A Kayak rides in rough waters.

Can You Kayak In Rough Waters?

Kayaking can be leisurely paddling through flat and still waters with great weather conditions and an easy route. However, kayaking can also be paddling through strong winds, strong currents, and choppy waves. Water and weather conditions can change fast, and kayakers must be ready for more challenging conditions.

Kayaking in rough waters is common. The majority of kayaks are built to endure tough conditions and help navigate the paddler through difficult situations. Kayaking in rough waters is experienced more frequently when out at sea or in white water. 

Kayaking in rough waters is a big part of growing and advancing in the kayaking sport. As paddlers advance in skill and experience, they will attempt to undertake more challenging conditions, routes, and expeditions.

Using The Correct Kayaking Equipment 

It is important to buy the correct kayak for the type of water conditions you will be paddling through.

There are three kayak designs for different conditions:

  • Ocean Kayak
  • River Kayak
  • Lake Kayak

What are the main differences?

1. Length

The ocean kayak or sea kayak is the longest out of them all. It is built for long-distance paddling with a lot of storage space under the deck. 

The lake kayak fits in between the sea kayak and the river kayak in terms of length. They are still relatively long, which helps for cruising and smooth paddling.

The river kayak is the shortest of the three. This is simply because these kayaks need to be able to maneuver quickly and easily.

2. Width

The sea kayak is the narrowest design. This enables the kayak to cut through choppy waves and currents easier and to keep momentum despite the difficult wind and water conditions.

Lake kayaks are the widest builds of the three. Beginner paddlers typically use a lake kayak because it is more stable and harder to fall off. The width makes getting into the kayak a lot easier as well.

River kayaks are also relatively wide for stability purposes. Stability is a vital requirement for river kayaking when dealing with rapids, rocks, and strong currents.

3. Hull Design

The hull design will differ based on the type of kayak. Flat bottom hulls offer the best stability but are more difficult to maneuver. 

V-shaped hulls are brilliant for cutting through the water and track straighter than other designs. These designs are seen more on sea kayaks. 

V-shaped hulls are easier to tip and are used primarily by more experienced kayakers. 

Round bottom hulls are great for reducing resistance and reaching high speeds. The round design is not good for stability. These designs are most commonly used for sea kayaks with a surfing purpose.

Selecting the right kayak for the location and conditions of paddling is vital. It is also important to make sure the paddler has all the necessary equipment and gear to handle rough water conditions.

The necessary safety gear for kayaking includes:

  • Life jacket
  • Headlamp with batteries
  • Signaling or communication device
  • Emergency whistle
  • Helmet

Carrying these basic essentials while kayaking in rough conditions is important, as well as ensuring the paddler understands how to use all the equipment.

Correct Training For Rough Water

Beginner paddlers should not embark on rough water kayaking without correct training and preparation. Learning important skills like bracing, surfing, rolling, and other skills can save a paddler’s life when faced with an emergency.

Attending a certified kayaking course or program is helpful to make sure the paddler has all the necessary knowledge and skills to handle rough water situations.

A paddler needs to understand how to develop contingency plans and how to navigate strong winds and rough waves. 

Preparing your route and identifying escape options are an excellent preparation tactic. Recognizing safe landing spots along the route help to have a plan B if a difficult situation arises and an exit point is required.

Scouting A River

When paddling in river conditions, it is important to scout the river and plan your route while also taking note of the water level of the river. Increased water levels can turn small rapids into big and dangerous rapids.

Learning to class the rapids will help identify and prepare kayaking routes that are appropriate for the paddler’s skill level, knowledge, and ability. 

Scouting The Sea

It is important not to rush scouting and the analysis of the sea conditions and forecast before paddling out. Weather conditions can change fast, and it is important to study the weather forecast well before embarking on any paddling.

Approaching storms or big swells can cause difficult paddling conditions and become a dangerous environment for kayaking.

Paddlers can use the Sea Conditions Rating Scale (SCRS) to run through a checklist of aspects that affect the conditions to make a wise and intelligent decision as to whether to paddle or not.

Paddlers need to know that conditions can change drastically from what they were when the paddlers launched. Always be prepared for the worst outcome and it will make it easier to enjoy the paddle while being prepared for changes.

Learning To Watch The Wind

Strong winds will affect your direction if you do not know how to paddle through them. Padding perpendicular to the direction of the wind will increase your chances of tipping and make it difficult to stay the course of your intended direction.

Paddling directly into the wind will reduce the wind’s influence on your kayak. If the waves are going with the wind, then facing them head-on will help you cut through the waves better.

Watching The Waves

Sometimes the wind and the waves will be moving in opposite directions. This can be a difficult situation when trying to reach an intended destination. 

A basic principle to follow when in this situation is to watch the waves more than the wind. If you are paddling parallel to the waves, you can easily tip over. 

Learning To Roll Your Kayak In Rough Conditions

Learning how to get back into your kayak if it flips over in the middle of rough conditions is the most important skill when preparing. 

Rolling yourself back over in your kayak can be learned relatively quickly when practicing in calm waters. Rolling yourself back over in your kayak in turbulent and rough waters can be much more difficult.

Being upside down, still seated in your kayak, with crashing waves and strong currents swirling around is not an easy situation and requires a calm and strong mentality. 

Practicing tipping over and recovering while at full speed is a good way to replicate the force of water that paddlers feel when tipping in rough conditions.

Practicing tipping and recovering as often as you can will help develop muscle memory that enables the paddler to react quickly and correctly when tipping in rough waters.

Staying in the kayak is the goal when recovering from being tipped over. Different roll techniques are good to learn when practicing.

Some of these techniques include:

  • Sweep role
  • C-to-c
  • Extended paddle roll

When kayaking in the ocean, being tipped over can be very disorienting and can cause panic. The best strategy to use is to stay calm, wait for the wave to pass over you, and then roll.

Entering Choppy Water

The location and type of waterscape will determine where and how the paddler launches the kayak into rough water conditions.

When launching in a surf zone like from a beach, starting from the edge of the shore and timing your launch is essential. 

Positioning the kayak close to the water in between wave sets will give the paddler time to get into the kayak and wait for the wave. Once the wave rolls past the kayak, the paddler can push the kayak forward into the water and start paddling to build momentum.

The best way to launch in a lake or river is to position the kayak in the shallow water just off the shore and to get into the cockpit. Once stable, push off and begin paddling. 

Advanced kayakers might launch from a small cliff or rocks on the side, but this should not be attempted without training and experience.


Kayaking in rough water conditions will always present many risks. Accepting changes in weather and water conditions is a big part of the sport. 

While rough waters, rapids, and strong currents can provide a fun and exhilarating paddle, being educated, trained, and prepared for rough conditions is essential.

Kayaking is a sport that requires a commitment to advancing in skill and learning the necessary knowledge to paddle safely while still embarking on fun adventures and exploring new locations! 

References

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