Paddling Safe and Smart on the Great Lakes

Let's talk about paddling safe and smart on the Great Lakes. I know, I know. This is everyone’s least favorite topic, because we all just want to get out on the water and relax. But it is so important. I realize that the final decision comes down to the individual, and just like most of us prefer to wear a winter jacket when the snow flies, there is always “that guy” (or gal) who is outside walking in shorts and flip flops. But none of us want to be “that guy/gal” on the evening news that had to be rescued by the Coast Guard from the water. Or worse, if you are nowhere to be found after your kayak washes ashore. I’m sure by now we have all seen at least one news headline or heard of one of these incidents happening near you, especially those of us that live near the Great Lakes or other coast lines. I’m going to highlight some products, how to use them and why you need them. The following are also requirements by the U.S. Coast Guard for paddling The Great Lakes and other open waterways.


1. Know your limits, the weather condition and your gear

Be honest with yourself, if you're uncomfortable about going out, don't go or find a more experienced paddler to go with you. Check the weather before you head out. Treat the forecast as a best case scenario but be prepared for the worst case. It takes a specialized boat to paddle whitewater, surf and exposed lakes or oceans. Most kayaks that you find at big box stores are recreational. Meaning they are designed for use on protected waters with very moderate currents. Bulkheads are a very important part of touring kayaks, they are what keeps your kayak afloat even when filled with water. Please refer to my previous post for recommendations on which kayak to use.

2. PFD’s

The most basic of paddling safety equipment on any type of water is: The Life Vest.  AKA Personal Flotation Device. It’s a vest that literally can save your life. Crazy thing is, you have to wear it properly for it to work. Drowning makes up 80% of kayak related deaths. I’ve heard all of the excuses, “it’s too restricting”, “Rides up while I’m paddling”, “Interferes with my kayak seat”, “Too hot” and “it’s just not comfortable”. All of those can be remedied by finding the correct PFD!

The key to finding a great fitting vest is to look for a U.S. Coast Guard approved Paddling Vest. For example, let's look at the Stohlquist Ebb. These vests are specifically designed with paddlers in mind and give your arms and shoulders full range of motion. Many of these vests also have mesh or low bulk padding in the lower back area as to not interfere with your kayak seat. This low profile back paired with a whopping 8 points (or more) of adjustment pretty much guarantee that you will find a perfect fitting vest for any body type. They also feature a cross chest cinch harness which keeps these vest from riding up. Ventilation is not a problem as these vests have mesh shoulders and back.

stoh. ebbstoh-ebb-red-back

Ladies!  Manufacturers such as Old Town and Stohlquist make PFD’s specifically for our body type as well. Meaning many of these vests leave room in the chest area for "the girls". Gone are the days when wearing a life vest made you look bulky and fit uncomfortably.

pfd comparison


Always be aware of your local law requirements while on the water. Click here for Michigan Life Jacket Laws

3. Attire

The single most important thing I recommend, besides wearing your PFD, is dressing for the water temperature. This is especially important in cold waters. At the very least you can be like Rose from Titanic and be (somewhat) warm and float until help arrives. Don't be a Jack. Dress in layers; base layer, insulation layer, shell or outer layer. Better yet, get yourself a dry suit. If that's not an option, avoid cotton clothing because it retains water and accelerates cooling when wet. It may also be helpful if you pack a change of clothes and a small towel in a dry bag.

4. Sound Producing Device

The most common sound producing device is a whistle. If you're on the water, you should have a pealess whistle, which is able to produce high sound decibels even when water or dirt is trapped in the whistle. You could get really fancy and get yourself a life jacket whistle that is not only pealess but easily clips to your life vest.


An air horn would also be considered a sound producing device, if that's more your style.

5. Navigation lights

Navigational lights are required by all water vessels, but unpowered vessels only need them between sunset and sunrise (a good idea if you don't want to be run over by a bigger boat). The Michigan DNR and USCG explains "An unpowered vessel may exhibit red/green sidelights if practical. If it is not practical, have on hand at least one lantern or flashlight shining a white light."

6. Float Plan and Communication

The USCG recommends that you put together a float plan before your paddling adventure, and to leave the plan with a reliable person who can alert a rescue agency if you do not return at a specified time. You can download/print a copy of the USCG Float Plan here. At the very least you should tell a friend or relative when you are leaving, where you are going, and when you will be returning. It's also a good idea to bring a cell phone (in a dry bag or box), and/or GPS, and/or a VHF radio that will allow you to communicate with the Coast Guard if you are in distress.

7. Rescue

My last recommendation for paddling safe in open water is having self rescue skills. In the event that you find yourself outside of your boat, and in the middle of a large body of water, it would be very beneficial if you have self rescue skills. Especially if you are in a sit-in kayak (closed cockpit) as it will fill with water. Two items that will greatly assist you in a self rescue situation are a paddle float and a bilge pump. The Bilge sponge is an inexpensive alternative to the bilge pump.
Click here for self rescue videos using a paddle float.
Or check out the ladder self rescue.
The Ladder technique is also useful if you are paddling a sit-on-top kayak (open cockpit)

Click here to go to American Canoe Association Website, where you can find a Kayak instructor near you who would be more than happy to teach you self rescues and team rescues.

Paddle FloatHVbilgepump

Other Ways to Paddle Safe and Smart

  • Seek training from an ACA certified instructor
  • Paddle leashes are a good way to keep track of your paddle in the event that you go overboard. The paddle leash should attach your paddle to your kayak, never attach the leash to yourself. It's best that you limit the use of paddle leashes to open water only. They are not recommended for use on rivers.
  • Bringing a spare paddle in case your primary paddle gets away from you.
  • If you are paddling a sit-in kayak, consider getting a spray skirt to keep the water out and you in. If you do acquire a spray skirt practice "wet exits" or even rolling your kayak to right yourself without needing to get out of you kayak. Do this BEFORE heading out on the water.
  • Bring plenty of water to drink and maybe even some snacks.
  • Get your hands on some of these Boat Identification Stickers.


In what ways do you paddle safe and smart? Let us know in the comments if you have anything to add. We look forward to hearing your ideas