Simple and Complete guide on How to kayak

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Kayaking is a fun way to explore waterways and see the world from a different perspective. Although the best way to learn how to kayak is by taking a kayak course, this article will serve as the basic guide for learning how to kayak. Here, we’ll focus on the basic kayak safety guidelines,  how to get in and out of a kayak and how to paddle a kayak. Lastly, we illustrate where to go kayaking so that you are ready to go kayaking after reading this article.

Basic kayak safety guidelines

Kayaking safety tips

We’ll start by sharing three guidelines to follow when out kayaking. Depending on when and where you end up kayaking, the dangers of kayaking include sun exposure, dehydration, drowning, hypothermia and cold shock. Thus, besides following the guidelines stipulated below, always use your common sense and remember: “don’t drink and paddle!”.

Plan and share your trip

The best way to mitigate the risks of kayaking is to have a solid plan in place and to follow it through. This means planning out your route beforehand, having the proper gear and sharing your travel plans with those closest to you. 

The route that you set out should be well within your capabilities so that everyone is able to handle the return distance with ease. When choosing a destination, keep in mind that beginner paddlers are better off kayaking on calm/flat water especially on an unguided trip. As your skill level advances then you can consider kayaking in rough water where you’ll be dealing with rapids and waves. Also, stipulate a route that keeps you close to shorelines. This will be helpful in case the weather condition changes abruptly or if you capsize and don’t know any self rescue techniques.
 
The proper gear is determined by the weather condition that you will encounter. Thus, you should make a habit of always checking the weather forecast before starting your kayaking trip. One effective way to do this is by downloading a weather app on your smartphone like ACCUWEATHER or NOAA weather radar. This way, you can better protect your skin from UV rays with UV-blocking sunscreen, a long sleeved shirt and a sun hat on a sunny day. Furthermore, you also need to know the water temperature and dress accordingly in order to avoid hypothermia in case you fall into the water. According to the cold water survival guide published by the ACA (American Canoe Association), which certifies kayak, canoe, raft and SUP instructors nationwide, you must wear a wetsuit and a drysuit is highly recommended when paddling in water where the temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or less. This is also the case if the combined air and water temperatures are below 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Share your travel plans with someone who will notice your absence immediately. This could be a float plan which contains the following important information: 

  1. The amount of people on the kayaking trip and their contact details
  2. The planned route to be taken including the estimated departure and arrival time
  3. The description of the kayaks being used such as size, color and brand. 

Follow the local boating rules

Although it is a very accessible sport, a kayak remains a craft that is subject to boating regulations. Thus, make sure you know the local boating rules, especially on routes that are popular amongst other paddlers and boats. A visibility flag will increase the chances of being seen by other boat traffic, but consider kayaking in place with little to no boat traffic. By doing this, you will be able to enjoy your surroundings in peace without worrying about other watercraft.

Know how to self-rescue

Although paddling alone isn’t a good idea, if you do choose to do so then you should stay close to shore so that you can comfortably swim. Else, you need to have some self-rescue techniques that you know quite well. For this reason, it’s important to learn the wet exit for sit-inside kayaks, the scramble rescue, the paddle float rescue and the T-rescue. The following videos highlight in detail how to perform these popular self rescue techniques. The last video also shows how to re-enter a sit-on-top (SOP) kayak.


If you are interested in learning more about the kayak roll, then read this article!

Kayak safety gear

In this section, we’ll highlight the most essential kayak safety gear that increases the chances of getting back to shore without any injury. While some kayak safety gear are obligated by law to have with you, others only apply for sit-inside kayaks. All in all, the kayak safety gear discussed below range from equipment that enables communication with Coast Guard to gear that keeps you afloat and warm in case you capsize. 

PFD (personal flotation device)

Most states consider all kayaks to be “vessels” and therefore subjected to boating laws. Consequently, a life jacket is a necessity to have when paddling on any given day according to the law. You should definitely wear a PFD for your own safety as its main purpose is to keep your mouth and nose above water.

Paddle with paddle leash

Whether you are in possession of a pedal, motorized or paddle kayak, it is important to always have a spare paddle stored somewhere in your kayak in case your pedal, motor or paddle ceases to function. In addition, a paddle leash is a handy accessory for securing your paddle in case you capsize and the paddle starts to drift away through wind or waves.

Visibility flag

Whether you’re fishing, exploring the outdoors or towing another kayak to safety, a kayak visibility flag helps you stay visible to scuba, snorkel enthusiasts, but more importantly help alert boats when you’re in harm’s way.

Bilge pump

Bilge pumps are designed for removing water that has built up in a boat, canoe or kayak. Since sit-on-top kayaks have scupper holes for draining water that gets on the deck and hatch covers for securing the area beneath the deck, a bilge pump will be more of a necessity for sit-inside kayaks.

VHF radio

When out in the water, it’s important that you are reachable if there’s ever a case of an emergency. A handheld, submersible VHF radio is a great solution for contacting the Coast Guard or your friends, family and fellow kayakers if they too have a VHF radio.

Here is a short video on how to use the VHF radio to communicate with the Coast Guard and fellow kayakers:

An alternative way for contacting the Coast Guard and staying in touch with your friends and family is to use your smartphone, which is accepted as a secondary means for contacting the Coast Guard. In case of distress or emergency you can dial 911 or call the nearest U.S. Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center. Be mindful, that you might want to use a waterproof phone case if you want to make sure that your phone survives to see the next day.

Kayak cart

When hauling your kayak from your home to the water, it is important that you have the proper equipment for transportation as to avoid back injury or damaging the hull of the kayak. As such, using a kayak cart for dragging your kayak into the water will tremendously reduce the weight you have to carry, particularly when the kayak is loaded with fishing gear, and prevent your kayak keel from wearing off too soon.

Wetsuit & drysuit

A great advantage of kayaking is that you can enjoy it all year round, but you have to be well prepared during cold weather in order to avoid getting cold shock, swim failure or hypothermia. Therefore, a wetsuit is a must and a drysuit is highly recommended when the water temperature drops below 60°F or when the combined air and water temperature is below 120°F. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows the coastal water temperature in case you plan on doing inshore fishing.

Spray skirt

The main purpose of a spray skirt is to create a warm environment inside your sit-inside kayak during rainy, cold and stormy weather, but also keep water out of the inside of the kayak. That being said, a spray skirt will not save you from hypothermia in the event of a capsize, unlike a wetsuit or drysuit.

How to get in a kayak

The easiest way to get in your kayak is by having someone to help stabilize the kayak as you enter. That said, being able to enter a kayak by yourself is a good confidence booster. The best spots are sandy beaches where you can hop into your kayak at the edge of the water and push yourself out with your hands. In case you are getting in the kayak from the dock, then aim for the lowest point on the dock. This will increase the chances of getting your butt in the seat as quickly as possible, but ensure that your kayak paddle is within hand reach. In case you have bad knees or need to launch or land your kayak from a rocky or irregular shoreline, then follow the next steps:

  1. Set your kayak parallel to the shore
  2. Set your paddle perpendicular to your kayak behind the back of the cockpit
  3. Place both hands on the paddle shaft for stability and support for your bent knees 
  4. Maintain the hand positioning and swing your leg and body weight into the kayak

In the following videos we’ll show you how to get in and out of a kayak from a beach, dock and rocky shoreline. In case you are interested in knowing how to get back on the kayak once you capsize in deep water, then check out the section above on “know how to self-rescue”. 

How to paddle a kayak

Although there are different types of kayak that focus on different ways for propelling your kayak, it’s most likely that you’ll be using a paddle to set your kayak in motion. Before diving into the different paddle strokes, it’s important that you know how to hold a kayak paddle. Knowing this will help reduce blisters and/or any strain on your wrist. For this, let’s watch the following video that also highlights how to properly use a feathered paddle.

The sitting position

Having the right posture when kayaking tires the body much less quickly and makes you more prepared with changing weather conditions or dangerous situations. It will also allow you to paddle faster and avoid issues like back pain. Thus, the first step in being able to paddle more efficiently is having the proper sitting position. This means sitting upright and not leaning forwards or backwards resulting in your pelvis tilted forwards. With regards to your legs, they should rest comfortably on the foot braces and be slightly bent. That way, it is easier to turn the kayak. If you have a sit-inside kayak, this foot positioning will increase the contact points beneath the deck allowing you to transfer the power from your paddle, through your body and out through the kayak more efficiently. The following videos visualize in detail the correct sitting position and foot placement.

The basic strokes

There are different types of kayak strokes that fulfill different types of purposes:
The forward stroke gets you from point A to point B by moving forward. Since you’ll be spending most of the time doing this stroke, it’s important that you engage your core and back muscles and use less arm power. 
The reverse stroke allows you to move backwards, which is useful in case you hit a dead end or need to help your friend who capsized.
The sweep stroke allows you to stop and/or turn a kayak. The difference with the forward stroke lies in the angle of the paddle shaft. The sweep stroke starts at the toes similar to a forward stroke, but ends up doing a sweep with an entirely horizontal shaft. 
The draw stroke is used to move your kayak sideways, which is useful when you want to get to a dock or your fellow paddler.  

The following is a series of 4 videos in which Mike Aronoff, an American Canoe Association kayak instructor and educator, goes in detail over the different types of kayak strokes discussed above.

Where to go kayaking

There are over 35,000 canoeing and kayaking launch sites scattered all over the world. The best way to find a kayak launch site close to your location is downloading an app that shows these locations such as the Go Paddling App. Alternatively, you can also have a look at the following map:

Don’t forget to check out the weather and fishing conditions of your destination. If you plan on starting your trip from a harbor, then all this information will be provided here:

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