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Things to Know Before You Begin Kayaking

Looking for ways to unplug? Get outdoors? Increase your exercise? Build a community around a shared adventure? Participate in a family friendly activity for all ages? Then kayaking is for you! If you are just beginning to explore this versatile sport, here are a few things to know before you go. 

Types of Kayaks

There are two primary types of kayaks.

  • Sit in: This might be what comes to mind when you think about kayaking. Sit-in kayaks are mostly enclosed water craft with a cockpit for the paddler to sit inside. Most kayaks of this type are single pilot craft but you can find double kayaks as well.
  • Sit-on-top: This increasingly popular option has you sitting on top of the kayak. It does not have an enclosed seat so it is usually easier to enter and exit. They also tend to be wider and, therefore, more stable. They are often popular with beginners. And they lend themselves to more people, pets, and plunder (as they are larger and can handle more weight).

Within these two primary styles are a number of other types of kayaks: touring, recreational, whitewater, inflatable, etc. There are nuances to each of these options that make them more specialized for the activity you are pursuing.

Before you buy, it can be great if you can try out a few different types of kayaks to get a feel for what you like.  Some ways to get started:

  • Borrow from a friend. (This is especially nice if you friend can show you the ropes a bit. Hands-on learning is great.)
  • Rent. This is a nice option to get a feel for a kayak without the commitment to maintain, store, transport, etc. They can usually provide the bare minimum in gear and instruction to get you started.
  • Tour. Sign up for a kayaking tour. Take advantage of an expert and get some experience before launching on your own. In the same vein, you could sign up for a class if one is offered in your area.

Gear for Kayaking

While each expedition will warrant a review of necessary gear, there are a few basics that should be considered “must pack” on every excursion.

  • PFD: Always, always, always have your Coast Guard approved personal flotation device (PDF) on you. Make sure it is fitted properly and in good working order.
  • Paddle: It’s true that you never want to be up a creek without a paddle! Make sure that you have a correctly sized paddle (and one to spare).
  • Bilge pump/sponge: This is a necessity for any sit-in kayak as it can quickly and unexpectedly begin to fill with water. A bilge pump, sponge, or some sort of bailer are required in enclosed cockpit kayaks. They help you quickly and efficiently remove water to prevent sinking or capsizing.
  • Signaling device: Always be prepared in case of an emergency. A whistle or other signaling device is highly recommended (if not required) whenever you are on the water.
  • Proper clothing: It is imperative that you dress for the activity. First note: always be prepared to get wet! Even the best kayakers can be surprised. Wear swimwear or water friendly shorts/pants. Rash guards to protect against the sun (summer or winter!) are a great idea. Neoprene footwear is an excellent investment as well. Layers are highly recommended on longer excursions or variable weather days. Pack a lightweight warming layer like a fleece and a spray/rain jacket. And don’t forget a hat or head covering.
  • Personal items: Again, this list will change based on your route, length of trip, weather, familiarity with the area, etc. A few things to consider, however, include plenty of water, snacks, sun protection, first-aid kit, GPS, headlamp or some light source (in case you are caught out after dark), and dry bags (a great investment in keeping things contained and dry).

Adjusting Your Kayak

We are a step closer to actually getting on the water! Before you place your kayak in the deep, take a minute to make any necessary adjustments on terra firma. Place the kayak on a level area and hop on board.

  • Stow any gear and secure it. Make sure that you don’t have items that will take a dive! Use the hatches, nets/pockets, and dry bags to organize your gear within reach but secure.
  • Sit on the seat with your butt/back firmly seated against the back. Make any necessary adjustments. Fine tune the angle, if possible. Make sure it is comfortable, but keep in mind that for power and balance you should be more upright than laid back.
  • Make any adjustments possible to the foot pegs/rests. You should be sitting with your knees slightly bent. You might need to make those adjustments by stepping out of the kayak.
  • For Sit-in kayaks: Check your knees. Are your bent knees in firm contact with the sides of the kayak? This is important as it aids in side-to-side control as you paddle. You should be snug, but not so tight that you can’t slip out if needed.

Holding Your Kayak Paddle

You won’t be going far without more knowledge about how to use that distinctive double-bladed kayak paddle. So, here are a few tips for getting off on the right foot.

  • Grasp the handle in both hands (with your knuckles on top). Place the center of the handle on your head. Move/adjust your hands until your arms are at a 90 degree angle. Then lower your paddle to your lap/top of the kayak. Your hands are now in the right position.
  • Next ensure that the paddle blades are in line with each other and not “feathered” (especially if you are a beginner). Feathered blades can help to cut the wind but they are more of a hindrance if you aren’t an experienced paddlers.
  • Make sure that if you have an asymmetrical blade the longer edge of each blade is at the top.
  • The slight scoop of the blade should be facing you.
  • Relax your grip. Try to make an “O” with your thumb and forefinger. Grip the pole with your fingers but try not to squeeze as this will tire out your hands quickly.

Launching Your Kayak

While getting in and out of your kayak - and getting the kayak out on the water might feel intimidating - there are a few steps that can make it less so. We will discuss shore launches as they are the most common. The first things to acknowledge is that you WILL get wet with a shore launch.

Sit-on-Top Kayak:

  • Step One: Float your kayak in a few inches/feet of water. Pull it from the bow handle and make sure that the bow and stern are both fully afloat. (It can be nice to have a friend on hand at this point to help you get your kayak to the water.)
  • Step Two: Point the bow to open water. Ideally your kayak should be perpendicular to the shore (unless it is a particularly long kayak).
  • Step Three: Hop on your kayak so that your butt is in the seat but your legs are both off the side. Then swing your legs quickly around and onto the kayak.
  • Step Four: Immediately start paddling away from shore. This is the moment that all your advance preparation comes into play. Because your seat and feet are adjusted on dry land you are ready to proceed away from the waves/shore and avoid a launch disaster.

Sit-In Kayak:

Option One:

  • Step One: Fully float your kayak in the water. Pull it from the bow handle and make sure that it is fully afloat.
  • Step Two: Point the bow of the kayak toward open water, perpendicular to the shore.
  • Step Three: Secure one of your paddle blades under the lines in front of the cockpit. The other blade can rest in the water and become a bit of an outrigger to help stabilize your entry.
  • Step Four: Straddle the kayak over the cockpit.
  • Step Five: Grasp the coaming (the raised lip around the cockpit) and set your butt down. As quickly and as smoothly as possible, lift your legs and slide your feet into the cockpit.
  • Step Six: Grab your paddle and get moving. All your advanced prep is vital to a quick launch as you aren’t messing with adjustments.

Option Two:

  • Step One: Float the kayak parallel to the shore.
  • Step Two: Use the paddle to stabilize you and your craft. Place it perpendicular to the kayak behind the cockpit. Arrange half the paddle on the shore and the other half on the kayak.
  • Step Three: Rest yourself on the shoreside paddle and place your feet into the kayak.
  • Step Four: Swiftly slide along the paddle and into the kayak. Maintain a grasp on the paddle throughout.
  • Step Five: Move into the seat. Keep your center of balance low and enter as smoothly as possible.
  • Step Six: Keep your paddle horizontal across your lap and push off from shore with your hands (or use the paddle to push if necessary). Get moving away from shore and surf.

Basic Strokes for Kayaking

Forward Stroke

It is important to perfect this stroke as you will be using it predominantly.

  • Turn your torso and immerse your blade fully in the water on one side of the kayak near your feet.
  • Rotate your torso as you move along the kayak toward your hip. (Don’t focus on pulling with your downward hand; let your torso move the paddle and push with your upward hand).
  • When your hand reaches your hip, lift the blade out of the water.
  • Repeat on the next side.


This basic braking stroke is important to move you backward or stop your motion. It is the exact opposite of the forward stroke.

  • Immerse the blade next to your hip.
  • Push down with your lower hand and move the blade toward your feet.
  • When you reach your feet, pull the blade out of the water.

Turn (sweep)

You will notice that repeated forward strokes on the same side of the boat will cause it to slowly turn. If you want to exaggerate the effect and turn more quickly, use the sweep stroke.

  • Exaggerate the movement of a forward stroke. Immerse the blade by reaching as far forward as possible.
  • “Sweep” the blade along the kayak and as far back as possible (beyond your hip).
  • Slice the blade out of the water and repeat ON THE SAME SIDE. Sweep strokes on the right side will turn the kayak left. Left side sweeps will turn the kayak right.

Here are some final tips for first time kayakers.

First Time Kayaker Tips

  • Plan your route. Choose a small, calm body of water with a nice gently sloping sandy beach to launch.
  • Choose a sunny, windless day for your inaugural run. It will keep complications low and satisfaction high.
  • Don’t go it alone. Bring a friend on your first outing. You can take turns and encourage one another as you practice your technique. Besides, there is safety in numbers.
  • Make it a short story; not a novel. In order to keep the fun ratio higher than the fatigue ratio, plan on a trip under two hours. Success breeds success, so make the first one as painless as possible.
  • Also see our Beginner Guide to Kayaking for even more tips!

Hopefully, these tips and tricks to know before you go and make your foray into kayaking successful. There is so much joy to be found out on the water. Happy paddling!


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