - and Sponge

This is a safety issue because significant water in a kayak noticeably degrades stability. And if it's a hypothermic kind of situation, the water in the kayak can be a big problem. So this is straightforward - if significant water gets into your kayak, you want to get it back out. Manual pumps work pretty well until the water is nearly gone. Then you'll need a sponge, if you want that last bit out.

Throw Bag

A throw bag contains a line and is designed so that the line plays out when it is thrown. Typically you take out enough line at the top of the bag and hold that securely in one hand while you throw the bag with the other hand to the person needing help. The line plays out along the bag's trajectory and you end up with a line from you to the target person. Throwing from a kayak is trickier than throwing from land. If you think about it, you want the kayak pointing in the direction of the throw. Similarly you may want that same orientation as you subsequently reel the line back in with a person/kayak on the other end. If that orientation is not possible, you must take extra care not to capsize from the sideways forces you are exerting.

Throwing the bag to an unconscious victim seems pointless (the bags don't have hooks on the end). If the target is panicky, you must attempt to to calm that person enough to be functional at catching the bag. Typically you would paddle up to the person in trouble and use a tow line, rather than employing a throw bag. The throw bag makes much more sense for river kayaking than sea kayaking. There are those of the opinion that the Canadian requirement for a buoyant heaving line at least 15 meters long (e.g. a throw bag) doesn't make as much sense for sea kayakers as does a tow belt. I suppose if you're cycling through some tidal rapids, essentially simulating river kayaking, the throw bag would be potentially useful.

One could argue that carrying a tow belt is equivalent to having a throw bag; after all, you can throw a bagged tow belt. But the line must still be at least 15 meters in length to meet the buoyant heaving line requirement. I have an NRS marketed tow belt whose line length meets slightly exceeds that requirement. I keep the line daisy chained so that I have a quickly adjustable length from about 4 meters up to the full 15+ meter length.


With deck rigging, throw lines, paddle leashes etc., there are many potential ways to get entangled. In a capsize event, this could be somewhere between inconvenient and deadly. Having a knife, easily drawn from a pfd mounted scabbard makes great sense. Once drawn, the knife should still be fastened to the pfd e.g. by a short line and carabiner. Of course, a knife can also be used for many mundane tasks e.g. cutting up an apple at lunch. It's just a handy tool. But buy a good one and maintain it. Titanium (not merely a titanium coating) will not rust; while even stainless steel will eventually succumb to salt water,

There is a preference among some for a good trauma scissors instead of a knife. The argument is that if you have but one hand free and you need to cut a line that is not taut (for example), the scissors will work but the knife will not.

PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

A pfd will provide personal flotation should the kayaker end up in the water. These pfds must be comfortable enough so that they can be worn while paddling for a long time. Consequently, such pfds are not designed with the bulk necessary to keep the head of an unconscious victim out of the water. Therefore, an unconscious victim is then likely to drown. Nevertheless, a pfd offers a large margin of safety. If possible, they should be worn all the time, but in warm climates this may lead to unacceptable chafing of the skin in a multi day expedition. In some circumstances (particularly in frigid water), a pfd is analogous to a seat belt - when you need it, it's too late to put it on.

A pfd should fit snugly and not ride up around your ears. A typical novice error is to pick one that is too large (been there). It should have a useful selection of pockets and a way to fasten your knife securely. My knife sheath is attached to a lash tab on my pfd. When I first attached the sheath, the part of the above the lash tab stuck out slightly so that it could inadvertently catch on the kayak rigging during, say, a paddle float reentry. So my safety item (the knife) became a potential safety hazard.  I modified the pfd so that end of the sheath is now covered. Some pfd vendors are aware of this and have a sheath cover pocket above the lash tab. The Kokotat 'MsFit Tour' pfd is such, whereas the simpler MsFit is not.

Whistle or Equivalent

If traveling with other kayakers, everyone needs to stay within hailing distance. Nevertheless, the lead kayakers don't have eyes in the backs of their heads. Should a situation arise where you need to get their attention, a whistle works. You can even work out a more extensive communication protocol, if the group has none established. Kayak clubs sometime formalize this.

A whistle can also help alert someone on an adjacent shore or a nearby vessel of your proximity. Of course, the bigger and louder that other vessel is, the less effective is the whistle. In such cases a marine radio can be crucial. Be aware that we kayakers are often called speed bumps.

Tow Belt

There are various reasons why a kayak may need to be towed. A common one would be that the paddler could no longer paddle due to some sort of overuse or other injury e.g. to the arm or to the back. I carry a tow line with a quick release belt. The tow line has a section of shock cord incorporated. This allows me to tow another kayak, but release it if conditions prove infeasible. Additionally, my kayak has another tow line with shock cord as part of its deck rigging - so I can be towed by others who are not otherwise set up to tow me e.g. with a tow belt.

Marine Radio

The marine radio provides
  • current weather information
  • a way to call for help
  • a way to hear others call for help
  • a way for more routine communication
Clearly, there will be designated weather channels, certain channels for emergency use only, other special purpose channels, and channels available for general use. A problem occurs when channels, particularly emergency channels, are misused e.g. clogging an emergency channel with routine communications. Perhaps this is why Canada requires a test, presumably preceded by appropriate training and study.

For kayakers, a hand held, submersible radio that floats makes sense. A way to replace or recharge batteries on longer expeditions is necessary. Once you carry a marine radio, there is a responsibility to learn how to use it properly - not only how it works, but also the accepted communication protocols. Otherwise, safety can be compromised.
First Aid Kit

Obviously, some sort of general purpose first aid kit is wise. You should also know how to use it. With some first aid training, you'll know what needs to be in the kit and how to use it.

Patch & Tool Kit

It is possible that you may spring a leak in your kayak - this would not be unusual. Having some sort of patch kit which can provide a waterproof patch in a short time is smart. There are epoxy products that cure rapidly and can even be applied underwater. What else you might place in a tool kit depends on what you might need to repair while on a trip - a rudder, deck rigging, a tent, a headache? My kit includes what I think my equipment might require in repairs to keep me paddling for the day ... within reason.

Duct tape is sometimes carried as a quick patch. Some recommend the metallic flashing tape because it can be applied successfully to wet surfaces.

Appropriate Navigation Lights if Traveling when Dark or in Fog

Kayaks, relatively invisible by day because of the low profile, are even worse at night. If you must travel at night, mount the appropriate navigation lights as required by the jurisdiction in which you are paddling. Head lamps can be useful. A local kayak outfitter/store is a possible source of information and the actual gear.

These lights not only alert other vessels of your presence, but also allow members of a kayak paddling group to keep track of each other.


Compasses designed for deck mounting are extremely useful for successful navigation. Serious sea kayakers should pursue navigational skills, both theory and practice.

Assorted Tethers

Tethers are a way to avoid losing gear. One can tether
  • the paddle to the kayak
  • the paddle to the paddler
  • the kayak to the paddler
  • your knife to your pfd
  • your pump to a deck line
  • and so on
It sounds like the basis for a great cartoon. Many kayakers avoid using tethers because of the danger of entanglement. There are situations where certain types of tethers (e.g. kayaker to kayak, paddle to kayak) are inappropriate e.g. surf zones and rock gardens. This can be left to personal preference. In either case practice rescue scenarios with your usual gear. In my case, I hope to hang on to my paddle.

Practice is Required 

Learning to use the various items of safety gear should not be left until there is an emergency situation. An obvious example is to drill by deliberately capsizing your kayak and practicing unassisted reentry with the paddle float, subsequently stowing the paddle float, emptying the water from the kayak, and starting to paddle again. You'll get faster and more solid. So if the day comes when you capsize inadvertently in semi-heavy, very cold water, you'll recover and be underway again - generating heat to counter hypothermia.

When I was first taught to do an unassisted paddle float self rescue, I very successfully deployed the paddle float, clambered back into my kayak, and promptly capsized on the side opposite the outrigger, because I forgot to keep my weight on the outrigger side while getting seated - even though the instructor had emphasized that point. I immediately made a second, totally successful attempt. This is something I practice each season in varying conditions.

For most of us, practicing safety techniques with a group of fellow paddlers is actually quite fun. Experienced kayakers often offer extra tidbits of information that can be quite useful - they might explain something a special way which works exactly right for you.

With whom do you Paddle?

Do your paddling partners have and know how to use the appropriate safety gear? Do they wear their pfds? Are their kayaks themselves safe? As an example, a kayak without positive flotation at both bow and stern is inherently unsafe except very near an accessible shore. Has the trip been organized with appropriate safety protocols?  Regular practice with safety gear is important. My strong preference is to avoid kayaking with people I consider to be unsafe kayakers.