Kayaking for Beginners

Kayaking for Beginners – How to Kayak

In Beginner Kayaking Tips, Kayaking by Jamie Wilkinson1 Comment

Kayaking for Beginners

If you are looking for a low impact, relaxing sport, kayaking is probably for you. Kayaking for beginners will guide you through picking a kayak, choosing the right gear, where to go, and what to do when you get there.  If you are new to kayaking, this is a great place to begin!  

Interested in the Health Benefits of Kayaking?   Learn about the physical and mental health benefits that you’ll get from paddling around! 

Family Ready for Kayaking

Ready for a day on the River

Types of Kayaks

First, we’ll discuss the various types of kayaks and their intended uses.  Most recreational kayaks are made from a high-density polyethylene material that is very strong.  You can also purchase kayaks made from wood, fiberglass, or even carbon fiber. The pricing ranges from hundreds for a recreational kayak to thousands for something like a custom-made carbon fiber kayak.  I’m going to explain the 5 main types of kayaks and what they are typically used for.

Recreational Sit-In Kayak

Recreational Sit-In Kayak

Recreational Sit-In Kayak

Sit-in and sit on kayaks are exactly what the name implies.  Sit-in kayaks have the paddler closer to the water and lowering their center of gravity.  This makes riding in a sit-in kayak easier for a beginner who is worried about tipping over.

The large cockpit makes entry and exit from the kayak easier. They are typically wider, which means more stability.  The average length of a recreational sit-in kayak is between 8 ft. and 12 ft.  This makes transporting and storing the kayak easier.  You do sacrifice some speed compared to longer kayaks though.  For the average beginning kayaker, a kayak between these sizes is perfect and will do the job well.

We have a Dagger Zydeco, that is 11 ft.  I’m 6’1 and this kayak is extremely comfortable and roomy.  My long legs fit fine and can be extended fully.  I can’t attest to all models but an 11 ft kayak should work well for taller people like myself.

Recreational sit-in kayaks are great for casual paddles on calm waters.  One person and two-person sit-in kayaks are available.  In my Dagger, I’ve gone to many lakes and reservoirs but I really like to paddle on the Susquehanna and Schuylkill Rivers in Pennsylvania.  There are some fun little rapids along these rivers and I can camp along the Susquehanna overnight if I want.

The one thing to consider is capsizing.  If too much water gets into the cockpit, it will be more difficult to correct yourself and there is usually not a drain plug.  The kayak needs to be flipped over to drain or use a hand pump.

Sit On Kayak

Two Person Sit-on Kayak

Two Person Sit-on Kayak

As I said, it’s in the name.  A sit on top kayak has no cockpit. Like most sit-in kayaks, the sit on top kayaks are typically made from polyethylene.  Using this material makes them durable enough for most waters.

Since there is no cockpit to restrict movement, sit on top kayaks are ideal for fishing.  Some kayaks come with dry-well storage for keeping valuables.  Most also have a place to strap down a tackle box or cooler.

Even though there is no cockpit, water can still enter the hull.  There is usually a drain plug somewhere to manually drain any water that got in.  They also make one and two people sit on top kayaks.

Check out our list of Sit On Top Kayaks for Under $300 for the top picks.

Sea / Touring Kayak

GoPro Mounted on KayakSea or touring kayaks are typically sit-in kayaks that range from 10 ft. to 18 ft.  They are not as wide as recreational kayaks which makes them much faster and capable of covering more distance, quicker.  Being as long as they are though, you lose a lot of maneuverability.  Turning a sea kayak is not a fast endeavor.

With the added length, you gain added storage, which means longer kayak camping trips.  You’ll usually find plenty of watertight storage and on deck storage with sea kayaks.  Remember, even though it says watertight, always use waterproof bags.  Check out our kayak camping checklist for ideas on packing your next or first kayak camping trip.

A sea/touring kayak is what I mainly use whenever I kayak and always when I kayak camp.  I use a Wilderness Systems Tsunami 165 and I absolutely love it.  It’s very fast, has 3 dry storage compartments and plenty of deck strapping.  Weighing almost 60 lbs., it is quite heavy. Loading it on top of a car is a little tricky alone, but well worth the effort.

Whitewater Kayak

Whitewater kayak

Ready to hit the rapids

Whitewater kayaks are small, heavy-duty polyethylene, kayaks made for rapids.  They are sit-in style and have a very tight turning radius.  Whitewater kayaks don’t have much storage room if any, so they are not a good choice for recreational kayaking, camping or fishing.

If you plan on this type of kayaking, you should definitely go with an experienced whitewater kayaker.  There are many dangers associated with whitewater kayaking but it can be done safely with training.

It can also be a lot of fun.  If you enjoy the exhilaration of paddling down a fast, choppy river and dropping from small waterfalls, then whitewater kayaking might be for you.

Inflatable Kayak

Inflatable kayaks are usually made from either a neoprene material, PVC, or another type of rubberized fabric.  They can be inflated by a hand pump or even an electric pump.  These are the cheapest types of kayaks available today.  The tracking and speed on these aren’t usually as good as a solid kayak.  With today’s technology though, that could change.

Inflatables are easily stored and can even be carried in a pack.  They typically have good stability and easy turning ability.  If you want something compact and easy to carry, an inflatable kayak should be at the top of your list.

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Good Kayak for Beginners

Now that you know the 5 main types of kayaks, what would be a good choice for a beginner?  The most recommended choice of kayak for a beginner would be a recreational sit-in kayak or a sit on top kayak.

The shorter length makes transporting and storing the kayak simpler.  They will fit in a garage or on the roof of a car easily.  Usually weighing under 40 lbs., carrying a kayak alone can be done with no problems.  Most importantly for those of us without money trees in the yard, these are the most affordable.  Plan on spending anywhere from $250 to $800 for a good kayak.  

Dog in Kayak

I’ll help you choose!

Personally, I would choose a recreational sit-in style kayak.  This was my first type of kayak and it has not disappointed me.  I love the storage capacity that sit-in kayaks offer.  I would suggest getting the longest kayak you feel comfortable with for added storage, better tracking, and faster speeds.

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Kayak Paddles, Life Jackets, and Other Gear

You have your first kayak, and you are ready to hit the water.  Just one second.  There is some other gear that you will need before you get out there.  Safety on the water is extremely important.  Not being prepared can put you in a serious situation, fast.

Life Jacket

It should be the common law that a life jacket is sold with every kayak.  Too many times have I seen beginning kayakers on the water without a life jacket.  Being a good swimmer helps, but to ensure your safety in the water, a life jacket needs to be worn at all times.  In the event of a capsize, and potential impact with an obstacle, the life jacket will keep you afloat if you sustain a head injury.  If you are not a good swimmer it will assist you staying above water while you get safely back on your kayak or to shore.

There are many styles to choose from when looking for a life jacket.  I prefer the slimmer life jackets that don’t restrict movement so much.  No matter what color or design life jacket you choose, proper fit is most important.  You’ll want your life jacket to be snuck.  The last thing you want is to fall in and lose your life jacket since it wasn’t tight enough.

Paddles

A paddle is another must-have requirement for kayaking.  Picking the right size kayak paddle is essential.  Here is the general rule for sizing.

Paddler Height     Paddle Length
5’0″ – 5’10”                 220cm
5’6″ – 6’2″                   230cm
Over 6’3″                    240cm

Again, these are just the general size recommendations based on height.  If you prefer a longer or shorter paddle then use that.  It is highly advised to use a kayak paddle leash in order to prevent the loss of your paddle.  

Other Kayaking Gear

Other gear you may need could include waterproof bags, fishing rod holders, a map, a small cooler, or a solar power battery pack for charging your phone.  For a few hour trip, we typically bring a bottle of water each and either lunch or just a snack.  It would be smart to get out on the water without any accessories for your first few times.  You’ll want to be comfortable on the kayak before you start adding distractions.

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Kayaking for Beginners Courses

Taking a course from a local shop is a great idea if you are still hesitant.  I know a few near me that will also provide the kayak with the instruction.  This is great for someone that wants to get their feet wet before diving in wallet first.  To find a shop or class near you, just do a search for “kayak classes near me”.  That should get you started in the right direction.  The big name stores usually provide classes so check those out as well.

If you find a class near you and it isn’t too expensive for you, give it a shot.  You will get some great guidance and will learn enough to get out on the water next time.

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Where to Kayak

So now you have your kayak, your paddle, your life jacket, and all the other gear you need, now what? Deciding where to kayak depends on a few things, number one being accessibility.  Do you have a lake or river close by?

After kayaking my local river over and over again, I wanted to paddle something different.  All I did was opened Google Maps to my location and looked for blue.  When I would see a large enough blue spot, I zoomed in to get the name of the lake, reservoir or river.  Then a quick search would tell me if it was open to the public, and if they allow kayaks.  If the answer was yes to both, I’d hop in the truck and go kayaking some new waters.

As a beginner, it’s highly recommended to find a lake or reservoir for your first time.  The calm water helps build confidence on the kayak by allowing you to focus on proper technique instead of river currents.  The first time I took my wife kayaking we went to Marsh Creek State Park in Pennsylvania.  We went at opening time so traffic on the creek was minimum.  It was a great first time for her.  She wasn’t being forced in any direction by the current and I could help improve her paddling.  If you get the chance, I’d recommend taking a trip there sometime, it’s large, pretty and has pretty good fishing.

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Properly Securing a Kayak

Loaded down van with kayaks

Just a few of us are coming

Got a place picked out and you need to get yourself and your kayak there, no problem!

Fortunately for me, I have a pickup truck, so I just load my kayaks into the bed and strap them down.  My wife has a small Toyota Highlander Hybrid with a luggage rack.  When we take her car, we simply load the kayaks on top and using the luggage rack as anchor points, we strap the kayaks down.

There are a variety of options for transporting your kayak on your car.  Something as simple as foam blocks to support the kayak while straps run through the vehicle doors would work.  If you have a luggage rack, there are carriers available for kayaks that mount to the racks themselves.  Then you would load your kayak into the holders and strap them down.  This is great for transporting multiple kayaks back to back.  Or if you’re the do-it-yourself type, you could build something custom.

DIY Kayak Rack for truck

DIY Kayak Rack for truck

Always be certain your kayaks are securely fastened before driving.  Once I strap down the kayaks I will go to each end and forcefully attempt to slide the kayaks out.  If one is loose then I’ll tighten the straps.  Doing it this way I have never lost a kayak while driving.  If you are traveling far, checking your kayaks every hour or so would be a good idea.  Vibrations from driving could loosen things up.

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Getting In and Out of a Kayak

Getting in the kayak for the first time was quite the experience.  Hopefully, you will have better luck than I did.  There are going to be different ways you’ll be entering and exiting your kayak.  You may leave from a dock but finish on the shore.  Here are the techniques for the different locations you may encounter.

Shoreline or Boat Ramp

This is probably the easiest to do.  You will start out by positioning your kayak with the front half in the water and the back half on land.  Next, you’ll straddle the kayak and lower yourself down into the seat.  You’ll position your legs inside the cockpit one at a time.  I usually hook my paddle to my kayak then using both hands on either side, I push myself out into the water.  Once I’m floating I adjust myself then unhook my paddle.

When exiting you will do the opposite.  Pull your kayak onto the shore or ramp so your front half comes to a stop.  Carefully take your legs out, one at a time, then stand up.  Getting in and out this way ensures you always have 2 feet on the ground.

Dock

Entering and exiting a kayak at a dock is slightly more challenging and requires some thought.  You’ll want to have your kayak at the lowest point of the dock so you are closest to it.  Start by sitting down next to your kayak.  Slide your legs in and carefully lower yourself down while holding tight to the dock.  You’ll want to do this in one quick, smooth motion to avoid capsizing.

To exit at a dock, you will pull up to it the same as when you took off.  Grab hold of the dock with both hands and pull yourself up onto it in the sitting position.  Then remove your legs and stand up.  Having a friend hold the kayak steady while you enter and exit can be very helpful.

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Proper Kayak Paddling Technique

We’ve discussed the proper paddle length, so you should have one that fits you now.  

Hold the paddle with both hands approximately shoulder width apart.  You’ll want a loose grip so you don’t strain arm and hand muscles.  

You should be sitting up, with your back straight, and your legs slightly bent at the knee in a comfortable position.

Proper posture while kayaking needs to be monitored.  Keeping a good posture will increase your stroke power as well as decrease back pains associated with extended seating.  

Adjustable seating on kayaks is perfect for doing this.  Most seatback can and should be adjusted so you sit properly.

The stroke starts by having the blade of the paddle enter the water near your feet.  So if you start with your left side, turn your body so your left side is towards the front of the kayak.  Place the paddle into the water and glide it back along the side of your kayak.  Using your elbow as a guide, bring the paddle up and out of the water while turning your body towards the right to start that side.  The process is the same for your right side.  Place the paddle tip in the water towards your toes and bring it back.

Once you get the basic idea and you have some practice, your stroke will get stronger and more efficient.  Paddling on calm water will help you improve your stroke faster since there are fewer obstacles and no current.

When you are ready to make a turn, paddle the opposite side you want to turn.  For example, if you need to turn right, paddle your left side until you begin to turn then return to the left and right side paddling again.  The same goes for turning left.  You’ll paddle hard on your right side until you reach the direction you want to be then back to both.  Once you figure this out, turning your kayak will be much easier.

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Cleaning and Storing a Kayak

Recreational kayaks are made of a high-density polyethylene material that is extremely durable.  Taking care of your kayak is still important to get the most life out of it.  When finished kayaking and preparing to store, give it a good bath.  I usually use the biodegradable soap, a sponge, and a hose.  I wash it just as I would my truck.  Using a bucket of soapy water I scrub it down.  Then hose it off completely.

It’s a good habit to get to clean your kayak after every trip.  This is especially true if you’ll be kayaking in different bodies of water.  The potential to contaminate waters with disease or algae from one to another is serious.  The lake closest to me is overgrown with coontail algae in the summer making it nearly impossible to kayak or fish in.  If I were to infect another lake by not cleaning my kayak, it too could be unusable.  No need taking that risk, it’s just better to clean it.

If possible, store your kayak in a shed or garage.  If that is not possible, you can leave them outdoors elevated from the ground and covered.  This stops the UV light from degrading your kayak as well as keeps the critters out.

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Kayaking Safety Tips

Kayak crashing into water

Have fun but be safe

No Kayaking for Beginners guide is complete without some safety tips!

  1. Always wear your life jacket.
  2. Never kayak alone.
  3. Until experienced, don’t kayak in cold waters.
  4. Get a waterproof case for your phone in case of emergencies.
  5. If going on a multi-day trip, inform family or friends of your intended location and return day.
  6. Know your limit and don’t overdo yourself.  Remember, this is fun, not a race.

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Question and Answer Time

I recently asked a family member who has never gone kayaking, what her concerns or questions were before her first trip.  Some of them I already answered above, and some I’ve answered in other articles that I’ll link to.

What do I do if I tip over?

This is probably the most asked question from new kayakers.  Do Kayaks Tip Easily – What to do if You Capsize is an article I wrote that answers this question in depth.  There are videos that show the proper recovery techniques available.

What do I need to bring?

This all depends on how long you plan on kayaking.  If you’re just going for a few hours, a water bottle and a snack are really all the extras you might need.  I’ve gone out for an afternoon of just paddling and a picnic.  We paddled out to the middle of the lake and had a water top picnic.  Very relaxing. 

What type of license/registration do I need?

You don’t need a license or registration to kayak necessarily, but your kayak might.  Depending on the waters you’ll be paddling on, a boat registration may be required.  I pay every 2 years for each of my kayaks to be registered.  This allows me to use them on any state or county waters without fear of a fine.  

I didn’t think it was a big deal until I saw the Park Rangers fining and kicking a guy out of the creek for not having them.  Luckily, I had all mine registered properly.  So check with your local county or township to see if a boat registration is required for your kayak.

What do I do if I drop my paddle?

It is highly advised to use a kayak paddle leash so even if you do lose your grip, it’s still an arm’s length away.  If you’re with friends, ask one to retrieve your paddle for you.  If you’re alone, well, you’re up the creek without a paddle.  Don’t drop it.

What’s the weight limit?

Weight limits vary from kayak to kayak.  A typical sit-in kayak has a weight limit 300 lbs or more.  Obviously, that doesn’t apply to all of them and you should do your research when purchasing a kayak.  Here are some good budget kayaks I wrote about.  Best Sit-in Kayaks and Best Sit On Kayaks

Will I get motion sick?

This all depends on you.  Personally, I have only been motion sick once many years ago on a scuba diving trip.  It was a combination of rough seas and a bad hoagie.  If you do typically get motion sickness when boating or canoeing, kayaking may be no different.  Whatever you usually do to eliminate motion sickness normally, do the same here.  Patches are available over-the-counter that are made for motion sickness.  Give them a try.

How do I keep stuff from getting wet?

Get yourself some waterproof bags.  If you’re just starting out I’d recommend a medium to small size bag.  This will be big enough for your cell phone, wallet, keys, and some snacks.  You can also get yourself a waterproof phone case like the LifeProof cases.  I have one for my iPhone 7 Plus and I love it.  Worth it for anyone who is outdoors in the elements.

How do I lift it?

Almost every kayak I’ve ever seen available has to carry handles on each end.  These are great when there are 2 people, but pretty useless when you’re alone.  When I carry a kayak alone, I grab it right from the cockpit area and carry it to on my side.  

How heavy is the kayak?

Like the weight capacity, this is determined by the particular kayak.  I have an 11-foot kayak that weighs about 40 lbs and I also have a 16-foot kayak that weighs almost 70 lbs.  Just another consideration when looking for a kayak.

What type of shoes should I wear?

None!  Pick up some water sandals or Crocs.  When I go for an afternoon kayak, I’ll throw on some sandals until I’m in the kayak then they come right off.  When I’m relaxing down the river I’ll sometimes just lay my feet across the top and I’d prefer them shoeless. 

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Introduction to Kayak Camping

Kayak campsite on a rainy day

Rainy day on the river

Maybe you have your first few kayak trips under your belt and you’re looking for a little more. If you enjoy camping and spending the night by a fire, kayak camping could be a good option for you. Kayak camping is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of packing a backpack and hiking out into the woods, you pack your kayak and paddle down the river.  Some rivers allow camping on certain islands or along the shoreline.  Sometimes there are campgrounds along the river that you can use.  The fee is usually small and you’ll have access to facilities to clean up.

Being able to camp on islands in the middle of a river is something that I love to do.  Laying in my hammock listening to the water flow around the island just puts me to sleep.  The freedom of “island hopping” down a river for days on end is the most fun you can have on the water.

If you think this sounds like something you might enjoy, check out our kayak camping gear list for ideas on what you would need.

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You’re All Set

You picked out your kayak, your life jacket, and your paddle.  There’s a lake close by that allows kayaking and you have it loaded on your car.    You can read about kayaking for days and days but nothing will give you the experience like just doing it.  Get out on the kayak as much as you can.  

Joining a local club can introduce you to other kayakers and hopefully find you some paddling partners.

Check out these 7 Kayak Survival Tips for information on what to do if you find yourself in a bad situation. 

Kayaking is one of favorite spring, summer, or fall activities.  To be paddling down the river, just as Native Americans did,  amazes and intrigues me.  Often I’ll find myself not even paddling, but drifting down the river with the current.  Talk about relaxing.

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About the Author

Jamie Wilkinson

A jack of all trades and master of none. I like do-it-yourself projects and working with all types of materials. Being on the water is one of my favorite things to do. Kayak camping is something I wish I could do year round.

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