If you have ever been to a lake, river, bay or even the beach and seen kayakers happily paddling you may have wondered how difficult the sport is to learn. You may even want to try your own hand at kayaking.
Kayaking is an exhilarating sport that is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. Kayaks—at least the right kind of kayaks—can be used in lakes, bays and reservoirs for things like fishing, sightseeing or just getting a tan; they can be used in rivers and streams for exercise and exploration; and they can be used in the ocean and rushing rivers for high performance tricks and negotiating the white water rapids.
Some kayaking skills are easy to learn, while others take a lot of time and practice to master. To help you learn a little more about these vessels, in this article we will highlight and explain some of the basics associated with kayaks. We have also compiled a few beginner kayaking tips to get you started—tips you can later build upon as you work your way up the kayaking ladder.
First built by the Inuits in North America, kayaks were originally used by these groups to hunt for food on inland lands. The kayak is estimated to be about 4,000 years old—give or take—and in their earliest form they were constructed using whalebone as the frame, over which seal or other animal skin was stretched to form a leak-proof and virtually airtight vessel. They were able to remain buoyant thanks to seal bladders that the Inuit people filled with air and then placed strategically near the bow and stern of the boats to keep them afloat.
Fast forward to 2019 and you’ll find a diverse market in which kayaks are manufactured using a number of materials, including wood, fiberglass, plastic composites and even Kevlar, the same material used to make bullet proof vests worn by law enforcement officials and military personnel.
Kayaks are designed both for recreation and competition and can be used in any number of water environments, including lakes and reservoirs, rivers and streams, bays and open oceans, and white water rapids. At the very core of the sport of kayaking is the art of paddling, the motion that propels the boat through the water.
However, before we get into some of the basics of paddling the kayak, let us look at some of the fundamental kayaking techniques and equipment—things that are needed to ensure beginner kayakers are safe and aware at all times on the water.
The Essential Kayaking Equipment
In the few sections that follow we will take a look at the essential kayaking equipment: the kayak, paddle, safety equipment and more.
The Kayak Itself
Kayaks are designed in various sizes and shapes for different purposes. They also have different sized cockpits, with some meant for one, two or three people. Kayaks also have many different price points depending on the size and the materials used to make the boat.
Inflatable kayaks tend to be very affordable, with a good one usually priced under $200. In terms of the “hard” kayaks, plastic is usually the most affordable material. Plastic kayaks tend to retail between $250 and $1500, depending on the shape and style of the boat and the retailer. Compare these kayaks with those made of indestructible Kevlar—the strongest and lightest of all the kayak materials—which can go for $4,000 or more, and you see the disparity of pricing between kayaks of different materials on the market today.
Kayaks also come in many different types. There are creek boat kayaks and sit-on-top kayaks, which are the standard types used by most people in the sport, but there are also a lot of specialty kayaks available for purchase, including downriver kayaks, whitewater kayaks, surf kayaks, racing kayaks, sea or touring kayaks, and hybrids, often labeled as recreational kayaks.
The design specifics for different kayaks tend to vary with the shape of the boat and the materials that are used to construct it. For example, sea kayaks typically have flat hulls that make them very stable on the water, and they are longer in terms of body, allowing them to cover more distance with every stroke.
Whitewater kayaks, on the other hand, have rounded hulls to limit the contact with the water and make them more maneuverable. They are also usually made of high-impact plastic materials that allow them to bounce off rocks and other structures without incurring much damage to the vessel.
Sit-on-top kayaks are the most popular type of kayaks for beginner paddlers. These boats are very stable in the water, easy to get in and out of, and are used primarily for touring, sightseeing, fishing and recreational paddling.
Sit-on-top boats such as these are generally made from remolded or fiberglass materials, making them lighter in weight, durable and very low maintenance. Because sit-on-top kayaks have wider beams than other types of kayaks, it is easier for beginners to keep the boat upright and stable. However, because these boats tend to be wider than other varieties, they also require a longer paddle to propel the boat.
Perhaps the biggest difference between canoes and kayaks is the paddle. Kayaks utilize a paddle that is double-bladed, while the paddle for the canoe is single-bladed. When choosing the perfect paddle for your kayak there are many things you need to take into consideration. These include:
- Your size (height)
- The size of the kayak
- Stroking preferences
Kayaks that are wider and taller require a paddle that is longer than your average size paddle. Also, if you are smaller in size and stature, a shorter and lighter kayak paddle may be easier for you to use and won’t overly tax you when paddling.
Like the paddle itself, the blades of the kayaks also come in different shapes and sizes. Wider blades will give you more acceleration, but you will also encounter more resistance with these blades, which can lead to overexertion.
Narrower blades use less effort to paddle per stroke, but they require more strokes to cover the same distance. Blades also come flat or curved. Although flat blades are generally more affordable, a curved blade increases the power of each stroke.
Some blades are feathered, meaning they are offset at an angle, cutting down on wind resistance. Just like with finding the right kayak, you may have to try several different paddle types until you find the one that is perfect for you.
Safety Equipment/Apparel/ Accessories
The most important piece of safety equipment that should always be worn when kayaking is a life vest, also known as a personal flotation device. Even if you are merely paddling on a calm lake or lazy river, the life vest is a piece of safety equipment that should never be shunned.
In fact, in many states life vests are required apparel when in the water, and in almost all cases, children under the age of 16 are required to wear a life vest. Fortunately, there are many life vest models available for purchase that are super lightweight and comfortable, and they won’t weigh you down unnecessarily or obstruct the paddling in any way.
If you plan to kayak in very rough waters, such as white water rapids, you should also wear a helmet at all times. It is very easy to fall in the water when kayaking in these environments and a helmet will protect your noggin from any rocks or trees with which you might collide upon entering the water.
A spray skirt is also a good investment if you plan to kayak on a regular basis. Spray skirts are designed to cover and seal the cockpit of the vessel, thus keeping the lower half of your body dry and comfortable as you paddle.
Finally, a dry bag, which is typically placed beside you in the cockpit of the kayak, can help keep your personal belongings dry and protected, such as your wallet, cell phone or other accessories.
Learning the Kayak
Although we won’t discuss a lot of paddling techniques in this article, it is important that you learn how to get in and out of the kayak successfully. This is often the biggest challenge for many beginner kayakers.
The secret is to keep your weight low and centered. For example, if entering the kayak from the dock, you should hold onto the edge of the dock with your hand while slowly stepping into the cockpit with one foot and then the other. Continue to stabilize yourself by grasping onto the dock as your lower the rest of your body into the kayak. To exit, it’s the same thing in reverse. Lean against the dock. Pull your knees out, against the cockpit, and slide out onto a sitting position on the dock.
Basic paddling techniques, such as how to hold the paddle based on your body size and type of vessel, are best learned from a qualified instructor. However, we can tell you that every paddling stroke basically consists of three components: the wind up, catch and recovery.
The wind up phase refers to the position of your body throughout the stroke. If your initial stroke is on the right side of the kayak, you will need to wind your torso in that direction, thus allowing you to place the paddle near your feet on the right side.
The same is true for the subsequent paddle on the left side. The catch phase happens as your blade enters or “catches” the water. Simply unwind your torso, which will pull the blade through the water. Keep your feet on the pegs located inside the kayak. This will ensure that your core, and not your arms, is doing the bulk of the work.
Finally, recovery occurs at the end of each stroke. As you conclude the first, right-side stroke, lift the paddle out of the water towards the hull (seating compartment) of the kayak, which will allow you to wind up towards the left side for the next stroke. Let your elbow guide the paddle and your wrist will follow.