Paddle Like a Pro: A Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking

A Beginner's Guide to Kayaking

Maybe — just maybe — things are starting to return to something resembling “normal.” After a long year stuck indoors, you’re no doubt ready to get some fresh air, to rekindle your favorite outdoor pastimes, or perhaps take up new ones. Few things are more relaxing than a day on the water, whether it’s upright on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or from inside a canoe or kayak. If you’ve been dying to take up the latter, here’s the low-down on getting started with kayaking.

Prepping for the Water

Gear Up

Whether you’re getting into freediving, snowboarding, or hiking, any new sport requires essential gear to get started. But, first-time kayakers don’t need to — and probably shouldn’t — buy the best, most expensive boats, paddles, and accessories. Figure out your budget and start small with the most affordable gear. And as with all of the sports above, there are plenty of entry-level and mid-range brands perfect for beginners. It’s best to talk with a professional, even if you ultimately intend to buy online. At a minimum, you’ll need:

  • Kayak (since this is the most significant investment, consider borrowing or renting a few different kayaks to determine the length, style, and features that work for you before buying your own)
  • Paddle (be sure to find the right size for you)
  • Coast Guard-approved PFD (personal flotation device)
  • Bilge pump (optional, but recommended)
  • Spray skirt (optional, but recommended)
  • Drybag (for keeping your personal effects dry)

Get Dressed

We’ll assume you’re (wisely) planning your first few paddles in calm water and mild weather. That said, dressing the part for your inaugural kayak outing is fairly straightforward. It’s not much different than dressing for a day at the beach. Here are the essentials:

  • Swim trunks or board shorts (non-cotton in a relaxed, comfortable fit)
  • Rashguard top (for sun and bug protection)
  • Waterproof footwear (sport sandals or neoprene slip-ons are best)
  • Sun-shielding hat (optional, but recommend, especially for longer paddling days)
  • Polarized sport sunglasses

Know Your Limits

Perhaps the most critical consideration before getting in the water is to know your limits. Even well-seasoned athletes can find themselves in trouble by biting off more than they can chew. Brush up on any personal weak spots. Work on your core and arm strength before hitting the water. Be realistic about your swimming ability to prepare for the inevitable capsizing. For all of these reasons, we also recommend that beginners paddle with a buddy. Consider setting a turn-back time for yourself, and limit your first few kayaking adventures to 1-2 hours tops.

Kayaking Gear

Your First Day on the Water

Protect Yourself (and Your Stuff)

The relaxed nature of kayaking (assuming you’re not jumping paddle first into open-ocean kayaking) can lead to a false sense of safety. But exposing your body to the elements for hours or a full day at a time can wreak havoc on your skin, eyes, and more. Take care of your most exposed bits by donning a hat, a lightweight long-sleeve shirt, and plenty of eco-conscious sunscreen. Pack plenty of water — twice what you think you’ll need — in an insulated water bottle. Don’t forget to protect your smartphone, wallet, and other personal effects, too, by stashing them in a waterproof dry bag.

Adjust Your Ride

Adjusting your kayak to fit your body shape, size, and paddling style is key to ensuring a comfortable day on the water. With your boat on dry land, start by focusing on your three main points of contact. First, adjust the angle of the seat to whatever is most comfortable for you. To maximize power and balance, you ideally want to sit as upright as possible. Adjust the footpegs, so the balls of your feet rest comfortably against them while maintaining a slight bend in your knees. Lastly, ensure that your knees maintain contact with the sides of the cockpit. This helps minimize side-to-side motion while paddling. You should feel snug but with enough leeway to safely exit the kayak if you capsize.

Go for Launch

Don’t be intimidated by your first kayak launch. This is where having a paddle buddy is key. Start on a slightly sloped shoreline in an area clear of rocks or other hard debris. Set the boat down perpendicular to the shoreline in shallow water — deep enough that it’s mostly “in” the water, but shallow enough that you can safely step in and it won’t drift away. Secure your paddle by sliding one of the blades under the deck line at the front of the cockpit. Straddle the kayak directly over the cockpit with one foot on either side in the water. Place your hands firmly on either side of the cockpit opening and lower your butt onto the seat. Lastly, lift your legs and feet and slide them in and down toward the footpegs. It’s almost impossible to do this gracefully, so don’t stress that you’re somehow doing it wrong. Use your paddle to propel your kayak away from shore, and attach your spray skirt if you’ll be using one.

Kayaking with Friends

Hold the Line

Properly holding your kayak paddle is as important as proper stroke technique. Grab your paddle with both hands and hold it up, centered just over the top of your head. You’ll know your hands are positioned correctly when your elbows are bent at 90 degrees.

Make sure your paddle blades are parallel to one another. If not, they may be slightly offset or “feathered.” This is ideal for seasoned kayakers but can be difficult for novices to use. To reorient the blades, find the twist or push-button near the center of the paddle shaft. Activating that will allow you to twist each end of the paddle to realign the blades.

To correctly orient the blades of your paddle, hold the paddle out in front of you with the blades facing toward you. Be sure the longer edge of the blades is at the top, and the shorter edge is closer to the water. (Uniform or symmetrical paddles are not tapered in this manner, so there is no “correct” orientation.) The scooped side of each blade should also be facing toward you. Wrap your thumbs and index fingers around the paddle shaft to form an “O,” then gently wrap your other fingers around the shaft. Be conscious of your grip throughout your time on the water to ensure you’re not holding the shaft too hard. It’s bad form and will ultimately tire your hands and arms much more quickly.

Different Strokes

Paddling is deceptively simple, but mastering good technique is key to maximizing your power, balance, and maneuverability in the water. Here, the strength and smooth movement of your core are more important than your arms. Use your hands and arms only to guide your paddle while allowing your shoulders and core to actively drive the blades through the water.

There are three main stroke types to master: Forward stroke, reverse stroke, and sweep stroke. For beginners and general touring purposes, the majority of paddling relies on a forward stroke.

Pack It Up, Pack It In

Winding Down

Stick to your agreed-upon time limit for the day as best you can. If your first kayaking adventure tracks an out-and-back route, remember: However far you paddle out, you’ll have to paddle that same distance back. So, it’s best to head back well before you start feeling tired.

Mastering the Perfect Exit

Not surprisingly, exiting your kayak is a mirror copy of putting in and shoving off — only in reverse. For shore landings, line your kayak perpendicular to the shoreline. Paddle toward the shore hard enough to drive the front end of your boat up and onto the sand or dirt. The key is to “stick” the boat so that it stays put before you make your exit.

With your kayak secure against the shore, free your hands by securing the paddle blade under the deck line. Pull your knees and feet back toward you. Lift one foot out of the cockpit and into the shallows next to your boat. This helps stabilize the boat before standing up. Balance on your planted foot, and stand up slowly, taking care not to tip the kayak. With both feet in the water, stand up straight and away from the kayak. Congratulations — you’re officially a kayaker!

Ready to get started? Check out the best kayak deals available right now to start building your own watersports gear closet.

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