Kayaking for Beginners: What to Know Before You Go

Kayaking is an up-and-go activity, but there's a lot to learn about technique and equipment.

Kayaks, first built by the Inuits in North America, were used to hunt on inland lands. Estimated to be at least 4,000 years old, kayaks in their earliest forms were made from stitched seal or other animal skins over a frame made from whalebone. These vessels got their buoyancy with seal bladders filled with air, tucked into the fore and aft sections of the kayak.

Today's kayaks, typically built with fiberglass, wood, rotomolded plastic or Kevlar, are designed more for recreation for a number of different water environments, including lakes, whitewater rivers, and seas. At the heart of kayaking is paddling, but there's a lot more to learn about the techniques and equipment to ensure beginners are safe, aware and enjoying themselves.

Kayaking Equipment


Kayaks can typically hold one to three paddlers. Depending on the type of material, prices for the vessels can vary greatly. Plastic is usually the cheapest, with kayaks of this material ranging from $250 to $1,500, while Kevlar, considered lighter and stronger than other kayak materials, is the priciest, costing up to $4,000 for a Kevlar kayak. Built for specific environments, there are a variety of these boats available: whitewater kayaks, surf kayaks, racing kayaks, sea or touring kayaks, and hybrids, often labeled as recreational kayaks.

The design for the different kayaks vary with shape and materials used. For instance, sea kayaks typically have longer bodies so they can cover more distance while whitewater kayaks are made of high-impact plastic so they can bounce off rocks while incurring less damage. Sit-on-top kayaks are the most commonly sold and ideal for beginners because they are stable, easy to get in and out of, and used for recreational paddling and fishing. They're often made of rotomolded plastic or fiberglass, both of which are light-weight, low-maintenance and durable materials. Because sit-on-tops have wider beams, it's easy to keep upright while also staying stable. With the increased width, these kayaks typically require slightly longer paddles.

Kayak paddles

A big distinction between kayaking and canoeing is the paddle. Canoes use single-bladed paddles while kayaks use two-bladed paddles. There is a lot of consideration when choosing a paddle, depending on your stature, size of the kayak, and stroking preferences. Wider and taller kayaks require longer paddles. If you have a small stature, a shorter, lighter paddle might be more ideal to not overexert yourself. In addition, blades come in a variety of shapes. Wider blades give you more acceleration but also face more resistance. Narrower blades use less effort per stroke but require more strokes. Blades also come flat or curved. While flat blades are generally cheaper, curved ones increase the power of each stroke. Some blades are feathered, meaning they're offset at an angle, cutting down on wind resistance. Like with a kayak, finding the right paddle requires trying out different types. Folks at sporting goods stores are usually very knowledgeable. If you're taking lessons, your instructor can probably point you in the right direction as well.

Safety equipment and more

For staying safe: It is very important to invest in a personal floatation device, aka a life vest, even if you're in calm waters. The U.S. Coast Guard Type III personal floatation devices are often used for kayaking because they are lightweight and comfortable. They have large arm openings to allow wide arm rotations and have shorter waist lengths for comfort. Safety is very important and a helmet is absolutely crucial if you will be kayaking rocky waters.

For staying dry: Many people use sprayskirts, which is used to cover the opening of the cockpit, to protect their lower bodies and belongings from getting wet. Before using a sprayskirt, make sure you know how to detach it quickly while underwater. It is recommended you forego the sprayskirt if you can't do so. Dry bags are useful to keep your personal belongings safe, especially useful if you plan on bringing a camera along for the ride.

Learning how to kayak

To learn basic paddling and safety techniques, it is best to find an instructor certified with the American Canoe Association. With an instructor, you can learn important skills and techniques faster. If you take lessons, you won't need to invest in any equipment initially since the instruction fee usually covers equipment and you will also have a better sense of what to buy should you decide to purchase any. Be sure to begin in a safe calm environment - not the rapids. You'll need to learn how to get in and out of kayak and basic paddling strokes before taking on difficult environments.

Getting in and out of a kayak

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This can be a challenging and awkward first lesson, but the secret is to keep your weight low and centered. If you're getting in from a dock, hold on to the dock edge while putting your feet into the cockpit. Continue stabilizing yourself by grabbing onto the dock and lowering yourself into the kayak. To exit, it's the same thing in reverse. Lean against the dock. Pull your knees out, against the cockpit, and slide out onto a sitting position on the dock.

On the beach, it's slightly different. Bring the boat so the cockpit is at the edge of the water. Hold on to your paddle behind you. Hold the paddle and the back of the seat with both hands. Press the blade down and center the weight on the paddle while you're sliding yourself toward and into the boat. Put the paddle vertical into the ground on one side and your fist on the other side and push off into the water. It helps to use your hips. If you have a partner, he or she can stabilize the boat while you enter. The partner can push the kayak into the water. Having a partner simplifies the process of entering a kayak on a beach, so you don't have to balance on the paddle or push yourself off into the water. REI demonstrates these entering and existing techniques in the video above.

Paddling techniques

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To begin paddling, rest comfortably on the seat, keeping the boat stable. Grip onto the paddle with hands over and thumbs under. In general, you should have a relaxed grip on the paddle. The torso is your source of power, so you should be winding it to help you stroke, preventing strain of your arms, back, and shoulders.

A basic forward stroke requires you stroke deeply and evenly. You begin by winding your torso, placing the blade parallel to the foot. The paddle comes out of the water when your hand reaches your hip, and you unwind your torso, repeating the process on the other side.

There are several ways to turn. The most basic is to use the paddle as a rudder and drag it close to the kayak. The boat turns toward the same side of the blade. However, this technique loses a lot of forward momentum. To keep that momentum while turning, a sweep stroke is effective. You alternate the forward stroke on one side with a sweep stroke on the other. You sweep the paddle wide on one side of the kayak until it touches the stern, or the back of the boat. Continuing this pattern creates a wide arc turn.

REI demonstrates basic techniques, including the forward stroke and turning, in the above video.

There you have it - the kayaking basics to get you started. What are you waiting for? Relish the end of summer with a kayaking adventure.

Images, from top:

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