How Hard Is Kayaking: What Beginners Need to Know

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How hard is kayaking? This question would appear pretty straight forward and seemingly easy to answer. Not so fast! There are a few variables that will impact how hard or how easy kayaking will be; the level of difficulty will largely be dependent on the individual and their level of skill and experience. Additionally, the conditions you are kayaking in, the body of water you will be paddling on and the kayak you are using will have an influence on the degree of challenge you experience.

Kayaking can be as easy or as hard as you want to make it.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll look at kayaking for those relatively new to the sport and looking for a means to get out and explore the water. A scenic paddle on calm waters, or a slow glide down a gentle river taking in the views and enjoying a unique adventure, is an activity enjoyed by millions of all ages, shapes, sizes and skill levels.

Kayaking Basics

Kayaking at a basic level is a very easy and efficient means for a paddle on the water.  Over time you can hone your skills and learn new techniques. Any individual who is in reasonably decent physical shape will be able to successfully propel and maneuver a kayak for an enjoyable experience on a relatively calm body of water.  

However, if you are thinking you can adventure out on a whitewater kayaking trip and it will be a breeze you might want to check out Tyler Bradt and Rayno Van Heerden kayaking the Ashan River in Southeast Asia. Stunning views and an amazing experience but nothing about this can be viewed as easy.  

Kayaking at the highest levels such as whitewater kayaking the Colorado River, or competing in the Olympics, or to a lesser degree Orca watching off the San Juan Islands near Seattle, Washington all require a skilled kayaker and present varying levels of challenge. Kayaking offers a large range of activities that can be enjoyed from this watercraft including: fishing, touring, racing, surfing, expeditions or just generally exploring nature. 

Kayaking Challenges

A few of the challenges that can make kayaking difficult include:

  • Type and conditions of the body of water.

  • Arm, shoulder and core strength required to propel the kayak.

  • Length and duration of your paddle.

  • Size, shape, type and condition of the kayak.

  • Length and quality of the paddle.

  • Weather conditions (wind makes tracking and paddling into the wind difficult)

kayaker paddling in rapids

Suggestions and Tips

Taking a few extra steps and putting in some effort can greatly enhance your experience kayaking and the ease with which you are able to perform.  A few simple tips to consider:

  • Proper kayak and paddle for the conditions and your skill level.

  • Proper paddling technique.

  • Proper pacing can minimize muscle fatigue.

  • Frequent breaks allow you to enjoy the scenery and manage your level of exertion.

  • Maintain and repair your kayak.

  • Take lessons, especially if you are taking on more challenging activities (i.e. whitewater, touring expeditions, fishing).

Type of Kayak

The size and shape of your kayak is an important consideration.  For those new to the sport, a shorter and wider model kayak will provide the most stability and balance while you’re out on the water.  The kayak body style and design will influence how easy or challenging it is to maneuver, handle, track and steer your craft. Shorter kayaks are easier to maneuver and steer.  The downside is that they are not designed for speed.

The longer and narrower kayaks are designed for individuals who desire more speed and control.  Because these kayaks have a shorter width they are less stable and more challenging to maintain your balance.  Longer vessels are typically for those kayakers who have intended uses such as racing and touring where there is a need to optimize speed and the distance that is covered.

Also, kayaks that have a flatter hull are slower but provide more stability, where a V-shaped hull allows the kayak to cut through the water or waves you might encounter.  

For those new to kayaking a common choice is a sit-on-top design, which is flatter, self-bails and will not sink.  Getting on and off a sit-on-top is also easier than having to lower your body into a kayak cockpit of a sit-inside vessel.

kayaker paddling on calm waters

Paddling Technique

The great thing about kayaking is that just about everyone can jump in a kayak and be ready to go for a paddle.  However, having a basic understanding of proper technique will make for a more efficient and safer experience on the water.  

A few basic considerations and tips to improve your techniques and enjoyment:

  • Proper sitting position: Good posture and sitting up straight will allow you to paddle harder and faster, as well as help to avoid back issues.

  • Hand positioning: Your hands should be positioned on the paddle so that when you lift your paddle onto your head your elbows are bent at approximately a 90 degree angle. Your hands should be secure but with a light grip.  This will allow you to paddle longer and avoid fatigue.

  • Foot positioning: Your legs and feet should be in a relaxed position, with your feet placed securely in the foot pedals of your kayak.

  • Blade positioning: Take your dominant or control hand and align you knuckle with the edge of the blade.  The opposite hand should grasp the paddle an equal distance from the other blade. 

  • Core twist: Engaging your core by twisting at the waist will provide more power for each stroke.  Rotate your torso with each stroke, avoiding relying solely on your arms. This will maintain your strength, while providing you with more power.  

man paddling a kayak

Avoiding Fatigue and Overexertion

Setting a proper pace and being aware of the amount of energy you are exerting will help to avoid fatigue and injuring yourself.  Taking regular breaks to rest and take in the scenery will also help you to avoid overexertion. 

On your first venture out on the water kayaking, you should determine a reasonable distance you can cover without becoming fatigued and stick to that plan.  On future paddles you can travel a little further. This will ensure you can safely return to your starting point and will allow you to begin building up your stamina. 

It is also wise before heading out to do some warmup exercises and stretching. Once you are on water the demands on your arms, shoulders, lower back, legs and core, even on shorter trips warrants some preparation physically to avoid soreness, fatigue and/or injury.    

Safety Precautions

Take the following safety measures when you head out on the water as a beginner:

  • Paddle with a friend.  As you venture out, especially the first few times, having someone along with you who can provide assistance or someone to call for help if needed.

  • When kayaking with a friend agree to remain within a distance you can see and hear each other.

  • Determine a plan for how along your trip will be, that does not go beyond your physical limits.  

  • Stay close enough to shore that you feel comfortable swimming to shore if you should need to.

  • Consult local experts for any water hazards to avoid (tides, rip currents, rapids) as well as checking the local weather forecast.

  • Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

Taking a few safety precautions will make your kayaking easier and safer.

woman in kayaking gear

Give it a Try

If you are just starting out and want to make sure you’re comfortable and safe going out kayaking, there are a few things you can do prior to investing in a kayak:

  • Find a friend that will let you borrow a kayak and possibly even take you out and work with you to learn the basics.

  • There are many outfitters and rental shops where you can try out kayaking in a relatively safe environment.  You may even be able to get some instruction from these sources.

  • Research touring companies that rent kayaks and equipment while also providing guided tours.  Taking a tour allows you to learn from an expert.

  • Find an introductory course that offers more in-depth instruction and training.  Knowing how to properly kayak will greatly enhance your skill development.

First Time Out

When you are venturing out for the first time there are some steps you can take to make it easier for you and ensure a successful paddle:

  • A calm and smaller body of water, like a pond or lake, will allow you to get a feel and practice paddling without additional challenges.

  • Choose a body of water that has little or no boat traffic.

  • Find a launch point on the shore that is sandy and has a gentle slope.  Steep shorelines that are muddy, or have a lot of vegetation or are rocky creates some challenges to your kayaking that beginners should avoid.

  • Be aware of the weather conditions and go on a day that is physically comfortable and with either very little or no wind.

  • If you do experience some wind, begin by paddling into the wind while you have the most energy.  A tailwind on your return trip will be much more enjoyable.  

  • Plan your first trips to last only 1 to 2 hours.  You don’t want to become fatigued or discouraged.

kids in an ocean kayak

​Final Thoughts

How difficult is kayaking for a beginner?  The most basic answer is that kayaking will be as easy or as hard as you want it to be.  If you’re looking for a leisurely paddle on the lake, a few basic skills and you’ll be set to have a great day.  If you are looking for more challenge and want to take on some adventures, with some effort honing your skills and learning how to manage conditions, even the most adventurous individuals will have a blast kayaking.  

Kayaking is an amazing sport that is an easy means for getting out on any body of water and enjoying all that nature has to offer.  Let us know in the comments sections how your kayaking experiences go.