A Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking Like a Pro

5 minute read

by Sharon Brodin

Kayaking is a wonderful entry-level paddle sport. It’s very possible to simply get in and start to paddle. But like everything, there are ways to shorten the learning curve and increase your enjoyment early on.

two women kayaking together on a small river

Kayaking is a great entry-level paddle sport

Some of these I wish I would’ve known or thought about sooner!

1. Be Comfortable Around, In and On the Water

For someone like me who grew up in the Upper Midwest that’s covered with lakes, and in a family where swimming was a regular summer activity, this isn’t a problem. In fact, until I got to college, I assumed every kid grew up learning how to swim. I was wrong!

You technically don’t have to know how to swim in order to kayak, canoe or stand-up paddle board (SUP). Wear a life jacket (or PFD—Personal Flotation Device) and it’ll keep you floating on top of the water. That’s what they’re designed for, and they do a great job keeping you safe.

But the people I’ve met who don’t swim are afraid of kayaking because they’re afraid of being in deep water—even with a life jacket on. That fear can crush any potential enjoyment of paddling.

If you’re not comfortable around lakes and rivers, that doesn’t need to stop you from learning how to kayak, though. The answer is to take some swimming lessons. Somewhere near you, someone offers swimming lessons at a local lake or pool, maybe a local business, YMCA or Park & Rec department.

Once you’re comfortable in the water, it’s more natural to be comfortable on the water.

2. For a Full-Immersion Experience, Go on a Multi-Day Kayak Trip

When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I joined the counseling staff of a wilderness camp adjacent to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. A major part of our training was a 5-day canoe trip into the Boundary Waters.

I can tell you there’s no better way to learn to canoe than to have to paddle 15 miles a day for 5 days in a row! We had experienced wilderness trippers with us, and they patiently taught us new staff members everything we needed to know to bring out groups of teens on canoe trips that summer.

By the end of that 5-day trip I was a confident canoeist, knew the key strokes needed for various situations, and could steer my canoe down any lake without zig-zagging.

The same is true with kayaking. I had been kayaking in my little recreational Otter kayak for years. But when I really became a kayaker was on a 4-day kayak camping trip with an experienced guide who continually taught us new strokes and skills daily, and we had hours to practice for four days in a row.

women kayaking along a sandstone and tree-lined shoreline

A multi-day kayak trip with a good guide will turn you into a kayaker very soon! (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

These trips are challenging, no argument there. Signing up for one of these may not be right for someone who’s never been on the water before. And, of course, local courses work well, too. But having time on the water for hours on end for several days in a row—the full immersion experience—will accelerate your learning many times over.

And then, keep kayaking. Keep looking for opportunities to get on the water. Join a local paddle club or Facebook group to find others to go with.

3. Having the Right Gear Increases Kayaking Enjoyment

If you love kayaking and want to make it a regular part of your life, using the right gear and wearing the right apparel will make a big difference in your enjoyment of it.

Here are a few other blog posts to get you started educating yourself on gear:

There’s more where these are found, but they’re are a good start.

man in a blue kayak on a big body of water

Knowing what gear to use and wear is an important part of kayaking like a pro

4. Start with the Right Skills

Knowing some key tips ahead of time will increase your enjoyment and safety. The best advice I have is to start kayaking on flatwater (a lake vs. a river) on a beautiful and sunny calm day on a small, quiet lake.

That way you’re not fighting current, running up on water hazards, battling wind and waves or dodging bigger boats. You can simply get used to paddling, experiment with strokes, get used to the feel of the movement on the water and enjoy yourself. That’s a perfect scenario.

Of course many people have started kayaking in less-than-perfect conditions, too, which also can work out fine.

Here are some very basic skills to begin with:

  • How to Get In (and Out of) Your Kayak—"Awkward" is a good word to describe entering and exiting a sit-inside kayak! But it’s something you can get used to with practice. We like this method that doesn’t involve using your paddle.
  • 3 Techniques All Kayakers Should Know—These techniques are important for safety and for maneuvering in the water.
  • How to Kayak on Rivers & Current—It's probably easier to start kayaking on flatwater so you don’t have to think about current, but if you have more rivers around you than lakes, you may not have that option.
  • Our Best Advice for Beginning Kayakers—This links you to another article with even more basic tips that will get you on the road to kayaking like a pro.

man kayaking in calm water at sunset

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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