Canoe Safety Gear
Canoe safety involves three key components: equipment, training, and planning. These components should be considered for every paddling excursion even a short recreational tour around a small lake with the kids. A longer multi-day tour will obviously require more consideration of the above components.
Mandatory Safety Equipment
For a paddle experience to be safe and enjoyable, certain equipment must be included and is required by law – these are included in the Mandatory Safety Equipment List at the bottom of this article. Other equipment should be brought along to supplement these basic items – these are included in the Optional Recommended Safety Equipment List at the bottom of this article.
Note: The longer the paddle expedition and/or the more remote the geography becomes, the more comprehensive your safety equipment list should become. For a printable copy of a Progressive List of Safety Items to include in a Canoe Expedition, follow this link: Canoe Excursion Safety Checklist
Personal Flotation Devices
Modern paddle sport PFD’s are light-years ahead of the old style bulky life jackets. Those old jackets were cumbersome, they restricted head and arm movement, and they were uncomfortable. Modern PFD’s allow ease of arm and head movement for paddling, they are so comfortable that there is no reason not to wear one, and they have lots of pockets for carrying other items including safety equipment. The law requires an approved, properly sized PFD for each person on board the canoe.
Note: A PFD can only save your life if it is being worn. So wear it!
Each boat must have a spare paddle securely stored but readily accessible in an emergency. This is for use in the event the primary paddle is broken or lost overboard. Often the spare paddle is a low cost unit or a paddle that is disassembled for easy storage.
A buoyant throw line is required. It should be stored in a readily accessible location so it can be quickly reached in an emergency. A throw line can be used to rescue a person in trouble in the water or it can be used as a towline.
Bailer or Water Pump
Each vessel must have a bailing bucket or a manual water pump to enable the boater to pump water out of the boat. A scoop style bailer works best in a canoe. It should be tied to the craft so it will not be lost overboard.
Sound Signal Device
A paddler must be able to make noise to alert others of an emergency or impending danger. The most basic sound signal device that every boater should carry is a whistle. The sound from a whistle carries further that a shout. A whistle is recognized by everyone as a emergency signal. Even a cold exhausted swimmer can operate a whistle long after their ability to shout has faded. In high traffic areas, or areas with a lot of noisy power boats, a paddler should consider packing a handheld compressed air horn. This will draw attention to the other boaters even above the noise of engines.
All boaters, including canoeists, must display an anti-collision light when on the water after sunset or before sunrise. This is a white light that can be displayed in time to prevent collision. This light can be in the form of a flashlight or an electric torch or lantern. The safest light though, is one that is burning continuously and is visible through all 360 degrees around your boat. This will give other boaters a better chance of seeing you in the dark in plenty of time to avoid collision. It is always good to carry a battery powered flash light for any outdoor night time activity.
Optional Recommended Safety Equipment
Compass and Chart
Unless you are on a very short recreational tour on a well known body of water, you should take along a chart (map) of the area and a compass. The map will prevent you from getting lost. The compass helps you to orient the map and use it to find your bearings. Keep both the map and compass on your person. Usually they can fit into one of the handy pockets of your PFD. The map should be waterproofed.
A signal mirror is a simple light weight item that is easily carried on one’s person or in a backpack. It enables one to signal a boat or aircraft by reflecting sunlight. They are inexpensive and should really be carried on any expedition.
Whether on the highways, airways or waterways, flares are a universally recognized distress signal. They also send a visual distress signal that can be seen for miles. Small rocket flares are available that readily fit into the pocket of a PFD. They are about the size of a large felt marker pen. Larger parachute rocket flares are available that are about the size of a can of tennis balls and can be stored somewhere in the boat. These flares travel higher, descend more slowly, burn brighter, and increase the likelyhood of being seen and rescued. Smoke flares emit a cloud of brightly coloured smoke. This is more visible in daylight than the other flares.
Radios, Cell Phones, Sat Phones, GPS
On an outing with two or more boats, short range 2-way radios are a great convenience as well as a safety item. These units usually have a range of a few kilometers. This enables the paddlers to stay in touch even if the boats become separated. Any boat that runs into trouble can quickly alert the others for help. Walkie talkies are inexpensive and simple to use.
VHF marine radios are very helpful if paddling in shipping lanes or other busy boating areas. A marine radio enables a paddler to alert other vessels of their presence or call for help if they run in trouble. A marine radio also enables paddlers to get weather forecast updates which is important on an expedition.
Cell phones are of use only when in range of cellular towers. These are only located near population areas. This means that a cell phone will be of no help out in the wilderness. They are a great help though when coordinating an outing with several vehicles and to alert the folks at home when you have returned safely from your expedition.
A satellite phone does not have the limitation of the cell phone in remote areas. They can make a call from virtually anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately they are expensive. Some outfitters may have them available for rent. If so they can be a lifesaver in the remotest woods and waterways.
Global Positioning Systems, GPS, have revolutionized navigating on the land, air and water. They have dropped so much in price that they are within reach of the budget of most paddle enthusiasts. They are handy for trip planning, enroute navigating, marking way points and measuring distances. Be sure that you know how to use this gadget before you set out as many are quite complicated and take some getting used to. A GPS is not a replacement for a map and a compass.
Note: Remember that a GPS is only good when the batteries are charged and the government has the system turned on.
Spare batteries for any electronic items should be packed to last the duration of the trip. The radios and the batteries should be packed in watertight bags or containers to protect them. Waterproof boxes prevent delicate electronics from being damaged by dropping or crushing but are bulky. Waterproof bags take up less room but do not protect as well. Remember to turn electronic gadgets off to conserve power when stopping for meals or camping.
Sun Safety Equipment
Many enjoyable paddle outings are ruined by a lack of sun safety. Many fail to understand the power of the sun on the water even on an overcast day. Be sure to apply sun screen before heading out on the water. Wear a hat and sun glasses. Take along some drinking water as you will be sweating while you paddle. A 1/2 litre per hour is a good rule of thumb. Following simple sun safety will make your outing a happy memory.
High Energy Snacks
Paddling is good exercise and really burns those calories. It is a great way to get in shape. With that activity in mind, be sure to take some high energy snacks along to keep your reservoir of energy topped up through the whole trip. These can include cereal bars, candy bars, granola, nuts, trail mix, and so on.
Folding Knife or Multi-Tool
A folding knife is useful for cutting ropes and knots. A multi-purpose knife or a multi-tool can be used to pry metal, cut wire, tighten screws and so on.
First Aid Kit
A basic first aid kit comes in handy to deal with cuts and scrapes that can happen in a boating or any outdoor environment. It should include the usual band-aids, some anti-septic, some pain killers and head ache pills. It is a good place to keep some sun screen. The first aid kit should be kept in a dry bag or a water proof box. The first aid kit should be sized for the group involved and the duration of the trip. A longer multi-day expedition will have even more emergency items including items to deal with upset stomachs and diarrhea
If the expedition is taking place away from civilization, that should affect what is packed in the kit. It might include a sling, large gauze bandages, and a tensor. The first aid kit should be modeled after the group. If any involved have specific allergies to food, plants or insects, medicine to deal with these should be included.
Weather on the water is different than on land. It is usually cooler. When a paddler gets wet, it seems even colder. Weather can change suddenly on the water. A short paddle tour can become longer due to the weather or other unforeseen trouble. For these reasons it is a good idea to pack extra clothes including some warmer clothes in a dry bag. This way, any upset, any change in weather, or any delay in getting home, will become an inconvenience but not a safety or health issue.
Matches or Lighter
Related to the issue of extra clothes is the need to be able to start a fire. For the same reasons that you would pack extra clothes, you should pack some matches in a water proof container or a butane lighter (full of course). This will enable you to start a fire if needed for warmth or signal for help. These should be kept on your person such as in one of those handy pockets of your PFD.
Dry Bags, Water Proof Containers
The event of a canoe getting swamped or over turned can be a disaster on any outing, but in can be a real tragedy on an expedition. For this reason critical items that could suffer water damage such as food, spare clothes, sleeping bags, medicine, and so forth, should be stored in dry bags. These bags seal out the water to keep such items safe from water damage. Be sure to protect the dry bags from being punctured by sharp objects. Other critical items that also need to be protected from being knocked about can be placed in hard water proof containers. This would include any electronic gear or any sharp objects that could puncture a dry bag such as cooking utensils.
On an overnight expedition, a handy item to bring along is a repair kit for the canoe. This should include items necessary to patch a hole or seal any leaks.
If you are travelling on an expedition with a lot of cargo, you may want to consider installing a spray deck on your canoe. A heavily loaded canoe sits lower in the water and is more susceptible to taking on water from waves and spray. A spray deck will increase the seaworthiness of your canoe by preventing much of this water from entering your boat. This is especially important if paddling on large lakes or fast moving rivers. The spray deck fastens to anchor points on the canoe and just leaves openings for the paddlers to sit in.
Canoe Safety Equipment Summary
Mandatory Safety Equipment List:
- Personal Flotation Devices – one for each paddler, properly sized
- Spare Paddle in each boat
- Buoyant Throw Line in each boat
- Bailing Pail in each boat
- Whistle for each paddler
- Light if paddling in darkness
Additional / Optional Safety Equipment List:
- Chart – waterproofed
- Signal Mirror
- Flash Light, Lantern
- Air Horn
- Spare Batteries
- Sun Safety – sunscreen, hat, sun glasses
- Bottled Water
- High Energy Snacks
- Folding Knife, Multi Tool
- First Aid Kit
- Spare Clothes
- Matches or Lighter
- Repair Kit
- Spray Deck
It is also highly recommended that you file a “float plan” with a competent adult before heading out. This is a detailed itinerary of your paddle trip that will be used to help rescue you should you not return on time. Click here to view a printable copy of a Float Plan.
Do not conclude that you are doing well if you have yourself and your boat equipped with just the basic mandatory equipment. It would be very unwise to set out on a multi-day expedition with only that small equipment layout. That list is the most basic list. It should be viewed as a starting point and a list for only a brief paddle outing.
Carefully evaluate what gear should be included on any expedition. Take into consideration the length and geography of the trip as well as the relative experience of the paddlers involved. Expect the unexpected and plan for unforeseen problems. Doing so will ensure both the safety and enjoyment of all involved.
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