Developing a complete set of kayaking skills can be a lifelong exploration, but getting started is easy. In the article that follows we’ll cover the absolute basics: how to get in and out of your kayak, how to move it through the water and what to do if you flip.

The following is a starting point, not the end of the journey. As with any skill, proficiency takes practice and taking a lesson from a qualified instructor can make the learning process easier and more fun.

How to launch a kayak

How to sit in a kayak

Before you get started paddling, you’ll need to get comfortable in your kayak. You need to adjust the footrests in your kayak so you can sit upright without leaning back. There are several ways footrests adjust and you’ll need to find out how yours work. Some have a trigger behind the foot brace pedal that you squeeze to move the pedal. Others have a long stick that is either lifted or twisted to free the pedal so it can be moved. Take a moment to get comfortable with how your footrests are adjusted.

Once you have the hang of adjusting the foot braces, you’ll want to set up your kayak for comfort and efficiency. Adjust the pedals so your knees are bent and your foot is in a neutral position. Imagine your foot and ankle forming the letter “L” when you press on the pedal. If you have to point your toes, the pedals are too far away.

If your kayak has thigh braces, your thighs should gently contact these when you press on the footrests. If your kayak has a large, open cockpit, you can rest the outside of your thighs against the inside edge of the cockpit opening. Knees should be bent enough that when you press on your feet you can sit upright in the seat without slouching back.

How to get in a kayak

The three basic ways to get into a kayak are straddling, with support, and sidesaddle.

In straddling, you stand with your feet on either side of the cockpit and your body above the seat. Lower yourself into a squat position and hold onto the cockpit coaming of the kayak for support and balance. Next, lower yourself into the seat and allow your legs to hang over the sides of the kayak. Once you are seated, pull your legs into the boat one at a time.

Straddling seems a bit awkward but has the advantage of putting your weight onto the seat of the kayak as quickly as possible. This helps balance, especially in a narrower kayak. Straddling isn’t the ideal approach for those with strength or balance issues. For these paddlers, some support might be helpful.

Support for getting into your kayak can come from lots of places. It can be someone holding the boat as you settle into the seat, or it could be holding onto a solid object as you lower yourself into the cockpit. Some paddlers like to use their paddle as a brace by holding one end behind the cockpit and resting the other end on the shore or bottom. This is tough on your paddle but can be effective. Don’t try this with an expensive kayak paddle, you might break it!

While using support, many people prefer to sit first on the back deck of their kayak just behind the cockpit before swinging the feet into the boat. This motion is less strenuous than lowering yourself into the cockpit from a standing position. Avoid stepping into the boat with your feet first if you can. Better first to sit and then to move your feet into the kayak.

Sidesaddle is an easy way to get into a sit-on-top kayak. Walk the kayak out into knee deep water, position yourself near the seat and sit down on the kayak, leaving your legs in the water. Once you are seated on the kayak you can swing your legs onto the boat and get situated. This technique doesn’t work well with decked kayaks because the kayak will tip too much and may start to fill with water.

How to get in a kayak from a dock

Getting into a kayak from a dock can be tricky. Most docks sit fairly high above the water, even floating docks. To get into a kayak from a dock you need to support your weight with your upper body by holding onto the dock with your hands. You then step carefully into the centre of the kayak with your feet in front of the seat. You then lower yourself into the seat, maintaining support and balance with your arms and shoulders. This can be a strenuous maneuver, and it’s a good idea to tie up the kayak so it is less likely to drift away from you as you make your attempt.

How to get in a kayak from a rocky shore

On a rocky shore you might be concerned about damaging your kayak or bumping your head if you flip. This means you’ll probably want to get your kayak completely floating before you enter it using one of the techniques mentioned above.

How to get out of a kayak

Getting out of a kayak is simple: just reverse the process of getting in. If you used the straddle technique, swing your legs over the side and push yourself into a standing position using your arms and legs. If you used your paddle for support, position your kayak where you can deploy your paddle “kickstand” and stabilize yourself before lifting yourself off the seat and onto the back deck. If you entered from a dock you’ll have to return to the position of support you used to get into the kayak before pushing yourself up and onto the dock with your legs. It goes without saying that this is one of the trickiest and most strenuous ways to get out of a kayak.

If you flip your kayak, it is very easy to get out. Put your hands near your hips at the cockpit coaming. Tuck forward and push with your hands. Your life jacket will float you towards the surface and you’ll be out of the kayak in an instant.

How to paddle a kayak

How to hold a kayak paddle

Before you start paddling you’ll need to get a grip on your paddle. If you’re just getting started, try an unfeathered paddle, which will have both blades set at the same angle to the shaft. If your paddle blades have a curve, the curve faces toward the paddler (this is called the power face). If one edge of the paddle blade is longer than the other, the long edge goes on top.

Hold your paddle with the knuckles at the top of your hand lined up with the top edge of the paddle. Your hands should hold the paddle shaft a little bit wider than your shoulders.

How to paddle a kayak forward

To paddle your kayak forward, you’re going to us a forward stroke. Reach forward toward your toes with your kayak paddle blade. Put the blade fully in the water. Now pull your kayak past the paddle. Push with your top hand at the same time. Slice the blade out of the water when it nears your hip. Repeat on the other side. Alternate forward strokes on the right and left side to move your kayak forward through the water.

  • Think “feet to seat.” Your blade goes in at your feet and comes out at your seat.
  • Punch forward with your top hand as you pull on the paddle.
  • Don’t lean forward. If you need a little more reach, twist at the waist.
  • Pull straight back and your kayak will go straight.
  • Try pushing with your foot for more power. Push on the paddle side.

How to paddle a kayak backward

We paddle backward using a reverse stroke. The back side of the paddle is used for this stroke. Don’t spin the blades around.

To paddle backward, twist at the waist so you can look back over your shoulder behind the boat. Put the back side of the blade flat on the water. Push down first and then toward the bow of the boat. The blade of the paddle will come out of the water near your feet.

  • Make sure to look over your shoulder so you see where you are going.
  • Pull a little with the top hand as you are pushing with the bottom hand.
  • Alternate quick reverse strokes on either side of the kayak to stop moving forward.

How to steer a kayak

Kayakers use sweep strokes to steer their kayaks. Use a forward sweep when paddling forward and a reverse sweep when going backward. You can alternate a forward sweep on one side with a reverse sweep on the other to turn around in a circle while standing still.

Forward turns

Use a forward sweep stroke to turn your kayak when moving forward. A forward sweep is a lot like the regular forward paddling stroke, just more exaggerated. Put the paddle in the water close to the bow of the boat so the power face is pointed away from the hull. Pull the blade through the water in a wide arc. Follow the blade with your eyes and take it all the way to the stern of the boat. When the blade nears the stern, lower your top hand to pull the blade free of the water.

  • The paddle shaft is held low during the whole stroke.
  • If you are moving forward, the last part of this stroke turns the kayak the most.
  • If you are standing still, the middle part of this stroke has a big turning effect.

Reverse turns

A reverse sweep is the opposite of the forward sweep. Twist at the waist so you can put the paddle in the water near the stern. The power face of the paddle will be facing the hull of the kayak. Use the back face of the paddle for the stroke. Sweep the blade in a wide arc away from the boat using a pushing motion. Follow the blade with your eyes until it is close to the bow of the boat. Slice the blade out of the water before it touches the hull.

  • The paddle shaft is held low during the stroke.
  • If you are moving forward, a reverse sweep with turn the boat sharply, but will slow your boat dramatically.

How to kayak in a straight line

Now that you know how to paddle forward and how to turn, it’s time to practice going straight. Some kayaks track straight. Others turn easily. One trick to going straight is to pick a spot on the horizon that lines up with your direction of travel. Aim the bow of the kayak at that point. If it starts to veer off to the right, use a forward sweep on the right to bring it back on target.

It’s better to make small corrections than large ones. Try to anticipate the motion of your kayak so you can bring it back on course with just one sweep stroke.

How to move your kayak sideways

Sometimes you need to move your kayak sideways. Maybe you need to move closer to your friend’s kayak, or to a dock. Whatever the reason, to move sideways you’ll use a draw stroke.

To do a draw, twist at the waist so that you’re facing the direction you want the kayak to go. Reach out with your bottom hand and put the paddle in the water roughly perpendicular to the cockpit. Pull the kayak toward the paddle. When the blade nears the hull, drop your top hand toward the bow of the boat to slice the paddle out of the water. Repeat as necessary.

Be careful as you practice the draw. If you keep pulling on the paddle you might pull your boat right over the top of it and flip. Make sure you slice the paddle out of the water when it gets close to the kayak.

Two people paddling a sit-on-top tandem kayak
When paddling a tandem kayak, try to synchronize your strokes so your paddles don’t hit. | Photo: Old Town

How to paddle a tandem kayak

Paddling a tandem kayak is a lot like paddling a solo kayak. The biggest difference is that it works best for the bow paddler to focus on forward strokes and the stern paddler to take care of steering. Since the stern paddler is closer to the rear of the boat than he or she would be in a solo kayak, the sweep strokes change a little bit. Skip the part of the sweep near the bow and start or end the stroke at the centre of the kayak, near the stern paddler’s feet.

One more trick has to do with forward paddling. In a smaller tandem kayak, the seats may be close enough together that the paddles will bang into one another if they’re not in sync. Try putting the paddles in the water at the same time on the same side. The stern paddler has to follow the bow paddler’s pace.

How to paddle an inflatable kayak

Paddling an inflatable kayak is just like paddling a rigid kayak. All the strokes and techniques outlined above will work, whether you have a blow-up kayak or a hard-shell kayak.

How to paddle a-sit-on-top kayak

The biggest difference in paddling a sit-on-top kayak is how easy it is to get on and off. With a sit-on-top, you can use the sidesaddle technique discussed at the beginning of this article. This is a big advantage for paddlers who have limited mobility or issues with balance.

Advanced kayaking techniques/strokes

There are all kinds of advanced strokes you can dive into as you improve your paddling skills. There are different techniques for draw strokes, dynamic turning strokes, braces and support strokes to help keep you upright in rough water and, of course, the kayak roll. You don’t need these advanced strokes to have fun on quiet water, but they become essential as you venture out into the rough stuff.

How to roll a kayak

The kayak roll is the ultimate self-rescue technique. If you flip in turbulent water and have a reliable roll, the chances that you’ll need to swim out of your kayak are much lower. Whitewater kayakers, surf kayakers or sea kayakers who paddle in challenging conditions will all benefit from learning to roll. What’s more is that once you know how to roll, you’ll find it easier to develop the advanced skills that help keep you upright.

On the face of it, the roll is a simple maneuver. In the upside down position, the paddle is swept outward away from the kayak. This lifts the paddler’s body toward the surface of the water. The paddler then uses knee pressure to flip the kayak upright and brings her body back into balance over the hull. Presto!

Easy as it sounds, the roll can be very challenging to learn. It is a complex skill that requires muscle memory to execute. There are many motions that need to be done in quick succession without thinking about them. This means most people have to methodically drill the different segments of the roll before they can begin to tie them together into a complete technique.

The complex nature of the roll makes it a skill that is best learned from a skilled instructor in a controlled environment like a swimming pool. But don’t let that stop you. The roll is an important kayaking technique and well worth the investment in time and effort.

How to get back on a capsized kayak

What do you do if your kayak flips over? It depends on what kind of kayak it is and how much you’ve practiced your self-rescue skills.

Most recreational kayaks don’t have enough buoyancy to float high in the water if swamped. This means these smaller kayaks should only be paddled close to shore. In the event of a flip, the kayaker swims his kayak to shore and empties it while standing in shallow water.

Sit-on-top kayaks can be flipped back upright in deep water without swamping. Then the paddler can simply climb back onto the boat on his stomach. This simplicity of self-rescues makes sit-on-tops a good choice if you need a recreational kayak that can be paddled farther from shore.

Touring kayaks have bulkheads for more floatation. This means they can be re-entered in deep water and paddled to safety. There are several rescue techniques that will help a kayaker get back into her boat in the event of a flip. The rescues done with a partner are fastest and end up with the least amount of water left in the boat. Solo rescues are more time consuming and require the cockpit to be pumped out once the paddler is back in the kayak. In cold water this is a big disadvantage.

The most common group rescue is the T or X rescue, in which the swamped kayak is emptied over the deck of a companion’s boat. The most common solo rescue is the paddlefloat self-rescue. In this case a float is attached to one end of the paddle while the other end is secured to the deck of the kayak, creating an outrigger. With the kayak stabilized it is possible for the paddler to re-enter the cockpit and pump out the water.

Like the roll, rescues are serious safety skills and it makes sense to practice them until you can do them quickly and skillfully. If you’re new to kayaking, don’t venture far from shore until you’ve had a chance to develop these skills.

Two people kayaking on a lake
If you’re new to kayaking, it’s best to stay close to shore until you learn proper rescue techniques. | Photo: Delta Kayaks

How to read water for kayaking

Reading water means looking at how the water is moving and making a guess about what’s under the surface. As water moves past rocks or other obstructions it makes an eddy of calm water behind the object. This can be a resting place for your kayak in swift moving water. In whitewater, waves, holes and other features are caused by water rushing over the top of rocks.

Reading whitewater is an advanced skill that takes practice. If you’re paddling rivers with whitewater, it makes sense to take a class or go out with an experience paddling partner who can teach you the ropes.

  • In moving water, eddys of quieter water will form behind rocks and other obstructions.
  • Look for V’s of water around submerged rocks. V’s that point upstream have a rock at their point. V’s that point downstream show a clear path.
  • Keep away from features that let water through but would trap your kayak. Logs, downed trees, bridge pilings and anchored boats can all be very dangerous. Give them a wide berth.
  • Stay away from dams of all kinds. They are extremely dangerous.

How to kayak in a river

The easiest way to kayak in a river is to go downstream. This means running a shuttle so there is a vehicle at the end of your river trip that you can use to get back to the put-in. If you don’t have a second car you may be able to run your shuttle with a bicycle.

Of course, on some rivers you can paddle upstream against the current. This is a great way to get a workout and eliminates the need for a shuttle.

On the river, you’ll need to keep an eye out for hazards. Stay away from rocks, downed trees, logs and other obstacles that could trap your kayak and cause a flip. Stay very far away from dams of all kinds. Dams are extremely dangerous. The towback below a dam can drag your kayak back upstream, flip you and keep you trapped underwater. Do your homework and steer clear of dams.

Other things you might like to know

How to anchor a kayak

The best way to anchor a kayak is with an anchor trolley. This is a loop of rope that runs from the bow to the stern of your kayak. Sometimes there is a pulley at either end. The anchor rope is run through a ring at the centre of this loop. Then, by pulling the loop one way or the other, you can move the anchor line from the bow to the stern of the boat. This allows you to position the anchor so it will hold your kayak into or away from the wind or current.

When you need to retrieve the anchor, pull the loop so the ring with the anchor loop is near the cockpit. This makes the anchor rope easier to pull in.

How to attach a kayak paddle leash

A paddle leash is a short tether that attaches to your kayak paddle. If you’re using a leash, you can drop your paddle and have your hands free. Some leashes are made of rope, others are an elastic coil. All should be attached with a quick-release of some sort so you can disconnect the paddle from the kayak in a pinch.

A leash can be attached to the kayak (to an elastic or deck fitting), to the paddler’s life jacket, or even to the paddler’s wrist. In all cases, there should be a quick-release feature to allow for easy disconnect in the event of a tangle.

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