How do you like to spend your weekend? Do you enjoy a day out on trails, scrambling your way up mountains or biking down them? Maybe you prefer going for walks in the park, literally stopping to smell roses. Or, maybe you just want to appreciate a lovely afternoon out in nature?
Those are wonderful ways to spend time. But, don’t forget that 71% of the Earth’s surface is water. If you’re not getting in it, you’re missing out on most of what our planet has to offer. Kayaking changes that equation by opening up the whole surface of the earth. Think of making your way down a river or hopping between islands as a trail on water. The sport is not too difficult to get into and will provide you with fun and challenging new wasy to spend your weekends outside. In this guide, we’ll cover the A-Zs of how to kayak.
Kayaking 101 – What is it and where did it come from?
The use of kayaks date back thousands of years. Ancient Inuit fisherman in present-day Canada paddled out to sea to hunt and fish. They carried cargo between distant villages. Back then, kayaks were made out of a wooden frame with sealskin stretched over it. The principle behind the structure was that a watertight boat could be rolled upright if it capsized. Today, kayaks are usually made from plastic or fiberglass. They still function the same way – even if we no longer need them to get our food or use them as source of essential transportation.
While canoes and kayaks may look similar, they function quite differently. Canoes are designed to carry cargo. They were the main mode of upriver transport before the Industrial Age. Due to their wide shape, large profile above the waterline, and paddler position, they’re much less maneuverable than a kayak. You could think of it as the difference between flying a cargo plane vs. a fighter aircraft. One is inherently more interesting to pilot than the other.
Many people prefer the sport of kayaking to canoeing because they feel more in sync with the boat. The kayaker places their back against a seat. Their legs extend into the hull to press on foot pedals. Paddling is one smooth motion where the grip changes very little. This is in contrast to canoes and rowboats, where a person might sit on a bench and use a single-ended paddle that changes hands on each stroke. Kayaking feels much more streamlined compared to canoeing.
What Kind of Gear Do I Need for Kayaking?
The only essential gear for kayaking is a kayak and paddle. It’s best to stick with the basics when learning how to kayak. But, for it to be a fun and safe experience, you’ll probably want a few other items:
After choosing a boat, the next most important decision is the paddle. You want to make sure it’s comfortable to use and will get you where you want to go. You’ll use your expected speed and paddling style to choose between the two main types of paddles.
Low-angle paddles are most suited for kayakers who expect to have a slower pace. The lower angle means the paddle will slide through the water more easily. But, the trade-off is that there won’t be as much power in each stroke.
High-angle paddles provide more power to push through the water. They make the boat more maneuverable as turns can be executed with fewer strokes.
The other main consideration in choosing a paddle is its length. Once you’ve decided on the style, a simple chart will show you the right length of paddle for your height and boat width. These are usually found at stores or on the web. However, they may differ depending on the type of kayaking you’ll be doing.
The most important flotation device is the one that keeps your head above water. The personal flotation device (PFD), aka “life jacket,” is what you’ll be looking for. Depending on your local laws, you may be required to wear a PFD while kayaking or keep one on hand in the boat. Regardless of what the law says, it’s best to wear the PFD to keep safe.
Kayaking PFDs differ from the kind you might wear while boating or jet skiing. They are specifically designed to provide maximum range of motion. Also, the majority of the flotation material is located near your lower back. This provides an excellent backrest if your boat doesn’t have a comfortable seat.
The second type of flotation device you’ll need are buoyancy aids that go in the front and rear of your boat. These air bladders allow the boat to float if it gets full of water. They’re handy just in case you flip over or get a leak. They make take up some cargo space, but you’ll be thankful when your boat doesn’t end up on the bottom of a lake.
A sprayskirt is a cover that stretches around the edges of the kayak’s cockpit. It has an opening for your torso to stick out. Sprayskirts prevent water from splashing into the boat. On whitewater kayaks and some sea kayaks, it prevents water from rushing in when the boat tips over. If you’re paddling on a lazy river or calm lake, a sprayskirt probably isn’t necessary, and you’ll be cooler without one.
The most important aspect of a sprayskirt is that it fits tightly. It needs to create a waterproof seal with both the kayak and your body to be effective. Most sprayskirts for whitewater and surfing sea kayaks are constructed with neoprene, making them fit like a wetsuit. These can get hot if you’re not being cooled off by splashing water every so often. They provide a tight seal and are strong enough to prevent water from coming in if the boat tips over. Recreational kayaks and touring sea kayaks usually have a skirt made from nylon or a nylon-neoprene combination. It’s less constrictive and not as hot. However, they only protect against splashing water and will not prevent water from rushing in if the boat tips over. All sprayskirts come with a quick release handle that allows you to detach the skirt from the boat if the boat capsizes.
A helmet is good to wear whenever there are rocks under the surface of the water, and you suspect you could roll over. Always wear a helmet when whitewater kayaking or when sea kayaking near rocky shores. Kayak helmets are different from bicycle helmets. They provide greater coverage on the side of the head and differ from winter sports helmets in that they are designed to be submerged in water. It’s important to purchase a kayaking-specific helmet. If you end up hitting your head against a rock and cracking your helmet, purchase a new one. They’re only designed to function once!
In cold water, thick neoprene gloves are a necessity for keeping your hands warm. Cold water and windy conditions can quickly lead to hypothermia. Even if you’re paddling in warm water, gloves can be useful for preventing blisters. The constant movement of your paddle shaft will rub against the inside of your palm. This could leave your palms raw and sensitive. Having gloves will help prevent this and make a long day of paddling much more comfortable.
These are made of a synthetic waterproof material with an opening that you roll down over a few times to create a near-watertight seal. They’re great for carrying camping gear on multi-day trips. They can store your lunch, a fresh set of clothes, or electronic devices. Smaller dry bags equipped with lanyards are available for carrying things like cameras and cell phones. You might want access to these throughout your time on the water for a quick picture.
Many of these additional items are related to carrying out a rescue. Except for a safety whistle, used to signal for help, you will probably want to hold off on buying these things until you learn the basics of kayaking. However, to get an idea of purchases you might want to make in the future, here are a few more items:
These inflatable bags attach to the end of your paddle. They’ll help you perform a self-rescue maneuver when you’ve fallen out of your boat and need to get back in without swimming it to shore. Blow into the paddle float to inflate it. Then attach it to the paddle. You can use the float to create an outrigger that you can push on to climb into the cockpit.
This is a bag containing a length of rope, which someone standing on shore can use to rescue a kayaker. If someone needs help, you would hold the rope and throw the bag to them. Once they have caught the bag, you can pull them towards the shore. This should only be attempted by an experienced kayaker who has been trained in the use of a throw bag.
Whitewater and sea kayakers often carry a knife on their PFD, usually one with a blunt tip and a serrated edge. This can be useful if you get tangled in a rope, like a paddle leash or rudder cable, and need to cut it. It can also be helpful if your kayak inadvertently gets tied up in some old fishing lines. While carrying one is not particularly dangerous, a PFD knife won’t be necessary until you’ve covered the basics of the sport.
If you want to cover any distance in a kayak, it’s important to know the proper paddling techniques. Most of the work should be done through your torso and core muscles. They’re larger and don’t tire as quickly as your arms and shoulders. Kayaking should not be bulking up your arms. In fact, if it is, you’re probably not going to get very far.
How to Paddle a Kayak
To paddle efficiently, your hands need to be about shoulder-width apart. If they are too far apart, you’ll end up using more arm and shoulder muscles. Remember to use your torso for the majority of the movement. If your hands are too close together, your strokes will have no power at all. Also, your grip on the paddle should be somewhat loose. Create a grip by making a circle with your thumb and forefinger. The rest of your palm and fingers will be used to push the paddle through the air, rather than gripping it tightly.
Most touring and sea kayaking paddles have a button at the center that lets you adjust the angle of the blade. Beginners might have a paddle with a straight blade with both ends at the same angle. This can cause problems in windy conditions. A feathered blade, with the ends set at different angles (usually between thirty and sixty degrees), will cut through the air more and make a more efficient stroke.
The forward stroke will be your main propulsion technique. When done properly, it will allow you to glide through the water in a way that looks effortless. Some first-timers don’t realize that they should be pulling, not pushing, through the water. As a result, beginners often bring the paddle behind them at the end of each stroke. However, it is more efficient to start the stroke farther in front of you and end the stroke as it reaches your side. Think of it as reaching out to cusp water in front of you, and then reaching to grab more one once your body has caught up.
To stroke, twist your torso in the opposite direction that your paddle is reaching. Turn your torso to the left as you reach forward with your right paddle blade. Then, twist your torso back to center as you pull the paddle blade towards your body. As your body twists past center and toward the end of the paddle that’s in the water, start to remove the paddle blade from the water (when it’s in line with your side) and place the opposite blade into the water in front of you. You’re now set up to do the whole stroke over again from the other side. Your torso should provide almost all of the movement, with your arms and shoulders simply stabilizing the paddle.
Now that you can paddle in a straight line, it’s time to learn how to turn. To keep your speed during a turn, you’ll need to redirect the momentum from the forward stroke. You can accomplish this by using a sweeping paddle stroke. Start by using your hips and body weight to lean slightly in the direction of the turn. Then, begin a forward stroke by dipping the paddle into the water in front of you. This time, instead of pulling straight back, make a wide sweeping motion with the paddle as if you trying to push off of an invisible point a few feet to the side of the boat. Finish the stroke as you would with the forward stroke, and you’ll be well on your way to making an efficient turn.
Instead of turning, you may need to move laterally at times. Sometimes, you need to move towards a dock to your side or to avoid an obstacle immediately in front of you. To move laterally, extend a paddle blade out, parallel to your body. Then, pull it towards you. Once the paddle reaches your body, twist the blade ninety degrees and pull it out of the water. Continue doing this until you’ve reached the place you need to be. Pretty simple, right?
The reverse stroke is what allows you to move backward or stop moving forward. To do it, use the motions of the forward stroke, but in reverse. Turn your paddle blade 180 degrees so the concave side is facing forward. Then, dip the paddle into the water at your side and push it forward. This will result in a very quick stop and. If you continue, you’ll start going backward.
Whitewater kayaking involves paddling downstream on a fast-moving river. It usually comes with dangerous features, such as rapids, waves, and boulders. Compared to regular kayaks, whitewater kayaks are usually shorter. They have flatter hulls and more rounded edges, which can make it more difficult to paddle through slow-moving water. However, strong currents make paddling unnecessary. Instead, kayakers use their kayaks to move around within the river, avoid obstacles, and maintain balance.
Rapids are rated on a scale from Class 1 (where almost no maneuvering is necessary, and a beginner can safely allow the current to push them along) up to Class 5+ (which involve extreme rapids and hazards that could result in serious injury or death). Class 6 rapids are defined as sections that are impassible due to hazards such as large waterfalls.
This is the most basic form of whitewater kayaking, and at its heart, is just the act of making it down the river. While some of the other types of whitewater kayaking focus on specific water features, river running looks at the river as a whole. Navigating the river and maintaining momentum are critical, as is working to ride with the current instead of fighting it.
Creeking is something of an extension of river running but is much more technical. It takes place on rivers and streams with steeper grades. That means the water flows faster, and there are more likely to be dangerous features like waterfalls and narrow canyons. Boats designed for creeking have more rounded ends and a greater volume. It keeps them from pinning on rocks or scraping against shallow rocks.
The sport of playboating evolved out of the “surfing” that many river runners would attempt in the holes downstream of a rapid. As this style of kayaking became more popular, boats were developed to keep kayakers in the holes as long as possible. The kayaks also became a vehicle for gymnastics-style maneuvers like cartwheels and flips. Playboats are shorter than river running boats and have wide, rounded ends and a very flat hull.
While squirt boating came before (and evolved into) playboating, it has not been as popular. The boats need to be custom-made to fit the individual kayaker. Squirt boats are low volume and have so little internal space that they need a bump in the hull just to fit the kayaker’s feet. The sport gets its name from the squirting motion the boat makes when exiting a rapid, as it moves from flat to vertical.
It’s a form of kayaking that is focused solely on racing. Slalom involves getting down a river as fast as possible while navigating a series of gates (similar to slalom downhill ski races). It is quite difficult. As some of the gates are navigated while going downstream, others can only be passed while paddling upstream. The slalom is the only form of kayaking to appear in the Olympic Games. Professional slalom racers use Kevlar or carbon fiber boats that adhere to strict weight and dimensions. However, recreational racers often use more standard plastic boats.
Other Gear Needed
Whitewater kayaking requires the utmost attention to safety. All the safety items mentioned earlier should be used, and you need to know how to use them properly. That is especially true for the throw bag – you may need it to save a friend’s life. A helmet is also a necessity, even in Class I and II rapids, as you never know when the current might send you towards a dangerous rock. Finally, never attempt a river with rapids that are a higher class than you are comfortable with.
Contrary to whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks are usually built with a long, narrow hull (between 10 and 18 feet) that allows them to cut through the large, but rather predictable, waves of the ocean. Maneuverability is sacrificed for greater speed and better tracking (the ability to keep a straight line with each paddle stroke). The added size of sea kayaks also gives more space for carrying cargo so they are ideal for camping trips. The paddles used are not significantly different from those used in non-whitewater kayaking.
Because sea kayakers venture out into more open water, extra safety precautions must be taken.
Kayakers must carry a bailing device.
In the ocean, you won’t be able to easily reach the shore to remove water from the boat. So, you need to be able to do it while you in the water.
Bring and know how to use emergency locating devices.
A cell phone is the easiest option, but if it fails, know how to use a signal mirror or flares to alert aircraft or other boaters for help.
Have a spare paddle.
Paddles break occasionally, and without it, you will be stranded.
Know the tide and plan your route so it pushes you towards your destination. Working against the tide is exhausting.
Other Types of Sea Kayaking
Using the same principles by which man crossed the oceans for hundreds of years, a sail is mounted on the front deck of the kayak to propel the paddler with a fraction of the effort. Sailing kayaks are popular with expedition kayakers. They make it possible to cover much greater distances than standard kayaks.
These boats are meant to carry a hefty load of cargo for camping trips of a week or longer. Due to their large volume, it’s necessary to weight them down if they aren’t loaded with gear. Otherwise, they sit too high in the water and lose maneuverability.
In these boats, paddlers ride the amazing power of surf zone waves. Many of them perform specialized maneuvers like whitewater playboat enthusiasts. The kayaks sometimes use a design that’s a combination of a surfboard and a kayak. They have a flat bottom and fins at the stern. Whitewater kayaks can be equally effective for surfing, though, if you’re not interested in buying a specialized boat.
Harkening back to the days when kayaks were used for gathering food, fishing kayaks provide a stable platform that is comfortable for the angler to sit in for long periods of time. They don’t appear too different from recreational sea kayaks, but have a more ergonomic design and provide mounting points for all kinds of equipment.
Keeping Safe While Kayaking
Kayaking is a safe sport with a relatively low number of deaths and injuries, but being out in open water or strong currents always present a safety hazard. It’s only through the careful preparation and common sense of the sport’s participants that the injury rate stays low. Here are some useful tips for staying safe on the water.
Wear your PFD at all times.
Your chance of drowning is much lower with one on, and they even provide a level of insulation that can help prevent hypothermia.
Make sure someone knows where you are. Just like with hiking, someone should know to call for help if you don’t make it back in a reasonable amount of time.
Be aware of the weather.
Don’t head out when a storm is on the horizon, and always wear appropriate clothing for the temperature. Be prepared for conditions to change too, and have an exit plan in case one is necessary.
Understand how winds and tides can affect the difficulty of paddling.
If you’re going to be paddling against the current or tide, be sure to not exhaust yourself too much for the return trip.
Don’t take drugs or consume alcohol during a kayaking trip; paddling requires a lot of coordination and balance. You also need to keep your wits about you in case an emergency arises.
Continue your education: learn more about self-rescue techniques and take a first-aid class, preferably one related to watersports.
As always with outdoor activities, be sure to stay hydrated.
For New Paddlers
Never put something wet inside of a dry bag. While they are great are keeping water out of the bag, they’re also great at keeping it inside.
If you’re wearing a camera, pair of binoculars, or even dry bag lanyard around your neck, make sure to shorten it from how you might carry it while standing up. You don’t want your things hanging down to the sprayskirt where they might get wet.
Dress for the water, not the weather, and wear quick-dry clothing. Water might splash on it, or you could fall in. Either way, you do not want to be soaked for the rest of the day, and you might be at risk for hypothermia if you’re out in wet clothes.
If you’ve never been kayaking before, now is the time to start learning how to kayak. It’s an excellent sport to take up if you want to get in shape, and it’s especially good for toning your core muscles. But it’s also a great way to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature, and it offers an unparalleled opportunity for adventure. While you can spend the afternoon hiking in the woods, there’s a good chance you’ll see a lot of other people doing the same. The water is fresh terrain to be explored. Even if it’s a narrow stream with the shore a few feet away, it will feel like uncharted territory. As the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”