Is Kayaking Safe for Non Swimmers?

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A question that often comes up for people that are interested in kayaking is, “Is Kayaking safe for non swimmers? Can I do it?” 

You definitely can do it as long as you are in the correct conditions. However, your mind will be more at ease if you did know! This is because you know you will be okay as long as the conditions are within your skill range. 

A non-swimmer who pays attention to his surroundings, practices basic water safety, takes proper precautions, and wears a personal floatation device (PFD) has few worries. 

Under these circumstances, kayaking is no more dangerous for a non-swimmer than it would be for Michael Phelps or Katie Ledecky.

I have paddled my kayak throughout Canada and the United States for 25 years. I’ve been on the water with kayakers of all ages and abilities, some of whom couldn’t swim. Since swimming is not a necessary skill, those non-swimmers were perfectly safe. As long as you don’t take unnecessary risks, you’ll be fine, and that goes for swimmers, too.

This article will look at what you can do to prepare yourself as a non-swimmer for getting into kayaking. If you take the proper steps, you can ensure your own safety and have a great time. You’ll want to:

Table of Contents

Can You Go Kayaking If You Can’t Swim?

You can absolutely go kayaking if you can’t swim. Will you be a little nervous? Probably. We’ve all seen videos of kayakers flipping over, and everyone has been in or near a canoe or some such when it flips over and dumps everyone. So yeah, you might be trepid getting into a boat of any kind if swimming isn’t exactly your jam.

But as I mentioned earlier, taking some precautions and practicing basic water safety will do wonders for your physical safety and peace of mind. So things to do:

Wear a Freakin PFD!

And I mean wear it, as in you know… Actually putting it on! Not leaving it on the empty seat of the bow

Even Sparky agrees PFD’s save lives!

Many kinds of PFDs are out there for your wearing pleasure. It doesn’t matter what type you wear, though. It just matters that you wear one. Whether it’s one of those bulky, bright orange ones or something sleeker like the Stolquist Edge that you can find on Amazon.

What matters is that the life vest keeps you afloat. This goes for swimmers, too. If you’re on the water, you should be wearing a PFD. Having said this there are life vests that are kayak specific and are more comfortable to wear! 

Because kayakers are like anyone else in that they like their specialized gear, maybe they shy away from the orange around-the-neck device because they want something less likely to get in the way of their paddling. That doesn’t mean that fancier equals better. If the PFD keeps your head above the water when you go in, then it’s doing its job.

“Of the 613 reported deaths attributed to recreational boating incidents, 79 percent of those fatalities were due to drowning. Of those drowning victims, 86 percent of them were not wearing PFDs.”

US Coast Guard statistics for 2019,

While it’s not related to PFD usage (or maybe it is), alcohol use figured largely in recreational boating deaths: the US Coast Guard lists it as the primary factor in 23 percent of all reported fatalities. So wear a life jacket and stay sober.

Take Kayaking Lessons

You’ll learn the best way to enter and exit your kayak, the most efficient way to hold your paddle, how to wield that paddle, how to steer, and on and on. While this YouTube video isn’t a replacement for lessons, it addresses some of the basics about kayaking so you can have some idea of what instruction will cover.

A look at group style kayak lessons

In addition to learning how to steer and propel your kayak, lessons will also teach you rescue techniques, including self-rescue. Whether you’re a swimmer or not, you’ll be wearing a PFD (we already talked about this, so yes, you will be wearing a PFD), so the word “rescue” shouldn’t scare you. 

Self-rescue is about getting back in your boat by yourself should you fall out. Good information to have, right? Also notable? That same 2019 US Coast Guard report attributes 70 percent of recreational boating deaths to boat operators who had insufficient safety instruction or none at all.  

Just like any other sport, hobby, or activity, kayaking can bring people together, and taking lessons can help introduce you to like-minded people. Learn to kayak and make some friends? Yes, please.

The Water MUST be Calm

Just like your very first day of kindergarten doesn’t involve working out complex physics calculations, your early days as a kayaker won’t see you shooting rapids high in the Rockies— walk before you run and all that. Or in kayaking terms paddle before you go off 100 foot rapid jumps!!

Calmer waters are your best bet for learning the ins and outs of kayaking, so you need to start in small or medium-sized lakes. The ocean is not for the first-timer, especially if that first-timer isn’t a swimmer. Smaller bodies of water will have less movement going on, which means one less thing for the kayaker to worry about since the chances of waves are pretty low.

In the ocean, you have waves that can capsize you, but you’ve also got currents to deal with, most dangerously, the rip current. This is a swift current that can quickly sweep you out to sea or a giant lake if you get caught in it. As a swimmer, you face the danger of being pushed far enough away from the shore that you cannot swim back. 

This happened to my friends dad in the winter in lake Okanagan. He paddled close to shore but still got swept away and got dumped in water that was below freezing temperature. Luckily someone was there to help him out but he cut it really close.

Authors Note

Still, since a rip current can move along at more than five miles per hour, it can easily overpower your paddling abilities, and you can quickly find yourself far away from the shore.

Waves in the ocean or even choppy waters in a lake can pose problems, too. Either can capsize your boat or (more of a worry for the non-swimmer) knock you out of your kayak. Sure, you took kayaking lessons and learned about self-rescue, but if you’re not a swimmer, you don’t want to go in the water at all, no matter how good you got at self-rescue with an instructor helping you.

Check Both the Weather and Water Conditions

Visit the National Weather Service or check your local television or radio stations for weather information. If there’s rain coming, maybe think about postponing. If there’s lightning headed to your boating location, get out of there now. Do not get on the lake if lightning threatens.

As for local water conditions, has localized forecasts, water levels, and temperature, and satellite imagery to help you plan your trip and know what to expect. If there’s a specific lake you frequent, find the local version of Ocean and bay forecasts have a place at, as well.

Kayak With a Friend or Group

While it might be a romantic notion, the lone kayaker on glassy water at dawn, that particular guy is not the safest one out there on the water. Just like scuba diving and bar-hopping, going by yourself poses some safety risks.

Maybe that’s not the fairest comparison, but you shouldn’t paddle alone if you’re a beginner. There are kayakers out there who love going solo, but they have experience, and most of them know to do several things in advance:

  • They can self-rescue with relative ease.
  • They know how to launch and land without assistance.
  • They know the route they plan to take.
  • They have checked the weather and water conditions.
  • They pack a repair kit.
  • They have at least a cell phone to signal for help if needed.
  • They told friends where they were going and what they were doing.

Going with one or more people makes for a social outing, and that’s important to some of us. And to an extent, there’s safety in numbers. If you go in the drink with a group around you, you have a better chance of getting some assistance. That likely appeals to non-swimmers. 

On the other hand, just because someone is around you is no guarantee that you’ll be safe from danger. Kayaking with a group or by yourself goes back to water safety, a floatation device, and using good judgment

Choose a Stable Kayak

Probably the best thing to do is start in an inflatable kayak. While most people think of a hardshell version when they picture a kayak, inflatables are quality alternatives, and for the beginning kayaker and the non-swimmer, might be a more viable option.

Hardshell kayaks

Because they ride low in the water and are not much wider than you are, hardshell kayaks like the  Pelican 10-foot Kayak aren’t incredibly stable for a beginner on first go. They’re not dangerous, but they tip over much more easily than their inflatable counterparts.

Inflatable kayaks

Inflatable kayaks also ride relatively low in the water model depending, but the boat’s bottom is closer to being flat than the hardshell. Because of this, inflatables such as the Intex Challenger Kayak remain much less prone to capsizing, and some of them are tough to tip even if you’re trying to do it.

Will you fail as a kayaker if you start in a hardshell? No. But if you’re not a swimmer and have an active desire to stay out of the water, an inflatable will be much less likely to capsize.

Check Your Fear of Water at the Door

You know how they say dogs can smell fear? Well, the water can’t exactly smell that you’re afraid of it, but you should probably work on the assumption that it can. You tell someone a dog can smell fear in hopes that the person will stop being afraid, and the dog won’t be too doggish in response, I guess. 

I’m not telling you, “Hey, stop being afraid of the water right this instant.” But what I am telling you is that you should do your best to overcome it. There are so many resources out there to help with this. Maybe start with a YouYube video specifically about overcoming a fear of swimming and water. We’ve selected a good one below!

Some activities to help get over this fear include:

  • Really think about your fear of water or swimming. Does it come from a bad childhood experience? Is it solely due to having zero experience? Is it an irrational fear? Considering the root of the fear can help you face it.
  • Deep breaths are scientifically proven to help calm you down. Why not take advantage of science? When you feel that fear rising up, take a moment to relax your shoulders, breathing in slowly and steadily through your nose and down into your belly, hold it for three seconds, and exhale with the same slow and steady pace as your inhale. Repeat a few times, and you’ll notice a difference pretty quickly.
  • Start in the shallow end. Don’t plan your first swimming excursion in the ocean. Also, don’t just throw yourself off the high dive into the deep end at the neighborhood pool. I mean, kudos for bravery and all, but start slowly. Standing on solid ground while you’re in the water will go a long way to helping you feel less anxious about doing so.
  • Forget about sinking. You’re not going to sink because the human body is buoyant. If you can relax your arms and legs, you’ll float on top of the water. Remaining calm helps you not go under, and even if you were prone to sinking (you’re not), you’re in the shallow end, and there are people around. You’re safe. Relax, man.
  • Along those lines, take your PFD and get used to floating in it. Nobody at the pool will object to you wearing your PFD in the water, and you need to have an idea of what it feels like, anyway. Wearing your PFD in the shallow end means you’re about as likely to drown as you would be if you were hiking in Arizona, so this can help you relax a little more.
  • Take lessons. There is nothing better than learning a new skill, especially one that will help you conquer your own fears. People who teach swimming lessons know how to get you over your fear and teach you how to swim like a pro. 

If you have access to a neighborhood pool, I’ll bet everything in my wallet right this minute that there are swimming instructors there who will gladly help you. A few private lessons and you’ll wonder what on earth you used to be afraid of.

Whatever you decide to try to overcome this fear, remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote this: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.” Sure, it was easy for him to write that while safe and dry on the banks of Walden pond, but the sentiment is a valid one.

Go During the Summer

If you’ve ever fallen in cold water or had it thrown on you, you know very well that startled response your body makes— you tense up, suck in a considerable amount of air, and say at least one curse word.

Swimming in warmer water means you’re more comfortable. With one less distraction, you can spend that much more mental energy on being at ease in the water. Also, as water temperature goes below 64 degrees Fahrenheit, your risk for physical problems (like cardiac arrest, for one) increases.

Learn Proper Paddle Strokes

How to paddle will get covered in your kayaking lessons, but as paddling remains a big part of kayaking, you really do need to be comfortable with it. We mentioned holding your paddle correctly (still important), but the different kinds of strokes themselves need to be familiar to you, as well:

  • forward stroke
  • reverse stroke
  • sweep stroke
  • draw stroke

Without a basic knowledge of these four strokes, you won’t have the proper tools at your disposal for successful kayaking. You can find many YouTube videos on the subject, like this one from or a similar one from REI below.


You’re a curious person, so I probably haven’t answered every single thing you can come up with. But I can try some more with some frequently asked questions, because what’s the Internet without FAQs other than a bunch of cat kayak videos? (Yes they do exist)

What Happens If I Fall In?

You’re wearing a PFD, so one thing that doesn’t happen is you going under and dying immediately. What may happen is you freak out a little bit. But you’ve had some instruction, and you’re not kayaking alone because you’re a non-swimmer. You’ve taken some precautions to keep yourself safe. 

As a result, you’re familiar with self-rescue, and even if you can’t accomplish it, you’ve got someone there who can help you back in, at which time you go and kayak some more.

Inflatable Kayaks

  1. Stay cool and keep your paddle close.
  2. Flip your kayak back over so it’s right-side-up.
  3. Toss your paddle into the kayak.
  4. Hold the side of the kayak with both arms.
  5. Give a good kick while hoisting yourself up onto the kayak.
  6. Swing your legs over into the boat, grab a seat and your paddle, and go on about your business.

Watch the below video to see this in motion. We also go fully indepth on inflatable kayak self rescue here.

Hardshell Kayaks

With a hardshell kayak, you’ll have a paddle float expressly for getting yourself back into your kayak if you fall out.

  1. Attach the paddle float.
  2. Turn your kayak right-side-up.
  3. Put your paddle on the kayak so that it’s perpendicular to the craft and will act as an outrigger.
  4. Grab the edge of the kayak farther away from you.
  5. Hoist yourself up and into the kayak.
  6. Kayak some more, happy in the knowledge you know how to self-rescue even if you’re not a swimmer.

Want to see it happen in real-time? Watch it below.

How Dangerous is Kayaking?

Tough to answer. Is it more dangerous than knitting? Absolutely. Is it a deathwish sport that will definitely kill you, and it’s only a matter of time? No way. How safe is kayaking? As with many (most?) things in life, kayaking is as dangerous as you make it. 

If you go out in freezing water without a wetsuit (like my friend’s dad) and don’t know how to get yourself back into the boat if you capsize, then yes, that’s pretty dangerous.

But if you take lessons, stay realistic about your abilities, kayak in conditions suited to your skill level, and pay attention to basic water safety, then no, there’s no terribly imminent danger. 

Of course, accidents happen, but being proactive and doing things like wearing a PFD can mitigate risks. And what thing is worth doing that is completely without risk of any kind?

How Do You Ensure That You Do Not Fall Off a Kayak?

Well, you don’t. Not really. Do kayaks tip easily? Some do, so the chances are there that at some point in your kayaking career, you’ll go into the water. A rule of thumb is the narrower the kayak the more likely you are to tip.

But it happens less often if you can learn to keep yourself centered and aligned in the boat. Kayaks tip when weight shifts too much to one side, so remaining upright and balanced will help make sure you stay in the boat as much as possible.

When you do go in, though, you have on a PFD and know how to self-rescue because you’ve just read 3,000 words about those very things, so you’ll be in no danger at all.

So is Kayaking Safe for non swimmers?

Kayaking is awesome. It will remain so for you— even if you’re a non-swimmer— if you follow what we’ve gone over here:

  • Wear a personal floatation device.
  • Take some lessons.
  • Start in calm waters.
  • Check the weather first.
  • Don’t go out alone.
  • Go out in a stable boat.
  • Do what you can to overcome your fear of water.
  • Kayak in warmer waters as you’re learning the sport.
  • Learn the proper paddling techniques.

Non-swimmers can get as much enjoyment out of kayaking as the most accomplished water bugs because, as mentioned earlier, swimming isn’t a part of kayaking. Kayaking involves kayaking, you know, in a boat. Not swimming in the water. However, it is vital that you take the proper safety precautions and never kayak alone.

If you can’t swim, you should probably learn just to say that you know how to swim, but even if you never do, this won’t have any impact on your ability to learn kayaking. Honesty and communication here is very important. Happy paddling!

Photo of author
Hey, there! My name is Derek and I have been around kayaks and canoes all my life. The last 5 years I recently turned my attention to inflatable kayaks and my world has been a lot more portable since! When I'm not kayaking I like to watch motorsports, play hockey and work on this site!

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