If you’re taking your kayak out on the lake for a couple hours in the afternoon, you might not feel like you need a lot of safety equipment. But what if you’re paddling on the open ocean or taking a long river trip? No matter what type of paddling you’re doing, there are certain pieces of safety equipment that are absolutely essential. The longer or more dangerous your kayaking expedition will be, the more safety equipment you’ll want to bring with you. Even for short trips on the lake, though, there are some items you’ll want to have every time. Take a look at our list of the most essential kayak safety equipment that every kayaker should have.

A Life Jacket/PFD

No matter where you’re going paddling or for how long, this is the most important piece of safety equipment you can ever have. Never go kayaking without your life jacket. It can save your life. So many paddlers think that just because they’re not racing down rapids or paddling out into the deep ocean, that they don’t need to wear a life vest. Or maybe they think that it’s okay to just have one stowed in your kayak. But let me tell you: it’s not. Accidents, mishaps, and capsizing can happen even in the mildest conditions. You can get knocked unconscious or get caught in a current or simply get tired out from paddling. If you enter the water, having your life jacket on can honestly mean the difference between life and death. So never get in your kayak without it! You’ll thank me later. Check out our favorite brands and styles here.

A Bilge Pump

A bilge pump is simply a small, portable pump that you stow in your kayak. Having one of these in your boat can make it easy to remove water from inside your boat if you take on water while paddling. It’s also just about the only way to keep paddling if you capsize your boat and it fills with water. Paddling in a waterlogged boat can be a huge nuisance, even if you’ve tried getting the water out on your own or with your paddling buddies. There is almost always a lot of water left inside after capsizing. With a bilge pump, you can easily pump that water out in a couple of minutes and get back to kayaking. Perfect for longer trips, when you know there will be rapids, or you are concerned you may capsize.

GPS/Map and Compass

Back in the day, you would always bring a map and compass on your kayaking expeditions. Now, maps and compasses have been largely replaced by electronic GPS devices. If you have a durable, waterproof GPS, like some of these, bring it! But if you are trying to use your Maps app on your old phone in a ziplock bag… maybe just stick with the map and compass. That’s a surefire way to end your phone’s life. But whatever you choose, make sure you have a reliable method of knowing where you are and where you’re going. Things can begin to look alike after a couple of hours on the water, and you want nothing less than getting lost on the water when it’s getting dark. Bring a GPS or a map with a compass to make sure that never happens to you.

Flashlight, Flares, or Other Light

I don’t recommend night paddling, as it’s incredibly risky to safely maneuver a small boat on open water in the dark. But even if you’re not paddling in the dead of night, there are times when having some lighting options are a good idea. Whether it’s getting dark, or merely cloudy or foggy, it can be hard to see and be seen in your boat. Having a flashlight or something similar can be vital. This is especially relevant in rescue situations. If you’re paddling and need rescuing (if you are injured or lost, etc.), having flares or emergency lights on board can be a lifesaver. These will help you stay visible to avoid any damage when lighting is low.

A Whistle

Another tool that can help in an emergency situation, a loud whistle can do a lot of good (just don’t blow it too close to someone’s ear!). Regular, run-of-the-mill whistles might not do that much if you’re out on the water and winds are high, but there are lots of emergency whistles that are designed to be heard above all the noise. These are incredibly durable and most can clip easily to your life vest. If you find yourself in a tough situation on the water and need help, a few blows of your whistle could have help on the way.

A Tow Bag

If you’re paddling in a group or with another person, towlines (also called a tow bag or throw bag) are important to have. Essentially just a long, tough rope curled up in a bag, towlines can be thrown from one boat to another in case of rescue. Or if someone gets tired while paddling, you can hook one end of the rope to the front of their kayak and the other end to the back of yours and tow them back. If someone capsizes or needs to be rescued from the water, the tow line can easily be thrown toward the victim. Hopefully, you won’t need to use these very often, but they’re small enough that throwing them in the back of your kayak or attaching them to the hull is a good idea.

First Aid Kit

A first aid kit is something you should always have when you go out paddling. If you’re not going very far, it’s okay to leave some of your supplies in your vehicle, but you should never be too far out of reach of your kit. Accidents happen all the time in the water and injuries while kayaking can be pretty common. Always make sure to have medical supplies close at hand in case anything should happen while you’re paddling. A basic first aid kit might include bandages and gauze, disinfectant, triangle bandage, safety pins, rubber gloves, and tweezers.

Dry Bags

Dry bags are a great tool. They’re not exactly there for your safety, but they definitely are for all your belongings. And trust me, after a day on the water you’re going to want to make sure your cell phone and extra clothes are clean and dry. Dry bags are thick, waterproof bags that can be sealed so no water or air can get in. They’re less bulky than more traditional dry boxes but can still keep all your belongings free of moisture throughout your paddle. You can get small version and throw in your keys and cell phone, or get large bags for extra changes of clothes, lunch, and anything else you might need. The nice thing about dry bags is that they fit easily in kayak hatches or behind the cockpit so they don’t get in the way when you’re paddling.

Check out this video to see just how they work and keep your belongings dry! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=at_dG_fIfFc

Float Bags

Float bags may sound similar to dry bags, but they’re far different. If you have a sit-on-top kayak, these will do you no good. But if you have a sea kayak, a whitewater kayak, or something similar, these can be a great addition to your kayak arsenal. Float bags are essentially triangular bags that can be inflated and deflated with a tube attached to the side. The inflated bags are then inserted into the empty space behind your seat. They fill the open space with air, making it easier to keep the boat afloat if it capsizes. There won’t be room for the kayak to fill completely with water if the float bags are filling up most of the kayak’s empty space. If you’re worried you’ll be capsizing, these can make re-entering your boat much easier.

Extra Paddle

It might seem a little cumbersome and excessive to bring an extra paddle with you, but it can be an incredibly helpful item to have, especially if you’re paddling on rough waters. Kayak paddles are built tough, but even they can break under the right circumstances. Or you might just lose your grip and suddenly your paddle is rushing down the river ahead of you. Either way, it’s good to be prepared with an extra paddle. And if you’re worried about having to lug a huge paddle along, don’t worry. There are plenty of brands that make two-piece paddles like this one that can come apart for easy storage.

Helmet

Whenever you paddle on rough waters or any rivers with a current, you should have a helmet. They might seem excessive, but helmets can save your life and I wouldn’t paddle in any rapids without one. If you’re on a flatwater lake, a helmet is pretty unnecessary, but when there’s a chance of capsizing into rocky waters, you’ll definitely want to be wearing one. Make sure it is a helmet specifically designed for paddling, as each type of helmet offers different levels of protection. Kayak helmets are usually pretty lightweight and aren’t bulky or full of material that can get waterlogged.

Spray Skirt

Like a helmet, a spray skirt is an important item to have when you’re on rough waters. While not technically a safety item, you’ll find you can be in trouble without it on the rapids. A spray skirt covers the cockpit of your kayak and makes it so that water can’t fill your boat. Without it, your kayak might fill up fast with water and you’ll find yourself struggling to stay afloat. On flat water, a spray skirt is unnecessary. But if there are rapids, waves, or a strong current, having a spray skirt is a good idea. If you end up in calm water, you can always take the spray skirt off. Better to have it, just in case!

Extra Supplies

In addition to the safety items above, you’ll also need a lot of supplies that might not first seem like “safety” items. But trust me, you won’t want to leave home without them. These things will all help to make sure your kayak trip goes as smoothly as possible.

  • Food and drinks: Keeping your energy up is vital, especially if you’re out in the hot sun. Make sure you have ample snacks as well as plenty of fresh water. It’s always better to have too much than too little, so throw a couple of extra water bottles in your kayak to be safe. Snacks like granola bars, nuts, and dried fruit pack a big energy punch and can be a great way to keep your strength on the water.
  • Sunglasses and sunscreen: Never ever go paddling without sunscreen or long sleeved paddling clothes. Even on a cloudy day, you can get bad sunburns. I’ve spent the day on the water before only to find at the end of it that my upper legs are a deep shade of red! The sun can be one of the most dangerous aspects of a day on the water, so take precautions to stay safe and burn-free.
  • Extra clothes and towel: There’s nothing worse than getting soaked on the water (especially if it’s chilly out) and having nothing to change into when you get out. Keeping an extra sweater, towel, or change of clothes can be a lifesaver if you get wet. Throw a few items in a dry bag and stick them in your kayak, or at the very least, keep them in your car for when you return to land.

Kayaking can always be a little risky. But following this list for what to bring will help keep you a lot safer. From emergency lights and navigation devices to extra water and a change of clothes, what you bring when you go kayaking will have a huge impact on how enjoyable your trip is. The worst thing is to get caught unawares in an emergency situation on the water and not have the supplies you need. You can adjust this list to fit you own specific needs, but make sure you’re prepared before you set out on the water. Safety First!

What items do you typically bring paddling with you to keep you safe?