how to kayak

Kayaking for Beginners: Essential Tips Everyone Should Know

This blog is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no cost to you.

Kayaking is a versatile water sport that is becoming more popular by the day. Anyone can kayak, but it is prudent to learn how to kayak before attempting to engage in the sport. It is an excellent hobby and one that you can enjoy with family and friends during the warm summer months, or during a vacation.

If you have never kayaked before, this article will guide you on everything you need to know before you get into a kayak cockpit and start paddling. As with all water sports, there are basics you need to know and precautions you should take before you even learn how to kayak.


How to Kayak: An Ultimate Guide for Beginners


Kayaking is an enjoyable sport, but it needs a certain degree of skill to master. Do not worry if when you first get into a kayak, you do not take to it like a fish to water. Practice makes perfect, so you have to keep at it, and you will get better as you go along.

Most people know very little about kayaking. There are different types of kayaking, and as such, you need to know which kind of kayaking you want to get into. Every type of kayaking requires different types of gear and diverse skill sets.

Types of Kayaking


There are many types of kayaking, some of which include:

  • Sea Kayaking or Touring

Kayaking on large water bodies like lakes and oceans for many hours, or even for weeks, is known as touring. Speed and efficiency are of the utmost importance, as you want to cover a significant distance. Sea kayaks are long and narrow, mostly measuring 14-18 feet, and making them perfect for touring.

Some are tandem, meaning they are for two paddlers, handle waves exceptionally well, and cover longer distances effortlessly. Large water bodies need to be treated with the respect and caution they deserve. Tidal currents and waves are not to be toyed with, and especially not for a beginner.

  • Whitewater Kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is precise as the name suggests- kayaking in rivers with whitewater and rapids. This type of kayaking is wild and thrilling for the very daring as these rapids often lead to going over some waterfalls. Whitewater kayaks are short and sturdy and are designed for ease of maneuvering, which includes turning and rolling. With whitewater, you also have to gain some experience before venturing out or get an experienced kayaker to tag you along on a rapids kayaking experience.

  • Kayak Surfing

Kayak surfing is akin to board surfing, only that you do it in a kayak. Kayak surfers ride waves along the ocean coast. The large water body, tidal currents, and strong waves need experience. As a beginner, you need to gain some paddling experience, and then go along with someone familiar with the ropes before you can attempt to go out on your own.

  • Fishing or Angler kayaking

A fishing kayak is one used to go fishing. Most people prefer sit-on-top kayaks that are made for fishing. They are wide, stable, and their seats are comfortable and height-adjustable. You can also stand in them, and come with additional features such as rod holders and gear storage areas.

Types of Kayaks


If you are entering the world of kayaking for the first time, choosing a kayak from the hundreds of brands built for various purposes is overwhelming. How do you decide which kayak is best, even after finding out about the different types of kayaking? The first thing you need to know is that kayaks fall into two types: sit-on-top and sit-inside designs. Each design differs from the other, with each having its pros and cons. The first thing you need to do is decide what your plan for the kayak is, whether it is for recreational or touring, whitewater kayaking, or fishing kayaking. Knowing this makes it easier to choose which type of design you need after weighing each type of pros and cons.

  • Sit-On-Top Kayaks (SOT)

A sit-on-top (SOT) kayak, as implied by the name, lacks an enclosed cockpit. You do not sit inside the kayak, but you sit on the kayak, above the water surface. The SOT is wildly popular among beginners and kayaking fishermen since this kayak does not make you feel entrapped in the kayak if it capsizes. If you accidentally capsize, it is easier to get back on the kayak.


  • As mentioned, the best advantage of the SOT is the open cockpit that makes the paddler feel safer in the event they capsize. Their ease of re-entering after capsizing is also a great advantage.
  • SOT kayaks have a much higher gravity center, as they are significantly wider than most sit-inside designs. They have a significant level of initial stability, which means they stay upright even when someone is on top of the kayak with the keel underneath them.
  • SOT kayaks hulls are entirely enclosed, making them unsinkable
  • SOT kayaks have self-bailing scupper holes in case you capsize. The scupper holes drain water from the cockpit, and are excellent for the surf zone, as you do not need a bilge pump.
  • The stern has an open storage area that provides room for carrying bulky items and doubles as a cooler to keep stuff cold.
  • SOT is great for paddlers who are nervous or paddling for children who are good swimmers

Disadvantages of a SOT Kayak

  • A SOT kayak is slower than a sit-inside kayak due to its wide beam. A SOT needs a lot more effort to paddle and is more suited for kayak fishing and short-distance excursions.
  • When paddling in rough seas, the wide beamwidth and the higher gravity center makes the SOT kayak have a lower level of secondary stability. This means its ability to stay upright when the kayak leans on its edge while turning and paddling in rough waters.
  • The open cockpit on a SOT kayak does not allow you to place your knees on the kayak’s deck underside. This limits your control of the kayak and maneuverability as well.
  • The wide beam means you have to make use of a longer paddle as opposed to a narrower sit-inside design. The longer the paddles, the more effort you have to use to propel it forward.
  • The open cockpit exposes you to the elements and offers you zero protection from the scorching sun or waves that break over the gunwale and bow, and heavy winds.
  • The self-draining scupper holes in the kayak’s bottom make the cockpit always have some water in the bilge.


  •  Sit-Inside Kayak

Again, as implied by the name, a Sit-in kayak consists of an enclosed cockpit. Instead of being on the kayak’s top, above the water surface, your position is below the water surface. The sit-inside kayak is more popular with intermediate and more advanced kayakers.

Advantages of a Sit-Inside Kayak 

  • The sit-inside design gives the kayak a lower gravity center. The low gravity center also provides the kayak with a higher level of secondary stability, making it easy for you to turn the kayak on its side for easier turning, and for it to remain upright in rough waters.
  • The kayak’s lower gravity center, a sit-inside kayak, is narrower than a sit-on-top kayak, making it faster and easier to paddle. They are suitable for long excursions.
  • The enclosed cockpit allows you to place your knees against the deck’s underside, increasing your control of the kayak and its maneuverability.
  • The enclosed cockpit provides you with a degree of protection from the elements such as the scorching sun, and the waves. You can also attach a spray skirt to protect you entirely from the elements.
  • The narrow beam allows you to use a shorter paddle, meaning you need less effort to propel the kayak.
  • The lower profile means a sit-inside kayak is less affected by winds
  • The sit-inside kayak has no scupper holes in the bottom of the cockpit, ensuring you stay dry unless waves break over the bow.

Disadvantages of a Sit-Inside Kayak

  • The most significant downside of the sit-inside kayak is the fact that it has a cockpit that makes you feel confined, especially if the kayak were to capsize.
  • A sit-inside kayak can quickly sink if both hatch covers come off in dense waters, allowing the stern and bow to fill with water.
  • The sit-inside kayak’s lower center of gravity makes them narrower than SOT kayaks. This makes them have a lower level of initial stability, or the ability to stay upright when you are inside the kayak with the keel underneath you.
  • A sit-inside kayak is harder to re-enter if you capsize. You also have to use either a battery, hand, or foot-operated bilge to get rid of water in the cockpit.
  • Sit-inside kayaks have small hatch covers and do not have an open tank well in the stern. This means they can only carry items that pass through the hatches.

How To Kayak For Beginners


We have learned about types of kayaking and types of kayaks. For a beginner, there is a whole lot you need to learn. Kayaks originated with the Inuits of North America, who used them for hunting on the inland lands. They are estimated to be at the very least, 4,000 years old, and were first made from a whalebone frame and stitched seal or other types of animal skin. For buoyancy, the Inuits filled seal bladders with air and tucked into the aft and fore sections of the kayaks.

Kayak’s today are built from wood, fiberglass, Kevlar, or rotomolded plastic. The Kayaks design is geared towards recreation and for different waters such as Whitewater Rivers, seas, and lakes. Paddling is the core of kayaking, but there is much more on the equipment and techniques that ensure as a learner, you stay safe and enjoy yourself as well.

Kayaking Equipment

Let us look at the equipment needed for a kayaking experience.

  • 1. Kayak

This is a rather obvious one since you cannot kayak without a kayak, but how much do you know about the actual kayak? A kayak can hold between one and three paddlers. Depending on what material the kayak is made from, prices are not the same. Plastic is the cheapest, while Kevlar, which is the lightest and most durable of all kayak materials, is the most expensive. Kayaks are built for specific environments, and as mentioned previously, for various purposes such as surfing, racing, sea or touring, and recreational kayaks.

The design of a kayak varies with its shape and material. For instance, sea kayaks have longer bodies, allowing them to cover longer distances. Whitewater kayaks are made from high-impact plastic, enabling them to bounce off rocks in rivers and incur little damage.

Sit-on-top kayaks are popular, and the most ideal for you as a beginner as they are more stable, comfortable to enter, and re-enter, and mostly used for fishing and recreational paddling. They are mostly made from fiberglass or rotomolded plastic, materials that are low-maintenance, durable, and lightweight. Sit-on-top kayaks, as mentioned before, have wide beams, and a beginner will have no trouble keeping upright.

Kayaks come in various shapes and sizes, so choosing the right one is vital for both your enjoyment and safety. Once you have determined how and where you will use the kayak, you are on the right path to deciding which kayak to buy. Will you paddle in small and sheltered waters such as small lakes and ponds? Will you take the kayak to larger water bodies with waves and winds? Are you more interested in speed or stability? These are the

  • 2. Paddles

Most people ask what the difference between canoeing and kayaking is. What distinguishes these two sports are their paddles. Canoeing uses single-blade paddles, while kayaking uses two-bladed paddles. When choosing a paddle, there are a few things you need to consider, such as:

a) Paddle length

There is nothing complicated about choosing your paddle length. The wider the kayak is, the longer your paddle should be. Your height also matters when you are selecting a paddle, especially if yours is a narrow kayak. The taller you are, the longer your paddle should be. Paddle brands are sized according to these two factors.

If you happen to fall between two sizes, pick the shorter paddle. While either of the sizes would suffice, you will struggle less with a shorter one. If you have a shorter torso, go for a longer paddle as it will add some reach.

b) Low and High-Angle Paddles

The low-angle stroke is performed with a slight tilt to the shaft, and your top hand stays below shoulder level. The stroke is suitable for relaxed kayaking on still water. The high-angle stroke features a shaft with more tilt, and a blade path that is close to the kayak, and preferred by most paddlers for speed. The stroke needs high precision, and it is tiring if you have not mastered the accuracy. It requires a shorter paddle with a wider blade that is used for a low-angle stroke. Paddlers are designed as either low or high-angle kayaking.

  • 3. Personal Flotation Device

Any PFD or life jacket that is Coast Guard approved will do, but buying a kayak, specific PFD is preferable. Ensure it is a snug fit.

  • 4. Dry Bags

Water splashing inside the kayak will wet you. Carry some dry bags to keep your extra clothes and gear dry.

  • 5. Bilge Pump 

Used for pumping out water that gets into your kayak. This is useful only for sit-inside kayaks.

  • 6. Whistle

This is useful for signaling for help, especially as a beginner and you need rescuing

  • 7. Headlamp

It helps you see where you are going, especially if caught by a mist or lousy weather. It allows motorized traffic on the water to see you.

Factors to Consider When Buying a Kayak Include:


  • Paddler Weight

All kayaks come in different sizes to accommodate different body sizes. Every kayak has its weight capacity rate, which allows you to choose the appropriate size. It is not wise to choose a kayak whose weight capacity is equal to your weight. There needs to be some cushion as more buoyancy means better kayak control.

  • Kayak Length

Generally, a longer kayak slices through the water better and straighter or tracking, meaning it moves faster than a shorter kayak. A shorter kayak, however, slightly swings from right to left with every stroke forward, making them easy to maneuver in thin waters. Longer kayaks take more space and expertise to turn quickly, and shorter kayaks need more strokes to propel them forward.

  • Kayak Weight

Kayaks’ weights vary, and you need to consider the weight of the kayak and the logistics of loading it on your car’s roof. A load-assist rack can assist you in loading your kayak, but you still have to lift the kayak to your waist height.

  • Cockpit

On the kayak, the vessel contact points are your feet, which lie on the foot brace, your knees that rest on the deck’s underside or thigh braces, your hips that touch both sides of the seat, and your bottom, which lies on the seat. All these contact points should be comfortable as well as support you while on the kayak. While paddling, brace your knees and feet for turning and stability. A whitewater kayak is padded to give you a snug fit and prevent you from tumbling out of the kayak during a roll. A sea or touring kayak needs a loose fit to allow you to move about and stretch while on longer excursions. If your feet are large, ensure they fit correctly on the foot braces and under the deck.

  • The Seat

The seatback fir has to work with your life jacket of PFD, and if you already own one, fit it on the kayak and adjust the seat accordingly. If the PFD and the seatback are not compatible, you will be uncomfortable, as the PFD will keep riding too high. Luckily, most PFDs are compatible with most PFDs.

  • PFD or Life Jacket 

A personal flotation device or PFD is also known as a life vest interchangeably. The PFD gives you buoyancy so that you stay afloat. A PFD is one of the most crucial gear for all kayakers, and there are a few factors to consider when buying a life jacket:

  1. a) Standard or Inflatable PFDs
  2. b) PFD fitting and sizing: Choose one based on your chest size, and get a snug and comfortable fit
  3. c) PFD features such as color and tabs, pockets, and PFD specs such as flotation.

How to Kayak


We have examined at length the things you need to take into consideration before kayaking. Actual kayaking is not a complex affair, but you need to know how to prepare beforehand, and you get the hang of it after a few tries. The best place to launch your kayak is on a calm, sandy, and gently sloping shoreline.

Getting Into the Kayak

  • Position your kayak to rest along the shoreline, but nose-first into the water
  • Slide the kayak into the water, far enough to ensure the section under the kayak seat is slightly past the water edge.
  • Garb the paddle and position yourself just next to the kayak seat.

If yours is a Sit on top (SOT) kayak:

  • Straddle the vessel, with one foot on each side.
  • Drop into the kayak’s seat
  • Make any adjustments, such as the spray skirt, and push off when done.

If using a sit-inside Kayak:

  • Place one paddle end on the cockpit’s rear rim and the other end of the paddle on the shoreline.
  • Holding the paddle tightly against the cockpit rim, sit on the paddle’s shaft and use it as a bench
  • Sitting on the paddle’s shaft, slide into the kayak’s seat
  • Make any adjustments, such as the spray skirt, and push off when done.

Launching From aDock

When you launch from a dock, find the dock’s lowest point. If the dock is high, it becomes challenging to get in. Starting from a pier, you need to keep a low gravity center while sliding into the kayak.

  • Place your paddle along the dock’s edge to enable you to grab it when you get into the kayak.
  • Position your kayak parallel to the dock
  • Sit on the dock next to the kayak’s seat and place your feet into the kayak.
  • Turn round to face the same direction as the kayak
  • Keep as low as you can and hold on to the dock while sliding yourself into the kayak’s seat.
  • Make any adjustments and push off.

How to Adjust and Sit When Learning How to Kayak


To give your kayak more stability and make it more comfortable, you need to adjust it properly. If you are sitting in an upright posture, you will be able to paddle better and get more power from your paddle strokes. As mentioned before, make any adjustments you need to before pushing off.

  • Feet

Most kayaks are equipped with footpegs on adjustable tracks. When your bottom is snug against the seat, position the balls of your feet on the footpegs. Angle your heels slightly inward and make sure your knees have a slight bend. Ensure the knees touch each side of the cockpit, which helps you improve the stability and power of paddling. Adjust the footpegs until you are comfortable.

  • Back 

If your kayak’s seat allows adjustment, position it so that your back sits straight. If you are relaxing, you can lean the seat back, but if actively paddling, an upright position will favor better stability.

How to Hold Your Paddle


Most beginners hold the paddle incorrectly. Here is how you should hold it:

  • Face the paddle blade’s concave part towards you. Most of the time, the paddle manufacturers place their logo on the blade’s hollow side. You need to ‘scoop’ the water as you paddle.
  • The paddle blade’s long edge should point up. Some blades’ shape is not uniform, and one edge may be longer. The long, paddle blade edge should point upwards. If your paddle is uniform, any edge can look upwards.
  • Center the paddle to your body: With the paddle in front of you, line up the paddle center with your body’s center.
  • Position your hand slightly wider than your shoulder width with the elbows at a 90-degree angle.
  • Relax your grip: If you hold your paddle too tightly, you will tire your forearm muscles. On the paddle shaft, make a circle with your thumb and index finger, and lightly close the other fingers on the shaft

Proper Paddling Strokes and Techniques


To get the most out of kayaking, learning the appropriate paddling strokes and techniques will come with practice.


  • Your paddling strength does not come from your arms, but your torso rotation. You need to focus on torso rotation and not your arm strength. Rotate from your hips and not shoulders only.
  • Slightly push with your feet, bracing your knees against the cockpit’s inside.
  • Immerse the paddle blade fully into the water for more stroke power.

Forward Stroke

The forward stroke is the most important. It propels the kayak in a straight line, which is what you will be doing most.


  1. Twist torso, then immerse one of the paddle blades into the water, approximately near your foot
  2. Rotate torso, then move the paddle through the water
  3. With the blade slightly past your hips, pull the paddle blade vertically out of the water and repeat these steps on the opposite side.
  4. Keep the angle of your paddle high so that the paddle blade is next to the vessel. This ensures you propel the kayak forward and do not turn it to its side.

Reverse Stroke

If you need to back up, you will use the backward stroke. If you are already moving forward and need to stop, you can use it. It is the reverse of the forward stroke.


  1.  With a forward-facing torso, place the paddle blade in the water, adjacent to your hips.
  2. Rotate the torso while you push the paddle with the lower hand and pull with the upper hand, putting your weight on each side as the paddle immerses into the water.
  3. Pull the paddle out of the water when the paddle nears your feet
  4. Repeat on the opposite side

Sweep Stroke

The sweep stroke turns your kayak. You can also turn by paddling fast and furiously on one side of the kayak. This uses a lot of energy and is not efficient.


  1. Rotate your torso, then immerse the paddle into the water adjacent to your foot.
  2. Make an arch through the water as far out as you can without tipping over, while pushing with the upper hand and pulling with the lower hand, and rotating your torso.
  3. As the paddle reaches the kayak’s back, vertically pull it out of the water.
  4. Repeat until you face the direction needed.
  5. Keeping the paddle blade as far as possible from the vessel provides a powerful turning power. If the blade is near the kayak, you will propel it forward instead of turning.

Draw Strokes

The draw stroke shifts the kayak to the side without turning. Draw stroke is useful if you are near, and parallel to a dock or another kayaker, and you need to approach them.


  1. With a forward-facing torso, reach the blade to your side and away from the vessel.
  2. Slightly turn the paddle, so the blade’s face is pointing towards the water.
  3. Immerse the blade into the water, and by pushing with your upper hand and pulling with your lower hand, pull yourself towards the blade.
  4. Lift the blade out of the water and repeat if you need to. Be careful as the draw stroke can cause imbalance if you overextend your reach.

Useful Tips for First Time Kayakers


As a first time kayaker, consider the following before heading out:

  • 1. Weather and Other Conditions

Ensure you check both the weather and water conditions before going out. Note:

  • Air temperature
  • Water temperature
  • Wind direction and strength
  • Tides and currents

Monitoring these conditions ensures you are well prepared and do not get caught up in situations you are not prepared for.

  • 2. Choose the Right Kayak

We discussed the types of kayaks earlier, so ensure you pick the right one for your environment. Remember:

  • Recreational kayaks are slow, but stable and do not do well in rough weather
  • Sea Kayaks are fast, yet unstable. They are suited for harsh weather
  • Touring kayaks are stable and fast. They are suited for bad weather
  • Whitewater kayaks are for use in rivers with strong currents and rapids

Know your kayak and its limitations. Do not use a recreational kayak in windy conditions or rapids, especially if you are still learning.

  • 3. Dress Appropriately

When you are new at kayaking, you will be mistaken to dress for the air temperature and forget the water is colder than the air temperature. Going kayaking means getting wet. Here are some pointers to dressing for kayaking:

  1. Instead of one thick layer, dress in several thin layers
  2. Go for materials such as wool and polyester, which will act as insulation
  3. Avoid cotton
  • 4. Learn How to Rescue

Even experienced kayakers can capsize a kayak. You need to learn basic rescue techniques. At first, you will have to learn the techniques in a controlled environment.

Personal Items to Carry On a Kayaking Excursion


In the excitement of going kayaking, most beginners forget to carry essentials. These include:

  • Food

This depends on the trip length. As a beginner kayaker, it is not wise to go too far for too long. Ease yourself in it. All the same, carry food for a snack as paddling will make you hungry!

  • Extra Clothes

In case conditions get wet or cold, it is a good idea to have extra clothes. You will also need to change into warm clothes when you are done paddling.

  • Sunglasses and Sunscreen

The rays of the sun are reflected off the water surface and can be intense, even in cloudy weather. Sunglasses will lessen the glare, while sunscreen will prevent sunburn.

  • First Aid Kit

This is always an excellent item to have with you. Buy a kayak-specific kit, or make your own and store it in a waterproof bag.

Final Verdict


There is so much to learn about kayaking. You must never underestimate any water sport, no matter how good a swimmer you are. It is of the utmost importance to put safety first and ensure you buy the right kayak for your environment. Buying the right life jacket or Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is also a critical consideration. Before going kayaking, do your due diligence and get everything right before venturing out. Do not attempt to go alone and ensure you carry a whistle, a headlamp, and an emergency kit with you at all times. You will need to learn the various techniques and strokes that propel the kayak forward, backward, or turn it. These take time to master, so do not stray too far out as a beginner. With time, kayaking will become second nature. Happy Kayaking!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top