The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Recreational Kayaking

Three experts share their most valuable tips and advice for new paddlers

A relaxing day on the water, a warm breeze rolling by and some incredible scenery you could never see on two feet—those are just some of the simple joys that come with kayaking and a few of the many reasons you should give it a try.

When you’re ready to get your feet wet—literally—consult our beginner tips. We turned to expert paddlers and kayak instructors who offered advice on everything from gear to getting in and out of your kayak. Take a look at their tips below and then set out on an adventure.

Photo courtesy of Everyday California.

Getting In and Out
Just about all of our experts highlighted some key techniques for getting in and out of your kayak. If you have access to water that’s only ankle-deep, put your kayak in so that the front is floating. Swing one leg over the front of the boat, straddling the bow and then walk your way back until your butt is directly over the cockpit. Slowly sit in the cockpit, with your legs over the sides and then carefully maneuver your legs in. To get out in shallow water, reverse the process.

When loading from a dock, the best way is to position the boat parallel with the side of the dock. Keeping the kayak stable, sit beside it and slide your butt into the cockpit, then bring your legs in slowly.

Getting in and out of the kayak while you’re out on the water is a bit harder at first, but Duke Jarboe, operations manager at Everyday California, has a few great tips for re-entering and exiting a kayak while it’s on the water. Leading tours through Everyday California, a La Jolla-based company offering paddling adventure trips and rentals, Jarboe picked up these methods.

“The best way to get back in a kayak when you’re out in deep water is to reach across to the far side of the kayak, pulling your body across the kayak until your stomach is over the middle. Remember to scissor kick with your legs, while you are pulling yourself in,” he said. “Once your stomach is over the middle, simply rollover. Now your rump is in the kayak and you can easily swivel your legs inside.”

For exiting a kayak in open water, Jarboe recommends backflips. 

Photo courtesy of Everyday California.

Holding the Paddle
Your stroke is key for everything from steering to speed, so we asked our experts about the cardinal rules for paddling efficiently.

Jarboe highlighted the importance of holding the paddle right. “[Your] hands should be shoulder-width apart (or wider), with an overhand grip. Keep arms fully extended away from the body and don’t T-Rex,” he said. “There are two sides to the paddle—scoop and spine. When paddling forward, keep the scoop side of the paddle facing towards you. When paddling backwards, have the spine facing towards you.”

Recreational and competitive flatwater paddler Beth Miller is a 15-year veteran of the sport and she stresses the importance of sitting up straight. “This allows you to utilize your entire upper body therefore providing you with more power. Leaning toward the rear or the front places all of the effort solely on your arms,” she said. When you’re not twisting your torso, you’re relying solely on your arms and you’ll tire out quickly.

For efficient stroke, all experts agree that you should be putting the entire blade of the paddle in the water.

Performing a “Wet Exit”
A “wet exit” is the term for getting out of your boat when it flips over and it’s best to practice this in a controlled environment with an instructor. Though the experts mentioned the importance of professional instruction, they gave us a few tips, so you can know what to expect, should it happen to you.

“In an emergency situation, you need to let go of your paddle. You do not want it obstructing your exit,” Miller said. “Once upside down assuming you are not wearing a spray skirt, duck your head to avoid hitting it on the bottom if in shallow water, place your hands behind the cockpit and push on the kayak to release your knees. As you push away from the kayak keeping your head tucked, you will essentially roll out of the cockpit as if stripping the kayak off of your legs. You will then pop up on either side of the kayak headfirst.”

Miller warns that novice paddlers should never go out alone and she suggests you find a group of experienced paddlers to show you the ropes. Meet some paddlers through a local outdoor shop or on social media—Gociety is a social network for outdoor adventurers and a great tool for finding friends who might have a bit more knowledge than you.

Photo courtesy of Everyday California.

Gear Essentials and Tips
Though kayaks, paddles and gear can get pricey, there are ways to save. Our experts shared their advice on essential gear and saving money.

All of our experts stressed the importance of wearing a PFD (Personal Flotation Device). You should never go kayaking without one. It’s also a great idea to bring a whistle, a light or two for signaling and you should let people know where you plan on going.

Miller shared her advice for a good life jacket fit: “choose one that is low-profile allowing room around your shoulders for movement so as not to cause chaffing and, of course, try them on to get a proper fit: snug but not too tight.”

She also mentioned that you should never buy anything without trying it first. She suggests trying your friends gear to get a feel for what you like.

Dell Hambleton, who is currently training for a 1,400-mile kayaking trip, said the best advice she ever received in regard to kayaking was not to buy all new gear. She said to this day she looks in thrift shops and gear swaps for cheap clothing and gear. “It's easy to ‘trade up’ later [and] it also allows me to try things out without making unnecessary costly investment,” she said. “There are also end of season sales with excellent prices on equipment.”

Buying lightly used gear also allows Hambleton to meet seasoned kayakers and having cheap gear allows her to make friends on the water. “I carry around a bin of ‘river stuff,’ including fleeces of various sizes, socks, gloves and hats to lend out to cold and ill prepared folks on the river or after paddling trips. It's easier to do that when I've paid $3 for a fleece instead of $75,” she said.

Kayaking is all about having fun and, as the majority of our experts pointed out, it’s great because you can enjoy it immediately. Take these tips, along with a course or two and enjoy one of the best water sports out there.


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