Conservation for Kayakers: What You Can Do to Help

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As kayakers, we all love spending time outdoors, and when we love something, we have a natural inclination to protect it. It’s not surprising that many of us would describe ourselves as conservationists, wanting to do whatever we can to prevent the world’s waterways and other natural areas from being damaged by development and pollution. 

But the desire to protect the environment sometimes puts us in opposition to people in our communities, who might want to build a shopping mall next to a river or increase the output of a factory by relaxing regulations. When we argue for protecting the environment, especially when it might mean a loss of job opportunities, we’re accused of prioritizing our outdoor adventures over the livelihoods of others. This is a shortsighted viewpoint, though, and one that fails to recognize how kayakers committed to conservation are protecting the public’s interest, not only their own.

Kayak near Brooklyn Bridge.

Kayaks are the first to notice when something is wrong with our rivers.

Outdoor Recreation: Is It Worth the Cost?

All too often, politicians stress the need for new jobs and the increased tax revenue that comes with development. They say it’s just too expensive to set aside large swaths of land and water that could be developed. But what they fail to recognize is the number of jobs and amount of money outdoor recreation brings to districts that prioritize the environment. 

The outdoor recreation industry is worth $900 billion dollars and employs 7.6 million people – that’s about the same size as the construction industry. However, these jobs are largely invisible, save for those at the biggest players, like REI and Patagonia. Most people in the outdoor industry are employed by small businesses – rafting guides, campground attendants, cooks at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant near your favorite hiking trail. These businesses don’t have much of a voice, so politicians rarely recognize the number of constituents whose livelihoods depend on conservation efforts.

If jobs and tax dollars aren’t enough to convince you, though, perhaps the protection provided by undeveloped lands and waterways will. As climate change causes sea levels to rise and storms to become more intense, the risk to our cities increases. In the past, undeveloped regions, particularly wetlands, acted as a sponge that could soak up floodwaters after a particularly heavy rain. But as more and more of these areas are paved over, there’s nowhere for the water to go. While leaving large areas “unproductive and undeveloped” might seem costly, it may be the only way to keep our cities safe.

How Kayakers Can Make Big Change Happen

So we’ve established that kayakers care about the environment and that protecting it is beneficial to everyone, but good intentions aren’t worth much if there’s no action to back them up. Large businesses and vested interests hold considerably more power than any single kayaker, so it’s hard, as individuals, to enact solutions that lead to any meaningful change. Still, we can collectively do big things to protect the environment.

Eliminate Litter

While blatant littering is much less of a problem today than it was fifty years ago, thanks in large part to effective campaigns by conservation groups, it still happens. A larger issue, though, is the inadvertent littering that occurs after you’ve thrown your trash in the bin. On a small scale, it can happen when trash bins get knocked over or are not properly protected from animals, but a much bigger problem is the trash that escapes from landfills. The average American produces over four pounds of trash every single day, and corralling that much refuse is a massive challenge, one that often fails, leaving plastic bags floating in the wind and old bottles drifting down our rivers.

How can kayakers help eliminate litter?

  • The best way to prevent litter is to simply create less trash in the first place, both on the river and at home. Choosing products with less packaging and reusing items whenever you can goes a long ways towards producing less waste. If we all commit to creating less trash, and recycling a bit more, there won’t be as much of it in the landfills and there were certainly be less of it escaping into our waterways.
  • One person picking up trash helps, but a large group can clear a much bigger area. See if your local paddling club or conservation organization has a river cleanup day. You’ll be cleaning valuable waterways and meeting like-minded paddlers – a win-win situation.

Trash at a landfill.

Trash at an overcrowded landfill.

Stop Industrial and Agricultural Pollution

After incidents like the burning Cuyahoga River in the 1970s, industrial pollution is one of the most talked about issues in conservation. Heavy metals and hazardous chemicals for manufacturing get into our waterways when laws allow corporations to offload their waste products there. 

Perhaps an even larger issue is the contamination of our waterways by agricultural runoff, which can elevate levels of nitrates and phosphates and decimate the fish population. While the Clean Water Act was a great step toward keeping our waterways free from such pollution, legislation is only effective when it’s enforced. Conservation groups routinely test for contaminants and when problems are found, their legal teams sue to prevent further damage. 

How can kayakers help prevent pollution?

  • If you’re science-minded, consider joining a citizen’s science organization, like that Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative, that provides testing kits to outdoor enthusiasts. This is a great way to keep tabs on your favorite paddling sites, which large organizations may not have the time to survey. If you notice something is awry, let the organization right away so they can take further action.
  • Donate to conservation groups that fight for environmental rights. Lawyers are costly, and big companies can afford to hire the best ones. It’s up to those of us who care about protecting the environment to pay the legal fees for the other side so the environment can have a fighting chance.

Industrial water pollution.

Lobby your representative to stop water pollution.

Regulate Land Use to Alleviate Stress on the Water Supply

The freshwaters in our lakes and rivers would appear to be an almost inexhaustible resource. But as the population grows, demand for freshwater increases, and little by little, the water level starts to drop. This is particularly evident on the Colorado River, which now runs dry before ever reaching the Gulf of California. Lake Mead, a popular recreation area on the Colorado River outside Las Vegas, is now at just 40% capacity. 

While much of this is due to lengthy droughts and climate change, some of it is the result of development pressure further upriver. Agriculture is the biggest culprit, as farms have to pump vast quantities of water to irrigate the increasingly arid landscape. The immediate effect of this is a loss of recreational space and reduced wildlife populations. But in the long term, it’s will become a threat to human habitability in the area.

How can kayakers help regulate land use?

  • Check your legislator’s position on water usage. You can look up their voting record to see how they’ve voted on the issue in the past. If their position favors economic development over conservation of our waterways, let them know they have a constituent who disagrees. Call their offices (local and national), and tell them you care about regulating land and water usage. Politicians hear the voices of lobbyists all day long; make sure they hear yours, too.
  • Industry and farm owners band together to increase their political clout, and kayakers should do the same. When outdoors lovers organize, whether through city paddling leagues or by donating time and money to national organizations (Sierra Club, Trust for Public Lands, etc.), they stand a fighting chance of getting regulations passed that will keep water usage sustainable. Get involved in their advocacy campaigns to help spread the word about environmental protection.

Everyday Conservation for Kayakers

While the biggest conservation efforts come from paddlers organizing and working together towards political change, each individual kayaker should practice basic conservation on an individual basis, too. Take these precautions to help protect the environment on your next kayaking trip.

Wash Your Boat

Motorized boats are the primary carriers of invasive species (all those nooks and crannies around the engine are the perfect place for these critters to hide), but kayakers need to do their part, too. 

  • After every trip, give the hull of your boat a good spray down to get all the mud and vegetation off. 
  • Don’t forget to clean out the interior, as a dark, damp cockpit full of mud and debris can be a breeding ground for invasive species . 
  • Leave the boat to dry out in the sun; the ultraviolet light does a great job of killing any microorganisms that might be present. 

Careful Where You Step

Launching a kayak is a fairly low-impact activity for the environment, but where and how you do it can lessen your ecological footprint even further.

  • Sea kayakers should avoid launching in the intertidal zone. The area between high and low tide is jam-packed with wildlife, even if it’s not that noticeable. Small crabs, mollusks, and all sorts of estuary-dwelling creatures can be disturbed by you sliding your boat across the sand. Launch at high tide, a dock, or a designated launch site if you can.
  • Don’t hike off-trail when launching from a riverbank. While it might be a shorter route to the water, straying from designated trails causes erosion over time. 

Pick Up Some Trash

Most kayakers would never even consider throwing their refuse in the river, but the same can’t be said for everyone else. 

  • Carry a small trash bag in your cockpit, and grab some of those plastic bottles as they float by. Make sure you recycle them once you’re back in town. 

Clean Up Your Campsite

For overnight kayaking trips, make sure you practice sustainable camping as well. This is about more than just not leaving trash at your campsite; it’s about returning it to its natural state before you leave. 

  • If you built a fire, spread the ashes out, and move any rocks back to where you found them. 
  • Build smaller files with just a few rocks for a ring, rather than massive bonfires that will probably leave charred debris behind. 
  • Don’t burn garbage in your campfire. This can release toxic fumes, and it might not burn completely anyways.
  • The simplest way to practice “leave no trace” is to not build a campfire at all. Instead, bring a camp stove to cook your meals.

Camp stove

“Leave No Trace” by using a camp stove.

Limit Your Impact When “Nature Calls”

Though human waste is biodegradable, it’s still not great for the environment, especially around busy waterways.

  • Visit the restroom before you paddle. Not only will this limit your impact, it means spending less time looking for a private place to go along the shore.
  • Bury all solid waste at least 100 yards from the shore, which limits the spread of bacteria into the waterway. All waste should be buried six to eight inches deep, so bring a small spade or you’ll be digging with your hands. 
  • Better yet, pack out your waste (a requirement if it’s not biodegradable). Some protected waterways require this, and many kayakers paddling in sensitive areas carry a homemade device for just this purpose.


Use the restroom before your paddling trip.

Be Kind to the Animals

One of the best things about kayaking is the chance to see nature up close and personal. This is a privilege, though, and one that should not be taken lightly. 

  • Keep your distance from wildlife. While animals might be less frightened of your best kayak than on a trail, that doesn’t mean you should approach them.
  • Don’t feed the animals. It might be tempting to let that nearby duck finish off your sandwich, but this only encourages hazardous encounters between humans and animals (not to mention that your human food is not a nutritious diet for them).
  • Carefully follow all fishing regulations. Know and be able to identify the species present in the area, and return any you don’t want to keep as quickly as possible.

Doing Our Part to Make the World a Better Place

To keep our planet in pristine condition, kayakers should take a two-pronged approach. To maximize your impact, join up with those who share your interest in conservation. By pooling your money, brainpower, time, and efforts, you’ll be much more effective than you would alone. At the same time, be conscious of the choices you make on every paddling trip. While the effect of those choices may be small – pulling that one piece of trash out of the river or creating a little less erosion near the put-in point – these little things do add up. We all need to our part to protect the environment.

If you’re interested in making a difference, contact one of the conservation organizations or paddling clubs listed below to see how your efforts can be most effective.

Conservation Organizations

Sierra Club

Trust for Public Lands

American Rivers

Natural Resources Defense Council

Nature Conservancy

Environmental Defense Fund

River Network

Western Rivers Conservancy

American Whitewater

The Conservation Fund

Cyanobacteria Monitoring Collaborative

Alliance for Water Efficiency

Trout Unlimited

Kayak Clubs 

Knik Canoe Club in Anchorage, AL

Southern Arizona Paddlers Club in Tucson, AZ

Arkansas Canoe Club in Little Rock, AR

Bay Area Sea Kayakers in San Rafael, CA 

Kern River Alliance in Bakersfield, CA 

Colorado Whitewater Association in Boulder, CO 

Pike’s Peak Whitewater Club in Colorado Springs, CO 

Rocky Mountain Canoe Club in Aurora, CO 

Rocky Mountain Sea Kayak Club in Denver, CO 

ConnYak in Ellington, CT 

Tampa Bay Sea Kayakers in Palm Harbor, FL 

Atlanta Whitewater in Atlanta, GA 

Idaho Rivers United in Boise, ID 

Prairie State Canoeists in Bolingbrook, IL

Hoosier Canoe Club in Brownsburg, IN 

Central Iowa Paddlers in Des Moines, IA 

Iowa Paddlesports Association in Perry, IA

Bayou Haystackers in New Orleans, LA 

Chesapeake Paddlers Association in Greenbelt, MD 

Greater Baltimore Canoe Club in Baltimore, MD 

AMC Boston Paddlers in Boston, MA 

Superior Kayak and Outdoor Adventure Club in Minneapolis, MN 

Missouri Whitewater Association in St. Louis, MO 

Beartooth Paddlers Society in Billings, MT 

Merrimack Valley Paddlers in Merrimack, NH  

Central New York Kayak Club in Syracuse, NY 

Sebago Canoe Club in Brooklyn, NY

Yonkers Paddling and Rowing Club in Yonkers, NY 

Twin Rivers Paddle Club in New Bern, NC 

Carolina Canoe Club in Raleigh, NC 

Western Carolina Paddlers in Asheville, NC 

Dayton Canoe Club in Dayton, OH 

Keelhaulers Canoe Club in Westlake, OH 

Trumbull Canoe Trails in Warren, OH 

Lower Columbia Canoe Club in Portland, OR 

Oregon Canoe and Kayak Club in Portland, OR 

Portland Sea Kayakers in Portland, OR

Willamette Canoe and Kayak Club in Corvallis, OR

Philadelphia Canoe Club in Philadelphia, PA

Rhode Island Canoe Association in Providence, RI 

Palmetto Paddlers Inc. in Columbia, SC 

East Tennessee Whitewater Club in Oak Ridge, TN

Dallas Downriver Club in Dallas, TX

Hill Country Paddlers Canoe Club in Kerrville, TX 

Houston Canoe Club in Houston, TX

North Texas River Runners in Fort Worth, TX 

Utah Whitewater Club in Salt Lake City, UT

Blue Ridge Voyageurs in Reston, VA

Coastal Canoeists in Fredericksburg, VA

Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club in Spokane, WA

Washington Kayak Club in Seattle, WA 

Wasau Canoe and Kayak Association in Wasau, WI

Badger State Boating Society in Madison, WI 

Photo of author
Ian Waterman
Ian Waterman Here, my true passions in life are all things water related like kayaking, fishing and most water sports. I love being outdoors and trying new things. Some of my fondest memories are camping as a small boy and fishing with my family Feel free to contact me anytime -

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