Before you head out on the water check local guidelines and follow public health rules.
Washington’s diverse waterways require different skills, preparation and safety equipment for paddlers. We recommend you take courses to learn the laws that apply, emergency procedures, navigation rules and paddling techniques — all of which will enhance your experience.
KNOW YOUR LIMITS
Not all vessels are created equal and not all paddlers should venture out on any waterway. Make sure your vessel and skill level are suitable for the paddling conditions you’re choosing. Good swimming skills and practice on a small, sheltered lake are recommended before paddling on open waterways.
BEFORE YOU GO
Know that kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards (SUP) are subject to boating laws and regulations. You are urged to boat responsibly to prevent accidents, minimize impacts, and avoid conflicts with other boaters. Following are guidelines to help you prepare before you head out on your paddling adventure:
Know the laws and keep yourself and others safe. At a minimum, take a course to increase your knowledge of paddlesport safety, emergency procedures and navigational rules. You can find classes through local clubs and outfitters, city and county parks and recreation departments and online. Understand and follow the U.S. Coast Guard’s "Navigation Rules of the Road." If you don't know these rules, you shouldn't be out on the water.
- Boater Exam (Free) online paddlesport course
- Boat-ed ($29.50) online paddlesport course
- Find educational videos at https://paddling.com/learn/paddle-safety
Wear a life jacket
State law requires all vessels, including canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards, to have at least one properly fitted Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board. All children, 12 years of age or younger, are always required to wear life jackets. Modern, comfortable life jackets are tailored specifically for paddlesports. Inflatable life jackets are only allowed for persons 16 years of age or older. No matter your age and skill level, you’re encouraged to wear a life jacket every time you go out on the water.
- Learn about proper life jacket fitting for paddlers (video)
- Learn about choosing the right life jacket (PDF)
- Learn all about inflatable life jackets (video)
- Learn how to read a life jacket label and more
Always wear a leash (SUP)
For stand-up paddleboards, a leash is a necessity. Without a leash, even in a light breeze or small waves or current, a paddleboard can drift out of reach in a matter of seconds. Staying tethered to a paddleboard provides extra flotation and a chance to stay alive in an accident. A variety of leashes are available (coiled, hybrid, straight, quick release) and which one to use depends on the waterway. You need to research which leash is right for you.
Carry essential gear
Carry the essentials for safety, emergency communications and comfort. State law requires paddlers to carry a sound-producing device, such as a whistle – even on a stand-up paddleboard. Professional paddlers recommend carrying a cell phone (in a waterproof bag) and, on coastal waters, a VHF marine radio. In addition to items required by law, you should wear sun protection and bring a headlamp with extra batteries, first aid kit, knife, dry bag and hydrating fluids. Carry a bilge pump and an extra paddle. Other essentials depend on the type of waterway and length of trip and should be researched in advance.
- Download a paddler safety checklist (PDF)
- Learn more about essential gear for paddlers
- Learn more about what to wear when paddling (video)
Check and understand the weather
Check the weather frequently before and during your trip, keeping an eye on current conditions and forecasts. Check warnings, weather conditions, wind and wave forecasts, tides and current conditions or river flows. It’s important to understand how each of these elements affects your ability to operate your vessel. Seek information from locals in the know, heed any warnings and avoid navigating in unsafe areas. The National Weather Service (NOAA Weather Radio) broadcasts on marine band and standalone weather radios.
- Download our "Weather or not to boat or paddle" brochure (PDF)
- Explore the National Weather Service website
Protect against cold-water shock
Falling into water under 60 degrees is dangerous, and many of Washington’s waters remain below 60 degrees all year — including lakes and rivers — even during hot weather. The biggest risk is not hypothermia but cold-water shock, which occurs in the first stage of immersion (from an accidental fall overboard, etc.). Paddlecraft have a higher risk of capsizing and swamping. Avoid cotton and wear synthetic materials when a wet or dry suit is not available. Be prepared and wear a life jacket.
- Download our "Cold Water Immersion" fact sheet (PDF)
- Learn more about what to wear when paddling (video)
File a float plan
Before you head out, study your intended route and let someone know your plans. Include names of everyone going, the planned route, a description of your vessel, what time you’re going and returning and what to do if you don’t return when expected. Make this a routine every time you go out on the water.
Avoid alcohol and drugs
Being alert and situational awareness are key for safety on the water. That means always staying alert. Operating any vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, is not only unsafe — it’s illegal. Washington state’s Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law applies to all boats including kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddleboards, rowboats and inflatable fishing rafts.
Learn how to self-rescue
Paddlecraft are typically safe, but there’s a higher risk of going overboard and becoming an accidental swimmer. Capsize puts you in danger of cold water, loss of gear and potentially life-threating situations. Paddling alone is never a great idea. If you choose to go out alone, you need to stay close to shore so you can comfortably swim. Paddle experts often recommend learning self-rescue techniques. We recommend starting with an instructor and hands-on training. Some self-rescues techniques are not easy and all will require practice.
Be visible to other boaters
Paddlecraft sit low on the water, making them difficult for other boaters to see. Paddle to be seen: Wear bright neon and contrasting colors, put highly reflective tape on paddles, use a flagpole and carry a bright light.
Label your paddlecraft
If you own paddlecraft, keep your contact information in your boat, on a sticker or in some other way. When empty paddlecraft are found adrift, it’s assumed someone is in danger and a search is launched. Calling the owner of a kayak, stand-up paddleboard or canoe found adrift can help prevent unnecessary searches and free up resources. Or, the call could help rescuers gather information that helps with the search. You can request a free “If Found” sticker to label their paddlecraft by contacting the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more.
ON THE WATER
- Paddle with a group. Go out with at least three people and stay close enough for visual or verbal contact.
- Expect the unexpected - you may capsize or fall in the water. On rivers, keep your feet off the bottom and pointed downstream to avoid getting snagged or stuck.
- Know how to rescue yourself and others in the event of a capsize. Consider carrying a throw bag, rescue kit and a towing system.
- Stay near the shore when there’s a lot of boat traffic. Approaching waves head on will help keep water out of your vessel to avoid capsizing the boat.
- Scan ahead and look for hazards like overhanging branches/trees, rocks, low bridges or rapids.
- When in doubt, get out and scout! Don’t take a chance of paddling rapids or currents you are not used to. Make sure to check for rocks that are dangerously close to the surface.
- Self-care is important so you stay alert. Know your limits, stay hydrated, etc.