Washington state's waterways are a paddler's dream. Lakes, rivers, bays, estuaries and the Pacific Ocean provide recreational opportunities for paddlers of all skill levels and interests.
Before you head out, be sure to know what equipment you're required to carry by law or how certain water conditions may affect your ability to control the vessel.
Washington's diverse waterways require different skills, preparation and safety equipment for paddlers. While many paddlecraft are easy to use without training, we recommend you take courses to improve your paddling technique, learn the laws that apply and become a safer paddler — all of which will enhance your experience.
Paddlesports include canoes, kayaks, stand up paddle boards (SUP), rowboats and rafts.
It is important to remember that most injuries and fatalities result from ignoring the following key risk factors:
- Failure to WEAR a life jacket (PFD)
- Operator inexperience and inattention
- Use of alcohol or drugs
- Hazardous weather and water conditions
BEFORE YOU GO
Know that kayaks, canoes and stand up paddleboards are subject to boating laws and regulations. You are urged to boat responsibly to prevent accidents, minimize impacts, and avoid conflicts with other boaters. Following are guidelines to help you prepare before you head out on your paddling adventure:
Know the laws and keep yourself and others safe. At a minimum, take a course to increase your knowledge of paddlesport safety, emergency procedures and navigational rules. You can find classes through local clubs and outfitters, city and county parks and recreation departments and online.
Always wear a life jacket
State law requires all vessels, including canoes, kayaks and stand up paddleboards, to have at least one properly fitted Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each person on board. And all children, age 12 and younger, are required to wear life jackets at all times. Modern, comfortable life jackets are tailored specifically for paddlesports. No matter your age and skill level, you're encouraged to wear a life jacket every time you go out on the water.
Carry essential gear
Carry the essentials for safety, emergency communications and comfort. State law requires boaters to carry a sound-producing device, such as a whistle – even on a stand up paddleboard. Professional paddlers recommend carrying a cell phone (in a waterproof bag) and, on coastal waters, a VHF marine radio. In addition to items required by law, you should wear sun protection and bring a headlamp with extra batteries, dry bag and hydrating fluids. Where practical and appropriate, carry a bilge pump and an extra paddle. Other essentials depend on the type of waterway and length of trip and should be researched in advance.
Avoid alcohol and drugs
Situational awareness is key for safety on the water. That means always staying alert. Operating any vessel while under the influence of alcohol or drugs, including marijuana, is not only unsafe — it's illegal. Washington state's Boating Under the Influence (BUI) law applies to all boats including kayaks, canoes, stand up paddleboards, rowboats and inflatable fishing rafts.
Check and understand the weather
Check the weather frequently before and during your trip, keeping an eye on current conditions and forecasts. Check warnings, weather conditions, wind and wave forecasts, tides and current conditions or river flows. It's also important to understand how each of these elements affects your ability to operate your vessel. Seek information from locals in the know, heed any warnings and avoid navigating in unsafe areas. The National Weather Service (NOAA Weather Radio) broadcasts on marine band and standalone weather radios.
Protect against cold-water shock
Falling into water under 60 degrees is dangerous, and many of Washington's waters remain below 60 degrees all year — including lakes and rivers — even during hot weather. The biggest risk is not hypothermia but cold-water shock, which occurs in the first stage of immersion. Paddlecraft have a higher risk of capsizing. Avoid cotton, and wear synthetic materials when a wet or dry suit is not available. Be prepared and always wear a life jacket.
Be visible to other boaters
Paddlecraft sit low on the water, making them difficult for other boaters to see. Paddle to be seen: Wear bright neon and contrasting colors, put highly reflective tape on paddles, use a flag pole and carry a bright light.
File a float plan
Before you head out, study your intended route and let someone know your plans. Include names of everyone going, the planned route, what time you're going and returning and what to do if you don't return when expected. Make this a routine every time you go out on the water.
Understand and follow the U.S. Coast Guard's "Navigation Rules of the Road."
ON THE WATER
- Paddle with a group. Go out with at least three people, and stay close enough for visual or verbal contact.
- Expect the unexpected - you may capsize or fall out of the boat. Keep your feet off the bottom and pointed downstream to avoid getting snagged or stuck
- Know how to rescue yourself and others in the event of a capsize. Consider carrying a throw bag, rescue kit, and a towing system.
- Stay near the shore when there's a lot of boat traffic. Approaching waves at a slight angle will help to avoid capsizing the boat
- Scan ahead and look for hazards like overhanging branches/trees, rocks, low bridges or rapids
- When in doubt, get out and scout! Don't take a chance of paddling rapids or currents you are not used to. Make sure to check for rocks that are dangerously close to the surface.
No matter what – we recommend everyone take a safety course before paddling. You can find classes through local clubs and outfitters, city and county parks and recreation departments and online.
The following two online courses are approved by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators, a nonprofit organization that works to develop public policy for recreational boating safety. The paddlesports safety courses cover the laws and basics for your adventures on the water, a must for anyone looking to start paddling or refresh their knowledge.
To get more information about paddlesports, the American Canoe Association (ACA) has material and videos on their website. For example, you can learn how to use a stand up paddle board (SUP) correctly by watching the ACA's SUP video.
Washington Kayak Club www.washingtonkayakclub.org
Spokane Canoe and Kayak Club www.sckc.ws
Lower Columbia Canoe Club www.l-ccc.org
Vashon Island Paddlers www.groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Vashonislandpaddlers/info
Wenatchee Row and Paddle Club www.wenatcheepaddle.org
University Kayak Club www.students.washington.edu/ukc/wordpress
Sound Rowers Open Water Rowing and Paddling Club www.soundrowers.org/wp
Seattle Outrigger Canoe Club www.seattleoutrigger.com
Lake Washington Rowing Club www.lakewashingtonrowing.com
Washington Recreational River Runners www.wrrr.org
Paddle Trails Canoe Club www.paddletrails.org
Boeing Whitewater and Touring Club www.bewet.org
Seattle Sea Kayak Club www.seattlekayak.org
Olympic Peninsula Paddlers www.olympicpeninsulapaddlers.com
South Sound Area Kayakers www.ssak.org
North Sound Sea Kayaking Association www.nsska.com
Olympic Kayak Club www.olympickayakclub.com
Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts www.wakekayak.org
Seattle Canoe and Kayak Club www.seattlecanoekayak.club
Northwest Whitewater Association www.northwestwhitewater.org
Cities and counties may have laws above and beyond state laws. Local police and sheriff departments will list any closures or ordinances in their jurisdictions. The ones listed below have had restrictions in the past. Make sure to check other local government sites to ensure that you have the most up-to-date information about the body of water you will be boating on.
Other sites to check: mrsc.org/Home/Research-Tools/Washington-City-Codes.aspx