Kayaking can be a relaxing sport or a thrilling one, depending on whether you prefer to paddle through placid mountain lakes or harrowing white-water canyons. No matter where you paddle, though, it comes with a certain element of danger. But kayaking can be a very safe sport, and with just a little forethought, the dangers can be drastically minimized.
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Sunburns are probably the most common injury that comes with kayaking. Out on the water, you’re exposed to even more ultraviolet radiation than on land, since the water reflects the UV rays back at you. And if paddling in open water, you’ll have only the clouds to shade you from the sun (and most of the UV light goes right through). A wide-brimmed hat isn’t enough protection, either, so it’s important to liberally apply sunscreen to all exposed skin, including the lips. Use products with at least SPF 30, and reapply every two hours. Oh, and don’t forget that when the sun’s beating down on you, it’s important to stay hydrated.
“Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink,” or so the saying goes. Kayakers are surrounded with life-giving water; the problem is that it’s almost always either salty or unsafe for human consumption. To prevent dehydration, paddlers need to carry their own ample supply (or a filter, if kayaking in fresh water). Signs of dehydration include dry-mouth, headaches, and fatigue, with severe cases identified by dizziness and increased heart rate. Remember to hydrate before you get to the put-in point, and then drink a pint for every hour you’re out. Drinking caffeine, or worse, alcohol, will hasten the dehydration process, so stick to plain water or electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks. Never cut back on hydration because you’ll need to urinate later. If there’s not going to be anywhere to pull ashore, familiarize yourself with how to use a pee bottle.
When you’re out on the water, nothing is scarier than lightning. On the open water, you’re the tallest thing around, making you a prime target for a strike. The easiest way to avoid lightning is to check the weather before heading out. If a storm will be coming your way over the next few hours, reschedule the trip. If you do get caught in a storm while on the water, start paddling to the shore as soon as you hear thunder. Then immediately seek shelter, preferably inside a building or car; if that’s not possible, getting near anything that’s taller than you would be able to deflect the strike away from your body. If you are in open water and absolutely cannot reach the shore, stop paddling (a paddle is a beacon for strikes in open water) and lie as low in your kayak as possible. But again, just checking the weather beforehand can prevent this dire scenario.
The majority of paddlers head out into warm water, but that doesn’t mean there’s no risk of hypothermia. The windy conditions that are common on large bodies of water can quickly rob the body of heat. Therefore, it’s important to wear a windproof jacket whenever that might be a problem. Combine wind with vigorous paddling, and the resulting sweat can bring body temperatures to dangerously low levels. Wear sweat-wicking fabric (no cotton!) to mitigate this. Lastly, be aware that heat loss can be up to 25 times faster in water than it is in air. So if you end up outside your kayak, get back into the boat as soon as possible. Knowing how to do a self-rescue in open water might save your life.
While these scenarios sound scary, none of this is meant to scare you from getting out on the water. Quite the opposite, kayaking is a very safe sport for paddlers who take proper precautions and use common sense. All it takes it a little planning: knowing the weather, carefully considering your route, and keeping a gear checklist so you don’t forget critical equipment.