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What Kind Of Safety Equipment Is Required On Every Canoe And Kayak?

Are you planning to take a water adventure on a kayak or canoe?

Before getting out on the water, it’s important to make sure you have all of the necessary safety gear you need with you on board.

Before heading out in a kayak or canoe, be sure that you and your fellow paddlers are wearing a PFD (Personal Flotation Device), and perhaps a helmet. Essential safety items you’ll need to bring include float bags, spray skirts, First Aid kit, and repair kit. You’ll also need to remember important rescue gear, such as paddle floats and leashes, a bilge pump, tow lines, various communication devices and signals, and battery backup.

Below, we’ll highlight some of the most important pieces of safety gear you need to have with you in your kayak or canoe at all times in order to stay safe.

Use this guide as a jumping off point to ensure that you have all of the essential equipment you need, and always make safety a priority every time you go out on the water.

6 Basic Safety Gear You’ll Need For Every Trip

To kick things off, let’s run through some of the most important and basic pieces of safety gear you need.

1) Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

Personal flotation devices or life jackets hanging on a rack near the beach

While PFDs can come in the form of life jackets, life vests, or even a life ring, in this section we are talking specifically about life jackets. 

A primary PFD should be your main flotation device – however, any of the other options mentioned above are great options for secondary aid, and are also called “Type IV PFDs”.  

Life jackets are personal flotation devices you can wear, and they offer a special type of buoyancy that will bring you back up to the surface if you fall into the water.

Life jackets are even designed to turn you over into a face-up position if you are knocked unconscious. 

A life jacket prevents you from drowning, and is recommended for children and weak swimmers.

An offshore life jacket is even more buoyant, and is designed to keep a person afloat in rough waters where rescue may take some time to reach you. 

There are also inflatable PFDs that come in a multitude of styles similar to life jackets. 

An inflatable PFD, or a “Type III PFD”, is a good option for kayakers and canoers – but keep in mind, these are not specifically designed to flip unconscious people onto their backs in the water. 

Inflatable PFDs allow for greater range of motion and increased comfort, and are commonly used for activities where a conscious person enters the water intentionally.

Be sure to follow a regular maintenance schedule for your PFDs, since soggy or deformed padding will not be as useful when it comes to helping you avoid drowning.

The US Coast Guard states that an approved PFD is required on every canoe or kayak. 

2) Float Bags

Float bags add extra buoyancy to your boat, and are especially useful when you’re kayaking or canoeing in rough and rapid water (like whitewater).

These items work to create built-in bulkheads and are filled with air, allowing your boat to ride more easily over rocks, prevent swamping, and help your kayak or canoe stay upright in the water.

3) Spray Skirts

Spray skirts are waterproof barriers that keep water, wind, rain, and anything else out of your kayak’s or canoe’s cockpit. 

These may not be as necessary in warmer weather, but the first time you go kayaking in colder weather you’ll be grateful for the barrier that keeps the elements out and your body temperature up. 

Unless you plan to spend your time kayaking exclusively on a flat lake or pond with no waves or wind, you’ll want to have a spray skirt handy at all times. 

4) Helmets

Man kayaking in river rapids wearing a black helmet

A high quality helmet is another piece of safety equipment you need to have on hand while kayaking or canoeing.

If you’re paddling around a lake or pond with calm, flat water, helmets may not be absolutely necessary. 

But if there are going to be any rapids — and any rocks — you need to make sure that your cranium is well protected!

5) First Aid Kit 

It doesn’t matter whether you decide to make your own First Aid kit, buy a paddling-specific kit, or find a more general-use kit. 

Whichever type you choose, a First Aid kit is a must-have on a kayak or canoe.

It’s important that you always have easy access to essential supplies, like bandages, antiseptic, and emergency drinking water.

An important part of using a First Aid kit includes familiarizing yourself with all of the supplies included before heading out on the water. 

6) Kayak Repair Kit

In addition to ensuring the safety of yourself and fellow paddlers, you may also consider bringing a kayak repair kit along – especially if you’re going out in inflatable kayaks. 

5 Rescue Things To Keep Close At Hand

To make sure that you can get through any emergency with the best chance of coming out unscathed, it’s a good idea to keep this gear in your kayak or canoe.

1) Paddle Floats

Paddle floats attach to the blade of your canoe or kayak paddle, and they work sort of like an outrigger, making it easy to stabilize your kayak or canoe for reentry.

You don’t need paddle floats to be attached to your paddles 100% of the time, but they should be close at hand inside your cockpit so you can quickly snap them into place if needed.

2) Paddle Leashes

A kayak paddle with an orange blade in the water

If you become separated from your paddle you can (quite literally) find yourself up a creek without a way to get home! 

A paddle leash guarantees that even if you are physically separated from your paddle, you will always be able to retrieve it.

3) A Bilge Pump

If your kayak or canoe has capsized, getting the water out quickly is your most important task.

Bail buckets work too, but nothing gets the job done faster than a bilge pump. 

In order to use a bilge pump, stuff the end of the hose in the water inside your vessel, start pumping, and get that water out of your boat ASAP.

4) Tow Line

Tow lines are carried by most paddlers because they don’t take up too much space, and they’re good pieces of gear to keep on hand, even if you don’t necessarily need to be rescued.

You can always throw a tow line out to a fellow paddler, have the other person hook on when you are tired, and take turns paddling to bring each other to shore. 

Throw bags are also a great choice to use as tow rope, and can also be used for rescue if one of your fellow paddlers was to capsize. 

5) Razor-Sharp Knife

You never know when you might need a knife to help you slice through straps, tow lines, fishing lines, or anything else you might get tangled in while you’re on the water. 

Of course, sharp knives also work great to help you cut up your lunch, or pop the top off your beverage of choice. 

Communication And Signaling Gear Are Always Important

Getting yourself out of a water emergency is vital, and to do this you need to make sure you have some sort of communication gear.

1) High-Quality Radio

Multiple radio communication devices or walkie talkies

A high-quality radio is a key piece of equipment that enables you to reach out for potential help, track and monitor weather reports, and navigate more effectively than you’d be able to do on your own.

If you purchase a radio with Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) you can use it to send an electronic distress signal so the Coast Guard can locate and rescue you more easily.

2) A Sound-Producing Device

In addition to a radio, the Coast Guard also requires small vessels to carry a sound-producing device, such as a whistle or horn. 

The purpose of having a sound-producing device with you is so you can alert commercial vessels to your presence, and it can also be a valuable piece of equipment in an emergency situation. 

3) Battery Backup for Mobile Devices

A battery backup for your mobile devices (like a battery bank) is another essential item for your water trip. 

Your battery backup should be fully charged and kept in a waterproof container that has a flotation aid so that it won’t be lost if it goes overboard. 

Make sure your battery backup can provide power to both your cell phone and your radio, if possible. 

If you tend to go kayaking long distances from shore when phone signals are weak frequently, you may also consider purchasing a satellite phone.

4) Signal Flares, Foil, Bright Clothing, and Waterproof Lights

Signal flares, signaling foil, brightly colored clothing, and waterproof lights are all visual distress signals that should be stowed inside your kayak or canoe at all times. 

Visual distress signals will help you to get others’ attention visually, and can be helpful if the Coast Guard is called in or if you need to be located from the air. 

It’s usually recommended that paddlers carry three flares, which gives you two backups in case one misfires or gets dropped in the water. 

The more responsibility and forethought you display, the higher your chances of being rescued.

Navigational lights are also important, as they can keep you going in the right direction if you find yourself out on the water after dark. 

Navigation lights for night use can also be used as lifesaving visual distress signals if you’re unable to make it back to the shore on your own. 

Do You Need to keep safety kit onboard all the time?

It’s a good idea to get into the habit of always having your kayak and canoe safety kit onboard, even if you don’t think you need it for any particular trip out on the water. 

The one time you leave it home is almost always the time you’ll need it most.

Are You legally required to have all of this gear stowed away?

Different states, towns, and even waterways each have specific regulations and rules about the safety gear you need to have with you when you are kayaking or canoeing on their waters.

Check local regulations to see which pieces of safety equipment are required in your area. 

Keep in mind, the US Coast Guard requires all boaters to have a Personal Flotation Device with them at all times.

What’s the number one thing you should do to stay safe when kayaking or canoeing?

The most important thing you can do to stay safe when you go kayaking or canoeing is to tell someone on dry land where you’re going, and when you expect to be back.

If they don’t hear from you at that specific time, they’ll know to call someone for help, and they’ll also know where to send the rescue team. 


In order to make sure your kayak or canoe adventure is an enjoyable and safe experience, be sure to follow these tips to ensure you have all of the necessary equipment you need with you at all times.

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