Kayaking Tips for Beginners: Gear, Techniques, Safety and More!

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Kayaking is a unique, easily mastered and adaptable water activity. You can adventure out on almost any body of water, with relatively little practice and instruction and engage in a wide range of experiences. Yaking is a great way to spend quality time with family and friends or to simply escape to the water for some time alone.

If you’re new to kayaking or have limited experience, before heading out into the open water, let us offer you some kayaking tips and a few suggestions for you to consider. The versatility of kayaking allows you unique access to exploring nature and some amazing destinations.  

The following are some tips, pointers and information that will assist in making sure you have a great time on the water exploring new and unique experiences.

Essential Gear

Kayaking requires some basic essential gear any time you head out for a paddle. The most obvious item is your kayak. Unfortunately, there are different types and styles of kayaks based on what you plan to be doing that will make choosing one challenging.

The first step is to determine the kind of kayak that will best serve your intended use(s). The following is a quick overview of the various types of kayaks:

  • Sit-on-top or Sit-in Kayaks: As the names imply, one you sit on top, in a molded seat or attached kayak seat and the other you sit inside a cockpit, surrounded by the kayak. Each has advantages and intended uses, however for beginners a sit-on-top makes sense as they are typically more stable, easier to maneuver and paddle, and make getting in and out of the kayak less challenging. 
  • Inflatable or Hard Shell Kayaks: Both types have advantages and depending on your intended use(s) one may be better than the other. For example, inflatables are easier to transport, store and operate. The newer models' construction and materials make them very durable. Hard shell kayaks are extremely durable, easy to set up and their performance makes them faster and easier to maneuver.
  • Recreational Kayaks: Are often sit-on top kayaks because they are easy to get in and out of for beginners.  The sit-in versions have larger cockpit openings. The recreational kayaks are usually shorter, wider and easier to control and are intended for calm waters.  
  • Touring Kayaks: This kayak is longer and narrower, allowing you to move more easily through the water.  The touring kayak is intended for those who will be taking longer trips. 
  • Whitewater Kayaks: Specifically designed for the skilled kayakers who are seeking the challenge and thrill of whitewater. 
  • Ocean Kayaks: The ocean kayak is designed specifically to function on the coastal waters and to venture out into the ocean.  Unique conditions exist in this environment, requiring specialized features for your safety and enjoyment. 
  • Beginner/Child Kayaks: This style kayak is generally smaller, wider and more stable, and easier to maneuver and operate.
  • Single or Tandem Kayaks: Tandem kayaks are great for families, allowing for up to 3 individuals or if you want to bring along your dog.

father and son in sit on top kayak

Depending on the type of kayaking you are planning, you will need some basics including the following:

  • Paddle: Each paddler should have a paddle. Size charts are available to ensure you have the best paddle for your individual needs. 
  • Personal Floatation Device (PFD): For your own safety and because it’s the law, do not leave home without it. A PFD should fit comfortably and snuggly without being too tight or too loose.
  • Optional Gear: Other gear you may need or require includes: signaling whistle, bilge pump, dry bag, paddle float, paddle leash, towline, kayak seat, anchor, watch, GPS, or a cooler

Basic Tips

The following basic tips are provided for new paddlers or those with limited experience to help ensure you have a great time on the water and that you are safe while doing so:

Getting In and Out of a Kayak

There are a variety of situations and circumstances that will impact how you get in or out of your kayak. There are different techniques depending on if you are launching or landing from shore, a dock, an uneven or rocky shore or from the water. 

A great article from Seaside Planet provides step-by-step instructions for each situation, along with some video resources. Practicing these techniques prior to heading out on a kayak trip will improve your skills and confidence for when you need to perform each technique. 

exiting a kayak

Paddling and Stroke Techniques

Holding the Paddle: The basic technique for holding your paddle is to have your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. The blade of your paddle should have the concave side facing the rear of the kayak.  This portion of the blade, when placed in the water, creates a cupping to provide a better pull through your stroke. The knuckles of your hand should be facing forward and relaxed. 

Reduce Fatigue and Potential Injury: There are techniques that will support your being a more effective paddler and reduce the potential for fatigue or injury.

  • Engage the core of your body with each stroke. Do not rely solely on your arms when paddling.
  • Your core muscles will provide your power and help to avoid injury or fatigue by using your arms exclusively.
  • Use correct posture by sitting up straight with your lower back and your posterior in 90 degree alignment.  Some kayaks have adjustable seats with backrests, however this does not negate the importance of sitting up straight.
  • Most kayaks have foot pegs. You should position your feet in the pegs with your toes pointed outwards and your heels centered on the pegs.  This provides stability and additional control to engage your body in the stroke.
  • Your knees should be bent and tilted outward.
  • Hold your paddle with both hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Your elbows should be at 90 degree angles with both hands equal distance from the ends of the paddle.  

Basic Stroke Techniques

There are a variety of techniques that can be used for the stroke when kayaking.  Four basic techniques that individuals will need learn to successfully maneuver their kayak are:

kayaker paddling

Forward Stroke: This is the most basic stroke required to kayak.  Use the following guidelines to successfully propel your kayak forward:

  • Place your dominant hand’s paddle blade into the water at approximately the point where your foot is located in the foot peg.  
  • To propel you and your kayak forward begin pulling your paddle blade through the water towards the rear of the kayak. Remember to engage your core, as well as your arms in the pull.
  • At the point your paddle blade begins to pass your hip, rotate your body forward, removing the pull blade, while placing the opposite side blade into the water at approximately the same point near your foot on the opposite side.
  • To turn, paddle only from a single side, opposite of the direction you want to go.
  • To stop, place your paddle in the water, opposite of the direction you are heading and drag the paddle blade against the water.

Reverse Stroke: To propel your kayak in a backward direction, use the following basic techniques:

  • Place your dominant hands paddle in the water to the rear of the kayak behind your body.  
  • Looking over your shoulder pushing the paddle forward towards the front of the kayak. Again, engaging your core along with your arms to paddle.
  • Rotating your body to place the paddle in the water, allow it to naturally rotate back to facing forward and repeat the process on the alternate side.
  • To turn or stop, flow the techniques in the previous section.

Sweep Stroke: A sweep stroke is utilized in turning your kayak either to the right or left and in either a forward or backward direction.  

  • Forward Sweep: Place the paddle blade in the water near your foot, draw it back in a half moon arc towards the rear of the kayak, rotating your core with the paddle.
  • Backward Sweep: Place the paddle blade in the water near the stern (rear) of the kayak, push the paddle forward in a half moon arc towards the front of the kayak, rotating your core with the paddle.

Draw Stroke: The draw stroke is a more challenging and advanced technique to allow the paddler to move the kayak sideways.

  • Place the paddle blade in the water on the side of the direction you want to go, rotating your core in that direction.
  • When rotating your body and placing the paddle in the water both hands should extend over the water.
  • Pull the paddle blade toward the kayak, allowing you and the kayak to move towards the blade.

​Additional Technique Considerations

kayaking on a calm lake

When you are learning new techniques and trying to master these skills the following are a few suggestions:

  • Practice on a small lake, pond or river with a mild current.  
  • When practicing choose a location that has little or no boat traffic for safety reasons and to remove having to deal with waves created by a boat's wake.
  • Do a shore launch and stay close to the shore.
  • Your first trip(s) should be a shorter distance and of a shorter duration.  
  • A good length for a first time out is between 30 minutes and 1 hour.
  • Choose a warm, sunny day and one with a calm wind forecasted.
  • Know and understand your physical limits, so you don’t become fatigued.

Transporting Your Kayak

For your first experience kayaking to avoid having to transport, consider renting or going with a friend who’s an experienced kayaker. The next easiest option is opting for an inflatable kayak that can be easily deflated, folded and transported.

Short of these two options, you will need to consider investing in either a vehicle roof rack carrier or a trailer.  

kayak on top of a car

Pace Yourself

It’s natural to be excited and have a high energy level when you are heading out for your first paddle.  Remind yourself that whatever distance you travel away from your entry point, you will have to cover that same distance upon your return.

It is also important to remind yourself to focus on your technique, not how fast you can go and how much distance you can cover. You have the opportunity to see some amazing wildlife, scenery and nature at its best. Take the time to enjoy all that is around you.

Clothing and Other Essentials

The rule of thumb for experienced kayakers is, “dress for the water, not the weather.” There are certain times of the year where you will have very warm air temperatures but the water temperatures can be frigid. 

You will be near the water, you will get wet even under ideal conditions, and the potential for tipping and falling into the water needs to be considered. Always know and dress for the water temperature. Gear options like a wetsuit, kayaking gloves, and water shoes should be considered.  

It is also a good idea to consider bringing along a change of clothes. If you get wet, you will be happy you did so. Seaside Planet has an article titled, What to Wear Kayaking to Stay Safe and Comfortable that you may want to review.

kayaker wearing life jacket

Beginner Considerations

As a beginner a few suggestions that will help you along the way include:

  • Take a Lesson: The quickest and most efficient way to learn how to kayak and to master a variety of skills, is to take a lesson.  They are relatively inexpensive and will only enhance your enjoyment and safety.  You may also want to consider coaching from a friend who is an experienced kayaker or to go with a guide on a tour.
  • Priorities: Your kayak is an investment, as well as the items you have with you.  However, should you capsize, your number one priority and only priority is making sure you and anyone you are kayaking with is safe.  A kayak, your paddle, even your cell phone can all be replaced.  
  • Kayak with a Partner: For your initial outing(s) don’t paddle alone. As a matter of fact, it’s always a good idea to paddle with a partner, especially should something happen and you need help.
  • Wind and Weather Conditions: Avoid going out in windy conditions. Managing the wind takes significant skills and a well conditioned individual.  
  • Currents: If you are on a river or body of water with a current, head out going against the current.  Remember, you have a return trip and it’s always best to have the current helping, rather than restricting when you have spent the day expending energy.   
happy couple rowing

Safety Tips

Your safety and the safety of those you are kayaking with needs to be part of your planning and always in the forefront of your thinking.  In the event something happens to jeopardize the safety of your group, knowing how to rescue yourself and others is critical.  A few general tips:

  • If you capsize, always stay with your kayak.
  • This is a good point to reemphasize the benefits from taking lessons from a skilled instructor. Any beginning lessons will cover the basic drills of righting your kayak and successfully getting back in, if you are capsized.
  • As stated previously, people are more important than your kayak, your gear or any personal items.
  • If you capsize, your priority is your safety and the safety of those your kayaking with. 
  • Beginners should not kayak alone.
  • Kayaking, being on the water and venturing into unfamiliar areas all pose potential safety hazards.
  • Be alert and aware of your situation and the conditions around you. Wildlife, other boaters or kayakers, or obstacles (seen and unseen underwater), all present potential dangers.
capsized kayak

The following is a planning checklist to ensure everyone remains safe, comfortable and enjoys the time on the water:

  • Trip Plan/Itinerary: Notify family and/or friends of your intended trip plans (location, duration, length of trip, etc.)
  • Phone: A means for contacting help in case of emergency, along with the contact numbers and individuals names.
  • Hydration: Even in cool temperatures you will be expending energy and perspiring. Having drinkable water to avoid dehydration needs to be part of your planning and preparation. Once you start feeling thirsty, you’ve already begun the dehydration process. It’s also a good idea to bring along nutritional and high energy snacks.
  • Forecast: Check the forecast for weather conditions before heading out. Also, check for the current water temperatures. You will also want to know if there has been any rain falls the day or two prior to your outing. Heavy rains can present dangerous water conditions.
  • Sunscreen: Being out in the sun requires protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Even overcast days require a sunscreen with sufficient SPF (sun protection factor). Also, consider wearing a hat and rash guard.  

​Final Thoughts

There are so many amazing and enjoyable things to do with a kayak, from a leisurely paddle enjoying a warm, sunny day, to exploring new destinations, or getting a great cardio workout, catching fish or navigating some challenging and exhilarating whitewater. 

Kayaking offers something for every age and every skill level, providing greater challenges and new opportunities as your skills progress. Along the way, tips, ideas, suggestions, and even a few lessons will help you to improve and grow your kayaking skills and knowledge. 

Hopefully you will find these tips and suggestions of benefit to your journey and enjoyment kayaking. Please let us know in the comments sections how you are progressing.