Tips for Kayaking When You Can’t Swim


Swimming isn’t exactly your strong suit. That’s why you normally refrain from aquatic activities, but a friend encouraged you to go kayaking with them, ensuring you’d be fine. What tips should you keep in mind?

Here are our top tips for kayaking when you can’t swim:

  • Always wear a life jacket
  • Select placid water
  • Familiarize yourself with water
  • Never kayak alone
  • Tell others you can’t swim
  • Rest up 
  • Do breathing exercises
  • Take a kayaking lesson
  • Stay where you’re familiar
  • Try to have fun

Ahead, we’ll elaborate further on each of the 10 tips above. We’ll also talk about whether it’s safe to go kayaking if you don’t know how to swim, so make sure you keep reading! There’s lots of great information to come. 

Can You Go Kayaking If You Can’t Swim?

Knowing you can’t swim has caused you to skip a lot of outdoor activities over the years. Beach day with your friends? They’ll surely want to go in the water, and what will you say when you can’t join them? Pool parties? No way. 

Kayaking? You’ve turned down a few invites here and there, but your curiosity is driving you to say yes this time. Can you kayak if you can’t swim or you’re a weak swimmer?

Yes, you can. You just have to be selective about where you go kayaking. We’ll have tips about the best bodies of water for non-swimmers coming up, so you’ll certainly want to check that out. 

If your kayak happened to tip over while you’re in it, the boat would float. You’ll be wearing a life jacket, so you’d float too. That can give you the confidence to right your kayak, get back in and keep paddling. 

10 Tips for Non-Swimming Kayakers

Now that you know you can go kayaking even if you can’t swim, you’re excited to plan your first excursion. While enjoying yourself is important, above all else, you must be safe. The following 10 tips will ensure you are. 

Always Wear a Life Jacket, Even in Shallow Waters

It doesn’t matter your age or your physical prowess: every kayaker should wear a life jacket. In some parts of the country, it’s the law. Failing to wear your personal flotation device could earn you a hefty fine.

Even if you live in a state that doesn’t legally require life jackets past a certain age, it’s always a good idea to wear one. That advice goes for swimmers and non-swimmers alike. 

As we always say on the blog, there are plenty of factors that can impede even strong swimmers from being able to perform in the water, from the shock of capsizing to the water temperature and the speed of the current. Non-swimmers will quickly be overwhelmed by these factors, which makes drowning likelier.

According to Boat U.S. Foundation, the best type of personal flotation device for kayakers is a Type III life jacket, which is inherently buoyant. A Type III life vest provides up to 15.5 pounds of buoyancy, but it will not flip you face-side-up if you’re unconscious in the water. 

The only type of life jacket that usually does that is a Type I, which is recommended for offshore fishing, racing, and cruising. You can wear it when kayaking, but Type I life vests are among the most uncomfortable types. They’re also the most buoyant with 22 pounds of buoyancy. 

How do you know if you sized your personal flotation device correctly? Here are some pointers that indicate your life jacket fits:

  • The life jacket is tight against you but not squeezing. Your breathing doesn’t feel obstructed.
  • You can freely raise and otherwise move your arms.
  • The life jacket does not bunch up in the front when you lift your arms.
  • The material under the arms is comfortable so it won’t cause chafing after a few hours of use.
  • The life vest isn’t so bulky that you can’t see over your shoulder. 

Select Placid Bodies of Water

Thrill-seekers are usually attracted to kayaking, but that doesn’t mean you should select a place to ride with abandon. 

For instance, if a friend asks you to go whitewater kayaking, you should tell them no. Whitewater kayaking can be dangerous enough for experienced swimmers, let alone beginners who can only doggy-paddle. 

Instead, select the calmest, stillest bodies of water in your neck of the woods. Your life could still be in danger if you spill into a tranquil lake, but it’d be less so compared to a rushing river. 

The shallower the water is, the better. If you could stand up after spilling into the water, or if the water is only waist-high, that’d be ideal. 

Take some time to research shallow, still waters near you. Ask your friends what they’d suggest too. Be willing to drive a little bit off the beaten path if that’s what it requires to find a good place to kayak. 

Think of it this way. When you learned to drive, you likely did so in an empty parking lot, not a four-lane highway. You need to practice kayaking in safe conditions as well. 

Familiarize Yourself with Water

Unfamiliarity breeds fear. Since you can’t swim, you stay away from water. Whenever you go near the water, it ramps up your anxiety, which has also taught you to keep a safe distance. This perpetuates a cycle that only serves to deepen your fear. 

You should have a healthy degree of fear when doing aquatic activities, as this can prohibit reckless behavior. That said, if fear is predominantly what you feel when around a body of water, it’s best if you can start improving upon this before you go kayaking. 

How? Get used to water, especially the body of water you’ll kayak in. Spend some time on the shoreline just watching how the water moves. Take a video of the water so you can review its undulations later. 

Maybe even dip your fingers or toes into the water (no need for both at the same time, as you’re not going for a swim). Familiarize yourself little by little and you’ll feel more confident about kayaking. 

Never Kayak Alone

If you’re a seasoned kayaker with many excursions under your belt, then sure, you can kayak solo. Even then, for safety reasons, you’re supposed to tell others where you’re going before your trip. 

As a kayaker who can’t swim, it’s especially integral that you never go kayaking by yourself. You have no idea how many other kayakers will be at the lake or river you’re visiting. It could be many, or it could be none.

If you go overboard and the other kayakers don’t see it or hear it (which can happen if you and the kayakers are far enough away), you can’t rely on them to help you.

You could be drowning, and other kayakers might not even notice. Drowning in real life is nothing like the big, dramatic affair it’s always portrayed as in movies and television shows. You don’t flail your arms and scream “help!” 

Instead, you begin to silently sink. If someone doesn’t know what to look out for, they could miss it.

When you kayak with a buddy or in a group, you know that someone always has your back and vice-versa. Even if you couldn’t help a capsized kayaking buddy, you could contact someone who can swim so they can execute a rescue operation. 

Tell Others You Can’t Swim

Most of us don’t want to appear weak in front of our friends. Although it’s not easy to be vulnerable, you have to confess to your pal that you can’t swim before you two go kayaking together. Trying to be tough and hide your swimming inability could put your life at risk. It’s not worth it!

More than likely, your friend won’t judge you at all. Instead, they’ll want to do what they can to accommodate you. For example, they’ll keep an especially close eye on you when you’re kayaking. Sure, this can feel a bit embarrassing, but it’s good to have someone in your life who cares about you so much! 

Rest Up the Night Before

The night before your first kayaking trip, you’re going to feel a multitude of emotions such as excitement, happiness, and anxiety. This is all perfectly natural, but you have to do your best to quell those feeling so you can get some quality shut-eye.

If you can, schedule an extra hour or two of sleep that can act as a buffer if you toss and turn until your mind shuts off. Try to aim for at least seven hours of sleep, with eight hours good and nine hours better still.

When you’re fatigued, your mind and body can feel sluggish. That will make kayaking harder than it has to be. What’s worse is that your reaction time can suffer from fatigue. You need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when kayaking so you can stay safe. 

Soothe Your Anxiety with Breathing Exercises 

Wow, you can’t believe you’re actually in a kayak. What’s crazier is that you and your buddy just left the shoreline. You watch the dock behind you become smaller and smaller until it disappears. When you look around you, all you see is water.

Cue the panic.

Even if you took the time to familiarize yourself with the body of water you’re kayaking in, you didn’t go this deep. Thus, you’re going to be a little nervous, and it’s okay. Remind yourself that the water isn’t all that deep, nor is it rough. You’ll be okay.

If your nerves try to get the better of you, we recommend breathing exercises. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then gently exhale it. Repeat this as many times as needed and your anxiety will gradually yet surely begin to abate. 

The best part about breathing exercises is you can do them anywhere, anytime, even in a kayak out in the middle of the water. Rely on the exercises as many times as you require. 

Take a Kayaking or Swimming Lesson 

If you have advance notice of your kayaking trip, it’s not a bad idea to prepare yourself. You might sign up for a kayaking lesson or several so you can learn the basics of positioning yourself in the boat, paddling, and energy management. 

During your kayaking lessons, you might even learn what to do if you capsize, including how to flip your kayak over and how to re-enter it when wet. Having these valuable skills will increase your confidence. Should a worst-case scenario like capsizing transpire, you’d be able to handle it.

You also want to schedule some swimming lessons if time and your budget allow. You more than likely won’t learn how to swim when taking a kayaking lesson. Even if all you can do is tread water by the time you go kayaking, that’s better than nothing. Plus, treading water is a valuable, often life-saving skill!  

Stay Where You’re Familiar

Your first kayaking ride is no time to go off somewhere new. That’s true as well of your second and third kayaking adventure. Keep it simple and plan a short, familiar route. After all, kayaking is all about manual effort, and the first time you do it, you could tire yourself out in short order. 

If you get even a quarter of the way from shore, you should consider that a win. The next time you go out (if you decide you want there to be a next time), you can increase your distance incrementally more, then continue to do that the next time and the time after that.

The reason we recommend staying where you know is that the unknown can strengthen your fears, causing you to make poor decisions that could result in capsizing. Plus, once you’re off the beaten path, you’re out of the direct line of sight of other kayakers. If you needed rescuing, it would be harder to find you.  

Try to Have Fun 

You won’t be an expert kayaker the first few times out. Your muscles will hurt, if not when paddling, then the next day. You’ll need to wear sunblock and UV-resistant fabric or your skin will burn. 

All that said, kayaking is a blast. You might find that you’re hooked on it even if you can’t swim. As you continue kayaking and taking swimming lessons on the side, you’ll enjoy it all more and more. Your skills will improve as well. 

Even on that first kayaking trip when you barely know how to hold a paddle, make the most of it! 

Final Thoughts

You can go kayaking when you can’t swim, but you’ll have to ride in calmer, shallower bodies of water. You should always wear a personal flotation device and have a buddy close by to help you. 

Have fun out there!

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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