Canoeing and kayaking

Canoeing includes a wide variety of activities undertaken in either a kayak or a canoe.

In these guidelines the term ‘canoeing’ as an adventure activity covers all activities conducted in a canoe and kayak on inland or enclosed waters It does not include canoeing sports or sea kayaking. Separate guidelines have been developed for sea kayaking.

Where canoe or kayak activities are held on small and shallow bodies of flat water which allow for easy access to craft by supervising staff, the recreational swimming guidelines can be applied for supervision and qualification. Canoeing and kayak guidelines must still be applied in all other areas.



Transport Safety Victoria - Maritime Safety provide the following definitions of waterways in Victoria to aid guidance of minimum safety equipment and preparation:

  • Inland waters - rivers (inside the seaward entrance), creeks, canals, lakes, reservoirs and any similar waters either naturally formed or man-made and which are either publicly or privately owned but does not include any navigable rivers, creeks or streams within declared port waters.
  • Enclosed waters - any declared port waters inside the seaward entrance. See the Victorian Recreational Boating Safety Handbook for all listed port waters.
  • Coastal waters - all waters other than inland waters or enclosed waters.

In addition to the definitions above, this document uses the following terms for specific types of waterways:

  • Flat water - non-flowing water not affected by tides or currents and relatively sheltered from wind
  • Open water - a wide body of water that has the potential to be greatly affected by wind
  • Swift water - flowing river water which may be categorised according to the international river classification system. This covers water commonly known as moving water or white water but also refers to flowing water which may not look either swift or white to an observer.
  • Coastal offshore - all waters greater than two nautical miles from the coast.
International river classification system

Grade 1: Moving water with few or no obstacles. Passages are wide open and easily seen from the river.

Grade 2: Rapids with small obstacles and regular features. Passages are open and obvious without scouting, but may require manoeuvring.

Grade 3: Rapids with regular features that require manoeuvring to negotiate. Passages can be narrow and features such as holes and irregular waves must be run to negotiate the rapid. Risk of injury.

Grade 4: Rapids with highly irregular features. Complicated passages that often include vertical drops and may require scouting to find safe passages. Linked manoeuvres are required in convoluted passages. Risk of injury and possible risk to your life.

Grade 5: Rapids with violent and irregular features. Extremely congested passages that almost always require scouting to determine safe routes. Most Grade 5 rapids include vertical drops and require running large-scale features in a complex series of manoeuvres. Definite risk of serious injury and possible risk to your life.

Grade 6: The difficulties of Grade 5 taken to the extreme. Rapids with extremely violent and unpredictable features where experts require considerable advance scouting and planning to determine possible passages. All Grade 6 rapids require the paddler/s to negotiate vertical drops and very large features. Always a risk to your life. Generally only possible at certain water levels.


Water environment

Water environments are often an unfamiliar setting for student learning experiences. Canoeing/kayaking activities may be affected by environmental conditions such as size and turbidity of the body of water, the strength of tides and currents, the presence and power of waves, and the temperature of the water.


Due to the unique nature of each location, a specific assessment of suitability should be made prior to the trip.

Your choice of location should be based upon the recent and first hand knowledge of at least one member of the planning and supervising staff. Where this is impractical, planning and supervising staff should be thoroughly familiar with the general characteristics and conditions found in similar locations, and have consulted with people who can supply recent and first-hand knowledge of the locations being considered.

When assessing the suitability of a location, consider:

  • The potential to support your educational objectives
  • The level of access to the resources, services and facilities that you need or would like to use. These might include campsites, water, walking trails, toilets, shelter from extreme weather, or interpretive information
  • The level of access to communications and external assistance, in the event of an emergency, or extreme weather conditions. The more effectively remote your location is, then the more self-contained and self-reliant your group must be
  • The potential exposure to environmental hazards and difficulties
  • The activity ability and fitness of students
  • Contact with relevant authorities should be made, in order to access up-to-date management information, and to determine any access and permit requirements.

These authorities may include:

Groups need to be aware that extreme weather conditions may develop prior to or during the proposed trip. Staff should be prepared to cancel, modify or relocate the activity at any time.


Your communication strategy should enable you to receive weather forecasts and warnings, communicate with the school, and engage support in the case of an incident or emergency.

  • Choose communication equipment based on current communication technology.
  • Develop a communication strategy for the group during the program and to enable communication with outside parties including the school and emergency services.
  • Be aware of the limitations of your communication strategy.

A system for communicating on the river must also be established prior to the activity and explained to students. The group must remain close enough so that the chosen communication strategy can be employed at all times. 


The transportation of groups to and from activity locations must be carefully considered.

Vehicles used to transport students must comply with VicRoads registration requirements.

  • Drivers must comply with all licensing requirements.
  • Equipment carried inside vehicles must be securely stowed.
  • Students must be supervised by a minimum of one adult, in addition to the bus driver, during travel.

Drivers of vehicles with up to and including 12 seats (including the driver) require a current drivers license.

Drivers of vehicles with 13 or more seats (including the driver) require a current license appropriate for the vehicle and must:

In circumstances where a teacher or staff member is to drive a vehicle transporting students, the program should allow for them to have adequate rest prior to driving consistent with the national driving hours regulations.


Student skills

Planning for canoeing activities should begin with an assessment of students’ current knowledge, skills and experience in canoeing, swimming and water environments.

The instructor should ascertain the previous experience of each student. Instructional staff must brief students on:

  • equipment, clothing and footwear that is suitable for the activity and location
  • safety measures appropriate to control risks associated with the activity and the environment
  • minimal environmental impact techniques relevant to the activity and location
  • historical and cultural considerations relevant to the activity and location
  • activity scope and boundaries
  • communication and communication signals
  • relevant terminology.

A basic introductory briefing should also include:

  • equipment use
  • the response of students in the event of a capsize or accidental submersion
  • principles of self recovery and assisted recoveries
  • communication signals
  • float and swimming methods
  • explanation of relevant paddling terminology.

Students should undertake navigation training suitable for the location and activity.

When paddling on moving water, students should be instructed on:

  • basic water behaviour and hydrology
  • how to enter, sit or kneel in craft securely and safely
  • specific boat based risks, such as impact and entanglement, associated with paddle T-grips if applicable, and ropes and straps, branches, and how to manage these
  • specific swimming based risks (such as entrapment) associated with underwater obstacles, strainers, sieves and hydraulics/stoppers and how to manage these
  • capsize procedure and what to do if caught in or beneath the craft
  • re-entering and assisting others to re-enter craft
  • appropriate swimming and self rescue techniques including defensive and aggressive swimming
  • how to receive a throw bag

To paddle on moving water, students should be able to:

  • control their craft effectively
  • identify river features including the area of main current flow, eddies and eddy lines and safe eddies
  • break in and out of the current
  • ferry glide across the current
  • swim into a safe eddy
  • empty a capsized craft
  • manoeuvre a capsized craft to shore
  • assist a swimmer back into the craft
  • identify and avoid river hazards including strainers, sieves and stoppers.

In some cases, parts of briefings and instruction may occur on or next to the water/swiftwater. Supervising staff must be able to provide close instruction, supervision and seek acknowledgement of understanding.

Canoes and kayaks can be heavy and awkward to carry. Students must be shown safe methods to get paddle craft on or off waterways and boat landings.

Students must be instructed on safe lifting techniques for carrying and lifting canoes if required to do so. For assistance in the determination of appropriate lifting techniques, load sizes and weights, please see WorkSafe’s Manual Handling Topic.

Preparation should also include supporting the mental health and well-being of students. This is as important as physical preparation. For more information, see: Excursion Support Student Preparation Section.


Equipment must be in safe condition and suitable for the activity.


Structural strength needs to be sufficient to withstand the intended use and to minimise the likelihood of entrapment.

Cockpits must be clear of attachments and smooth on the edges to enable the student to exit quickly.

Carrying points at the stern and bow need to be permanent and of sufficient strength to be used in rescues and boat retrievals. Painters are not recommended due to the danger of rope entanglement in the event of a capsize.

All craft must contain sufficient fixed permanent upthrust to prevent the canoe from sinking if capsized. Kayaks need buoyancy fitted to bulkheads fore and aft. Craft should be matched to the activity undertaken.

Repair methods and equipment will vary according to the construction materials of the craft. Temporary repairs may be undertaken as long as the structural integrity of the craft is maintained. Temporary repairs are to be replaced with more permanent repairs as soon as possible.


Helmets specifically designed for water activities must be worn when participating in a canoeing activity on moving water or where the activity involves entry or exit through the surf zone. On deep Grade One moving water and with students with well developed boat handling skills and limited capsize potential, it may be appropriate risk management to trade broad brimmed hats for sun protection in place of helmets. Otherwise, helmets may be provided after consideration of:

  • students’ canoeing experience and skills
  • the risk of participants sustaining a head injury due to the nature of the activities being undertaken during the session (eg. running on top of the canoes or using paddles in games).

Helmets specifically designed for water activities must comply with the following safety characteristics of lightweight protective helmets:

  • holes to allow for water drainage
  • adjustable chin strap
  • hard outer shell
  • firm fit, either by use of an adjustable harness securely attached to the helmet or a fixed helmet in a range of sizes
  • either foam padded or constructed with a suspension harness
  • capacity to float.


Paddles should be in good working order, be buoyant, appropriate to the activity and the correct length for the paddler. Spare paddles must be carried on all canoe trips.

Life jackets

The wearing of a securely fitted Australian certified life jacket is required under Victorian marine safety law on all paddle craft that are underway on all Victorian waters. Type 2 - Level 50 life jackets are considered the most appropriate for canoeing activities. See: Life jacket laws.

First aid kits

First aid kits appropriate to the location and level of training must be carried.

Rescue equipment

Rescue equipment that is suitable for the location or trip and category of water conditions must be in good condition and readily accessible. Staff must be proficient in its use. Other key safety equipment items that should be carried include a towing system, rescue knife, throwbag, whistles, wrap or pin kit and repair kit.

Spray decks

Spray decks must be fitted with release tapes or toggles and may be used in all categories of water conditions. Students must only use spray decks after direct tuition, practice and close supervision of their capacity to exit the craft.


Clothing is the individual’s primary protection against severe and variable weather conditions. Clothing lists need to be appropriate for the activity, the environment and the season.

Participants must dress in a manner that will not hinder flotation. For example, heavy boots or bulky clothing must not be worn, nor a waterproof jacket over the top of a personal flotation device. Participants must wear footwear suitable both for in the craft and for use in the event of a capsize or a walkout.

Glasses should be secured in some way and no loose jewellery worn. Wearing rings is not advised unless they are taped. A complete change of clothing should be available at the location and carried on overnight touring trips in waterproof containers.

To protect against sunburn use broad-spectrum, water-resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen on all exposed parts of the body, applied according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.


Staff and students must be easily identifiable.

Staff must determine the most suitable system/s of identification, based on the assessment of the environment, students’ skills, the type of activities to be undertaken and the age and number of students.


All touring parties must carry with them appropriate safety and rescue equipment including:

  • quick-release towing system
  • throw bag
  • rescue knife
  • repair kit.

Ensure all essential dry equipment (eg. food, clothing, sleeping gear, stoves, camping equipment, communication equipment) is evenly distributed amongst the craft and carefully stored in robust and waterproof containers or dry bags. Drums that have been used to store chemicals should not be used. All contents should be secured within the craft in a manner that ensures they will not impede the handling of the craft or become a hazard in the event of capsize.



Staff members are those adults who provide the supervisory, instructional and educational elements of the program. All staff members must be approved by the principal.

All staff members must comply with current Departmental police check requirements or the Working with Children Check.

A teacher registered with the Victorian Institute of Teaching and either employed by the Department or by the school council must be present and have overall responsibility for the activity.

Where not directly responsible for the instruction of the activity or assisting the instructor, the teacher present must understand the activity and the environment in which it will be conducted. This teacher must confer with the designated instructor about the supervisory role and establish areas of responsibility. If the teacher is not the designated instructor he/she is to act on the advice of the designated instructor on technical safety issues.

Any staff member with a known medical condition that might compromise the group’s risk management plan should make accompanying staff aware of this condition. Issues of confidentiality and privacy will be involved in any such disclosure.

Experience and qualifications

Staff involved in the planning and conduct of the activity should have sufficient knowledge and experience of the activity and the activity environment to operate in all foreseeable conditions.

The designated canoe instructor/s must have one of the following:

Note: The designated instructor must have taken a familiarisation trip or conferred with others who have recent experience on the river and know the area well.

Equivalent training and/or experience for canoeing includes staff having experience and knowledge of:

  • paddling techniques
  • rescue skills
  • canoe/kayak instruction
  • specific local weather patterns
  • obtaining marine weather forecasts
  • rescue techniques
  • group management.

The designated assistant to the instructor must:

  • have experience in the activity at the level being offered to students
  • be able to assume a supervisory role during the activity
  • have the ability to participate competently in emergency response procedures
  • have conferred with the instructor on the safety requirements of this role.

The designated assistant should have:

  • proper paddling techniques
  • rescue skills
  • group management skills

Supervision is a critical factor in managing risk in the outdoors.

A minimum of two staff members must be present for each activity, one with responsibility for activity instruction and the other able to assist the instructor.

The following table shows the minimum student-to-staff ratios that must be used for canoeing. 

(Students not directly involved in canoeing, must be supervised separately with a minimum staff student ratio of 1 to 10.)

Canoeing activityStaff numbersStudent numbers

Inland waters: flatwater




Up to 12

13 - 18

19 - 24

Inland waters: swiftwater*
(Grade 1 - 2)




Up to 12

13 - 18

19 - 24

Inland waters: swiftwater*
(Grade 3)




Up to 8

9 - 12

13 - 16

Inland open waters / enclosed waters / coastal waters*




Up to 8

9 - 12

13 -16

* Minimum two designated instructors that meet the experience/qualifications criteria. Additional staff must have experience in the activity at this level.

Students must not be taken on rapids known to be, or likely to be at or above Grade 4 (see the International River Classification System in these guidelines under Canoeing definitions).

Note: Any staff member who is neither a designated instructor nor assistant instructor is counted as a participant in the supervision ratios.

It may be necessary to increase the number of staff allocated based on:

  • age, maturity and gender of students
  • ability and experience of students
  • individual needs
  • dynamics of the student group
  • experience, qualifications and skills of staff
  • location conditions.

Reasons for increasing staff allocations must be documented.

The teacher in charge is responsible for the supervision strategy, which must be endorsed by the principal as part of the excursion approval process. Staff members will supervise students according to that strategy.

Canoe or kayak activities conducted on open waters pose a significantly increased risk to students due to the potential difficulty in reaching the safety of the shoreline. Canoe and kayak activities of this nature merit an emergency response plan which gives consideration to the:

  • educational merits of the activity
  • size, age and previous activity experience of the group
  • skills and experience of the supervising staff
  • prevailing and forecast weather conditions
  • availability of rescue vessels
  • characteristics of the location.
Informed consent

The school must receive informed consent from parents or guardians that their child may participate in adventure activities.

Informed consent should be based on an understanding of:

  • the educational purpose of the activity
  • the nature and details of the activity and the foreseeable risks involved
  • the supervision strategy
  • other information deemed relevant by the school or by parents/guardians.

Informed consent must be given in writing, including signatures, by a parent or guardian.

First aid qualifications

At least one member of staff responsible for each group of students must hold, as a minimum, a current (within 3 years) level two first aid qualification, a current (within 12 months) Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) qualification and have a first aid kit applicable to the level of training.

Staff members must carefully consider the nature and location of the excursion as well as the medical history of the students to determine the level of first aid training required by staff.  For example, if any student in the group has a history of anaphylaxis and may require the use of an epi-pen, appropriately trained staff must be present. See: Excursion Support – First Aid

Common Risks

This list identifies risks likely to be inherent in any canoeing activity. A program-specific risk management plan must be completed that takes account of the specific conditions and unique participants of the excursion/program.

Sample RisksSample Controls

Wind strength

Review weather conditions prior to the activity. Assess students’ ability to cope with increasingly difficult wind conditions.

Identify access points on the shoreline. Constantly monitor distance from the shoreline.

Maintain a distance from the shoreline that students can cover in severe wind conditions.

Capsize and entanglement

Teach students the capsize drill in the water. Each student to practice capsize drill in the water.

Close supervision of craft if they capsize. Rescue craft readily available at all times. (This may be the instructor’s canoe/kayak.)

Exposure to cold temperatures and wind

Appropriate clothing.

Observation of students’ condition during the activity

Consideration of the appropriateness of water temperature and potential impact of the ambient temperature.

Access points in the activity location/s

Identify the points at which shoreline can be accessed throughout the activity. Rescue craft readily available at all times. (This may the instructor’s canoe/kayak.)


General resources