Recreational kayakers should be safe in wind speeds up to 10 knots (12 mph). Winds above 17 knots (19 mph) are generally too strong for kayaking and should only be tackled by experienced paddlers. If you’re sea kayaking or kayak fishing, you should exercise caution in wind speeds greater than 8 knots (9-10 mph).
Weather conditions can change quickly when you’re kayaking. One minute, you’re being gently buffeted by a light breeze, and the next, you’re battling to stay upright while you get blown out to sea.
Strong winds can be a kayaker’s worst enemy. That doesn’t mean you should never go out on windy days. If you know what wind conditions you feel safe and comfortable paddling in, then you can make an informed decision and keep kayaking fun.
Read on to find out what wind speeds should be safe and when you should hang up your paddle and stay indoors.
Why Can Wind Be a Problem for Kayakers?
A bit of wind isn’t always bad. Having the wind at your back makes paddling upstream more enjoyable and racing downstream fun.
Too much wind, on the other hand, can be scary and dangerous. If you’ve ever tried paddling into a gale, you know how exhausting it is.
Strong winds also create large waves on open bodies of water. This can make it harder to paddle and means you may be more likely to capsize.
Also read: Do inflatable kayaks tip over easily?
Wind speed is not your only problem. It’s also important to consider wind direction; offshore winds can make it tough to get back to land. A strong headwind may make it impossible to get back to your start point if you’re paddling upriver, whereas if the wind is behind you, it will lend you a helping hand.
Winds can quickly cool you down, increasing the risk of hypothermia if you’re not dressed for the conditions. As winds also lead to more spray, you can quickly get cold and wet if you’re not wearing waterproof clothing.
What Is a Safe Wind Speed for Kayaking?
There isn’t a definitive answer to this question as it depends on your experience level, familiarity with the local area, and your personal risk tolerance. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to err on the side of caution rather than risk your safety.
Before getting into safe wind speeds, let’s cover the three ways wind speed is measured:
- Beaufort Wind Scale – Sir Francis Beaufort, an admiral in the British Navy, developed this measure of wind speed in 1805. The scale describes wind speeds based on the effect of the wind on the water. This makes it easy to understand the impact of forecast wind speeds when kayaking.
- Knots – Used to measure wind speeds at sea, one knot is equal to a speed of one nautical mile per hour. (A nautical mile is 1.15 miles.)
- Miles per hour (mph) – Wind speed on land is usually measured in miles per hour and will most likely be given in mph, if you look up the weather forecast for a city or town
You can see how the three methods of measuring wind speed compare in our table below.
Comparison of Wind Speed Scales
|Beaufort Scale||Wind Speed (mph)||Wind Speed (knots)||Description||Wave Height (m)||Sea Conditions|
|0||<1||<1||Calm||–||Completely calm, like a mirror.|
|1||1–3||1–3||Light air||0.1||Ripples without crests.|
|2||4–7||4–6||Light breeze||0.2||Small, pronounced wavelets. Crests do not break.|
|3||8–12||7–10||Gentle breeze||0.6||Large wavelets with breaking crests. Scattered whitecaps.|
|4||13–18||11–16||Moderate breeze||1.0||Small waves, frequent whitecaps.|
|5||19–24||17–21||Fresh breeze||2.0||Moderate waves, many whitecaps, some spray.|
|6||25–31||22–27||Strong breeze||3.0||Large waves with foam crests and spray.|
|7||32–38||28–33||Near gale||4.0||Sea heaps up. Foam blown in streaks.|
|8||39–46||33–40||Gale||5.5||Moderately high, long waves. Crests begin to break into spindrift.|
|9||47–54||41–7||Strong gale||7.0||High waves with dense streaks of foam. Spray affects visibility.|
|10||55–63||48–55||Storm||9.0||Very high waves with long overhanging crests. Sea looks white. Tumbling waves with heavy impact.|
|11||64–72||56–63||Violent storm||11.5||Exceptionally high waves. Long, white patches of foam. Spray impacts visibility.|
|12||72–83||64–71||Hurricane||≥ 14.0||Huge waves. Foam covers the sea. Air filled with driving spray.|
What Wind Speed is Safe for Recreational Kayaking?
Recreational kayakers on small, sheltered waterways such as creeks, ponds, and small rivers will be less affected by the wind than paddlers on large lakes or oceans. The distance the wind travels over water (the fetch) is less, so the waves generated will be smaller.
Related: Are inflatable kayaks safe?
On large bodies of water, recreational kayakers should be safe in wind speeds up to 10 knots (12 mph). The Beaufort scale classifies this as a “gentle breeze”. Don’t be misled by the wording–the breeze may feel more than gentle if you’re paddling into it to get back to shore.
Intermediate paddlers may feel comfortable in winds up to 16 knots (18 mph). Beginner kayakers on sheltered ponds or creeks may also be safe paddling in these conditions.
Winds above 17 knots (19 mph) should only be tackled by experienced kayakers looking for a good workout! You should have an exit strategy in case you can’t return to your launch site and go out in a group for safety.
Bear in mind that recreational kayaks are designed with stability rather than performance in mind. This makes them harder to paddle in the wind than touring or sea kayaks.
You may find it easier to kayak during high winds if you’re in a sit-inside kayak. These sit lower in the water than sit-on-top and inflatable kayaks, meaning they’re less affected by wind. You can also get more power behind your strokes, as you can use your full body to paddle, which makes paddling into the wind easier.
Related: Are inflatable kayaks any good?
What is a Safe Wind Speed for Sea Kayaking?
Sea kayaks are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks. They’re designed for rough conditions making them easier to paddle in high winds. However, strong winds at sea will generate larger waves than on lakes and rivers. Weather conditions can also change very quickly on the ocean.
The consequences of capsizing or getting into difficulty on the sea are much greater than on inland waters, so it’s best to exercise caution when sea kayaking.
Related: How to get in and out of a kayak.
Wind speeds of up to 8 knots (9-10 mph) should be safe in most seas. If you’re going out in winds above 14 mph, you should stick to sheltered bays and be ready to bail at the first sign of worsening weather.
The US National Weather Service may issue a small craft advisory warning for wind speeds above 21 knots (24 mph). In these conditions, it’s best to stay at home.
The Great Lakes and other very large inland bodies of water respond to wind in a similar way to the sea. Treat them with respect!
Here are some more tips for sea kayaking in strong winds:
What Wind Speed is Safe for Kayak Fishing?
Safe wind speeds for kayak fishing depend on the type of water you’re fishing. Generally, similar guidelines apply to those of recreational kayaks. However, there are a few specific things to consider.
Fishing kayaks often sit higher in the water or have raised seats. This helps visibility but means you’re more likely to get blown around in strong winds.
If you’re an experienced kayaker, a quick dunking in the water may not phase you, especially if you’ve mastered the Eskimo roll. Check the video below! When you’re loaded up with fishing gear, it’s another story. All that gear also makes your kayak heavier and less maneuverable. If you capsize and your kayak ends up upside down, you may struggle to roll it over by yourself.
On open water, you should be safe kayak fishing in winds up to 8 knots (9 mph). In stronger winds, you may be able to fish on smaller bodies of water. If you’re an experienced kayak angler, you may be comfortable in winds up to 13 knots (15 mph), but only if you know the water well.
Related: 25 Tips for Kayak fishing.
How Do You Kayak in Windy Conditions?
You don’t always have to let the wind stop play. If the forecast is windy but you’re itching to get out, choose sheltered, inland waterways where there’s no risk of getting blown out to sea. Stick close to the shore and make sure you have a plan for getting out of the water fast.
Kayaking in the wind can be fun if you respect your limits and treat it as an opportunity to practice your skills rather than an expedition.
Here are some tips on paddling techniques in windy weather:
Also read: 16 Different types of kayaks.
What If the Wind Picks Up While I’m on the Water?
When you headed out onto the water, the wind was just a light breeze. Now, it’s picked up and you find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation. What do you do?
First, take a deep breath. Don’t panic!
Assess the wind speed and direction to figure out the best way of getting into shore. This may mean changing your original plans. It may be a hassle to retrieve your kayak from a different location, but at least you’ll be safely on land.
If the wind is hitting you side-on and your kayak is weathercocking (turning into the wind), rather than battling directly with the wind, paddle at an angle. Aim for a point on the shore that’s upwind of your target destination. As you paddle, the wind will push your kayak into shore, depositing you at (or near!) the place you wanted to end up.
How To Prepare for Paddling in Windy Conditions
If the forecast is unpredictable, then it’s best to be prepared. Here’s how you can stay safe when paddling in windy conditions.
Also read: How to get in an inflatable kayak.
Check the Weather Forecast
Even if it’s a bright, calm day, it’s always worth checking the forecast before you head out. Learn to read the signs of bad weather and understand what they mean for the places you kayak. The wind may change direction during the day, so bear this in mind when making plans.
Conditions can be quite different offshore, so if you’re venturing out onto the sea, check the marine forecast as well as the land forecast. Windfinder.com is a live weather and wind map with wind speed and direction predictions.
Know Your Local Waterways
Many kayakers get into trouble when they launch in a sheltered bay, then paddle into open water where they get hit by the wind. The better you know your local waterways, the easier it is to make a judgment call over whether or not to head out in windy conditions.
If you’re paddling in a location that’s new to you, try to get some local advice before heading out.
Carry Safety Equipment (and Know How To Use It)
It goes without saying that you should always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) when kayaking. If you’re in a sit-inside kayak (or you use scupper plugs with your sit-on-top), then you should also carry a bilge pump or other bailing device.
A whistle takes up no space and is one of the most effective ways of signaling for help if you get into difficulties. If you’re heading out in a group, then it’s worth carrying some tow lines (throw ropes) in case one of you capsizes or becomes exhausted.
You may not think of clothing as safety equipment, but staying warm and dry is a priority. A strong wind can lead to lots of spray, so waterproof clothing will offer more protection than windproof outer layers.
Don’t Paddle Alone
If you’re going out in bad weather, there’s safety in numbers. Take an experienced friend or two so you can look out for each other. If one of you gets into difficulties, there’s always someone to help.
If you do decide to head out on your own, make sure someone is aware of your kayaking plans and set a time to check in and confirm you’re safely back on dry land.
Paddle Upstream or Into the Wind First
It’s common sense that paddling downstream is easier than paddling upstream. Paddling against the current is hard enough when conditions are calm. If you try to paddle upstream and into a headwind, you may struggle to make any progress.
If you start off paddling upstream, then it’s easy to return to your start point if you get tired. The same goes for paddling into the wind, particularly if the wind speed is likely to pick up later in the day.
Stay Close to Shore
Wind and currents tend to be weaker the closer you are to shore. It can be tempting to paddle farther out, but conditions can change quickly and you may find yourself struggling to get back to land.
The closer you are to shore, the easier it is to bail if the weather begins to worsen. It’s also easier to signal for help if you get into trouble.
Have a Plan B
Most of the time, you’ll plan to start and finish your kayaking trip in the same place. When the wind hits, your plans might be derailed.
Check the forecast wind speed and direction before you set out and identify one or two safe alternative landing spots in case you get blown off course.
Kayaking should be a fun, safe activity. If the weather turns nasty, your casual outing may turn into an epic struggle. It’s always worth checking the wind forecast before you head out and if the weather is unpredictable, prepare for the worst.
Most of all, know your limitations and trust your gut instinct. If something doesn’t feel quite right, leave your kayaking adventures for another day.
Have you ever been caught out in the wind? Tell us your story in the comments!