Canoe and kayak safety

What you need to know for a safe canoe trip down the river or open water kayak trip.

Father and daughter wearing paddle life jackets in a canoe.

Summer is a perfect time for canoeing and kayaking, but it also contains three holidays that account for more than one third of all boating related accidents and fatalities according to the American Boating Association. To help prevent boating mishaps, follow these safety tips.

Prepare before you canoe or kayak

Before going out on the water:

  • Register your canoe or kayak with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Registration rules vary by state, so check with your state's DNR office for registration instructions and requirements.
  • Take a canoe or kayak safety course, especially if you're a beginner. You can find canoe and kayak safety courses through the American Canoe Association (ACA). You also may want to practice swimming in case your boat capsizes.
  • Pack essentials, including basic first-aid items, sunscreen, food and water in a dry bag or waterproof bag and an extra paddle.
  • Bring a life jacket for each passenger, and be sure you all wear your life jackets when you're on or near the water. The majority of drowning victims do not wear life jackets.
  • Adding a whistle to your life jacket, along with other safety equipment, can help you be found if you go overboard. A whistle can be heard up to a half mile away – much further than your voice, especially when wind and waves are present. Be sure to use a marine whistle which has no pea (ball) as this will allow the whistle to work even if slightly submerged.
  • Check the water and weather conditions, and pay attention to any safety warnings. Rough or high water can be dangerous, even for experienced paddlers.
  • If you plan to go out by yourself, let someone know where you're headed and when you plan to be back.

Safety on the water

Following these additional tips can help make your next water adventure a safe one:

  • Dress for water temperature, not air temperature. Hypothermia reduces your core temperature and motor control.
  • Never stand in your canoe. Stay low and centered in your craft. Standing makes it easier to capsize.
  • Tether the paddle to you or your craft. This will reduce the chance of losing your paddle if you capsize.
  • Be aware of local conditions. If you're in a new area, check on currents, shoreline conditions and weather patterns. Off-shore winds can also make it difficult to return to shore.
  • Wear a helmet. River and surf-zone paddling can be dangerous.
  • Never mix alcohol or drugs (prescription or non-prescription) with paddling. They can decrease your ability to make good judgments or respond in the case of an emergency. You can also face federal and/or state charges with penalties of prison and fines.
  • Don't exceed the weight capacity of your craft. If you're overloaded, your craft will sit lower in the water than is recommended, making it less stable and increasing the risk of capsizing.
  • Check equipment for wear and tear before you paddle. Don't risk your safety by using equipment that could break or malfunction.
  • Stay hydrated. Drinking water before, after and several times each hour while paddling can help you keep hydrated. Children are particularly vulnerable to dehydration.

You'll also want to know how to:

  • Navigate different bodies of water. On a river, avoid "strainers" — such as fallen trees — that could trap you. For ocean kayaking, stick close to shore and make sure you know how to handle wind speed and wave height.
  • Share the water with other boats. On busy or commercial waters, navigate outside the green and red buoys. Never try to "beat" a motorboat — let them pass. Wear bright clothing and use proper lighting so others can easily spot you.
  • Handle capsizing. Always stay with your boat, which will float even if it's full of water.

The information in this article was obtained from various sources not associated with State Farm® (including State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company and its subsidiaries and affiliates). While we believe it to be reliable and accurate, we do not warrant the accuracy or reliability of the information. State Farm is not responsible for, and does not endorse or approve, either implicitly or explicitly, the content of any third party sites that might be hyperlinked from this page. The information is not intended to replace manuals, instructions or information provided by a manufacturer or the advice of a qualified professional, or to affect coverage under any applicable insurance policy. These suggestions are not a complete list of every loss control measure. State Farm makes no guarantees of results from use of this information.
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