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Common Paddling Hazards

"It's far better to learn from the mistakes that other people have made than to make the same mistakes yourself.

-Moulton Avery

Learn About Bad Stuff Second-Hand

Question:  Is it better to learn how to rock climb, paddle, backpack, scuba dive, fly a plane, or ride a horse by reading about it or by actually doing it?  A lot of folks think the only way to really learn those things is by direct, practical experience.


True enough, but when it comes to activities where a simple mistake or oversight can can get you seriously injured or killed, there's a LOT of stuff that you really don’t want to learn about the hard way.  For example, in many activities, serious hazards aren't obvious at all - you have to learn to recognize them in order to avoid getting into trouble.   That's why reading about mistakes that other people have made is so valuable.  That's also why we have a lot of Case Histories with Lessons Learned on our website.

Some Classic Examples of Bad Stuff

  • Getting totally creamed when you decide to paddle out that little inlet or river mouth to just “check things out”.  Ditto paddling in a bay and getting swept out the inlet and over the bar when the tide changes.

  • Watching in horror as your kayak does a “Cleopatra’s Needle” or sinks like a stone because it had no floatation. Ditto watching your kayak blow away.

  • Capsizing 200 yards from shore and finding out that the guy who tried to warn you about the danger of cold water really did know what he was talking about.

  • Getting swept into a tide race or blown offshore even though the TV weather report you watched in the morning said nothing about dangerous tidal currents or small craft advisories.  Ditto falling into a wind or wave shadow trap because you have no idea what they are.

  • Getting really and truly lost when your trusty GPS runs out of juice, breaks, malfunctions, can’t get a signal – whatever – and it’s getting dark, and cold and you don’t have a map and compass, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know how to use them.  Ditto getting lost in fog.

  • Floating around in the dark, shivering and watching the lights of boats and helicopters that are searching for you but having no way to signal them because you have neither flares, a waterproof flashlight, cell phone, VHF radio, or emergency strobe light.

  • Getting to the take-out and realizing that Mary is missing – because she capsized 2 miles back and nobody knew it because your group didn’t have a designated sweep.

Learn About Hazards

We group common paddling hazards into three categories. If you understand these hazards, you can avoid them or be prepared for them.  Many close calls and fatalities involve hazards from all three categories. Use the outline below to help you remember what you learned in the video.  In addition to hazards, we discuss major contributing factors below. 

  • Cold Water

  • Adverse Weather

  • Hazardous Waters

Cold Water is discussed throughout the site.


Adverse Weather

Lots of paddling advice tells you that you can skip wetsuits or drysuits as long as you paddle “close to shore in protected waters”. It's bad advice because it ignores important contributing factors like these:

Note: You can quickly find any of the Cases listed below in our Case History section.


Pro Tip: Always check the weather forecast before you go paddling, and again before you launch. If one is available for your area, also check the marine forecast.


Hazardous Waters

  • Inlets and river mouths. 

  • Shoals and Bars - See Rule 4 / Case 3

  • Currents

  • Convergence Zones - See Rule 3 / Case 2

  • Reflected Waves  -   Video 1  Video 2

  • Strainers - Video

  • Low-Head Dams

  • Boat Traffic

  • High, Fast, and Cold - Moving water has its own set of hazards.  Take this video, for example.  It features a long, grueling swim as the other paddlers in the group struggle to tow the swimmer to shore or retrieve the kayak or paddle. When the current is fast, obstacles come into view quickly and can be hard to avoid.  When the river is also running high, water climbs up the banks and can overflow them.  Take-outs become scarce, and strainers increase in number. Cold water compounds the danger.  One kayak becomes wedged under a tree and capsizes, but fortunately the boat swings free and the paddler is able to roll up.

  • Whitewater Rapids - Learn about these before you paddle on a river.  Many hazards, like foot entrapments, aren't at all obvious and you have to learn about them in order to avoid them.  If you're interested in whitewater paddling, take a whitewater course.  These are frequently offered by paddlesports retailers and also by ACA and BCU instructors around the country.

  • Surf - Like whitewater, surf has its own dynamic and its own set of hazards.  Unless you want to get thrashed, take a course before you venture into surf.

Bottom Line

These kinds of objective hazards aren't the problem. They're a fact of life in outdoor recreation. The real problems arise because of lack of knowledge and preparation. For example, lots of paddlers encounter cold water, adverse weather, and hazardous waters without getting into trouble. In fact, many paddlers deliberately play in those conditions and environments.

Major Contributing Factors
Major Contributing Factors

Now let's expand our view and look at Major Contributing Factors.  We see these things again and again when analyzing close calls and fatalities. They are mistakes that you don't have to make and situations that you can practice and prepare for. They are things you can control.  When you read our Case Histories, you'll notice that at the end of each case, we list the contributing factors that apply to that incident.​

  • No PFD (Lifejacket)

  • Not Dressed For Water Temperature

  • Unable To Recover From Capsize

  • Unable to Call For Help

  • Unaware of Hazards

  • Being Complacent / Overconfident

  • Lack of Weather Awareness

  • Unable To Deal With Wind and Waves

  • Poor Navigation Skills

  • No Light - Invisible At Night

  • Poor Group Management

  • Paddling Solo


I want to highlight the first three things on that list because they account for a large number of fatalities.  We cover the importance of the first two under Golden Rule 1 and Golden Rule 2 , so let me emphasize “Unable To Recover From Capsize”.

The ability to smoothly and quickly get back into your canoe, kayak, surfski, or back onto your paddleboard is a fundamental safety skill, because if you can't do it, you have to swim or be towed to shore - or even worse, wait for someone to come and rescue you. It's not enough to just read about rescues or watch them on YouTube - or even take a rescue class.  Rescues have to be practiced over and over until you can do them quickly and smoothly without thinking them through step by step.

Canoe or decked kayak rescues take a lot more practice than sit-on-top kayak or paddleboard rescues.  Rescues are also a lot harder to do on your own than when another paddler is helping you out.  Also, if your kayak or canoe doesn't have flotation, pumping or bailing it out may be impossible, and it will be far more difficult for an assisted rescue.

Completely Flooded.jpg

No forward bulkhead or flotation.

Canoe Swamped.jpg

Canoe with no flotation

Canoe with Flotation 2.jpg

Canoe with lots of flotation.

Whitewater Rafting


The danger is even greater if the water is cold and you aren't wearing a wetsuit or drysuit (safety gear that should have been supplied by the raft company) because when your breathing is out of control and you're ability to hold your breath is shot, inhaling water is likely.  Whitewater paddlers even have a special name for this: Flush Drowning.

Swimming Rapids 2.jpg

Submerged by waves.

Rafting Carnage 1.jpg

Lots of fun until it isn't.

Rafting Carnage a.jpg

One second you're up, the next you're swimming.

Rafting Carnage b.jpg

Capsizes can be violent.

Rafting Carnage c.jpg

Bad spot for a swim.

Rafting Carnage 8.jpg

Do you see the paddle?

Rafting Carnage 9.jpg

The view from underwater.

Rafting Carnage d.jpg

Commercial whitewater rafting can be fun and exciting, but rafting is definitely not an amusement park ride.  Think of it as a moderate-to-high-risk wilderness adventure. If things go badly wrong, you could die.  Google "rafting carnage" to get a small idea of what can go wrong.  Getting trapped underneath a raft is not a fun experience and neither is desperately trying to get a breath of air while being repeatedly submerged as you're violently flushed through big rapids.

Spectators gather to watch the carnage at Pillow Rock on the Gauley River, West Virginia.

If you decide to go rafting with a commercial outfitter and the water is cold (below 70F), you should ask if they supply wetsuits or rent them.  If not, and you don't have your own thermal protection, find another outfitter that has more experience and concern for your safety.

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