USK Course of Action Scenario Response(s)
March 2006
"Sudden Fog"

You are paddling alone on a six mile day tour. Suddenly a thick fog bank overtakes you. What is your course of action?

Considerations & actions from Wayne Horodowich:

Givens from the scenario being presented:

You are alone
Six-mile day tour
Thick fog
Suddenly overtakes you

Considerations for each given:

You are alone
You only have the equipment you brought
You can only rely on your perceptions
You don’t have to worry about staying in contact with your partner
You may be paddling alone, but there may be other traffic

Six-mile day tour
Depending on the area you could have a three-mile paddle in fog
Longer water time may mean higher chance of obstacles/traffic

Thick fog
Visibility limited
Visual geographic orientation reduced/eliminated
Balance can be affected
Heightened sense of hearing
Sound altered in fog (see web article on sound) (

Suddenly overtakes you
Fog does not suddenly overtake one who is aware
One should have more than enough time to take a bearing

General considerations not mentioned:

Did you check the weather forecast?
Do you have a compass (deck mounted preferred)?
Do you have audible devices to help others hear you?My general principles when taking actions when solo:
Access the situation before going into it
Take action if it will change the situation for the better
Fell confident I have the skills to execute my plan
Feel confident my equipment allows me to execute the plan
No action can be the best course of action at the time
All good plans should have alternatives (in advance)

Courses of Action for sudden fog scenario

Living and paddling in Santa Barbara has given me a lot of fog experience. Even though it seems like it is sunny one minute and then foggy the next, I have yet to see the fog come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake someone. If you are constantly scanning your environment you will have enough time to get your compass or back-up compass out and take a bearing to a protected haven, your original take out or one of your alternative take-out areas. Listening to the weather radio and getting local knowledge can help you prepare for the possibility of fog.

When I kayaked in the Santa Barbara area I regularly paddled in fog. The Santa Barbara area has south facing beaches. I knew I would hit land if I went north. Even though the beach I landed upon may not be my desired landing location, I could walk my kayak along the beach to a take out area with a car pick-up. I knew this could be my bail out plan if I encountered the pea soup kind of fog.

Instead of waiting to take a bearing when fog is nearing, you could save yourself a lot of trouble if you know the necessary bearings during your paddle. The advent of the somewhat affordable GPS units gives you additional options. I recommend you regularly paddle with a deck-mounted compass. Not only is it good to know the direction you are traveling, you never know when you will need to take a bearing on the water. I keep a spare hand held orienteering compass in my day bag, which is easily accessible. Even though you can use a small hand held compass for navigation, I can tell you that you run a greater risk of getting sea sick because you need to look down when using such a compass. When using a deck mounted compass you can look at the compass and the horizon simultaneously, which reduces the risk of motion sickness.

My greater concern in the fog is worrying about the "law of tonnage." The law states, whoever is bigger has the right of way or if you are smaller and lighter get out of the way. I remember paddling in Johnstone Straights on many foggy days. Some days were so thick I could just sea a few feet in front of my bow. As a side note paddling in such thick fog was very disorienting. I felt like I was paddling in a cloud. I actually felt as though the water disappeared. I could see how someone could lose his or her balance in thick fog. On those very foggy days I was traveling by compass and staying as close to shore as possible to avoid the motorized boat traffic. I could hear the constant hum of the fishing boats but it was hard to tell where they were and how far they were from me. My hearing was hypersensitive. In my kayak I can travel in very shallow water that is avoided by the large boats. I feel more protected there.

As a side note, your other senses will be more active when your visual cues are gone. I was acutely aware of campfire smoke and the voices on shore when I passed a camp. I couldn’t see them, but I felt like I was right next to them. I was even able to feel the vibrations of the fishing boats when I placed my hand on my neoprene spray deck. It felt like a vibrating snare drum.

During any outdoor adventure you should have a bail out plan for every step of the way. I learned this lesson from my Outward Bound experience. You should know the best location for an evacuation or emergency rest/shelter area for each leg of the trip. In this case, if the fog came in you would already know which way to go because it was planned before getting on the water.

While fog and boat traffic may be scary, I can definitely state that fog and surf can be terrifying. I have had a few occasions where I had to make some difficult choices. If at all possible, avoid the fog and surf scenario. Fog and tidal races are also exciting.

Suggested response to avoid the situation:

It is not reasonable to say don’t paddle in fog. You can still have plenty of visibility for kayaking depending on where you are paddling (avoiding major shipping lanes.) The situation to avoid is not the paddling in fog; it is being caught unaware and not knowing which way to go.

Lessons learned:

Keep scanning the horizon so fog doesn’t suddenly overtake you
Have a deck-mounted compass when you go out
Know your compass bearings
Have planned bail out locations before getting on the water


Response(s) from our readers:

A paddler’s response to encountering fog while paddling need not be one of alarm. There are three potential choices: stay put, land, or continue. If you hold your position for a while and there is a breeze, the fog may clear enough for you to continue comfortably. If you know you are in front of a suitable landing spot, you may choose to land and wait it out. Or you may choose to continue, which can be somewhat more challenging but not necessarily unreasonable. The paddler's mental reaction and selected course of action would be affected by several factors, such as skill level, prior experience in fog, present location, equipment, and local knowledge.

Paddlers with some experience and skill sets to draw upon are generally less apprehensive than novices in unexpected conditions. The novice may be wiser to not be paddling a six mile solo trip in changeable conditions to begin with. One's first experience in fog can be intimidating and disorienting. Visual cues to distance, direction and even balance are obscured. I have on occasion experienced temporary dizziness in thick fog without a visual horizon for reference. I was able to cure the feeling by relaxing, briefly closing my eyes, and touching the water with my hands on both sides of my boat. Additional paddles in foggy conditions have lessened my susceptibility to this, as well as making me significantly less apprehensive in fog.

In regard to location, natural as well as man-made dangers should be assessed. I would be more aprehensive if caught in fog while attempting to cross shipping lanes or negotiate an area of shoals and tidal races than I would if paddling a stretch of comparatively benign coast. Therefore, my present location and potential hazards along the route would definitely affect my decision as to continuing or beating a hasty retreat.

Everyone has their own list of "must always have" equipment. I believe it is a good idea to never be on open water without a compass. This one item of equipment can allay fears and cure momentary disorientation. Even if I don’t have my deck compass mounted, I have a 1" compass affixed to my watchband, so it is always with me. It is hardly suitable for complex navagation, but more than once it has helped to confirm my directional hunches in reduced visibility.

Local knowledge can be a source of confidence when in fog. Paddling in fog is the time to use your "mental map" of the area to keep your bearings. It is also time to reach out with your other senses, not only to navigate but also avoid potential hazards. Feel the onshore breeze on one cheek. Sense the direction of the swells or reflected waves, however slight. Listen for the explosion of dumping surf, the staccato "applause" sound of wave action rolling beach cobbles, the swish of light spilling surf on a sheltered sand beach, or the diesel throb of the fishing boat 300 yards to your left. Even the sense of smell comes into play. Who could miss the odor of bird guano on a whitewashed offshore rock or the unmistakeable pungency of a sea lion colony announcing its presence?

Having said all this, putting myself in the scenario of encountering fog during a solo 6 mile paddle along a coastline familiar to me would not be particularly stressful. Being fogged in is the time to assess your capabilities, your comfort level, and your situation and then proceed accordingly. By all means, gain experience paddling in fog on sheltered waters first. Of course one should always monitor the forecast and keep an eye on the weather if one wants to avoid the situation altogether.

Gary in California


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