The Complete Guide to Kayaking for Beginners (2019 Edition)

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The great outdoors is something that you just can’t beat. The trees, the fresh air, the open spaces; it delivers the kind of getaway that the city just cannot provide.

I remember when I first became interested in things like hiking, camping, and outdoor adventures. At first, the thought of doing anything in the water made me a little nervous. Once I heard about kayaking and the unique experience of viewing nature from the middle of a wide lake though, I knew I had to give it a go.

Kayaking for beginners can feel a little intimidating. You may not know what you’re doing or what equipment you need to get ahold of. Fear not; we’re here to help. Kayaking can be such a fun water activity, so let’s get you all the information you need to know.

Kayaking vs. Canoeing

There tends to be a common misconception about kayaking​ that kayaks and canoes are the same things. Truthfully, they are not, so let’s look at the differences.

Equipment

The major difference that you’re going to see between kayaking and canoeing is the gear that you use. For starters, kayaks and canoes are two different boats.

With canoes, you’re generally working with an open-top boat that can fit two or more people. The inside of the boat features benches to sit on with spaces in between for your feet and other items.

Kayaks feature a different design that is usually closed-top and is typically made for just one person. Kayaks don’t have benches, but rather have a built-in seat located on the floor on the boat. The user basically sits inside of a cut-out hole and into this seat, stretching their legs out on the floor in front of them.

Kayaks also tend to sit lower in the water, as opposed to canoes, which have higher sides and float on top of the water.

Aside from the two types of boats, kayaking and canoeing both require different kinds of paddles as well as different techniques.

Since kayaks are mostly made for one person, their paddles boast two blades – one on either end of the pole – so that a user can easily paddle by themselves without having to switch sides constantly.

Canoes, on the other hand, use paddles with just one blade on one end and a handle on the other hand. They are also usually much shorter than kayak paddles because users have to be able to switch from side to side easily.

Uses

Kayakers more often like to take their adventures to fast rapids and whitewater. While you can certainly try to maneuver these feats of nature in a canoe, you’ll have better luck in a kayak.

People generally use canoes for calmer waters. However, there’s no rule saying you can’t take your kayak to the middle of a peaceful lake as well.

woman with kayaking paddle

Techniques

The two different paddles used for kayaking and canoeing display the obvious need for varying techniques.

When you’re canoeing and using a single-blade paddle, you have to use the alternating technique. In this method, you start by stroking on one side of the boat and alternate to the other side the whole ride. One hand holds the handle at the end, and your other hand can find a comfortable grip about midway down the pole.

The alternating technique is crucial for canoers because if you only paddle on one side of the boat, you’ll wind up just going in circles. In the same way, a canoe with more than one person needs to be organized and in sync, or you will have similar, dizzying effects.

Because kayaks use double-bladed paddles, you have to hold your paddle in the middle with both hands. You hold your paddle directly in front of you, over your lap and use almost a wave-like motion, dipping first the right blade into the water and then the left.

Kayak paddles set their blades at 90 degrees to each other, so when you use the paddle motion, you also need to twist the blades a bit. Nailing this technique will help you get the most out of every stroke and will help prevent you from wasting energy and getting tired out. The specialized angles also help to avoid wind resistance.

woman with kayaking equipment

Kayaking Gear

Kayaking involves a few pieces of equipment that will help you make the most of your experience. Of course, for a beginner, buying or renting the right gear can be the most intimidating part of a new adventure. We’re going to take a look at each piece of equipment and what you should be looking for.

Kayak

This is perhaps the most obvious and difficult decision to make when a beginner is looking into kayaking. There are so many options available today that it can be hard to know you’re choosing the best kayak for you. Considering these factors.

Sit-In or Sit-On-Top

While most traditional kayaks feature a sit-in design, there are some on the market that are made to sit on top. Neither of these is the “right” choice, so you’ll have to consider your personal preferences and what you intend to use your kayak for.

Sit-in kayaks are great because they provide some shelter from the elements with the option for additional coverage, they have more storage space, and are generally more efficient in terms of paddling.

Sit-on-top kayaks are nice for a day on the water or a fishing expedition. They are easy to use because you can get on and off easily without losing stability. They’re also self-bailing, meaning they are designed with holes that drain water. Though you’re more likely to get wet in this design, it can be a relief from the hot summer sun.

There are also inflatable kayaks, which are great for beginners and super convenient, as you can inflate them at the beginning of the day and deflate them when it’s time to go home. They may be less durable, but they serve a good purpose for someone just starting out.

sit on top kayak

Hull Type

The hull of your kayak is the shape of the bottom. Kayaks have several different hull types, all of which serve unique purposes. Each of the types will have varying levels of primary stability and secondary stability, which refer to the stability of the kayak when you first get in and the stability once you’ve started paddling, respectively.

The first hull type is the flat hull. This hull is an excellent option for beginners because it offers great stability and maneuverability. They’re also good for recreational kayaking through flat waters.

The rounded hull improves speed and movement through the water. Its rounded-edge design gives good secondary stability.

V-shaped hulls are ideal for recreational paddling as well as touring and long-distance kayaking. Their v-shaped bottom cuts through the water and makes it easier to stay in a straight line. Though they have great secondary stability and won’t give you much trouble while you’re on the water, their shape makes their primary stability a little iffy.

Next is the pontoon hull. The pontoon is a very stable shape. It has both primary and secondary stability due to its combination of flat and round. While they are super stable, they tend to be the slowest of the hulls.

Finally, we have the chine. The chine shape usually comes in a soft chine or a hard chine, which describes the way that the bottom of the boat connects to the sides. A soft chine will be rounder, while a hard chine has more angles. The general rule of thumb here is the softer the chine, the higher the secondary stability.

Size

Size is a vital factor to consider in your kayak. The longer and narrower your kayak is, the faster it will travel. These sizes also tend to stay straighter when in motion. However, if you have a shorter and wider kayak, it will be easier to turn and navigate.

Many beginner kayakers like to head more towards the short and wide kayaks. Though you may be sacrificing speed, it will be easier for you to paddle and guide, which is probably better in the long run.

Most recreational kayaks are anywhere from 8 to 13 feet long. They’re made for small lakes and rivers – basically any calm waters. Kayaks that are more suited for touring are about 14 to 18 feet long. These kayaks can handle bigger waves, rivers, and lakes.

Along with size, you should consider your kayak’s weight capacity. Every kayak will list their individual capacity, so there’s no secret technique to figuring this one out. Not only should your kayak hold your personal weight, but it also needs to have a little extra to carry any items you intend on bringing with you, i.e., water bottles, extra clothing, helmets, fishing gear, etc.

Paddle

There are four main components to a kayak paddle that you should consider before making your first-ever purchase. They are:

  • Length
  • Blade Size and Shape
  • Shaft Design
  • Materials and Pricing

If you stick to these basics, you shouldn’t have too much of a problem choosing the right paddle for you.

Your paddle’s length has to suit both your height and the width of your kayak. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hard time getting a good rhythm down. The best way to determine what length you need is to use a chart like this one.

Your blade can come in a variety of sizes and shapes. There are asymmetrical blades which are narrow and shorter on just one side. There’s the dihedral blade that has a rib down the center to create a smooth and even water flow. Wider blades have more surface area, giving you a more powerful push through the water for more speed. And narrow blades are lightweight, making them great for long-distance paddling.

You can find blades made of plastic and nylon, fiberglass, and carbon-fiber. Plastic can refer to polymer or polypropylene. These blades are the most affordable of the three and are very popular for recreational paddling. Though they may be the most cost-effective, they can crack and degrade in the sun. They tend to be a little more flexible, which means your strokes won’t be as strong.

Fiberglass blades are more expensive than plastic but less expensive than carbon-fiber. They are very durable and perform well, and they weigh even less than plastic. However, these blades are at risk for chipping.

Finally, carbon-fiber blades are the most expensive of the bunch, but they’re also the best quality. They’re tough and lightweight and perform magnificently in the water. If you’re willing to drop the dollars, they’re worth it.

You can also adjust your blades’ positioning. You can either have them feathered or matched. Feathered blades are aligned off-position from one another, usually at 15-degree increments — many kayakers like their blades at 90 degrees from one another. Matched blades are what they sound; they line up straight.

When it comes to the shaft, you’re mainly looking at aluminum, carbon, and fiberglass. Plastic shafts are out there as well, but they’re rare because they’re not durable.

Aluminum shafts are cheap and durable, but they tend to absorb heat and cold, making them difficult to grip. Carbon and fiberglass are both durable and lightweight, so you can’t go wrong with either.

You can also get your shaft straight or bent. The bent design can offer a more comfortable grip that helps you really work your angles and harness your power. Straight is standard, so if you don’t feel comfortable stepping out and trying the bent shaft, it’s perfectly fine to stick with straight. 

kayak dry bag

Other Gear

Now that we’ve covered your two main pieces of equipment, we can run through some other gear that you may find necessary, or at the very least, useful. Take a look at this list:

Most of these items are self-explanatory, but in case they’re new to you, we’ll briefly talk about each one.

Related: Gifts for Kayakers

Helmet

Not all kayaking activities require the use of a helmet, but if you’re planning on steering into rough waters or hitting some rapids, it’s a wise piece of equipment to consider.

Your helmet should be sturdy, reliable, and made of quality material. It should also fit well; a helmet that’s too big won’t do you much good. You should look for adjustable straps with several anchor points.

Life Vest

Life vests aren’t just for deep-sea fishing or your little brother who can’t yet swim. Life vests have quite literally saved lives, and no matter how strong a swimmer your fancy yourself, you should still wear one.

For recreational kayaking, there’s probably not much need to go crazy and buy yourself the most expensive, high-tech life vest you can find. If you plan on hitting the whitewater, you might want to be a little more thorough in your research.

Life vests, also called personal flotation devises, are categorized into five different types, Type I to Type V. You can learn more about them here, but most kayakers go for kayaking and canoeing life vests which are usually Type III. These vests give you the freedom to move your arms and aren’t too bulky in a tight space.

Bilge Pump

Bilge pumps are devices that remove water from a boat. Bilge pumps designed for kayaks are much smaller than those made for bigger boats, and they are typically handheld while other large ones are electronic.

A bilge pump can be very useful for removing water that finds its way into your kayak. Some of these pumps can remove 8 gallons of water per minute even. Not only can water in your kayak be very uncomfortable (think about sitting in the bathtub for too long), but it can be dangerous, so a bilge pump is a great way to bail yourself out.

Spray Skirt

A spray skirt is an innovative invention that covers both you and the hole of your kayak to prevent water from flowing in freely. Spray skirts aren’t always necessary – in fact, on a hot, sunny, summer day, you probably don’t want to use one at all.

But, when you’re looking to stay dry and comfortable, a spray skirt is a must. Spray skirts are usually made of neoprene, nylon, or a combination of both. Some good details to look for are shoulder straps that help keep the skirt in place over you and tension stays to help keep the skirt tight over your kayak.

Dry Bag

Finally, it’s always a good idea to invest in a dry bag to keep on board. Dry bags are waterproof carrying bags where you can store all of your personal items. When you’re in a kayak, there’s a good chance that you – along with everything you have with you – are going to get wet. By storing things in a dry bag, you can keep them with you without ruining them.

people learning to kayak properly

How to Improve and Stay Safe

Kayaking is an exciting sport that anyone can learn. Just like learning how to ride a bicycle, kayaking requires you to learn the basics before you can reach the perfection level through regular practice. If you wish to take part in this sport or you want to learn kayaking for recreation, you must do the following:

Research and Study

Research is usually the starting point for everything new. That is because, before getting into the real action, you need to have the right knowledge and skills. We don't have to remind you that kayaking is more than paddling. It's why there are people who are hard to beat in this sport. It is not always about strength or how fast you peddle but your knowledge about the game and how to take advantage of everything made available to you.

Find a Trainer

You can choose to learn kayaking by yourself because it mostly involves balancing your kayak and padding it to move. However, this can take a long time, and the worst part is that you can learn how to balance and pad, yet you lack the correct concept to allow you kayak like a pro. With the help of an expat, you should be able to get the first critical essential tips. Most people who want to kayak don't understand that kayaking in a freshwater body is not the same as in the ocean. Also, most of them underestimate the capabilities of flowing water, which usually leaves newbies going round in circles for hours.

Related: The Best Kayaks for Ocean Use

​Wear the Right Clothing

Although this sounds like a cliché, it is highly recommended for beginners. Unless you are an expert trainer who understands the waters better, it is not guaranteed that you will not capsize. You, therefore, need to be in a wetsuit to avoid any further problems. As a beginner, you should know that you don't need any setback. Also, remember that wet suits are the recommended type of cloths for kayaking. Even the professionals are always in one when competing or showcasing.

Related: What to Wear Kayaking to Stay Safe and Comfortable

A Buoyancy Aid is a Must

Because you never know when you can get in trouble while kayaking, it is always good to take precautions. That is why even professional kayakers use buoyancy aid just in case. Being a beginner, you will find it hard to recover from capsizing because you will need to mind your kayak and your wellbeing at the same time.

Mind Your Sitting Position

Before beginning to pad your kayak, you need to ensure that you are comfortable. That is because the upper part of your body will be doing most of the work, and you want in stable and centralized. You, therefore, need to sit at a 90 degrees angle with your back straight no matter how comfortable your backrest is. Your knees also need to be bent upwards and outwards to enhance stability.

Hold the Paddle Correctly

The way you hold your paddle also matters a great deal, although many people don't recognize this. If you take a good look at a kayaking paddle, you will realize that it is curved a little. Hold the paddle with the curved sides facing towards you. You also need to ensure that it is around your shoulder area to allow for comfortable padding without needing so much strength.

Rescue Drills

You must become conversant with rescue measures if you want to be an expert kayaker. In most cases, kayaking waters are violent, and you have seen this on television or live if you love the sport. It is good always to be prepared even though it is not guaranteed that you will need to be rescued. If it makes you more confident, you may need to save other kayakers from the turbulent waters. However, the first rule of rescuing yourself is always to stay with your kayak.

Pro Tip: Looking for more techniques about how to ​enter and exit a kayak? Check out this article.

Don't Go Kayaking Solo

It's not advisable to go kayaking alone for any beginner. That is because there are many risks that you will encounter, and some can be worse than you imagine. Water sports are indeed exciting, and perfection takes practice, but water is also risky. Always have someone with you, preferably someone better than you to be safe.

People Come First Kayaks Can Follow

Kayaking at times can be faced with unexpected occurrences that will make you have to decide whether to save your kayak or your partner or competitor. As obvious as it may sound, panic can make you choose the least essential options. If you have not registered it in your mind that you will always save a person first, then fear will always have the best of you during a crisis. No matter the price, there is nothing that can replace someone's life even if it is the biggest trophy in the universe.

F​inal Thoughts

Kayaking can be a blast and a great new way to enjoy the outdoors. Even when you're just learning, it can be loads of fun. With the proper preparation and quality equipment, there’s no need to worry about something going wrong. Use this guide to find what you need and get out on the water!

Related: Best Kayaks for Families

Thinking of learning to kayak? Then you\'ve come to the right place! Check out our all new 2019 edition of the Complete Guide to Kayaking for Beginners!

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