Don’t get sucked under that tree. That was the refrain in my head as my friend Nick and I pulled our canoe onto the bank to help two girls whose canoe was wedged upside down by the fast-moving water against a fallen beech tree. After a lot of treading water and swimming against the current, we had them on their way and ourselves as well shortly thereafter. It wasn’t exactly safe, but it could have been worse.

Let us look at the top tips for staying safe while kayaking & canoeing and how they apply to my previous adventure. Bottom line up front: wear your life jacket, carry a signal, and know self-recovery methods for your craft.

What is the leading cause of death for paddlers in small crafts?

The leading cause of death for paddlers is drowning. For whatever reason, people do not wear their PFD (personal flotation device) and get into trouble. Being complacent in safety kills. Other causes of death include hypothermia or collision with a powered craft.

Preventing tragedy:

The key to preventing tragedy is to be prepared. No one died on that youth group canoe trip, but things could have been different. If any of the four of us involved had not been good swimmers, or the current a little stronger, one of us could have easily ended up under that birch tree. 

Safety in Numbers

What did go right on that trip was that we traveled in groups, albeit not in a pack, but there were a bunch of us on the river that day. We all had life jackets, and we had picked a clear and sunny weekend.

Knowing the body of water that you plan to traverse is also an invaluable tool for preventing disaster. Having a map or firsthand knowledge of the waterscape can help prevent you from getting caught in shallow channels or rocky rapids. Ocean paddlers will want to take note of the tides.

Tell someone

Take the time to leave a float plan with someone. If others know where you are going and when you intend to return, it is easier to know if there may be a problem and where rescuers should look to find you. 

Another good tip is to avoid areas popular with powerboaters. Kayaks sit low to the water and can be hard to see. The best way to avoid a collision is to be where the bigger boats are not. Stay safe and be visible to others.

Safety Gear:

When you are on the water, you only have what you brought with you. Make sure you bring what you need. Many states have basic safety requirements for paddlers. Michigan required a PFD and the Coast Guard required a whistle if you were on the Great Lakes.

Other safety gear includes a light for paddling after dark, a PFD mounted strobe light, flares, and air horns. A bilge pump is a handy item to have, especially on rough water, so is a towline, and a dry bag for your phone, and a change of clothing. 


Dress to be in the water. If the water temp is below 60 degrees, you should be in a wet or drysuit. Hypothermia sets in quick, stay safe by staying warm and dry. Thankfully, the water was above 70 degrees and the air near 80 that day on the river, so nobody even felt cold.

When Things Go Bad:

Sometimes stuff just happens. Remain calm and quickly assess the situation. Come up with a plan and execute it promptly. He who hesitates is lost.


You need to know how to get your craft upright and empty of water again, then how to get back in it without tipping back over. And if you do need to self-recover, make sure to hang onto your paddle you will need it afterward.   


While pulling up on the bank and dumping out the water is the preferred option, it is not often possible. When Nick and I stopped to help, the banks were 4 feet high and sheer. We found a little hummock of mud near the bank and balanced our canoe on it, then swam out to the girl’s canoe and performed a solo rescue by treading water and lifting the canoe upside down over our heads to get the water out. Then rolling it back upright and setting it back on the water, we then held the sides of the canoe for the girls to climb back in. 

If there is no other boat around, use your weight to counterbalance the canoe so the second person can climb in. If you have a second canoe in your group, a T-rescue can be performed by pulling the upside-down canoe up onto the middle of yours to get it clear of the water. Once the other canoe is back on the water upright, you can help the occupants into it by holding it steady. 


A kayak can be self-rescued using the same methods as a canoe. The addition of a paddle float will make it easier to accomplish. Practicing self-rescue is the key to successful and safe self-rescue.


Kayaks and canoes are a fun way to enjoy time on the water. Do not let the making of a good memory turn into a nightmare. Wear your lifejacket, tell someone your plans, and be prepared. Stay safe out there.

Brandon Tanis