How to Read Tide Tables 101

No matter what your experience level is out on the water, reading tide tables is crucial for safe open water sea kayaking. Timing your adventures with the ebb and flow of the tides can make all the difference, allowing you to access specific locations and paddle comfortably, all the while prevent you from getting caught in strong winds, powerful currents, and othe challenging scenarios. 

Tide tables highlight when waters will be too shallow to navigate or when strong currents may make it dangerous for paddling. By heading out at high tide, you may be able to access new coves and inlets. Conversely, hidden marine life may be more visible at low table.

In this guide, discover everything you need to know about reading tide tables to ensure you are well prepared for a memorable ocean adventure. 


People standing around their Sea Kayak guide on a beach reading the Tide chart


What are tides and tidal charts/tables?

High tides and low tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun, with most coastal areas experiencing two of each per day. Tide charts/tables detail the daily predictions for when these low and high tides will be, as well as their height at different locations. 

While “tide charts” and “tide tables” are often used interchangeably, they are two different things according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It defines “tide charts” as a “series of maps that show the water levels throughout a bay or estuary at a particular point in time”. On the other hand, “tide tables” are a “listing of the times and heights of the daily high and low tide predictions, or hourly interval tidal height values, for a particular location.” 

The NOAA generates tide tables for more than 3,000 locations around the United States but it doesn’t publish tide charts. The NOAA is an important source of information for any sea kayaker, making it possible to view and download tide information for up to two years (both past and future).

From the NOAA home page, you can click on the state where you plan on kayaking and zoom in on a particular area to get the most relevant tidal information. Once you’ve found your spot, simply click on it and the tidal information will be revealed in a pop-up box. 

It’s also possible to purchase tide tables for specific areas from marinas, bait shops, and sporting goods stores - anywhere that is helping people get out on the water. If you’re traveling internationally, you may be able to find tidal information for a particular area by simply Googling “tides + [location]”. Sea kayak outfitters and trip operators ike Sea Kayak Adventures are also a great source of information.


Two sea kayaks hovering over a yellow sea kayak looking at a map of the area


Planning your trip

Once you have the tidal information at your fingertips, it’s time to start planning your trip. By viewing the information in graph form (click on “More Data” and “Water Levels” on the NOAA site), you can easily see the ebb and flow and get a better idea of the tides’ rhythm. Make a note of the high tide and low tide mark for the day you plan on heading out. Keep in mind that NOAA uses “Mean Lower Low Water” - an indication of the average height of the low tide observed over a 19-year period. 

While tidal information is important, a successful kayaking trip also requires some understanding of how the rising or lowering of the water will impact accessibility at your location. If you’re planning on rounding a headland or paddling over a sandbank, you may need to do so at high tide. The rate at which the tide is coming in or going out (the steepness of the graph) can also impact rips, making it harder to paddle in and around river mouths. 

Observation is key. Once you arrive at the beach or launch point, look around for indications of the high tide water line. This might be a log jam or a line of seaweed, as well as wet sand as the tide is going out. Observing where the high tide sits on any given day will give you a better idea of the paddling conditions along that stretch of coastline. Alternatively, ask a ranger or fellow kayaker before heading out to better understand the conditions. Better yet, take a local guide with you to ensure you don’t encounter any issues.


Map and compass under bungees on a yellow sea kayak


Other factors to consider

It’s important to be aware that coastal tides are impacted by other weather and wind patterns, as well as river runoff and the topography of an area. In some cases, the tidal predictions won’t accurately represent what you see on arrival or when you’re out in the water. This is why chatting with locals is so valuable as they have likely observed the tidal changes at that particular spot over weeks, months, or even years.

That being said, there is still a lot to learn from tide tables, including the cyclical oscillations as the tide rises and falls. However, this knowledge should be paired with first-hand observations and local knowledge. Each time you go out on the water, take note of the changes taking place as the tide ebbs and flows. Are there rocks or banks that become visible at low tide before being submerged as the water pushes in? How does the change in tide impact your ability to paddle into coves and around river mouths? 

Understanding how to read and interpret tide tables is important in being safe out on the water and making the best of your paddling opportunities. It’s also a good reminder that while humans have the ability to predict the tides, nature always has the final say as to how that impacts conditions in the real world.


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