By: Karl Beckmen,
The Complete Lowdown on Kayaking
Having become a part of the Olympic Games in 1936, kayaking has since turned into a fairly popular recreational activity. It allows everyone from young to old to explore nature in all its glory without doing any harm to it. This is particularly important in the current-day climate change crisis that is perpetually dominating the news headlines.
Seasoned kayakers will confirm how serene it feels to be paddling through a river as the picturesque landscape changes one minute after another. There’s truly nothing quite like kayaking when it comes to discovering new gems of nature while sitting in a one- or two-person ship.
Wondering about how you can become a member of the we-love-to-kayak club? Then this guide is for you. We’re going to break down all parts of kayaking starting from the equipment you need for the sport and ending with the tips and tricks that will come in handy when starting.
If you’re already somewhat familiar with it, feel free to skip to what’s the most relevant to you. And, for those who like to take their digital browsing seriously, keep a notepad next to you for making quick notes.
What is Kayaking?
First things first, allow us to clear the air by telling you that kayak and canoe are not the same things. While the difference between the two isn’t huge, it’s still there, and it’s crucial to know how to distinguish the two.
What separates kayaks from canoes is the sitting position. When kayaking, you’re sitting facing forward with your legs extended in front of you. When canoeing, you’re kneeling or resting on the bench situated across the vessel’s beam. The other differences include the kayak’s low-positioned construction and canoe’s high sides, and kayak’s two-bladed paddle as opposed to the canoe’s paddle with a single blade.
Now that you know what separates the two watercraft that are often compared to each other, we can get back to defining kayaking. In essence, it’s an act of making strokes with two paddles in a narrow boat equipped with either one or two cockpits and a covered deck. Every stroke helps you propel through the water, which, as you’ve guessed it by now, means you’re kayaking.
There are plenty of ways to get the taste of the sport. The easiest of them all is to sing up for a class where you’ll get the fundamental theoretical and, most importantly, practical knowledge of kayaking. Once you get acquainted with it, you can enroll in a group tour where you’ll be able to paddle your way into the local kayaking community and, of course, hone your skills.
Finally, when you feel ready to go solo, consider renting (or, if you’ve come to realize that your life won’t ever be the same without kayaking regularly, investing in your own) kayak.
Why Should I Try Kayaking?
The real question here should be ‘why shouldn’t you try kayaking?’ In all seriousness, though, we are confident that this sport is for everyone with no exceptions. From being a great way to rewind on a day off to an eco-friendly way to explore a new area, the advantages of this recreational pursuit are too many to count. But we’ll try.
Kayaking is a perfect alternative to cardio workouts. We’d go as far as to say that it’s a much more beneficial exercise. With cardio, you are prone to a variety of injuries including joint pains, shin splints, and stress fractures. With kayaking, none of it poses any danger to you. Instead, you’re getting a high-intensity workout with minimum impact on your joints and tissues. Besides, you’re also strengthening your shoulders, arms, back, and chest muscles. It’s the most inclusive exercise of all.
Kayaking can be done in every type of water. Sure, catching waves on a surfboard is fun, but can you catch them in the river? The same goes for diving, jet-skiing, and, you name it – a lot of other water activities too. With kayaking, you can launch your equipment from any shore, riverside, or dock and paddle in lakes, rivers, seas, and oceans. The best part – you can bring it with you on your travel adventures to explore the most breathtaking destinations.
Kayaking is a great bonding activity. If you run out of ideas on how to spend a good time with your friends and family, kayaking might be your inspiration light bulb. It can be a centerpiece to your weekend getaway where racing in pairs down the river is followed by a picnic on the shore of the river. You can make it as challenging or relaxing as you want it to be.
Getting Started: Types Of Kayaks
Just like with any kind of equipment, there are a handful of kayaks suitable for different needs. Depending on whether your goal is to explore the surroundings, catch some fish, or paddle with your furry friend sitting in front of you, your kayak of choice will differ. To get a better idea of what type of kayak will work the best for you, keep on reading.
Sit-on-top kayak: best for beginners
For starters, we have the most widely used kayak that is easy to get in and out of, hence why it’s perfect for newbies. This wide boat features an open cockpit and a non-enclosed seat, both of which are designed for those who don’t mind squeezing a swimming or a snorkeling session in the middle of the ride.
Side note: be wary of the type of clothes you wear as you’re likely to get wet from water splashes.
Recreational kayak: best for calm waters
If you’re seeking a fun paddling experience in calm waters, your best bet is a recreational kayak. Coming with a closed cockpit and an opening large enough to fit a pet or a child, it has good chances of becoming your go-to summer vacation buddy. When compared to a touring kayak, it loses in terms of speed but wins in terms of the ease of transportability and storage and an affordable price tag.
Side note: the shorter length of the recreational kayak means less tracking precision – a characteristic to keep in mind.
Touring kayak: best for long trips
Ever saw a long boat with a small and narrow cockpit often operated by one person on a National Geographic channel? The odds are it was a touring kayak. You can easily distinguish it by its thigh braces and an enclosed sitting area that makes it ideal for sharpening your kayaking skills for hours at a time. Designed for challenging waters that require accurate tracking, it is a good investment for those who want to get serious about kayaking.
Side note: touring kayaks are not family- and transportation-friendly and are a better fit for solo paddlers.
Inflatable kayak: best for traveling
Perhaps the best kayak for travel is an inflatable kayak. As the name suggests, you can quickly inflate and deflate it, which makes traveling with it a breeze. Just like the sit-on-top kayak, it is easy to maneuver even for those who are new to kayaking. While you won’t be able to race in it, you’ll definitely get good use out of it when exploring a new destination in calm waters.
Side note: due to the lightweight construction, don’t expect a superior level of stability on the water from it.
Whitewater kayak: best for catching waves
For mixing work with pleasure, go for a whitewater kayak. This wave-catcher is the most challenging of them all, but also the most rewarding. The attached kayak seat won’t necessarily feel like your sofa at home, but it’ll do the job of helping you to become ‘one’ with the boat. The short length and a faultless tracking make it the best option for doing tricks in rough waters.
Side note: whitewater kayaks are further divided into river runners, creekboats, playboats, and duckies, each of which slightly differs from one another.
Pedaling kayak: best for quick-ish rides
Think that your shoulder or back problems are an obstacle to kayaking? Not with the pedaling kayak. This beast operates on either a flipper or a propeller motor, which eliminates the need to use your hands for paddling your way through the lake. It’s also much faster than other kayaks too.
Side note: with advanced technologies come high price tags, which is the case for a pedaling kayak.
Getting Started: Must-Have Equipment
Apart from the most obvious – kayak – you’ll need some additional gear to make your kayaking experience that much more enjoyable (and safer). Here’s the basic pack without which you shouldn’t ever go kayaking:
- A double-bladed paddle is just as necessary as a kayak. To find the one that will be comfortable to row with, you should pay attention to the measurements of your torso. Those with the height of the torso under 28 inches will benefit the most from a paddle with a length of under 80 inches and vice versa.
- Life vest goes hand in hand with almost every water-based sport including kayaking. Unlike those heavily padded orange life jackets you wear as a kid, the one you should be wearing when kayaking is a completely different fruit. A proper PDF for this type of activity must fit snug, not be restrictive, and have a sufficient amount of mesh paneling for the ultimate comfort and breathability.
- A bilge pump should never be forgotten when it comes to kayaking either. It’s the only tool that can help you get rid of the water that has accumulated inside of your cockpit.
With the above-mentioned essentials out of the way, you’ll want to have the following items with you too:
- A VHF radio is a good idea for emergencies. This device can make the difference in saving yourself or someone else.
- A float bag for kayaks that don’t have a built-in bulkhead responsible for maintaining buoyancy on the water;
- A spray skirt for whitewater and bad weather conditions;
- A headlamp for kayaking in low light conditions;
- A signaling whistle for emergencies;
- A GPS/old school paper map for kayaking in unknown locations;
- A towline for towing other kayaks in case the person in charge of the boat is injured or tired;
- A dry bag for keeping your stuff, well, dry;
As for clothes, our suggestions are:
- Swimwear and waterproof shorts/pants;
- A non-cotton top;
- Wetsuit boots or neoprene shoes;
- A baseball cap and sunglasses;
- A lightweight/heavy-duty waterproof jacket.
Lastly, for the personal belongings that will make your trip as effortless as possible, consider bringing a few of these optional items:
Whitewater Kayaker with Complete Gears.
Getting Started: Launching And Operating Kayak
All set for departing on your first kayaking trip? Then it’s time to learn how to launch and operate the watercraft. While the steps of getting into a kayak will differ based on your starting point (i.e. dock, shore, deep water), the following course of action will give you a good idea for what to expect when starting.
- Avoid pulling the hull along when carrying it to the point of set-off. Instead, ask a friend for help. This way, you won’t get too frustrated, or, worse, exhausted before even beginning to paddle.
- Set your kayak down in shallow water so that it’s perpendicular to the shore. Ideally, it should face away from the shore thus making the keel touch the shoreline. In case you’re launching a kayak into deep water, consider placing it parallel to the shoreline for the ultimate convenience.
- Locate one of the paddle’s blades beneath the deck line. It should be placed in the front of the cockpit so that the shaft is sticking out on the sides.
- Take hold of the kayak by putting one leg inside of the cockpit.
- Grab the hull with your arms and sit down in the cockpit’s seat with your butt. Then, slide your feet into the cockpit.
- Settle comfortably in the kayak and ensure your back is firmly resting on the seat’s backrest.
- Take the paddle and move your craft away from the boat wakes and slowly approaching waves. At this point, attach a spray skirt if you want to.
*Once you’re done kayaking, get back to your launch position and repeat the aforementioned steps in the reverse order.
It’s one thing to launch a kayak, but it’s a different thing to know how to paddle your way through the water to avoid accidentally losing your paddle or getting too tired too quickly. To get the most out of your first kayaking trip, make sure your paddle is held correctly:
- Begin by raising the paddle over your head with both hands and maintaining the balance. This is how you’ll give your hands the proper positioning before lowering them down and starting to paddle.
- As soon as the paddle comes down, check for its blades to be aligned with each other. In case there’s a bit of offsetting, take some time to bring them back in line by either manually twisting the blades or pushing the button that will take care of it by itself.
- Examine the blades and ensure that their longer side is facing the sky (unless both of their sides are of the same size and shape). This position will enable you to smoothly glide through the water without putting too much strain on your arm muscles.
- Don’t grip too hard. Remember that gripping the paddle has never made a good kayaker.
Getting Started: Paddling Techniques Pt.1
As it is with every physical activity, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. With kayaking, you want to make sure you’re doing it right so that your first experience sets the correct rhythm for all the trips to come.
To choose the right blades for the paddle, the next terms will come in handy:
- Concave: vaguely curved blades that allow you to quickly move through the water;
- Feathered: angled towards each other blades that tend to come with push-button mechanism for easier alignment;
- Matched: parallel to each other blades that are super easy to learn with how to kayak.
Given that you have the paddle of the right length for your height and the type of blade that is easy to learn with, you should be just fine. These tips will help you perfect your kayaking skills:
- Instead of getting the strength to paddle from your arms, you should focus on making your core work. Stomach muscles are considered to be much stronger than arm muscles, which will result in you having more endurance and less fatigue.
- Slouching in the seat is never the way to go when learning to kayak. It might be a good relaxation technique for fishermen and those who already have some experience with this watercraft, but it’s not what you should be resorting to (especially if back pain is not a stranger to you).
- When paddling, one of your hands should be firmly holding the tool while the other one is rotating it. Usually, the hand in the closest proximity to the water is the hand propelling through the water. The other hand is then the one rotating the actual paddle.
Getting Started: Paddling Techniques Pt.2
Holding the paddle firmly in your hand is the bare minimum required to learn the basic kayaking strokes. As your confidence increases, you can start looking forward to experimenting with more sophisticated paddling techniques. For now, ahead are the 4 types of strokes that will help you navigate the water even if there’s no one in the cockpit with you to give some guidance.
The Forward Stroke
The most commonly used paddling stroke is, as you’ve already guessed from the name, the forward stroke. It enables you to move forward by rotating your torso at the same time as the blade moves right behind you.
The technique is as follows:
- Immerse one of the blades into the water not too far from your feet.
- Push against the shaft as you propel the kayak through the water.
- Rotate your body along with the paddle while switching between the blades.
The Reverse Stroke
There are times when you’ll need to move backward – say, upon seeing an obstacle in the form of a stone or to have a second look at the exotic bird sitting on the oak tree – and attempt at not flipping over doing so.
Here’s where the reverse stroke comes to rescue:
- Immerse either side of the paddle into the water next to your hip.
- Push with the lower hand to slice through the water as you look behind.
- Rotate your body and repeat the same move with the other blade.
The Sweep Stroke
Turning the kayak isn’t as hard as it may seem at first. While it’s fine to do several forward strokes on one side of the watercraft for achieving the desired effect, we recommend a more effortless technique.
It goes like this:
- Immerse one side of the paddle into the water next to your feet against the stern/bow.
- Draw the paddle forward/backward in a half-circle curve towards the bow/stern.
- Rotate your body with the help of the paddle.
The Draw Stroke
More often than not, you’ll need to go sideways to either get to the dock or pull beside your friend who’s kayaking with you. This is where the draw stroke will help you make the move as smooth as possible.
Stick to these steps:
- Immerse the paddle in the water facing the direction you’re about to move in.
- After rotating your body towards that direction, make sure your paddle is far from the kayak (your hands should, therefore, be over the water).
- Tug and draw the kayak in the direction to the blade.
Getting Started: Safety Precautions
Your safety should be your top priority regardless of the type of sport you’re practicing, and that includes kayaking. Even if you’re the most skilled swimmer, you’re not immune to emergencies that can take you aback. To eliminate the potential risks associated with kayaking, adhere to these safety measures:
- Always bring a friend. Especially if you’re an amateur kayaker. A second paddler can be a real life-savior in many instances. And you never know when you might need one (so, it’s better to have this human safety pillow with you at all times).
- Wear kayaking equipment. It goes without saying, but there’s nothing that will make you feel safer than professional equipment designed to, quite literally, keep you alive.
- Be aware of your [distance] limits. Never, and we mean it when we say it, paddle too far from the shore. This applies to you even on a bigger scale if you’re not a good swimmer. And, really, the views you get from the near-shore territory are better anyway.
- Do your research. You should approach kayaking just like you would approach diving – check for the places to avoid, the state of the currents and tides on the given day, and, of course, the weather.
- Dress appropriately. Apart from wearing kayak-friendly clothes, ensure your life vest and wetsuit boots are in great condition. We’re talking snug fit, room for ventilation, and no rips in sight.
- Don’t forget the essentials. Sure, bring your water bottle, snacks, and sunblock. But above all, don’t forget to pack an emergency whistle (three long blasts is a universal distress signal), a bilge pump, and a towline. You just never know when you’ll need any one of them.
It may seem like a lot, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. And, to be on top of the safety game, you should think about taking a rescue class beforehand. There you’ll get the information you need to practice safe kayaking – that is, to know your tides, currents, and everything in between.
Getting Started: Handling Rough Situations
You can be wearing the best kayaking equipment, following every guideline under the sun, and still encounter some less-than-favorable situations. Some things like sudden weather changes and flip overs just can’t be predicted. It’s, therefore, up to you to be as prepared as possible when finding yourself in tough circumstances.
Paddling in windy weather
A wind will naturally divert your kayaking plans, and you should be okay with that. Depending on the type of wind – a fresh breeze or a fiery gust – you will want to accommodate your paddling accordingly.
The rule of thumb states that you should paddle with the wind and not against it – that’s how you’ll conserve the most energy. You can, too, try putting more effort into paddling or adding a supplementary stroke to the direction in which the wind blows.
There’s a good chance of you losing control over your watercraft – it happens at least once to every kayaker. In this plot, the worst thing you can do is try fighting it. This is comparable to losing control of a car or a truck where swiftly regaining control of the vehicle results in making the situation worse. Instead, consider loosening up and moving with the kayak in whatever direction it goes.
Righting yourself back in a kayak
Don’t panic when your kayak flips over – rather, be prepared for it. If you find yourself in the water, this is where wearing a life jacket will pay off. If, for some reason, you’re not wearing one, grab onto the kayak with a tight grip and make your way back into the vessel.
Calm waters are the easiest to navigate, which means that getting back into the kayak won’t be too difficult. Your main job is to flip the watercraft over by grabbing onto both sides of the cockpit and climb back in. If this isn’t an option, grab the vessel and swim to the nearest shore where you can easily get back into the kayak.
It’s a little more tricky to right yourself back into kayak when there’s a current. In this case scenario, you should try getting a hold of the kayak with one arm while keeping your head above the water for breathing purposes. Maintaining the horizontal to the surface position is also a must – it will help you reach shallow waters or the shore that much faster.
T-rescuing in the event of capsizing
The right thing to do when you notice a fellow kayaker struggling with a capsized kayak is to help. To do so without causing harm, you need to know exactly what to do so that the rescue is successful.
The T-rescue implies you paddling in front of the capsized vessel and forming a ‘T’ shape. After that, you should work in a team: your task is to slide the boat of the swimmer onto your boat’s deck so that you could flip the vessel together afterward.
The boat should be reoriented into the bow-to-stern position before the rescuer grabs onto the sides of the kayak and pulls himself back into it. Once the kayaker who was rescued is in the boat, he should pump out the excess water, attach the spray skirt (if there’s one), and continue following his initial paddling route.
It makes the most sense to learn how to perform the T-rescue from a qualified instructor. With the help of practicing it several times in a calm environment, you’ll then know how to act if this happens in real life.
Tips & Tricks For First-Time Kayakers
Kayaking is relatively simple to pick up. And while you do need to master some basic paddling skills to undertake the activity, you don’t need to know a whole lot for your first ever kayaking adventure. Get acquainted with the following tips and tricks we have compiled for first-time kayakers and you’ll be craving more in no time.
- Don’t go kayaking in wild waters straight away. Although oceans and seas with their unpredictable currents and tides sound thrilling, it might be too early to start with them. Ponds and lakes that are known for their calm waters are your best beginner-bet.
- Pick the right kayak. The range of kayaks is wide, and you better choose the one that you’ll feel the most comfortable with during your initial familiarization-type trips. Unless you have specific requirements, sit-on-top kayaks are generally a safe choice for every beginner.
- Always have a spare change of clothes with you. The more skilled you get, the less likely you’ll need to bring a change of clothes. But when just starting, it’s a must. Even if you’re positive you won’t get wet, it’s always better to have options.
- Choose the beach with a slope to launch a kayak. Since it’ll be your first time launching kayak into the water, it’s a good idea to do so from a place that predisposes an easy launch. Avoid slippery slopes that can be tough even for the most skilled kayakers.
- Go kayaking on a sunny and windless day. There’s a high probability that your first experience kayaking will determine whether you’ll fall for it or decide it’s not for you. For you to remember your first time kayaking in the best light, pick a day that won’t complicate the activity that seems nerve-racking as it is.
- Remember that people matter more than boats. It sounds self-explanatory, but your safety should come before the safety of your equipment. Let your paddle or the life vest to get lost if that’s what it takes to keep you safe and sound. Buying a new piece of equipment will always be cheaper than buying health.
The Best Places For Kayaking
If the body of water is large enough, rest assured it’s suitable for kayaking. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s a particularly exciting area to kayak in. After carrying your vessel on the roof of your car or in the luggage compartment, you’ll want to be satisfied with the views you’ll get while paddling for long days. Lo and behold, these are the most breathtaking destinations for avid kayakers:
- Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Michigan, North America: The best way to explore the paddlers’ favorite national park is, as you’ve already guessed, by kayak. Hiking for long hours won’t give you the same views of sandstone cliffs and cutaway rock caves as a couple of hours of paddling in the crystal clear waters of the Beaver lake.
- Lake Titicaca, Peru, South America: It’s not a coincidence that one of the largest lakes in South America also happens to be the best place to kayak in the country. Situated at the border of Bolivia and Peru, it offers rides through the spectacular man-made islands belonging to Uros, the local indigenous people. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that can’t be missed.
- French Alps, France, Europe: For whitewater kayaking alongside a handful of rivers running through the French Alps, book your trip to Europe. Durance and Ubaye will offer you the perfect platforms for honing your paddling skills (read=it will be challenging, but so worth it).
- Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, Asia: Don’t let the touristy nature of the place keep you away from undertaking kayaking here. Whether you decide to join a tour or venture out on your own, you’re practically guaranteed to witness the never-seen-before emerald waters floating through the countless lagoons, tunnels, and grottos. A functioning camera is a must for this location.
- Zambezi River, Zambia, Africa: The fourth-longest river in the country is nothing short of a thrill. While first-timers will likely need an instructor to kayak with, skilled paddlers will reap the most amount of adrenaline drifting through the big and warm water rapids of the river.
- Moreton Bay, Queensland, Australia: The bay has plenty to offer to kayakers of all types – Lake Kurwongbah, Pumicestone Passage, and Hays Inlet are just some of the places for which kayaking is second nature. Wildlife watching, island hopping, and afternoon fishing are all possible in the bay.
It’s only natural that you’d want to take up kayaking after reading through the entire guide – and, quite frankly, we’ve become nostalgic while creating it too. From learning how to hold a paddle and what strokes to make when it gets windy to the methods of saving a kayaker on a capsized boat and the essentials a kayaking trip isn’t complete without, the learning curve is not short.
But this is a good thing – once you learn all the ins and outs of kayaking and master the sport, you’ll have a hard time leaving your vessel at home when going on a yearly family vacation.
And you won’t have to. Your enthusiasm will be contagious, and your friends and family will likely want to follow your lead sooner than later. So, put your worries aside and learn what it takes to become a good kayaker. Good-quality equipment like a kayak life vest, a kayak trailer, and a kayak itself will help you with the task too.