How To Kayak 101: Everything A Beginner Needs To Know To Start Kayaking

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Sam OBrien

There are many reasons for someone to consider getting into kayaking. For most, it’s a way to go outside, unwind, and spend time in nature. Some view it as a great alternative to gym sessions. And some are just in it for the love of fishing.

Whatever your reasons might be, I’m willing to bet you want to learn as much as possible about it before you dip your feet.

And that’s kind of the point of this guide:

Helping you navigate the oh-so-exciting world of kayaking, learn how to kayak, and make the most of it – from day one! 

How To Kayak For Beginners – Key Takeaways

  • Kayaking has a rich history, with its origins in Arctic regions and its introduction to Europe in the mid-1800s for recreational purposes.
  • There are various types of kayaking, including recreational paddling, whitewater, sea, kayak touring, and kayak fishing and hunting.
  • The difficulty of kayaking varies depending on your experience and skill level, but it is important to learn the basics and invest in lessons to improve your safety and enjoyment.
  • Kayaking is not risk-free, so it is crucial to take necessary precautions and be aware of potential risks.
  • The benefits of kayaking include a full-body workout, potential for weight loss, low-impact cardio, helps with stress management, and great way to spent time outdoors.
  • Before committing to buying equipment, it is recommended to try kayaking by renting, borrowing from friends, joining paddling clubs, or going on organized tours.
  • When purchasing your first kayak, there are several factors to consider. These include kayak type, structural design, construction material, size and dimensions, physical weight, weight capacity, method of propulsion, brand reputation, and compliance with local boating regulations.
  • Before purchasing a kayak, plan how to transport and store it properly. Options include roof racks, truck beds, kayak trailers, and kayak carts.
  • Indoor storage is recommended, but outdoor storage can work with proper protection and locking to prevent theft.
  • Essential kayaking gear includes a Personal Flotation Device, helmet, paddle, bilge pump, spray skirt, and dry bags.
  • What you wear is important. Your clothing choices should be appropriate for the weather and water temperature, which may include wearing wet suits or dry suits for cold weather kayaking.
  • Choosing the right kayak paddle involves considering the length, material, blade shape, shaft design, and angle.
  • Mastering the basics of kayaking, such as the basic paddle strokes like the forward, sweep, reverse, maneuvering strokes, and self-recovery techniques, is crucial. It is highly recommended to take lessons with a certified paddling instructor to enhance your kayaking skills.
  • Selecting a suitable waterway for kayaking is important. Start on small, calm bodies of water for your first kayaking trip. Plan your launch and exit spots, check for potential hazards, areas that may require portaging, and always double check the weather conditions.

Kayaking 101: A Brief Overview Of The Sport 

cheerful friends in kayaks summer

Kayaks were invented by the native people – Inuit, Aleut, and Yup’ik people – that lived in Arctic regions at least 4000 years ago. Yup, the history of kayaking dates that far!

However, it’s not until the mid-1800s that they were introduced in Europe and primarily used for skimming across the cold waters. Germans and French were the first to recognize other potential uses for kayaks and began using them for recreational purposes.

From there, kayaking – as you and I know it today – evolved into a highly versatile on-the-water activity that takes on many different forms. And with so many styles of kayaking and different types of kayaks, one can choose from, it’s safe to say that it offers something for everyone.

Here’s a list of the types of kayaking that seem to be extremely popular these days:

  • Recreational kayaking – relaxing, easy for beginner kayakers, kids-friendly, usually done on small lakes and slow-moving rivers, with the primary goal of having fun.
  • Whitewater kayaking, an adrenaline-fueled and dangerous sport that involves rivers, streams, and creeks where whitewater rapids are present.
  • Sea kayaking involves paddling in oceans and similar large, unpredictable, open bodies of water, where waves, currents, and tides become a significant factor. 
  • Kayak touring – extended, multi-day trips, exploration, paddling routes that stretch over long distances, with a touch of camping thrown in.
  • Kayak fishing and hunting aren’t an official category; they’re more of a means than an end and exist with particular purposes in mind.

Is Kayaking Difficult?

It’s not – but it can be. Well, that doesn’t help at all, huh? But that’s the beauty of kayaking:

It’s only as difficult as the paddler wants it to be.

You’re the one who sets the pace, and how you approach it sets the tone for how difficult it will be.

It’s surprisingly easy to get into recreational kayaking and enjoy your time on the water – and it doesn’t have to be any more challenging than that. But you’re also free to push yourself, focus on technique and performance, and tackle challenging environments – if that’s what you want to do.

But what is going to make things more difficult is if you don’t take the time to learn the kayaking basics; how to properly paddle a kayak, how to get in and out, the fundamentals of kayaking safety – so it is worth investing in a few lessons to help build your kayaking skills.  

And whilst we are on the topic of things that make kayaking harder; not having the right kayaking equipment or paddling in an inappropriate location, ie one that doesn’t match your ability and skill level – is a recipe for disaster!

Don’t panic, we will cover all of these items, and a few more beginner kayaking tips, in the sections below.

While we’re on the subject of tips, if you want to kayak in order to fish, be sure to read our top tips for kayak fishing.

Is Kayaking Safe & Risk-Free?

I’ll have to disappoint you; kayaking isn’t an entirely risk-free activity. But then again, very few, if any, outdoor activities – especially those that take place on the water – are.

That’s not to say that launching your kayak is equivalent to walking into a death trap. However, it’s vital that you’re aware of the risks – and that you take the necessary precautions and know how to keep yourself safe.

Plan, prepare, and stay alert; that’s generally enough to keep the risks at a minimum.

Reasons To Start Kayaking: Experience The Benefits

Man With Canoe Kayak Paddle On Beach

Once you’ve had a chance to experience kayaking for yourself, I’m positive you’ll love it. I mean, I was hooked by the end of my first paddling session ever – and given the upswing in popularity that kayaking has seen in recent years, it’s safe to say others were, too.

But in case you’re still on the fence about whether or not you should pick up kayaking, I’d like to go over a number of staggering emotional and physical advantages it offers:

  • Kayaking is a full-body workout. Yes, it’s a fantastic upper body workout. But a proper paddling stroke will engage all the large muscle groups in your body – from leg muscles and glutes to your core, chest, and back muscles.
  • Taking up kayaking can help you lose weight. I mean, you might still want to watch your diet, but kayaking in itself can burn quite a lot of calories. So, yeah, weight loss is a definite possibility.
  • Paddling is a form of low-impact cardio. Unlike some other forms of exercise that will take a toll on your knees and ankles, kayaking will be less demanding on your joints and tissue.
  • It can be a stress-management method. Nature, outdoors time, sunshine, exercise, a sense of adventure, friends, and the soothing sound of the water are all proven ways to lower stress levels.
  • Kayaking is a chance to spend time outdoors. You’ll get closer to nature in a way that not many other outdoor activities would allow. And you’ll get some vitamin D, too.
  • It’s open to all. Kayaking is arguably the most inclusive of all paddle sports out there. It doesn’t have any age limitations, and it’s suitable for people with disabilities, bad knees, pre-existing medical conditions, and safe enough for pregnant women; you get my point.

Try It Out Before Committing To Any Equipment

water sport rentals

Chances are, you won’t be buying a kayak straight away. I mean, it’s certainly an option – but let’s say that these plastic boats aren’t always the definition of affordable. And since you’re still new to the sport, it might be better not to rush into things.

Try it, see how you like it, and then, when you’re sure that kayaking is the hobby for you, go ahead and buy a beginner-friendly kayak.

On that note, here are some tips on where and how you can test different kayaking equipment before committing:

  • Renting A Kayak – One of the most significant benefits of renting a kayak for your first few trips is that you don’t have to deal with transportation and storage. You can enjoy the time you spend on the water, return the kayak, and call it a day. It’s a low-cost way to dip your feet into the sport – no strings attached.
  • Borrowing A Friend’s Kayak – If you have friends who are experienced paddlers, you could also consider asking them to borrow their kayak. It’s even better than renting, as you’ll have a familiar face to show you the ropes.
  • Joining A Paddling Club – I’m all for meeting fellow kayakers and making a new friend or two, and local paddling clubs are usually the best place to do it. Beyond the benefits of being a part of the community, many paddling clubs also offer kayak rentals, storage, and educational resources.
    Going On An Organized Tour – If you’re nervous about going alone, consider joining an organized tour for your first trip. It’ll help you get familiar with paddling, basic equipment and build some confidence for your next outing. And who knows, maybe you’ll meet new paddling buddies, too. 

Buying Your First Kayak: What You Need To Know

Colourful kayaks and canoes on sale outside an outdoor equipment store on a sunny autumn day

Now, let’s say you’ve rented a kayak a couple of times already, you have a basic understanding of what kayaking is all about – and you’re sure that it’s the right paddle sport for you. You fell in love with kayaking; no surprise there!

So, what’s the next logical step in your kayaking journey?

That’s right, buying your first kayak!

And to be quite honest, that can be an overwhelming experience, given everything you’ll have to consider and the decisions you’ll have to make in the process – including:

But to help stop analysis paralysis setting in, I’ve put together this simple step-by-step guide on how to choose a kayak – see, I’ve got your back!

Once the search is over and your kayak is picked out, you still have to research local boating laws to see if you need to register your kayak

The Essential Gear You Need To Go Kayaking

Kayaker Standing at Riverbank

When it comes to kayaking gear, you don’t have to go all-in and cross off a ton of items from a lengthy checklist to take part in your first casual outing. You don’t need much to get into it at all.

The first thing will – obviously – be a kayak, but we have that part covered already. What else will you need to get into kayaking, though?

Here are a few items to add to your must-have list of equipment:

  • PFD – A flotation device is required by law – but more importantly, they could save your life one day. I don’t think there’s an excuse for going kayaking without a life jacket. So, be sure to add a well-fitted, paddling-specific Type III PFD at the top of your list.
  • Helmet – Okay, yes, a whitewater kayak helmet might be overkill for a relaxing afternoon on a small lake. Then again, a “brain bucket” could be all that stands between you and a potentially fatal head injury.
  • Paddle – You’re not going anywhere without a paddle. It will be every bit as essential as the kayak itself – which is why I’ve dedicated an entire section to how to choose one. I hope you stick around for that.
  • Bilge Pump – Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself in a scenario that requires you to bail excess water out of the kayak’s cockpit; think recovering from capsizing, for example. And when you do, you’ll be glad to have a bilge pump on board.
  • Spray Skirt – A spray skirt won’t always be necessary – and won’t make much sense if you go with a sit-on-top kayak. But they are a necessity for sit inside kayaks, especially if you start paddling in more challenging conditions, as they provide an extra layer of protection against the splashing water. 
  • Dry Bags – What’s the one thing that can ruin your day faster than anything else? Finding out all of your valuables are damaged by water. That is why having waterproof storage, like dry bags for example, are invaluable to anyone who wants to keep their stuff safe and sound while they’re on a kayaking trip.

Let’s Talk Clothes: What To Wear Kayaking?

young couple kayaking on lake together and smiling at sunset

I feel like I’ve said this a thousand times – and I probably did – but when choosing what to wear kayaking, the number one rule should always be:

Dress for the water – not the weather.

You’ll get wet; there’s no way around it. So, it’s in your best interest that you’re ready for it when it happens.

With that basic rule in mind, here are some suggestions on what to wear kayaking depending on the water temperature and weather conditions.

Warm Weather

Deciding what to wear shouldn’t be that hard in warmer weather. Your biggest concern will be finding something comfortable and moisture-wicking that will keep you cool while protecting you from UV rays.

Here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Swimwear, paired with a quick-drying shirt and shorts
  • Shorty wetsuit, also known as a “spring suit”
  • Kayaking shoes
  • Sunglasses
  • Wide-brimmed hat
  • Sunscreen 

Cold Weather

Kayaking in cold weather isn’t necessarily something I’d recommend to a beginner. It’s a whole other level of extreme.

But I know some of you will go ahead and try it, anyway. So, you should know how to stay safe when the temperatures drop and decide between a wetsuit and drysuit for kayaking:

  • Wetsuits are the preferred choice if the risk of hypothermia is moderate to low – and you can wear them year-round if you will.
  • Drysuits are designed to keep you dry, hence the name. They are the only efficient way of staying dry, warm, and safe when the water temperature is below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. 
Wetsuits vs Drysuits - What You Should Know for Cold Water Sports

Buying A Kayak Paddle: What You Need To Know 

Close up of kayak paddles

I like to think of choosing a kayak paddle as selecting a weapon.

Kayaks get all the attention, but they’re useless without a paddle when you think about it. It will be your primary means of propulsion – unless you get a pedal-drive kayak, that is. But that’s a whole other story.

So, back to the point:

You have to choose your “weapon” wisely.

On that note, here’s what you need to consider:

  • Paddle length, a choice you’ll make based on your body size – height and torso length – and the width of your kayak, along with a few additional factors
  • Material – with your main options being aluminum, Carbon fiber, and fiberglass paddles – as construction affects the paddle’s weight, price, and durability
  • Paddle Blades, mainly the choice between asymmetrical and symmetrical blades – or even the so-called dihedral blade shape – and the angle between them, called feathering
  • Paddle Shaft design, as in, a standard, straight shaft or one with bent sections on it; the latter could be easier on your wrists
  • High vs. low-angle, which is a matter of your paddling style – the angle at which your paddle hits the water – and affects your choice of blade shape  

Sure, for the time being, one of those starter paddles that come with the kayak will do the trick – but I highly recommend that you make it one of your first kayak upgrades. You’ll be surprised by the difference a good paddle makes performance- and comfort-wise. 

How To Kayak: Mastering The Basics Of Kayaking

Couple of kayakers paddling during sunset

Paddling is a funny thing. Anyone can do it – but not everyone can do it right.

You see, there’s a pretty big difference between grabbing a paddle and swinging it around – and actually paddling a kayak. One is tiring, hard on the arms, can lead to injuries, and won’t get you far. The other adds power to your stroke, allows for better control, puts less strain on the body – and makes you more efficient.

And it comes down to mastering the basics of proper paddling technique; paddling forward, moving the kayak sideways and knowing how to paddle backwards.

For starters, you’ll have to figure out how to get in and out of a kayak, in deep and shallow water, and how to hold the paddle the right way. 

The Paddlers Box - How to Kayak - Paddle Education

Once you have that covered, you can move on to mastering the basic strokes:

  • Forward stroke, which you’ll be using 90% of the time when propelling your kayak forward and in a straight line. Mastering how to paddle forward with a kayak will make huge differences in how easy and efficient your paddling is
  • Sweep stroke – forward and reverse – which you’ll be using for steering and turning your kayak
  • Reverse stroke – the forward stroke done in reverse – these sweep strokes will allow you to slow down or paddle backward when needed
  • Maneuvering strokes, mainly the draw stroke and sculling stroke, as well as edging your kayak to do a carving turn  – all of which require total masterly and control of the paddle blade

Beyond that, you’ll have to work on your self-recovery techniques, mainly the so-called Eskimo roll – a type of recovery technique that allows you to roll your kayak to right it after capsizing.

It might seem overwhelming, but I promise – it’s not. However, there’s a learning curve to it.

My advice is to sign up for a lesson or two. Going over the basic strokes and safety skills with a certified paddling instructor in a controlled environment will help you gain confidence and, more importantly, stay safe on the water. 

Pick & Choose Your Route: Where To Kayak?

Couple in safe jackets pulling kayak on beach

Since you’re new to kayaking, I wouldn’t feel comfortable telling you to “just wing it” and pick any random waterway for your first outing. That would be an incredibly irresponsible thing for me to do.

That begs the question, though:

Where do you go kayaking? How do you pick a suitable paddling location when planning your trip – and your first one, no less?

Well, my advice is to choose something small and calm – a lake or pond with public access, for example.  Maybe leave the whitewater kayaking adventure  Use this interactive map to discover paddling locations in your area that fit the description.

There are a few more things to include in the planning stages of your first outing:

  • Put In/Exit Spots – You probably don’t have much practice with launching a kayak, which is why I’m suggesting that you choose your put-in and get-out points carefully. Steep or rocky shorelines will be more challenging than nice, gently sloping sandy beaches.
  • Wildlife – Be aware of the many different forms of wildlife you might come across – in both fresh and saltwater environments. Find out what species you might encounter in the area and how to stay safe sharing the waters with them.
  • Hazards – Be mindful of many other dangers you might come across, especially if you’ll be paddling in a river, and avoid them as much as possible. River hazards such as low-head dams or river strainers can be deadly – so make sure you know what they are, how to spot them and what to do if you encounter them.
  • Portage – Are there any areas along your route that might require portaging? Make sure you’re prepared for that, too.
  • Weather Conditions – It would be best to pick a sunny, windless day for your first outing. Double-check the weather forecast and keep the environmental challenges as predictable as possible.
  • Water Conditions – Save the Class III rapids for later; start on small, calm bodies of water, like lakes and ponds. Most importantly, stay away from busy waterways with a lot of boat traffic.
  • Kayaking SeasonTake into account the time of year, the effect this might have on the conditions, how you should dress and whether it is even appropriate to be on the water.

While a float plan isn’t mandatory – you’re going on a short trip, not a full-blown expedition – you should consider letting someone know that you’re going, anyway. 

Transporting A Kayak – Something To Consider

transporting yellow sit in kayak on roof of a car

Kayak transportation is arguably one of the trickiest things for first-time paddlers to grasp. But here’s the funny part:

Very few people remember that they need to figure this part out before they purchase a kayak.

More often than not, you’ll see people get carried away, buy the kayak, then end up wondering:

Wait, how the heck am I supposed to get this thing from my backyard to the water?

So, to avoid that mess, I figured we should talk about transporting a kayak right away. That’ll give you enough time to think it over and see which method works for you.

  • Roof racks do require some heavy lifting, but these might be the only option for those who drive a “regular” car. If you’re not up for making permanent modifications to your vehicle, here’s how to do it without a roof rack.
  • A truck bed is generally considered one of the most convenient solutions for transporting a kayak. But make sure you tie it down properly!
  • Kayak trailers are a hard-to-beat option when it comes to transporting more than one kayak. Plus, it doesn’t require permanent modifications and is easier to use in general.
  • Kayak carts – small, two-wheeled, manually-towed trailers – are convenient and offer a great alternative to carrying or dragging the kayak to and from the water’s edge.

In any case, you’ll need a vehicle to pull it off – unless you’re lucky enough to live on a beach. And if that’s so, you can ignore my advice because you’re evidently better at this whole “life” thing than me.

Storing A Kayak: Find Your ‘Yak A Home

Sit in Kayaks on storage rack

You’ll have to find your kayak a home. And as with transportation, it’s better to think this through and come up with some kayak storage ideas before buying a kayak. Finding a place to store a not-so-compact kayak after the fact could be a real challenge.

When it comes to how to store a kayak, you’ll generally have two options:

  • Indoor storage would be the preferred option since it protects the kayak from direct UV exposure, the elements, temperature changes, and pests. Anything with a roof over it – a garage, shed, basement or spare room – where you can hoist a kayak up or mount it on the wall would do.
  • Outdoor storage isn’t ideal long-term, but if you put in some effort to limit exposure to the elements and sunlight, you could make it work.

While we’re on the subject of storing your kayak, here’s another crucial piece of advice:

Make sure you lock it.

You’re not the only one who understands the value of a brand new kayak. Thieves know it very well, too – and given the right opportunity, they will try to steal it.

Yes, kayak theft is a thing. The more you know, huh?

Basic Kayak Maintenance: Good Care Goes A Long Way

Male athlete in swimming sportswear carrying yellow kayak and paddle outdoors after training on the river,

Regular gym-goers have probably heard about the “wash your activewear after each session, especially if it was a sweaty one.” Well, a similar rule applies to kayaks and other paddling gear, too:

Cleaning your kayak regularly and ensuring that you’re getting rid of dirt and grime that builds up with each paddling session will do wonders for keeping it in tip-top shape.

Of course, you don’t have to do the thorough, mild-soap-and-water process every time, but it’s best not to skip the quick, after-paddling rinse. That becomes even more important if you went kayaking in saltwater.

Oh, and while we’re at it – make sure it’s completely dry before storing it. No one wants a moldy kayak.

There are a few more maintenance-related things you can do to keep your kayak looking pretty year in and year out:

  • Waxing your kayak – protecting the hull with marine-grade wax and finishing it off with a UV protectant spray – will improve its durability and longevity, protect it from UV rays, and add a layer of protection against scratches.
  • Painting your kayak – be it to cover up signs of repair or switch things up because you’re tired of the current color – isn’t crucial for regular maintenance, but it can be a fun little DIY project, nonetheless. 

Learning How To Kayak: Summary

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the end of this lengthy article! There’s one more thing I’d like to add, though.

Learning how to kayak is going to be a process. You’ll have to consider many factors along the way, and it won’t always be easy. But I want you to remember to treat this process as a journey rather than a destination.

Enjoy every minute of it – from the first time you rent a kayak to the moment you buy your own, and beyond!

Frequently Asked Questions On Kayaking for Beginners

Is it safe to kayak with no experience?

Kayaking without any prior experience can pose certain challenges, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsafe. It’s like starting a book in the middle – you can get the gist, but you might miss important details. Before venturing out onto the water, it’s highly recommended that beginners take at least a basic kayaking course or participate in a guided trip. This can help familiarize you with key kayaking techniques and safety protocols, greatly reducing the risk of accidents. Also, make sure to always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) and avoid challenging waters until you’ve gained more experience.

Should I kayak if I don’t know how to swim?

While it’s not mandatory to know how to swim to kayak, it is highly recommended. In the event that your kayak capsizes, knowing how to swim can potentially save your life. If you don’t know how to swim, consider taking swimming lessons before starting your kayaking adventure. Alternatively, always make sure to kayak with a group or guide, wear a well-fitted personal flotation device (PFD), and stay close to shore where the water is shallow

How long should you kayak for the first time?

For your first kayaking experience, it’s generally best to limit your time on the water to around 1-2 hours. This should provide enough time for you to familiarize yourself with the basic kayaking techniques without becoming overly tired. Remember, kayaking involves physical exertion and it may take some time for your body to adjust to the new movements. You can gradually increase your kayaking time as your stamina and skill improve.

How likely are you to flip over in a kayak?

The likelihood of flipping over in a kayak can greatly depend on several factors including the type of kayak you’re using, the conditions of the water, and your kayaking technique. Sit-on-top kayaks are generally more stable and less likely to capsize compared to sit-inside kayaks. However, with proper training on balance and paddle techniques, the risk of flipping over can be significantly minimized. It’s also worth noting that in calm, flat waters and under normal conditions, capsizing isn’t a common occurrence for beginners.

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Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.