Essential Safety Equipment Needed for Kayaking

Essential Safety Equipment Needed for Kayaking

For those just starting out on a kayak, the most crucial piece of information to retain before getting onto the water is what safety equipment you are going to need. No matter how calm the waters or how capable you are with a paddle, there’s always a possibility that you’ll find yourself in trouble. Making sure you’re kitted out with the essentials will ensure a safe and enjoyable first stint at the sport. 

The Essential Safety Equipment 

Buoyancy Aid or Lifejacket

While functioning a lot like a life jacket, a buoyancy aid allows for better mobility through the arms and neck, so you can paddle away without any obstruction. Even if you’re a seasoned swimmer, this piece of equipment is essential in helping keep you afloat in case you capsize. You never know when you might encounter unruly waters – especially at sea – and don’t forget how high your fatigue levels might be from all that paddling.

Generally, buoyancy aids for kayaking will come with a buoyancy level of 50-100. This means it’s designed to keep you safe above water just enough time for nearby help to arrive and assist. If you’re going far out at sea, or you’re aware that help might not be easy to come by, then a lifejacket with a buoyancy level of 150+ might be more suitable. In the case that you fall unconscious, lifejackets are designed to keep you positioned safely, without any intervention required. 

Buoyancy aids and life jackets come in all different shapes and sizes, so make sure you’ve got a good fit before getting in the kayak. You also need to make sure yours is routinely checked and regulated according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. That way you’ll be sure it’s working to max efficiency every time you use it.

Cost: Both buoyancy aids and lifejacket range from a basic high-street retailer price of £25, to high quality, specialist prices of £150+. If you’re looking to make kayaking a big part of your life, it might be better to invest in tip-top equipment so you can guarantee durability and comfort. 


This is a big one. Even the most experienced kayakers will wear helmets and for multiple reasons. On the coast, or anywhere near a cliff, there are falling rocks, while most rivers and streams will have lines of trees with overhanging, precarious branches. These pose a real risk when plummeting onto your unsuspecting head. This is without mentioning the very real possibility that your or your companions, while still mastering the paddling motion, clumsily bash one another over the head with a paddle. Make sure you protect yourself from each of these potential calamities with a tried and tested safety helmet. 

It’s important that you purchase a helmet specifically designed for kayaking and related water sports, and not just reuse your biking or climbing helmet. This is because helmets will be designed, tested and certified according to their different usage and protection requirements. Your biking helmet will have a different shock absorption level and even chin strap strength, to the one required for kayaking. Investing in the correct kit is paramount, even if it means spending a few more quid. 

Note, too, that getting the right size ensures maximum protection, so make sure you have your head measurements before ordering. If you’re buying in-store, make sure you try it on before heading to the counter.

Cost: Basic, no-frills-but-functional, low-cost helmets are around £30. Impeccably designed products with all the frills (including sunshade and luxury comfortable inner linings) can knock you back as much as £150. Again, if you want to get serious about kayaking, it might be worth looking at the higher price range products as they’ll likely be more reliable for comfort and longevity. 

Wet shoes

Wet shoes are made of a kind of synthetic polyester called neoprene, which, along with rubber soles, keep your foot supported and your grip steady on slippery surfaces. This will make mounting and disembarking from the kayak much easier, and prevent any embarrassing rookie accidents stepping on and off. The breathable and quick-drying fabric doesn’t get waterlogged and uncomfortable – not to mention ruined – as trainers would. They also provide protection underfoot from any sharp rocks or crooked objects on land.

Wet shoes come in different designs adapted to slightly different purposes. If you’re planning on doing a fair bit of walking in them, then look for ones with thicker soles. If you’re venturing out into icy waters in winter, then thicker neoprene that reaches above the ankles will keep your feet warmer. 

Cost: Wet shoes start at a very reasonable price of £12, but at the lower range they’re more like aqua socks, and won’t do for much walking. Thicker soled and sturdier boot designs can be as much as £150. Consider what you’ll be doing in your wet shoes before deciding how much to spend. 

Additional Safety Equipment

As you venture further into the world of kayaking and head out on more ambitious expeditions, you might consider investing in some additional safety equipment. While this stuff is not absolutely necessary for beginners, it will certainly come in handy as you grow into a seasoned kayaker.


This contains a thick, durable rope for throwing to swimmers and bringing them to safety if they are struggling in the water. They come in different lengths and diameters depending on their purpose. For example, some are shorter and lighter and used for low-key swimmer rescues, while some are extra strong and used to pull and free boats that are wedged or stuck. 

Throw-bag ropes should come in bright fluorescent colours for high visibility, and the bag itself should float on water so that swimmers can grab onto it.

If you intend on keeping a throw bag on board, make sure you’ve read the instructions and practised using it. It could potentially save someone’s life, so you need to be confident that you can use it properly. 

Cost: Prices start at £20 for a throw-bag.

Wet suit

If you’re going out in winter, or you plan on incorporating swimming or coasteering into your expedition, then you should look into purchasing a wetsuit. Being wet for a long period of time in cold weather can pose a risk to your health, and even lead to hypothermia. 

Wetsuits, like wet shoes, are usually made from neoprene. As a form of rubber, it works as an insulator by trapping layers of water between your body and the material. These layers warm up and keep your core temperature steady. 

There is a range of styles and cuts available, some cut off at the elbows and knees, and others cover your whole body. In general, the thicker the wetsuit, the warmer it’s going to be. If you’re able to make big investments and purchase multiple wetsuits, then you can adapt which one you wear according to the season and temperature.

Cost: Budget brands offer wetsuits at £50, premium brands start at £150 but go up much higher. 

Paddle floats

Paddle floats are useful for aiding self-rescue in the instance that you capsize. Some are inflatable, and therefore do not occupy much space, while some are foam. To use, you attach the paddle float onto one blade of the paddle, while you perch the other on top of the kayak. You can then use the additional support of the suspended paddle to help you hoist yourself back onto the kayak. 

Cost: You can expect to pay somewhere in the range of £20-30 for a paddle float.

Safety Whistle

The sound of a whistle-blow travels further than a human voice, so it can be used to effectively signal rescuers or other kayakers if you need help. They can easily be attached to your buoyancy aid so are easy to carry on your person.

Cost: Safety whistles start at £3

Bilge Pump

A bilge pump is a manual way of getting rid of unwanted water on your kayak after capsizing or during heavy bouts of rain. It goes without saying, a kayak filled with water is at risk of sinking, so a bilge pump can be an important piece of safety equipment for avoiding this.

To use, you place the pump in the pool of water with one hand, while using the other hand to pump the handle up and down. This will suck up the water and feed it back over the side. They are effective in expelling surprisingly large amounts of water.

Cost: Prices start at £15 for a bilge pump

Visibility Accessories

This is a necessary purchase if you’re planning on kayaking at low daylight hours or in caves and covered areas. Safety flags help to increase your visibility on the water, while navigation lights will improve your night vision.

Cost: Safety flags start at £5, while navigation lights range from £15 to £50+

Waterproof First Aid Kit

This can be incredibly useful on fullday expeditions when you really can’t predict what minor maladies or injuries might occur. With a full kit, you can bandage up gashes and cuts and soothe headaches. Think of adding suncream to apply on sunny days, as too much sun exposure can result in serious health issues, including sunstroke and harsh burning. 

How to avoid danger 

In general, the risk of coming to any harm while kayaking is low. But, given that the sport exposes you to the elements and sometimes takes place at sea, there is always a risk that things can get dangerous fast. 

Having the right equipment and knowing how to use it is essential to staying safe on the water. However, there are other factors worth keeping in mind. Here is a brief list of what to be mindful of before setting off on your kayak.

1. Be aware of the weather and how it can impact you. Check the forecast, check the temperature and assess whether or not it’s going to be safe to venture out today.

2. Be aware of your experience level and fitness capacities. Practise and push yourself in safe environments only, and don’t run before you can walk.

3. Paddle with your friends, larger numbers will mean you have more support and guidance, as well as making you more visible. 

4. Partake in training sessions and organised activities, so you can learn from seasoned pros.

5. Don’t mix partying and paddling. Alcohol is going to impair your operational skills and put you at greater risk of catching hypothermia. 

6. Carry onboard a device for raising the alarm. Mobile phones, trackers or high-frequency radios are recommended. This can be kept in an onboard dry bag, which just as the name suggests, keeps all your belongings dry even if you capsize (prices start at £8). 

Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI)

RNLI is a national UK and Ireland search and rescue service which goes on an average of 24 life-saving missions daily. According to their website, kayaking-related rescues are on the rise, and a big concern is kayakers not being able to call emergency numbers. This is why they emphasise no. 6 on the list and advise taking a calling device with you at sea in case you need to signal an emergency. 

While their highly trained volunteer team will do their best to help you if you’re in trouble, you can also arrange for them to give a safety presentation at your local club to help prevent any dangerous situations arising. Check out their website to find out how

The Bottom Line

There are hoards of preventive measures, and, applying these, as well as purchasing the right kit, will ensure you have a safe and enjoyable experience kayaking.

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