I don't think that I can stress enough how important it is to put safety first. Ill planning and lack of skill can turn a good day of paddling into a disaster. Always research the waters you plan on paddling; this becomes extremely critical when traveling the coastal waters.
The most important factor in choosing a place to paddle is knowing what your skill level is. If you are a beginner, you may want to stay way from the larger lakes since they tend to become very choppy with very little wind. They will also usually have more power boat traffic on them. If trying sea kayaking for the first time, stay in the sheltered bays until you build on your skill level and competence. Regardless of the body of water that you choose, plan your trip ahead of time. Because most of us have a limited amount of time we are able to spend out on the water, seek out the places you want to explore, allow extra time to explore those places and don't forget to allow for lunch or snack stops. A good rule of thumb that we use while planning a trip is 3 miles of travel per every hour, even though our actual distance can be as high as 4 miles per hour. After your day is planned, take some time to put those plans either in writing or on a map. Print an extra copy of your route and leave that extra copy with someone who knows where and when you are going. Another a good idea is to leave a copy in your vehicle. This way, if the need arises, you can be more easily located during an emergency.
The next thing I want to talk about is safety gear. There are many little items that are often overlooked during the planning process. All boaters are required, by federal law, to carry at least 1 wearable, class III PFD (personal floatation device) for each passenger on the boat at all times. It's not only the law, but just common sense. The PFD's must also be the correct size for the passengers; in the case of kayaking this would be the paddler.
When out in the ocean, a spray skirt is a must. These can be purchased at any kayak supply store and come in sizes to fit all touring craft. You can usually expect to spend about $50 for good one, The last thing that you want to do is to take on rough water without a skirt. A cockpit full of water can seriously compromise your kayaks stability along with making it harder to maneuver. A couple of more items you should never head out on the water without is a fully stocked first aid kit, an extra paddle, a good map or chart of the water you are paddling, a compass and if possible, a GPS. There is more information about GPS units on the Navigation, maps and equipment page.
Below is a list of items that are not required by law to be carried by a kayaker, but should be considered if you are planning a multiple day trip or are heading out on the ocean.
25 feet of tow rope- Very handy to have; not only can it be used to tow an injured paddler back to safety, it can be used in rescues, securing your kayak to the shore or strung between trees to hang a tarp on to make a temporary shelter. It can also have many other uses to numerous to list Stay away from cotton clothes line, it can stretch and is not as strong as nylon rope.
Bilge sponge- Used to soak up a little bit water from the inside of the kayak.
Bilge pump- Used to pump out those larger puddles of water from the kayak and are the most practical to empty your cockpit if you should overturn without a skirt on.
Flares and or a flare gun- These can be purchased at most boating stores and WalMart.
2 way VHF handheld marine radios- There are many makes and models out there, just make sure the model you choose has access to all the emergency channels and keep the radio either in the pocket of your PFD or attached to your PFD. It will not do you any good if you leave it in the kayak and you find yourself separated from your kayak.
Person Locator Beacon or PLB- ACR offers a full line of PLB's. If you plan on venturing any distance off the coast, seriously consider purchasing one of these. They work by sending an a distress signal with your coordinates to a satellite, which in turn alerts the Coast Guard and other rescue organizations. These are to be used only when all other attempts to summon help have failed. Keep this unit in your pocket or attached to your PFD and not in the kayak.
Small emergency mirror- These are used to reflect sunlight to signal for help or to help rescuers locate you.
Whistle- These emergency whistles are not your run of mill kids toy; they are designed to be extremely loud.
Fiberglas repair kit- For anyone that has been off the coast of Maine, you know that sandy beaches are few and far between. You don't need to make a perfect repair, just one that will get you back to your starting point if something should happen to your kayak.
Waterproof matches- Stored in an air tight container.
Paddle floats- I'm not personally a fan of these, but will mention them. I find these to be impractical for a couple of reasons. First, if you find yourself in a situation were you need these, the chances are you are going to be in an awkward position to start off with. Secondly, you will have to inflate and then place these on the paddle; which will waste precious time when you are in cold water. There are several methods of re-entering an overturned kayak; it best to learn them instead of counting on the paddle floats.
Extra water- Always keep extra water with you when venturing out on salt water. And while on the subject of water, always drink before you are thirsty. Being thirsty is the first sign of dehydration, it always best to drink a little bit every 15 minutes or so.
Weather radio- These are radios dedicated to receiving up to the minute NOAA weather forecast and warnings which are essential for being prepared for dangerous paddling conditions. They can usually be purchased for under $30 at most sporting goods and outdoor supply stores.
Inherently this sport has some risk; in fact, insurance companies consider it to be a high risk sport. When out on the open water we can encounter fog or a sudden change in the weather, winds and seas that can go from calm to down right turbulent in just a matter of minutes. It has been long thought that hypothermia was the leading cause of death for kayakers involved in capsizes, however, recent studies show it is actually Cold Shock that is the real threat. Cold Shock is the sudden immersion of the body into cold water, which causes involuntary reactions like gasping for air which can lead to immediate drowning when submerged. Cold shock can also cause immediate loss of consciousness, increased heart rate and blood pressure which can lead to cardiac arrest. While not 100% guaranteed to protect you from Cold Shock, your best protection against the cold water is a dry suit. To maximize your protection against the cold waters; it is best to dress in layers. Your base layer should consist of clothing that is made from a synthetic material like polyester, nylon or polypropylene which will wick away moisture from the skin, but also keep you you warm. Do not wear cotton; it absorbs moisture and looses it ability to insulate when wet. The insulating layer should be made of either wool or Polartec; both have excellent insulating properties when damp. The outer shell should be breathable and waterproof. Again, the best possible protection against the cold water is a dry suit. Don't forget to cover up your head, hands and feet; cold shock can and will happen if you don't protect your head and neck.