How to stay alive and out of trouble

Always wear a helmet and PFD when on white waterThere are a few things to know before heading out for your first kayak adventure...

There are certain things you are required to have on board your kayak (or canoe), there are things that are generally recommended you have on board and there are plenty of other things to consider before leaving.

A few general suggestions - it's always better to kayak in tandems. Having someone with you makes for a much safer experience and it's usually more fun. Stay away from wildlife, regardless of whether it's cute and cuddly or slimy and dangerous. Don't leave garbage, don't destroy plants and be respectful of other people on the water. Keep an eye out for bigger boats - kayaks can be hard to spot. And the cardinal rule of kayaking, or boating, is to always help if you see someone in distress.

Whistle attached to PFDNever leave shore without...

Kayaks, despite being smaller and motor-less, still must abide by the same saftey laws as larger boats. This means that life vests are required by state law and by the U.S. Coast Guard. By law, you don't have to be wearing the personal flotation device (PFD), but there must be one per person on board. In a kayak, though, space is tight and it's best to wear the PFD at all times - both for space and safety reasons.

You must also have some sort of loud, noise making device - for kayaks, this is usually a plastic whistle. Don't get one from a dollar store. Go to a sporting goods store and buy one designed for use on a boat. Cheap ones are prone to cracks, aren't very loud and can break down under prolonged exposure to sunlight and saltwater (both are possible on a kayak, over time).

If you are kayaking in white water, you are required to wear a helmet. You want a sturdy helmet that protects as much of your head as possible. You also want to make sure it fits snugly - a helmet that is bouncing around will do far more harm than good.

If you are kayaking at night, you are required to have a white light on board. You are not required to have the green and red lights of a motorized boat, however. The white light is not required to be on at all times - so a flashlight counts. It's a good idea to have it handy, though. Other boats cannot see you at all without one. Some kayakers choose to fit their kayaks with small LED lights for night kayaking, but this is not neccessary unless you plan on spending considerable time in the dark.

Length of blue ropeSmall, but important, things to bring along...

There are three important pieces of safety equipment that we recommend always having on board your kayak - a rope, a knife, and a waterproof box. They each have several practical uses, and they offer solutions to hundreds of potential, unforseen problems.

Like a hike or a roadtrip, it's always a good idea to bring a map, especially if you are kayaking in an area that you aren't familiar with. If you are on an unfamiliar river, having a map is almost essential. If you miss a take-out, or hit unexpected rapids or falls, you may have a potentially serious situation on your hands.

If you have access to one, bring an inexpensive cell phone on the kayak with you (in the waterproof box, of course). A lot of people don't bring phones for fear that they will get ruined. We recommend bringing an old phone, and transferring your sim card before the trip - worst case scenario: you lose a sim card. That's a lot better than losing your whole phone. If you choose not to bring a phone, at least bring a watch to keep track of time.

There are a few important things to research before you leave the house...

First, check the tides and the weather. Some of the best kayaking destinations are passable only at high tide. Driving there, unloading and getting into the water, all to find out that an oyster bed blocks your path, is not a fun experience. Dress in appropriate clothing.

Second, make sure you know your route. Know where the put-ins are, and more importantly, know where the take-outs are. Figure out the logistics - how are you going to get from the take-out (with your kayak) back to where you parked (by the put-in). If you need two cars, plan that ahead of time.

Third, tell someone your plans. Pick a time, later in the day, when you will call to tell them you made it back home. If they don't hear from you, they can alert the proper authorities about the inexperienced kayaker lost somewhere on the river. This is good practice no matter what adventure sport you participate in, particularly if you are going out alone.

Check the rules and regulations for the location, espescially if you are in a state park, national park or conservation area. Some prohibit certain types of containers, beverages or equipment. Some have restricted hours - you don't want to get back late and find out the gate is closed and your car is stuck in the park.

If you plan to fish, make sure you have a state-issued fishing license and know the restrictions and limits on the fish in that area. Catching fish out of season, or of an incorrect size, yields big fines and can seriously damage fish populations. Enjoy the scenery, and the fishing, but don't ever do anything to jeopardize it for the next person.