6 Top Tips to Help Keep You Safe While Kayaking
Kayaking can be as safe as you make it. If you’re heading out on a kayaking trip, it is entirely possible to have an awesome dry time, all day long. However, as with any sport, it is important to spend some time thinking about and preparing for some of the dangers encountered when kayaking.
Perceived risk vs Real risk
In professional outdoor/extreme sports, we use the term, perceived vs real risk factor, to determine how to prepare and prevent real danger vs fear.
Perceived risk is how dangerous or scary a situation seems, for example, rappelling off a 30-metre cliff is seen as high risk and scary because of the fall factor and almost certain death from a fall. However, we know it seems scary, but because of safety equipment, we are aware the chance of being harmed is extremely unlikely.
Real risk is how inherently dangerous something is. An example of something with a perceived low risk but an actual real high risk would be driving a car. We don’t think much about the likelihood of harm, but it is relatively high.
Kayaking on a lovely lazy river has both a low perceived risk and real risk, where’s paddling in Class V white-water has both a high perceived risk and real risk factor.
The important lesson here is to understand and learn the real dangers of kayaking. So, no matter what trip you are going on you know to manage risk and keep things safe.
Below are our 6 top tips to help keep you safe in the water:
1. Can I get hypothermia when kayaking?
Hypothermia literally translates as low temperature; it is effectively a physiological reaction to the body’s core temperature decreasing. Water is one of the quickest ways to sap core temperature, and prolonged contact with cold water will drain body heat faster than ice or snow.
Hyperthermia can always be prevented by wearing appropriate clothing, which could mean a drysuit for extreme conditions or even a 4mm+ neoprene wetsuit, boots, hood and gloves. For recreational paddling, if you are unsure, it could be worth avoiding paddling in the frigid months.
As a solution, consider paddling close to the shoreline, paddle with a partner, wear appropriate clothing and always make sure you have spare clothing appropriately stored in a dry bag in case of a capsize.
2. Does cold shock effect kayakers?
Simply put, this is when the body reacts badly to a drastic change in temperature, the entire nervous system becomes overstimulated and ceases to function correctly.
If you have ever jumped into freezing water and had the feeling of your breath being torn from your body and your head about to explode, then you know the feeling. Being exposed to water that is 15 degrees Celsius or below will have a drastic effect on the body. It even rapidly renders the swimmer incapable of moving.
The solution is to always wear appropriate clothing, and wear wet or drysuits if water is drastically cold. You could always try and acclimatise yourself to the cold water by entering it and experiencing the effects, but just make sure you do this with a partner at hand and probably a safety line and buoyancy aid.
Remember, even if you have acclimatised to the water you can still get affected by cold shock.
3. What are sweepers?
Sweepers are low hanging obstacles and branches that jut out into the paddling zone and should be avoided whenever possible, as they can be deceptively dangerous and could even cover strainers.
We all know it’s funny to cut nice and close to that downed overhanging tree to limbo under. But suddenly, you’ve misjudged your speed, and your girlfriend upfront takes a branch to the face, everyone loses balance and the boat capsizes.
What was meant to be a bit of a laugh has become dangerous as it could get potentially worse if you, the boat or both are pinned to the tree by the current.
Pro tip: Don’t knock your girlfriend out of the tandem by running into a sweeper, it doesn’t look cool and won’t earn you any brownie points!
4. How do I avoid strainers?
The inverse of sweepers, strainers are a lot more dangerous as they are submerged obstacles, and will often be the end of you if you start playing around them.
Strainers are particularly dangerous as they are usually fully submerged trees, with a complex tangle of debris caught in the undercurrent, it may well be impossible to fight the force of the current underwater as you get strained against the mesh of debris. Drowning is imminent.
If you ever find yourself in an unavoidable dangerous situation of hitting a strainer, lean into it! Do not lean upstream as this will cause the upstream edge of the kayak to tip down. If the upstream edge tips down too far, you will be flipped over as the boat is ripped from under you. This is worst case scenario. Avoid it. The only way to avoid them is by educating yourself and the group on how to spot them. The best thing to do is scout ahead of dangerous runs and look out for them, and always carry a cutting tool tethered to your buoyancy aid.
5. Can you get out of an undercut?
An undercut in the water world refers to an area of the bank, rock ledges or mud banks that form a large shelf and create a hollow depression under the water. A submerged swimmer can become trapped beneath a solid shelf under the water’s surface. Undercuts are not usually visible from above the water; they’re found when it’s too late.
Paddle with a partner and wear your buoyancy aid. If trapped, remain calm and try and think and feel your way out of the situation. Stay calm. Paddle with someone who knows the river to avoid accidentally finding an undercut.
6. Is it ok to paddle over a weir’s hydraulics?
We all know the dangers of hydraulics, but the reason we have highlighted weir hydraulics is because a lot of people think it’s easy to just paddle over a shallow weir despite the huge danger.
For those who do not know, a weir is a man-made river obstruction to help manage river levels, where a full dam isn’t appropriate.
On the downstream of the river lives a deadly monster – the hydraulic; a self-circulating current of water that will trap a submerged swimmer in an unending cycle of re-submersion.
Our best advice is to avoid weirs altogether. Paddle around them and treat them with respect or they might get you! Pull ashore and portage respectively around them, it’s not worth taking them on. If ever you do find yourself in a monstrous hydraulic, try to relax and swim downwards and adopt a ball shape where the current flows out of the repetitive cycle and hope to get spat out. If impossible to swim, you will have to adopt Schroeder’s full-body surrender and hope to get spat out naturally. Finally, remember that with all hydraulics, just because the water doesn’t look like its “boiling” the danger could be lurking deep below the surface.
7. Do I need sun protection when kayaking?
Not so important as winter starts to hit, but you can still end up with a nasty windburn (when the sun is burning your skin, but the cold air temperature or wind fools you into thinking the sun cannot be hot enough to burn).
With excessive sun exposure, many health problems can occur. Including heat stroke, heat exhaustion and dehydration.
There is rarely little, if any shelter from sun exposure when paddling. Beware of reflected sunlight from the water’s surface, as this can cause added problems to all of the above through lack of clear vision.
Protection can come in many shapes and forms; we advise wearing sunglasses, lightweight long-sleeved shirts and pants, a wide-brimmed sun hat and sunscreen.
8. How do I know if my Buoyancy Aid/Personal Flotation Device (BA/PFD) fits?
The reason why life jackets have gone through a name change to either Buoyancy Aid or Personal Flotation Device is simple; they won’t save your life, they can only aid you in floating.
Understanding your BA and ensuring you buy the correct one for the job is critical to improving survival rate. Head to an outfitter and consult a professional or experienced water person if you are unsure.
Make sure your BA is rated for the correct size and weight for the job. Have a partner or professional check the fit by placing two fingers under each shoulder strap and lift firmly. Your shoulder straps should not slip past your ears.
Pro tip: Invest in a nice BA as it will be so much more comfortable and safer than a cheap one. You will be more likely to wear it.
9. Can I wear anything around my neck when kayaking?
We won’t spend too much time on this one. The simple answer is, do not wear anything on your neck; necklaces, lanyards, even map cases should not be worn. These all add to the danger and the last thing you want something attached to your neck to be grabbed by a rock, branch or your capsized boat. Instead, find other solutions to carrying your kit. For glasses, find a flotation aid that doesn’t sit around your neck and tether map cases either to your boat or BA.
Hopefully, you can come away with some new and insightful tips about kayaking safety. Always offer to educate your kayaking partner or group if they are unaware of apparent dangers. Watch out for each other out there on the water and always practice safety checks before a trip. Have a good one guys!
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