For those who are new to the kayaking scene, it can seem overwhelming with all the different techniques you need to master. If you are a beginner looking for a little guidance before you head out onto the water, we’ve put together a guide to help you before your first trip.
Your First Time Kayaking
There are so many different places you can go kayaking. Everything from placid lakes and streams, to insane raging white water rivers. But where should you go as a beginner and more importantly what should you avoid?
In this section, we’ll cover all the best places to kayak for beginners plus we’ll suggest some of the spots you’ll want to seek out first and some other things to think about before hitting the water.
Find a suitable location
When you’re just starting out you’re going to want to look for calm, still water. This is the perfect place to practice and get used to controlling the kayak and different paddling techniques that you’ll need to practice.
Depending on where you live though finding flat water can be surprisingly hard! The best spots to look for are:
- non tidal rivers
- reservoirs that allow public access
When choosing a location be sure that you can access the shoreline and that there aren’t any steep banks in case you have to swim back.
You could also try the sea as long as the waves aren’t too big and there isn’t much wind. You also need to be aware of strong currents and tides so make sure you do your research before going in the sea with your kayak.
Where not to kayak as a beginner
There are lots of places you should steer clear of when deciding where to paddle as a beginner.
Some places you’ll be able to visit eventually like white water rivers once you’ve built up your skills but others are very dangerous and shouldn’t be paddled in even by the most experienced kayakers.
Avoid fast currents
As I said earlier, avoid locations that have a strong current such as tidal rivers. As an inexperienced kayaker you don’t want to be in a situation where you can’t get back to shore.
You need to watch out for very windy locations. Kayaking is very strenuous sport and you can quickly become exhausted fighting against a strong current.
Make sure you can get out easily
You also need to make sure you can get out of the water easily. If you were to capsize and had to swim to the shore you need to be able to get out and may be cold and tired with a boat full of water.
Watch out for very high banks and muddy areas that would stop you from getting out of the water.
Avoid rivers with lots of obstacles in
It’s not recommended when you’re starting out to tackle rivers with lots of obstacles in. Things like rocks, mud and low bridges can cause a lot of trouble to the inexperienced kayaker.
It’s very easy to get stuck under a low bridge even in very slow moving water and find yourself in a lot of trouble very quickly so avoid these on your first time.
Avoid weirs, locks and sluices
You should never attempt to go over weirs as a beginner in a kayak. They can be very dangerous to someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.
You should always avoid them and give them a wide berth both up and downstream.
It’s the same with locks and sluices (which is a gate for controlling the flow of water). A filling or emptying lock can be very dangerous and you should never be aboard your kayak.
When you need to pass through a lock carry it around and if it’s too heavy hold on to it with ropes from the side.
The same with sluices, avoid them at all costs when in the water.
Serious hazards on the water
There are some things that you must be aware of when on the water as some of these can be life threatening and are the cause of many kayaking accidents every year.
Watch out for changing river levels
It doesn’t take very long at all for river levels to rise very dramatically.
What was a very pleasant paddle can turn into a fast moving torrent in a matter of hours. Heavy rain or melting snow in mountain rivers can seriously affect the height of the water and a very short space of time so be prepared by researching your location before you set out.
Dams are also another potential hazard. Often at certain times of the day they will be opened and a huge amount of water can be let loose down the river.
It’s not recommended to kayak in these rivers, especially if there has been a lot of rainfall or flooding.
Strainers and siphons
A very dangerous river hazard to look out for is a strainer. A strainer is the name given to any barrier or obstacle that water can flow through but will stop anything solid.
Things like fallen trees or a build up of logs can create strainers that will cause you to get stuck.
The other thing to watch out for is a siphon. A siphon is where the water in a river goes underground. These can be deadly as they can suck you underwater and cause you to get stuck.
The video below shows a siphon at a river dam and you can see the speed at which the water is getting sucked down.
Planning your trip in advance
As a beginner you should always plan in advance where you’re going to go.
Ideally as someone brand new you shouldn’t attempt any sort of journey and should just find an open body of water like a lake to practice in. Then as you become more experienced at the basics of getting in and out of the kayak and the manoeuvres you need to know you can explore more.
But once you’re ready to attempt a longer journey you should have a realistic idea of what sort of distance you can cover.
Kayaking is a very physical sport and you can become tired very quickly. Build up your stamina slowly over multiple outings and always be aware of you limitations and also that of others in your group. Your route should take account of the weakest member.
Checking the weather
Make sure to check the weather forecast for your outing.
Strong winds and heavy rain can affect the condition of the water dramatically. If it looks like it’s going to be too severe then have a contingency plan or reschedule your trip for when they weather is going to be more favourable.
Considering the weather is a very important part of planning your kayak trip. Let’s take a look at the different weather conditions you need to think about.
Wind is going to affect you a lot when you’re in a kayak. It’s a lot more pronounced on the water and what is normally a light breeze on land can cause wind chill when you’re soaking wet and cold.
It pays to dress appropriately with a windproof top even if it’s sunny and hot.
If you’re going to a long trip you’ll want to take a range of clothes with you to allow you to change into different clothes as the weather changes throughout the day.
In extreme wind such as a gale or storm you should never go paddling. Very high winds make controlling a kayak near impossible and you’re likely to lose your paddle. It’s not worth the risk so don’t attempt it.
There’s nothing better than heading out on the water on a lovely sunny day. Make sure that you take sunscreen with you as the effects of the sun are magnified in water.
It can take 30 minutes before you get sun burnt and quickly get sunstroke if you’re not careful. Make sure you wear a hat when it’s sunny and take a lot of drinking water with you to keep well hydrated.
Lots of people enjoying kayaking when it’s raining and if you’re dressed for the occasion then it can be good fun. But, there are a few things you’ll need to keep it a pleasurable experience.
The first and most obviously think you’ll need is good waterproof coat. There’s nothing worse than being out on the water and soaking wet for hours.
Make sure you’ve got enough layers on underneath and take a hat, preferably one that keeps the rain from dripping down your face.
Watch out for lightning
If there is a storm DO NOT go kayaking.
Getting struck by lightning is very rare on land but when you’re in a large open body of water you are much more likely to be struck. There are 6000 people killed a year by lightening and doing water-sports puts you in the high risk category.
Lightning usually strikes the highest object and so when you’re on the water it’s most likely going to be you and your paddle so don’t do it!
Keep an eye on the temperature
Make sure you’re dressed for the right temperature, especially if you’re heading out in extreme temperatures.
Getting too cold can lead to Hyperthermia which is deadly and the cause of a lot of deaths in water.
Make sure you wrap up warm and take a change of clothes incase you capsize. I recommend getting a drysuit for kayaking in extremely cold temperatures. This stops you from getting wet even if you go under.
Gloves are also an essential item of clothing for kayaking in the cold.
Extreme heat is also something you need to watch out for.
As I said earlier, kayaking is very strenuous and you’ll sweat a lot. You’ll sweat even more in hot and humid temperatures and you can quickly become dehydrated.
Take plenty of drinking water with you on trips and take lots of breaks to cool down in the shade.
Some other tips
1. Taking A Lesson
From the first moment your interest in kayaking has sparked, you should plan to take at least one lesson. Consulting a professional will give you an opportunity to kayak in a safe and controlled environment. In a lesson, the instructor will go over the basics needed to kayak successfully.
Many times taking a lesson will allow you to have access to kayaks and gear without having to purchase them. This is not only a great chance to see if you will actually enjoy kayaking, but it allows you to do so without making the investment.
Kayak lessons are generally inexpensive and can be done one on one or with a group. It is ideal to learn from experienced professionals before you head out on the water. This way you are aware of what to expect and what you will need to know and do to stay safe and have fun.
2. Know the Basics of Paddling
Learning and understanding the proper paddling techniques will not only help you kayak successfully but also help you kayak for longer periods of time. There are several things involved with the correct paddle technique.
In order to correctly use your paddle, do the following:
- Sit up straight- Correct posture will not only help you stay balanced, but it will help you steer the kayak and keep it going the direction you want it to go. Sitting upright with a slight lean forward will give you the most control. If you are leaning back, you will begin to lose control of the kayak.
- Holding the paddle- You should grip your paddle with your hands over and your thumbs under. Keep a firm, yet relaxed grasp onto the paddle.
- Starting to paddle- Your torso is the source of power when you are paddling and you should use it as such. This ensure that you take strain off of your shoulders, back, and arms while at the same time propelling you forward. From here, you want to start with a basic forward paddle.
- Basic Forward Paddling- To use this basic paddling technique, you will need to use deep and even strokes. Start by winding your torso to one side. Place the blade of your paddle parallel to your foot. The paddle should come out of the water by the time the blade reaches your hips. From there, unwind your torso and repeat on the opposite side.
- Basic Turning- To turn your kayak, all you need to do is use your paddle as a rudder and drag it closely to your kayak. The kayak will turn towards the side that the blade is on. This technique will cause you to lose a lot of your momentum. To keep your momentum going, add in a sweep stroke.
- Sweep Stroke for Turns- Using a sweep stroke to turn can be done by alternating a forward stroke on one side followed by a sweep stroke on the other. You will sweep the paddle wide on one side of the kayak until it touches the stern (also known as the back of the boat). Repeating this pattern will turn the kayak in a wide arc.
To see these skills demonstrated, refer to the video below.
There are several common mistakes that you want to avoid when you paddle. Many beginners often find they make these mistakes without realizing they are doing so.
- Not using correct posture
- Placing strain on the wrists by letting them bend
- Not using enough torso rotation
- Ending the paddle stroke too soon or too late
- Rocking the kayak side to side due to abrupt weight shifting
Remember to prevent these mistakes so you do not form bad habits, but learning to paddle with the correct skill does take time. Be patient with yourself and keep practicing.
3. Size matters
It is very important that you are fitted with the appropriate size kayak, paddle, and gear. An instructor will make sure that you learn the basics of kayaking, but they will also ensure you are fitted with the right sized equipment.
Sea kayaks are known to be less tippy than say, the short white water kayaks which make them a better choice for beginners. You will need to adjust your foot pegs and seat to fit you, as well as your paddle length. An instructor can easily guide you on how to adjust these accordingly. It is also important that you have a well fitted PFD (personal flotation device) as these devices can only perform well if they fit correctly.
If you choose to not use an instructor to assist you, you can go to your nearest kayak outfitter. There you will find associates who are familiar with the gear and can help you to find what will fit and suit you best.
4. Getting in and out of your Kayak
Learning how to properly get in and out of your kayak is a very important step for successful kayaking. There are a couple techniques you can use to get in and out of your kayak if you are not using a dock to do so.
- Make sure your kayak is in the water with the nose facing out.
- Place your paddle out of your way, but make sure it is still within reach when you get in the kayak.
- Place one foot into the kayak.
- Grab both sides with your hands for balance.
- Lower yourself into the boat and bring your other leg inside.
- Make sure your kayak is in the water with the nose facing out.
- Place your paddle out of your way, but make sure it is still within reach when you get in the kayak.
- Grab both sides of the kayak.
- Sit your bottom down into the boat.
- Swing both legs around and place them inside the kayak.
In order to successfully get out of the kayak, simply use either of the above techniques, just use them in reverse.
To see these skills demonstrated step by step, watch the video below.
5. Learning How to Launch
Launching your kayak from the shore can be done quite easily. Simply follow these steps:
- Make sure your kayak is facing with the nose towards the water.
- Get into your kayak.
- Grab your paddle and begin using the forward stroke.
- If you are in shallow water you can use the ground to push yourself out.
- Keep your body balanced throughout to lead your kayak where you want to go.
For coming into shore:
- Simply paddle as far as you can go until the kayak stops or you reach a point where it is safe to get out of the boat.
- Follow the techniques listed above to get out of your kayak.
- Grab your kayak and turn it over if you have noticed there is water inside the hull. Remove the water by giving the kayak gentle see-saw motions. Once the water is gone, you can carry or pull your kayak to shore.
6. Learn How to Roll
It is inevitable that you will flip your kayak at least once, whether you are a beginner or not. You should prepare yourself in the instance your kayak will flip so you do not panic and cause harm to yourself or damage to your kayak. There are a few different ways to roll your kayak, but we will start with the most basic way.
This technique is called ‘The Buddy Roll’, named because you will need a second kayaker to practice this skill.
In order to do the Buddy Roll, follow these steps:
- Tuck close to the boat- As soon as you find yourself upside down, immediately tuck your body as close to the kayak as possible. This is in case there are rocks under the water. If you have tucked your body and head to the deck of the kayak, any rocks will hit your PFD or your helmet instead of hitting your face.
- Reach towards the sky- After you have tucked you will want to reach both of your arms up and out of the water. This will indicate to your kayak partner that you are in need of a rescue. The fellow kayaker should paddle to you as fast as they can.
- Waving and Looking- Once you have your arms out of the water, you should begin to wave them back and forth, feeling for your friend’s kayak. You should also be looking towards the surface of the water in order to see the kayak approaching. The fellow kayaker should bring their boat as close to the waving arms as possible.
- Grab the kayak- When you see or feel that your partner’s kayak is close by, grab the kayak. If you can feel for the kayak loop, this is a great place to grab the kayak.
- Rolling yourself up- Once you have grabbed the kayak, you will need to use your hips to flip your kayak back around.
- Find your paddle- Your paddle should be near you, but in case it isn’t ask your friend to retrieve your paddle. You should keep your hands in the water and use them to paddle alongside your friend until you have gotten your actual paddle back.
This technique can only be used with a kayaking buddy and can take up to fifteen minutes to master. It is a great skill to have once you understand how it works and can be used in the event you flip your kayak when you are with your friends.
7. Wet release
If you find that you are out practicing or kayaking alone, it is vital for you to learn how to use a wet release. This is used in the event that you flip over your kayak and need to exit your boat quickly.
If you have found yourself flipped over and need to exit, follow these four steps:
- Lean forward
- Push the bottom of your kayak with your paddle
- Release the spray skirt which keeps you tied into the boat
- Ensure that the skirt is all the way off and exit the boat and swim to the surface
It is important to stay calm and not panic if you do find yourself in this situation. Practice this a few times with a friend to spot you until you can follow through with a wet release confidently and quickly.
8. Picking a Route
When you are first starting out with kayaking, you will be amazed at how many different routes and water ways you can now access. It is important to choose a route or water way that has calm waters. You should not take your kayak to white waters until you are more advanced.
Keep in mind any bays that are featured on your route in the event you need to anchor your kayak and take a break. Try to choose a route that will be easy enough for your skill set. Start small and work your way up as you have more practice and gain more advanced skills.
9. Check the weather
It is absolutely essential to check the weather forecast before going on any kayak outing. Knowing what is expected will help you to stay safe and prevent any accidents. It is important to avoid fog at all costs. Visibility can be lost as quickly as five to ten minutes and if you lose sight of the land it can be a scary situation.
Beginners should also remember to avoid high winds and choppy waters. Both of these elements make it difficult to steer and control the kayak. Even on the clearest and sunniest of days, expect to have some amount of wind and waves. Consulting a marine forecast before you go out on the water is the best way to prepare for what is ahead or even change the date of your trip to stay safe.
10. Bring a map
With today’s technology bringing along a smartphone can be of great help for GPS signals. However, phones can only last as long as their battery allows or as long as they are range to maintain a signal. While using technology like a smartphone makes it easier to navigate waters, it is not always a reliable way to maintain course.
It is suggested that anyone who wants to be on the water regularly should learn how to read a nautical map and a compass. Learning these skills can be vital if you find yourself in a dire situation without any technology. Just be sure that you also remember to pack your compass and nautical map before you go.
11. Take along a friend
Kayaking with a friend (or two, or three) is a great way to have fun and make memories. It is also a way for you all to stay safe in the event of a flipped kayak or rougher waters. In fact, kayaking alone is not recommended, especially if you are a beginner. If you can go on the water with experienced kayakers, you will not only feel and be safer, you might learn a thing or two from the more advanced kayakers.
Overall kayaking with a friend or group of experienced kayakers is the way to go so you all stay safe, have fun, and learn from each other.
12. Waterproofing essentials
When you are packing gear for your kayaking trip, you will need to include water proof items. Having a waterproof bag, often referred to as a wet sack, in your kayak will help keep any valuable items safe and dry. You should put any items that you do not want to lose or damage in the event of a boat flip inside the wet sack.
Items to include in a wet sack are:
- Phone or electronics
- Watches or jewelry
- Car or house keys
- Snacks or food
Many brands of wet sacks will actually float should they end up in the water. If you are going to purchase one, having one that floats will save you from panicking should your kayak flip and everything go over-board. Even if your wet sack floats, it is suggested to secure it to your kayak by tying it down.
13. Stay safe
Staying safe while you are out on the water is one of the most important factors of kayaking.
You can maintain a safe and fun kayak excursion by doing the following:
- Letting a friend or loved one know where you are going, how long you intend to be gone, and what time you will be coming back.
- Kayaking with friends or more experienced kayakers.
- Checking the weather before you go.
- Avoiding areas that are prone to sharks or alligators.
- Avoiding rough or choppy waters.
- Learning how to wet release or buddy roll before you go out.
- Come back to shore well before dark.
- Always wear a Personal Flotation Device.
- Always wear a helmet, especially if you are in an area that has rocks under the water.
- Tie down any gear or supplies so they are not lost in the event of a flip.
14. Know your limits
While kayaking can be a fun and relaxing way to spend an afternoon, make sure you do not bite off more than you can chew. When you first start out, stick to calm waters. This will give you the chance to master paddling techniques, practice wet releases or buddy rolls, as well as make sure you are familiar with your kayak and how to control and steer it.
It is vital to be honest with yourself and your body’s limits. Do not push yourself too far or you could end up exhausted and still have to paddle back to shore. Over exhausting yourself is how you can become injured as well. Go easy on yourself at first and just focus on getting down your technique. When your techniques become second nature and your stamina has become stronger, then you will find yourself ready to advance to stronger currents or rougher waters.
No matter which technique you need to work on, it is important to keep practicing until each of the kayaking skills you need to be a successful kayaker are second nature. It is advised to practice with a more skilled and more advanced kayaker so they can correct your technique should the need arise. They will be able to spot any mistakes or bad habits forming and they can help you to correct that behavior.
Practicing on flat water (such as a lake or a pond) is ideal for beginners who are not athletic or confident enough to practice on rivers. The calmness of flat waters will allow you to focus on honing your technique instead of losing your energy fighting a current or keeping your kayak balanced and straight.
At the end of the day, practicing is what will make you a better kayaker. Do not give up or be hard on yourself as kayaking skills can take time to master. In due time, you will be paddling with the best of them.
For those who are just starting out with this water sport it can seem like there is so much to learn before you can go out on advanced waters. As long as you take your time, know your limits, and practice as much as you can, beginner kayakers will soon find themselves advancing and joining their kayaking friends on rivers and white waters.
Kayaking as a beginner can be a long road but with due diligence and keeping these tips and tricks in mind, you will discover the fun and joy of what kayaking has to offer. Just be sure to always stay safe, kayak with a few friends, and the techniques that you’ve been practicing will soon be a thing of the past.
That’s it for our recommendations of where and when to go kayaking. The most important thing to think about when choosing where and when to go is planning.
You should always know:
- Exactly where you’re going to go and for how long
- What the weather is going to be like
- how you will get out of the water if you have to swim
If you know those three things you’ll be safe and have a successful first kayaking trip.
If you have any questions leave a comment below.