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How to Avoid Kayaking Injuries

By Marna Powell
Before You Paddle: Warm up cold muscles with movement and exercise. Do not stretch your cold muscles. Dress for the water. Eat a balanced meal and drink plenty of fluids. Double-check your kayak, gear, and weather conditions. Replace used or expired articles from your first aid kit.

Shoulder/Rotator Cuff: Stay in the Paddlers’ Box! Keep your hands in the plane of your shoulders. Use torso rotations to reach to the side or behind you. If you are having trouble with your roll NEVER push off with your paddle against the bottom of the lake, river, pool, etc. unless you really want a bicep tear or dislocated shoulder!

Friction Blister: Wear paddling gloves or use waterproof Band-Aids and duct tape over sensitive areas. Remove grit, sand, and other debris from your paddle shaft. Check that other gear (such as spray skirts) aren’t chafing anywhere when you paddle.

Slip/Fall/Trip: Wear good non-slip booties or shoes designed for paddling and walking on slippery surfaces. Use extendable hiking poles for balance on uneven ground. Do not lay your paddle on the ground or against the side of your kayak where they might be tripped over. Place your paddle inside the cockpit when your boat is on the beach.

Humboldt County, Trinidad Lighthouse, Kayak fishing, Casey Allen,
Fishing under the lighthouse on Trinidad Head. Photo by Casey Allen

Lower Back: Learn to use good lifting technique and the “gorilla stance.” When lifting keep your hands close to your body and your knees over your ankles (good yoga posture), use leverage, keep your head up, and your butt out. Bend at the knees. Use major large muscles like gluteus maximus and quadriceps. Do not turn your torso while lifting or carrying. When buddy-carrying a kayak, make sure each person is ready to lift then do so on the count of three. While paddling you need good back and under-thigh supports.

Sunburn: Wear sunscreen, hats, and appropriate clothing. Don’t forget to put sunscreen on ears and the tops of toes! Yes, you can get sunburned on a foggy day especially on the water because the water reflects light back at you.

Cuts/Scrapes/Bruises/Splinters: Keep alert! Learn to roll and bow rescue to avoid swims in rapids and subsequent bruises from rocks. Try to mitigate accidents before they happen. When holding a paddle, be aware that the blades extend quite a ways out. Don’t bonk your buddy in the head with your paddle! Seriously, this bonk occurs frequently when buddies help each other launch, or when rafting up on the water. Is anything sharp or hard sticking out in the path to the water or inside your cockpit? If you carry a kayak on your shoulder, be careful when turning around that you don’t hit someone with bow or stern. Tie the kayak immediately when car-topping so it doesn’t fly off the roof in the wind. All wood can splinter, even driftwood. Although it is smooth, it still has splinters.

Flora/Fauna: Recognize poison oak, stinging nettles, blackberry vines, and other poisonous or prickly plants. Identify “Curly Dock” to get the sting out of nettles and other rashes. Never pet, feed, or antagonize a wild animal! Don’t leave food out when you stop for lunch. Ravens, gulls, jays, raccoons, skunks, and all kinds of mammals and birds will help themselves. You don’t want to fight to get your food back! If you come in contact with a jellyfish, try to flush immediately with copious amounts of vinegar. No vinegar? Get everyone in the group to pee on your sting (seriously). Mollusks, crustaceans, and other critters on marine rocks can be sharp. Since our local coastal waters are very cold we usually cover our bodies with wet suits, fleece, and dry suits. Protective clothing can help prevent scrapes and cuts, but beware of dry suit tears on these sharp critters! Wear a helmet when kayaking in rock gardens.

Head Injury: Always wear a helmet when kayaking in surf, rock gardens, or on rivers. There are often buried trees and branches that you can’t see from the surface. Test the depth of the water with your paddle and wear a helmet before practicing wet exits or rolls! Get a comfortable helmet designed for water sports. Make sure it fits correctly and is comfy. A built-in solid visor can help protect your brow area. A face cage can protect your nose.

Hypothermia/Hyperthermia/Dehydration: Prevention and early symptoms of these conditions are very similar. Best prevention is dressing for conditions and fueling your body. Fuel = Food + Drink! The liquid part of blood delivers fuel and energy to your body, which can live without limbs or most of the brain. When the body is compromised it sends blood to the core (heart, lungs, etc.) and robs blood from the brain and limbs. Initial symptoms are the “Umbles.” What rhymes with “umbles?” Mumbles, bumbles, fumbles, stumbles, grumbles… Since Kayaking is a water sport it might seem unlikely that a paddler could become overheated or dehydrated, but it happens all the time. Because it can be interesting to try to pee from your kayak or even onshore with all that gear on, people will sometimes not want to drink liquid while paddling. Combined with exertion, we find our friends overheated and under-hydrated. If a person is really overexerting him/herself he/she might also develop an electrolyte imbalance. To prevent all this, wear appropriate wicking layers that you can add or remove. The final layer should also protect from wind. Don’t forget a warm toque or skullcap. Bring and wear nose clips to avoid “ice cream headaches” if you think you may tip over. Wear gloves or pogies to keep your hands warm. Eat time-release food. Our brains run on glucose (sugar) and our body must convert everything to glucose to run the brain. Sugar or fruit will be the quickest to burn. Complex carbo-hydrates such as whole grains will take a little longer; protein will take the longest for your body to utilize. Have a good breakfast combining fruit, whole grains, and protein. Be sure to keep hydrated while you kayak and bring a snack along. Kayak with buddies who will stop and let you have a pee break!

Repetitive Wrist Injury: Wrist problems most often occur due to too having tight a grip on the paddle. If you use a bent-shaft paddle it is ergonomically designed to keep your wrists straight with all of your fingers on the shaft. With a straight-shaft paddle you should only apply all your fingers to the shaft when you truly need a stronger grip such as breaking through waves or in a whitewater rapid. Try to hold the straight-shaft paddle with just your thumbs and first two fingers. This position will give you straight wrists. A Greenland paddle inherently holds your wrists straight. No matter what paddle you use, keep a loose grip rather than a “death grip.” Buy the lightest paddle you can afford. Use an unfeathered paddle for less wrist motion. Wear neoprene wrist braces if you need the extra support.

Glare Headache/Eyestrain: Water reflects light. Fog reflects light. A foggy day on water can be a huge strain on the eyes and cause glare headaches. Your eyes can get sunburned as in “snow blindness.” Wear polarized glasses (you may need the wrap type). Put a strap on the frames and cinch it down so you don’t lose them to the hungry water gods! Wear a hat with a brim or a helmet with a visor. Carry an anti-inflammatory in your first-aid kit and take one at the beginning of a glare headache. Wear a hat or helmet with a sun visor.

Sea Sickness: Keep your eyes on the horizon and not on your lap or kayak. Carry ginger in any form, and take some at the first sign of seasickness. I like the crystallized dried ginger best. Put some in your cheek and suck on it. Ginger can settle your stomach. There are various medications that work but also make you sleepy. Any drug store carries wristbands that provide acupressure to points on the wrist to help prevent seasickness.

Fatigue: Pace yourself and know your limits. Consider paddling a double if you tire easily or have trouble keeping up with your regular paddling buddies. I’ve seen groups where the faster, stronger paddlers get far ahead then wait for the slower paddlers. By the time they catch up the others have rested, hydrated, snacked, and peed. The entire group must be allowed to rest and refuel. Paddle with buddies who care about your well-being, safety, and comfort, and go at the pace of the slowest paddler.

In Addition: Learn and keep current on CPR and First Aid. Take Wilderness First Aid, Swiftwater Rescue, and Open Water Rescue. Practice prevention at home and it will be second nature on the water. Practice rescue techniques with your paddling buddies. Paddle with buddies who use good judgment. Never succumb to peer pressure on the water. If it does not feel right for you, your skills, and your experience, then don’t do it! Always check weather and water conditions prior to leaving home and again when you get to the launch site. Predictions can be wrong and can vary from one area to another along our coast and on our rivers. Each headland or valley may have a different weather and wind pocket. Carry emergency supplies, even on a day trip. Put together a first-aid kit and rescue equipment and know how to use the supplies. Get training from a certified instructor. You cannot be too safe on the water. Have fun and stay well! Reprinted by permission,

Marna Powell is the owner and operator of Kayak Zak’s of Orick, California. She can be reached at 707 498-1130, by email at or on the web at Kayak Zak’s is a mobile kayak rental business that provides fun, eco-friendly, and safe, on-water instruction, interpretive tours, outdoor education, and environmental awareness in kayaks to persons of all abilities along the beautiful redwood coast of Northern California. Powell is often found guiding trips at Trinidad Cove or parked at Big Lagoon County Park with a kayak rental unit.

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