The Kayaker's Lifeline

Emergency Essentials

What exactly are "emergency essentials"? Well, there are several obvious dangers which all kayakers should be adequately prepared to handle. In no particular order, these are: capsizing, drowning, exhaustion, hypothermia, dehydration, malnutrition, exposure, sea-sickness, unexpected illnesses, collision with another vessel, getting lost at sea, and lost or damaged equipment, such as a lost paddle or a cracked hull. While there is no way to absolutely prevent any or all of these scenarios, there are items you can carry which will dramatically improve your composure and your chances of survival in each case. Check out this list of the minimal emergency equipment no serious kayaker should ever be without. For your convenience, I've sub-divided it under four headings: "Primary Tools," "Physical Health Needs," "Rescue Equipment," and "Distress Signals."

Primary Tools

Primary Tools are the essential tools which every kayaker needs and depends upon for his or her own immediate safety. It includes all of the basic gear you use to brace, roll, maneuver, stay dry, and keep yourself afloat. Simply put, no kayaker should ever leave the dock without these tools, no matter what the circumstances.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

A PFD (a.k.a. "lifejacket") is unquestionably the single most important item of gear a kayaker owns. Buy a good one that's comfortable and wear it all of the time, no matter where you paddle. It's the simplest, surest way to dramatically improve your chances of survival. Make sure your PFD is Coast Guard approved and fits you well enough to stay on in rough conditions. Check out my article on Choosing the Right PFD for more information.

Reliable Paddle

You could paddle with a plastic $20 special, but if you want to enjoy paddling and you want to paddle safe, you're going to need to spend some cash for a good, durable, effective paddle. Some people think paddles are all the same, but those people obviously haven't tried more than a few paddles. A different paddle can sometimes make such a difference that it feels like you're paddling a completely different boat. Check out my article on Choosing the Right Kayak Paddle for more information.

Spray Skirt

If you want to paddle a sea kayak safely, and to its full potential, you need to seal the cockpit around you. In other words, you need a spray skirt. Lots of paddlers can be found paddling without them in surprisingly dangerous waters, but this is foolish practice. Even choppy little one-foot waves can effectively swamp a boat in a matter of minutes, so if you don't want to end up water-logged in the wrong conditions, use a sprayskirt. Get one that seals well around the cockpit coaming and around your waist. The skirt should fit snugly enough around the coaming that it won't work itself loose during casual paddling or eskimo rolls, yet it should not fit so tight as to make wet-exits difficult or impossible. Nylon skirts are cool and lightweight, making them ideal for hot-weather paddling, but neoprene skirts perform far better in cold and rough conditions because of their superior stretch and sealing abilities. Either kind of skirt is better than nothing, but for the best rough-water protection, go neoprene.

Bilge Pump

A bilge pump is a very effective way to get water out of the cockpit after a wet-exit. Whether it is hand-operated, foot-operated, or electric, every paddler should carry one on board. Even if you don't use it for your own boat, you might need it to bail out another paddler's boat. This is why I prefer to carry the hand-operated variety, which can be transferred easily from boat to boat. My primary bilge pump, however, is electric. In rough water conditions, there's no safer, easier way to remove water from the kayak than an electric pump. Just flip the switch and wait for the water to be evacuated. If you're interested in building one yourself, check out the Solar-Powered Battery Pack and Bilge Pump I designed.

Paddle Float

Although a good paddle float is no substitute for confident bracing skills and a reliable roll, it can be indispensable in certain situations when you need a bit of extra stability to help you back into your boat. Some kayakers deny the utility of a paddle float by insisting that it is useless or extremely impractical in rough-water conditions. While this may be true, it fails to consider other potential scenarios in which a paddle float could prove extremely helpful. For example, not every capsize happens in the sort of rough-water conditions that would make a paddle float difficult to use. Sometimes, an unexpected wave or current on an otherwise calm body of water is more likely to tip an experienced kayaker than a more challenging situation, when one is more likely to be focused on not tipping. Sometimes a capsize occurs after sheer exhaustion, a sudden dizzy spell, or sea-sickness, and in all of these cases, the paddler may still be too affected with these symptoms to accomplish a reentry-and-roll or an unassisted "cowboy" reentry. Even more likely, a capsize in severely cold water can leave some paddlers numb and dizzy for several minutes or hours afterward. Having a paddle float handy will make it much easier for the disoriented paddler to stabilize himself in his kayak while another paddler tows him to shore. In some "man overboard" situations, when a kayak is lost to the waves, a paddle float can be used to provide extra flotation for the person in the water. And, of course, on a simpler, day-to-day level, a paddle float makes for an excellent pillow on nights when the ground feels a bit too hard for comfort.

Physical Health Needs

Physical Health Needs refers to the basic equipment that will keep you healthy and energetic as you paddle. Oddly enough, although these are some of the simplest, cheapest, and most basic needs to attend to, they are also often the most overlooked. Once they break camp and get out on the water, a lot of paddlers forget about their hourly nutritional needs, or fail to protect themselves against the powerful effects of the elements. On an expedition, repeated negligence of this sort can quickly become life-threatening, so be sure you don't overlook these basic necessities:

Energy Bars and Potable Water

For a quick snack or a quick boost of energy when stopping on land is impractical, you should always keep at least two or three energy bars within reach. You should also keep an ample supply of drinking water on hand—more than you expect to consume in a single day. I recommend keeping a 4-liter water bladder or dromedary bag behind the seat of your kayak and re-filling it every morning of your expedition, before you set out on the water. True, some paddlers will only drink about half this much (depending on how long and how far you paddle each day). However, if you suddenly find yourself in the middle of an open-water crossing that's taking far longer than you expected, under a sun far hotter than you hoped for, you'll be glad to have plenty of extra water on hand. Dehydration is no laughing matter. Most experts recommend taking at least a small sip of water every ten to fifteen minutes, even if you're not thirsty. Why? Because once you actually feel thirsty, it means the process of dehydration has already begun. Cut off the problem quickly by satiating your thirst, and by training yourself to take regular sips.

Sunblock, Lip Balm, and a Wide-Brimmed Hat

Although a lot of paddlers overlook it, exposure is another real hazard to an expedition. Bake in the sun long enough and you could wake up the next day with cracked lips, excruciating sunburn, and a dangerous fever or cold-chills. For this reason, it is imperative to protect yourself from the sun. Get yourself some reliable waterproof sunblock such as Bull Frog or Aloe Gator and make sure it has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Be sure to cover your lips with an SPF-rated lip balm as well, and use a wide-brimmed hat to protect your scalp, ears, and neck. I highly recommend investing in a waterproof-breathable wide-brimmed hat, such as the Seattle Sombrero made by Outdoor Research. A waterproof hat of this sort (rather than a hat made out of an absorbent material like cotton or polyester) is particularly useful for shielding one's face from rain or the spray off of waves. Some kayakers will simply don the hoods on their raincoats, but a hood has the distinct disadvantage of covering your ears and impairing your hearing. This means it will be harder to hear the other members of your expedition party if they signal for help or call out important instructions. A wide-brimmed hat, on the other hand, can provide the same weather-and-water protection without this drawback.

First Aid Kit

Every paddler should carry a small first aid kit which contains at least some assorted bandages, aspirin, ibuprofen, tweezers, antibacterial wipes, dramamine, sunburn lotion, and any necessary personal medications. Depending on how your stomach typically reacts to camp food, you might also want to pack some kind of diarrhea or constipation medicine.

Rescue Equipment

Rescue Equipment includes all of the basic items kayakers need to rescue themselves or others in emergency situations. There is a wealth of specialized rescue equipment available on the kayaking market, but these are the standard rescue items no kayaker should lack:

Throwline / Towline

I hope no paddler would be foolish enough to go on an expedition without wearing a PFD at all times. After all, a PFD is the single most essential item a paddler can possess—emergency situation or not. However, a PFD is not an absolute guarantee against death and drowning. Many paddling-specific PFDs cannot keep your face out of the water if the waves are sufficiently rough, you're too exhausted to swim, or you've been knocked unconscious. Even if they could, you still might find yourself separated from your kayak and your paddling companions, or swept too far out to sea to swim back to shore. Alternatively, you might never capsize at all, but suddenly become too disoriented, injured, or sick to paddle under your own power. Or any of these things might happen to someone else in your party so that it suddenly falls on your shoulders to aid them. In these and countless other cases, a reliable throwline/towline is indispensable. Especially in cases when the water is so rough that paddling within reach of stranded paddlers could be difficult or thoroughly dangerous, a throwline/towline can be tossed to the person-in-distress to tow them to safety. Since large ocean swells and other rough-water rescue scenarios might make it impractical to be tied closely to another paddler or kayak, make sure your throwline/towline can spool out at least 40 feet of line. Also, make sure it includes a quick-release buckle for quick-and-easy detachment in the event the towline would suddenly become hazardous to your own safety and would need to be detached.


A compass isn't normally thought of as "rescue" equipment, but on large bodies of water or in unfamiliar places, a compass is absolutely vital. When fog rolls in, the sun sets, or land disappears from sight, it's easy to get turned around. A compass is the quickest, easiest way to get your bearings back. Always carry one on an expedition. In fact, I recommend that you carry two: one mounted on the deck of the kayak as a quick, primary reference, and a hand-held compass stored in your PFD pocket. A deck-mounted compass can sometimes become obstructed by beads of water, or can be difficult to read in low-light or rough-water situations. Keeping a small, hand-held compass in your PFD pocket provides a useful back-up reference in such situations. It also allows you to double-check the accuracy of your deck compass if you suspect its accuracy might be adversely affected by some metallic or magnetic item packed within your hull.

Spare Paddle

There are a number of situations in which your primary paddle might be lost or broken. So unless you want to literally find yourself up a creek without a paddle, it is wise to always carry a spare and keep it within easy reach (on the fore or rear deck) so you can grab it at a moment's notice. Enough said.

Exposure Bag or All-Weather Blanket

A good exposure bag packs small, weighs next to nothing, and can be packed just about anywhere in the boat—even behind or under your seat. Essentially, it is a durable plastic or vinyl bag about 8 feet long by 4 feet wide, usually colored bright orange. I've seen some exposure bags that cost as little as five dollars and pack as small as a 4 x 6 padded envelope. Although this is one of the most consistently overlooked items of safety gear, it is one of the most versatile. When the weather gets cold or a paddler is suffering from hypothermia, climbing inside the bag can provide a surprising amount of warmth. Because the bag is plastic or vinyl, it is windproof and fairly effective at containing body heat. This makes it useful even for paddlers who are in the water and have been separated from their boats. If you climb inside the bag in the water, it will prevent the surrounding water from circulating and allow your body to heat the water trapped inside the bag, thus increasing your chances of survival as you are towed to shore or waiting for rescue. On a simpler, day-to-day level, the bag can also be used on shore as a makeshift shelter whenever you stop for lunch or a recovery nap on cold or rainy days.

As an alternative, you could carry an "all-weather blanket" which consists of durable tarp fabric on one side and heat-reflective silver space-blanket material on the other side. I carry an excellent one made by MPI Outdoors. Like an exposure bag, the all-weather blanket can be used to alleviate hypothermia. On a more practical, day-to-day level, however, it also makes for a wonderful rain poncho, wind-breaker, sun shade, picnic blanket, hanging shelter, or ground sheet. In a pinch, the space-blanket side can even be used as a giant radar-reflective distress signal. Since it is completely waterproof, you can store it anywhere for quick access. Unlike the exposure bag, it can't be used in the water to reduce the heat loss associated with constant water exchange, but I'm willing to sacrifice this particular benefit given the fact that the all-weather blanket is still far more versatile in other scenarios. For around $15, it's easily one of the cheapest, most versatile, most consistently useful pieces of gear I own.

Knife or Scissors

There may come a time when you capsize and suddenly find yourself tangled underwater in an old net, abandoned fishing line, or possibly your own towline or deck rigging. At such moments, your survival will depend upon having some tool readily accessible to cut yourself free. Traditionally, kayakers have recommended carrying a sharp, rust-proof knife for this purpose, but given the increased usage of special abrasion-resistant fishing nets and lines (which are surprisingly resistant to cutting by single-edged blades), some kayakers recommend carrying surgical scissors instead. Either option is better than nothing, and either will probably do the trick as long as you keep a calm head and don't panic.

Distress Signals

Distress Signals are your link to the outside world. If your primary tools fail or your rescue equipment isn't sufficient to alleviate the danger, distress signals allow you to call on others for live-saving assistance. Again, there is a tremendous variety of distress signals available on the market, but these are the basic signals no kayaker should be without:

Emergency Strobe Light

An emergency strobe light is a bright, flashing device that signals your location. It is mostly useful at night, when you need to call attention to your position or signal for assistance from surrounding vessels. Since a strobe light might be your only hope for being seen in night or low-light situations, make sure you invest in a reliable model that is fully waterproof. Also, make sure you keep it in a readily accessible location—preferably attached to one of the shoulder straps on your PFD so that it will be with you even if you are separated from your kayak. Finally, be sure to refresh the batteries before every trip, and inspect it often to ensure it is in proper working order.

Signaling Mirror

Since strobe lights are relatively ineffective during daylight hours, every paddler should also keep a small, unbreakable signaling mirror in the pocket of his or her PFD. When an audible signal can't be heard far enough to grab someone's attention, a few sweeps with the signaling mirror can flash enough light to alert them to your position. Odds are you will never use the mirror for anything except checking your bed-head hair-style when you wake in the morning, but if you ever do need it, you'll be glad to have it.

Aerial Flares

The end-all, be-all of visual distress signals is, of course, the aerial flare. Fire one of these into the air by night, or even by day, and anyone nearby is almost certain to see you. Having said that, sometimes they do go unnoticed, so make sure you carry at least three such flares somewhere within quick reach, such as in your day-hatch or behind your seat (in a waterproof container, of course). Keep in mind that flares do expire. Check the expiration date on your flares before every trip. If they're expired, make certain to buy fresh flares before you venture out onto the water.

Audible Signal

During daylight hours, an audible signal is often the quickest, surest way to grab other the attention of others. Moreover, in a potential collision scenario, an audible signal might be your ownly chance to signal the other vessel in time to prevent the collision. For this reason, every paddler ought to carry an audible signaling device, whether it be a loud whistle, a compressed air horn, or some other loud, attention-grabbing device. Of course, if your audible signal is to be of any use, it must be kept somewhere within quick, easy reach—preferably attached to your PFD somewhere close to your mouth. This way, even if you fall out of your boat, the audible signal will be within immediate reach.

VHF / Weather Radio

Although audible and visual signals can successfully convey your location and imply that you are in need of assistance, there is still no substitute for the spoken word. For this reason, every expedition paddler should at least possess a VHF radio for quick, clear communication with nearby vessels and the other members of your expedition party. In situations when a visual or audible distress signal won't suffice, a VHF radio allows you to convey your location and your situation more clearly, enabling you to prevent certain catastrophes. Even if you just use your VHF radio to let larger vessels know you are paddling somewhere in their area, you will dramatically improve your safety because now those larger vessels will be on the lookout for you, making a concerted effort not to run you over. On a simpler, day-to-day level, you can use the weather-band function on your VHF radio (make sure your VHF radio has one) to keep informed of the weather patterns in your area. This function alone makes any VHF radio worth its weight in gold.

Understanding the Kayaker's Lifeline

These emergency essentials comprise the all-important "kayaker's lifeline". If you pack along these items and understand how to use each item effectively, your chances of survival in virtually any emergency scenario will be dramatically improved. While it is certainly true that some of these items seem redundant in the kind of protection they offer, each item is vital to maximizing your health and safety in specific circumstances. Let me emphasize that none of these items will do you any good if you don't know how to use them or don't practice with them often enough to use them effectively in real emergency situations.

Other Optional Safety Equipment

It probably bears mentioning that although the standard gear discussed above will significantly improve your safety on the water, other safety devices—such as a cell phone or satellite phone—may prove far more effective under certain circumstances. Suppose, for example, that there is no immediate emergency but you do wish to let your loved ones know that your expedition is a day behind schedule. A cell phone might be a cheap, easy way to ensure you don't leave them worried sick when you don't reach your destination by the appointed time. It can also be used to call for assistance in serious, but non-life-threatening situations, such as when your kayak becomes badly damaged but you survive unscathed. With a satellite phone, you can arrange for someone to pick you up (without the expense of calling in a full search-and-rescue crew), to drop off a new boat, or to bring repair materials out to your location. Alternatively, considering the gaps in cell phone service (especially on large bodies of water), you might want to invest in a satellite phone which will perform the same services more reliably (though at a higher cost too). Either device would also allow you to call in assistance if you suddenly find yourself stranded far from civilization and out of VHF radio range with an unexpected injury.

Of course, when you need to call in immediate assistance during an ongoing distress situation, neither a cell phone nor satellite phone may be practical. In such cases, there is no substitute for an EPIRB or "personal locator beacon." Activate the beacon and every rescue authority within a 20-mile radius (or further) will be on its way, homing in on your location. It's the ultimate way to "call in the troops" when you're hanging on for dear life in the eye of the storm so to speak. Unfortunately, the high cost of most personal locator beacons still places them in the "useful, but not necessary" category of emergency equipment. This is not to say that you will never encounter a situation in which a personal locator beacon suddenly seems disturbingly necessary, but it is saying that a reasonable degree of safety can be achieved without one, considering the high, relatively forbidding cost of such beacons. Hopefully the cost will continue to fall until personal locator beacons become affordable standard equipment for all. Until then, I place them in the "optional" category because one can get by without one. If you have the cash to spare, get one. If not, see if you can borrow or rent one somewhere. If all else fails, go without it. Plenty of successful expeditions have been carried off for years without this extra degree of protection. Just keep in mind the fact that getting extremely lost or desperately stranded is not a luxury you can afford without one.

Another device that is not crucial, but which can be tremendously useful on an expedition is a a Global Positioning System (GPS). When conditions are rough and you've lost your way, a GPS with built-in mapping capability or a reliable waypoint indicator can offer you a quick-and-easy reference for getting you back on course. This is especially useful when rough-water conditions make it impractical or impossible to unfold and consult a large nautical chart. Again, if you can afford one, get one. If not, see if you can borrow one. Regardless, make sure your compass and navigational skills are up to par. Like all electronic devices, GPS units can fail. In the end, there is no substitute for solid navigational skills and plenty of practice.

For some excellent ways to improve your visibility and safety on the water, read Enhancing Safety on the Water.

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Distress Signals: Cell Phones?

© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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