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Kayaking for beginners

Kayaking for Beginners

Get out on the water with the help of our tips and tricks!

Kayaking is a popular water sport, and when you see the pros effortlessly weaving between obstacles and cutting smoothly through the water, it’s easy to understand why. With the right paddling techniques, you can cover great distances and explore remote parts of rivers and lakes.

If you are kayaking for the first time though, it is good to start slow. Try renting some kayaks to see if you enjoy the sport or maybe try a beginner’s class? Learning the basics will make the sport more enjoyable from the get-go and gives you a better idea if you’re ready to invest.

In this article:

  1. Is kayaking hard?
  2. A kayaking checklist
  3. What to wear kayaking
  4. Parts of the kayak
  5. How to enter a kayak
  6. How to paddle
  7. Kayaking vs canoeing
  8. Safety tips for beginners
  9. Kayaking with kids
  10. Kayaking for exercise
Kayaking for beginners

Is kayaking hard?

No! Kayaking is a great sport for beginners since once you get the basic skills down, you can get started right away. Of course, if you are kayaking with harsh water or weather conditions, it can be dangerous. But this is not recommended for kayakers with years of experience either.

Kayaking checklist:

Here are some things to bring on your first kayaking adventure:

  1. Kayak and paddle (unless you are renting one).
  2. Dry bag: a small, waterproof bag that you can fill with belongings and fit into the kayak hatch.
  3. Water bottle: you will need to hydrate, either place it in a kayak hatch or between your feet.
  4. Life jacket: you always need a life jacket when paddling, no exceptions.
  5. Extra clothes: always bring more layers in case the weather turns for the worse.
  6. Kayak car rack: if you have your own kayaks, you are going to need to transport them to your destination with ease. We have a guide to help you choose the best rack for your car.

What to wear kayaking

To keep warm, layering is crucial. This is how you should layer your clothes and what materials to look out for:

  • Base layer: opt for a short sleeve if it is hot, but always bring a long sleeve shirt just in case. Look for synthetic materials like polyester and polypropylene that will keep you warm even if they get wet.
  • Mid layer: a fleece or thicker polyester fabric will do just fine.
  • Waterproof jacket: go for the most waterproof jacket you have. You want one that keeps the underlayers dry.
  • Leggings and shorts: if the weather is cold, opt for polyester leggings and some waterproof shorts. If it is warm, bring the leggings along just in case.

Wetsuit or dry suit? A lot of kayaking experts are constantly asked which wetsuit you should wear for kayaking and the proper answer is none! Wetsuits are built to keep you warm when immersed in water. But since kayaking takes place out of the water, the wetsuit is cold and makes mobility difficult. Also, when you sweat, the suit creates a swampy atmosphere inside your clothing (yuk!).

The better choice is a dry suit. Any clothing that is waterproof is the right way to go. A kayaking dry suit is ideal, but if you are a beginner, you can still find suitable clothing right at home.

Dress for the water, not the weather – and expect changing temperatures. You should dress to keep yourself warm if you fall into the water. Hypothermia is a real threat, and even on hot days the water can be frigid. Also, always pack an extra set of clothing or extra layers to store in the hatch of your kayak in case the weather changes.

Parts of the kayak

The names of all the different parts of a kayak may seem daunting to non-seafaring folk. But the basics are quite simple:

  • Bow: the front of the boat
  • Stern: the back of the boat
  • Deck: the top side of the boat (this one you might have heard before!)
  • Deck Hatch: the compartments found on the deck of the kayak. Here you can store food, extra clothes, or any gear that you want to keep dry during the trip.
  • Rudder/skeg: a fin-shaped blade at the end of the boat that goes into the water and helps the kayak go in the right direction.
  • Bungees: sometimes also called shock chords or deck lines, these are chords on the deck where you can store more gear.
  • Cockpit: where you sit.
  • Foot peg: sometimes also called foot brace, these are pedals where you place your feet, they can also be adjusted to fit your height.
  • Thigh braces: curved plastic pieces in the cockpit that come out from the side of your kayak and should sit snuggly right above your thighs.

How to enter a kayak

The best place to enter a kayak is from a sandy beach. Just get in and push the kayak out into the water with your arms.

From the dock: bring the kayak to the lowest point of the dock because the higher up you are, the harder it is to get in. The kayak should be parallel to the dock. Hold the side of the dock with your arms, then in one swift motion put your feet into the kayak and turn so that you are facing the bow. Lower down quickly into the cockpit, placing your butt on the seat as swiftly as possible. As soon as you are in the seat, you will have gained balance and can adjust your feet from there.

From the water: if you flip over in the water, make sure first to flip the kayak over so that it doesn’t fill up with too much water. Locate your paddle and place it in the bungee cords so that it is secure. Holding the edge of the cockpit, one hand on the nearest side and the other on the furthest side, kick to give yourself leverage and pull yourself up. You should be lying on the kayak with your chest facing the cockpit. Focus on next getting your butt onto the seat first, since this will help you keep balance. Flip your body around and slip into the seat. Then adjust your feet so they are comfortable. Practice doing this in shallow water before kayaking in deep waters.

Kayaking for beginners

How to paddle

How to hold the paddle

Your hand should be gripping the paddle about 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) from the blade. Hold the paddle with a relaxed but secure grip. Knuckles should be aligned with the edge of the paddle blade. A good way to see if you are doing it correctly is to hold the paddle above your head, if your arms are bent at 90-degree angles you are holding the paddle correctly.


Forward stroke: To go forward, twist your body in the direction opposite to where you are about to place the paddle. Place the paddle into the water, and unwind your body, using the force of that unwinding motion to push the paddle through the water. The paddle should come out of the water when the hand closest to the water is level with your hip. The hand placed higher up on the paddle should always be pushing, and the hand placed lower should be pulling.

Tip: the force moving the kayak forward should come from the power of untwisting your torso, not from your arms.

Turning stroke – sweep stroke: What you do here is a forward stroke but with an accentuated stroke on one side. To do the sweep stroke, place the paddle far out in front of the boat, sweep it wide, and continue all the way until it almost touches the stern. Do this sweeping motion in the direction opposite to where you want to go. If you want a sharp turn, do this stroke only on one side. To turn with forward momentum, complete the sweep stroke on the side opposite to where you want to go, and complete a normal stroke on the other side.

Kayaking vs canoeing

Kayaking and canoeing are two popular ways to explore nature from the water. If you are contemplating starting either of these two sports, opt for one that fits your dream water adventure better. 


  • Better for multiday trips since they are large and can carry lots of stuff.
  • Better for families since you can fit kids and two parents on one boat.
  • Easier if you want to travel between lakes (called portaging) since you can tip them upside down and carrying them on your head.
  • More comfortable since you can stretch your legs or change position.


  • More stable, less impacted by wind and the elements.
  • Travels a lot faster, can cover greater distances for more exploring.
  • More nimble, can avert obstacles quickly.
  • Dry storage means you can keep your gear dry no matter what.
  • Kayaking solo is easier than paddling in a canoe with others which takes more coordination.

Safety tips for beginners

  • Do you have to be able to swim to kayak? Yes. Unless you are kayaking in a body of water where you know you can touch the bottom, it is important you can swim if things get dicey.
  • Always kayak with a lifejacket! Kayaking without one is a big no-no in the community (even dogs must wear vests when kayaking!).
  • Remember sunscreen if it’s sunny.
  • Never drink alcohol and paddle.
  • Always dress for the temperature of the water and bring extra clothes in case it gets cold.
  • Never paddle alone.
  • Choose calm bays, quiet lakes, or rivers without a noticeable current.
  • Only paddle in water conditions that you would confidently swim in.
  • Practice entering the kayak from the water before kayaking in deep waters. If you can’t comfortably reenter the kayak from the water yet, stay close enough to the shore so that you can swim back if necessary.

Kayaking with kids

If you are kayaking with kids, you can place them in their own cockpit in a tandem kayak if they have previous experience. Otherwise, placing them in your lap is also an option. Pack even more layers for your little ones as they lose heat faster than adults in the water.

Always make sure they are wearing a life jacket that fits properly. If your child wants to paddle, they can use a kid’s paddle. Kids get bored easily, so pack some snacks and drinks for the trip, and take multiple bathroom breaks or pits stops to explore the nature ashore.

Kayaking for exercise

Will kayaking build muscle? The muscle soreness that hits you after a day out on the water is a clear answer to this question. Kayaking trains your back, arms, and shoulders since these are the muscles being exerted the most. However, there are also benefits for your core due to the twisting motion of the torso when kayaking and the legs because of the pressure you put on the foot brace with each stroke. Kayaking is also a great aerobic exercise since it gets the heart rating.

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