How to Paddle a Kayak: Beginner’s Guide to Basic Strokes

Master the art of kayaking with our beginner’s guide to basic strokes. Learn the right posture, how to hold a paddle, and essential techniques.

how to paddle a kayak

One of the best things about kayaking is that learning how to paddle a kayak is reasonably straightforward. Most people can pick up the basic strokes without much practice. However, learning proper paddling techniques and sitting posture is crucial to move faster and more efficiently through the water.

You can learn how to paddle a kayak with an experienced kayaker or join a beginner kayaking class. But, if you’re keen to start learning from home, we’ve put together this guide on kayaking posture, how to hold a paddle, and the basic paddle strokes.

How to Sit in a Kayak

Good kayaking posture translates to easier paddling and more efficient movement. When you get the sitting position right, you’ll be able to move faster and further with less effort and less risk of injury.

Proper kayaking posture means sitting up straight in your kayak seat. Your legs should be apart in a V-shape with your knees slightly bent and each foot resting on a footpeg. Your thighs should be braced against the sides of a sit-in kayak. You may have thigh braces that you will use to push against and control the kayak while paddling.

Remember to keep your back straight. Imagine an invisible line from your belly button to the top of your head, and don’t hunch your shoulders.

A common mistake is leaning back in the kayak seat like you would sit on a sofa at home. Leaning back while paddling can give you lower back pain and offset your balance, particularly when you need to make sharp turns.

You might find that you automatically lean back in your seat as you get tired. That’s a good sign that it’s time to take a break. But, if you are not able to exit your kayak, try leaning forwards instead of backwards. You can hold onto the front of the cockpit or deck lines while you rest your back.

Doing some basic core muscle training at home can help you maintain a good kayaking posture while on the water. In addition, a kayak with a comfortable seat with back support can make a significant difference on longer journeys.

How to Hold a Kayak Paddle

Correctly holding a paddle is the key to paddling a kayak without getting tired, sore, or injured. Minor adjustments to your hand and arm position can significantly improve your paddling efficiency.

Of course, you’ll also need to pick the right size paddle for your height and your kayak’s width.

1. Get to Know Your Paddle

Before you learn how to paddle a kayak, take a minute to get familiar with the paddle. The three key things to know about your paddle are whether the blades are symmetrical or asymmetrical, concave or flat, feathered or unfeathered.

Most paddles have asymmetrical blades, meaning that one side is shorter than the other. However, the difference may be very slight. Asymmetrical blades are more popular because the shape helps you paddle in a straight line.

Similarly, paddle blades can be concave (curved) or straight. Most paddles have concave blades, which are better at catching and pulling against the water; however, the angle can vary from paddle to paddle.

Lastly, are the blades feathered or unfeathered? Unfeathered blades are parallel, while feathered blades are at an angle to one another, meaning that you must rotate the paddle shaft for each stroke. When you paddle with feathered blades, one blade enters the water vertically; simultaneously, the other cuts through the air horizontally, reducing air resistance.

If you’re unsure whether your paddle is feathered or unfeathered, lay it on the ground. If both blades lay flat, it’s unfeathered. If one is sticking up, it’s feathered. 

2. Position Your Arms and Hands Correctly

Start by getting your hands in the correct position on the shaft. The easiest way to do that is to find the paddle’s center point and rest it on your head. Then, with the paddle in this position, adjust your hands until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle.

Keep your hands in the same place as you bring the paddle down in front of you, and take note of the shape made by your arms, chest, and torso. This shape is your ‘paddler’s box,’ and you should try to maintain this position while you’re kayaking. If you lose shape or take a break, just repeat the process.

3. Adjust Your Grip

Next, you’ll want to be aware of how tightly you’re holding the shaft. It’s common for beginners to grip the paddle shaft like it is their lifeline. Relax. Your paddle isn’t trying to get away from you. Although you need to keep a secure hold on your paddle, gripping it tightly will tire your arms and wrists more quickly, and you’ll probably go home with a few blisters.

Instead, try holding the shaft with just your index finger and thumb. Then, hold your other fingers up like you’re making the OK sign. Once you’re used to paddling with this looser grip, you can gently rest your other fingers on the shaft. Repeat this technique whenever you feel yourself gripping the paddle tightly.

4. Orient Your Paddle Blades

Now that your hands are in the right place and you have a comfortable grip on the paddle shaft, you’re almost ready to start paddling. However, before you do, double-check that your paddle blades are positioned correctly.

This will partly depend on what type of paddle you have. Assuming the blades are asymmetric, the shorter side should be down, pointing towards the water. The longer side should be up, pointing towards the sky. Also, check that the curved side is facing you unless you’re using flat blades, as this is what will catch the water and move you forwards.

Once you’ve got the blades the right way, check your alignment by looking along the length of your paddle. Your knuckles should align with the top of the paddle blade. If you’re using a feathered paddle, line up your knuckles on the one hand with the corresponding blade. You’ll use this hand to rotate the shaft as you paddle. 

Kayak Strokes & Paddling Technique

Now let’s talk about how to paddle a kayak. When you first get on the water, take it slow. Focus on making each stroke correctly and maintaining the proper sitting posture instead of covering long distances. You might find yourself going around in circles at first or moving at a snail’s pace. Don’t worry; speed and distance are linked to good paddle technique.

Likewise, listen to your body. If your arms are sore or your back aches, take a break and adjust your position. Paddling a kayak shouldn’t hurt. If it does, you probably need to change your posture or technique.

We can break down the basic paddle strokes into three key steps; the wind-up phase, the power phase, and the release phase. While you’re learning, it’s worth saying each step out loud as you do it. That way, you can ensure you don’t miss any important phases.

Forward Stroke

You’ll use the forward stroke the most on any kayaking adventure, so don’t rush. Taking time to learn the proper technique will significantly benefit you when progressing to longer distances or aiming for higher speeds.

At first glance, it looks like the forward stroke is powered entirely by the arms. But, like all kayak paddle strokes, you need to use your core and leg muscles too. If your legs are more tired than your arms at the end of a kayaking trip, that usually means you’re doing it right.

To perform a forward stroke:

  1. Look where you’re going and not at your paddle blades. You don’t watch the steering wheel while driving or stare at your handlebars while cycling. Likewise, watching each stroke will put you off course, and it’s good practice to look where you’re going anyway.

  2. Wind your torso so that you can place one paddle blade roughly in line with your feet and close to the kayak. Your upper arm should be slightly bent and your lower arm straight, but don’t lock your elbow. At the same time, push your stroke-side foot firmly against the footpeg.

  3. Power your stroke. Now the paddle is immersed in the water, keep your lower arm straight and your stroke-side foot pushing against the footpeg. At the same time, unwind your torso and push lightly with the upper hand so that the paddle blade comes in line with your hip.

  4. Release the stroke when the blade reaches your hip by lifting the paddle out of the water. Your torso should already be rotated so you can repeat the stroke on the opposite side. 

Although it sounds like a lot to remember, the important thing to focus on is rotating your entire torso, not just your shoulders, and maintaining the ‘paddler box’ shape. 

Reverse Stroke

The reverse stroke is similar to the forward stroke, but you start at your hip and finish at your feet. Although you won’t need to use it as often, it’s useful for turning in a tight space or giving way on a narrow waterway.

To perform a reverse stroke:

  1. Look behind you before your start paddling backward. Check you’re not going to crash into another paddler or any other obstacle.

  2. Wind up your torso. Place the blade in the water in line with your hip and close to the kayak. Push your stroke-side foot against the footpeg.

  3. Power your stroke. Unwind your torso so your lower arm moves forwards from your hip to your feet. Use your upper arm to pull lightly on the paddle shaft.

  4. Release the stroke when the blade reaches your feet and repeat on the opposite side.

You might find yourself automatically leaning back while paddling backward. Try to maintain a straight back, and don’t get frustrated if you can’t keep the kayak in a straight line. Going backwards is tricky, and it will take some practice. Focusing on something static ahead of you and keeping the strokes short will help.

Sweep Stroke

Repeating forward or reverse strokes on one side will turn the kayak slightly towards the opposite side. This is useful when you need to adjust your course a little. However, a sweep stroke is more efficient when you need to turn or make more significant adjustments to your paddle direction.

To perform a forward sweep stroke:

  1. Look in the direction you want to turn.

  2. Wind your torso and push your stroke-side foot against the footpeg, just like you’re making a forward stroke.

  3. Power your stroke. Keeping the blade immersed in the water, slowly rotate your torso, making a wide arch shape with the paddle. Your kayak will turn as you do this.

  4. Release the stroke when the blade reaches your hip. Repeat on the same side to continue the turn or resume paddling with a forward stroke. 

You need to put more force into this stroke than a regular forward or reverse stroke and make the arch wide and long. For a more powerful sweep stroke, you can lean forwards and begin the stroke in front of your feet.

Using a forward sweep stroke, the kayak will turn bow-first, meaning that the front will turn, and the back of the kayak will follow. If you want to turn stern-first, just repeat the above steps but start the stroke from your hip like you’re doing a reverse stroke. 

Draw Stroke

The draw stroke is for moving sideways without turning the kayak. It’s useful for pulling yourself closer to something, like a jetty or another kayak.

To perform a draw stroke:

  1. Look and turn your torso in the direction you want to move.

  2. Immerse the blade horizontally at arm’s reach from your kayak (about 2 feet). The curved side of the blade should be facing you.

  3. Slowly pull the blade towards your hip using your lower hand until it is about 6-inches away from the kayak. Your upper hand should be relaxed and about eye level.

  4. Rotate the blade 90 degrees to slice it back to its starting point. From here, you can either pull it out of the water or repeat steps one to three. 

Don’t try to do a draw stroke while you’re moving, as you’ll probably capsize; you need to come to a stop first. Also, if you feel the blade coming close or hitting the side of the kayak, just let go with the upper hand and start again. You’ll probably get wet if you try to pull it out.