How to Kayak for Beginners
If you're new to kayaking, here's what you should know before heading out on the water.
There are plenty of reasons to get into kayaking. It can be a relaxing (or exhilarating) way to spend time in nature, it's a relatively affordable water sport, and it's amazing for your upper body. If you're sold on the idea and want to give it a try, there are a few kayaking basics you should know. Before you set out, read up on how to kayak for beginners.
The Gear You'll Need to Go Kayaking
If you're hesitant to buy anything just yet, know that many places offer rentals—so you can try out kayaking (or canoeing or stand-up paddleboarding!) before investing any $$$. (Just search Yelp, Google Maps, or TripOutside to see what's available near you.) The experts at the rental location will set you up with the right gear for your skill level, size, and the conditions you'll be paddling in.
Kayaks & Paddles
That said, when it comes to gear, you won't need to cross off a lengthy checklist before making a casual kayaking expedition. You'll need a kayak, obviously. Choose from sit-on-top kayaks (which have a shelf-like seat for sitting) or sit-inside kayaks (which you sit within), both of which are available in one- or two-person models. The Pelican Trailblazer 100 NXT (Buy It, $250, dickssportinggoods.com) is designed to provide stability (so it doesn't tip over) making it a good choice for beginners. Plus, it only weighs 36 pounds (read: easy to transport). (More options here: The Best Kayaks, Paddleboards, Canoes, and More for Water Adventures)
Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
You'll definitely need a personal flotation device (aka PFD or life jacket) to wear while kayaking. When buying a PFD, make sure to go with a United States Coast Guard (USCG)-approved option that's appropriate for the body of water you'll be kayaking in, says Brooke Hess, a big-wave freestyle kayaker and instructor and former member of the U.S. Freestyle Kayak team.
- Type I PFDs are suited for rougher seas.
- Type II and Type III PFDs are suited for calm waters where there's a good chance of "quick rescue," but Type III PFDs tends to be more comfortable.
- Type V PFDs are usually only cleared for one specific use, so if you go with one of those, make sure it's labeled for kayaking use. (They're often not bulky, but aren't the best option if you want one PFD for a variety of activities.)
As a new kayaker, your best bet is a Type III PFD such as DBX Women's Gradient Verve Life Vest (Buy It, $40, dickssportinggoods.com) or a Type V PFD such as the NRS Zen Type V Personal Flotation Device (Buy It, $165, backcountry.com). For a more detailed breakdown, check out the USCG's guide to PFD selection.
You should also bring all the necessary gear for water sports in general: SPF, a change of clothes, and something to keep your phone dry, like JOTO Universal Waterproof Pouch (Buy It, $8, amazon.com). Also consider wearing polarized sunglasses (which allow you to see past the surface of the water), and clothing that's okay to get wet.
Finding a Time and Place to Kayak
To go kayaking, you'll need to find a lake or pond with public access (best to avoid oceans or rivers as a beginner because the water will be choppier). You can use paddling.com's interactive map to search for nearby locations and get details, such as whether there's a launch fee and if there's parking.
It's important to choose a day with mild weather, says Hess. Pay close attention to water temperature, since too cold of a temp can put you at risk for cold shock or hypothermia if you end up in the water. You should wear a wetsuit or drysuit if the water temperature is 55–59 degrees Fahrenheit, and a drysuit if the temperature is below 55 degrees, according to The American Kayaking Association.
If you're a beginner, you might find a kayaking course worthwhile before heading out on your first adventure. These courses have instructors to teach you kayaking basics, such as how to load a kayak onto a car without hurting your back (pro tip: lift with your legs!), how to bring a kayak to shore, and how to empty it out if you tip over, says Hess. And if you're using a spray skirt (a covering around where you sit that prevents water from getting inside the boat) you can learn how to detach the skirt to free yourself from the kayak should you tip over. Not using a spray skirt? As long as you know how to swim and are kayaking in a still body of water (i.e. lake or pond), you should be good to go without a lesson under your belt, says Hess. But first, you should know more kayaking basics. So...
How to Paddle a Kayak
Grab the paddle in both hands and let it rest on top of your head with your elbows bent at 90-degree angles. This is where you should grip the paddle, says Hess. Kayak paddles have blades on both sides; each blade has a convex side and a concave (scooped out) side. The concave side—aka the "power face"—should always face toward you when you're paddling to most effectively propel you forward, says Hess. When you're holding the paddle correctly, the long, straight edge of the paddle blade should be closer to the sky while the tapered side is closer to the water. (Related: 7 Insane Water Sports You've Never Heard Of)
To properly embark, set your kayak on rocks or sand onshore next to the water, then get in the kayak. If it's a sit-on-top kayak you'll just sit on top of it and if it's an open kayak, you'll sit within the boat with your legs outstretched and slightly bent. Once you're seated in the boat, push away from the ground with your paddle to launch the boat into the water.
Now, you're probably wondering: Is kayaking easy for beginners? Like most water sports, it's no walk in the park (you'll get some good exercise in, for sure!), but paddling is rather intuitive. To move forward, make small strokes parallel to the kayak, right beside the boat, says Hess. "To turn, you can do what we call 'sweep strokes,'" she says. "You take the paddle and do a big arcing stroke farther away from the boat." You're still moving the paddle from front to back—clockwise on the right and counterclockwise on the left—but making that exaggerated arc on your right will help you turn left and vice versa. To come to a stop, you'll reverse paddle (from back to front in the water).
Note: It's not all in the arms. "When you're paddling forward, it's best to focus on keeping your core muscles tight and using your torso rotation to do your paddle strokes," says Hess. "Your shoulders and biceps will get way more tired if you aren't using your core." So engage your core and rotate slightly to initiate each stroke rather than using just your arms and shoulders to pull the paddle. (For an even more core-centric water workout, try out stand-up paddleboarding.)
Sh*t happens, so there's always the chance you'll capsize. If you do and you're close to shore, you can swim the kayak to shore or have someone attach your kayak to theirs (if they have a tow belt—a fanny pack with a length of rope and a clip inside) and drag it to shore for you. If you're not close enough to swim to shore, you'll need to perform an "open-water rescue," a skill for reentering the boat on the water that you should learn from an instructor, says Hess. Open water rescues include assisted rescues, in which another kayaker helps you out, and self rescues, which involve flipping the kayak and maneuvering into it. TL;DR—don't venture too far from the land if you haven't mastered an open-water rescue. (Related: Epic Water Sports You'll Want to Try—and 4 Women Who Crush Them)
Gear: check. Safety tips: check. Basic strokes: check. Now that you've read through kayak information for beginners, you're one step closer to your next outdoor adventure. Bon voyage!