Kayak Safety 101 – How To Roll A Kayak With These Two Simple Techniques

Learning how to roll a kayak will likely be one of the most counterintuitive things you’ll ever try in your entire kayaking “career.” 

Think about it: 

You’re upside down in the water, still strapped in your kayak. Every fiber of your being will scream for you to go up and get air – yet, that’s the exact opposite of what you should do. 

But trust me, it’s going to make a lot more sense after reading this guide! 

What Is A Kayak Roll? 

Kayaker demonstrating the Roll the C to C

Eskimo roll – as it’s commonly known – is a technique used to “right” a capsized kayak without having to remove the spray skirt, perform a wet exit and self-rescue. The maneuver is a combination of body movement – especially the hips – and some paddle support. 

The basics of a kayak roll are simple enough: 

Flip your kayak upside down, brace the paddle for balance and support, and then roll yourself back up through a combination of a hip snap and a paddle stroke.

But, as you’re about to see, there are tons of different types of recovery methods you could work on as you start learning how to roll a kayak. 

4 Most Common Types Of Kayak Rolls You Should Know About 

Which safety roll you’ll end up using generally depends on the specific situation; not all kayak rolls are suitable for all conditions and environments. 

With that said, check out the most common types of kayak rolls

C To C Roll 

Whitewater kayakers generally opt for the C to C roll – which gets its name from the two C-shaped arcs you’re tracing with the paddle – as their preferred safety roll. 

It tends to be faster, more reliable in open and rough water, and can be performed in narrow spaces. It’s also easier to learn – and more consistent – than a sweep roll, although it requires a bit more initial setup.

Pros

  • Deep stability and fast execution 
  • Easier to learn 
  • Suitable for narrow spaces 

Cons

  • More initial setup 
  • Paddle’s blade goes deeper into the water 

Screw Roll (Sweep Roll) 

When you hear someone talk about learning to roll a kayak, the sweep – or screw – roll is likely what they have in mind. It’s the most commonly used safety roll; one a beginner would pick up first. 

It’s slightly more challenging to learn than the C to C roll and isn’t the best for narrow spaces. However, it requires less setup and offers more support from your paddle.

Pros

  • Ideal for open and flat water 
  • Keeps you protected 
  • More support from the paddle 
  • Less setup for the roll 

Cons

  • More challenging than the C to C roll 
  • Takes up space on the water 

Reverse Sweep (Back Deck Roll) 

If you find yourself leaning back against your kayak, this recovery method – known as the reverse sweep, back deck roll or reverse screw – is your best bet. You don’t have to position yourself for a proper safety roll, minimizing time spent upside down.

It’s pretty much the standard screw roll done backward and is relatively easy to perform – even when you’re in a less-than-ideal position. 

Pros

  • Helpful when you roll in backward 
  • Minimizes time spent upside down

Cons

  • Hard to maintain a connection with the kayak 

Hand Roll 

It’s what it sounds like – a kayak roll performed without a paddle, using only your hands. You form a fin-like shape with your hands and thrust against the water while doing a hip snap. 

It’s a cool trick to see – but a hard one to execute correctly. Still, this hands-only technique can be a real lifesaver if you capsize and lose your paddle in the process.

Pros

  • Go-to recovery for when you lose the paddle
  • Confidence-boosting move 
  • Quicker to set up underwater 

Cons

  • Advanced, hard-to-execute technique 

What is the Best Kayak Roll?

World champion kayaker and TV personality Ken Whiting has made an excellent video on this very topic – but as you will see its dependent on a number of factors, such as; skill, type of kayaking, the person and their personal preference. 

For example whitewater kayak and sea kayaking will often opt different methods; with whitewater paddlers preferring the C method, and sea kayakers the sweep or storm roll.

Why Is It Important To Learn To Roll A Kayak? 

kayaker in open water performing eskimo roll

Next to learning proper paddling technique, safety rolling is an essential skill every paddle needs to master.

If you have a sit-on-top kayak with no cockpit to keep you strapped in, you’ll fall off the second you flip your boat. But with a sit-inside kayak, knowing how to “right” yourself if you capsize is one of the most useful skills you will learn. 

Sure, if you already know how to do a wet exit, learning to roll a kayak may not be mandatory. 

However, most kayakers know that a wet exit won’t always be the ideal solution, especially in fast-moving waters and whitewater rapids where you want to stay inside your yak. That’s where a reliable roll comes in as the preferred – and often confidence-boosting – maneuver. 

How And Where Should Beginners Learn To Roll? 

It would be best if you didn’t have to worry about water temperature, strong currents, or any other obstacles while performing a roll. The ideal water conditions for first time paddlers would be calm, clear, and warm waters – a swimming pool, for example. 

As your skills improve, you can up the difficulty – but do so gradually. Honestly, I wouldn’t head into dynamic waters until I’ve performed at least 100 successful rolls in calm flat water.

Also, remember that even though you’ll be learning how to roll a kayak in a safe and controlled environment, you still can’t do it alone. Have someone with you as you’re trying to master the roll – and an experienced instructor makes a difference between frustration and success. 

How Long Does It Take To Learn To Roll A Kayak? 

A successful kayak roll doesn’t come easy to everyone. Everyone has different physical skills, learning styles, and body awareness levels; some may pull it off after the first session, and others will take longer than that. 

Generally speaking, two or three 90-minute sessions with a good instructor should be enough to grasp the dynamics and hit your first unassisted roll. However, you’re looking at weeks – if not months – of regular practice, either way.

Fundamental Principles Of Rolling Your Kayak Explained 

whitewater kayaker rolling a kayak

Core rolling techniques all come down to the same two principles: 

  • Your Head Is The Last To Come Out – The golden rule of performing a kayak roll is hips first, shoulders second, and head last. Always make sure that your head is coming out of the water last, no exceptions. 
  • Hip Snap Is Crucial For A Successful Roll – It may seem that you’re relying on your paddle throughout the roll, but the truth is, your hips are doing most of the work here. Your paddle is there for support and leverage, but it’s the hip snap that moves the kayak back into an upright position. 

Hip Snap Practice Drill 

Before you start working on your rolls, take some time to get a feel for how to engage your hips to “right” your kayak. I guess that it probably isn’t something you’re used to doing. 

You’ll need a helper for this one – someone to hold your hands and support you as you roll your kayak. 

Here’s how to do a hip snap drill

  • Your helper should stand along the side of the kayak in waist-deep water and hold your hands. 
  • With your helper still supporting you, tip the kayak over so that your head is in the water, but your face isn’t fully submerged. 
  • Use your hips and try to roll the kayak back to an upright position and bring your body out of the water. 

There’s no need to do endless repetitions – but you should repeat it enough times to get an idea of how to work your hips and watch your form. 

From there, you should be ready to add a paddle into the mix. 

How Do You Roll A Kayak – Detailed Guide & Instructions

man rolling with a kayak on a lake

The two most common kayak rolls beginners should learn – and the ones I’ll show in this step-by-step guide – are the C to C and sweep roll. 

The specific steps and techniques outlined below are going to look slightly different when performed in real-world conditions. You must still work on correct rolling form – and with enough practice, your rolls will become more intuitive. 

It would also be great if you had an experienced helper nearby as you practice rolling – someone who can point out any necessary adjustments or jump in if you need help. 

With that in mind, let’s get to work!

Preparing For The Roll 

Sweep roll and C to C roll both start from the same position. It’s easier to get the basics of rolling a kayak that way, with your paddle and body already in the right place for the roll. 

But, again, in real-world circumstances, you’ll likely have to make some adjustments to get your body in the correct position. 

During this setup stage, your goal should be going from a normal, upright position to an upside-down, fully-submerged position, with your paddle and body ready to go. 

Here’s how to prepare for the roll

  • Hold your paddle so that it’s parallel to the kayak, with the blade’s power face pointing up and sitting flat against the water’s surface. 
  • Tuck your head forward and lean your body toward the paddle to make your kayak tip over. 
  • Once the kayak’s flipped and you’re underwater, move your head toward the surface and as far out from your kayak as possible. 
  • Keep your forearms pressed against the kayak’s sides; your paddle should sit above the surface of the water. 

Bonus Tip

If you’re right-handed, begin your roll with the paddle on your left side, and if you’re left-handed, you’ll start the roll with the paddle on your right. 

How To Do A Sweep Roll: Step-By-Step Guide 

When you’re first learning how to roll a kayak, the sweep or screw roll is generally the best place to start. This fundamental, commonly used technique is like kayak rolling 101. 

Here’s how to do a sweep roll

  • Swing the paddle’s front blade away from the kayak, forming an arch in the water. 
  • Watch the blade moving through the water with your head still submerged. 
  • Start applying downward pressure as the paddle moves closer to a 90-degree angle. 
  • Once it’s at a 90-degree angle and you can feel the support from it, snap your kayak back into an upright position using your hips. 
  • Roll yourself up and out of the water along the kayak’s back deck. 

How To Do A C To C Roll: Step-By-Step Guide 

Whitewater kayakers typically prefer the C to C roll as it is more reliable in rough conditions. 

Remember that you start with the paddle at a 90-degree angle – unlike the sweep roll – before applying downward pressure. 

Here’s how to do a C to C roll

  • Swing your paddle’s front blade along the surface of the water so that it’s positioned at roughly 90 degrees to the kayak’s hull.
  • Make sure the blade stays close to the surface. 
  • Watch the paddle moving through the water. 
  • Press your left forearm against the kayak’s side so that it acts as a pivot point. 
  • Start applying downward pressure and continue doing so until you can feel the support from the outstretched paddle blade. 
  • Use your hips to snap your kayak back into an upright position once you can feel that support. 
  • Roll yourself out of the water along the kayak’s back deck. 

Kayak Rolls: Top Tips & Mistakes To Avoid 

rolling a kayak Tips and Tricks

Doing your first successful kayak roll is a huge milestone for every paddler – and a good indicator of how much their skills have improved. The learning process will be anything but smooth and easy, though. 

If you’re working on nailing your first kayak roll and you’re hitting some roadblocks along the way, check out the tips and common mistakes outlined below! 

  • Learn how to perform a wet exit before you start working on your rolls; consider this a mandatory prerequisite. 
  • Keep your head down; it should be the last part of your body to resurface when you’re performing a roll. Press your ear against the shoulder if it helps you resist the urge to lift your head. 
  • Watch the positioning of your body and head because the farther out to the side you are, the more efficient the hip snap. You should be able to see your kayak’s side before starting the roll. 
  • Control your finish to avoid losing balance and tipping over to the other side. Avoid leaning too far back or looking up; keep your eyes on the active blade until the very end.
  • Don’t apply downward pressure too early into the roll, as you won’t get enough support to perform a hip snap. Make sure the paddle is in the right position first. 

How To Roll A Kayak: Summary 

The more you practice how to roll a kayak, the more comfortable you become when you find yourself upside down in the water, strapped inside your kayak, and unable to breathe. 

Sure, it still sounds scary as heck when you put it like that – but at least you have your training to rely on in such a dangerous scenario. You know the fundamental principles of rolling a kayak, and you’ve practiced the steps until they pretty much became an instinctual response. 

Repeat after me: 

I’ve got this. 

It’s that confidence that makes a crucial difference between panicking and rolling right up to continue your kayaking adventure as if nothing happened.