What equipment should I carry in case of emergency on a coastal kayaking trip? I normally do short trips (1 week or less) around the islands of northwest Scotland. I tend to travel solo (sometimes no friends are available; sometimes I just prefer to be on my own). I don't go more than ten miles (18km) from land, or after sunset.

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    The best thing to take with you in case of an emergency is not to go solo, but to have a kayak buddy with you and in plain site of one another. On the ocean anything could happen. It probably will not, but it makes good ethics. By the way, I up voted both question and answer.
    – Ken Graham
    Feb 10, 2017 at 13:51
  • @Ken: agreed, but not always practical. And sometimes I enjoy company, but other times want to experience the place alone. I've tried to indicate in the answer where being solo makes any difference. Feb 10, 2017 at 14:06
  • I'm being a bit pedantic here but doesn't "touring" normally refer to inland flat-water, while what you're talking about is (multi-day) Sea-kayaking.
    – Niall
    Feb 10, 2017 at 18:55
  • Is that right? I just assumed that "touring" meant any trip where you take your tent and everything with you (like ski touring). If I'm wrong, I'm willing to sit corrected! Feb 13, 2017 at 9:12
  • @Niall -- No, touring and sea are usually synonymous, when followed by kayaking. Both imply kayaking with enough gear for camping. Some prefer "touring" because you're not necessarily at sea.
    – Martin F
    May 17, 2021 at 17:42

2 Answers 2


Here's what I normally take with me on these trips at the moment. I can divide them into what's needed before, during and after an incident.

Avoiding trouble

  • clothing and food (including drink): as with any outdoor activity, it's important to avoid fatigue and hypothermia. Poor decision-making is the start of most problems, and reduces your ability to correct them. One of the most useful items is a thin thermal balaclava, which I use to regulate heat loss from my head. It takes very little space in a pocket, and really reduces the effect of cold winds.
  • map/chart and tide tables (or tide times for the planned journey): make sure you know where you're going, and what places to avoid. Be aware of tidal streams that could increase the effective distance you'll paddle. I keep the most useful map on deck in a clear case, so I can read it as I go.
  • GPS receiver: although not essential, it's a handy backup to the map, and I get a psychological boost from having a distance countdown to my next destination. I'm using a small handheld that I also use for hillwalking, with maps from OpenStreetMap; these include most of the Aids to Navigation in my area, and I contribute back any corrections I discover. I always carry spare batteries - usually 1-2 days' worth more than I expect to need.
  • VHF radio: The local coastguard station transmits regular safety announcements, with weather forecast every 3 hours, military operations notices a couple of times a day, and other safety information as required. It's really useful to be able to alter plans in advance of a change in the weather. Also, for longer crossings, I contact the coastguard at start and end of the crossing - it's useful to phone them from land before the trip to give vessel details, so you only need to give your callsign on the radio.

Getting out of trouble

  • buoyancy aid: Pretty obvious; everyone has one. A simple one is fine, though paying extra will get you features such as pockets (my pockets hold the VHF, beacon and balaclava; there's also a pouch holding a drinks bladder, but you can keep one on deck).
  • paddle float: Re-entry is much, much easier with extra buoyancy on the blade.
  • split paddle: I've never lost my paddle (I made an elastic leash to keep it with the boat), but you can't do much without one, so I always carry a spare on the rear deck.
  • pump: Another obvious one; this is the fastest way to empty the cockpit of water once you're in it again.
  • first aid kit: Usually, this is a small kit for cuts and scrapes; perhaps also a support bandage for strains and sprains. If travelling in company, you can make use of treatments for more serious injuries. I think that what to include in a first aid kit is a good question in its own right.

Getting help

  • VHF radio: mentioned above in "avoiding trouble", having a DSC set with in-built GPS enables it to transmit your location in a mayday call, reducing the chances of miscommunicated information. Make sure you know how to use it properly - the Short-Range Communication course and exam will likely cost you less than the set itself; it allows you to operate legally, and it's fun! Carry a spare battery, too.

  • beacon: An emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) uses satellite communication to send an alert to the international rescue coordinators when you trigger it. It is important to register your beacon with your country's authorities, so your alert will be recognised as genuine. It's probably best to carry it on your person, rather than in the boat, in case you get separated somehow.

    If you're counting, this is the third GPS unit I have on board (and that's not counting the one in my camera).

  • flares: A small tub of flares sits behind my seat or in the day-hatch, to guide rescuers to an exact position. Currently, I have two handheld orange smoke and two red pinpoint. They only operate for a short time, so you'd want to save them until you can see (or at least hear) your rescue approaching - even better if you're in radio contact and can be told when to use them. These have a limited shelf life, and need to be replaced after a few years (and the unused ones disposed of responsibly).

  • strobe light and reflective markings: Although I don't intentionally paddle after dark, in an emergency situation these can help improve your visibility to others, supplementing the flares. My kayak top and buoyancy aid both include reflective patches; if yours don't, it may be worth sticking or stitching some one for yourself. I've also applied self-adhesive strips of retroflective tape to the paddle blades (including the spare!); the cheap stuff seems as good as the expensive SOLAS-certified versions.

    I choose Lithium cells for the batteries in the strobe - these have a very long shelf life, so are more likely to work even if you haven't thought about changing them for 5 or 10 years.

There are a few things I could have listed above but have chosen not to carry for various reasons:

  • tow line: I have one, but normally only take it if I have company. It might be useful to carry on solo trips too, but the likelihood of being rescued by other kayakers is very low, and I'm running out of space.

  • radar reflector: It would be good to be more visible to other traffic, but my area is quiet enough that collision is very unlikely. On a kayak, there's a trade-off between reflector height and windage. Further reading can be found in Radar, Reflectors and Sea Kayaks: A Visibility Study by Springuel, Travis and MacDonald.

  • helmet: Most time is spent in deep water; although I enjoy travelling along coastlines, I try to keep clear of the rocks. Could be useful in a forced landing, I guess.

  • mobile telephone: Less use than a VHF, as it only allows one-to-one communication, and only with someone whose contact details you know. Also, would need a subscription to network service, which seems expensive, and the coverage is reportedly very patchy. Possibly useful if you have one already and want to check in with someone on shore regularly - but you could cause unnecessary worry if unable to connect when you're expected to.

  • dry suit: Too uncomfortable (hot) for energetic paddling!

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    Nice answer with lots of good stuff. I have to disagree with you on the dry-suit. I would call it a must-have around Scotland at any time of year. "Too uncomfortable" suggests a bad fit - it's a common problem that folks think like they're buying normal clothes when trying them on and don't allow extra room for movement.
    – Niall
    Feb 10, 2017 at 19:01
  • I easily get too hot, especially in the summer (which is when I'm most likely to be on the water - escaping the midges!) Feb 13, 2017 at 17:33
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    that's a fair point, though personally I'd prefer to play it safe; go for the drysuit just in case and do a few rolls if it gets to hot.
    – Niall
    Feb 13, 2017 at 17:44
  • Just came across this (a couple years late) to your question about a radar reflector it’s very much unclear whether radar reflectors of any plausible kayak size are detected at kayak height in by enough radars in enough sea conditions to be meaningful. I’ll post the study if I can find it again.
    – mmcc
    Jul 20, 2019 at 0:50
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    Here’s the radar reflector study: seagrant.umaine.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/467/2019/05/… tl;dr they barely work but put crushed tin foil in your hat because why not.
    – mmcc
    Jul 20, 2019 at 1:10

Living near the Oro. Helmet, padded life jacket, knee & elbow pads, air splints for bone breaks, snake bite kit, spare paddle, repair kit for fixing rips in boat. cell phone,rope, & still 3 to 4 people die a year doing this. On the Oro. I prefer a bamboo raft for river travel myself. Long tail. C.D.O. Philippines. Finest white water river in the world. I use a outrigger for sea travel. Much better. You can buy food at most huts along the river. If overnight a hammock with roof & netting. Never sleep on the ground.

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    You really need to add some structure to your answers. Feb 13, 2017 at 9:29
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    This appears to be an answer to a different question. Sea touring is very different to river touring. Of the things you mention, only the snake-bite kit (is that anti-venom, or something more) is likely to be applicable to sea tours (though not here in Scotland, where venomous snakes are scarce and shy). Feb 13, 2017 at 10:44

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