Stay Safe in Your Kayak — What to Do When You Get in Trouble

By Lori Janeson

No matter how well you’ve prepared for your paddle, there’s always a chance that something will go wrong.

What that “something” is, and how perilous it becomes, depends on a slew of factors: where you are, what kind of craft you’re in, weather conditions, water conditions, and much more.

What follows is a look at what to do in a specific type of situation: a “wet exit.”

When to Use the Wet Exit Technique

A wet exit is necessary when your kayak capsizes with the spray skirt in place, trapping you underwater. It’s a scary moment, even for veterans of kayak emergencies. Every second counts, so it’s incumbent upon you to think quickly and follow the wet exit procedure. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the first skills taught in kayaking courses.

There are two main ways to execute a wet exit: by yourself and with the assistance of another kayaker.

How to Execute a Wet Exit By Yourself

If you’re by yourself, you’ll have no choice but to do it all yourself. Don’t worry — kayaks and spray skirts are designed to accommodate you here. Just make sure your spray skirt’s grab loop is within arm’s reach before you leave shore. If you wait to check until you’ve capsized, you’ll be too late.

Follow these steps to execute a solo wet exit:

  • Drop your paddle away from the kayak so you have your hands free.
  • Take a full breath.
  • Tuck your head toward your chest to reduce your chances of striking submerged objects.
  • Reach along the sides of the kayak’s cockpit until you find the grab loop.
  • Take the loop in your hands and push your arms forward to pop off the skirt.
  • Try to lift the skirt behind you, so that your route out of the cockpit is unobstructed.
  • Place your hands on the back half of the boat (behind you) without straining your shoulders, if possible.
  • Push down on the boat and lift up your knees to launch yourself out of the cockpit. You’ll need to clear the thigh braces.


“This maneuver should be sufficient to get your head above water. If you’re still upside down, remain calm and try to orient yourself, then swim in the correct direction away from the boat.”—Lori Janeson


If you’ve lost contact with your boat during the wet exit, you’ll need to find it (and your paddle) as soon as you’re safe. Then:

  • Secure your boat with your foot in the cockpit. Yes, this is awkward, but it’s better than using your hands, as you’ll see.
  • Grab your paddle float and inflate it.
  • Put one of the paddle’s blades into the float’s sleeve and secure it.
  • Remove your foot from the cockpit and grab the far side of the cockpit opening border (coaming).
  • Pull the far side toward you while pushing the near side away, rotating the boat 180 degrees on the x axis.
  • Place the floated blade into the water and move the paddle perpendicular to the boat’s cockpit.
  • Holding tight to the paddle, use a frog kick to launch yourself out of the water and into the boat. This requires some core strength.
  • Drain excess water from the cockpit and reattach the spray skirt.

How to Execute a Wet Exit With Assistance

If you’re in a group, your wet exit will be a little less dramatic. However, it’ll require some teamwork. Here’s how to do it.

The exiting portion of the maneuver is basically the same. If another paddler is close enough to reach your boat, they should tap loudly on the bottom of your capsized craft to alert others that you need help.

Next, follow this procedure:

  • The nearest trained paddler paddles toward your boat, if they’re not alongside it already, and positions their boat perpendicular to your bow (front).
  • You swim to the back of your boat, push down on it with both hands, and execute a frog kick in the water.
  • At the same moment, your fellow paddler lifts up your bow. Done properly, this should break the suction created when you capsized and momentarily propel your bow out of the water.
  • Your fellow paddler positions the bow on their bow.
  • Together, you rock the boat to empty excess water from the cockpit.
  • Flip the boat back upright.
  • Move your boat so that it’s parallel and reversed (stern to bow) with your friend’s.
  • Position yourself between the two boats.
  • With your fellow paddler stabilizing your boat with their body weight, place your legs in the cockpit and ease yourself in, keeping your center of gravity as close to the water as possible.
  • Reattach the spray skirt.

Stay Safe Out on the Water

Whenever you go out on the water, even for a short paddle, safety must be your first priority. Think twice about keeping your kayaking date if:

  • You’re not feeling well: Even a minor illness can progress to something worse over the course of the day. For instance, what feels like a mild cold in the morning might be fever, chills, and dizziness by evening. A mild stomachache often precedes acute gastrointestinal episodes.
  • The weather looks iffy: Check the hourly weather forecast beforehand, if one is available for your area. If there’s even a chance of a thunderstorm, avoid the water — or at least have a plan to get to shore quickly.
  • Authorities have posted warnings or advisories about water conditions: Look at the park or ranger authority website before you leave. Heed any posted warnings or advisories, such as small craft advisories or flood warnings.
  • Other unsafe conditions are present: Watch for land-based hazards as well, such as wildfires.
  • No one knows where you’re going: Always tell someone where you’re going. If you can’t get in touch with anyone before your trip, at least try to register with the local backcountry authorities so that they know where to find you if you get stuck in the wilderness.

There you have it — a primer on wet rescues. Here’s to hoping you’ll never have to use any of it.


Lori Janeson is an outdoor enthusiast and avid kayaker living in Winnipeg, Manitoba