How Do You Navigate When Kayaking? (How Not to Get Lost)

If you’re kayaking, there’s a good chance you’ll want to explore the area around you. This is a great way to see new things and have an adventure, but it can also be dangerous if you don’t know how to navigate correctly.

Like driving a car or even walking, you could get lost in the water. It’s much easier to get lost while kayaking because everything looks the same in the open sea.

So how do you navigate when kayaking? 

The short answer is to use a GPS to help you know where you’re at and help keep you safe. We’ll discuss this method further below as well as give you a few tips & tricks to make the most out of your kayaking trip while still managing to get back to where you started.

Let’s get straight to the point and answer the question: how do you navigate when kayaking?  

Utilize the GPS

Technology is making our lives easier every day. For example, you could save your starting point in your navigator so you could go back to it once you’re done with your sea trip.

There are dedicated GPS devices that you could buy on Amazon. They have a reliable GPS and a compass. If you don’t have or can’t have one of these, you can use your phone’s GPS as well.

It’s simple, open your map app, mark your starting point, and start paddling. Once done, find that saved point and set your GPS to “walking” instead of driving. There are no roads in the sea, and your GPS will freak out if you forget to change that setting.

The downside of this method is that you could run out of charge, have no signal, or lose your phone in the water in the worst-case scenario. So you shouldn’t solely count on this method.

Use a Compass

Having a compass is a good replacement for your phone. It has been the most used method for ages in the sea.

Before you set off for your journey, check your compass to see the direction you’re going in. For example, let’s say you’re heading northeast. 

Naturally, when you want to get back, you should follow the southwest. 

However, you won’t be going in a straight line, and if you sway away too much, you won’t get back to the same spot, but more or less the same area.

Check the Water Tide

Notice the direction of the water. You should be able to easily tell the direction of water while paddling, it’s important to memorize that direction.

If the water tide is against you, then your way back should be with the tide direction, and vice versa. This is especially useful if you’re navigating in the marsh.

Like the compass, the turns you take in your journey will make it hard for you to get back to the exact starting point, but you’ll still get to the same area.

Remember the Landmarks

Landmarks are things that you can notice both before and during the trip. But the Landmarks that matter most are the ones in the sea.

It’s essential to memorize your starting point, and it’s more important to notice any landmarks on your way that you could follow back if you get lost.

Make sure to select landmarks that are distinctive and easy to remember. Most importantly, your landmarks should be fixed in place, like small islands, buildings, and lighthouses. Choosing a ship or a group of birds as a landmark is a good recipe for getting lost.

Watch for Floating Markers

In some kayaking locations, you could see floating markers. These markers could be crab pot markers, restricting markers, or fishing net markers. 

Regardless, floating markers that are connected together have a good chance of either beginning or ending on land.

Should the situation go dire, follow these markers till you get to land where you can walk and talk to people. It’s much easier to relocate your starting point on land than see.

Beware of Obstacles

Shallow waters are your worst enemy. So it’s very important to avoid them while kayaking, especially when you can see protruded rocks or tree roots.

Getting stuck in one of those or worse, bumping and losing some of your equipment could quickly ruin your day.

Stay Near People

Unless you have good experience in navigation, it’s best not to stray too far from nearby people (if there are any).

If you decide to go too far from where you started, constantly ask anyone you find where you are and how far you are from your starting point. Do that even if you still know your way back. You could be wrong.

Do This Before Starting Your Trip 

Now that we know how to navigate while kayaking. There are a few extra things you could do before starting your journey to prevent getting lost or help you if you do; those are:

#1 Bring Enough Food and Water

You never know what could go wrong. So always have a good supply of food and water. 

This will help you calm down if you get lost because you’d still be able to survive if you can’t find your way back quickly.

#2 Tell Someone When You Kayak

It’s best to let someone know when and where you are going kayaking.

Even if none of your friends can kayak, having someone on the lookout for you should you disappear could be beneficial if you get lost.

#3 Make Sure That People Can See and Hear You

Your kayak should be in bright colors. It’s cool to have a camouflaged kayak that can blend with the environment, but you will be hard to see.

Always have a strong light source. It helps other ships see you at night, which could be life-saving.

Don’t forget to have a noisemaker as well. Whistles and horns are louder than voices and can be heard from further distances. You should also wear high-visibility clothing. They will make other people see you much easier at night.

Last but not least, consider having a green light on the front side of your kayak and a red one on the back. This is very helpful for others when they need to know which direction you are going. 

#4 Check the Weather Forecast

Being in the water puts you under the mercy of nature. Therefore, it’s essential to check the weather before you go kayaking.

It could be calm, sunny, and tempting. However, a rainstorm could happen within seconds. So don’t rely on how the sky looks.

#5 Choose a Suitable Location

Choosing a location based on your skills is very important. Unfortunately, there are many locations where the tide is too strong for a beginner to paddle.

If you’re unsure of your skills, it’s best to avoid these locations. You’re not only risking getting lost, but a strong wave might knock you over.

#6 Don’t Go Kayaking Alone 

Kayaking is easy to learn but hard to master. So it might be tempting to buy your first kayak, watch a few youtube tutorials, and get going.

Some tutorials and articles could cover the basics, but that doesn’t replace real-life classes. If you skip these classes, don’t go paddling on your own. Your chances of getting lost would increase substantially.


So, navigating a kayak might initially seem easy, but there’s a lot of preparation required before safely heading out.

Having your food, lights, noisemakers, and navigating equipment is a must before any trip. Even if you usually don’t need most of them, you never know when things could go wrong.

Knowing how to paddle and control your kayak doesn’t necessarily mean that you can go anywhere by yourself. It’s preferred to be around people whenever possible, but if you want to be on your own, make sure you have the required skill set.

Have fun and enjoy your trip, but most importantly, come back safe.

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