Kayak Navigation on Lake and River
Visible Range
Time, Distance, Pace
Using Current
Line of Position
Using Ranges
Factoring in the Wind

This articles covers basic fundamentals of kayak navigation on lake and river.  I use practical examples of using map, compass, time, distance, and pace.  All the examples I use are from paddling experiences on Lake Mead, Lake Mojave, and in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River.  Great places to paddle just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Safety Considerations to Kayak Navigation:
What’s to navigate while kayaking on a lake or river?  I mean; on the lake you can see where you want to go, can’t you?  Just paddle there.  And if you’re on the river and you want to go the dam, just go upstream until you’re at the dam, right?  Well, maybe. Here are some important considerations.

1)  Any time you are in the wilderness on foot, on a bike, or in a kayak; you are on your own, dependent on your muscle power and your wits.  If there is an emergency, you need to communicate your whereabouts to somebody on your cell or satellite phone or you may need to go and get help.  You need to know your position.

2)  On a desert run / hike, in the wilderness, in bad weather, if you’re tired, you can probably find some shelter, sit down, rest, figure out your position and then head for the car……on the lake, there is no finding shelter, there is no sitting down, but there is drowning.  You need to know your position.

3) If you have just completed a hike / run of 20 miles, that’s good, you are an endurance athlete and that is the kind of thing you do.  And if you missed your turn by 0.5 mi, no big deal, what’s an extra mile?  But, if you just completed a 20 mile paddle and you over shoot the cove you want by 0.5 mi then that is about 500 extra paddle strokes on top of 10,000 you have already done.  Now, I don’t know how good your paddling technique is or how big your arms are but probably it would have been easier to get the kayaking navigation right.  You need to know
your position.

Defining Kayaking Navigation: (actually all navigation)
Navigation is keeping track of your position as you move away from a know point.  Map and compass are two tools but your watch (time), your speed made good (pace), and the distance traveled are your best clues (tools) to kayak navigation.

Visible Range:
Visible range is definitely a consideration when navigating while kayaking.  Sitting in a kayak your eyes are only about 2 ft above the water.  Your horizon, with good atmospheric conditions, is only 1.5 mi away.  As opposed to standing up on the beach where the horizon is about 7.5 miles away.  You will lose sight, in good weather, of your partner in his kayak at 2 to 3 miles distance.

THE DISTANCE YOU CAN SEE THE OBJECT = 1.5 mi (your horizon) + √ land height of an object in feet

Example: If you see from the map the peak of an island is at an elevation of 50’ above the water; you will first be able to see that island (and just the peak at that) at 8.5 mi = 1.5 + √50, more or less.

Although you won’t have cause to use this formula on Lake Mead; it will give you to understand an important fundamental of kayak navigation; that your visibility is greatly reduced and unlike on land you can’t just run up that hill and look around.
On the River:

1) Finding your position while kayaking by
determining the compass direction of the linear feature you are on:

You are paddling upstream (north), you think you are somewhere near WP 4.  The river and thus you just made a lazy turn to the right.  You point the compass downstream and turn the bezel ring until the needle is “boxed”.  You place your compass on the map with the base plate next to the river on the leg you think you are on (pink line).

Yes, the index lines are parallel to the grid lines. If not, then you are not on that leg of the river.
river navigation
2) Using distance, time, and pace + current while kayaking:

Pace: Just as runners, mountain bikers, and hikers will have a feel for their pace on any given terrain, so you while kayaking will  develop a feel for what kind of pace your putting down on the water.  You’ll ”know”  when you are paddling 3.5 mph or when you’re doing 5 mph.  And as always you are paying attention to the distance covered and the time elapsed.

Current: Add the current speed directly to your pace when going with it.  Subtract it from your pace when going against it.

Estimating Current Speed: Use your watch, your boat length (assume 16’), and a stationary object (assume a rock).  Start timing when the bow goes by the rock, stop timing when the stern goes by the rock, and let’s say you get 10 sec.
river navigation black canyon
Thus, current speed is 16’ per 10 sec. Or 1.6’ per sec.

                                            CURRENT (MPH ) = 2/3 x (feet/sec)

So…. 2/3 x 1.6 = 3.2/3 = 1 mph.   Close enough anyway. This is called  the drift estimate. You can also do it on the shore. Step off 30’ ( the average step is 2.5’). Throw a stick in the water and time its drift. Use the same formula.

You are at WP 9, it is 0700 (that’s 7 am), you paddled hard last night getting here but you had a few beers sitting in the hot spring at midnight, so you are not going to kill yourself this morning, just cruise at 3.5 mph. You figure the current speed to be 3.5 mph. So, your estimated speed down stream will be 7.0 mph. So, that means every 30 min you will paddle 3.5 mph. You place a mark on your map every 3.5 miles (orange arrow), but the current slows down on this river because you’re really on Lake Mojave so you make only a couple of marks since you will have to re-figure current speed every so often.

Now as you paddle and you glance at your watch; you will be able keep track of your position.
15 min = half-way to orange arrow, 30 min = orange arrow, etc.

On the Lake:
1)  Finding your position using 2 or 3 points:
This is called triangulation and we have discussed this before.  A sailor calls triangulation “getting a bearing fix”.

NOTE: As opposed to standing on land when shooting a bearing, from your kayak the needle will tend to swing.  Just sort of take an average.
using line of position on lake mead
You are paddling towards Beacon Rock (circled) on a bearing of 56°; that puts you somewhere on the orange line.You’d like to know how much further to Beacon Rock. You shoot a bearing to the cliff like edge of Fortification Hill, you get 180°, draw that line back and you have your position; about 2.5 mi to go.

Time: When you left the beach near Pyramid Island you knew you had 9.6 mi.  You have been paddling for 2 hr thus you have been moving along real nicely at about 4.8 mph (that is what a sailor calls “speed made good”), so time remaining (at your current speed) is a right about 30 min.  (Of course right now your current speed is 0 mph because you stopped to shoot the bearing.)  Thus, you have used two points to find position; Beacon Rock and the edge of Fortification Hill.

Note: You did not really need to know that but since you stopped paddling to eat some gummy bears you’d figure you’d fool around with the compass a little.

2)  Finding your position using ranges:
A range, sometimes called a transit in reference to land navigation, is the alignment of two objects or the alignment of the ends of a linear feature. In other words, you are not using your compass but just “eyeballing” the alignment of landmarks. One range will give you a Line of Position (LOP).  Two ranges will give you a fix on your position.
In actual practice on the lake you will find ranges using the topography of the shore and islands or peninsulas that you recognize.  Using ranges is an intuitive process that you probably use often without thinking about it.  In this case, the paddler is keeping the hilltop and the cliff edge in line to stay on course.

You can use this same fundamental on land.  I use it all the time on very long treks across the desert when I have a map showing a very large area.  The alignment of a close hilltop (maybe 3 miles away) with a peak (maybe 15 miles away) is a very common example.  Another example; if you are on a mountain overlooking a city (maybe somewhere up near Gass Peak overlooking Las Vegas) and you have a view straight down Jones Blvd., then you have a perfect LOP.  Intersect that LOP with the ridge you’re on and you have a fix.
using line of position
3) Using distance, time, and pace + wind:
Wind is a factor of kayak navigation. At about 20 mph you definitely need to consider the wind in your estimates of time, distance, and pace. 

How much the wind will effect your speed make good depends largely upon your skill at kayaking in winds and waves. But here is a general guideline:

Headwinds will effect your speed more than tail winds:

                            In a 20 mph tailwind you should gain about 1 mph.

                            In a 20 mph headwind you will lose about 2 mph.

Email us about Navigation on Water

Phone: 928-767-3061
sighting a range on land
sighting a range on water
In this example you used the north edge of Saddle Island and the cliff like edge of Fortification Hill (blue line) for one LOP and the linear northeast shore of Promontory Point (red line) for the other LOP.
Map & Compass - Navigation on Water
Some Principles of Kayak Navigation by Kayak Lake Mead