Kayaking Navigational Aids: Exploration Made Easy

by • April 4, 2018 • Opinion, Outlaw Blog, Safety TipsComments (0)512

Darin O’Brien shares with us some great kayaking navigation aids that will help make your next kayak fishing adventure a safe and enjoyable one.


Sometimes as I paddle into very remote locations knowing very few people have been there I imagine what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark exploring the Missouri River. Two years of trekking across the northwestern United States from 1804-1806. The purity of the untouched wilderness had to have been breath taking to say the least. But all that doesn’t mean diddly squat if you can’t find your way back after all your fun. Back in those days the sextant was the primary means of keeping track of where you were on the water. Fast forward almost 220 years and the current tools at our disposal to do the same thing are darn near full proof as long as you have power and signal.

Proper navigation can make or break your days on the water and even save your life. On small bodies of water where you can see the shore it is not as critical. Open water where you can lose sight of land it becomes paramount that you can navigate safely. Even a small body of water with a sudden change in visibility due to fog or bad weather can get you into trouble. Or trying to find your way through a mangrove jungle that all looks the same.


Open water and mangrove mazes are where we spend the bulk of our time fishing. So for us good electronics are a must. But the most basic item you should always carry with you is a compass. I recommend having one on your kayak that is fixed mounted and a backup pocket type. Even if you have great electronics there is always a chance of losing power or having some kind of equipment failure. Being out of sight of land with no way to tell your heading is not a pretty picture to contemplate. Now if you do have electronics onboard then be sure to read the requirements for the safe distance to have the compass away from them to avoid interference. Or you may have to power off the electronics to use your compass.

A fixed mount compass should be mounted on the kayaks center line to keep the heading as accurate as possible. A hand held model can be laid on the deck but they are primarily designed to use in picking a target to aim at and occasionally verify your heading. They will get the job done but not as accurately as a fixed mount will. Handheld prices average from $20.00 to $50.00. Fixed mounts that will work in a kayak range from $40.00 to $100.00 on average. The two most popular brands are Ritchie and Brunton.

Don’t cut corners here they are inexpensive insurance that can save your life.

With the advent of smart phones and all the available apps for them this has become a common navigational aid for many kayakers. I have tried them but because of their limitations I would only use them as a last resort. The key to every phone app is signal strength. Most are not true GPS units as they are based off of radio signal towers instead of satellites. So as you get further out of range the accuracy decreases until you lose signal all together. The compass apps are based off of the same data so they suffer from the same problems. Having a cheaper provider or one with less coverage area only compounds the limitations. Battery usage can be very high for the navigation apps. If you are only going out for a short trip it may work for you. Our trips average 6-8 hours or longer. So unless you have a backup power supply most phones wont last more than a few hours using these types of apps.

The range of applications is very comprehensive for both Apple and Android products. Prices very from free to 50+ dollars. The two leaders in this area are Navionics https://www.navionics.com/usa/  and Garmin’s Active Captain https://www.garmin.com/en-US/  Both allow you to preplan routes and upload them to compatible electronics via WiFi connections. They also provide all the same data that your electronics have IE tides, map overlays, E.T.C.. Being able to pre-plan your trips  and then transfer them over to your electronics can be a big time saver.

If you are fishing the best option in my humble opinion is a combo unit fishfinder/GPS. Or just a straight GPS for those that are not fishing will give you an enormous advantage in safety and piece of mind. Some key features to keep in mind is being water proof and if a hand held unit then make sure it is tethered or floats or both.

All of the leading brands for fishfinders/GPS make models well suited for kayak use. My personal favorites are #1 Raymarine and #2 Humminbird.  I have used both on my kayaks and Raymarine formally known as Raytheon on all my offshore boats prior to kayak fishing. Currently I use a Raymarine Dragonfly 7 PRO which is compatible with the Navionics App. I will cover the Dragonfly in a detailed review to follow at a later date. This is another item that is a “get the best you can afford”. I don’t know very many kayak anglers that do not want to try different waters and or different species. You are in a self propelled boat and these units will help maximize your time and can dramatically shorten your learning curve on new water.

Two other items that are not directly related to navigation but help provide for safe navigation are lighting and sound. By Coast Guard regulations you are supposed to have a sound device on board and if on the water at night then at least one light. Either a whistle or an air horn will work. I prefer the whistle as it is small and I provide the sound. I also keep it attached to my (NRS Chinook?) PFD which I always have on. For my light I use the YakAttack VISICarbon PRO  which combines the light and flag together for versatile use at day or night. Now when I am in skinny water which is 90 percent of the time I don’t use the VISICarbon PRO after it gets light out as the flag is easily seen by and will spook the fish.

The last Item I use constantly is Google Maps/Earth. I don’t use it per say on the water but I will go over an area I plan to visit extensively not only looking for likely fishing spots but to get an overall fix on the lay of the land and water. I basically burn an overhead map in my mind with landmarks noted so that my electronics are essentially a backup system. I know what to expect and look for before I ever hit the water. Kayak fishing is meant to get you to the most remote locations with the best scenery and fishing. Just make sure you can find your way there and back in one piece.


About the Author

Darin O’Brien spent 21 years as a Palm Beach County Sheriff Deputy and is a lifetime angler with his last 14 years of fishing time primarily spent out of kayaks. His kayak adventures have carried him through five states and Dry Tortuga. He fishes a few tournaments every year and spent two years fishing the Southern Kingfish Association trail under Capt. Ron Mitchell with team Bandit. He has been writing creatively for the past four years through Kayak Angler, The Fisherman’s Journal, and Yak Outlaws.


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