Can You Roll a Recreational Kayak? (Solved!)


When experienced paddlers capsize in the water, they’re usually able to get themselves right back up by implementing a barrel roll maneuver. With recreational kayaks being the most prevalent type of kayak for casual paddlers, it’s a common question to ask whether it’s even possible to perform this maneuver with a recreational kayak.

Generally, you cannot roll a recreational kayak. Since they have a wider build, they do not tip very well. Spray skirts are also unable to cover the opening of the cockpit, which allows water to flood the interior of the kayak and complicate the rolling process.

There are more underlying reasons for why recreational kayaks do not work well with the roll maneuver aside from just spray skirts. We’ll explore these additional reasons below, along with how to properly exit a recreational kayak in the event of a capsize.

Why Recreational Kayaks Aren’t Designed to Be Rolled

Not all kayaks are created the same. Kayaks are designed to suit different kinds of water conditions—from calm, quiet waters to rough, aggressive whitewater.

The kayaks designed for more tranquil waters are generally more simple. This simplicity makes it easy for inexperienced paddlers to enjoy their outings on the water, but it also makes it difficult to perform complex maneuvers, like the roll for example.

As a quick reference, the term “roll” in kayaking refers to a maneuver that paddlers use to bring their kayak back upright during a capsize. It involves a 180-degree turn, in which the paddler uses the momentum of their body and paddle to turn the kayak from under the water back to its original upright position (source).

The roll is typically reserved for experienced paddlers with more advanced kayak designs. Nonetheless, this doesn’t stop casual paddlers from chasing their curiosity as to whether they could perform this maneuver during a capsize with their recreational kayak.

More often than not, they find that their recreational kayak is not up to the task, for more than a few reasons:

Discourages the Use of Recreational Kayaks on Rougher Waters

First off, it’s important to understand that recreational kayaks are not typically used in conditions that aren’t rough enough to cause a capsize (source). They’re tailored toward casual paddlers that want to enjoy an outdoor getaway, relax, and get in touch with the outdoors, hence the name “recreational” kayak.

This means that you should only be using these kayaks when you’re on calm waters—such as lakes and streams—that don’t have strong waves or currents. After all, a supposedly casual paddle on the water wouldn’t be that casual at all if the waters were too rough to handle. You have to go back to the very fact that recreational kayaks are made for the purpose of people being able to just relax and enjoy paddling.

Moreover, because recreational kayaks are truly made only for recreational purposes, it is discouraged for use on rough waters as they were not designed to handle exceptionally strong currents. You are going to find it difficult to maneuver recreational kayaks through rough waters since they are not built for maneuverability.

You can, however, use them in rough waters if you have the necessary skills and experience to survive in strong currents despite the hindered mobility. Nevertheless, it’s still discouraged for you to do so especially if you are merely a novice in this endeavor.

Since the use of recreational kayaks in rough waters is not recommended, there’s really no reason for you to be doing a roll maneuver. The chances of capsizing in calm waters are just too slim. Even when you do capsize on calm waters, you can just exit out of the kayak and flip the kayak back up manually after swimming up from under the water.

Cockpit Rim is Too Large for Spray Skirts

Another reason why you won’t be able to roll on recreational kayaks is that the cockpit rims of most recreational kayaks tend to be too large for spray skirts. Before we delve too far into the specifics, let’s first remind ourselves of exactly what spray skirts are.

A spray skirt is a kayaking accessory that you add to a kayak’s cockpit rim. It essentially serve as a “blanket” for your lower body in that it keeps your lower body confined to the cockpit and limits exposure to the outside environment. This accessory helps to preserve your body warmth, even in cold or rainy conditions.

You can learn more about the purpose of spray skirts by clicking over to Kayak Spray Skirts: What They are & How They’re Used.

When you are using a kayak with a spray skirt, you are able to do a roll precisely because of how the skirt confines your body in a tight space. It allows you to better use your momentum to force the kayak back to an upright position after you’ve capsized. More importantly, it also prevents the kayak’s interior from flooding and sinking further underwater.

Without a spray skirt, it can get really difficult to do a roll. In the case of recreational kayaks, their cockpits tend to be too large precisely because they’re designed to be wide enough for stability. Plus, most recreational kayaks are made to fit more than one person.

For these reasons, it can be difficult to find spray skirts that can fit the large cockpit of a recreational kayak.

Recreational Kayaks are Built for Primary Stability

We touched on it earlier, but recreational kayaks are built to be wider and larger than other types of kayaks because they are designed primarily for stability. They’re not made for speed or maneuverability.

Thus, the majority of recreational kayaks are extremely balanced and less likely to capsize relative to kayaks that are specifically designed for rough waters.

The chances of you capsizing on calm and steady waters are minimal at best due to how these kayaks were made to be quite stable. Therefore, there’s not really any reason for you to roll at all.

When you are kayaking through calm waters, only a huge mistake or too much movement on your part can actually cause you to overturn accidentally. With a sea kayak or whitewater kayak, on the other hand, accidentally flipping over is much more likely because these kayaks have rounded bottoms and are inherently more tippy.

What Types of Kayaks Can Be Rolled?

If you happen to find yourself kayaking in rough waters and you want to make sure that you can roll your kayak, recreational kayaks likely aren’t your best option. The types of kayaks best suited for this maneuver are outlined below (source):

  • Whitewater Kayaks – These can be rolled because whitewater kayaking involves having to paddle against considerably strong currents and rapids in rivers and streams. They are best for racing in rapids and allow professionals the ability to roll given how frequently these conditions cause kayakers to plunge into the water.
  • Sea Kayaks – These can be rolled because they’re built to allow you to maneuver against the strong waves of the sea. Unlike recreational kayaks, they’re not made for primary stability. Also, due to their light and narrow structure, they’re quite easier to roll.
  • SUP/Kayak Hybrids – These tend to be good all-around kayaks that can be used in almost any body of water. They’re largely considered to be in the middle of the pack when it comes to overall usability. If you can outfit one of these kayaks with a skirt, you will probably be able to roll. Though, it probably won’t go nearly as smooth compared to a whitewater kayak or sea kayak.

How to Handle a Kayak Capsize (Without Rolling)

If you’re on a kayak and it happens to capsize, you should execute the following steps to safely handle the capsize without the use of a roll:

  • Brace yourself and keep calm. It’s critical to keep a steady state of mind so that you can respond to the situation with clarity.
  • Lean forward while taking a deep breath as you are about to go underwater. Not only does this maximize your breathing time underwater, it also allows for an easier escape from the cockpit.
  • If You’re Not Wearing a Spray Skirt – Exit the cockpit immediately once you are underwater. Swim to the surface immediately.
  • If You’re Wearing a Spray Skirt – Grab the sides of the cockpit and then gradually slide your hands forward to find the skirt’s grab loop. Pull on the loop to loosen the grip of the skirt. Bring your knees together so that you can remove them from the thigh braces inside the kayak. Push off from the kayak to remove yourself from the cockpit as you float to the surface.
  • Grab your paddle if it’s nearby. Next, locate and grab a hold of your kayak as well. If you know how to push it back upright, do your best to push it up. If not, wait for rescue or to swim to shore.

Sources: 1 2 3

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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