Kayaking is wonderful for lots of reasons, but one of the best is the fact that it’s relatively easy to get into. Unlike rock climbing, say, or hang-gliding, there’s no extreme danger to worry about, and you don’t need weeks or months of training before you can get going on your own.
Still, kayaking can be dangerous if you don’t do it properly. It can also be less enjoyable if you don’t learn how to paddle efficiently and so forth. That’s why we’ve put this little primer together.
Below, you’ll find all our essential tips for starting out kayaking. These are the basics, and are by no means a comprehensive list of absolutely everything you need to know. But follow these steps and buy these key items, and you’ll hit the water both safe and happy!
What to do when you’re starting out as a new kayaker
Get a lesson
As with any outdoor sport or activity, you shouldn’t strike out on your own. The single best thing for any newcomer to do is to get a lesson. Go on a guided tour with a rental company, or take a class if there’s an outdoor rec center near you. Even better, call a friend who’s an experienced boatsman. You’ll save yourself some money and get some quality time in.
Starting out under the supervision of an experienced hand keeps you safer, plain and simple.
You can do a capsize drill with someone on hand to rescue you, and you’ll have an in-person teacher for all the basics. It’s always better to have an expert around to correct you, as helpful as guides like this can be!
Develop your technique
Having fun while kayaking and staying safe while kayaking both depend on using proper technique. These are the basics to bear in mind when you start out.
Keep a relaxed, almost loose grip on the paddle. This helps to avoid muscle strains and fatigue. It also makes you more responsive, and more fluid in your motions.
Rather than trying to be fast, try to be even. You’ll go faster if you’re paddling evenly at a moderate speed than you will if you’re paddling frantically but off-kilter. Paddle rhythmically, and relax. Make each stroke count by pulling deeply. Smooth paddling doesn’t splash water! There’ll be the odd droplet, but you shouldn’t be making much noise.
Keep a good, active posture
Kayaking, like any form of exercise, can strain and injure your body if you don’t support things. Engage your core, and support a natural seated posture. The ideal ergonomic posture is to maintain a slight curve in the lumbar, pulling your core in, and keeping broad through the chest. Keep your back upright and your shoulders pulled slightly back so that you’re not straining yourself forward. You want to be using your back muscles, not your shoulders.
Make sure you have the right boat
For the sake of ergonomics and efficiency, you need to be sure you’ve got a boat that suits your body. Make sure you’re paddling something appropriate for your size. That’s going to depend on length and the size of the cockpit. You’ll also want to have a seat that’s comfortable for your body. Try a few different ones at a rental place if you can! For in-depth reviews of the best kayaks and kayak seats, visit our homepage!
Start with a sit-on-top
Especially if you’re going to be going anywhere that’s not completely flat, sit-on-top kayaks are the safest way to go by a long shot. They’re extremely hard to flip, which is in your interests, and their stability in mixed conditions is idea for newcomers. Regardless, don’t take recreational kayaks anywhere but a calm lake or tranquil, slow river!
Always take time to adjust before you leave the shore
It’s not safe to have to make adjustments when you’re out on the water, and if you plan ahead, it’s really not necessary either. Take the time to make everything comfortable before you set off. Your hips should be snug at the back of the seat well. The more upright you are, the stronger a position you’ll be in, but do what feels comfortable.
Your knees should be slightly bent, so shorten the footrests toward you if your legs are only just reaching them. You want knees to be bent so that your legs can be engaged! Your knees should be snug against the sides of the cockpit. This helps you control lateral motion on the water.
Always wear a life jacket
This goes without saying for any water sport. It should be snug but comfortable, allowing you a natural range of motion. Make sure it’s a certified piece of safety equipment, and don’t be tempted by sketchy bargain options.
Dress for the water, not the weather
This is a common adage among kayakers! Just as you should always plan so as to ride out the worst, you should assume that, at some point, you’re going to get a bit wet. Take several layers of quick-drying clothing. Look at the water temperature rather than the air temperature before setting out! Always err on the warm side, but don’t wear anything that will stay wet.
Avoid cotton, in particular! It takes forever to dry. Get rash guard garments and UPF-rated clothing wherever you can. They’re one of the best things in outdoor apparel right now. Under 60 degrees F, you should be wearing a wetsuit.
Don’t forget the accessories
Having a good boat isn’t the only thing you’ll need! Make sure to budget for/buy all these items before you start kayaking on your own.
You need a good paddle, which can cost as much as $250. Don’t spend that much on your first one, but our point is that it’s a cost you need to budget in up front.
Unless you have a pickup or SUV where the kayak can fit easily in the back, you’ll need to buy a rack. Even in a pickup or SUV, you probably need some sort of bungee cords or fasteners to keep things locked down. Sort out how you’ll transport your boat before you buy the boat, too! You want to be sure to get a kayak you can actually manage.
A dry bag
Dry bags are watertight storage sacks in which you can keep all your valuables and essentials. You should have at least one to keep your phone, other electronics, map and first aid kit in.
Bailing things out with a water bottle isn’t a position you want to be in. Get yourself a basic bilge pump to prepare for the any water coming over the sides! It’s likely enough when you’re starting out.
A spray skirt fits over the front part of the cockpit to stop water splashing over the edge and onto your lap. These are essential accessories if you’re heading into choppier waters. We think they’re good to have handy anytime, though.
Pack the essentials
- First aid kit
- Lip balm
- Sunglasses with a cord
- A watch
Bring a physical map in a waterproof bag, along with a compass! You don’t want to be depending on your phone battery. GPS’s are handy, but it’s always best to travel with a manual backup.
Plan your route carefully beforehand, too. You should know exactly where you’re headed, the general direction, and a few landmarks to use to judge your location. Try and figure out how long the whole trip will take. That way, if you end up spending an unusually long time paddling back, you’ll know that you might be heading in the wrong direction.
Check the weather, and get a water forecast wherever you can. Most lakes and well-known rivers have them available from a local forecaster. Always remember to consult outdoor forums if you need pointers on resources!
Avoid fog at all costs. That’s our best warning for anyone, regardless of experience. Fog is extremely disorienting, and can lead to you paddling far out of your planned course. Don’t set out if there’s a thick fog bank. It’s that simple.
Stick to bays and inlets when you’re starting out. While you probably want to get ambitious and make for the islands right off the bat, you should stay fairly close to the shoreline until you’ve logged some experience.
How to launch a kayak
Carry it to the waterline, having a friend help if it’s too large/heavy for you to manage alone.
Get it in the water, just holding lightly to the sand. You want it to stay in place while you get in, but be able to push off easily once you’re inside. It should be faced with the prow toward the water, perpendicular to the coast.
Get your paddle set, with one blade under the deck line in the front of the cockpit. You want it so it’s going to be easy to grab once you’re in the boat, but not anywhere that it’ll fall out. Stick one end into the cockpit, if that works for you
Then, get in! Get yourself situated over the vessel, straddling the cockpit. Sit your butt down first, then swing your legs inside. Scoot back until you’re right at the backrest. Adjust your foot supports so that you have a comfortable, active bend in the legs.
Lastly, use your paddle to move off!