Washington's diverse waterways require different skills, preparation and safety equipment for paddlers. We recommend you take courses to learn the laws that apply, emergency procedures, navigation rules and paddling techniques — all of which will enhance your experience.
Know your limits. Not all boats are created equal and not all paddlers should venture out onto any waterway. Ensure that your boat is suitable for the paddling conditions you're choosing. Good swimming skills and experience on smaller water bodies are recommended before paddling on open waterways.
BEFORE YOU GO
Know that kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards are subject to boating laws and regulations. You are urged to boat responsibly to prevent accidents, minimize impacts, and avoid conflicts with other boaters. Following are guidelines to help you prepare before you head out on your paddling adventure:
- Get educated
Know the laws and keep yourself and others safe. At a minimum, take a course to increase your knowledge of paddlesport safety, emergency procedures and navigational rules. You can find classes through local clubs and outfitters, city and county parks and recreation departments and online.
- Wear a life jacket
State law requires all vessels, including canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards, to have at least one properly fitted Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board. All children, 12 years of age or younger, are always required to wear life jackets. Modern, comfortable life jackets are tailored specifically for paddlesports. Inflatable life jackets are only allowed for persons 16 years of age or older. No matter your age and skill level, you're encouraged to wear a life jacket every time you go out on the water.
- Always wear a leash (SUP)
For stand up paddleboarders, a leash is a necessity. Without a leash, even in a light breeze or small waves or current, a paddleboard can drift out of reach in a matter of seconds. Staying tethered to a paddleboard provides extra flotation and a chance to stay alive in an accident. A variety of leashes are available (coiled, hybrid, straight, quick release) and which one to use depends on the waterway. Stand up paddleboarders need to research which is right for them.
- Carry essential gear
Carry the essentials for safety, emergency communications and comfort. State law requires boaters to carry a sound-producing device, such as a whistle – even on a stand up paddle board. Professional paddlers recommend carrying a cell phone (in a waterproof bag) and, on coastal waters, a VHF marine radio. In addition to items required by law, you should wear sun protection and bring a headlamp with extra batteries, dry bag and hydrating fluids. Carry a bilge pump and an extra paddle. Other essentials depend on the type of waterway and length of trip and should be researched in advance.
- Check and understand the weather
Check the weather frequently before and during your trip, keeping an eye on current conditions and forecasts. Check warnings, weather conditions, wind and wave forecasts, tides and current conditions or river flows. It's important to understand how each of these elements affects your ability to operate your vessel. Seek information from locals in the know, heed any warnings and avoid navigating in unsafe areas. The National Weather Service (NOAA Weather Radio) broadcasts on marine band and standalone weather radios.
- Protect against cold-water shock
Falling into water under 60 degrees is dangerous, and many of Washington's waters remain below 60 degrees all year — including lakes and rivers — even during hot weather. The biggest risk is not hypothermia but cold-water shock, which occurs in the first stage of immersion. Paddlecraft have a higher risk of capsizing. Avoid cotton and wear synthetic materials when a wet or dry suit is not available. Be prepared and always wear a life jacket.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs
Situational awareness is key for safety on the water. That means always staying alert. Operating any vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, is not only unsafe — it's illegal. Washington state's Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law applies to all boats including kayaks, canoes, stand up paddleboards, rowboats and inflatable fishing rafts.
- Be visible to other boaters
Paddlecraft sit low on the water, making them difficult for other boaters to see. Paddle to be seen: Wear bright neon and contrasting colors, put highly reflective tape on paddles, use a flagpole and carry a bright light.
- File a float plan
Before you head out, study your intended route and let someone know your plans. Include names of everyone going, the planned route, what time you're going and returning and what to do if you don't return when expected. Make this a routine every time you go out on the water.
- Label your paddlecraft
If you own paddlecraft, keep your contact information in your boat, on a sticker or in some other way. When empty paddlecraft are found adrift, it's assumed someone is in danger and a search is launched. Calling the owner of a kayak or canoe found adrift can help prevent unnecessary searches and free up resources. Or, the call could help rescuers gather information that helps with the search. The Coast Guard Auxiliary provides free identification stickers at safe boating classes and other boating events.
- Understand and follow the U.S. Coast Guard's "Navigation Rules of the Road."
ON THE WATER
- Paddle with a group. Go out with at least three people and stay close enough for visual or verbal contact.
- Expect the unexpected - you may capsize or fall out of the boat. Keep your feet off the bottom and pointed downstream to avoid getting snagged or stuck
- Know how to rescue yourself and others in the event of a capsize. Consider carrying a throw bag, rescue kit, and a towing system.
- Stay near the shore when there's a lot of boat traffic. Approaching waves at a slight angle will help to avoid capsizing the boat
- Scan ahead and look for hazards like overhanging branches/trees, rocks, low bridges or rapids
- When in doubt, get out and scout! Don't take a chance of paddling rapids or currents you are not used to. Make sure to check for rocks that are dangerously close to the surface.