Paddling Safety and Rescue Gear

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Overhead view of 2 kayakers paddling on emerald-green waters.

Basic Safety Gear

It's simple: Paddlers equipped with protective gear face less danger if they capsize than those who go without it. The bare minimum of safety gear for paddlers includes:


Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) are essential paddling safety items. They provide buoyancy to keep your head above water if you capsize. They can also make bracing, rolling and rescues easier by adding extra upward force when your upper body is in the water. In cold conditions, PFDs also provide an extra layer of insulation.

The United States Coast Guard requires that every boater carry an approved PFD. Make sure you wear yours at all times while paddling. They can be extremely difficult to put on after you capsize, especially if conditions are rough and you're already occupied trying to hold on to your boat and paddle.

Flotation Bags

Flotation bags minimize the amount of water that collects in canoes and kayaks, preventing them from sinking if capsized. The bags are more commonly used in whitewater kayaks; sea kayaks usually have built-in bulkheads that trap air at the bow and stern. Attached at bow and stern and sometimes in the center of canoes, the air-filled bags keep boats riding high over rocks and prevent swamping. Some bags are split in design, meaning that two bags fit lengthwise on either side of the bow or stern, allowing other gear bags to fit in between.


Sponsons are inflatable flotation devices that attach to the outside of a canoe or kayak. They are typically used in pairs, one on either side of the boat.

Spray Skirts

Spray skirts are waterproof barriers that keep waves, rain and spray from entering a kayak. They cover the area between your waist and the kayak's cockpit coaming or rim. In all but the calmest, warmest conditions, you should wear a spray skirt. Water in your boat (whether from rain, waves or drips from your paddle) can soak your clothing, ruin your lunch and even make you unstable. Spray covers are removable waterproof barriers designed to keep water out of canoes in rough or rainy conditions. These covers, which snap or hook onto the edges of the canoe and stretch across the open hull, help keep the paddler and equipment dry and help keep the boat floating higher in the water. Spray covers come in a variety of styles and are considered optional equipment by most canoe campers. On adventurous journeys in rough conditions or wet weather, however, they should be considered basic safety equipment.


Helmets are essential safety gear for whitewater kayakers and surf kayakers who may be suddenly thrown out of their boats in shallow water or in rocky areas. They should fit comfortably and fasten securely under the chin. Some styles, typically used for whitewater tricks, feature the extra protection of a face mask.

First-Aid Kits

Of course, every paddling group should carry a first-aid kit. Paddling-specific kits are available, but your own homemade kit with the proper contents can be used as well.

Store your paddling first-aid kit in a clearly marked, waterproof bag (or box) in an easy-to-access spot in your boat. Medical emergencies demand quick responses; you don't want to have to dig through gear to find your first-aid supplies.

Rescue Gear

Even the most prepared paddlers encounter unfavorable conditions that can result in mishaps. Knowing how to rescue yourself and other capsized paddlers is essential to safe boating. Wise paddlers carry and know how to use the following rescue gear:

Paddle Floats

After a capsize, a kayaker can reenter the boat either with the assistance of another paddler or, if no one is close enough, by performing a self-rescue. A paddle float is the swimmer's best means of getting back into the boat alone.

Attached to the blade of the kayak paddle, the paddle float creates an outrigger to stabilize the kayak for re-entry. The swimmer puts the float over one blade (inflating it first, if bladder style). He or she then slides the other blade underneath the deck bungies (heavy elastic cords) behind the cockpit. Using the now-floating paddle blade for support, the kayaker hoists him- or herself onto the kayak deck and slides into the cockpit. There are two basic styles of paddle floats available to kayakers.

  • Foam—These paddle floats are constructed of a block of closed-cell foam covered with nylon. The paddle blade is inserted into an outer sleeve, and the paddle is secured at the shaft with a nylon strap. Because of their quick assembly and possibly shorter time spent in the water, some paddlers prefer to use foam floats.
  • Inflatable—Inflatable paddle floats are typically made of urethane-coated nylon. The paddler blows up an air bladder with a few puffs of air through a one-way valve, then proceeds with attaching it to the paddle as described above. Inflatable paddle floats offer better flotation than foam floats, making them a better choice for larger paddlers, but they require more time spent in the water to set up.

Along with a paddle float, some kayakers choose to have the assistance of a stirrup—a length of webbing tied in a loop and fastened around the cockpit coaming. It's fashioned long enough to serve as a step up into the kayak. Stirrups can be made out of climbing webbing.

Bilge Pumps

After a paddler has reentered the boat, the water collected inside must be emptied. A means of removing water is essential safety equipment for paddlers. For canoeing, a bailer (which can be as simple as a milk jug with the top cut off) is standard gear. For sea kayaking, it's a bilge pump.

The most popular type is the inexpensive hand pump. This short tube with pump handle pulls water up and overboard with very little effort. It features a foam collar to prevent it from sinking if dropped overboard. Electric and foot-operated bilge pumps can also be installed in most kayaks, though they are far more expensive than simple hand pumps.

The most popular type of bailer is the simple sponge. Sponges are easy to use, cheap, and they can be stored just about anywhere. Plus, they're great for sopping up small pools of water that other bailing devices cannot collect.

Tow Lines

Tow lines assist paddlers who are tired or injured. One end is attached to either the cockpit coaming (rim) or the waist of the towing paddler, and the other is clipped to the boat being towed. Some tow lines are also equipped with bags that allow them to be thrown to a capsized paddler.

Throw Bags

Throw bags are more typically used in whitewater or moving water situations, but sea kayakers carry them as well. If a boater capsizes, those on shore or in another boat can throw the bag (containing its coil of floating polypropylene or Spectra® rope) for the swimmer to catch. They can then pull him or her to safety.

Paddle Leashes

A paddle leash prevents your paddle from getting away from the boat—particularly important if you capsize. Leashes are typically made of elastic cord and attach to the boat in front of the cockpit. On sea kayaks, they are usually long enough to allow the paddle to be used as an outrigger with a paddle float.


Knives are necessary for cutting lines or straps. They are especially important in river rescues where a paddler can become entrapped in debris by the force of the current. The best have corrosion-resistant, stainless-steel blades. Blunt-tipped blades allow prying and prevent accidental punctures of inflatable kayaks or rafts. Knives with sheaths are easily attached to your PFD for quick access.

Communication Equipment

Communication equipment includes any gear used to make contact with other paddlers or vessels. It typically consists of radios and signaling devices.


Paddlers carry radios primarily to stay informed about the weather. When exploring the wilderness for days (or even weeks) at a time, weather patterns can change quickly. It is important to have a way to keep up with approaching conditions.

A number of compact, durable, weatherproof radio receivers are designed specifically to pick up around-the-clock weather updates.

Other types of paddling radios include two-way VHF transceivers, which can be used to pick up weather reports and talk to other marine vessels, and EPIRBs (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons).Once activated, EPIRBs send out emergency signals to monitoring agencies like the Coast Guard. These radios are more expensive than basic receivers and are more suited to paddling expeditions than short trips.

Signaling Devices

Signaling devices are items used to attract the attention of individuals who are too far away for voice communication. Your signaling equipment should reflect the specifics of your trip. For example, a loud voice, a brightly-colored PFD and a few pre-determined hand signals will take care of most short inland trips. But you may need a larger collection of signaling devices for long voyages, large bodies of water or challenging paddling conditions.

Because there's always the chance of becoming separated from your boat, it's good practice to carry a signaling device clipped to your PFD.

Basic Signaling Options

Hand Signals—Hand signals can be used any time paddlers are within sight of one another. A basic system of three or four messages ("need assistance," "gather up," "emergency") will take care of most communication needs.

Whistles and Horns—These are useful when paddlers are within sight but not near enough for voice communication. They're inexpensive, easy to carry and use—and they're effective both day and night. Many paddlers consider whistles and horns to be standard paddling gear.

Safety Lights and Strobes—Lights and strobes can be used to attract the attention of other paddlers and other vessels, especially in low-light situations. They can also be used to send specific messages (Morse code).

Signal Mirrors—Signal mirrors are best for situations when assistance is needed from farther away. They are easy to carry and easy to use, but are effective only during the day when the weather is clear.

Flares—Signal flares are among the most effective and most commonly used "long-distance" signaling devices. Easy to use and carry, they can be used to attract attention across a wide area. They're effective both night and day, even in adverse weather.

Dye Markers—Dye markers are designed primarily to draw the attention of airborne searchers. They're effective only during daylight hours, and they can be difficult to see from the water's surface. Dye trails are also extremely vulnerable to rough water conditions.

Emergency Flags—Brightly colored emergency flags are designed to draw the attention of nearby paddlers or vessels. They are compact and easy to use, but they are effective only during daylight hours when conditions and visibility are good.