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Articles > GuideLines > Skills for Paddling: First Aid All articles by: Tom Watson
Bending Branches

Multiple Roles For Basic Paddling Gear in Emergencies

By Tom Watson

I am a firm believer in the multiple utility of gear – getting the most out of each piece of equipment, particularly as tools in emergency situations. Those secondary uses help determine what I take with me and what I leave behind. Regarding paddling, even the most elementary, essential pieces of equipment can be used in a variety of ways.

The Kayak / Canoe – This fundamental piece of gear, because of its size can readily function as a primary signaling tool. That's one reason many of us select a particular color of boat in the first place – so we can be seen if we become the focus of a search and rescue. Most of the time, however, we choose a boat's color based on our own preferences and tastes, hence the popularity of red boats. They look great, photography fantastically well, but can't be seen from too great of a distance because of where red occurs on the color spectrum (down around infra-red).

If being seen on the water, or on a remote beach, is a concern, consider the brighter, survival colors of yellow or orange, even a robin's egg blue would be better than red. One of my favorite boat colors is ivory white because it looks similar to a Native skin boat. I forsake standing out from white, frothy wave crests for that mental imagery. I cover my butt by wearing a bright yellow PFD. At least I can be seen, even if my boat isn't!

A kayak or canoe can serve as a temporary, albeit cramped shelter depending upon the cockpit size. A folding double provides lots of room. Ed Gillette, on his famous paddle from California to Hawaii slept in his double kayak, possibly by removing a bulkhead or two. In my K2 Feathercraft, I can fit my entire 6'8" frame down into the hull like a moth larva in its cocoon. In a previous article I explained how a kayak could be part of a basic beach lean-to.

The boat can also serve as a water collecting basin, especially if parts of other gear (a raincoat) are used to direct water into the hull for collection and containerizing.

A series of kayaks or canoes would also make a descent beach signal if arranged so as to form a contrasting image against the beach or shoreline.


The Paddle – All my paddles either have yellow blades or they have a broad strip of heavy-duty yellow or white reflective tape applied to the backside of the blade (See more reflective tips in this article). Even without the aid of the tape, a wet blade will reflect a small degree of light.

The blade can be used to dig in the sand, scrape away gravel and light debris on a beach for clearing away an area for a tent or other shelter. The poles themselves can be cross pieces in a lean-to. Tying bright pieces of clothing, stuff bags or fabric to one end of a 220 cm paddle makes for a good signaling flag.

While on the water, that spare paddle could be used as an outrigger in conjunction with either your paddle float or by using a spare dry bag as an inflation bladder. Two halves of a paddle could be used to make a hand-held V-sail when teamed up with your raincoat.

First aid applications could include making a crutch from a paddle and using the shaft or blade as a split.


Life Jacket/PFD - I always encourage new paddlers to get a bright-colored life jacket. Should you become separated from your bright boat (or in lieu of a eye-catching boat color), your bright life jacket in that slate-gray, overcast-colored water will help you stand out in rescuer's eyes. The fact that it's a bright color makes it a prime candidate as a signaling flag, too.

A life jacket is a good warming layer, especially for upper torso/core areas of your body. It can be a warm –and dry - cushion to sit or stand upon around camp. It could help cover a hole in a makeshift shelter, or serve as a backrest and/or pillow inside that shelter.

It can serve as a boat patch in the unlikely event that you actually puncture a good sized hole in your hull. Folding the PFD over so that it completely closes the opening gives you a temporary patch that can be wedged into position by a piece of wood or by cramming gear next to it to hold it tightly in place.


Spray Skirt – Again, if you can pick a bright color, consider it. Since skirts are usually either nylon or neoprene, they both can be used in the collection of water, as signaling flags, covers, patches, etc. – pretty much in the same way other fabric gear has been commissioned for emergency use.

Like anything fabric, strips of it could be used for fastening items or connecting pieces into rope for lashing or securing larger items.


Rain Pants/Jacket/Stuff Bags – I hope we've developed a train of thought here regarding colors for signals, cushioning, protecting, gathering water, etc. Sleeves and leggings can be cut off and filled with insulating materials such as cattail tops, grass, dry leaves and used for mittens, booties, and other warming clothing. Those same leggings can be used to carry fresh water if the cuff/wrists are tightly secured.

Pants can be used as a makeshift backpack by tying the cuffs up to the waist band thereby creating shoulder straps from each pant leg.

Brightly colored material, from any source can also be cut into strips to make artificial lures for fishing. A brightly-colored patch of nylon can thus become a "hula skirt" lure for attracting a big lunker with your emergency fishing rig.

A stuff bag could used as a paddle float or even an emergency PFD in extreme situations.


Other Basic Items - Utilizing gear for multiple applications is the underlying factor in all of these tips. Take some time to look over your equipment and envision what additional resources or utility you can get from the item:

  • lenses for concentrating the sun to start a fire (binoculars, camera),
  • buckles and clips for fashioning into fishing hooks and lures,
  • patches of cloth or a flat surface to leave a message if you have to abandon camp.
  • Combine with duct tape for even more uses!
  • Deck lines for lashing, signaling.


Hopefully you will never have to resort to these emergency uses. Still, prudent paddler may want to practice or at least contemplate his/her own gear to see what options might reveal themselves. The utility of the gear is related to the diversity and openness of the mind set of the individual.

Most importantly, your best tool in an emergency is a positive mental attitude!




Tom Watson, an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer is also the author of "How to Think Like A Survivor" available on Amazon.com and most major bookstores.





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