Kayaking is a tranquil travel through the water. A moment of calm and scenery to relax your mind while still being active and in nature.
No matter your reason for getting into the sport, you should be proud of yourself for starting the journey! Kayaking is a soothing exercise, and although the movements may seem easy, there is a handful of information you need to master before launching into the water.
We are going to show you the basics, including what kayaking is, how it’s good for you, what type of equipment you need and how to tell if the weather is on your side.
Picture a kayak elegantly cutting through the water on a calm morning or evening, a slight chill in the air or the summer sun smiling down on you, incredible scenery around you, and your mind relaxing and taking a break from the stressful and chaotic world we live in. Perhaps, you’ll try your luck at fishing and see how many hauls you get.
Or are you an action junkie that prefers rapids or fast currents, maneuvering your way through the force of nature, adrenaline circulating in your body, excitement building up, intoxicated with the feeling of freedom, and becoming one with nature.
If all these appeal to you, then it’s time you joined the kayaking family. Kayaking is a wonderful sport that can do wonders for your body and mind. I know you are eager to get on the water but slow down a bit, champ. There are some things you need to know before you start ruling the waters. Baby steps, remember.
This article is a comprehensive guide to introduce beginners to kayaking. You’ll learn the most important things about kayaking from the different kinds of kayaks, essential kayaking gear, how to launch your kayaks, paddling techniques, kayaking locations, and more. The aim is to prepare you for your first and subsequent kayaking trips and ensure you have enjoyable and memorable experiences every time you get on the water. So let’s get started.
What Is Kayaking?
A kayak is a small and narrow water vessel, you use a double-bladed paddle to push through the water by hand. The activity of kayaking is when you use this watercraft to move through waterways.
You sit in the cockpit with your legs either exposed or covered, while your upper body and arms keep you balanced and paddles you through the waves.
Kayaking feels like a new sport, but in fact, it has been around for centuries. The first known recording of kayaking was from Inuits in the Arctic. What we now consider as a pastime was initially used to transport food and people across the calm seas. It was even used as a fishing boat to hunt and navigate the waters!
Kayaking is mostly seen as a recreational sport in our current century. We use the ancient boats to quietly roam shallow waters, or race in high energy sports. The history of kayaking brings the sport a sense of adventure, which we hope to install in you today!
Although most people use kayaks as a casual and calming activity, you can also use the sport to race against others. There are 4 official types of kayak racing, each of which tests different skills.
Whitewater racers have to be fast, highly skilled and have amazing control. The race is intense as you are pushed and pulled through aggressive white waters. The time it takes you to get to the finish line will be compared against your competitors.
Flatwater sprinting is less intense but highly skilled nonetheless. You kayak on still waters and pedal as fast as you can. The first to cross the finish line wins.
Surfskis are popular races in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa due to their naturally large waves. The kayakers have to balance and climb over the surf while their competitors are cluttered around them. The first to the finish line wins!
Lastly, marathon kayakers embody the same spirit as flatwater sprinters. However, their race is over multiple days, and each course has different, daring challenges.
Types of Kayaks
Sit-on-top kayaks (SOTs): A type of kayak that doesn’t gave an enclosed seat. SOTs are wider, very stable, and are generally recommended for beginners. It’s easy to enter and exit a SOT and is ideal for use in warm weather.
Sit-inside kayaks: This is what comes to the mind of most people when a kayak is mentioned. They have an enclosed seat and you ‘sit inside’ the kayak. Can be used for both warm and cold weather paddling.
Recreational kayaks: They are sit-in and sit-on-top kayaks that are affordable, stable, and easy to maneuver. Recreational kayaks are suitable for calm waters and short kayaking trips. And they have just enough storage space for a few essentials.
Touring kayaks: Are designed for longer kayaking expeditions (weekend kayaking and multi-day kayaking trips). As a result, they are longer, narrower, and faster. They also have larger storage space as longer kayaking trips mean more gear/supplies.
Whitewater kayaks: Refers to kayaks that are suited for paddling on rough waters. This type of kayak is easier to maneuver.
Inflatable kayaks: This type of kayak can be inflated and deflated. When deflated, they are about the size of a small backpack and are easy to store and transport.
Tandem kayaks: Tandem kayaks are designed to accommodate two people. They are great for kayaking with a friend, partner, or family member. You can also take kids along on tandem kayaks and they provide a social kayaking experience.
Fishing kayaks: Fishing kayaks are kayaks (especially sit-on-top kayaks) that are tailored for fishing. They usually come with rod holders, are very stable, and allow the kayaker to move freely.
Pedal kayaks: They use a pedal-driven system to propel the kayak instead of a paddle. They offer increased speed and a hands-free kayaking experience.
Kids kayaks: They are mostly smaller SOTs specifically designed for children and youths.
Benefits Of Kayaking
Just like any sport, there are massive benefits to kayaking. You can achieve physical fitness as well as social happiness and mindful wellness. These aren’t words we are just throwing around without a second thought. Have a look at how kayaking could benefit you!
It’s a Great Cardio Workout
Kayaking is a cardio sport. It will get your chest, heart, and lungs pumping as the majority of the workout comes from the core. You might think your arms will take the hit the most, and you’re not wrong, but your stomach stabilizes you, and the constant movement brings on a sweat!
Talking about your arms, taking on kayaking as a sport will bring out the guns! Your biceps and triceps will have a lot of movement and drag to compete with, so your arms will become toned and grow in size as you manipulate the waves around you.
Along with your arms, your back and your shoulders will develop and become strong as your rowing and balance fall primarily on these two areas. As the paddles are being swung in a circular motion, your shoulders will get a hefty amount of vigorous workouts!
Although your legs aren’t actively participating in kayaking, the power to rotate your torso needs to come from somewhere. When your back turns, pressure is applied to your legs and bottom, which means this upper body workout sport still gives your lower body a chance to develop.
When you first learn to kayak, you will likely talk to a club to get yourself started. Once the doors to the club are open, you will find a host of new people wanting to help you with the sport. The kayaking community is filled with quiet recluses who like a gentle chat about boats, as well as bustling racers who always want new people to go up against. No matter your tastes, you will find someone in the community to bond with.
It’s Good For Your Mind
The outdoors is where we are meant to be. Just stepping out for a walk to view the gentle waves on the shore is enough to bring us balance. Nature doesn’t give us happiness, but it reduces our negative moods.
Another way to reduce negative moods is to repeat physical activities. When doing these types of repetitive activities, you can experience lucid consciousness and become still. This common practice is a form of mindful awareness.
Because kayaking embodies both of these properties, calmly viewing the natural landscape and repeatedly paddling with your arms, it is the perfect wellness activity.
Getting Started Kayaking
Getting into kayaking might seem like a costly endeavor that is only accomplished by someone with a lot of time, but we are here to tell you that it’s not that hard. Go through this list, and soon you will learn just how simple kayaking is and when to launch your watercraft!
When is the Best Time of Year to Go Kayaking?
No matter what season you are in, kayaking is available to you. It’s an easy sport that doesn’t need to be confined to summer. That being said, the warmer seasons are the most comfortable for first-timers. We suggest going in the spring or autumn, so the sun doesn’t beat down too hard while you are moving through a reflective surface.
You can kayak in winter, but it does make the sport a little more dangerous, especially if you already live in a cold climate. If winter, to you, just means that the weather is a little chilly, then make sure to wrap up warm and get yourself a hot drink when you reach shore again. If winter, in your neck of the woods, includes ice and snow, then you might need a guide to help you learn the local issues you might face. It’s always best to go kayaking with a buddy, so if something goes wrong, you have help.
What Weather Conditions To Avoid When Kayaking?
The best weather condition for kayaking, especially for a beginner is when the weather is warm and dry. But weather conditions can change when you are on the water so it’s important you check forecasts before taking a kayak trip. If the weather is expected to change later, you should consider rescheduling your trip.
As a beginner, you should avoid windy weather (makes it difficult to maneuver, you could be blown off course), rain, and fog (reduces visibility).
What You Can Do To Start Kayaking
Buying a kayak outright can be a high cost for someone who doesn’t know if they are committed yet. We recognize this and want to suggest other ways to get started without devoting tones of money or space to the sport.
Borrow a Kayak from a Friend: If your reason to pick up the sport is because a buddy of yours is encouraging you to, then ask to borrow their kit. Depending on your location, they can swim near you as you try out the paddles.
Rent a Kayak: If you’re starting this hobby out of your own interests, then finding a kayak amongst our friendship group will be hard. Instead, rent a kayak. Most places will allow you to rent by the hour or by the day and will be housed near the popular kayaking locations near you. A quick search online can help you find the nearest one. This is a much cheaper option for anyone who isn’t ready to pay for their own kayak yet.
Sign up for a Tour: Kayaking tours are when instructors teach you the basics of kayaking and then take you on a tour of the local scenery. Depending on your location, you can go through caves, along coastlines, and down gentle rivers. These tours give you a new view of the nature around you, and often you get to experience the landscape in a way you would never have before.
Signing up for a tour will allow you to learn how to kayak and have a wonderful day out without committing to the sport. You will have an instructor, and all the equipment is ready for you.
Sign up for a Class: Tours don’t teach you how to master the waves, nor do they let you roam the waters on your own. If you wanted to learn more than how to get on the kayak, then a class might be a better option. Kayak classes will teach you how to use your paddle, what to look out for in the lakes, rivers, and seas around you, and will be centered around the sport itself. This is how I got started with kayaking and I can only recommend doing the same.
In comparison to touring, your teacher will probably not know the history of the landscape and will not take you on a gentle ride through the scenic routes. Instead, they will show you how to tackle a wave, the importance of your equipment, and how to judge the weather.
Depending on the class, you may have to rent a kayak separately. Be sure to check with your instructor, and take all the equipment you need for your class. They may have options to rent with them or suggest a store with a discount.
Essential Kayaking Gear
The first thing you need for kayaking is a kayak. There are a lot of quality kayaks for beginners available on the market and you’ll find one within your budget. If you are unable to buy a kayak right away, you can borrow it from a friend. Your pal can show you the ropes if he’s experienced but you’ll have to eventually buy your own vessel.
Another option is to rent a kayak. This is convenient as the kayaks are already close to water bodies and are also affordable. However, if you start to paddle frequently, costs may significantly go up and you should look into buying your yak.
Below are essential items you should have when kayaking:
Safety is the most important thing during kayaking, followed by fun. You’ll need:
- Coastguard-approved PFD (Personal Flotation Device) that fits properly.
- It’s important you pack a first aid kit. Any medication you need to take should also be included in the kit if using the medicine while paddling won’t affect you.
- You can also pack sunscreen to protect against sunburns.
- Signaling whistle in emergencies.
- Kayak lights if you intend to paddle in low-light situations.
Your clothing will depend on the weather and the temperature of the water. Clothing for a warm-weather, warm-water outing:
- Swimwear or shorts (non cotton and non binding).
- Rashguard top (could be short-or long-sleeve and any non cotton top will work).
- Neoprene footwear.
- Hat to shield the sun.
- Lightweight fleece jacket or vest (weather-dependent).
- Spray jacket or rain jacket and pants (weather-dependent)
Paddling in cold conditions will require a wet suit.
Your paddle is the most important kayaking accessory followed by a bilge pump and spray skirts or spray decks if you have a sit-in kayak.
With these important accessories ticked, you should also bring the following:
- Plenty of water. You should stay hydrated.
- Snacks for energy. If you’ll be paddling for a long time, you should pack a proper lunch.
- Keep track of time by having a watch.
- Dry bags to keep items you want to keep protected from water.
How To Launch and Get Into Your Kayak
Launching and getting into a kayak can be tricky for beginners. However, it’s just like any other skill and you’ll be entering launching, and entering your vessel with finesse after some time.
From the shoreline
It’s easy to launch your vessel from the shore. The first thing is to move your kayak close to the shoreline as possible. Make sure your kayak is in shallow water to prevent scratching the hull against the hull. Then sit in the vessel and use your arms to push/propel yourself into the water until you are floating on the surface. Straddle the kayak over the seat and sit down quickly, putting your feet in last.
From the dock
It’s convenient to launch your kayak from docks although you’ll need some time to be able to pull it off smoothly. Here are steps to launch your kayak from deep waters:
- Lower your kayak from the dock onto the surface of the water while making sure that the kayak is positioned parallel to the dock.
- Your paddle should be within the reach of your seat. An end of the paddle can be placed on the end of the yak and the dock to prevent the vessel from shifting positions.
- You’ll have to on the lowest point on the deck to conveniently enter the kayak. This is because the higher you are, the more difficult it will be for you to enter the vessel. Lower your feet first into the kayak as you sit on the edge of the dock.
- The next step is to quickly position your body toward the front of the kayak and lower yourself into the seat. As a beginner, you could consider using a kayak launching system as it will make your launching and reducing a lot easier.
From deep water
Launching a kayak from deep water is perhaps the most difficult method of launching and entering a kayak. However, you can master this with patience. The most important thing to do when using this method is to ensure your yak is stable between each movement you make. Here’s how you can do it:
- Put one hand on the side of the kayak closest to you and put the other hand on the opposite side of the vessel in such a way that your arm will be extended across the seat opening.
- The best step is to pull yourself onto your kayak in such a way that your belly button is over the seat. If you do this properly, your leg will be in the water (about halfway).
- Twist around to get your bottom in the seat. Most of your body should be in the kayak but your leg will still be dangling in the water.
- Ensure that the vessel is stable and then pull your feet it. After that, put your feet in front of you.
Kayak Paddling Techniques
After practicing how to enter and exit your kayak, the next thing to learn is the various paddling techniques. The first thing to do is to pick out the right paddle for your kayak. You can check our article on choosing kayak paddles.
The next thing is to learn how to properly handle your paddle. Place your hands slightly apart on the shaft. Then put the paddle vertically into the water while maintaining a relaxed grip on the shaft. Your knuckles should be pointed forward if you do this properly and doing this will make your paddling more efficient.
The blades of your paddle should be in line with each other. If the blades of your paddle are offset from each other, then you have a “feathered” paddle. It’s advisable you align the blades by using the push button or twist setting in the center of the shaft. This is because feathered blades are trickier to use by beginners even though they cut through the wind efficiently.
Basic Paddling Strokes
The Forward Stroke
You’ll be using the forward stoke most of the time as it’s the technique that will propel your kayak forward. Therefore, it’s important to develop a good forward stroke technique.
To paddle your kayak forward, engage your core and wind your torso to lean forward while fully immersing your paddle in the water near your feet. The next step is to pull back to your seat with the blade. Then remove the blade from the water. Alternate paddling on both sides to propel your kayak, or else you’ll just be paddling in a circle.
Engage your core & twist your torso to lean forward and put the paddle blade fully into the water near your feet. Then pull back to your seat with the blade and remove it from the water. Just remember, long strokes from your feet to your seat is the way to go. Don’t forget to paddle on both sides or you’ll just paddle yourself in a circle!
The Reverse Stroke
This technique can be used to stop your kayak and also move you backward. It’s the exact opposite of the forward stroke described above. Just put your blade in the water near your hip and push the blade with your lower hand. Then you slice the blade out of the water as it nears your feet.
The Sweep Stroke
You’ll need the sweep stroke to turn your kayak. If you try forward stroke on only one side of your vessel, the kayak slowly goes or turns in the other direction. You can see the sweep stroke as an exaggeration of this effect.
So a sweep stroke is the same as a forward stroke except for two key differences. The first is that you alter the path of the blade to carve a much wider arc and the second is that you perform this action on the same side of the vessel.
To turn left, you perform sweep strokes on the right side of your kayak and vice versa.
REI also explains all this very well with images if it can help you.
Using Rudders and Skegs
Rudders are usually mounted on the back of kayaks and can be operated from the cockpit either by your feet or hand. You can also move rudders from side to side and even up or down. And this offers the advantage of deploying rudders only when they are needed.
Skegs, on the other hand, are fixed direction fins you attach under your vessel. The main function of a skeg is to aid your kayak with tracking (traveling straight), especially on windy days. You can learn more about skegs by reading our article on adding a skeg to a kayak.
It’s common to see beginners using rudders and skegs incorrectly. As a beginner paddler, you shouldn’t worry about these accessories yet and should instead focus on improving your technique first.
Skegs and rudders are beneficial on windy days but I don’t expect beginners to be on the water in these conditions.
Where To Go Kayaking And For How Long?
As a beginner paddler, it’s important to take your first trip on calm water like lakes, calm rivers, or bay conditions. River rapids and oceans should be reserved for when you are more experienced in the sport.
You shouldn’t spend more than three hours (less is better) on your first kayaking expedition. You’d have gotten a feel of the sport within three hours and won’t have overworked yourself yet.
You can paddle anywhere in the world as long as there is a large enough body of water. Kayaks are also easy to transport whether you own a car (hard shell kayaks) or not (inflatable kayaks) and this means you can paddle at different locations in your area or country.
Make sure to check our Kayaking Near Me interactive map!
The first safety precaution is to bring all the essential gear I discussed at the beginning of this article. If you are on a tour, the guide will inform you of the do’s and don’ts. However, if you are on a non-guided tour, be sure to follow the precautions below:
- Bring a paddling buddy: You shouldn’t be on the water alone on your first time kayaking. Take an experienced friend along to assist you.
- Stay close to your buddy. Togetherness is the keyword when paddling with a friend for the first time. Make site you are within the line of sight or earshot of your BFF.
- Stay close to shore: Unless you’ve had rescue training, it’s important you don’t stray farther from shore than you’re easily able to swim.
- Research potential hazards in your kayaking location. While the internet is a wonderful source of information, you should also consider having a chat with a local paddler about spots to avoid like a low-head dam.
- Check your PFD and ensure it fits well. If you have to remove your PFD for any reason, paddle to shore first. You should never remove your PFD while on the water.
- Don’t use spray skirts until you’ve practiced how to properly remove them and do a wet exit.
- Always have a whistle with you. In case of emergency, you’ll need three long blasts to signal nearby paddlers.
Tips for Your First Time Kayaking
No matter what you take away from this article, keep these 6 tips in mind:
- Choose Calm Waters – For your first couple of attempts, you should use small and calm locations. If you find a lake or pond with hardly any traffic, then you will have the movement you need to get to grips with your raft; and if you fall off, you can easily help yourself back up. If the waters are rough, you will have a hard time learning the basics, let alone achieving good momentum.
- Find a Gently Sloping Sandy Beach to Launch – Launching your kayak should be simple but can be tricky until you get the hang of it. To help you learn, give yourself a smooth location to start off with. If you choose steep or rocky shorelines, you will give yourself an unnecessary challenge.
- Make Sure You Always Wear a Buoyancy Aid – This tip is for first-timers and long-timers alike. Buoyancy aids will help you when you fall out and get stuck. If the worst happens and you knock your head, the aid will drag you to the top of the water, so someone can help you! Which leads perfectly into our next tip.
- Don’t Go Kayaking Alone – Again this is a tip for every kayaker. If an accident happens, you are more likely to be okay when a buddy is with you. Even a concussion can be dangerous at sea, so when your friend sees that something is up, they can bring you to safety.
- Avoid Kayaking On Windy Days – When you first get into the water, the wind will become your biggest enemy. Kayaking boats are light which makes them great at breaking through waves, but it means that the wind can topple you over if it’s strong enough. If you make sure the first couple of attempts are on windless days, you will spend less time in the water.
- Keep Your Paddling Time Under Two Hours – Fatigue can be dangerous when you’re out in the water. When you eventually realize that you need a break, you might be so far from the shoreline that paddling back will drain you. Keep an eye on the time, and keep your journey short. Once you start to know the water and how much rest your body needs, you can adjust this paddling time to suit you.