How to Choose the Right Water Conditions for Kayaking

5-minute read

The kinds of water conditions that make ideal kayaking, packrafting and paddle boarding depend on a couple of key factors: your experience and the type of boat and gear you have.

woman kayaks on a small calm lake

(Photo courtesy of @five2nine)

We’ll break this down into three different categories: Waters best suited for beginning paddlers, waters that work for paddlers with some experience and skill, and waters that require advanced skills and gear.

Best Waters for Beginning Kayakers, Packrafters and SUPers

Some waters are so easy anyone can paddle them in any type of boat. This is great news for beginners! And it’s great news for those with entry-level boats and limited gear.

The best place to get started is a small, warm, calm lake on a sunny, warm, calm day. These conditions will give novices the best overall experience:

  • A small lake means small waves, even if it’s windy.
  • Small lakes are usually pretty sheltered, which means less wind and small waves.
  • Warm water offers a safe way to learn SUP skills in case you fall in, which is highly likely! (It even makes it fun and refreshing to fall in.)
  • Warm sunny weather means you won’t get chilled if you get wet.
  • The less wind, the easier it is to learn paddle strokes to steer and maneuver your kayak, packraft or paddle board.
  • If you can choose a lake that limits or prohibits motorboat traffic, all the better. You won’t have to dodge fast boats or deal with their wake (the waves they kick up).


two people in a canoe next two a woman on a paddle board on a calm misty lake

Small, calm water is the best option for brand-new paddlers (photo courtesy of Scottie Peterson)

Another great option for beginners is slow-moving rivers. This is slightly harder because of current and potential obstacles in the water and along the shore, but still very doable for those just learning.

A local designated water trail is your best option as it’s likely that a park or forest service will clean up fallen trees and other major blockages regularly. It’s also likely to have several maintained launch options with good parking.

At this stage, it’s best to stick to rivers that are clear enough to see under the surface for boulders, downed trees and other hazards.

Waters that Require Some Experience and Skill

Paddlers with some experience on easy water and who have their basic steering strokes mastered are ready for more of a challenge.

You can take on larger lakes with the potential for bigger waves and boat traffic. Honestly, it’s never fun to paddle into a strong headwind no matter how good you are, so you may want to avoid very windy days.

[And it’s worth noting that by “large lakes” we don’t mean the Great Lakes yet! This type of huge water requires specific skills and gear. More on that later.]

Unless you’ve invested in at least a wetsuit, stick to waters that are warm enough to swim in, just in case you end up in the water. A key paddling safety mantra is: Always dress for immersion. If you don’t yet have the gear to keep you safe in very cold water, don’t paddle on it.

kayaker on big water at sunset

Bigger water requires more experience (photo courtesy of Andrew Strain)

Kayakers with some skills are ready for Class I and maybe Class II rivers, as long as you won’t face boulders and other major hazards. Note that it’s always a good idea to check water levels at any river you plan to paddle. While some have relatively stable levels, others can vary by several feet based on the season and recent rainfall.

SUP may be a different story, depending on your own comfort level. Accidentally falling in the water is much easier on a paddle board than in a kayak or packraft. Your center of balance is higher and the slight shift of a foot can dump you in with no warning.

If your boat is a paddle board, you may want to stick to easier waters longer than you would need to in a kayak or packraft.

Waters that Require Advanced Skills and Specific Gear

There are some waters that, for safety reasons, require specific gear and either professional training or a professional guide.

Big water like the Great Lakes, seas and oceans can throw up large waves that require a sea kayak with a spray skirt, along with advanced paddling skills. Some areas and bodies of water are known for their changeable weather. Water that might start out calm in the morning can quickly produce big waves within a few hours.

At the very least, go with a professional guide with the right gear and training to take novice kayakers. If you’re on the ocean, they’ll know about the local tides, currents and hazards. You don’t want to be caught unprepared on water this big.

Rivers with Class III and above rapids require specialized training and equipment, and lots of practice. Whitewater kayaks, spray skirts, helmets, drysuits, Eskimo roll skills, flow knowledge—all are needed for safe whitewater paddling.

packrafter heading down tiered rapids

Advanced water calls for advanced skills and specialized gear (photo courtesy of Caj Koskinen)

Kayaking, packrafting and paddle boarding on very cold water require special protection in case of a capsize. A wetsuit at minimum, with some kind of drysuit combination if you plan to make this a serious activity. This includes paddling during cold weather seasons.

No matter what type of watercraft you use, the best way to improve your skills is to start easy, paddle often and move up to bigger and faster water as your experience and confidence build.

You can speed up your learning curve by taking paddling courses in whatever conditions you want to paddle in. ACA (American Canoe Association) offers courses all over the world with certified instructors for every type of kayaking, canoeing, paddle boarding and packrafting.

Paddlesports are one of the most accessible activities for almost every age. Build your skills and experience and you can enjoy an almost unlimited variety of water conditions.

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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