Paddling Guidelines

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A group of four kayaks travels along a beach, three are two-person kayaks, one is solo.

If a group of paddlers decides to break from the main group, they should do so only after informing everyone else where they are going and where and when they will rendezvous with the group.

Individual Jobs

Whenever possible, elect an experienced leader before each day's paddling. The leader should keep an eye on the entire group and make decisions regarding the safety of continuing.

When paddling in a large group, choose a front (point) boat to set a reasonable pace throughout the day. To make sure no one gets discouraged, assign a strong paddling team to bring up the rear as well. This "sweeper" team can encourage stragglers and slow the front boat down when necessary to keep everyone together.

To keep everyone involved, rotate the duties of the point boat, sweepers and group leader (when possible) throughout the trip. Just make sure that the group leader for each day has the experience necessary to make important safety decisions.


When skies are clear and the water is calm, feel free to spread out a little from other boats, staying within whistle or hand-signal range for safety's sake. But if conditions take a turn for the worse, tighten up and stay within voice contact as much as possible.

Since voice communication can get difficult in high winds (or rough seas), take some time before your trip begins to agree upon a few simple hand or whistle signals that everyone can use to communicate basic messages. If everyone is carrying a whistle, for example, you might decide that one blast means "attention", two blasts means "gather together", and three blasts means "emergency". If hand signals are easier for the group, decide on signals for the same kinds of messages.

Help your fellow paddlers stay safe by keeping them informed. Keep your eyes open for obstacles (like fallen or submerged trees, rocks, rapids), and point them out to the rest your group as soon as you spot them.

Safety Skills

Like basic paddling and camping skills, safety skills should be learned and practiced well before any wilderness trip begins.

Basic safety guidelines

  • Wear your PFD at all times while paddling. Make sure it's zipped up and cinched tight.
  • Only paddle in conditions that you and all of your paddling partners can handle safely.
  • Know where your safety and rescue equipment is at all times during your trip. Make sure you know how to use that equipment correctly.
  • Alcohol can impair your judgment and increase the risk of injury and hypothermia. Don't drink before paddling.
  • If you have an existing medical condition that requires medication, make sure you have the medication you need before you leave home. Make sure that everyone in your group knows what to do in case of an emergency.

Group response

When breakdowns, capsizes or other troubles occur, the two closest boats should respond to the paddler(s) in trouble. Other boats should gather loosely, in case more equipment or assistance is needed. But if you're not involved in the actual rescue, stay at least a few boat lengths away so you don't inadvertently interfere.

After any capsize, hypothermia can be a serious risk. Assess the situation carefully, and head to shore if necessary so that the wet paddler(s) can change into dry clothing and warm up before continuing. Keep in mind that even severely hypothermic people often say they feel fine.


When bad weather threatens, be extremely cautious about paddling. Be aware of the next safe landing area along your route, and how long it will take to make it there safely.

If lightning occurs nearby, leave the water immediately. If it's not possible to do so (because of water conditions or the shape of the shoreline), protect yourself by positioning your boat within the "umbrella of protection" provided by trees on shore (if you can). This protection zone extends outward from the tops of the trees at roughly a 45-degree angle. Staying slightly offshore (while still within this protection zone) is often safer than paddling directly underneath shore trees.