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How to Get Started Kayaking: Ultimate Beginner's Guide
Kayaking as an activity or hobby has become more popular over the years, and expanded greatly during the Pandemic. Most of these new yakkers are continuing to kayak causing more people to want to pick up a paddle and hit the water!
But, if you’ve never kayaked before knowing where to start can be a bit overwhelming. Kayaking requires certain gear, technique, and skills that you don’t just learn in your everyday life.
Luckily though, paddling is a very easy activity to pick up. So, if you’re a beginner and wondering where to get stated then this guide is for you!
We’ll start with the gear you need as a beginner, before going into the top kayaking tips and technique to know before hitting the water. Then we’ll close it up with a brief introduction to kayaking solo in case you don’t have anyone to kayak with.
So let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What Gear Do You Need to Get as a Beginner Kayaker?
Since kayaking isn’t something that most people have tried before, it’s likely you don’t have kayaking gear lying around. So, what gear do you really need to get started as a beginner kayaker?
Well, the obvious is a good kayak and paddle. There are several options to choose from depending on the water you’ll be in and your own size and height. We’ll discuss each of these in more detail below.
Beyond just the equipment, you’ll also need to wear the right type of clothing, and bring some extra safety gear along with you. Kayaking isn’t usually dangerous, but being prepared is always good in case something unexpected does occur. Let’s look more into this below.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and I may receive commission for purchases made through links in these post. All links are to products I highly recommend and have verified.
How to Choose a Kayak
Choosing a kayak for yourself is a big decision. Which is why if you’re a kayaking beginner I actually recommend you try renting a kayak first so you can get the feel for different types of kayaks before splurging for your own personal yak.
There are different types of kayaks to consider, but the first category to choose from is whether you’re looking for a flat-water kayak or a whitewater kayak. For most beginners, I recommend a flat water kayak as you’ll likely want to start out on calm, flat waters if you don’t have a lot of experience.
The types of flat-water kayaks you’ll want to consider include:
Sit-on-top kayaks do not have a cockpit and are wider than other types of flat-water kayaks. This makes them easy to get in and out of as they have more primary stability. These are great for fishing as you have easy access to all your gear. But, you’ll likely get more wet in a sit-on-top kayak as it is more open than other kayaks.
Recreational kayaks have a cockpit, but usually with a relatively large opening . These are typically less than 10 ft in length, and the shorter they are the harder it will be to track the kayak (tracking means to paddle it in a straight line). But, they are generally cheaper than other kayaking options.
Touring kayaks are longer, but have narrow cockpits. Their size and shape will make them go faster, but it comes at a cost. These are the most expensive type of flat water kayaks, and aren’t really great for family outings. However, if you plan eventually to kayak longer distances or in the sea, you may want to consider investing in a touring kayak upfront.
Inflatable kayaks are a cheap, easy way to get your feet wet kayaking. They’re great if you do not have space to store a kayak or an easy way to transport larger yaks. But, they do not track well and can be hard to navigate. I would also never recommend an inflatable kayak for anything beyond the flattest, calmest water.
Pedaling kayaks are accessible kayaks for anyone who has trouble with their arms or shoulders. They allow you to pedal yourself instead of needing to paddle yourself on the water. They are costly, and not common – but if you want to kayak and aren’t able to paddle with your arms/shoulders then they will allow you to get on the water with the accessibility of the pedals.
Choosing the right type of kayak can be a bit intimidating for beginning kayakers, so trying out a few of the types above through renting is a great way to find one that works for you.
How to Choose a Kayaking Paddle
Finding the right kayak will only take you so far. Any experienced kayaker will tell you that having the right paddle is just as important, if not more important, than the kayak.
The paddle absolutely determines how easy, or hard, it is for you to glide through the water. I see so many new kayakers choose the cheapest paddle they can find. And in doing so, they have made their first outing way harder than it ever needed to be. A paddle can really take the stress off your arms, core, and shoulders while you’re out on the water – so you’ll want to choose the best one you can before heading out.
So, how do you choose a good paddle? You need to consider the following:
Kayaking Paddle Length: Determined by Boat Size and Your Height
The length of the paddle matters. Get one too short and your hands will be hitting the sides of the kayak and get one too long and you’ll need to use way more energy to paddle and find yourself feeling less stable. Neither is great.
Luckily though, finding the right paddle size for you is as easy as following the chart below.
|Height||Boat Width||Under 23"||23" to 28"||28" to 32"||Over 32"|
Under 5'0 tall
5' to 5'6"
5'6" to 6'
But what if you’re between two sizes – which do you get? Most of the time you’ll go with the smaller size. Either size would work – but you’ll save a bit of weight by going smaller.
The only exception to this is if you have a smaller torso. If you fall into that category going with a paddle that has a longer reach will likely help you out a bit more than a shorter one.
Choosing a Kayaking Paddle Shape
Paddle shape definitely affects how and where you’ll paddle. There are three main components to paddle shape that affect your stroke:
Are your blades (aka paddles) asymmetrical or are they wider and symmetrical? Most paddles come with an asymmetrical dihedral shape, which is narrow and shorter on one side than the other. This helps you to track and paddle in a straight line. Wider non-symmetrical shapes help you go faster and have a more powerful stroke, but they can make it harder to track in a specific direction.
A bent shaft will provide you with a more natural placement of your hands. This helps you to align your writs, elbows, and shoulders in the right place to make it easier for you to paddle, and less likely to cause injury. Straight paddles are fine too (I myself use a straight paddle), but many people who worry about pain while paddling may want to opt for a bent paddle.
Feathering is the angle of each side of your paddle. A lot of paddles allow you to adjust feathering as needed, so you don’t need to stick with just one angle. Feathering can help you fight against wind, so it’s a nice option to have. But it does take some getting used to and practice. I’d recommend having the option on your paddle, but you may not need to use it often.
What Do I Wear While Kayaking?
Choosing what to wear while kayaking does not need to be overcomplicated. Rarely does anyone need to buy new clothes specifically for kayaking, as they can wear something they already have around the house.
But, you will want to use some common sense when choosing which of your clothes to wear out on the water. Some fabrics, like denim, don’t handle water well, and so clothes like jeans you’ll want to leave in your closet.
But anything you have that is lightweight and dries quickly will work. Cotton isn’t the best choice, but if that’s all you have then it still can be worn. Just be careful to watch out for the weather if you do choose a fabric that isn’t quick-dry. If it’s too cold or windy out, sitting in wet cotton can be a bit dangerous by lowering your body temperature. On warm, sunny days this isn’t an issue.
My go-tos are a T-shirt and some nylon shorts, but whatever you have lying around will work.
What Shoes Do I Need While Kayaking?
Shoes are an important piece of kayaking gear. Now, some people do kayak barefoot but I’d caution you that a good pair of water shoes while kayaking can make a big difference.
The primary reason for this is when getting in and out of your kayak. Although nice sandy beaches make for easy-on-your-feet launch sites, not all kayaking launches are at nice sandy beaches.
Most are entering into rivers or lakes, which have rocks, mud, sticks, and other hard objects that do not feel good on your feet.
You want water shoes with a good base that can withstand rocky launch sites. They also need to have drainage holes so water can flow through them quickly and they’ll dry fast. Avoid any water shoes without a supportive bottom, as they aren’t much help to protect your feet during kayak launches.
Choosing a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
Every state has its own laws regarding Personal Flotation Device (aka life jacket) use while kayaking. But at the very least every state requires you to have a PFD in your kayak while you’re out on the water, even if you don’t have to wear it.
Since you’ll need to carry (or wear) a PFD you’ll want to choose a good one for wherever you’ll be, and all life jackets are not created equal. In fact there are many types of life jackets that are specifically made for specific water conditions and you’ll want to choose the type that is right for the conditions you’ll be paddling.
As a beginner, a good recommendation is to go with a type 3 PFD, as they’re made for the calmer water conditions you’ll start out on.
One additional safety consideration is an emergency whistle. Many life jackets come with them now, but if not you’ll want to pick one up to attach to your PFD. A whistle is the main emergency call while out on the water as its sound will go much farther than your yelling ever could.
How Do I Keep My Gear Dry While Kayaking?
Since most people have things in the kayak other than just their kayak, paddle, and themselves, you may be wondering how do I keep these things dry? I know I typically bring my phone, keys, wallet, plus snacks, a change of clothes, and many other things every time I head out. And I don’t want these things to get wet and ruined.
To prevent this I always carry my kayaking extras in a dry bag. These bags are specially designed to be fully water proof. So no leaking water is sneaking into this bag, even if it gets submerged.
They come in multiple sizes, so you can pick up whichever size works for the amount of gear you’re bringing. And as an extra precaution I usually clip them onto my kayak with either a carabiner or a rope so in case I flip, my bag isn’t sinking to the bottom of the water.
What Else Should I Bring Kayaking?
Beyond all the gear listed above, there are some additional recommendations for what you should bring kayaking:
- First aid kit
- Map/GPS device or Phone
- Extra water or water filtration device
- Sunscreen and bug spray
- Hat & Sunglasses
- Change of clothes
- Emergency whistle (attached to your PFD)
- Bilge pump (pumps water out of your yak)
- Extra paddle, or some type of repair equipment (duct tape can make for a quick fix if a pinch)
Is Kayaking Hard for Beginners?
The basics of kayaking are not hard for beginners. You enter a kayak, and paddle around (which is fairly intuitive) until you’re tired and go back to shore. As long as you start out in easy, calm waters, and keep land in your sight the entire time, you’ll be able to enjoy kayaking on your first time out.
But, kayaking is still a physical activity – so depending on your fitness level kayaking can be harder for some beginners and easier for others. But even for people with a very high fitness level, you’ll want to avoid staying out too long.
Anyone will think kayaking is hard after a 6 hour paddle (that’s way too long for a beginner). Instead, opt for your first few outings to be 2 hours or less. This way you get an idea of what you can handle before going on longer outings.
Now, as you go out more and more you’ll want to learn some basic skills to make sure your paddling technique is right and to get you going farther and faster. But overall, kayaking isn’t hard for beginners, as long as you don’t overdo it.
Do You Need Kayaking Lessons as a Beginner?
Do you need kayaking lessons as a beginner? No. But, they sure will help a lot.
Most new kayakers suck at paddling technique. It can feel unique when you’re just getting started and having someone help guide you can be a big help. Plus, it’s always good to know what to do if your kayak flips or if you’re in an emergency situation while kayaking – and lessons can really help you learn both of those things.
But, kayaking lessons aren’t strictly necessary. You can gain a lot of information from search YouTube, which I recommend you do before heading out to kayak for the first time.
And if you forgo both lessons and just watching YouTube tutorials, then you’ll still probably be fine. Just go easy your first few times until you get the feel for the paddle, your kayak, and the water/weather conditions.
Top Kayaking Tips for Beginners
Before hitting the water for the first time, it’s a good idea to have a few pieces of knowledge up your sleeve. That way should something unexpected happen you have at least a general understanding of what to do and why.
So, I’ve diveded these tips into two sections: what to know, and what NOT to do kayaking.
With tips for both of these you’ll be more prepared on what to expect and how to prevent or handle an emergency out on the water.
What Do You Need to Know Before Kayaking?
Before hitting the water for the first time (or really every time) be sure you’re aware of the following:
Check the weather and wind conditions: Kayaking safety is very much controlled by how windy it is outside. Winds over 10mph will make kayaking much harder, and winds over 15mph should be considered absolute no-go for new kayakers. So, check the wind speed on that weather app and if you’re finding high winds, or stormy conditions, don’t head out on the water.
Paddle with your core and not your arms: Paddle technique is important for ensuring you don’t hurt your arms or shoulders, which is why we’re going to talk more on that below. Most people think paddling is all arm strength – but it isn’t. You’ll need to learn to use your core strength to push your kayak along and NOT your arms/shoulders.
Stay away from water fowl and other animals: Some water fowl like ducks mostly won’t bother you, but others like geese, and especially swans you want to keep a wide distance from. I’ve personally seen a geese chase a kayaker around a lake, and trust me that paddler was not having a good time. Swans are even more aggressive, especially if there are babies around. If you see water fowl (or other animals) in the water, avoid them with a wide berth.
Protect against the sun/heat: It’s always hotter on the water because the water’s surface reflects that sun/heat right back up where it came from. So, when kayaking you’re getting hit with the sun from all angles. This is why protecting against the sun, and especially things like over-heating or heat stroke, are incredible important. It will hit you without you even knowing it if you don’t come prepared. So, always wear sunglasses, hat, and sunscreen while kayaking.
Carry a PFD + whistle: All states require that you have a PFD with you in the boat, even if they don’t require that you wear it. So, be sure that you have one with you and that you wear it when water conditions are rocky or unsafe. Also, the emergency sound on the water is a whistle. Attach it to your PFD so you always have it within reach should something occur.
Stay away from boats: Motorized boats are a common hazard for kayakers. This is because not every boater is cognizant of how their wake will impact small boats like kayaks. And trust me, I’ve nearly been flipped by waves caused by a boat that passed too fast and it wasn’t fun at all. The best way to avoid this is to hug the shore, if possible. Otherwise, give boats a wide berth, just in case they aren’t paying attention to how their boat will affect you.
What NOT to do While Kayaking
Even more important than the tips for what to do while kayaking are the ones telling you what NOT to do while kayaking. These actions are the ones that can really get you in trouble – so be sure to avoid these things when hitting the water as a new kayaker:
Don’t drink and paddle: Alcohol and watercraft do not mix. If you’re inebriated while paddling you’ll be less likely to make solid decisions around weather, waves, obstacles, and animals. Plus, if you flip then being drunk will only make it harder or potentially impossible for you to get back in your kayak. Leave the alcohol at home!
Don’t overestimate your abilities: The most common way people hurt themselves outdoors is by thinking they can do more than they actually can. It’s almost always better to start with the calmest water possible and stay close to land. Don’t attempt an ocean paddle your first time, unless you’re with someone experienced and can stay close to land the entire time. It’s always better to underestimate yourself and go harder next time than to hurt yourself trying to dive head first your first trip out.
Underestimate the amount of water you need: Paddlers need drinking water. Honestly, you may even need more water than when doing other activities because of how hard the sun hits you on the water. Adults need at least 0.5-1 liter per hour of physical activity. Plan accordingly and bring extra.
Remove the styrofoam from your kayak: If your new kayak just arrived and you notice the styrofoam inside – don’t remove it. The styrofoam in your kayak has a purpose and you can ruin your kayak by removing it.
Go near obstacles, dams, weirs, or other things in the water: Obstacles in the water can be very dangerous to kayakers. However, unless you are experienced it’s unlikely you’ll be able to tell which obstacles are dangers and which aren’t. So, if you see something in the water while you’re kayaking, always avoid it. These obstacles are some of the biggest dangers kayakers face so you’ll want to plan to avoid them if possible.
How Do You Get into a Kayak?
Getting into a kayak can sometime be a bit tricky. I mean, it’s a boat floating in water – stepping directly into it can cause it to wobble, which makes it hard to get inside. I’ve seen multiple people flip their kayak while trying to get into it. And beginners, who haven’t quite yet mastered the core, arm, leg strength combo needed to enter without flipping, end up flipping a lot.
So, let’s go over how to successfully enter a kayak from the shore and the water.
How to Get Into a Kayak from Shore
There isn’t a graceful way to enter or exit a kayak. Everyone looks a bit silly or like they’re going to fall, and that’s especially true if you’re new to kayaking. Over time, experienced kayakers may make it look easier than it is, but that only comes with time.
From shore, kayakers should position their boats perpendicular to the land. So that means that the front half of your yak will be floating in the water, while the back half is still fully on the ground.
From here you’ll actually straddle your boat (yes, one leg will be on one side and one will be on the other), and you’ll walk out until your standing just behind the cockpit of your boat. Then sit down on the back of the kayak just above your seat (if you’re in a sit-on-top kayak you can just sit in your seat).
From this sitting position you’ll swing your legs one at a time to get into the yak. This will keep your kayak stable as you attempt to enter it. From here, you can push off with your hands, paddle, or just by rocking your body forward.
To get out of your kayak, you’ll just do this in reverse. The tip here is to grab onto the front of the cockpit for support and to help pull yourself out of the yak. This is generally easier for men, who traditionally have a stronger upper body, but is possible for women as well (it just may take a couple more tries).
How Do I get Back Into My Kayak from the Water if I Flip?
Getting back into a kayak while you’re in the water is difficult. But it isn’t impossible. With the right technique you’ll be able to flip your kayak back over and enter it again so you can float to shore. No need to swim back if you flip.
To get into your kayak from the water you’ll first need to flip your kayak right side up. To do this you’ll swim to the middle of your yak and kick to propel yourself high enough so you can reach the other side of the kayak. Once you’ve grabbed to the opposite side, your body weight should pull the kayak over as you sink back into the water.
After your kayak is back right-side up again, now you’ll need to position yourself to get in the boat. To do this you’ll use the same technique as before to reach over to the other side of the kayak and hold on. But this time, instead of using your body weight to flip the kayak, swim your feet to the surface of the water so its like you’re laying on the surface.
From this position kick your feet to help propel yourself to slide onto the kayak. You’ll want your stomach to sit directly over the seat. To flip your bottom over, you can either use your arms to lift your body and turn yourself so your butt falls into the seat. Or, you can kick your legs onto the front of the boat, and then use them to help you flip over.
If you aren’t sure about this technique, there are others you can try should you find yourself flipped while in deep water and want to try a few different ways to get back in your kayak.
Other Notes About What to do if You Flip Your Kayak
Flipping your kayak is always a possibility, so it’s best to be prepared to flip anytime you get in a kayak. Now, other than how to get in and out after you flip, there is one other important preparation to do prior to flipping – and that is to secure your things!
This means having your paddle secured to your kayak and having your things secured to your kayak. For your paddle, there are paddle leashes that will connect it to your kayak so that even if your flip, your paddle doesn’t disappear down the river.
For your things, always clip or bungee your dry bags onto your kayak, or secure them inside the hatch. Otherwise, if you flip, all of your belongings sink straight to the bottom of the water.
What Posture Should I Have While Kayaking
Having the proper posture while kayaking can save you a world of wasted energy and pain. Improper posture can lead to improper paddling, and even surprisingly, can cause knee pain. Both of these will make kayaking much harder than it needs to be. Plus, improper posture can even cause shoulder injuries that can wipe you out of paddling for weeks or months at a time. You want to avoid that, especially if you’re a beginner.
In order to have proper posture while kayaking you’ll want to know how to paddle a kayak correctly, and also what to do with your legs and feet while in the boat. Let’s go over each of these below.
How Do I Paddle a Kayak Correctly?
Paddling correctly is about having the proper torso position, and having the proper hand position.
For your torso, you’ll want to be sitting upright with your back perpendicular to your boat. From here, you’ll actually lean your upper body slightly forward. This position helps you use your torso to move you forward vs. just your shoulders.
You’ll grab the paddle so that if you were to hold it above your head, you’d make perfect 90 degree angles with your elbows. Your wrists should be straight.
When you paddle you’ll want to bring the top hand (the one farthest from the water) all the way up so that it is directly in line with your chest. This will turn your body slightly so that when you paddle on the other side you use that trunk rotation in your paddle to push yourself forward.
If you find yourself unable to keep your kayak going in a single direction, it’s likely that you’re not bringing your hand up to your chest (which forces the other end of the paddle to be closer to your kayak). Paddling farther away from the boat turns it more. So, use proper technique to make it easier on yourself while out in the water.
What Should I Do With My Legs While Kayaking?
While kayaking, your legs are not just there to rest! They may not do the heavy lifting, but proper leg placement in a kayak can help control your direction and can provide more stability in your boat.
Your legs should be slightly bent with your knees touching the outside of the kayak. This is even true for sit-on-top kayaks, although less of your knee will touch the boat as the tops and sides of your knees are exposed.
What that looks like in practice is your heels will be closer to the center while your toes are pointed outwards. This will allow your knees to fold open, while being slightly bent to touch the kayak.
Now, some people experience leg numbness and tingling if sitting in this position for too long. That’s likely due to the nerves in the upper thigh. A good seat cushion can generally help position you correctly, and stop those tingles.
What Are the Kayaking Foot Pegs For?
As your legs are an important part of the kayaking equation, the foot pegs are there to support proper leg position. Usually there are a few different peg positions to try, and I suggest trying them all to determine which one keeps your body upright, with your knees bent and pressed against the edges of the boat.
These pegs help keep you from having straight legs, and the pain and extra effort that goes into attempting to paddle like that with poor posture.
Should I Kayak Alone as a Beginner?
So many people want to try kayaking, but don’t have anyone to go with them. In cases like these, new kayakers wonder whether it’s okay for them to kayak alone as a beginner. Kayaking alone is something I’ve done several times, and I really enjoy it. But, before hitting the water solo there are some things you should know about kayaking alone.
Being prepared is of the utmost importance, and without any experience on the water I hesitate to recommend kayaking solo for your first time. If you don’t have anyone to go with you then I recommend trying to kayak near a rental place, so that there are other people near by, and other people with kayaking experience nearby to help out if needed.
But, once you get a few trips under your belt, then I highly recommend kayaking alone. It’s a fantastic experience and one that I find like nothing else.
And there we have it! A comprehensive and ultimate for kayaking beginners!
Hopefully you’ve found all the information needed so you can feel confident starting to kayak and getting out on the water.
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