Safety Gear

For a complete list of the gear needed for kayaking, check out these comprehensive equipment lists.

There are several pieces of important safety gear that paddlers should have with them, the most important of which is a USCG-approved life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device).  A life jacket is legally required in most jurisdictions.  An exception to this law would be paddlers using a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) as a surfboard in the surf zone.  However, since it is the recommendation of the creators of this site that all paddlers wear a life jacket at all times when on the water, it is worthwhile to do some research to find one that is comfortable and works well for your purposes so that you will never be tempted to paddle without it.  Like all the gear you carry with you, you want to know how to use your life jacket properly so that you gain full advantage from using it.

American Canoe Association (ACA) pamphlet – “Wear It! Life Jackets Matter”


Paddle Floats for Sea Kayaking by Sherri Mertz

A paddle float is a piece of critical safety gear that all sea kayakers should be carrying with them.  When purchasing a paddle float, your first decision will be whether to get an inflatable style or a foam float.  I’ve known people who bought foam floats based on the compelling argument that they are faster to deploy since the paddler does not need to inflate it.  That is true.  Unfortunately, what was not explained is that the foam floats have significantly less buoyancy than inflatable versions.  This may not be as much of a concern for smaller paddlers and for those who can do scramble (cowboy) solo re-entries with their kayaks.  But for the average beginner or heavier paddler, that lack of buoyancy can make a big difference when it comes to their success in performing solo paddle float re-entries.  The extra time that it takes to blow up an inflatable paddle float may still get you out of the water faster if you are successful on your first attempt compared to several failed attempts with the foam float.

One other concern with foam floats is that they are more difficult to carry on most kayaks.  They do not fit inside the cockpit of most sea kayaks.  They are bulky to carry strapped on deck and may interfere with layback rolls and assisted re-entries if carried on the back deck right behind the cockpit.  The inflatable floats are much more compact to carry whether inside the cockpit or under the bungees on your deck.

Inflatable paddle floats do have the potential to develop leaks or to have the valves break which may render them useless.  For that reason, you should look for dual-chambered inflatable paddle floats.  If one of the chambers should fail to hold air, there should still be enough buoyancy in the remaining chamber to complete a solo re-entry.

Inflatable and Foam Paddle Floats

Inflatable and Foam Paddle Floats

I own both styles of paddle floats.  I carry my foam float on deck in the winter when air temperatures are below freezing to prevent the possibility of having the inflation valves in my paddle float freeze up making the float unusable.  However, I always carry my inflatable float with me, as well.  I keep it partially inflated and secured inside my cockpit just forward of my seat.  It provides support for the back of my thighs and by having it partially inflated, it reduces the amount of time that it takes to completely inflate the paddle float when performing a solo re-entry.

Some people have questioned the wisdom of using a piece of safety gear in this way.  Others have raised the concern that the float might get in my way when exiting or entering my kayak in an emergency.  I do not dismiss these concerns, but I have carried my paddle float this way for more than 20 years with no problems.  As an instructor, I have literally done hundreds of wet exits and re-entries and my paddle float has never caused a problem.  It is important that you have the paddle float strapped in securely so that it doesn’t shift position and create an obstacle to exiting your kayak.  You should also practice wet exits and re-entries in a controlled environment to make sure you don’t experience any issues carrying a paddle float like this in your specific kayak.  I would also assert that I am more likely to notice a leak in my paddle float before I need it in an emergency since I would likely see that it wasn’t holding air when resting my legs against it.  Regardless how you carry your paddle float, or what style you carry, always check your safety gear regularly.


10 New Ways to Use a Paddle Float by Sherri Mertz

While some sea kayak instructors may view the standard paddle float solo re-entry as a skill that has little use, I urge you not to throw out your paddle float just yet.  There are numerous ways that a paddle float can be beneficial to a sea kayaker.

1. If you need to tow an incapacitated paddler but don’t have a third person to raft up with the paddler for stability, put a paddle float on each blade of the incapacitated paddler’s paddle and he/she can use it to prevent a capsize as he/she is being towed.

2. If your roll just failed and you have had to do a wet exit, you can put a paddle float on your paddle and do a re-entry and roll.  This is a much better solo rescue skill than the standard paddle float re-entry, but is not easily taught to most novice paddlers who have not been at least introduced to the roll.  You are just about guaranteed to get back upright, and the paddle float will be on your paddle adding stability as you pump out all the extra water in your cockpit. Some instructors like Helen Wilson advocate the use of paddle floats for learning how to roll a sea kayak in the first place.

3.  If you have struggled to successfully complete a scramble re-entry, consider putting a paddle float on your paddle blade before you attempt to remount your kayak.  The paddle float can be used to give you some support as needed, especially as you attempt to get your feet and legs into the cockpit and drop your butt into the seat (the part of the scramble that many paddlers struggle with).

4.  Inflatable paddle floats may be useful as an air splint to help stabilize a fracture of the hand, wrist, foot, or ankle if you are wilderness camping and don’t have ready access to medical assistance for several hours or days.

5. Securing a semi-inflated paddle float secured in the boat just forward of the seat under the paddler’s thighs can improve comfort.  Supporting the back of the thighs in a kayak seat helps to prevent lower back pain which is why many kayak manufacturers have added an adjustable thigh support feature to their seats.  Having the paddle float partially inflated in this way also makes paddle float re-entries much quicker as you don’t have to spend as much time inflating the float.

6. A paddle float can be used as a pillow for a nap after lunch or to get you through an uncomfortable and unexpected emergency overnight campout while awaiting better weather conditions or outside help.

7. When doing a re-entry of a tandem sea kayak with no other kayaks for assistance, the first person to re-enter the kayak (generally the stern paddler) can use a paddle float on his/her paddle to help stabilize the kayak while the second person re-enters the front cockpit.  This is also a situation in which a good sculling brace can be done for stability by the paddler in the rear cockpit, but unfortunately not everyone has a really solid sculling brace and using the paddle float for support would be less tiring than the sculling brace if it takes the front paddler longer than expected to re-enter.  If the front paddler needed extra assistance in re-entering, you might even be able to attach the paddle with the float under the deck rigging to give stability leaving the rear paddler’s hands free to help pull the front paddler aboard.  (This would require some pre-planning to make sure your decklines and bungees will accommodate this set-up.)

8. In the event that a leak in a hatch threatens the buoyancy of a sea kayak, paddle floats could be inserted into the open hatch and inflated to take up space and act as emergency float bags.

9. In the event that a smaller round hatch cover is lost or destroyed, an inflated paddle float could be jammed into the rim of the hatch opening to block the opening and prevent water from getting in.

10. If the waves have picked up and a less experienced paddler already on the water is nervous about getting back to shore, a set of “sponsons” can be created by putting an inflated paddle float on each end of a spare paddle.  The shaft of the paddle can be jammed through the deck rigging behind the cockpit and secured with duct tape or zip ties to create a set of “training wheels”.  As long as the paddler stays upright, the floats are mostly be off the water.  In the event that the paddler starts to tip, the float on that side comes into contact with the water and may hopefully slow the capsize enough that the paddler can regain his/her stability.

These are just some ways that I have come up with to use a paddle float.  With some creativity and ingenuity, there are probably several other ways that this piece of gear can be used.  Inflatable paddle floats are relatively inexpensive and take up very little room in a sea kayak.  I see no reason not to carry at least one.

Sea Kayak Equipment List