How to Kayak – Everything You Need to Know
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No image depicts outdoor exploration quite like paddling. The visual of a kayak gliding across glassy waters as its bow slices through the shimmering rays of light, is the kind of stuff dreams are made of.
If this scene sounds like something you would enjoy, then you’re in for quite a treat. There’s no other hobby that’s as exhilarating and oddly meditative as kayaking. Every yak owner can attest to this fact.
The pure joy you get from spending an afternoon exploring the waterways while enjoying the warmth of the sun and the sound of the water gently splashing with each stroke of the kayak paddle is like nothing else on this green earth.
This guide explores everything you need to know about how to kayak so you, too, can join this exclusive community of yak lovers.
Why You Should Kayak
If you don’t already do it, then there are number of reasons to start kayaking! Although there’s a dozen water-related sports and activities you can do, kayaking is a really simple, calming and great way to get out, enjoy the water, and get some exercise.
Kayaking is pretty straight forward: Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or someone who is just looking to get out and stay active, kayaking is a great activity. You don’t need much to get started and the learning curve is pretty simple – just hop in and start paddling. Almost anyone can do it!
Kayaking is a fun and unconventional way to get exercise: When we think of cardio or staying physically active, the first exercises that pop into our head are the generic activities like running, hiking, biking. Don’t get me wrong, these are all great! But sometime you need to break the norm and do something out of your comfort zone. Kayaking is a perfect way to get out on the water, enjoy nature, and still get a great workout! Depending on your body type, you can burn almost 1,000 calories with a couple hours of kayaking!
How to Kayak 101 – Get a Boat
Not to bury the lead, but before you venture out on the waters, you’re going to need a boat. But, not just any boat – a kayak. A great place to start would be to borrow a kayak from a friend or anyone else you know that has one.
You could also visit an on-the-water outfitter and rent a kayak and all the gear you would need for your expedition. It’s the cheapest way to dip your toe into the kayaking pool, to get a feel for it before spending the big bucks on expensive equipment.
Another option would be to sign up for a tour at your local lake. You would get the yak, the gear, and all the essentials in one low-cost package.
The last option would be to sign up for a kayaking class. It would essentially be like a tour, except that you would get more in-depth instruction.
The point of all this is to get into a boat and take it out on the water to get a fill for the sport.
You could also just go full steam ahead and buy a kayak from the get-go. If it’s something you’re passionate about and you’re in it for the long haul, then hey – knock yourself out.
Believe it or not, there are different types of kayaks depending on the type of kayaking you choose to do. If you’re just beginning, then don’t worry, you won’t have to go out and spend an arm and a leg on multiple kayaks. But it is important to determine what type of kayak you will need before getting started.
How Do I Choose the Right Kayak?
Think of it like biking – if you plan on sticking to roads, you’ll want a road bike. If you want to downhill bike, you’ll need a mountain bike. Or if you want to stick to trails and commuting, then a hybrid is your best option. Kayaks are similar in this sense. Here are the 5 main kayak types you need to know:
Sit-on-top kayaks: These are your standard recreational kayaks, they do not have an enclosed seat for easy entry and exit, and are generally wider and provide more stability. Great for beginners.
Inflatable kayaks: These are very similar to the sit-on-top kayaks, however are much easier to transport because you can inflate and deflate when you travel. Better used for relaxed, shorter rides in calm waters. If you’re skeptical about kayaking but want to try it out, an inflatable kayak is a good starting point.
Recreational kayaks: A larger seating area, shorter in length, and great for recreational use. Also a good option for beginners or anyone looking to just get out and enjoy the water.
Touring kayaks: These are longer, much more narrow, and have a small seating area. Great for longer trips and easy to use.
Whitewater kayaks: These kayaks are for more advanced riders and come in a variety of options depending on your experience. If you’re looking for a more intense ride through rougher waters, then a whitewater kayak is the better option as they are more versatile.
What is the Basic Gear I Need to Go Kayaking?
Other than the obvious one, which we just went over – a kayak – there are a couple other things you’ll need to get started. The gear and supplies you bring on your kayaking trip will vary depending on the type of trip you’re planning, but below, we’ll outline some of the basics and go over them in some detail. Remember: depending on the length and severity of your kayaking adventure, make sure to plan ahead and pack enough supplies (including food and water).
Kayak Paddle: Again, this one may sound obvious, but a paddle is absolutely an essential piece of equipment when you go kayaking. There are a number of things to consider when choosing a paddle, including your kayak size and the type of kayaking you plan on doing. We’ll go over the specific below, but you can refer to our kayak paddle sizing chart here.
Life Jacket: Wearing the right personal flotation device (or PFD) is crucial when kayaking. Getting out in the open water is fun, but safety is your number one priority, especially if you’re kayaking by yourself. Make sure to find the right PFD for your body type.
Bailer or Bilge Pump: A bailer or bilge pump is a simple device all kayakers use to empty water out of your kayak in case you start taking on too much. Depending on where your kayaking or the severity of the water, you may not even use your bailer, but it’s important that you bring one in case it’s required.
Get the Right Kayaking Gear
For purposes of this guide, we’re going to assume you’re using a classic recreational kayak.
If you’re in a hot region where the waters are warm, consider using a wider, open, and more stable boat. This type of kayak is referred to as a sit-on-top since it doesn’t have an enclosed cockpit.
Here’s the essential kayaking gear you’ll need to have before venturing out into the water.
1. Personal Flotation Device
A personal floatation device or PFD, for short, is something you wear to help you stay afloat in water. PFDs are essential pieces of gear that every kayaker, paddleboarder, and canoer should have on them at all times every time they’re on the water.
It’s important to mention that life jackets and life vests are all different types of PFDs, although most people use the terms interchangeably. PFDs generally fall into five different categories based on their functions, but only two of these are mainly used for kayaking-related activities.
They include US Coast Guard approved standard PFDs and Inflatable PFDs.
Standard vs Inflatable PFDs
The majority of PFDs you’ll come across on the market right now are the standard non-inflatable variety. They look like vests and are made from floatation material like foam. This is what creates buoyancy.
Although they are low maintenance and inherently buoyant, their major drawback has to do with how incredibly bulky and restrictive they are. Sure, they’re supposed to save your life in the event something goes wrong on your kayaking adventure. However, their drawback is that they can be quite warm on a hot summer’s day.
This type of PFD inflates in one of two ways. You could do it manually where you pull a cord, which then triggers a cartridge to release carbon dioxide and inflate the vest. Other designs do it automatically the moment they come into contact with water. Inflatable PFDs, on the other hand, are a newer, more compact subset of PFDs. Their main selling point is their slim profile when they are in their deflated state. They are also US Coast Guard approved and are more comfortable to wear compared to their standard counterparts.
So, regardless of the type of PFD you opt for, just ensure that you have one before you hit the water.
Aside from the actual boat and the PFD, the other thing you’ll need to master when learning how to kayak is the kayak paddle – more specifically, how to use it correctly.
A paddle consists of two blades attached to either side of a shaft. Each of them is dipped alternately on either side of the kayak to push the water back and steer the boat forward with each stroke. There are four major things you need to consider when choosing the right paddle as a kayaker.
The rule of thumb when picking the right length paddle is – the wider your kayak is, the longer the paddle you’ll need. Your height also plays a major role in the length of the paddle you’ll use. Taller individuals generally require longer paddles.
Here’s a chart you can use to help you figure out the length of the paddle you should get.
Width of Kayak
|< 23”||23” – 27.75”||28” – 32”||> 32”|
|Less than 5 ft.||200cm||210cm||220cm||
5 ft. – 5 ft. 6 in.
|5 ft. 7 in. – 6 ft.||220cm||220cm||230cm||
> 6 ft.
If you fall in between sizes, a safe bet would be to go shorter. Quite frankly, any of the two sizes would work, but a shorter paddle will save you a couple of ounces in weight, which means less fatigue when paddling for longer distances.
With every stroke you take, you raise the blade to a level higher than the shaft. So, blades made from lightweight materials reduce fatigue. There are three types you’ll come across, each of which transfer energy differently with every stroke.
There are plastic blades. The term “plastic” here is generic and refers to “polypropylene,” “polymer,” or “plastic blends infused with fiberglass or nylon.” If you come across the term “composite,” then you know it’s the catchall reference for fiberglass and carbon fiber.
Plastic blades are often used by recreational or beginner paddlers. They are low-cost compared to the other types you may come across. While they are relatively durable, they are prone to cracking, especially when left out in the sun for too long.
Then there are the fiberglass blades. These fall in the middle of the range and are characterized by their lightweight nature and outstanding strength and durability.
On the off chance that it chips, you can rest assured that it won’t crack all the way through. They are more rigid compared to their plastic cousins, which make them more efficient when paddling in the water.
Then there are the carbon fiber blades. They offer unmatched performance and excellent durability. Once you learn the ropes and hone your kayaking skills to intermediate or expert level, you can consider upgrading to this category of blades.
Aluminum shafts are the most affordably priced. While they offer a good amount of durability, the downside to them is that they can get extremely hot when left out in the sun, or super cold when used in lower temperature areas. Nonetheless, they offer pretty decent performance.
Shafts made of carbon fiber and fiberglass are more durable than aluminum ones and are also extremely lightweight. You want to go for the ones paired with lightweight composite blades for maximum paddle efficiency.
Keep in mind though that the price of these paddles is reflected in their performance. So, they don’t come cheap.
3. Bilge Pump
This is a device that removes any water that builds up inside the kayak. Excess water may splash into the vessel from waves, paddling, or even after a capsize.
So, draining it from time to time is important to prevent you from sinking. With a bilge pump, you don’t have to tip your yak upside down on the shore to dump out the water. You can do it while you’re still in the boat.
4. Spray Skirt
This is a waterproof cover you wear over your waist to cover the cockpit holes in sit-in kayaks. They come in handy in cold weather to keep out the rain and splashes from entering the boat. In warm weather, however, you might want to skip on it as things can get a little stuffy inside the cockpit.
5. Proper Clothing
When kayaking in conditions colder than 60°F, particularly if the water itself is extremely cold, you’ll need to wear a wetsuit. In warm weather conditions, however, you’ll need:
- Swimwear or nonbinding shorts
- A short/long-sleeved rashguard top
- Sun-shielding hat
- Neoprene footwear
- A vest or lightweight fleece jacket depending on the weather conditions
- A rain/spray jacket and pants depending on the weather conditions
6. Personal Items
Ensure you carry the following 10 essentials of kayaking before you embark on a tour. These include:
- Dry bags for items you don’t want to get wet
- Energy snacks
- First aid kit
- Plenty of water
- Signaling whistle
- Sunglasses, sunscreen, and lip balm
- Watch to give yourself ample time to get back
Adjust Your Kayak
Keep in mind that you need to be comfortable inside the boat. After all, you’re going to be spending several hours on it.
A well-adjusted kayak is the key to a pleasant on-water experience. Here’s how to do it before you launch it into the water.
- While the boat is on dry land, start by planting your butt firmly against the seat. Fine-tune the seat angle to a position that feels the most comfortable to you. Angling it upright will give you more power and balance, though.
- Next, place your feet on the foot pegs checking to see that your knees are slightly bent. Slide the foot pegs along their track to their preset stopping points to ensure that you achieve the desired angle.
- Finally, ensure that each top of your bent knee is in contact with each side of the cockpit. This is important for having total control over the kayak’s side to side motion. This, however, doesn’t mean that they should be jammed in there to the point you wouldn’t be able to easily get out of the boat in an emergency.
Launch Your Kayak
Now that your kayak is well adjusted, the next step involves launching it into the water. Most touring trips begin with pushing off a gently sloping shoreline.
However, you need to be careful when doing this as you might end up damaging the hull from dragging it on rough, sandy, or rocky surfaces. To launch here’s what you need to do:
- Carry your boat and set it down in shallow water. This put-in-point should be perpendicular to the shoreline with the bow facing away from the shore and the stern fully afloat facing the shore.
- Place one end of your paddle blades in the deck line at the front of the cockpit. Then, stand over your kayak with one leg on each side, straddling the hole.
- With both hands grabbing the rim, lower your butt and set it firmly on the seat. Then lift both feet off each side of the kayak, slide them into the cockpit, and set them onto the foot pegs.
- Once you’re seated comfortably in your kayak, take your paddle and use it to push your boat into the water. Once you’re a couple of feet in, wear your spray skirt, and glide away.
Hold Your Paddle
Once you’re in the water, you’re now ready to paddle. Here’s what you need to do:
- To begin, grasp your paddle with both hands and lift it over your head such that the center part of the paddle shaft is positioned directly above the crown of your head.
- Move both hands outward from the center to the starting position. This is when your elbows are bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Now, lower it to your front and check to see that:
- Both paddle blades are aligned. If you find that they are not in line with each other, it means you have a feather shaft (two pieces joined together). In such instances, take a few seconds to adjust the shaft and re-align the blades.
- Next, examine each paddle and make sure that the longer edges are facing up. This ensures that the blades glide smoothly through the water.
- The scooped sides of the blades should be facing you.
- Position your hands on the shaft such that your knuckles are aligned to the top edges of the paddle blades.
- Relax your grip on the shaft. Holding it too tightly will tire out your hands faster.
How to Paddle
Now for the fun part – how to kayak. The first thing you need to understand is the basic paddling movement. It involves three kayaking strokes.
1. The Forward Stroke
This is the stroke you’ll be doing most of the time, so you need to master it right from the get-go. It involves:
- The catch phase – Reach out ahead and immerse your paddle blade on one side of the kayak such that it is adjacent to your feet
- The power phase – Push the blade backward to propel the boat forward
- The release phase – Once your hand reaches behind your hip, lift the blade out of the water in a “slicing” motion
Then, repeat all three motions in a sequence, alternating between each side of the boat.
2. The Reverse Stroke
This is also referred to as the braking stroke and involves the exact opposite of the forward stroke. Here’s what you need to do.
- Immerse the blade into the water next to your hip
- Push the blade forward to propel the boat backward
- Then, slice it out of the water once the blade is adjacent to your feet
So, you would essentially be moving in reverse.
3. The Sweep Stroke
This is also referred to as the turning stroke. It involves repeating several forward strokes on the same side of the kayak to turn it towards a particular direction.
If you do it continuously, you’ll rotate 360 degrees in the same spot. The sweep works in the same way as a forward stroke, except that you would need to take a much wider arc.
Safety Precautions and Weather Conditions for Kayaking
No matter what, ALWAYS make sure to plan ahead when going kayaking. Check your local weather forecast a few days ahead to ensure that the conditions will be ripe for a good kayaking adventure. Ideally, you want a warm, dry day with low winds and calm water. If you’re close to the body of water that you plan on kayaking, go scope out the location so you know where to launch your kayak and what kind of conditions you’ll be dealing with.
As a beginner, here are some things to avoid and look out for when planning your trip:
- Check the location during busy times to ensure there aren’t a lot of other kayakers using the waterways
- Avoid fog at all costs if possible as it affects your vision
- This one is obvious, but always avoid stormy and/or windy weather
Just like any water-related activity, kayaking does pose some risks because you are traveling through a body of water. Make sure to prepare the essentials and be ready for anything. Here’s a quick list of things to bring and avoid that you can refer to anytime:
- Bring a buddy when kayaking
- Bring your PFD and check it before to ensure the fit is right
- Bring your helmet and proper safety gear
- Bring a map and understand your surroundings
- Ensure you have a reliable form of communication for assistance if needed
- Pack appropriate and extra clothing
- Pack enough water and food
- Bring the proper footwear for any conditions
- Never drink or use drugs before or during your kayaking experience
- If the weather changes and you’re not prepared, reschedule!
Practice Makes Perfect
Once you understand the basics of how to kayak and have gone on a few guided tours, take the plunge and head out on your own. Pick a small calm water body that doesn’t have a lot of powerboat traffic.
Check the weather forecast beforehand and go on a day that’s sunny and windless. Then use the tips in this guide to prepare, carry the supplies you need, and finesse your paddling technique. With frequent practice, you’ll be a pro in no time.
Not sure what you should wear kayaking? Check out our guide to help you prepare for all weather conditions.