Learn How to Kayak For Beginners – Everything You Need to Know

Ready to try kayaking but don't know where to start? This guide is your ticket to mastering the basics with confidence on your very first time on the water! Learn how to pick the right starter kayak, perfect your paddling technique, understand safety essentials, and grasp key terminology to look and sound like a pro. Paddling is easier than you think - become a kayaking whiz now!
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Nessa Hopkins

Senior Writer & Kayaking Instructor

Vanessa is a certified kayaking instructor, has taught over 500 people how to kayak, and is a senior member of the American Canoe Association. By combining her deep understanding of the sport and a background in journalism, she offers a wealth of experience and expertise to our growing water sports community, promising to educate and inspire paddlers of all levels.

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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

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.

During my time as an ACA level 4 instructor, I’ve taught nearly 500 people how to kayak. Trust me when I say kayaking can have quite a steep starting learning curve. But once you get a hold of the basics, the rest comes pretty easy.

Sure, when starting out you’ll feel like a fish out of water – but we were all there at one point. No one is born knowing how to kayak. There’s no need to stress if you’re having trouble mastering the art of kayaking – with enough practice, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.

To make your entry into this sport easier, I’ve assembled this comprehensive guide on how to kayak. You’ll learn everything about kayaking, from getting started and learning basic terminology to choosing your first kayak – and more!

Key Takeaways

  • Getting started: Rent a kayak and test the waters – literally – or go on a guided tour and see if it works for you. Nothing beats this approach, as I’ve seen hundreds of people who changed their mind after a while. 
  • Buying your first kayak: The choices are many – your decision will require some questioning and careful thought. Research the picks you’re interested in, consider your skills and needs, think about transporting and storing it, set a budget and stick to it. Think about used versus new.
  • Essential kayaking gear: Your kayak is just the beginning – you’ll need a paddle, a PFD, and a few other essential pieces of equipment. Some are optional, but all will enhance your time on the water.
  • Basic kayaking techniques: The next step is learning how to enter and exit a kayak, basic strokes, self-rescue maneuvers. My advice – don’t be afraid of failing.
  • Kayaking safety tips: Staying safe on the water involves careful planning and preparation. Never start a kayaking session without a float plan.
  • Kayaking rules and regulations: Before your first launch, check the local rules and regulations. You don’t want to get fined or endanger yourself or someone in your environment. 

How to Get Started Kayaking?

The two best ways to get started kayaking are by renting a kayak or taking a class.

As a kayaking instructor, I see it all the time – new paddlers showing up on their first day with fancy kayaks and every accessory under the sun…yet without a clue how to actually use their gear! We jokingly call it “all the gear but no idea”. I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every eager novice more preoccupied with their looks than developing their kayaking skills!

So please, don’t fall into that trap. Resist those impulse purchases until you get your feet wet (literally) and determine if paddling is really your cup of tea. No need to invest significant money upfront before confirming your love for kayaking. Used gear or rentals work just fine for beginners rather than breaking the bank prematurely!

The key point is this: take your time progressing safely, don’t compare yourself to others, and have fun exploring a rewarding sport. The fancy stuff can wait – for now, just focus on discovering the basics at your own pace

Trying Kayaking: Rent a Kayak or Sign up for a Tour

Beginners kayaking together on a kayak tour

I always recommend trying kayaking before committing – and the good news is, you have quite a few options when it comes to giving the sport a go. 

  • 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 toes 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.
  • Going On An Organized Tour: If you’re nervous about going alone or don’t have any paddling friends yet, you can sign up for a kayaking tour! It’ll help you get familiar with paddling and basic equipment and build some confidence for your next outing. Plus, organized tours will take you through some breathtaking areas. And if that doesn’t instill a love for this sport, then I don’t know what will. 
A word of advice: 

Don’t just go for the first rental company or tour operator you find on Google. Read the reviews, check their safety record, and be sure to ask if they offer basic instructions.

Learning the Ropes: Kayaking Classes and Clubs

New kayaker out on the water learning to kayak

When learning the ropes in kayaking, going out and joining kayak classes or clubs is the way to go. Beyond the spirit of community (broadening your horizons, meeting experienced kayakers) aspect, there’s the added value of potential kayak rentals, storage, and educational resources which all of those organizations provide. 

Finding a kayaking or paddling club is just a few clicks away – the ACA website is a great place to start. Depending on where you are in the States, chances are you’ll find a club nearby quickly.

Trust me – joining a kayaking or paddling club will be the most beneficial decision you’ve made:

  • You’ll get proper tuition and training and set yourself on a much better start compared to figuring it out alone
  • You’ll gain access to various learning opportunities such as workshops, seminars, group events, and contests
  • You’ll practice the essential skills with your peers, in the best places in the area, which is an invaluable trump card for a beginner

Understanding Kayak Basics

When starting your kayaking journey, understanding kayak basics (list of terms and jargon commonly used in this sport) will be the first obstacle you’ll have to overcome. 

To help out, I’ve made a detailed list of terms you’ll have to learn about and remember. 

Before the list, a small caveat – we’ve all been at the start once, so don’t sweat about it. In time, you’ll learn to differentiate your bow from your stern (ass from elbow). 

It will become a second nature to you, I promise – and there’s always going to be a friendly kayaker or two to help out along the way.

Kayaking Terminology

Man explaining to a class the key Kayaking Terminology

Kayaking has specialized vocabulary to describe the various techniques, gear, and water conditions you may encounter. Getting familiar with some key kayaking terms will help you understand this beginner guide better and communicate more effectively with other paddlers.

The table below defines some of the most common kayaking words and phrases you’ll likely hear on the water. Make sure to study this kayaking glossary to pick up the lingo and improve your knowledge. Having command of these key terms will allow you to follow instructions better and transition from kayaking novice to expert paddler.

Term Definition
Bulkhead Internal wall within a kayak’s hull, creating watertight compartments for buoyancy and gear storage.
Brace Defensive paddle stroke used to regain balance, prevent tipping by pushing water with a flat blade.
Boof Advanced whitewater kayaking jumping technique to clear rocks, avoiding recirculating currents while maintaining downstream momentum.
Capsize The act of flipping your kayak over unconventionally that requires you to right yourself up or exit the boat.
Downstream Paddling along the river’s flow; the easiest way to paddle since the water is moving you along.
Eddy A calm part of the river flow caused by an obstruction upstream. Great for taking a break while navigating whitewater.
Portage A fancy word for carrying your kayak overland to avoid unrunnable sections of the river.
J-Hook (J-Cradle) A J-shaped rack accessory for your vehicle that allows you to transport your kayaks on a vehicle roof.
Open Water Expansive areas of water such as lakes or seas, characterized by wind, waves, and lack of boundaries.
Paddler’s Box The optimal hand and arm alignment during paddling to maximize power and minimize injury.
PFD (Personal Flotation Device) An essential piece of safety gear, commonly known as a life jacket, designed to provide buoyancy and keep you afloat.
Put In/Take Out Designated places where kayakers enter (put in) or exit (take out) a body of water.
Rapid A section of river with fast-moving, turbulent water, often with waves, whirlpools, and rocks, requiring skill to navigate.
Roll A self-rescue technique to upright oneself in a kayak after a capsize, using body and paddle motion.
Sit-Inside Kayak (SIK) A type of kayak with an enclosed cockpit. It offers excellent protection from elements and allows for greater control.
Sit-On-Top Kayak (SOT) Type of kayak where the paddler sits on an open deck, easier to get on/off, often more stable.
Stacker A type of kayak carrier for vehicles that allows kayaks to be transported vertically side by side.
Strainer River hazards like trees or debris where water passes through but can trap and endanger paddlers.
Swamp A situation where your kayak starts taking on water from waves that usually increases the risk of capsizing and reduced mobility.
Swim Term used when a paddler exits their capsized kayak and must swim to safety or recover their boat.
Upstream Paddling against the direction of the river current; often more physically demanding and challenging.
Wet Exit The act of safely leaving a capsized and possibly submerged kayak, often a necessary skill in sea kayaking.
White Water Stretches of a river with turbulent water flow and waves. Best place for adventure kayaking and rafting.
‘Yak Informal term for a “kayak” or the act of kayaking; also indicative of the paddling community and lifestyle.
Key Kayaking Terms and Their Definitions

Parts Of A Kayak

Image showing the labelled parts of a kayak

Parts of a kayak – namely, the terms listed below – are among the various terms you’ll learn as a beginner paddler. Don’t worry if you don’t remember them right away; in time, they’ll naturally become a part of your vocabulary. 

Part Definition
Bow The front or forward section of a kayak, designed to cut through water and waves effectively.
Stern The rear or back part of the kayak, designed for stability and to house rudders or skegs if present.
Chine The part where the kayak’s bottom meets the side, influencing stability and maneuverability.
Cockpit The opening in the kayak where you sit. It’s surrounded by a coaming, which allows you to attach a spray skirt.
Deck The top part of a kayak that typically features storage hatches and gear attachment points.
Hull The bottom part of the kayak that’s in contact with the water. Its shape greatly affects performance.
Scuppers Intentional holes on the bottom of SOT kayaks that allow the excess water to drain when it gets inside the boat.
Keel The central ridge running along the bottom of the kayak’s hull, important for straight-line tracking.
Rocker The curvature of the kayak’s hull from bow to stern, affecting maneuverability and wave handling.
Rudder A hand or foot-controlled steering device at the stern designed to assist with navigation and tracking.
Skeg A drop-down fin that helps with kayak tracking, especially in windy conditions or strong currents.
Kayak Anatomy – Definition of the Basic Parts

Buying Your First Kayak: What You Need To Know 

Man in outdoor store discussing kayak options with the clerk

So, you decided you’re into kayaking (Yay!), and you’re serious about buying your first kayak. There are a lot of things to look for and think about – but it mostly comes down to intended use, kayaking style and budget

Understanding The Different Types of Kayak

Understanding the different types of kayaks is the first step in buying a ‘yak – and it’s crucial for someone with little to no paddling experience. You want to get something that feels manageable and beginner-friendly rather than overwhelming. 

With that said, here’s an overview of different types of kayaks

Based on construction: 

Overhead show of a man putting together a modular kayak
  • Hard-shell – Most common, made in a single, rigid unit. Can vary in design, size, and material – plastic, wood, or composite materials.
  • Inflatable – As the name suggests, these are made to be inflated when in use, and deflated when stored away. Made from puncture-resistant rubbers.
  • Folding – Something in between hard-shells and inflatables. These fold for easier storage and transportation –  often referred to as origami kayaks. 
  • Modular kayaks – Hard-shell models that come in parts and can be adjusted (you bolt the parts together) in size or capacity – when you want both versatility & rigidity.

Based on design: 

Collection of brightly colored sit in and sit on top kayak stood against a wall
  • Sit-on-top – Kayaks where paddlers sit on top of the boat in an open cockpit, usually in a molded-in seating area, or a dedicated kayak seat. They are broader, very stable, and easy to enter or re-enter, but lack in performance and maneuverability. Making them an ideal choice for beginner kayakers and those into recreational paddling.  
  • Sit-inside –  Traditional hull type in which the paddler “sits inside” a closed cockpit. This design offers several advantages, including enhanced performance, maneuverability, tracking and protections from the elements. However, it is worth noting that sit-in kayaks are narrower and more challenging to enter and re-enter, making them less suitable for a beginner kayaker. A sit-in kayak is best suited for activities such as ocean kayaking, kayak surfing, whitewater and other experienced paddling endeavors.

Based on the intended use:

White water kayaker tackling the rapid his bright yellow play boat
  • Recreational – Basic, affordable, and easy-to-use models, available in both sit-on-top and sit-inside, hard-shell or inflatable. Stability is their main gig. 
  • Touring – Long, narrow sit-inside models, specialized for long distances. Efficiency, speed, & ample cargo space are their main features.
  • Sea kayaks – A subclass of touring kayaks, specifically engineered for sea kayaking endeavors. 
  • Whitewater – Short and stubby sit-inside models with a pronounced rocker profile, built to prioritize maneuverability and buoyancy in whitewater rapids. 
  • Racing – Very narrow, lightweight, and crazy fast, these bad boys are used for competitions where crossing the required distance in the least amount of time possible. 
  • Crossover – Hybrids built to bridge the gap between recreational and other types of kayaks. Think of these as recreational with added features. 
  • Fishing kayaks – Made for long fishing sessions on the water, these kayaks are specialized in stability and storage, enabling anglers and other fishermen to bring everything they need to fish in most interesting areas.
  • SUP kayak hybrids – These models are merging paddle boards and kayaks into one – bringing the best from both worlds in a single vessel.

Based on the method of propulsion:

Hobie Compass Duo Pedal Kayak
  • Paddle-propelled – Default method of kayak propulsion, where you use a paddle to move the kayak. 
  • Pedal-powered – These kayaks allow hands-free paddling – you operate your kayak by turning pedals with your feet. These are ideal for fishermen and photographers who need use of both hands. 
  • Motorized – Self-explanatory – they come with a trolling motor mounted on the stern for easy propulsion. It’s still required to have a paddle in case the motor fails.

Based on the number of paddlers:

Family in tandem kayaks paddle on the river during summer
  • Solo  – The most common type of kayak, optimized for a single paddler to use it at a time. Can be sit-on-top or sit-inside, and can feature any type of construction mentioned above.
  • Tandem – Designed specifically to house two paddlers at the same time. Tandem kayaks are longer and wider than solo kayaks, providing more stability and capacity.
  • Family – A type of recreational kayak designed to accommodate two adults and one or two small children (and/or a dog). They are very stable, with a large open cockpit, typically range from 12 to 16 feet long and have a weight capacity over 500 pounds.

Choosing the Right Kayak For You

When choosing a kayak, everything boils down to picking one that will serve your specific needs the best. It all comes down to a set of questions, each having multiple answers that get you closer to a decision. 

Here’s how it looks:

  1. Where will you kayak?
    • Calm Rivers & Lakes: Choose a recreational kayak.
    • Sea & Coastal Waters: Opt for a sit-inside touring or sea kayak.
    • Rapids or Fitness: A whitewater kayak suits aggressive, choppy waters.
  1. What’s your kayaking goal?
    • Casual Paddling/Short Kayaking Trips: Recreational kayaks are ideal.
    • Long Expeditions/Camping: Touring kayaks, including folding and modular models, work best.
    • Fishing/Hunting/Photography: Fishing kayaks are your best bet – you’ll need space and stability.
    • Adrenaline Adventures: Whitewater kayaks are going to be your jam – these bad boys rock.
    • Racing: A long, narrow, lightweight racing kayak model is what you’ll need.
  1. Do you want a hard-shell or an inflatable kayak?
    • The choice between inflatable or hard-shell is dependent your priorities around performance vs portability and convenience. Hard-shell models are better in performance, inflatables are amazing for high load capacity, easy storage & transport.
  1. Do you want a single or a tandem kayak?
    • Will you paddle alone or with a partner? Plan to kayak with a child, or bring your dog sometime? This decision will affect the size of kayak you will need, along with its capacity
    • If you’re on the fence about this and want to try both solo and tandem kayaking, sit-on-top kayaks that can switch from a one-person to a two-person configuration are an option worth considering.
  1. Do you have the means of transport & storage?
    • Have you considered the storage space a 14ft sea kayak requires? Your living situation and the size of your vehicle are crucial factors in choosing a kayak that fits your lifestyle.

Look For These Beginner-Friendly Features:

As a kayaking instructor, I always recommend that beginners look for kayaks with certain user-friendly features. Choosing the right kayak will make it much easier to learn proper technique and handling, as well as build confidence on the water. It is important to have equipment that is stable, comfortable, and easy to control.

Here are the key features I suggest novice paddlers consider:

  • Easy Entry/Exit: When first getting started, it can take some time to figure out how to gracefully get in and out of a kayak, especially if you tip over. Sit-on-top models have open cockpits that allow you to simply slide on and off, which is much easier than squeezing legs into the narrow opening found in sit inside kayaks..
  • High Capacity: As a beginner, you want to ensure the kayak has sufficient weight capacity to support both your body weight and any gear you load into the boat. I recommend not exceeding 70% of the stated maximum capacity. Overloading will make the kayak ride lower in the water, affecting its stability and handling.
  • Good stability: Wider kayak hulls, those over 32 inches, are more stable for beginners still working on balance and control.
  • Comfort: Look for padded, adjustable seats and adequate leg room and cockpit size to avoid feeling cramped.
  • Easy Maneuverability: Shorter, wider kayaks turn more easily than longer, narrower ones. I recommend a kayak around 10 to 11 feet long and 30 to 34 inches wide.

Should You Buy New or Used?

Used Kayak sale at the end of the season

Deciding whether you should buy new or used is a common dilemma among beginners – especially if on a tight budget. With a new ‘yak, you get the latest tech and features, but with a used one, you’re saving money – although it may mean compromising on the overall state of the vessel and the latest features.

If you decide to buy a used kayak, here are a few tips: 

  • Take the time to browse online marketplaces, garage sales, and local water sports swap meets. 
  • Don’t seek out the lowest possible prices; there might be hidden wear or damage. 
  • Inspect the kayak thoroughly before purchase. Ideally, bring an experienced friend along to help you; they’ll know what to look for when inspecting the ‘yak.

I’m not saying this to discourage you from buying a used ‘yak. I’ve helped a few beginners in need to inspect a used kayak, and only one was a no-go – all others were completely fine at a bargain price. 

How Much Should A Beginner Spend On A Kayak?

If you’re a complete beginner and you ask me how much to spend on your first kayak, I’d usually tell you to look for a basic recreational kayak, in the $400-500 range. It won’t excel at anything, but will handle everything you need to learn solid paddling skills without a huge upfront investment. 

Try to be honest with yourself and think about how you’ll use it; you don’t want to spend a small fortune on a kayak that will collect dust in your garage, right?

Here’s a price breakdown based on kayak type:

  • Recreational kayaks: $300 to $1000
  • Fishing kayaks: $500 to $2000
  • Whitewater kayaks: $700 to $1400
  • Touring kayaks: $1200 to $2000
  • Sea kayaks: $1000 to $1800
  • Inflatable kayaks: $100 to $1000
  • Folding kayaks: $1800 to $2500
  • Tandem kayaks: $500 to $2500
  • Kids kayaks: $100 to $500
  • Pedal kayaks: $1200 to $2000

Set a realistic budget, but prioritize quality and durability over lower cost. Research and compare different models to make an informed choice.

Essential Kayaking Gear and Equipment

The list of essential kayaking gear and equipment you’ll need as a beginner paddler just starts with the kayak. To complete your first kayak setup core, you’ll need a paddle and a PFD (Personal Floating Device) along with a few other must-have pieces of equipment. 

How To Choose the Right Kayak Paddle

Everything You Need To Know About Kayak Paddles

When choosing a kayak paddle, you need to consider your paddling style, the length of the paddle, materials, blade shape, and budget. I like to think of choosing a kayak paddle as selecting a weapon.

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

  • Paddling Style: High-angle paddling is vertical and powerful, suitable for narrower kayaks; requires a paddle with shorter, wider blades. Low-angle paddling is horizontal, more relaxed, ideal for wider kayaks, using longer, narrower paddle blades. As a beginner, it’s recommended to go low-angle, longer blade paddle.
  • Paddle Length: Determine based on your height and kayak’s width. Taller paddlers and wider kayaks need longer paddles for effective reach.
    • For an average male (5ft10), a typical paddle length is around 220 to 230 centimeters.
    • For an average female (5ft4), a typical paddle length is around 210 to 220 centimeters
    • To quickly size a kayak paddle, stand it upright next to you, extend your arm, and see if the first joint of your fingers can hook over the blade’s tip.
  • Material: Often found in most kits, metal paddle shaft & plastic blade combo is something a beginner will most likely encounter. On the other hand, lighter materials like fiberglass or carbon reduce fatigue and enhance power. They would make a world of difference, and I always recommend a fiberglass reinforced nylon blade with a fiberglass shaft – that is the best bang for the buck.
  • Budget: Quality matters. Higher-quality paddles improve performance and comfort. Invest in the best paddle within your budget – it’s the one area where it is recommended to spend a bit more. I recommend setting a budget of 150-200 USD for a decent beginner paddle.

Must-Have Gear List

Overhead shot of the kayaking essentials gear

When it comes to the must-have gear list, you don’t have to go all-in and cross off a ton of items from a lengthy checklist to start kayaking. You don’t need much to get into it at all.

The first two things will – obviously – be a kayak and a paddle, but we have that part covered already. 

So, here are a few items to add to your must-have list of equipment:

  • Personal Floating Device (PFD) – a lifejacket that you need to wear at all times when on the water. They’re required by law – but more importantly, they could save your life one day. So, be sure to add a well-fitted, paddling-specific Type III PFD at the top of your list.
  • Helmet — Protective headwear is especially important for whitewater, surf kayaking, and when navigating rocky areas. Yes, it might be an overkill for a relaxing afternoon on a small lake, but it can be all that stands between you and a potentially fatal head injury. Make sure to pick a vented model, and it fits your head perfectly.
  • Bilge Pump — A device used for extracting water from the kayak’s cockpit or hatches. In situations like recovering from a capsized kayak, you’ll appreciate having a bilge pump to efficiently remove excess water from the cockpit.
  • Spray Skirt – Worn around the kayaker’s waist, kayak spray skirt is a waterproof accessory that seals the sit-inside cockpit, preventing water from entering the kayak for stability and dryness.
  • Kayaking Gloves (Optional) – A pair of kayaking gloves will do wonders for preventing blisters and calluses. Plus, they’ll protect your hands from cold water exposure or harm.
  • Whistle – This signaling device is a required piece of gear for emergencies. You never know what can happen out on the water – and a loud, pea-less whistle could save your life in unexpected events.
  • Dry Bag – A waterproof bag essential for keeping clothes, electronics, and other personal items dry.
  • First Aid Kit – Self-explanatory. You need to have a small first aid kit onboard. 

Dressing for Kayaking: Let’s Talk Clothes

Man trying on bright paddle jacket in store buying kayaking equipment

When dressing for kayaking, the number one rule should always be – dress for the water – not the weather!

Expect to get wet during your outing; there’s no way around it. So, it’s better to be prepared for it when it happens.

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

What To Wear When Kayaking In Warm Weather 

When deciding what to wear when kayaking in warm weather – when the combined water and air temperature is above 120 degrees – know that breathable, lightweight, and quick-drying materials are your best friend. 

If the water temperature exceeds 45 degrees but the combined air and water temperature is below 120 degrees, I suggest wearing a wetsuit. Use shorties when warmer and ¾ suits or full suits when colder.

Warm-weather kayaking is a balancing act between staying cool, wicking sweat, and protecting yourself from the sun. Here are a few tips on what to wear

  • Swimwear (board shorts or bikini) is ideal for warm weather kayaking, as it provides freedom of movement. You need stretchy, quick drying swimwear – avoid cotton. 
  • Water shoes protect your feet from the terrain and need to be breathable. I recommend neoprene closed toe models, with flexible but rugged soles.
  • A long-sleeved rash vest will protect you against sun exposure, wick away sweat, and provide a layer against potential abrasions. Look for models with UV 50 protective layer.
  • A wide-brim hat shields your face and neck from the sun. Look for models with chin straps – winds can blow these off your face easily.
  • Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV rays. Go with polarized lenses for better visibility on the water. 
  • Sunscreen is essential for exposed skin. Opt for water-resistant, high-SPF sunscreen.
  • A windbreaker or lightweight rain jacket will provide protection against rain and wind – look for breathable materials to prevent overheating.

What To Wear When Kayaking In Cold Weather

When deciding what to wear when kayaking in cold weather – when the water temperature drops to 45 degrees or lower, or the combined water and air temperature is less than 120 degrees – you should opt for a wetsuit or drysuit. 

Cold weather kayaking means you have to prioritize insulation, protection from wind and water first, and overall comfort second. You’ll do that by introducing layering in your clothes, or a drysuit – maybe even both – depending on the weather.

Wetsuits vs Drysuits - What You Should Know for Cold Water Sports

Generally speaking, a wetsuit should be fine for water temperatures of 45 degrees and higher. But personally, I recommend a wetsuit for anything less than 55 degrees; water temperature of 45 degrees is brutal, honestly.

Here are a few tips on what to wear for kayaking in cold weather

  • A hood provides additional warmth for the head, which is crucial in cold conditions. Always look for suits with hoods.
  • A dry suit with fitted socks will ensure complete waterproofing, while fitted socks prevent water ingress. Neoprene is the best bet here, and well worth the investment.
  • Wool socks will provide an additional layer of insulation for your feet. Look for merino wool – these absorb moisture perfectly. 
  • A thermal base layer (top and long underwear) provides a foundation for warmth under your drysuit. You want breathable and stretchy materials here.
  • A fleece mid-layer adds insulation and retains heat, which is crucial in colder weather. Higher neck & adjustable sections should be a priority here. 
  • Gloves or mittens protect your hands from cold winds and water exposure. Aim for materials that offer a good grip even when wet on the outside. I also recommend gloves ​​with removable fingers so you can use your phone, GPS or fish finder.
  • Insulated footwear (booties) will add warmth and protection. Prioritize waterproof and thermal properties to keep your feet dry and warm. Make sure they’re not bulky enough to fit your kayak’s designated area for feet – it might get tricky on a narrow sit-inside kayak. 

Basic Kayaking Techniques

Beginner Kayakers out on a lesson with their instructor

Now that you’re fully equipped, it’s time to put your gear to good use and work on basic kayaking techniques – including basic strokes and maneuvers, entering and exiting a kayak, and performing self-rescue techniques. These will be essential in maintaining safety and eventually, your enjoyment.

Basic Paddling Techniques

As a beginner starting out in kayaking, your main focus should be on learning the basic paddling techniques. This involves mastering the strokes, understanding what they are, what they do, and how and when to use them.

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.

Aside from correct paddle handling, there is maintaining good posture, and employing edging and leaning techniques to improve stability and maneuverability. These fundamentals are essential for efficient and safe kayaking.

The Paddlers Box - How to Kayak - Paddle Education

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

  • Forward stroke (the most basic stroke) – as the name suggests, his stroke propels the kayak forward.  Rotate your torso to submerge the paddle near your feet, pull along the hull engaging your core, and switch sides at hip level.
  • Reverse stroke – is a paddling technique where you perform the forward stroke in reverse. Instead of pulling the paddle towards you, you push it away from you, creating backward momentum. This move not only allows you to slow down but also enables you to paddle backward when necessary.
  • Sweep stroke – Used to turn the kayak, left and right. Extend your arm, place the blade in the water far forward, sweep it in a wide arc towards the stern with a straight arm and rotating torso, then lift the blade out at the stern to turn. This exact process used in reverse (from stern forward) is used to turn the kayak in the opposite direction.
  • Maneuvering strokes – these basic paddle strokes are used to adjusts the kayak position or stabilize it in moving water.:
    • The draw stroke – is used to move your kayak sideways. Place the paddle blade in the water parallel to the kayak and pull towards the hull. 
    • The scull stroke – moving the paddle blade back and forth in a figure-eight motion at the water’s surface, to fine-tune positioning and stabilize the kayak.
Nessa Senior Writer WaterSportsWhiz

I helped numerous beginners with inefficient paddling. Issues with proper paddle grip and posture (not using your back muscles) is the common theme with beginners, which, when corrected, works wonders transforming their stroke efficiency. 

– Nessa Hopkins,

Entering and Exiting a Kayak

Getting in and out of your kayak smoothly is a key skill for any paddler. As a beginner, entering and exiting a kayak can be challenging at first. With some practice, it will become second nature no matter where you launch from – be it a sandy beach, low dock, or rocky shoreline.

The process does vary based on your launch site conditions and kayak type, yet the basics are the same. 

How To Get Into a Kayak

Here’s how to enter a kayak:

  • If launching from the shore, place it perpendicular to the shoreline, straddle it, lower yourself into the seat, and use your hands or paddle to push off.
  • If launching from rocky or uneven shorelines, start with the kayak parallel to the shore, use the paddle for stability, squat beside it, and enter one leg at a time, then push off using the paddle.
  • If launching from a dock, position the hull parallel to it, sit at the dock’s edge, lower each leg into the kayak while holding the dock for balance, rotate your torso, and push off.

Here’s how to exit a kayak: 

  • If exiting at the shore, beach the bow, secure the paddle, lift yourself from the seat, swing your legs out, and stand up carefully.
  • If exiting onto a dock, paddle to the lowest part, position the kayak parallel to the dock, turn towards it, place your hands onto it for balance, and lift yourself up and out of the kayak.
  • If exiting into the water, paddle to a calm area, roll out into the water, then stand up using the paddle for support. Ensure your PFD is on and keep hold of the kayak the entire time.

It’s important to always think about balance, the kayak’s positioning, and, of course, your paddle – you don’t want to lose it during the process. 

Capsizing and Self-Rescue Techniques

In the event of a kayak capsizing (it will inevitably happen), it’s crucial to stay calm and methodically approach self-rescue. Key techniques include:

How to Use a Paddle Float in a Kayak

Paddle Float Rescue – Utilize a paddle float to stabilize the kayak for re-entry.

  • After a capsize, you reposition yourself beside the kayak, 
  • Inflate the paddle float, and secure it to the paddle’s blade. 
  • Use the paddle with the float as an outrigger for support while you climb back into the kayak
Kayaking | How to Wet Exit || REI

Wet exit / Re-entry and Roll – Practice safely exiting the submerged kayak (wet exit) and re-entering or rolling it upright.

  • Take a deep breath and lean forward 
  • Locate the grab loop and release the spray skirt 
  • Exit the kayak and get to the surface
  • Grab the hull’s opposite side, kick, and pull yourself onto the kayak, belly-down
  • Roll over, reposition, and slide your legs into the cockpit to sit
  • Bail out excess water with a pump or sponge, or head to shore to drain the cockpit
Sea Kayak Scramble (aka Cowboy or Cowgirl) Self Rescue Re-entry | Adventure Kayak | Rapid Media

The Cowboy Rescue – Involves climbing back into the kayak from the rear without additional equipment.

  • Swim to the back of the capsized kayak.
  • Using a kicking motion, straddle the kayak, like a cowboy jumping back into the saddle.
  • Gradually move along the kayak to the cockpit.
  • Carefully slide into the cockpit.
  • Maintain balance throughout to prevent re-capsizing.

Obviously, you should try your best to prevent capsizing with everything you’ve got. But when it does happen, you have to remain calm and perform a wet exit – a maneuver where you get yourself out of the kayak and into the water. 

It seems overwhelming, but I promise – it’s not. However, there’s a learning curve to it. So, again – my advice is to sign up for a lesson or two

Essential Kayaking Safety Tips

Instructor teaching his student the fundamentals of kayak safety

Alright, I know you’re excited to get started kayaking, but hold up! Before setting off on your kayaking adventure, it’s important to understand some key safety precautions, especially as a beginner. Take some patented advice from this seasoned pro: spending time to learn a few key safety basics is well worth it. So, let’s get to it and improve your kayaking safety knowledge.

Here are my top beginner kayaking tips on safety:

  • Wear a Properly-Fitted PFD – A personal flotation device is crucial for staying afloat in case of capsizing. Ensure it is coast guard-approved and fits snugly. Getting wet is likely, but drowning should not be a risk with this essential gear.
  • Don’t Paddle Alone Your First Few Times – Having an experienced companion provides guidance on proper technique, assists with rescues if needed, and gets help in case of emergency. 
  • Check and Understand Weather & Water Conditions Before Launching – Research forecasted wind speed/direction, potential storms, tide changes and resulting water flow to anticipate any potential challenges. Only paddle within your skill level for the expected conditions that day.
  • Be Wary of Wildlife – Research what animals are common in the area, how to identify them, safe viewing distance, and how not to disrupt their habitats during your visit. 
  • Pack Proper Hydration & Sun Protection – The heat and exertion of paddling raises risk of dehydration and heat exhaustion. Pack water, snacks, hats, wear a high SPF sunscreen, and UV protective clothing.
  • Carry Emergency Communications – Cell phones typically lack signal unless close to shore. Consider a whistle, flare, or satellite communication device so that you’re able to call for help from offshore or isolated areas if injured or in distress.
  • Plan Alternate Routes & Prepare for the Unexpected – Conditions can change rapidly on the water. It is important to scout multiple landing points or shelters along your route in case you need to retreat from building winds, currents, or an incoming storm. This will help you stay safe and be prepared for any unexpected changes in the weather.
  • Learn Self-Rescue Skills – Techniques like wet exits, how to flip an overturned kayak, and towing methods are important self-rescue skills to practice. Start by working on these with an experienced partner in calm areas to know how to handle capsizing when alone.
  • Create and Share Your Float Plan – Provide launch point, destination, route details, return time, and roster to a contact on land before each excursion, so they can raise the alarm and send help should you not return as scheduled.

Planning And Preparing For A Kayaking Trip

Group of kayakers gathered around a map ploting the route for their kayaking adventure

Planning and preparing for a kayaking trip is crucial for ensuring an enjoyable – and, above all, safe – experience. 

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?

Here are the essential tips for planning and preparing for a kayaking trip:

  • Choose relatively small and calm bodies of water – lakes and ponds with public access, (put in / exit spots). For your first kayaking trip, these areas provide a controlled environment to build confidence. You can use this interactive map to discover paddling locations in your area that fit that description. 
  • Take the time to select the most suitable route. Select routes with easy access and shorter distances, suitable for your skill level. This will ensure that your trip is manageable and enjoyable without pushing yourself too hard. 
  • Stick to kayaking during daylight hours when you’re a beginner. This will allow you to have better visibility and minimize the chances of getting lost. I recommend that you postpone an overnight kayaking trip until you’ve gained more experience.
  • Always check the weather, water conditions, and tide charts before heading out.
    Stick to kayaking in fair weather and warmer seasons – you don’t want to battle strong winds, high tide, or cold unprepared & inexperienced. Check for hazards like low-head dams and be aware of seasonal changes.
  • Be sure to have a backup plan. Inform someone about your route for safety. This ensures help can reach you quickly if needed.
  • Be aware of the local wildlife you might encounter, especially in secluded areas. You don’t want to venture into alligator territory or shark-infested waters by accident. 

Emergency Planning

Emergency planning is another crucial aspect of preparing for a trip and staying safe on water. It starts with the float plan – a detailed document about your outing with instructions on what to do if you don’t return. Coupled with weather and tides investigation, it forms a solid insurance policy – better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. 

Here are some must-have items to include in your emergency kit: 

  • A first aid kit with basic supplies for immediate medical treatment 
  • A spare paddle as a backup in case of damaging or losing your primary paddle
  • Signaling devices, like a pea-less whistle, flashlight, or flares, for alerting others
  • A compass or GPS device (in case you get lost)
  • Food supplies and water, ideally enough for a few days 
  • A fire starter kit if you get stranded somewhere remote
  • A lightweight tarp and cord for building an emergency shelter 

Preparing Your Kayak & Equipment

Here are some tips on preparing your kayak and equipment for an outing:

  • Inspect Your Kayak: Regularly check your kayak for signs of wear or damage. Inspect every inch of the hull, from bow to stern, and look out for scratches, dents, or any irregularities that could impact performance.
  • Secure Your Gear: Be sure to secure your gear using bungee cords and dry bags, or it could float away if you capsize. Also, always distribute the weight of your cargo evenly to maintain stability.
  • Adjust Seat and Footrests: A well-fitted cockpit minimizes discomfort on longer kayaking trips.
  • Double-Check Your Equipment: Be sure to double-check all your equipment before launching because there’s always a chance something might get damaged in transit. I was fortunate enough to discover a .22 bullet-sized hole in my kayak’s hull (likely caused by a rock) BEFORE setting off on a three-day Lake Superior trip. 
  • Pack Smart: Don’t forget to pack some dry clothes in a dry bag. You never know when you might need them – especially if you capsize or the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse.
Top Tip

Embrace the power of checklists! Personally, I swear by them. Being the “queen of lists” has its perks – I’ve never forgotten a thing. It’s a simple yet effective way to stay organized and ensure you don’t miss anything important. Give it a try; you might be surprised at how much it helps with your pre-trip planning – especially if you’re prone to forgetting things. 

Transporting Your Kayak

Brightly colored kayaks being transported on car roof rack and trailer

Before buying your first kayak, it’s important to think through the logistics of transporting your kayak to and from the launch site.  It’s not rocket science, but very few people remember that they should figure this part out before purchasing a kayak, then end up wondering:

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

Here are the options available for you: 

  • Roof racks: Suitable for cars without much cargo space, come in J-style, Stackers and Saddles types able to carry 1 or 3 average-sized kayaks. Secure the kayak using straps and ensure it’s balanced. This method requires lifting the kayak onto the vehicle’s roof, so depending on your kayak’s weight you may need assistance. If you’re not up for making permanent modifications to your vehicle, don’t worry; there are ways to transport a kayak without installing a roof rack.
  • A truck bed – Ideal option for easy loading with minimal lifting, suitable for transporting small to medium-sized kayaks to nearby bodies of water. In case you have longer kayaks, you can use bed extenders to accommodate them. However, it is important to pay attention to your state’s overhang laws, which can range from as low as 3 feet to as large as 8 feet, as well as the long load flagging requirements.  To ensure the kayak is secure during transportation, it is recommended to use tie-down straps to prevent any shifting
  • Kayak trailers  – A hard-to-beat option for transporting multiple kayaks. They come in various styles, from single kayak trailers to double-decker trailers that can hold 6 or more boats. Trailers are especially great for transporting heavy kayaks, such as fishing boats, and for those who need to transport more than just a kayak, like bikes, surf boards, kayak gear or camping gear.
  • Kayak carts – small, two-wheeled, manually-towed little buggies – are convenient and offer a great alternative to carrying or dragging the kayak to and from the water’s edge from the carpark. Make sure to have room for it on the kayak while out on the water – and don’t forget your cart when pushing off or you’ll have a long walk home!

Rules and Regulations in Kayaking

Kayak Instructor briefing his class on the rules and regulations of kayaking

When owning a kayak, it’s crucial to always (before launching, on the water, during transport) take a moment to ensure you’re not unintentionally violating any laws. To assist you with that, here’s a list of the rules and regulations in kayaking that every newbie should learn by heart:

  • Some states – including Oklahoma, Utah, and New Mexico – have age restrictions regarding operating watercraft. While those restrictions don’t typically apply to kayaking, it’s advisable not to let small children and underaged individuals operate kayaks alone.
  • Operating a kayak with a Blood Alcohol Level (BAL) of 0.08% or higher (0.10% in Colorado and Wyoming) is illegal in most states and leads to BUI (Boating Under the Influence) charges. The UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have their equivalents of BUI laws. The law applies to recreational drugs and certain prescription medications, as well.
  • Kayak registration requirements vary by state. Washington, DC, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, for example, require all recreational boats to be registered.
  • Paddling at night is legal in most states. However, if kayaking at night or in conditions of limited visibility, make sure to have a 360-degree white light onboard.
  • Throughout the US, transporting a kayak on your vehicle or in a truck bed requires tightening it up so it doesn’t endanger you or other participants in traffic and flagging it so everyone on the road can distinguish your cargo and adjust their movement.

Kayaking For Beginners: 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 – and a lengthy one at that. You’ll have to consider many factors along the way, and it won’t always be easy. 

So, remember to treat this process as a journey rather than a destination and enjoy every minute of it – from the first time you rent a kayak to the moment you buy your own and beyond!

Oh, and don’t hesitate to return to this guide whenever you feel like you need to brush up on kayaking 101!

Photo of author

Nessa Hopkins

Vanessa is a certified kayaking instructor, has taught over 500 people how to kayak, and is a senior member of the American Canoe Association. By combining her deep understanding of the sport and a background in journalism, she offers a wealth of experience and expertise to our growing water sports community, promising to educate and inspire paddlers of all levels.

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