So you want to throw yourself into the deep end and go on your first kayak ride? Before you head off, here’s what you need to know.

On the face of it, Kayaking is a fairly simple activity. It requires a small, slim watercraft with either one or a selection of seating or cockpits and a covered deck. This is what’s known as a kayak. Whether it’s a team effort or a solo journey, each passenger will be armed with a paddle that helps propel you through a body of water.

Once you start to regularly get out on the water, there is a good chance your kayak will capsize. Although it looks like this could be a scary proposition getting your leg and body trapped inside, it is in reality quite easy to free yourself from the kayak, either by getting ejected or rolling out.

However, while the experience itself is easy to enjoy, your kayaking day out will improve tenfold if you’ve prepared yourself correctly.

Here’s what kayaking for beginners needs to know.

How to choose the right kayak for beginners

First things first, finding the kayak that works perfectly for you does depend on how and what you are using for so it’s worth checking out our article on how to choose your kayak.

Once you’ve given that a read through, you’ll have a much better idea of the types of attributes you Kayak will need.

Although there are several different kayak models, some of them come with accessories designed with a specific focus on the water element; it is the case of kayaks that come with outside netting for storage or watertight compartments that allow you to bring stuff along that will remain tidy and dry.

When it comes to kayaking for beginners, there are two different styles to choose from.

Types of kayaking

Recreational kayaking

The activity in its most basic form. You’ve probably seen people trying it in kayaks on a lake or by the beach. It’s usually done with fairly calm, flat water, so that beginner kayakers can get used to the paddling action, safety maneuvers, and just general life on the water. However, don’t feel as though recreational kayaking has to stay simple. Once you feel more comfortable, you can look for gentle rivers, which will help slowly develop your kayaking skills. To get you started with recreational kayaking, there is no need to invest in very technical equipment. It is often easier to start with a wider polyethylene (plastic) sit-on-top or an inflatable kayak.

Kayak touring

Although it is still fairly relaxed, it’s a form of kayaking that often takes place over an extended period of time, so can require a fair amount of paddling. It can be an excellent way to explore a stretch of water local to you, or if you’re looking for a full day’s activity whilst on holiday, kayak touring might just be the one for you. In terms of finding the right kayak for touring, you’ll want one that can both handle a wave or two (inflatable or rigid), and provide you with the comfort you'll have for a day out in the water (seated not cockpit).

Once you feel ready for seeking kayaking pastures new, here are the other main styles of Kayaking

Sea kayaking

For when you feel like you want a more unpredictable day on the water. Although sea kayaking is excellent fun, it’s important to remember that even if you are having the calmest day’s paddling, the conditions can change at any time.

If you want to get into sea kayaking, especially if it’s an unfamiliar area, it’s a good idea to use a guide or get local knowledge about the seafaring rules to avoid any tricky situations.

Sea kayaks are designed specifically with two sealed bulkheads in both the bow and the stern.

Kayak fishing

No frills, just using a kayak as a fishing vessel.

With a smaller stature, kayaks allow you to reach spots that normal fishing boats would not be able to reach and increases the chances of getting that catch of the day.

It is possible to go out fishing on a regular seated kayak, if you are really interested in making this your go-to method of both kayaking and fishing, there are specifically designed versions that are more stable and come with attachments that include rod grips and an anchor to keep your kayak in place.

White water kayaking

The extreme side of kayaking. Unsurprisingly similar to white water rafting, although this is done all by yourself, with only your strength and technique to keep you going against rapids.

To feel comfortable white water kayaking, you need to be confident with the different styles of paddling, including river running and creaking. Even then there is no guarantee you won’t capsize. When the time comes to hit the rapids, choose a light maneuverable kayak that comes with a cockpit.

Surf kayaking

The most recent form of kayaking to join the party, and is done using a lightweight, versatile model, similar to the one used for the aforementioned white-water kayaking.

To put it simply, it’s surfing using a kayak instead of a surfboard, and because it’s easy to get rolled or fall out, it is dangerous and should be for when you’ve gained enough experience with regular kayaking. However, when you’re ready, it’s certainly worth a try.

What kayaking gear you need to start with

While you don’t want to overload with equipment and carry-ons when you go kayaking, but there are a few essentials and nice to have.

  1. A kayak - See above!
  2. A kayak paddle - You won’t be surprised to learn that this will be a vital part of your day out. Unlike canoe paddles, kayak paddles have a blade on both ends, and you grip the middle when paddling. For your first few outings, you can use an entry-level paddle, with an aluminium shaft and plastic handle, for a very reasonable price. If you want you can also go straight for a higher-end model, with an aluminium and carbon shaft; this material blend lightens the weight of the paddle, reducing arm fatigue during long rides. To find your perfect paddle, check out our PLAY article.
  3. Safety equipment – As you get started, the only safety essential will be a floating device. Due to the nature of kayaking, you likely will at some point end up in the water, so having a Buoyancy aid is a must. The minimum requirement is to wear a beginner’s buoyancy aid, although it’s a better idea to go for a more intermediate standard, as they are more safe and secure, such as the ones in our buoyancy aid range. As you progress through from your beginner status and start to look at it trying out different styles of kayaking, you should look into purchasing a helmet too.

For a kayaking trip of over 2 hours, plan to bring:

  • 1.5L of water (per person)
  • Snacks (dried fruit, granola bars)
  • First-aid kit for minor injuries
  • Waterproof cell phone or one fitted with a waterproof pouch
  • Spare paddle (one that can be dismantled for easy storage)
  • Waterproof sunblock, hat, and sunglasses (minimum protection of 3; beware that it is forbidden to paddle with a 4 protection)
  • For back comfort, add a backrest.
  • There is no watertight compartment in your boat? Consider buying a waterproof container with a capacity of 25 l to 30 l; a good size for storing your accessories onboard hassle-free.

You’ve got all your gear and necessary info; now all you need is to find an experienced adventure companion that will show you the right spots and the fundamentals of navigation!

Difference between kayaking and canoeing

The key distinguishing feature between kayaks and their not too distant watercraft cousin the canoe is the sitting position. In a kayak, you will always be facing forward with your legs stretched out, and in a canoe, you’re either sitting on a bench or kneeling.

The paddle is also quite different. The kayaking paddle has a blade at each end, whereas the canoe has a blade at one end and usually requires at least two paddles to power it forward.

Traditionally kayaks are also set lower down, with the paddlers much closer to the water, compared to canoes’ usual higher sides. In the past, people have also thought that a covered deck was a key difference, although, with the growing popularity of seated kayaks, this is no longer the case.

What strokes to use and how to paddle correctly

It’s a technique that can feel strange at first, but once you get used to the different paddle strokes, you’ll really start to get the very best of kayaking.

The forward stroke

What is it? The most regularly used action for kayaking, and that as a beginner you’ll need to get used to. It’s a movement that requires you to engage your core and back to do the work, and not just rely on your arms.

How to do it correctly. Begin by winding your torso and letting one blade lie fully immersed in the water. Then rotate your torso by following the submerged blade with your eyes, and make sure you are pushing against the paddle shaft with your upper hand as you move. When you had started to reach up behind your hip, make a slicing motion and bring the blade out of the water, and then do exactly the same with the other blade. Try to maintain as upright as possible throughout the movement and keep the paddling blade near vertical and remaining in the water at all times.

The reserve stroke

What is it? The best way to break and back up in a kayak. Once you’ve got the hang of the forward stroke, this will be fairly simple, as it’s the exact opposite movement.

How to do it correctly. Instead of rotating your torso as the immersed blade moves behind you, do it when it starts to move in front of you. When it is even with your feet, make the same slicing motion and bring the blade out of the water. To continue the movement, do the same motion again on the other side of the boat.

The Sweep Stroke

What is it? It can be the case that kayakers become more comfortable with repeatedly paddling on one side of the boat. This can often lead to the boat drifting off in the opposite direction. While this can be a way to turn, the Sweep stroke is a far more effective and efficient way of turning the boat.

How to do it correctly. Start by extending your arms forward and submerge the blade in the water near your feet on the opposite side that you want to turn. With some power, move the blade in a wide-spanning clockwise arc towards the front of the boat. Make sure you continue with this strong approach, especially once the paddle has passed the cockpit. Once the blade is behind you and near the hull, use the slicing motion out of the water.

The draw stroke

What is it? An efficient way to move your boat sideways. A handy trick if you need to get close to another boat or if you are close to a dock.

How to do it correctly. Rotate your blade into a horizontal position. Reach about two feet forward, and dip your steeply angled paddle on the opposite side of the boat you want to move toward. Using your lower hand, pull the blade toward you, making sure the tip of the blade is immersed in the water throughout the stroke, only stopping before the blade hits the side of the boat. If the paddle does hit the side of the boat, don’t try to yank the blade out of the water as you may capsize the boat. Instead, just let go of your top hand, relax your body, and start again. It’s often the case that several draw strokes will be needed, so to repeat the stroke, rotate the blade 90 degrees, and slice it out of the water sideways, then repeat the motion.