In a standard kayaking class, you're taught solo self-rescues using a paddle float and assisted rescues using another kayak. Then there are eskimo rolls. But I've also heard about other self-rescue techniques after a wet exit without a paddle float (ladder, cowboy, scramble). What options are there for kayak self-rescues without a paddle float or a friend, and in what conditions would each be used?

  • 1
    Just a comment that this is a great question because the chances of losing your kayak float somewhere in the process (on the trip, in the cold-fingered moment) are not zero
    – mmcc
    Aug 16, 2018 at 1:19

4 Answers 4


Being without a sold "roll", partner, or paddle float can make it quite challenging for a novice to re-enter their kayak after a capsize. However there are techniques which will make it easier to get back in your boat safely.

Note: All of these should first be practiced in mildly shallow water, in flat water. Don't practice in rough water until you can achieve these in flat water. However no self rescue can be called confident until you can reliably perform it in conditions rougher than you like to paddle in. You are most likely to capsize in rough conditions, not flat water, so work up to the challenging stuff. With a partner or group.

Second note: No amount of reading or self study is substitute for a good teacher, and practical experience. Don't think that because you read this article that you now are competent in self rescue. You can only get that from practice. Join a paddle club, and get face to face assistance.

Now that's out of the way...

From easiest to most challenging...

Note: All except the wet entrance and roll should be attempted with a partially empty boat. Do this by tipping the boat from the bow with your body weight and using a quick flip.

Ladder Crawl

Beginning from the back of the boat:

  1. Stow your paddle in the deck rigging, to get it out of your way, and prevent losing it.
  2. Orient so that bow is perpendicular to the prevailing direction of the waves.
  3. Holding the stern, use your body weight to bring the stern under the surface.
  4. Wait for a swell to raise the boat bow further, then make a quick kick with your feet, and launch your torso on top of the stern decking.
  5. Keep your body low, and your legs wide in the water.
  6. Slowly work forward to the cockpit, staying low.
  7. Drop your butt into the cockpit
  8. Kick your legs over the cockpit combing and into the boat.
  9. Pump out remaining water, and reapply the spray skirt.


  1. Same as above, store your paddle in the deck rigging, try to make it perpendicular to the boat.
  2. Orient the boat so that the bow and stern are in line with the direction of prevailing waves.
  3. Approach the stern of the boat perpendicularly and grab onto the safety lines, not bungees along the sides of the boat.
  4. Wait for a wave to raise the bow, then launch your torso onto the stern deck.
  5. Kick one leg over the stern and orient with your head towards the bow.
  6. Follow steps 4-8 above in "The Ladder"

Side-entry without float

  1. Insert paddle into rigging, behind cockpit, and twist to lock into place.
    • Orient with paddle blade face, "Feathered" against the water. (Increases resistance after weighting, lowering roll chances) 2.Place leg on top of paddle, grab cock pit combing, and kick opposite leg up and into the cock pit.
    • You will end up face down, looking toward the stern of the boat.
  2. Bring other leg into cock pit (quickly), and twist body to orient towards the bow (slowly).
  3. Remove paddle from rigging.
  4. Pump out remaining water and re-apply spray skirt.

Re-entry and Roll

Note: This is a move usually only achievable by someone with a semi-consistent roll. Also, do not worry about the water in the cockpit unless it is completely full. Water can actually help, because the boat will sit lower in the water.

  1. Leave the boat turned upside down. (Do not flip right side up!)
  2. Orient the boat so that the bow and stern are perpendicular to the direction of travel of the waves.
    • Waves should be washing over the side of the boat. (Usually a bad thing)
  3. Align yourself along the side of the boat, and grab the cockpit combing with your inside hand.
  4. Slide your legs into the cockpit partially.
  5. Take a breath and slide your legs all the way into the cock pit while submerging your body under the water.
  6. Take your paddle, align it parallel to the boat so that your lead hand (strong) is forward.
  7. In a fast but consistent motion make a 180 degree arc.
    • Use the weak hand as a fulcrum.
    • Let the strong hand break the surface of the water.
    • At 90 degrees drive lead hand underwater by arcing your back and plunging your body deeper under water.
    • Complete the motion, and finish with your back near the stern of the boat.
  8. Your boat (with any practice and luck) will be on top of the water right side up.
  9. Empty the boat of water, and re-apply the spray skirt.

Next time paddle with a buddy, and a paddle float.

Please see these excellent videos

  • Please clarify your note on partially emptying the boat. Maybe you mean either lift the bow up while kicking the legs, or push the stern down with body weight.
    – Martin F
    Aug 19, 2018 at 21:22
  • I see no difference in your Ladder Crawl and Rodeo methods.
    – Martin F
    Sep 2, 2018 at 20:15
  • Your "Side-entry without float" description is very unclear!
    – Martin F
    Aug 24, 2022 at 18:44
  • users.on.net/~pcarter/rescues.html advocates the reentry and roll, but cautions that high-volume-cockpits are unsafe -- If your kayak isn't stable enough to paddle while full of water, then the rescues set you up for repeated failure in conditions dire enough to need a rescue.
    – Dave X
    Aug 25, 2022 at 21:30

You can usually lay the paddle across the kayak as if you had a paddle float and use it for stability to climb in. It's not as stable as a paddle float, but it's better than nothing. If there is another kayaker with you, they can pull up along side you and hold the floatless end of your paddle on their cockpit.

You can also climb in over the side without anything for stability if you grab the far side of the cockpit and are careful.

  1. Pull yourself up, perpendicular to the kayak, while you kick yourself out of the water.
  2. End up lying across the kayak, perpendicular to it.
  3. Roll over on your back, lower your rear into the seat, and spin around 90 degrees.
  4. Cram in your legs and you're done.
  • Two comments: One, a Greenland paddle, being slightly buoyant, helps with this. Two, the critical moment in my experience is getting the butt into the seat. You can paddle for a bit like that to get stable and properly reoriented to waves then pick an opportune moment to get your legs inside.
    – mmcc
    Aug 16, 2018 at 1:28

If you are confident and not out of breath, reattach the skirt before the roll after upside-down re-entry (re-entry and roll mentioned above). It takes a lot of effort and maybe a nose plug. But if you can do it, it saves a lot of pumping effort.


One more piece of gear worth considering, if you plan to do solo trips or group trips in conditions that might separate the group, are inflatable sponsons—-long narrow inflatable tubes stowed compactly alongside the cockpit rim, secured in advance to the hull or rigging. You can inflate these in an emergency from inside or alongside your boat, making the boat much more stable for any of the reentry methods you mention. I wouldn’t use this instead of a paddle float (as cheap and compact a piece of gear as that is, not much downside to carrying one) but the sponsons are a nice backup in that they are secured to the boat and can’t be left in camp, lost in the surf, or lost to wind while attaching to the paddle.

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