How Best To Paddle In Fog?

Use a compass or GPS? Or just read the water and rely on hunches?

deck compass at minimum
you need to frequently check your heading while actively paddling which pretty much requires a deck compass. Then of course you need to know what heading you want which means map and knowing where you were and want to go and how to use all that. Personally I’d like a GPS also as a backup sanity check. But the biggest issue in many ways has little to do with getting where you need to go but rather not getting run over by someone else – good ears and a loud horn or whistle can help but still scares me.

Great fun

– Last Updated: Jul-24-12 9:14 PM EST –

Great fun with a compass. Why use a GPS? Chances are there is no wind in dense fog, so you only have to hold a compass course, assuming you are not heading out to sea, of course. One of my fondest quiet paddling memories was launching on a large lake early in the morning in some of the densest fog I have ever been in. I literally could not see the end of the canoe. I knew I had to thread between a couple of islands about 5 miles away. What a wonderful experience, using compass only placed on the bottom of the canoe at my feet, engulfed in a silent cocoon of white. More than an hour later the sun began to poke through, and it was like suddenly emerging from the white wall into bright sunshine. Sure enough, there were the islands, right where I expected them to be on my left and right. What a waste of a grand experience that would would have been using a GPS.

Keep track of how you got out
And go back in on reverse headings, with adjustments as possible for cur if crossing river mouths, that kind of thing. If you can only see 30 feet it might take a while to confirm if you got it right.

Managing fog without a built-in deck compass could be a pain though. Trying to look at a GPS is never going to be as easy.

Shore sneak
In fog I want to be in water no more than a foot deep. The fishing boats are out early and many of them zoom around at high speed relying on their GPS only.

Many of them do not even have radar so on foggy mornings they hit markers and other boats!

Even the ones with radar have very little chance of seeing a kayak on their screen.

Bass boats on lakes zoom off into the fog all the time. I’ve yet to see a bass boat with a radar.

So if the fog rolls in and I’m in deep water, I use my gps to get to the closest shallow water possible. Then I make a plan to get off the water or shore sneak.

So I guess my answer is that when I’m in the fog I navigate by using my paddle to test the depth.

Deck compass at least
and as jcbikeski says, a GPS backup would be nice. I think he & I agree because we are basically Pacific Ocean paddlers where sea fog (advection fog) can sometimes be accompanied by significant wind. Not so much so with radiation fog found over land & lakes. Factor in swell, current and tide and a GPS can be handy. Wayne Horodowich has a discussion of this subject on his website under course of action scenarios.

Don’t you always read the water?
I have very little experience paddling in fog, but something I learned in Maine was to look for all kinds of cues using all my senses. At close range you might still be able to see things such as signs of current (kelp, buoy lines) even when normal distance vision is restricted. When even that limited visibility vanishes, you still have your sense of hearing and sense of touch (slight wind on what side of face?). Also, how your paddle and boat feel give clues.

Of course, we planned our routes and used compasses and charts, but we used every tool we could, and that included the ones we animals always have with us. Including common sense.

I’ll soon be getting a lot more experience paddling in fog; the compass and chart will be my constant companions. I do hope that when I’m paddling with others, they will include people proficient in GPS as well as those I can cross-check my compass skills with.

Mini fog horn
You can buy a small foghorn simulator that you blow into. It is amazingly loud. Worth looking into for the dangerous situations you noted. While the few signals that I know are for big ships warning others of their presence or limited maneuverability, maybe there are some emergency signals that mean “YOU’RE HEADING FOR A CRASH!”

Celia showed me an older version that was big; the one I bought is a smaller unit. Bought it at a West Marine store.

Short distance navigation
Even in clear weather kayakers should “wallow in the shallows”, making quick jumps from one protected area to another, and minimizing crossing distances and time in deep water. In fog, it becomes all the more important to keep those jaunts to a minimal distance (or hug shore) because your nav errors are compounded over a longer distance. I keep crossings to less than a 1/4 mile if visibility is less than that - and always use a fog horn.

(By the way, foggy days are as likely to be windy around here as are the clear days. What makes fog is not lack of wind, but rather a moist airmass over cold water. Even if the airmass is moving fast, it’s still going to be foggy.)

a chart and compass with gps backup, know how to plot a course using the chart and compass, carry and blow a fog horn and when heading out in the fog go for reasonable distance crossing and make sure that your destination is a fairly large target (Island or point of land)avoid small target destinations like bouys etc.


– Last Updated: Jul-25-12 8:53 PM EST –

After reading all these posts I guess I'm lucky to have large lake bodies of water where I don't have to worry about being run over or "lost at sea" in the fog, even in those where motorboats are allowed, because they keep to well defined channels that I can avoid.

Best to learn navigaiton skills in clear
weather first. When learning to use map and compass it is best to do so in clear weather until you are confident that your navigation skills are honed sufficiently and you know your limits in that regard. Also, GPS is great, I use it all the time, but I never get myself in a situation where I need the gps. It is a wonderful convenience but not something to stake your life on. GPS units fail for various reasons - it has happened to me more than once. My compass has never failed me. Deck compass and handheld in your vest is a good way to go.

only rarely an issue
yknpdlr, while we do have the risk at times on long crossings where you can be ten miles from land and worry about container ships such problems are still rare. Most of the time I’m along the coast and the fog is rarely bad enough that I can’t see the land while safely outside the surf. And most bad fog days are forecasted so I can just skip those rare days. But still it pays to know what to do.

welcoming fog
jcbikeski, I understand the different situation that you have on the coast. I actually welcome heavy fog mornings, because where I am it implies a bright sunny day ahead. I also welcome the experience of paddling in thick fog, following my compass to a destinations that may be miles distant. Usually the fog is not that thick, nor does it last very long after sunup. But when I can immerse myself in it, it is an entirely different world to enjoy.

Thank you very much, for
I will certainly try to use all the suggestions when I have the opportunity to paddle in fog. Clyde

Navigation skill
The key is learning really solid navigation skills, and using them all the time. Then when you get in fog you’ll be more comfortable flexing your nav muscles a little.

But if you look at navigation as a “fog skill” you’ll never be adequately prepared. Navigation skills, in my opinion are in the “use it or lose it” category.


Use it or lose it -
This really is true. I feel my skill slipping away as we speak! When you are practiced it gives you a huge sense of security.


– Last Updated: Jul-27-12 7:28 AM EST –

A compass without a chart will only get you back to shore.

You can download area charts for free on the internet. Nate is correct. A lesson seldom practiced is soon forgotten.

You do realize that you can line your kayak / compass up heading to an island, get fogged in and never hit the island because of drift.

GPS is fantastic. I don't have one but friends I sometimes paddle with do and I'm impressed. Most of my kayaking is line-of sight.

second nates opinion
chart and compass is all i use but since it’s foggy often enough up here it’s important to remember that short crossings = smaller risks. if you take small little steps and know where you are along the way then even if you take a mis-step, how lost are you going to be? not very.

float plan filed with someone?

use handrails and backstops, know how long you should be on a course before you can identify your next landmark. a 5 minute crossing should take…i dunno…5 minutes. so if you’ve been paddling for 20 minutes, probably something went wrong, huh?

what’s your safety bearing?

use foghorns or whistle blasts

stay clear of channels

securite call in any water deep enough for a (lobster) boat) announcing your location, destination and approx time to cross channel/area. Once you’ve cleared that channel you should make a securite call saying you’ve cleared the area so that the fella’s working out there in the fog no longer have to worry about your speed bump butt.

it can be disorienting…if you’re just getting used to it, i might toss a gps in the jacket as a lifeline to verify my results.