Water Sports

How to Kayak – The Ultimate Guide

Whether you’re looking for a leisurely ride on the water or an exhilarating race down rapids, kayaking may be the sport for you.

Kayaks – literally meaning hunters’ boats – date back thousands of years to the northern Arctic regions where the Inuit and Aleut tribes built small boats of driftwood or whale bone and animal skin for their fishing and hunting expeditions. Today, they are used by people across the world for a range of purposes – for relaxation, exploration, search and rescue, competition, and even for their original purpose of fishing and hunting. Kayaking is even featured in the Olympic Games, with as many as ten whitewater kayaking events in play.

This guide will acquaint you with everything you need to know about kayaking, help you get started with recreational and whitewater kayaking, and provide you with all the information you need to become a confident kayaker!

Table of Contents

What Is Kayaking?

Kayaking can be of many varieties depending on your purpose and the build of the boat, but in essence, it involves riding across the surface of the water in a small, low-to-the-water boat, and paddling with a double-bladed paddle. The kayaker sits facing forward in the boat, and paddles with a front-to-back motion on either side in alternation.

Kayaks are buoyant and lightweight, and can be made of various materials including wood, metal, fibreglass, plastics, inflatable fabrics, and carbon fibres. Additionally, they are usually fitted with buoyancy aids that create air pockets within the boat and reduce the chance of it sinking even when filled with water. The blades on kayaking paddles come attached on either end, and are slightly tilted to help reduce resistance in the water and to propel the boat forward.

Around the 1800s, kayaking evolved from being an activity used purely for hunting and fishing into a recreational one. In 1931, it was first practiced as an adventure sport on white waters by Adolf Anderle down the Salzachofen Gorge in Austria, and soon after, it entered the Olympic arena with the Berlin Summer Olympics of 1936.

Today, it is a multipurpose activity practiced recreationally, competitively, as well as for practical purposes across the world, with over 13 million kayakers in the US alone.

On calm waters, kayaking can be a relaxing experience, while whitewater kayaking can provide a more strenuous and exhilarating ride. Kayaks, being nimble, quiet, and lightweight, have plenty of practical uses and are used for hunting and fishing, as well as for search and rescue operations. They are also used by divers and other under water sports enthusiasts to reach their destination, as kayaks allow for independence from boat operators, and are cheaper, better for the health, and more environmentally friendly than motor boats.

Even if you’re new to water sports and paddling, kayaking can be a fun and relatively quick activity to learn. Once you know the proper technique of sitting in a kayak and paddling efficiently in calm waters, a host of possibilities will open up to you, and you can work on taking your skills and kayaking experience to higher levels.

Preparing to Kayak

There’s a lot you can do to learn kayaking even before you enter the water. Having the correct equipment and familiarizing yourself with it beforehand will help you have a safe and enjoyable start to your experience.

A. Equipment

In terms of equipping yourself with the right gear, it may be a good idea to rent before you buy, so when you do invest in your own kayak and paddle you’ll know exactly what you’re looking for. Doing thorough research beforehand even while renting is useful, as there will still be plenty of options to choose from that will be decided by your individual needs.

First of all, you will need to decide what kind of kayak is right for you. Though kayaks can be found in various shapes, sizes and builds depending on their intended use, the two basic varieties you need to choose between first are sit-on-top kayaks and sit-inside kayaks.

Sit-on-top kayaks have shallow, concave decks for the rider to sit in above the level of the water, and are generally suitable for beginners and most recreational kayakers. Though it’s highly likely you will get wet riding a sit-on-top kayak, they are easier to get in and out of, and are generally more stable than their sit-inside counterparts. Additionally, they have small holes called scupper holes that drain water from the deck, making them unlikely to sink even if the deck does fill up or if the kayak tips over.

Sit-inside kayaks, on the other hand, include cockpits that enclose the lower half of the kayaker’s body with the help of a spray skirt that fits around the rim. This keeps out the water and wind, making sit-inside kayaks more suitable for colder waters. These kayaks are harder to get in and out of, and are relatively less stable. Freeing yourself from the cockpit under water if the kayak tips over can be a fiddly process, and on the whole, sit-inside kayaks are better for those who have some experience kayaking and are confident of their dexterity in the boat and in the water.

Watch the video below for some tips on what to look out for in your kayak, and how to go about choosing the best fit for yourself in terms of build, shape and size.

Along with your kayak, you’ll need a double-bladed paddle to propel the boat forward. A good paddle should be light and strong, and have a comfortable grip. Paddles differ according the build of the kayaker and the boat as well as the intended use of the kayak, and are available in numerous lengths, with blades of different widths. Make sure to find a paddle of the right size and shape for your individual requirements before purchasing one.

Additionally, there’s some basic safety gear you should equip yourself with before getting into the water. A personal flotation device like a life jacket should be worn at all times, regardless of experience and the area you’re kayaking in. if you’re looking to go faster or to kayak in less calm waters, you should wear a sturdy waterproof helmet. You’re likely to get at least partially if not completely wet while kayaking, so a wetsuit may be a good idea when out on colder waters. If you’re planning to kayak in the ocean or are planning a longer expedition, make sure you pack well and carry additional emergency and safety gear.

B. Practicing on Land

Before you get in the water, spend some time just familiarizing yourself with the kayak, all its features, and the proper way of holding your paddle.

Make sure that the kayak is adjusted to your individual requirements, and that you are able to sit comfortably, maintaining proper contact with the backrest, foot supports, and thigh braces. Practice getting in with a swift motion, lowering your backside into the seat as soon after your legs as possible. Also practice putting your legs on either side of the kayak and lowering your backside down first, and then bringing your legs in, as this is the most stable way of getting in to your kayak, though it may not be possible in all situations.

Next, learn how to hold your paddle correctly to speed up the learning process once you enter the water. Hold the paddle with both hands, making sure the concave or smooth side of the blades is facing you. This is also called the power face of the paddle, as it pushes the water and propels you forward. Keep your grip light, and angle your fingers slightly inwards so that the back of your hand is more aligned with the back of the paddle, while your palms are facing slightly inwards. Though paddle blades are often vertically symmetrical, you may need to make sure you hold your paddle the right side up if they are not. The top of the blade on an asymmetrical paddle will be more horizontal than the bottom, which is likely to be more tapered or angular.

Once you’re comfortable with your grip, practice your basic forward stroke. The movement involves pulling the paddle from front to back towards yourself on either side in alternation. Though moving your arms in this motion can resemble a straightforward pedaling movement as with bicycling, it’s important to use not just your arms but also your center. Rotate your torso with each stroke to give it more power and to avoid exhausting yourself.

Make sure to always maintain this ‘power position’, keeping your hands in front of your body by rotating your torso. This means that even when your arms reach behind the deck in a stroke, your torso twists simultaneously to ensure that your arms stay in front. Along with giving power to your strokes, maintaining this position reduces the chance of injuries like shoulder dislocations.

Getting Started in the Water

Now that you’re prepared and familiar with some of the basics, it’s time to try kayaking in the water. For your first time, a calm body of water like a lake will be ideal, though it’s possible to learn kayaking on slightly rougher waters as well.

First, you’re going to need to practice entering and exiting your kayak based on the kind of location you’re at. Starting from a smooth shore is the easiest to begin with, where you can simply get in while your kayak is half on the land, before pushing yourself into the water with your arms. If the ground is not smooth or you’re unable to slide your kayak from the shore for any other reason, you can still enter from shallow waters by putting your legs on either side of the kayak, and lowering your backside down first before pulling in your legs. When entering from a dock or a rocky shore, you will need to keep the kayak parallel to the land, and get in feet first, sitting down in a swift motion.

Depending on the condition of the water you may need to use your paddle as an outrigger to steady your kayak by placing one side behind the seat and one side on the land, holding the shaft with one hand to steady yourself and the boat. Remember that the swifter and more balanced your movements, the less likely you are to tip the kayak over while entering.

Reverse your movements in order to smoothly exit your kayak.

Watch the video below for an idea on how to get in and out of your kayak as smoothly as possible in different situations.

Once you’re in your kayak, make sure your posture is good. Keep you back straight without leaning heavily on the backrest, and keep your shoulders relaxed. Your legs should be close together, knees slightly bent, and feet against the supports, so you’re able to push forward for extra balance if required. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with how the water and the kayak react to different movements and strokes of your paddle.

Once you’re feeling comfortable in the water, propel yourself using the forward stroke. To do this, keep your lower arm relatively straight and your upper arm bent and relaxed, with your paddle in an almost vertical position throughout. Keep your wrists relatively stiff, as bending them too much can cause them to strain. Don’t forget to rotate your torso along with using your arms, and you can press the foot support on the side of your stroke to give it extra backing. End each stroke when your lower arm reaches the near the level of your belly, and lift the blade out of the water back and away from the kayak. As you end the stroke and prepare for the next, keep your torso rotated so that your next stroke can begin as far forward as possible, giving it maximum power to propel you forward. Use strong, rhythmic movements to maintain efficiency.

While you’re paddling, try and keep your upper and lower body independent of each other. While your torso and arms will be in continuous motion, maintain a low center of gravity, and avoid shifting weight from one leg to the other. This will rock your kayak from side to side, making it less stable and harder to propel forward without using more energy.

Steering Your Kayak

Once you’re able to paddle in a straight line in your kayak, you’re going to want to learn how to control it and move it in the direction you want.

Some kayaks, usually sea kayaks intended for longer journeys and open waters, come with built in rudders that can be controlled by foot pedals and will help steer your kayak. Others, however, will require you to steer using only your paddle strokes or by edging. These are moves that should be mastered even if your kayak includes rudders and foot pedals, as the main purpose of a rudder is to keep your kayak in place on windy and rough waters, rather than as the sole steering mechanism.

A. Sweep Strokes

One of the most basic ways of steering your kayak is by using a sweep stroke. This is a stroke that you can carry out simultaneously as you’re moving, or while the kayak is standing still. If you want to turn left, you will need to make a sweep stroke on the right side, and vice versa.

To begin with, place the blade into the water as far forward (closest to the bow of the boat) as possible, turning your torso away and keeping the other hand relatively low. As you proceed with the stroke, make a big arc moving outwards (rather than trying to go deep), away from the body of the kayak, ending close the stern.

A reverse sweep stroke can also be used to turn your kayak, except in this case, you will need to paddle on the same side as the direction in which you want to turn. This simply involves executing a sweep stroke back to front, that is, starting close to the stern and making a big arc ending near the bow of your kayak.

Watch the video below for an idea on how to do an effective sweep stroke.

Spend some time really mastering your sweep strokes, first in a stationary position and then integrated with your forward stroke so you can turn as you move ahead without halting.

B. Edging

Edging is another basic technique you should master, and is particularly useful when you need to turn slightly, quickly, or travel in a curved path. It is also helpful when paddling in rough waters and can be used to keep your kayak on its path.
Edging involves using the long sides of your kayak by disturbing its balance and symmetry. As with your forward sweep stroke, you will need to edge on the side opposite to the direction in which you want to go.

Keeping your upper body upright, tilt your lower body to the side on which you want to edge. As you do this, lift your opposite knee slightly, tilting the kayak to one side and lifting the other edge slightly out of the water. Continue your forward stroke, and the kayak will turn in the direction opposite to the side in which you’ve shifted your weight.

Edging can be a fairly instinctive process, but it’s important to remember not to keep your body rigid, and for your upper and lower body to function independently of each other. If your upper body tilts and shifts its weight along with your lower body, you’ll end up leaning into your kayak rather than edging, and it’s highly likely that your kayak will tip over.

C. Moving Sideways

A useful move to learn while kayaking is moving sideways without turning. You may want to do this to avoid an obstacle, move up parallel to the shore or dock in order to exit your kayak, to move closer to a friend’s kayak, or to adjust your path.

A good technique to move sideways is the sculling draw. To do this, twist your torso to the side in which you want to move, and stick the blade of your paddle into the water. Keep the paddle almost entirely vertical, with your upper arm held high and bent at an angle of about 90 degrees.

Move the paddle back and forth parallel to your kayak, and with each stroke twist the paddle so that the power face (the conclave sides) of the blades are turned in the direction of the stroke. To make the movement easier to carry out continuously and to reduce the resistance of the water slightly, alter the back and forth strokes into thin figure-eights. This will pull your kayak in closer to your paddle, and move it sideways without turning.

Recovery Techniques

Before you progress to a more advanced level of kayaking, it’s important to spend some time learning to recover your balance and the upright position of kayak when you tip over. In the course of your kayaking journeys, you’re guaranteed to have a few falls, so rather than fearing them, learning to deal with them safely and confidently is a must.

A. Bracing

The first move you should learn is bracing. If you find yourself losing balance, you can simply reach out with your paddle to slap the water with the blade, using it as a support to recover your balance and bring your kayak back upright. With this basic technique, you can perform either a low brace – keeping your arms low with your elbows bent at 90 degrees to form a push up position – or a high brace – holding your hands high in a pull up position. Watch the video below to see how to brace yourself using both these positions.

B. Rolling Your Kayak

There will be some instances where tipping over is inevitable, and you’ll find your kayak upturned and yourself in the water. If you’re paddling unrestrained in a sit-on-top kayak on smooth waters, you can simply get back up on your kayak from the water, but if you’re wearing leg straps to fasten yourself to the kayak, or if you’re in a sit-inside kayak, you may need to roll yourself back into an upright position without exiting the boat. This is an important skill to learn before you can progress to whitewater or sea kayaking, which usually involve sit-inside kayaks and plenty of chances for tipping over. It also allows you to keep going without repeatedly having to exit and re-enter your kayak, which in any case would be very hard to do in rough waters.

Rolling a kayak involves using your weight and the stroke of your paddle to swing your kayak back upright after it has been overturned. It may seem like a slightly daunting task if you’ve never tried it, but it can be learnt fairly quickly, and with some practice it can become an effortless and instinctive movement.

Learn this move in calm waters, and make sure you have a friend who can help you out if required. The basic technique behind a kayak roll involves bringing one blade of your paddle up to the surface (at this point you will be upside down in the water) as far out away from the kayak as you can reach, and bringing it down vertically in a strong stroke. The resistance this will create in the water will give you the momentary support you need to quickly roll yourself back upright.

There are several ways to perform a kayak roll, and different people prefer different techniques. Two of the more popular varieties among beginners as well as advanced kayakers are the C-to-C roll and the sweep roll.

The C-to-C roll involves keeping your paddle held close, power face upwards, along one side of your kayak as you tip over, with your head and torso turned towards it. To roll upright, you will need to lean upwards with your upper body, bring the blade of your paddle close to the surface, and bring it back down vertically in a strong stroke to give yourself the support you need to pull yourself up. One arm should stay close against the kayak and your knee should be pulled up against top of the cockpit to provide additional support, allowing you to snap your hip and pull your torso out of the water.

A sweep roll involves a similar start as the C-to-C, but requires you to sweep your paddle close across the surface of the water in a big arc rather than vertically downwards.

The videos below demonstrate how to carry out these kayak rolls efficiently and safely.

C. Freeing Yourself from Your Kayak and Re-entering

There may be some instances where rolling your kayak is not an option, and exiting and re-entering your kayak is the safest or most convenient move. It’s important to be able to do this smoothly and confidently when you’re out kayaking, as it’s essential for your safety that you’re able to free yourself from your boat in any situation that requires it.

For sit-on-top kayaks, this is a lot easier as you can automatically exit the kayak if it capsizes, and hop back on after turning it upright. Holding both sides of the deck as you pull yourself back up on the kayak will help keep it steady.

In the case of sit-insides, you’ll need to practice a wet exit to be able to smoothly get out of your kayak. To begin with, lean forward and tuck your head in close to avoid any obstacles in the water and to get into a better position for handling the spray skirt. Hold your paddle in one hand to one side of the kayak, and with the other, reach for the grab loop at the front of your cockpit and pull it to release the spray skirt. Pull yourself out of the cockpit, and get back above the surface next to your kayak. Swim back to shore holding the paddle and grab loop with one hand, using the other to pull yourself across the water. Remember not to stand up at any point even in shallow water to avoid injuring your feet. Drain your kayak before getting back inside.

Alternatively, you may want to drain the kayak of water and get back in without swimming back to shore. This can be done with the help of a friend or rescuer who pulls up perpendicular to your kayak, close to the bow, while you hold on to the stern. As you press down on the stern, the rescuer should lift the bow with one hand to get the water out, and use the other to help flip the kayak back upright. They can then pull up parallel to your kayak, holding the deck steady with both hands, as you pull yourself back up into the cockpit.

If you are a more confident kayaker, you can attempt to re-enter your cockpit by turning the kayak on its side, and then carry out a roll to flip back upright. Since in this case, you will not have the momentum of the fall to support your recovery, it becomes a lot easier if you have an inflatable paddle float you can attach to the active blade of your paddle as you use it for your roll. Additionally, you may need to drain excess water from your cockpit with the help of a pump after you’re back in an upright position.

Whitewater Kayaking

After you’ve spent some time really getting comfortable with the various kayaking maneuvers and recovery techniques in calm water, you may want to try something more challenging. Whitewater kayaking can be an exhilarating activity, and can add a lot of excitement to your kayaking experience. At the same time, it can be relatively more risky, so it’s important to wear all your safety gear and make sure you try it with friends or with a group excursion.

The first thing to do would be to find a good spot for this. Spend some time looking up good places to go whitewater kayaking, and if you already have a place in mind, do some research to make sure it is suitable and safe.

Overly turbulent or rocky waters can lead to serious injury, so don’t be hasty in making this choice. For your first few trips, choose a spot where the rapids are not too strong, and identify the eddies nearby. Eddies are circular currents that form behind obstructions in the water or at bends in the river, and flow in the opposite direction of the main current. They provide spots where you can free yourself from the downstream flow and take a break.

The basics of whitewater kayaking and running rapids remain the same, but your skills and balance will be tested with fast currents and in some cases, rocks and other obstacles. You will need to paddle more forcefully and faster than you would in calm waters, and it’s best to decide at least an approximate path you’ll follow and then work to stay on track. It may be helpful to chart out your route in sections, from one eddy to another.

When you begin paddling, use the downstream flow of the currents and rapids to move forward, but make sure you always have an active paddle blade in the water. Do not rest and allow the current to take control entirely, and take breaks only when you are in calm spots with no currents.

A. Basic Whitewater Maneuvers

One of the first challenges you may encounter is colliding with an obstacle and finding yourself stuck against it. The trick here is to tilt your kayak towards the object you’re hitting, and allowing the current under your kayak to carry you around it.
Some other basic moves you may use fairly often are the eddy turn, or leaving the flow of the main current to come into the eddy, and the eddy peel out, which involve leaving the eddy to return to the main flow of the river.

Eddy turns can be used to stop your downstream movement. To begin, generate some speed, and angle your kayak at 45 degrees to the line of the eddy. As you approach, lift the downstream edge (relative to the main current) of your kayak by applying some edge towards the inside of the turn. Keep your strokes strong and fast until you’ve crossed the line of the eddy and are in the middle where the current is low.

Eddy peel outs use a similar technique, requiring you to build up your speed, angle your kayak towards the line of the eddy, and apply an edge to the inside of the turn. You should begin your peel out angled upstream towards the main current and slightly towards the direction you want to go. The power at the line of the eddy will turn your bow downstream and bring your kayak back into the main current.

Watch the video below for some tips on how to handle eddy turns and peel outs.

B. Surfing Waves and Playboating

If you find yourself confident about your whitewater skills and are comfortable navigating rapids, you may want to try some trick maneuvers.

The basis for many tricks involves catching and surfing waves. Waves in river rapids are usually standing waves that stay in one spot, allowing you to move within them. Catching the wave is similar to crossing the line of an eddy, and you can do this by paddling out of an eddy to drop into the wave, or by paddling across the edge of the wave from the main current.

Within the wave, you can paddle forwards as you normally would, backwards, and even sideways. There are several maneuvers you can try within the wave, or create your own ways of surfing it.

Additionally, there are several tricks you can try while kayaking in white waters, using the currents, waves, obstacles in the water, and the features of your boat itself.

If you are in Maine, Old Quarry Ocean Adventures is a great site to check out for kayaking, sailing, camping tours and more.

Precautions to Take While Kayaking

Kayaking is an exhilarating but potentially dangerous activity. It’s important to keep safety as your first priority and not get carried away in the excitement. There are some basics you should always keep in mind that will allow you to have a safe and enjoyable experience.

  • Make sure you’re a confident swimmer before you kayak, and always wear your safety gear before getting into the water. If required, wear protective clothing in colder waters and waterproof sunscreen to protect your skin.
  • When kayaking down a river, make sure to pack some additional safety gear in a waterproof bag, including a whistle, compass and map. Don’t depend on GPS as phone signals can be unreliable.
  • Avoid kayaking alone, and notify someone about your plans and intended time of return.
  • Make sure the location you’ve chosen is suitable for kayaking, and check weather conditions before getting on the water. Never kayak if there’s a likelihood of storms or lightning, and avoid kayaking after dark.
  • Make sure to always maintain your power position while paddling to minimize the risk of injuries like shoulder dislocations.
  • Avoid standing in the water even when it’s shallow to prevent injuries to your feet.
  • Stay hydrated, and bring nutritious snacks if you intend to kayak for a long period.
  • Know your own limits. Do not attempt moves you are not comfortable with, or paddle in currents too strong for you. Go at your own pace, and take your time before progressing to more advanced levels of kayaking.

Practice often, and pretty soon you’ll be able to carry out the techniques and abide by safety precautions instinctively. You can have an enjoyable experience kayaking at any level, and in any condition of waters you’re comfortable with. Depending on the experience you’re looking for, kayaking could involve a relaxed day out on a lake or an exhilarating run down whitewater rapids. Either way, there are plenty of aspects to kayaking that will keep it exciting, so make it your own, stay safe, and have fun!

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