What to Do When Kayaking in a Thunderstorm

Every kayaker knows that it’s never a good idea to go paddling when there’s a thunderstorm. But sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and the weather can change unexpectedly.

Getting caught in a thunderstorm while kayaking is scary because you can get in serious trouble. As a kayaker, preparing for all kinds of potential scenarios is very important. You might have to face them sooner or later.

Here, I’m going to talk about what to do when kayaking in a thunderstorm. Hopefully, you never have to do it. But if it happens, you’ll have a good idea of what to do so you can get back to safety. 

Is It Dangerous to Kayak in a Thunderstorm?

Yes, kayaking in a thunderstorm is dangerous. 

When out in the water on your kayak, you have no protection and your kayak may be the only object ‘sticking out ‘in the area. As we know, this can put you at risk of getting struck by lightning. 

While you probably know that it’s never a good thing to be struck by lightning, it’s worth pointing out that a lightning strike could badly damage your cardiovascular system and nerve cells (just in case you weren’t already aware of the dangers).

With a thunderstorm also comes strong winds. Your kayak trip won’t be very fun if you find yourself paddling against high winds. Getting to shore will be much harder because of the resistance. 

There’s also the possibility of your kayak capsizing because of the winds and currents. Being in the water in a thunderstorm is the last thing you want. Lightning usually strikes the water and the currents can hurt you.   

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What to Do If Caught in a Thunderstorm While Kayaking

If you do get caught in a thunderstorm when out on your kayak, here is what you should do to stay safe. 

Stay Calm

Now, staying calm isn’t easy to do when you’re out in the open water and suddenly there’s a lightning storm coming. 

But panicking won’t help because you’ll have a hard time focusing. And if your head isn’t clear, you are more likely to make serious mistakes. 

So do your best to remain calm and remember everything you’re supposed to do then take action.   

Try to Get to Shore As Soon As Possible

The moment you hear thunder and start seeing other signs of a storm, begin paddling to safety as hard as you can. This should be your main goal. Paddle to the nearest shore, even though it’s not where you had planned to end up. 

In the open sea, your kayak is the tallest object and this increases the chances of lightning strikes. Lightning is the most dangerous thing about kayaking in a thunderstorm. 

Don’t wait to see what happens next or which way the storm is moving. Get out of the water at the first sign of trouble. 

Remember that the winds will get stronger and the waves higher making it harder for you to paddle to safety. So you don’t have time to wait. 

Find Shelter 

Once you’re out of the water, don’t stand at the shore. Instead, find shelter immediately. 

When lightning strikes the water or nearby land, the electric currents spread horizontally. So even being next to the water is risky. 

Seek shelter in a nearby building as soon as you get to shore. If you can’t find one then get into a vehicle. Roll up the windows and avoid touching the metal parts. 

Note that tents and beach shelters don’t offer proper protection from lightning. You’re better off hiding in a deep cave.  

Stay Away from Isolated Trees and Other Tall Objects

Lightning has a tendency of striking the tallest object, like a tree or telephone pole. 

Humans are excellent conductors of electricity so lightning can easily jump from the tree to you. Another thing, if the tree you’re hiding under is hit it could fall and injure you badly. 

According to John Jensenius, an NOAA lightning specialist, being out in the open is the worst place to be in a lightning storm and standing under a tree is the second worst. So, wherever you do, avoid tall isolated objects.  

Lower Your Body

First, avoid high points like peaks and hills. Get to a low area, like a valley (but beware of flash floods). 

If you’re kayak camping and there aren’t any buildings nearby or you can’t find shelter, the next best thing would be to lower yourself and make yourself as small as possible. 

Sit or crouch with your feet close together, preferably on something that can’t conduct electricity–like a pile of clothes. Keep your hands around your knees or over your ears and your head tucked in. Make sure you’re wearing shoes too for insulation. 

Don’t lie flat on the ground! I’ve mentioned above that electric currents travel horizontally. You want to have as little contact with the ground as possible. 

If you’re still in your kayak out in the water, drop your anchor, lower your body and minimize contact with your kayak. 

Spread Out from Other Kayakers and Water Users

If you’re kayaking as a group, huddling together during a thunderstorm is a bad idea. Should lightning strike, the number of casualties will be high if you’re all close to each other. 

Lightning is more easily transmitted by the ground between two or more people. It also often jumps from one object to another. So spread out, keeping a distance of at least five meters between kayakers–whether you’re on the water or the ground.  

This way, if one of you is struck by lightning, no one else will be hurt. But still, be close enough to offer immediate help to the victim. 

Don’t Go Anywhere Near Waterfalls

Even on a beautiful day, waterfalls require caution and a high skill level. In a thunderstorm, they are even more dangerous. 

Rain can result in powerful currents that will sweep anything away in seconds. And if you’re kayaking further down, the currents may occur before it starts raining in your location. If this sounds scary, it’s because it is. 

So the wisest thing to do would be to get out of the water the moment you see clouds start to gather. Also, watch out for rising water levels. 

Avoid Good Conductors of Electricity

We have established that lightning is your biggest problem when kayaking during a storm. 

You should, therefore, avoid metals and other good conductors of electricity as they will put you in danger. These include camping stoves, tent poles, and even kayak paddles. Aluminum and carbon fiber are good conductors of electricity and most paddles are made using these materials. 

Be Alert and Monitor the Storm

When you first start to see and hear the signs of a thunderstorm, monitor the situation keenly so you know what to do. 

According to the National Weather Service, you can calculate the distance between you and the lightning. Count the seconds between the time you see the lightning bolt and the time you hear the thunder. Divide that number of seconds by 5 and you’ll get the distance in miles. 

For instance, if you count 20 seconds, the lightning is 4 miles away. 

You should note that if you can hear the thunder, you’re well within lightning-strike distance. 

If you don’t hear thunder for about 30 minutes, then it may be safe for you to resume your activity. 

Seek Help

Most people who get struck by lightning survive. So if one person in the group gets struck, offer them first aid and call for help immediately. 

You should always have your mobile phone with you for many reasons. One of them is that you can use it to call for help in times like these. Contrary to popular belief, mobile phones don’t attract lightning

Dealing High Winds and Waves When Kayaking in a Storm

Strong winds may accompany a thunderstorm and that only means more trouble. If the wind is too strong it may cause you to lose control. 

The best thing to do is to get off the water when the wind starts to pick up or when you see storm clouds. Don’t wait to find out whether or not you can handle the strong wind. 

With waves, avoid paddling parallel to the waves as they could easily flip your kayak. Instead, point your nose directly at the wave, if it’s coming from the front, and paddle right through it. 

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How to Kayak Safely in a Storm

Any expert will tell you that you shouldn’t be near the water in a thunderstorm. But sometimes you may not be able to avoid it. 

So here is my safety advice for kayaking in a storm. 

Check the Weather Forecast 

This is a must-do for all kinds of kayaking trips, even when the weather looks beautiful and inviting.

Never go out on your kayak without checking the water and weather forecast. Check the speed and direction of the wind, tide, currents, temperatures, etc. All these factors will help you plan your trip properly and bring everything you need. 

Take time to plan your trip and have multiple exit points throughout your route. That way if the weather gets rough and you’re far from your destination you won’t panic. 

Never Go Alone

Being out there alone in a storm poses a significant risk and it’s extremely dangerous. I highly recommend going with friends. 

You are less likely to panic and lose focus when you have friends with you. Additionally, if you get injured you won’t be stuck because there will be people to help you out. 

Learn First Aid and Bring Safety Gear

Everyone in the group should learn first aid and each kayak should have a well-equipped first aid kit. 

Make sure everyone knows what to do in case someone gets struck by lightning so there’ll be less panicking and more helping if it happens. 

Wear Your PFD 

Again, this should be standard practice whether there’s a storm or not. 

A personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket keeps you afloat should you fall into the water. There’s always the risk of ending up in the water, especially with high winds and waves. You’ll need a PFD to keep your head above the water so you don’t drown. 

Learn All the Safety Procedures

Everyone in the group should learn all the necessary safety procedures. 

They should know the plan and the route as well as what to do in different scenarios. Practice techniques like the Eskimo roll and make sure everyone is comfortable in their kayak and in the water. 

Go over the safety procedures as many times as you need to until you all know them by heart.  

Frequently Asked Questions

Are You Safe in a Kayak During a Thunderstorm?

No, being out on your kayak during a thunderstorm is not safe. You’ll most likely be the tallest object in the area, especially in the open water. This increases your chances of getting struck by lightning.

If the wind and waves get too strong you’ll also have a hard time paddling back to safety.

Is It Safe to Be on a River During a Thunderstorm?

No, being outside is never safe when there are lightning storms. Some people have been brave enough to kayak on a river during a thunderstorm. You may argue that on a river, unlike, on open water, you’re not the tallest object around.

But I still wouldn’t recommend it because there are many factors you can’t predict in a storm. It’s better to err on the side of caution. Besides, you’ll be the tallest object in the water and your paddle is a good conductor of electricity.

Is It Safe to Kayak After a Storm?

This depends on your kayaking skill level and the place you’ll be kayaking. If paddling on a river after a storm, you have to be careful because there may be fallen trees and all kinds of debris in the water that could trap you.

It’s better to wait a few days and when you go, exercise caution because you don’t know what to expect.

Is It Safe to Kayak While Raining?

Kayaking in the rain is generally safe, as long as there are no lightning storms.

However, you should take extra measures to be safe because the risks are more. Dress appropriately and layer up to stay warm. Check the weather forecast and plan your kayaking trip accordingly.

Be careful with rivers as the water levels may be higher than usual and the rapids faster than you’re used to.

Can You Be Electrocuted While Kayaking When There’s Lightning?

Yes, you can get electrocuted while kayaking in a lightning storm because you’ll be outside, unprotected.

What Happens If Lightning Hits the River That I’m Kayaking On? 

If the lightning strike is super close to you, it can injure you or worse. But if it’s not close enough you may be safe. It’s all a matter of distance and luck.

Is It Safe to Go Kayaking After Torrential Rains?

You should wait a couple of days to go kayaking after torrential rains, especially on rivers. Heavy rains lead to flash flooding and the water levels may be unsafe.

Conclusion 

Kayaking in a thunderstorm is a bad idea and you should avoid it at all costs. 

But if a lightning storm comes when you’ve already begun your adventure, there are some things you can do to stay safe. 

First, beware of lightning. The likelihood of getting struck by lightning is low. But your kayak will be the tallest object on the water making lightning strikes a serious risk. 

Get off the water at the first sign of a thunderstorm and find shelter, but don’t stand under tall trees or tall isolated objects. If you can’t find shelter, sit on a pile of clothes and make yourself as small as possible.

When paddling as a group, spread out to minimize the number of casualties in the event of a lightning strike. Remember to bring your first aid kits and mobile phones. Wear your PFDs too!

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