21 Beginner Kayaking Tips and Tricks for First-Timers

These are our essential kayaking tips for beginners: from choosing the right kayak and gear to proper paddling techniques.

Kayaking Tips

While kayaking is a simple sport that can be enjoyed by outdoor enthusiasts of all ages, there is a lot of advice and safety measures that need to be considered.

In this article, we’ll draw on our comprehensive background in paddling to provide some of the most essential kayaking tips to help you get started. Here you’ll find advice on selecting the right kayak for your given activity, all the gear you’ll need (it’s more than you think), and some important safety tips to get you on the water responsibly.

1. Rent First if You Can

There are some super cheap kayaks on the market, but the low-end designs aren’t worth your time as their performance and durability are usually terrible.

Most kayaks that are worth your hard-earned money cost several hundred dollars, and higher-end expedition and fishing models can easily eclipse a thousand. Before making such a significant investment, it’s worth renting or borrowing a kayak first to see how much you really enjoy it.

Make a couple of trips with your rented kayak if you can. Kayaking isn’t complicated, but there is a learning curve. It can take a couple of outings to get comfortable with your paddle stroke and learn how to balance without fear of capsizing

With the growing popularity of kayaking, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a rental near most bodies of water that are good for paddling. Rentals often come with all the necessary gear and, with luck, some local knowledge of the best paddling areas.

2. Budget for Accessories Before Investing in a Kayak

There’s more to kayaking than just the boat and paddle. Depending on the type of kayaking you’re doing, the necessary accessories can add some unexpected hidden costs.

At a minimum, you’ll want a high-quality life jacket that’s properly sized for your weight. But there’s other safety gear that shouldn’t be overlooked. For example, I never leave the beach without a pump and a paddle float.

These two items are indispensable in the event of a capsize.

Other accessories may depend on the type of kayaking you’re planning on doing. For kayak fishing, there’s no shortage of tailor-made accessories, from fish finders to GPS devices and other gadgets that add a lot to the experience.

Expedition kayakers will want a specially designed deck bag that can hold a map and be secured on top of the kayak. In addition, a GPS, SPOT, or another location device that can be activated in an emergency can be a lifesaver. 

3. Choose the Right Kayak

Just like you want the right accessories for your kayaking activity, there’s a diverse array of kayaks tailored for specific functions. Selecting the right kayak size and design is critical to having a good paddling experience. 

Basic, recreational, sit-on-top kayaks are stable but should only be used on protected lakes, bays, and mellow rivers. Many fishing kayaks also fall into this category. However, there are some bigger, beefier designs that are capable of handling open water, rapids, or challenging ocean conditions.

Svelte touring kayaks are usually sit-in boats meant for long paddles and a more comprehensive range of rough water. As a result, they move faster than stubbier sit-on-tops and tend to come with a lot of dry storage space. However, they can be harder to maneuver even with a rudder and tend to go at a higher price than their recreational cousins. 

Whitewater kayaks are usually sit-in designs too but are much shorter. This gives them excellent maneuverability, which is perfect for pinwheeling through rapids and careening around sharp turns. They’re easier to roll and are lightweight kayaks. However, they perform very poorly outside of fast-moving river settings.

4. Invest in a Good Paddle

A kayaker needs a good paddle the same way a runner needs a good pair of shoes. It doesn’t matter how sleek your kayak is or how strong you are if your paddle isn’t up to snuff. Like kayaks, there are a lot of different paddles to choose from at a range of prices.

Paddles come in varying lengths that are usually listed in centimeters. The correct kayak paddle length for you depends on your height and the model of kayak you’ll be paddling. 

5. Buy a Dry Bag and Know How to Use It

Whether you’ll be storing your gear in a hatch or on deck, even “waterproof” hatches are only waterproof to a point. Rain, waves, or user error will inevitably lead to wet gear if it’s not stored correctly.

Dry bags for kayaking are reasonably priced and come in a wide range of shapes. They’re durable and collapse easily when not in use. If you have the option, I recommend opting for multiple small dry bags rather than one big one. In many cases, you’ll want to store gear in several spots in your kayak, and smaller bags give you more flexibility.

While dry bags come in a rich array of colors, I prefer clear bags so I can quickly identify what’s inside without having to crack it open and expose the contents to the elements. 

6. Duct Tape is Your Friend

Yes, duct tape it’s not just for at-home repairs. On the water, duct tape can be utilized for countless functions. 

It has enough rigidity to hold a broken paddle together, cover a hole in your dry bag and even serve as a makeshift patch for a damaged and leaking inflatable kayak. Combining a roll of duct tape with a multi-tool should be suitable for most impromptu maintenance work. 

7. Take a Whistle and Learn Proper Safety Signals

When you get your brand new life jacket, the first thing to do is tie a whistle to the clip. Sound travels much better over water than land, and even a cheap plastic whistle can be heard from miles away on a calm day. 

Several maritime safety signals can be used in the event of an emergency. The general sign for a paddler in distress is to hold your paddle vertically in the air and wave it back and forth. 

Acquaint yourself with these signals, so you know how to use them and, just as importantly, how to recognize them so you can be on the lookout for your fellow paddlers.

8. Understand the Potential Risks and How to Avoid Them

On calm days, kayaking can be one of the most therapeutic activities. But in the event something goes wrong, it can be hard to get out of trouble. Kayaks are slow, and weather conditions can change rapidly, leaving you to struggle for shore against wind and waves.

Get the most accurate, current weather forecast you can, and always be on the lookout for changing conditions. Watch for dark clouds, escalating wind gusts, and small, choppy waves, which are signs of a rising sea. 

Carry a tide chart and understand where tides can cause bottlenecks and rip currents that can turn even calm days into a white-knuckle ride you’d rather avoid. 

Paddle with a partner and always tell someone where you’re going and when to expect you back.

9. Dress for the Water, Not the Weather

This is a big one for those paddling in colder climates. A sunny afternoon may call for shorts and a t-shirt, but some wind or splashing waves can turn all of that in a hurry. Paddle in long pants or rain pants to keep the water off you. Same for your torso, where my preferred outfit is a long-sleeved shirt made of synthetic material or wool. My rain jacket is always close at hand.

10. Bring a Change of Clothes

Whether you’ll be paddling under sunny, bluebird skies or heading out on a weeklong adventure in glacier country, dry clothes are currency when you’re on the water. So always bring a spare change of clothes that are kept in their own specific dry bag so they’ll never get wet.

In temperate or colder environments, paddlers should bring wool or synthetic clothes that wick moisture and maintain their thermal value even when wet. For multi-day trips, I take one pair of socks for every day I’ll be out. It’s hard for me to have fun if my toes are wet. 

11. Set Up Your Kayak Correctly

Many kayaks, particularly sit-in models, can feel tight and cramped. Taking the time to set up your kayak properly will pay huge dividends on the water. 

Most kayaks have adjustable, padded seats that can be altered to fit a variety of shapes and sizes. Of course, foot pedals should also be adjusted. I like to paddle with my knees slightly bent, allowing me to brace against the foot pedals and generate a little extra force on my paddle stroke. 

These adjustments are easiest to do on land. So find a soft, flat piece of ground to place your kayak on while you get your seat and foot braces where you want them.

12. Begin With a Short Outing, Not an Expedition

It may be tempting to get out on the water and disappear into the wilderness, but start slow with a few basic day trips first. Stay close to land and make sure you’re comfortable with your paddling technique and the environment. If possible, go out with a more experienced paddler, preferably one who knows the area and can pass on some local knowledge. 

13. Start on Gentle Waters

Your first couple of times in a kayak will probably be a rocky affair. Today, most kayaks have excellent stability and are hard to tip over. That said, they are sensitive to your shifting weight, and many newcomers have a tendency to overcompensate, causing them to do a lot of rocking back and forth. 

Don’t introduce waves or rapids to the equation. Instead, begin on a protected stretch of water, where the chances of bad weather are slim to none, and there’s plenty of help nearby should you end up in the water. 

14. If It’s Breezy, Start out Paddling Into the Wind

It can be difficult to judge distance and time from a kayak. The lower vantage point of a kayak’s seat can make long crossings seem shorter than they are. This is especially true when dealing with wind.

Often, paddlers will zone out, enjoying the day, and aren’t aware that they’ve had a 15-knot wind on their tail all day, pushing them further from home than intended.

Always be mindful of the wind’s direction and speed, and if you can, start your day paddling into the wind. This way, you’ll be kayaking with the breeze on the way back, making for a shorter return journey and less risk of getting caught out overnight. 

15. Practice the Basics

Paddling a kayak is relatively simplistic, but the repetitive motions take some practice. Muscle memory takes over once you’ve mastered them, similar to learning how to ride a bike. So make sure you have a solid foundation of the kayaking basics before heading into challenging water.

Take the time to learn a few basic paddle strokes, and be familiar with maneuvering your kayak in tight spaces. A simple obstacle course is a great way to hone your skills and get comfortable on the water. 

16. Pace Yourself

The simple stroke of a kayak paddle is relatively low stress on your body. The downside is that it takes a lot of these low-impact strokes to get anywhere. As a result, many paddlers feel great the first day, but wake up with an aching back or sore shoulders. 

Go slow and take your time. You’re in a kayak. You won’t be winning any races anyway, so enjoy the ride. Monitor the inside of your thumbs where they meet the paddle, as this is a common place for blisters to show up. Poor technique can also put unnecessary stress on your wrists, while a poorly adjusted seat can lead to knots in your back and neck. 

17. Don’t Go Alone

It doesn’t matter how pleasant the weather forecast is or how good a swimmer you are. It’s always helpful to have another person with you. Recovering from a capsized kayak is much easier with someone else to assist you. Having another person to watch the weather and, if necessary, go for help is invaluable. 

18. People Are More Important Than Boats

This goes without saying, but it doesn’t matter how nice or expensive your kayak is. The most common scenario is a capsized kayak where the paddler cannot get back in due to the weather, cold, or physical inability.

It may be necessary to take the person to shore in these cases. Of course, this means leaving their kayak behind. It may be tempting, but it’s not worth discussing now or in the moment. Get the person to shore, sheltered, and into warm clothes. 

If it’s safe enough to recover the missing kayak later, go for it, but this should be far down on your priority list. 

19. Stretch it Out

A little extra flexibility can do wonders for your comfort. Cramped cockpits can mean a lot of muscles flexed or locked up for long periods, especially if you’re paddling a sit-in model. 

A few basic stretches before and after you paddle can make a big difference, especially if you’re making a long trip over several days or weeks. 

Identify the areas of your body that tend to stiffen up or get sore first and give these muscles special attention. For me, it’s my hips, and incorporating a few hip-opening stretches into my daily paddle routine has helped me stay on the water longer. 

20. Dry Your Equipment Before Storing Them

After a long trip, it can be tempting to toss everything in the garage or yard and put your feet up on the couch. But your trip isn’t done yet. Hang tents, dry bags, and other materials up to dry, and make sure there’s no pooled liquid. 

Kayaks and paddles should be rinsed (especially important after saltwater paddles) and the hatches sponged out. Leave the hatches open and allow any remaining water to evaporate. Leaving trace amounts of water in your gear and kayak can cause mold to grow and shorten its lifespan. 

Kayaks can be stored outside if necessary, as long as they’re placed under a cover. Ideally, your storage place will be out of direct sunlight to prevent prolonged UV exposure and potential damage. 

21. Always Follow Kayaking Safety Procedures

This includes a wide range of categories, from understanding the “rules of the road” that boaters must follow to any local regulations and basic kayaking safety.

Be mindful when paddling in busy waterways with a lot of boat traffic. Kayaks technically have the right of way but are low to the water and aren’t always visible to motorized vessels if the captain isn’t paying attention. 

Be responsible with your paddle plan, and don’t try anything you or your boat isn’t capable of. 

You wouldn’t operate a car or boat intoxicated, and the same rules apply to kayaking. Drugs, alcohol, and paddling don’t mix. So save your beer for the end of the day around the campfire.