Bringing along the proper safety gear is important for all types of kayak trips from an afternoon on the lake to an open ocean crossing. The following is a list of safety gear that you should never leave shore without:
1) PFD: A personal floatation device is the most important piece of kayaking safety gear, period. Beyond being USCG mandated to have an approved PFD on your craft you should require that you properly wear your PFD from the time launch from the time you land. It can and will save your life.
2) Paddle Float: Next to the PFD, the paddle float is the second most important piece of safety equipment and it is the most likely to be left behind. The paddle float is an inflatable, pillow-case-like device that slides over the blade of your paddle and can be used to create stability to aid in a self-reentry. They can also be used to assist an injured or sea sick paddler who is struggling to maintain balance. Paddle floats can be stored under the front bungees for easy access. They are so important that I bring two along when guiding.
3) Bilge Pump: a hand operated or integrated bilge pump is useful in the event that you have bail out your cockpit after a wet-exit and re-entry. The pump can be substituted with another bailing mechanism but I’ve found that the pumps are the fastest. Remember to stow your pump where it can easily be retried when you are in the water (i.e. not in a watertight compartment).
4) Close-toed Footwear: Cuts to the feet are by far the most common injury that I have had to contend with in my 8+ years of guiding. Easily avoidable with closed toed shoes which could be either paddling specific booties or even old sneakers with the laces removed.
5) First Aid Kit: A well-stocked first aid kit will go a long way in an emergency. An assortment of band aides, gauze, triangular bandage, anti-inflammatories, antiseptics, ace bandage, scissors, and medical tape are a good start. Also consider adding a roll of duct tape to the kit as I’ve found that most adhesive bandages do not stick well when wet.
6) Communication Device: Some sort of communication device is critical in the event of an emergency. A cell phone may work if you can get reception (I’ve been surprised by some of the places that I have lost reception). A more reliable device is a waterproof, hand-held VHF radio as channel 16 is a direct link to help and you can usually hail nearby vessels on other channels. Find a place that your radio can call home on your PFD. A whistle is good for short-range signaling.
7) Whistle: A whistle is critical for communicating over short distances. Three short blows of a whistle is a universal maritime signal for help. A long single blow can alert another craft to your presence. Tether the whistle to your PFD for quick access.
8) Map and Compass: No matter how familiar you are with the area it is always a good idea to have a map and compass. It’s very easy to get disoriented if the fog rolls in unexpectedly. I recommend a deck-mounted, nautical compass to keep it hands free. My compass has gotten me out of more than one bind when the GPS decided to take a nap.
9) Sunscreen, Hat & Sunglases: UV radiation can wreak havoc to your skin while paddling as it reflects off the water. Always wear a hat and apply waterproof sunscreen to any areas of exposed skin. Remember to bring along the bottle to reapply during rest breaks. For the long-term health of your eyes consider a pair of polarized sunglasses. These can be tethered to the shoulder of your PFD to avoid losing them in the drink.
10) Two pieces of rope + knife: The first piece of rope should be 14-20ft long to be used as a tow-line. The second piece of rope should be about 5ft long and tied into a loop to be used as a stirrup during self-reentry. Anytime ropes are involved on the water it is a good idea to carry a knife in case you become entangled. It should be sheathed and tethered to your PFD
11) White light: A single white light is USCG mandated for all small craft operating after sunset. I recommend something that you can clip to your PFD and that throws an omnidirectional beam.
12) Helmet: Helmets are often overkill on most sea kayaking trips. However you may encounter surf or a rocking landing and you should highly consider breaking out a full-coverage helmet in these cases.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list but you will be well-prepared and safe with the above items. I’d love to hear your feedback if you think that something important has been left off of the list to comment away!
Be safe and Happy Paddling!