Whether you live close to the coast, a calm lake, or whitewater rivers, kayaking offers a unique opportunity to get outside and explore nature. Kayaking is great exercise, fun, and suitable for all abilities. What’s more, once you know how to kayak, you can explore any type of waterway, no matter where you live.
Like any watersport, preparing for a kayaking adventure takes a bit of planning. You also need to learn the basic paddle strokes and safety techniques so that you can stay safe on the water.
Fortunately, we’re addicted to all things kayak-related. To help you get the most out of your time on the water, we’ve written a beginner’s guide to kayaking; including the basic kayaking skills you’ll need, gear to pack, and plenty of useful tips.
What Do You Need to Go Kayaking?
Kayaking requires a relatively large amount of equipment. However, that shouldn’t be off-putting for any newcomer to the sport. Here are the essential and personal items required.
Yes, of course, you’ll need a kayak to go kayaking. But you might not want to buy your own until you’ve got a bit of experience.
Instead of buying a kayak straight away, you can rent one from a water sports center. Although a rental kayak probably won’t have any flash design features, it’s fine to learn basic skills. Renting a kayak is a more affordable and hassle-free way of testing the sport and different types of kayaks before choosing a kayak for yourself.
Alternatively, if you have a friend or family member that’s into kayaking, you might be able to borrow a kayak. This is the best solution because, if your friend is an experienced paddler, you might be able to learn the basics from them too.
When choosing a kayak paddle, there are a few things you’ll need to think about, including the type of paddle shaft, blade shape, and whether you prefer a feathered or unfeathered paddle.
Essential Kayaking Gear
No matter what type of water and season you’re going paddling in, every paddler should bring the following items.
- PFD: A coast guard approved personal floatation device that’s properly fitted and worn at all times.
- Whistle or Distress Flare: To attract attention in an emergency. A whistle is fine when you’re close to land, but distress flares are best for open water.
- Bilge Pump (sit-in kayaks-only): A bilge pump lets you bail water from your kayak. It’s useful after a capsize or in choppy water.
We also recommend that every paddler in the group brings the following items.
- Compass/GPS: A navigation device so that you can find your way. It’s a good idea to have a compass and GPS in case one device fails.
- Communication Device: A mobile phone in a waterproof case, emergency radio, or satellite phone.
- First-Aid Kit: This should be packed in a waterproof bag or box and easy to access.
- Sunscreen: Apply sunscreen before you leave and regularly throughout your trip.
- Food & Water: Enough for the duration of your trip, plus a bit extra. For full-day or multi-day trips, remember to bring a mixture of foods with slow-release and fast-release energy.
- Dry Bag: For storing a spare set of clothes and other personal items.
- Light: For paddling early mornings, evenings, or on foggy days. Also helpful in traversing tunnels.
- Spray Skirt (sit-in kayaks-only): To keep the water out and keep your legs warmer.
What to Wear Kayaking
Unless you’re kayaking in cold conditions, you don’t need any special clothing to go kayaking. Comfortable sportswear that doesn’t chafe, the sort of thing you would wear for running, summer cycling, or hiking, should be fine. Plus, you always need to wear a personal floatation device.
The most important thing is that the clothes you wear while kayaking should be quick-drying and lightweight. Think synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon. These are light enough that you’ll still be able to swim when you capsize, and they don’t hold water like cotton and linen.
On sunny days, we recommend wearing a hat and sunglasses, as well as something that protects your shoulders from sunburn. You can wear a swimsuit underneath if you want to go for a dip.
Layer up in cooler temperatures with a lightweight fleece and a windproof and waterproof jacket on top. Consider wearing a wetsuit or drysuit when the water temperature is below 60°F (15°C).
On your feet, you can wear outdoor sandals in warm weather, aqua trainers, or wet suit shoes. Waterproof boots are helpful when the water is cold or you have a tricky launch point.
How to Carry a Kayak
Most kayaks are heavy, so the best way to carry one is with the help of your paddle buddy. With one person at either end, you can make light work of moving the kayak from the water to the car.
To move a kayak on your own, you have a few options:
- If you have a lightweight kayak and you’re walking a short distance, you can carry the kayak on your shoulder or balance it against your hip.
- For heavier models and longer distances, consider bringing a kayak cart. This is an excellent option for anyone living within walking distance of a shoreline or waterway. Most kayak carts are collapsible, so you can either store them in the hatch of your kayak while paddling or lash them to the deck.
- Make a DIY carry strap. Use a long rope or join two lashing straps. Loop one end around the bow and the other around the stern, then put the strap across your shoulder so that the kayak lifts off the ground when you stand.
Also, think about how you’re going to transport your kayak. The best option for most kayakers is to attach a set of V-bars, J-bars, or foam blocks to a roof rack with crossbars. You can then strap the kayak to your roof rack using rope or lashing straps.
How to Get In and Out of a Kayak
Getting in and out of a kayak, especially a sit-in kayak is one of the trickiest parts of learning how to kayak. You’ll probably get wet before perfecting the art!
How you get in and out varies depending on where you’re launching your kayak. Below we’ve outlined the best techniques for three types of launch points.
How to Get In and Out of a Kayak From the Shore
This is my favorite way to get in and out of a kayak because there’s less chance of capsizing. But you do need to get your feet wet.
To launch, carry your kayak into the water until it’s deep enough for the kayak to float.
Here’s an easy cheat if you’re new to kayaking and launching from a sandy shore. Just walk your kayak to the edge of the water and get in while it’s still touching the ground. Once seated, use your hands to lift and push yourself away from the shore.
You then have two options.
Step one leg over the kayak, so you have one foot on either side, sit down in the seat, and fold your legs inside. This technique works for sit-on-top kayaks or wide cockpits but won’t work if your sit-in kayak has a tight cockpit. In which case, try option two.
To get out, paddle close to the shore until the water is about a foot deep, or paddle onto the beach if it’s sandy and won’t damage your boat. Step your feet out, one on either side. Place your hands behind the cockpit and stand up – like standing up from a squat.
Step one leg over the kayak, so you have one foot on either side. Squat down until you can sit on the deck behind the cockpit, with your hands close to your bottom. Put your feet inside the cockpit, lift your bottom, and slide forward until you’re sitting in the kayak seat.
To get out, paddle into shallow water or onto the shore. Place your hands behind the cockpit, lift your bottom and slide back so that you’re sitting on the deck. Fold your legs out, place one foot on either side of the kayak, and stand up.
Tip: While doing this, it’s helpful to put the paddle horizontally across the back of the kayak (behind the cockpit), with one blade close to the side of the kayak and the other sticking out. This gives you something to lean on while getting in and out.
How to Get In and Out of a Kayak From a Dock
Getting in and out of a kayak from a dock is slightly trickier. Here’s how to do it on your own or with the help of a paddle buddy. The same technique applies if you’re getting in or out of a kayak from a steep river or canal bank.
On Your Own
Lower your kayak into the water and line it up with the dock. Put your paddle on the dock, alongside your kayak, so you can easily reach it from the kayak.
Sit on the edge of the dock with your feet in the cockpit. Use the dock for support and twist your body so you’re facing the same direction as the kayak. Then lower your bottom into the seat. You’ll need to keep most of your weight on your arms while you do this.
Once you’re comfortable, grab your paddle and push yourself away from the dock. You might want to stay close to the dock while you attach the spray skirt.
Tip: For extra stability, you can put one end of the paddle across the kayak, behind the cockpit, with the other end resting on the dock. For canals and riverbanks, you might be able to wedge the paddle blade between rocks or crevices and use it for balance as you climb in and out.
With a Paddle Buddy
With a helper, the process is much easier. Decide who’s getting in first and lower their kayak into the water. The helper can then sit on the edge of the dock and hold the kayak in place with their feet and hands while the paddler gets in.
Once the first paddler is seated and balanced, the second paddler can lower their kayak into the water. The first paddler can raft up alongside the second kayak so that it can be held onto while the second paddler climbs in.
To get out, just repeat the process in reverse. It’s a good idea to have the stronger paddler get out first – if you’re paddling with a child, for example – because they’ll have to lift their kayak out of the water alone.
How to Get In and Out of a Kayak From Deep Water
You usually won’t need to get into a kayak from deep water. Nonetheless, it’s helpful to know how to in case of a capsize.
First, line yourself up with the kayak’s cockpit and make sure that your paddle is not going to drift away – you can tuck it into the kayak’s deck lines. Place one hand on either side of the cockpit and pull your torso up and over the seat.
If you have a sit-on-top kayak, the next step is more straightforward. Turn your body so that your bottom is in the kayak seat. Then, swing your legs around in front of you.
If you have a sit-in kayak, turn your body so that you can swing one leg over the kayak and sit behind the cockpit. Put your feet inside the cockpit and slide your bottom into the seat. Bear in mind that it will be challenging to keep the kayak balanced, even in flat water.
Ideally, you’ll never be paddling far from shore on your own anyway. But, if you are, you might want to pack a paddle float.
Whenever you’re out with a paddle buddy, you can use a T-rescue technique to get into a kayak from deep water.
To get out of a kayak in deep water, just do a normal wet exit. Roll your kayak upside down, pull the release loop to remove the spray skirt, place your hands on the front of the cockpit and push your lower body out. For sit-on-top kayaks, just swing your legs over one side and slide out.
How to Sit In a Kayak
Like holding the paddle right, sitting correctly in a kayak will help you paddle faster and further without aches and pains.
Good Kayaking Posture
Good kayaking posture means using your core to keep your back straight; without hunching or leaning back. Your head should be aligned over your belly button, and your arms and torso should form your paddler’s box.
Meanwhile, your legs should be open in a V-shape with your knees slightly bent and each foot against a footpeg. In a sit-in kayak, your outer thighs should be lightly pressing against either side of the cockpit.
Once you’re sitting in the correct position, place the balls of your feet on the footpegs. Your knees should be bent but not crushed against the sides of the kayak. You’ll probably need to adjust your footpegs to get the correct position. If your toes only just touch the footpegs, move them closer, but if your legs feel cramped, move them further away.
How to Adjust a Kayak
When a kayak is adjusted to fit your body, it should be more comfortable to paddle and feel more stable. We recommend that you make any adjustments either on dry land or while sitting in very shallow water.
First, adjust your seatback. Not all kayak seats are adjustable, and not all seats have back support. However, if yours does, you can adjust the angle and position of the seatback so that it takes some of the strain off your core muscles. If your kayak seat is not adjustable and doesn’t feel comfortable, you might want to replace it before going on a long trip.
Next, adjust the footpegs. Bend your knees slightly and rest the balls of your feet on the footpegs. You’ll probably need to get out of the kayak to adjust the footpegs.
Check. With the footpegs and seat adjusted, you should be sitting upright with your knees and outer thighs gently braced against the cockpit.
How to Hold a Kayak Paddle
Holding the paddle correctly will improve paddling efficiency while reducing the strain put on your body. Holding the paddle wrong will result in poor paddle technique and possible injury.
To get your hold right, start by making sure the paddle blades are the right way around. The concave side should be facing towards you, assuming you’re not using a flat-bladed paddle. Meanwhile, if your paddle blades are asymmetric, the shorter edge should be closest to the water.
Now that the paddle is the right way round, place the shaft on the top of your head. Adjust your hand until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. Keeping your hands in the same position on the shaft, bring the paddle down in front of you. The shape made by your arms, torso, and shaft is your paddler’s box.
Finally, check that your knuckles are aligned with the top edge of the paddle – the longer edge if using an asymmetric paddle – and make sure that you’re not gripping the paddle too tightly. You should be able to control the paddle using only your thumb and index finger.
If using a feathered paddle, line up the knuckles on one hand with the paddle blade. You’ll use this hand to rotate the shaft as you paddle.
How to Paddle a Kayak
Once you’ve mastered – or at least practiced – the art of getting in and out of a kayak, learned how to hold a kayak paddle, and prepared your gear, it’s time to learn how to paddle a kayak. In this section, we’ll walk you through the basic paddle strokes.
Basic Kayak Strokes
Although there are many different kayaking strokes, the following four are the ones you’ll need to use every time you’re on the water, so it’s worth learning how to do them correctly.
This is the stroke you’ll need to use the most, as it’s the paddle stroke that will move you forward.
- Twist your torso so that you can submerge one paddle blade next to your feet. Your lower arm is straight while your upper arm is bent.
- Twist your torso back to center, pull the blade in line with your hip using your lower arm while pushing lightly with the upper arm.
- Lift the blade out of the water, twist your torso and submerge the opposite blade next to your toes.
This stroke uses almost the same technique as a forward stroke but will move the kayak backward.
- Twist your torso so that you can submerge the paddle blade next to your hip. Your lower arm is bent and your upper arm straight.
- Twist your torso back to center, and push the blade forward with your lower arm, so it comes in line with your feet while pulling lightly with the upper arm.
- Lift the blade out of the water, twist your torso and submerge the opposite blade in line with your hip.
A sweep stroke is the most efficient way to turn your kayak or adjust your direction.
- Twist your torso and submerge one paddle blade next to your feet.
- Make a wide arch shape with the paddle while pushing with your stroke-side foot and twist your torso back to the center. The arch shape should go from your feet to your hip.
- Lift the blade out of the water.
- Repeat the stroke on the same side to continue the turn or resume a forward paddle stroke.
Draw stroke is for moving sideways without turning the kayak. It’s handy when you need to get out from a dock or raft up with another paddler.
- Twist your torso so your chest is facing the direction you want to move.
- Submerge the paddle blade horizontally about two feet away from the kayak.
- Slowly pull the blade towards you. Stop when it’s about 6 inches from the kayak.
- Rotate the blade 90-degrees to slice it out of the water or repeat steps one to three.
How to Use Rudders & Skegs
Some kayaks have either a rudder or a skeg which helps with tracking and steering.
Rudders are attached to the stern and drop down into the water. You control the direction using foot pedals, and there is usually a rope or slider next to the cockpit so you can raise and lower the rudder while paddling. Instead of using sweep strokes to turn the kayak, you can push the left foot pedal to turn left and the right foot pedal to turn right.
Skegs are small fins that attach to the rear of the kayak’s hull. They primarily help with tracking – moving straight – rather than direction. Skegs can usually be raised or lowered with a rope or slider, but they don’t turn left or right. Some skegs are detachable, allowing you to take them off before you launch.
Tip: Don’t forget to pull up your rudder or skeg when paddling in shallow water!
How to Roll a Kayak
At some point, you’re guaranteed to capsize, so it’s worth learning how to roll a kayak. If possible, you can do this in calm water that’s about waist deep. That makes it easy to get back into your kayak, or you can have someone standing alongside you. A swimming pool or shallow lake is perfect for practicing.
There are two main types of roll: the sweep roll and the C to C roll.
- Set up: Hold your paddle horizontally alongside your kayak. The power face – the curved side of the blade – should be facing up next to your toes. Tuck your head and lean towards your paddle to tip the kayak upside down.
- Catch: Rotate your torso so that you can swing the front paddle blade out to a 90-degree angle. As you turn your paddle, pull the blade down and snap your hips to bring the kayak upright.
- Recovery: Continue the rotation so that your hips come out of the water first, followed by your torso and head. Bring your body back to the center.
C to C Roll
- Set up: Hold your paddle horizontally alongside your kayak with the power face next to your toes and facing up. Tuck your head and lean towards your paddle to tip the kayak upside down.
- Catch: Twist your torso to swing the front paddle blade out to a 90-degree angle, keeping it close to the surface of the water. Then, pull down on your paddle blade and snap your hips to bring the kayak upright.
- Recovery: After your hips come out of the water, continue rotating your torso so that it lifts out of the water, followed by your head. Let your body come back to the center.
Tip: Use a less stable kayak while learning, as it will be easier to roll than a wide recreational kayak. Also, get yourself a nose peg and goggles or a snorkeling mask as you’re going to be spending a lot of time underwater at the beginning!