How Hard is Kayaking; Is Kayaking Hard Or Easy? What First-Time Paddlers Need To Know

The idea of taking up kayaking seems tempting, and you’d like to give it a try. But this voice in your head keeps repeating how physically demanding – and, sometimes, flat-out dangerous – kayaking is.  “You could never pull it off; it’s way too hard. Don’t even bother trying.”  But ...
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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.

The idea of taking up kayaking seems tempting, and you’d like to give it a try. But this voice in your head keeps repeating how physically demanding – and, sometimes, flat-out dangerous – kayaking is. 

You could never pull it off; it’s way too hard. Don’t even bother trying.” 

But is kayaking hard, though? 

Should you let your fears win this round and stay away from the water? Or is this one of those times when it’s better to ignore your inner voice?

Let’s get some answers! 

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Setting The Record Straight: How Hard Is it To Kayak? 

Is kayaking difficult - sign saying 'I can'

It’s not as hard as you assume; I can tell you that much straight away. You’d be surprised at how easy it is to get into it and enjoy your time on the water – when you’re not overexerting yourself, that is. 

Sure, for someone who’s just starting, kayaking will seem like a challenge, in more ways than one. I mean, imagine being out in the middle of the water, no land in sight, with nothing but a paddle to take you back to shore. 

It does sound a bit intimidating, huh? 

There’s no one else to rely on but yourself; I think that’s what makes kayaking seem so difficult for so many beginner paddlers. 

With that said, it depends on how you approach it and what your initial goals are: 

If you’re hoping to conquer whitewater rapids or go on an ocean kayaking expedition the second you hop into the kayak, then yes, it’s going to be hard. 

Traveling the World With a 71-Year Old Kayaker

But what if your expectations are more along the lines of spending a relaxing afternoon on a calm lake?

Then it doesn’t have to be any more complicated – or challenging – than that. 

Is kayaking harder than paddle boarding?

It depends on what you mean by “harder.” Kayaking can be more physically demanding if you are paddling against a strong current or fighting through choppy water, while paddle boarding is generally less strenuous. And, kayaking may be more difficult mentally since it demands a greater degree of navigation and coordination than stand-up paddle boarding.

But as a general rule, paddle boarding is considered the easier of the two water sports.

How to Make Kayaking Easy: What Every Beginner Needs To Know

To answer your question about how challenging kayaking is, I’ve outlined some must-know tips for first-time paddlers that could make or break your kayaking experience.

It All Starts with Picking the Right Kayak

Picture of different type of kayaks

The right design, shape and size of your kayak will make your first encounter with paddling a lot more enjoyable.

Whitewater, touring, surf, racing, recreational, sea kayaks; you’d be surprised by the many options built for the many different types of environments, skill levels, and types of kayaking.

Sit-on-top or sit-inside? Which is best? Should you buy an inflatable or hard-shell? What meets your needs?

The best types of kayaks to start with are recreational kayaks – preferably a sit-on-top kayak. Sit-inside kayaks have their advantages, but they’re a much better fit for more advanced paddlers and challenging water environments. It also best, as first, to make sure you avoid whitewater kayaks, surf kayaks and any ‘yak designed for sea kayaking.

If you’re choosing a kayak, ask yourself:

  • What are the kayak’s dimensions?
  • How wide and stable is it?
  • Will I be able to get in and out of it quickly?
  • What are the kayak materials? Is it lightweight and easy to maneuver?

Make Sure You Have the Correct Paddle

Kayak Padddle Size - red paddle on blue kayak

You know you’re going to need a paddle if you plan on taking up paddling; that part’s self-explanatory. But did you know that the size, paddle style and design of said paddle has a direct impact on your entire experience?

The right paddle makes a difference between blisters, fatigue, and reduced efficiency – and a comfortable and enjoyable kayaking trip.

How To Pick A Kayak Paddle Size - Expert Help!

My guess is you’d prefer the latter, so be sure to factor in:

  • Your height and torso length
  • The width of your kayak
  • Your stroke angle and paddling style
  • Type of kayaking you plan on doing

Lesson No. 1: Take a Kayaking Lesson

Kayak school on the beach - waiting for kayak lesson

Kayaking can be a breeze when you use the proper kayaking paddling techniques. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, it will make things way harder than they need to be.

My point is:

Beginner kayakers, or a first timer, should get some kayaking lessons with an experienced instructor and learn how to kayak; get the hang of essential skills, such as how to hold the paddle, and basic paddling techniques before hitting the waters.

I mean, paddling strokes are exactly rocket science, but you might not know the safest – or the most efficient – way to do it. That’s all I’m saying.

How Much Does Your Current Fitness Level Matter?

kayak fitness models high fiving - how hard is kayaking

I don’t mean to scare you, but even the basic forward stroke or sweep stroke – if repeated enough times – will put your body through its paces. So, in case you had any doubts about it, yes, kayaking is quite a workout.

But here’s the thing:

Kayaking is, in essence, low-impact cardio. It doesn’t require much strength and fitness – at least not as much as you might expect, anyway.

You’ll feel the burn if you haven’t been hitting the gym lately, and you might experience fatigue, too. But you only have to suck it up the first few weeks – as with any new exercise routine – until you get the hang of it.

Choose Your Kayaking Location Wisely 

A kayaker races down the whitewater of a river.

Rapids, strong currents, and waves aren’t the best environment for you to start getting acquainted with paddling. You want to consider your abilities and skill level when choosing your kayaking location.

Flat, calm waters – a nearby lake or pond – are generally safe environments for beginners.

Let’s face it; if this is your first time holding a paddle in your hands, the additional challenges of fighting strong currents, conquering rapids or trying to paddle upstream are the last thing you need.

But also bare in mind that a change in weather conditions can turn a still lake into a choppy nightmare – so plan ahead.

The kayaking season can also be an important factor to consider when selecting a location. You may want to avoid certain areas during peak season or choose locations that are suitable for the time of year, based on the water conditions.

Top Tip

If you’re looking for top kayaking near you, then check out our free interactive map.

Kayak Safety 101: Is Kayaking Safe?

Kayak with caution

Is kayaking dangerous? Yes. But there’s a fine line – but an oh-so-important one – between perceived risk and real danger. And when it comes to kayaking, there’s a little bit of both.

But as long as you’re responsible, prepared, and have the right equipment, safety shouldn’t be a concern.

How to Recover From A Capsize: Kayak Self-Rescue Basics

Knowing how to roll at kayak is an essential skill that all sit-inside kayakers should learn and master. It doesn’t matter how cautious or experienced you are. You never know when the conditions and circumstances might conspire against you.

If you’re able to catch the signs of an oncoming capsize, there might be time to perform an Eskimo roll.

Kayaks : How to Eskimo Roll a Kayak

But if you missed it, here are a few essential pointers on how to recover from a capsize:

  • Do a wet exit by removing the spray skirt (if you have one) and exiting the kayak
  • Retrieve your paddle
  • Reach under the kayak, grab the hull’s opposite side and pull it towards you – while pushing on the closer side – to flip the kayak back up 
  • Find something to hold onto and pull yourself up onto the deck
  • Move into a sitting position
  • Remove any excess water

There you have it – you’re back in your kayak and ready to paddle on as if nothing happened!

Essential Safety Equipment for Kayakers

Safety Equipment for kayakers

Paddlers that arm themselves with safety gear face less danger in general than those who choose to hit the waters “naked.”

It’s as simple as that.

Regarding essential safety equipment, the bare minimum for kayakers should be:

  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD) – Whether you should wear a life jacket isn’t even up for debate. A PFD, aka life vest, is a must-have, regardless of how experienced you may be. Type III PFDs, as categorized by the US Coast Guard, would be the best fit for on-the-water sports, such as kayaking.
  • Gloves – Waterproof kayaking gloves probably aren’t at the top of your safety equipment list; their role is easily overlooked. Yet, they keep your hands dry and warm, prevent nasty blisters and cuts, and allow for a more secure grip on the paddle.
  • Wet Suit/Dry Suit – Do you know what pairs well with cold air and freezing water? Hypothermia; the paddler’s worst enemy. If you’re kayaking in colder weather, a wet suit – or a dry suit – can keep you warm and dry. Remember that paddlers dress for the water temperature, not the weather.
  • Helmet – A full-face kayak helmet may seem excessive – even ridiculous. But there’s a reason why whitewater and surf kayakers wear them. If you capsize in rough waters or rocky areas, there’s a chance you might hit your head. And ending up unconscious in the water is the last thing you want.
  • First Aid Kit – You wouldn’t go camping without bringing a first aid kit; why would a trip on the water be any different? Accidents happen. A waterproof bag with essential medical supplies stored in an easy-to-reach spot could prove invaluable in an emergency.
  • Spray Skirt – A spray skirt is a must-have for conquering whitewater kayaking; rapids, waves, and strong currents. It acts as a removable waterproof barrier, stretching between the kayak’s rim and your waist and keeping the inside of your ‘yak dry. 

While we’re at it, consider adding the following equipment to that list of yours, too:

Common Myths & Misconceptions about Kayaking: MythBusters (Kayaking Edition)

'kayaking myths' written on chalk board

Don’t pass up on some extraordinary outdoor adventures because of the half-truths, myths, and misconceptions about kayaking. That’d be a shame.

When it comes to kayaking for beginners, if busting these myths is what it takes to get you on the kayaking bandwagon, I’ll gladly debunk every single one!  

Myth #1: You Need to Be Strong and Fit to Kayak

Being physically fit makes the whole thing less demanding – especially when you’re first starting – but it’s not a requirement per se.

The low-impact nature of kayaking makes it suitable for most people, regardless of current fitness level, pre-existing conditions, age, or gender. It’s generally one of the most inclusive outdoor activities you could try.

Also, you’ve probably heard people – mostly non-paddlers – talking about the importance of upper body strength.

Forward Paddling Strokes - Kayaking Technique

The truth is that the force behind the forward stroke comes from the core muscles, as you rotate your torso; your arms are mostly there to maneuver the paddle.

Myth #2: Women Are Too Weak To Kayak

Try and start this argument with my wife, the woman who paddled her way through pregnancy; I dare you. You’d lose that one in an instant.

This myth likely stems from the misconception that kayaking requires upper body strength. Add research that suggests men carry more skeletal muscle mass in the upper body into the mix, and you’ve laid the foundations for another kayaking myth.

Kayaking is more about proper technique and efficient strokes than it is about strength.

Emily Jackson competes while 8 months pregnant

To anyone who still has doubts about women and kayaking – watch the video above and tell me you’re not impressed.

Myth #3: Kayaks Are Easy To Tip Over

Are kayaks easy to roll

I wouldn’t label this one as straight-up false; the answer is two-fold.

Design technicalities aside, average kayaks are much more stable than they seem. That’s not to say that capsizing doesn’t happen; it does. 

But it won’t happen as often as you might assume.

Some kayaks do have a sleeker and narrower hull, which can take away from their stability. You probably won’t hop straight into a kayak like that, though. 

You want something better suited for your skill level, as provided by wider, more stable, recreational sit-on-top kayaks

It might not be as agile, but it won’t be as easy to tip over.

Myth #4: You Can’t Kayak In the Winter & Cold Weather

Can you Kayak In the Winter & Cold Weather

While I agree that nothing beats kayaking on a sunny afternoon, to say that you can’t paddle in cold weather would be a lie.

It’s doable – and winter kayaking certainly has its charms – but it requires a bit more preparation and planning than your average outing.

Hypothermia is no joke.

If you’re considering kayaking in cold weather, you better dress for the occasion and not the air temperature, have a spare change of clothes onboard. Gloves, spray skirt, wide-brimmed hat, wet suit or dry suit paired with a light wind-proof jacket; protection from the elements and icy waters is crucial.

Myth #5: Kayaking Is an Expensive On-The-Water Sport

is kayaking expensive - graphic of money flying from open wallet

I’ll be honest with you; the costs of kayaking equipment can add up over time. The same holds for any outdoor sport, though, so this one isn’t kayaking-specific. 

If that’s what’s holding you back, know that it doesn’t have to cost a fortune:

There are many budget-friendly kayaks – including inflatables – that can perform just as well at half the price.

You don’t need much more than a kayak, a paddle, and a reliable life jacket to get into kayaking – and you should be able to rent most of it, anyway. 

Summing Things Up: How Hard Is Kayaking?

So, after this not-so-quick read, what do you think – is it hard to kayak or not?

Here’s my take on it:

For the most part, the basics of paddling are easy to learn. The hard part – the one that takes time and practice – is perfecting your technique.

And yes, you’ll likely have to pace yourself, start slow, and take frequent breaks at first.

But before you know it, you’ll be heading out for bigger, better, adrenaline-pumping adventures, conquering choppy waters, and traveling further than before. Or not – whatever you choose.

The beauty of kayaking is that it’s only as challenging as you want it to be.

So, get out there – go kayaking have an water adventure and I hope you enjoy your first kayaking experience.

Photo of author

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.

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