Kayaking is one of the most popular water sports in North America. Although most kayak trips are safe, paddlers should be familiar with some of the more common hazards that may be encountered.
Capsizing is the most common kayaking hazard. While most spills are harmless, they should be avoided by practicing safe operation. Capsizing can be caused by sudden shifting of occupants or equipment, carelessness, steep waves, boat wakes, or other factors.
Lightning is one threat that a kayaker never wants to experience. Kayakers usually avoid lightning by keeping a sharp eye on the weather and getting off the water before storms develop.
Waves from wind, current rips or boat wakes can be very dangerous in a kayak. High winds can drive steep waves which will swamp or capsize many kayaks. Windy conditions can also bring down limbs or other debris, which can inflict injuries or block kayaking routes. Boat wakes demand respect from kayakers. These fast moving waves require skill and vigilance by paddlers.
In addition to dangerous waves, high winds can blow kayakers off course, cause exhaustion and hamper navigation.
Storms may also contain rain, hail or even snow, all of which can make kayaking dangerous. Rain or other precipitation can impede visibility, disorient paddlers, contribute to hypothermia, flood cockpits, and otherwise hamper paddlers.
Underwater obstructions can present hazards to kayakers. These include rocks, tree trunks, branches, cypress knees, shells or other objects. Most underwater obstructions pose little hazard on their own, but when combined with swift currents, waves or shifting weight, they can immobilize a kayak. In rare cases, an obstruction can puncture the hull of a kayak, resulting in a dangerous leak.
Reptiles are rarely a direct danger, but due to the fear they sometimes raise, they can cause problems. Snakes are often encountered and most will flee from an approaching kayak. Exceptions can occur when a kayaker startles or approaches a snake during breeding season. During these periods, some snakes become aggressive and may chase humans, either on land or in the water. Most unpleasant encounters can be avoided by using common sense and maintaining a safe distance from wild reptiles.
As silly as it sounds, birds can be a threat to kayakers. One of the most common situations occurs when kayakers get too close to geese or other waterfowl. This is more likely to be a problem if a mother goose has newly hatched goslings. Although conflicts are rare, a jealous gander may not hesitate to defend his young. The best policy is usually to remain a safe distance from geese and other large birds.
Spiders, ticks and chiggers can all inflict bites. Each of these species are common around water. Ticks are sometimes carriers of Lyme’s Disease, making them an even greater threat.
Insects are a common nuisance to kayakers. Most experienced paddlers always carry insect repellent in areas where biting or crawling insects are encountered.
In saltwater, crabs can be a hazard. Most crabs will flee when approached, but are attracted to baits and may approach kayakers that are fishing. Some crabs have sharp spines and pinchers, which can inflict nasty wounds if cornered or stepped on accidentally. Crabs are not a good candidate to be brought in the cockpit while kayaking.
Fish are generally harmless, but like crabs, can present problems when accidentally dropped into the cockpit. Having essential equipment on hand will help anglers release or harvest fish safely. In very rare cases, jumping fish may also present a hazard to kayakers. Little can be done to prevent these instances except to use common sense and to have proper safety procedures in place.
Poisonous plants are commonly encountered while kayaking. Poison ivy, oak and sumac are three of the most common poisonous plants that are found in North America. Contact with either of these can result in painful rashes and other symptoms. Identification and avoidance of toxic plants are essential safety precautions for kayakers.
Briars, wild roses and other spiny vegetation are another common hazard for kayakers. These plants are abundant at many kayak launching areas and are often found along river, creek and stream banks. Heavy clothing may offer protection in situations where contact with briars or other thorny plants is unavoidable.
Sharp branches are another hazard that tend to overhang many waterways. Kayakers can help limit risks posed by sharp objects by learning proper kayak handling techniques.
Sadly, trash is sometimes a problem when launching, especially where under-water visibility is limited. Broken bottles, cans, and other refuse can be a problem if kayakers step or fall where hidden objects lie.
Sunburn is common among kayakers, especially newcomers to the sport. Avoiding sunburn can be accomplished in a number of ways. In some situations, clothing can provide the majority of sun protection. When sun exposure is unavoidable, a high SPF sunblock is important. Most experts recommend that sunblock be applied in advance of sun exposure.
Sprains can happen while kayaking. The most common are ankle sprains, which occur from slips or falls at launch and retrieval areas. When a fall occurs, wrists sprain or other injuries are also possible. Risks can be minimized in part by wearing appropriate footwear and avoiding slippery surfaces whenever possible. Concrete boat ramps and clay based launch sites are both high-risk areas, especially if algae is present.
Navigation can be critical when kayaking. Every season, reports from around the world prove that getting lost is a significant threat to kayakers. Although GPS units and other electronic gadgets are a convenience, boaters of any type should know the basics of navigation and carry a compass and paper chart.