How to Get In and Out of a Kayak

Learn kayak entry & exit on beaches, rocky shores, docks, and in the water. Discover techniques to help you feel more secure and safe.

How to Get In and Out of a Kayak

The best ways to launch and exit a kayak depend on the type of shoreline you’re departing and arriving from. 

Protected sandy beaches may have a lot of room for error. But exposed ocean shorelines with big swells and hidden tidal rocks are a different ballgame. Approaching or departing from these without certain precautions can have dire consequences for you and your kayak.

While there’s no substitute for practice and repetitions, this article will help prepare you for what can often be the most challenging part of kayaking—getting in and out of a kayak.

On a Beach | From a Rocky Shoreline | At a Dock | While in the Water

On a Beach

In most cases, entering and exiting a kayak on a sandy beach is simple and intuitive. But challenges like reefs and large surf still require you to pay attention and proceed cautiously.

Getting in and Launching From a Beach

  1. Carry your kayak to the water’s edge. You can safely drag plastic boats for short stretches on sandy beaches, but try to minimize pulling them long distances.

  2. Place your kayak in the water. Depending on the depth and swell, you can orient your kayak either parallel or perpendicular to the shoreline. I prefer to have my kayak pointing into the surf (perpendicular to shore) in choppier conditions.

  3. Secure your paddle. You can do this by placing it in a paddle holder, under deck bungees, or across the kayak’s deck behind the seat and using it as an outrigger.

  4. Place your foot closest to the kayak in the cockpit. Lower yourself into your seat, sliding your hands behind you on the kayak’s combing or deck to keep yourself balanced.

  5. If you’re using your paddle as an outrigger, keep a hand on the paddle’s shaft. But be careful not to put too much weight on the paddle.

  6. Once you’re in your seat, bring your other leg into the cockpit. Depending on your size and flexibility, you may have to prop yourself up and hover above your seat to get both legs in.

  7. Make sure you have your feet on the foot pegs or rudder (if applicable), and retrieve your paddle.

  8. Paddle off the beach and out of any potential surf or hazards before making more minor adjustments. 

Landing and Exiting on a Beach

  1. On shallow sandy beaches, you can approach the shore head-on. Gently paddle the bow onto the sand, giving you a stable platform to disembark.

  2. For steeper beaches, it may not be possible to ground the bow of your kayak in shallow enough water to stand up. In this case, turn your kayak parallel to shore first.

  3. You can do this by holding one blade of your paddle in the water and forcing the bow to turn 90 degrees. Once parallel to the beach, you can place the paddle blade in the sand on the ocean side of the kayak and push yourself as close to the shore as you need.

  4. Secure your paddle or place it behind you to use as an outrigger.

  5. Prop yourself up with your hands and get a foot out of the kayak.

  6. Slowly stand up with one foot still in the kayak. Take your time and transfer as much weight as possible to the foot standing on the shore.

  7. Once you’ve reached a standing position, step entirely out of the kayak, secure your paddle, and grab one of your kayak’s handles. Bring it clear of the waterline by at least a couple of feet so waves or surf can’t reach it.

From a Rocky Shoreline

Rocky beaches provide several more obstacles for kayaks entering or leaving the water. They may have surf, slippery rocks, seaweed, and uneven ground. Move slowly, take your time, and watch your step, especially when carrying your kayak to the water.

Getting in and Launching From a Rocky Shoreline

  1. Orientate your kayak parallel to the water. Ensure you have a safe path to open water and won’t be trapped by large rocks once you’re seated.

  2. Step carefully and make sure your kayak is floating free. Be mindful that larger rocks may catch or ground your kayak once your weight has been added to the boat, so you may have to go out further than you think.

  3. If you’re loading up your kayak on an ebbing tide, make sure your boat won’t be stranded by the time you’re aboard. Peak ebb tides can drop by as much as one foot every fifteen minutes in some locations.

  4. Like on sandy beaches, you can also use your paddle as an outrigger to help keep your balance when getting into your kayak.

  5. Place one foot in your kayak and support your body weight with your hands while you lower yourself into the cockpit. When your center of gravity is near the water, bring your second foot into the cockpit and retrieve your paddle.

  6. Once seated, leave the shoreline promptly. Surf and waves can easily pick up a sideways kayak and toss you onto rocks or capsize you. If you’re using a spray skirt, wait until you’re clear of the shore and other obstacles before securing it. 

Landing and Exiting on a Rocky Shoreline

  1. Approach the shore carefully and check for any rocks that are exposed or just below the water. Hidden rocks and reefs can trap kayaks or spell trouble if a wave throws you onto one. Look for rolling waves ringed with white foam and whitecaps to help you identify them.

  2. Once you’ve found a suitable spot to exit your kayak, angle your boat parallel to the shore.

  3. Secure your paddle and prop yourself up with your hands, getting one foot out of your kayak before standing up.

  4. Legs and hips tend to stiffen up after a day of paddling, so watch your footing on the rocks and seaweed. My feet fall asleep sometimes and can make those first few steps treacherous.

  5. Ensure that your kayak is clear of the water, and take note of the tide. Be especially cautious if it’s flooding.

At a Dock

Using a dock for kayak launches has its pros and cons. You don’t have to worry about the intertidal zone, and there are rarely waves. But the higher height needed to enter the kayak will feel foreign the first couple of times. 

Getting in and Launching From a Dock

  1. Place your kayak along the side of the dock. Getting your boat in the water can feel awkward. Having a second person help you and communicate clearly as you lower it into the water is helpful.

  2. Keep a hand on your kayak to keep it from floating away. Ask a partner to brace the boat.

  3. If you can’t secure your paddle to your kayak, place it on the dock as close to your kayak as possible. You’ll need to reach it from a seated position.

  4. Sit down on the dock and place both feet in the bottom of the kayak.

  5. Pivot your feet towards the kayak’s bow and push off the dock, keeping as much weight as possible off the kayak.

  6. Keep your weight on the dock while transferring your torso and hips into the kayak, settling yourself slowly into your seat. As you feel your center of gravity settle above the kayak, you can transfer your weight from the dock. You should feel like you’re settling into your seat gracefully, not dropping.

  7. Retrieve your paddle, and maintain a grip on the dock until you’re ready to start paddling.

Exiting at a Dock

  1. Turn your kayak parallel to the dock. If someone is nearby, see if they can help brace your kayak while you exit to make the process easier.

  2. Place your paddle on the dock or secure it to your kayak. Make sure it’s still accessible in case you need it.

  3. Place both hands on the dock and push yourself out of your seat, transferring your weight out of your kayak and onto your hands.

  4. Stay as low as possible while you bring your torso, hips, and knees free of the kayak. Then, you should be able to crawl onto the dock.

  5. Once free of the kayak, turn around and grab your boat, securely tying it to the dock until you’re ready to remove it. 

While in the Water

Sometimes flipping a kayak is intentional—other times, it isn’t. Regardless of how you’ve found yourself in the water, it’s vital that you know how to exit and recover safely

Exiting From the Water

Always wear a life jacket while kayaking, regardless of the situation. If you capsize, the buoyancy of your life jacket will help pull you free of the kayak and to the surface.

  1. If you’re wearing a spray skirt, pull the bungee cord securing it to the combing of the cockpit to help free yourself from the kayak.

  2. Once at the surface, keep a tight hold on your kayak and your paddle. It’s imperative that neither floats out of your reach.

Getting in From the Water

In the event of a capsize, the first thing you need to do is get your kayak right side up. Kayaks are very buoyant and want to sit right-side-up in the water. This makes them amicable to flip back to their correct orientation.

There are many ways to get back in a kayak, but my preferred method is with a paddle float.

  1. Swim to the side of your kayak near the seat, reach across the bottom of your kayak, and grip the far side with one hand, pulling it towards you while pushing on the side closest to you. This will encourage the kayak to rotate towards you. It may take some effort to start the process, but once the kayak moves, it should return to an upright position without too much trouble.
  1. Secure the paddle float to the end of your paddle and place it behind the seat, perpendicular to your kayak.

  2. Push up on the top of the kayak like you’re exiting a pool. Kick your legs hard, and when they start to leave the water, brace against the paddle float for stability.

  3. Spin your head towards the stern of your kayak. Stay as low as possible, and place one leg at a time in the cockpit, keeping as much of your weight as you can on the paddle float. You should be lying on your belly on the top of your kayak with your legs in the cockpit.
  4. Once both legs are back in the kayak, twist your body toward the paddle float until you return to a seated position.

  5. Continue to rely on your paddle float. If you’re paddling a sit-inside kayak, chances are your boat is full of water which will make it less stable. Use a bilge pump to remove as much water as possible. Alternatively, remove your scupper plugs if you’re paddling a sit-on-top kayak.