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Is Kayaking Dangerous? 18 Risks and How to Avoid Them

Reduce the dangers of kayaking by learning about the risks, such as capsizing, hypothermia, incorrect PFD fitting, and underwater obstacles.

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I was telling a non-kayaking friend about a recent paddling trip over Loch Ness, describing how the high winds and waves nearly capsized us multiple times. Isn’t that dangerous? She asked. I admit, the question caught me off guard. Is kayaking dangerous? 

Well, a U.S. Coast Guard report in 2020 found that kayaks accounted for 15% of deaths in registered recreational vessels. So yes, kayaking can be dangerous. However, many kayaking accidents happen due to a combination of inexperience and poor judgment.

There are risks whenever you take to the water, but this article’s purpose is not to put you off paddling. Instead, it’s to help you avoid dangerous situations and stay safe on the water.

Perceived Risk vs. Actual Risk

Before we get into the risks of kayaking and how to avoid them, it’s useful to understand the difference between perceived risk and actual risk. In short, perceived risk is how dangerous you think a situation is. Meanwhile, actual risk is how dangerous a situation really is. 

For example, you probably assume that paddling close to land on a small flat-water lake or canal is safe. Except for extreme weather, it probably is safe. Comparatively, kayaking through class IV whitewater rapids is always risky, no matter how experienced you are. Hopefully, you perceive it as a considerable risk too.

The perceived risk for many types of extreme sports or adventure sports, including kayaking, is often higher than the actual risk – if you stick to essential safety rules.

The benefit of high perceived risk is that you’re more likely to prepare for the worst-case scenario and play it safe rather than taking unnecessary risks. The downside is that a high perceived risk might make you anxious about getting on the water. Hopefully, this article will help you find the balance.

In truth, accidents happen when the perceived risk is low, but the actual risk is high. By that, we mean when you think a situation is safe, but it’s actually dangerous. Sometimes the dangers are not obvious, particularly when you’re new to watersports. 

For example, kayaking in areas with riptides or pillow rocks. Often these hazards are invisible from the water’s surface, so it’s easy to paddle into a dangerous situation when you’re in unfamiliar waters. 

Matching your perception of a risk with the actual level is a skill that comes with experience. That’s why we always recommend that beginners team up with an experienced paddler, join a kayak club, or take a kayak safety course at the very least. Learning to recognize risks before the situation becomes dangerous will reduce the likelihood of an accident. 

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