Insanely Helpful Kayaking Tips For Beginners: Everything First-Time Paddlers Should Know

Getting into kayaking can be intimidating – taking up a new sport always is. But just because there’s a lot you need to figure out doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.  I’d say that the challenge makes it ten times more fun! But to stay safe and ensure that everything ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

Getting into kayaking can be intimidating – taking up a new sport always is. But just because there’s a lot you need to figure out doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. 

I’d say that the challenge makes it ten times more fun!

But to stay safe and ensure that everything goes smoothly, there are some kayaking tips for beginners you should be aware of before pushing off the shoreline.

Follow the advice outlined below, and you’ll be hitting the waters with confidence in no time! 

Beginner Kayaking 101: Master Essential Kayaking Skills First

Master Essential Kayaking Skills

Kayaking doesn’t need to be hard and is a super easy sport to learn but a difficult one to master.  

Which brings me nicely to my first, of many, beginner kayaking tips; the single most crucial advice I have for first-time paddlers is to start with the basicslearn how to kayak, as in, work on mastering your kayaking skills.

That’s the foundation of everything else you’ll do on the water and the single most crucial step in ensuring everything goes as smoothly as possible.

Learn How To Get In & Out Of A Kayak

You’re not going anywhere until you learn how to get in and out of a kayak.

Wait, isn’t getting in supposed to be the easy part?

Well, not quite. Transitioning from solid ground to water doesn’t always go as smoothly as you’d imagine.

I didn’t get it right at first – and while I’m not saying you won’t, it’s probably better to inform yourself on how to do it right, just to be on the safe side. All it takes is practice; you’ll figure it out and get over the initial wobbliness pretty quickly. 

The three methods of launching a kayak you should work on are:

  • Getting into a kayak from the shore
  • Getting into a kayak from a dock
  • Getting into a kayak from the water 
How to Get In and Out of a Kayak

Skip this part, and you’ll likely be in for an unplanned swim before you even launch your kayak and start paddling.

As for getting out of a kayak, the instructions couldn’t be more straightforward:

Just complete the steps in reverse. 

Learn Proper Kayak Paddling Technique

Learning how to paddle a kayak isn’t rocket science. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t need to dedicate some time to learning the basics.

Before you set out on your first outing, make sure that you know:

  • How to hold a kayak paddle, orient it correctly, and maintain the so-called paddler’s box
  • How to perform basic paddle strokes, focusing on the forward, reverse, sweep, and draw strokes
  • How to perform basic turns and maneuver your kayak 
Kayaking Expert Advice: Basic Strokes

Take a class, or get instruction from an experienced paddler, but just make sure to spend the time to learn proper paddling techniques as a beginner, and you’ll set solid foundations for growing as a kayaker. Plus, a good paddle stroke will help reduce fatigue, prevent paddling-related injuries, allow you to control your kayak more efficiently – and make your outings more enjoyable overall.

Top tipA sure-fire way of spotting a newbie or first timer out on the water is that they have the paddle blades around the wrong way!  Not only will this radically reduce the paddle’s effectiveness, it also makes you look like a complete dumbo!  

As a general rule; the brand’s sticker will be on the front of the paddle blade.  Looking at the blade face, the sticker will be readable if the blade is up the right way.

Learn River Hand Signals

Many beginner paddlers fail to realize how loud rivers can be. You’d be surprised how easily the noise of turbulent, flowing water can drown your ability to communicate. And as you spend more time on the water, you learn how vital it is to keep in contact with everyone in the group.

But yelling at the top of your lungs isn’t how you want to spend your day, huh?

The good news is that there’s a series of signals and hand gestures that allow kayakers to communicate on the water. So, if you’ll be kayaking in a group – and you should – it might be a good idea to learn the most commonly used signals.

River signals - How to Kayak - Paddle Education

You never know when these can come in handy. 

Learn How To Perform A Self-Rescue

One of the essential kayaking lessons you should master as a beginner is safety-related – but that shouldn’t surprise you. After all, spending time on the water carries some inherent risks.

You may not capsize right away the first time you hit the water – but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared for it, anyway.

Kayaking | How to Self-Rescue || REI

That’s why I recommend that you practice basic self-rescue drills – preferably in a controlled environment and with a paddling instructor – focusing on the following:

  • Learning how to roll your kayak to recover from capsizing without getting out of the ‘yak
  • Learning how to perform a wet exit to get out of a flipped ‘yak safely
  • Learning how to re-enter the kayak by performing a kayak T-rescue, paddle float rescue, or the scramble self-rescue 

Consider this a part of personal preparedness and responsibility.

Kayaking Tips For Beginners: 18 Tips First-Time Paddlers Should Know

So far, the things I talked about are mere basics, essential skills you need to master before you consider launching your kayak. We’ve barely scratched the surface, though.

There’s more you need to know and be aware of as you’re getting into kayaking.

So, continue reading for 18 more must-know beginner kayaking tips!

1. Join A Kayaking Club

Kayaker taking a lesson at a Kayaking Club
Image courtesy of Club Nautic Garraf (CC BY 2.0)

If you currently don’t have anyone who shares your interest in kayaking, I recommend joining a local kayaking club. You’re bound to find lots of like-minded people there – and possibly make some life-long friendships, too!

Here are some benefits of joining a kayaking club as a beginner:

  • You’ll be a part of a large kayaking community, where you can meet new people and even make a friend or two 
  • You’ll have a chance to learn from more experienced paddlers in the group and discover new techniques
  • Being a part of a group is safer than kayaking alone
  • You’ll find new places to go kayaking
  • If the club offers equipment and kayak rentals and storage services, it will be a low-cost way to get into the sport 

Not only will the company of other kayaking enthusiasts make every trip that much more fun and enjoyable, but it allows beginners to pick up some proven tips and tricks from fellow paddlers. 

2. Choose The Right Kayak

3 Kayaks on a rack - shine from kayak wax

A good kayak is half the battle. So, if you haven’t invested in a kayak yet, I’d like you to keep a few things in mind.

One, be sure to choose the right type of kayak – one that suits your needs and ability, the kind of kayaking you’re interested in, and one that you can store and transport easily. There are so many different types of kayaks out there, a whole range of shapes and sizes, from long and narrow to tiny, six-foot playboats.

On that note, you’ll want to start with a beginner-friendly recreational kayak

And two, while I get that kayaks can be pricey, it’s better to buy from a reputable kayak brand – even if it means spending a bit more initially. I’m not saying you should spend a fortune, but it’s essential to choose your kayak wisely.

A good kayak – one that’s stable, comfortable, and durable – will foster your love of kayaking.

For some great beginner kayak recommendations, make sure to check out my article of the top 12 best kayaks for beginners. If you’re on a budget, the Ascend Kayak product range is worth a look – they offer some well-equipped ‘yaks at reasonable prices.

3. Always Wear A Life Jacket (PFD)

Caucasian man kayaker paddling on the river in life jacket

Kayaking is a fun and popular water activity, but it’s important to remember that there are many rules and regulations that must be followed to ensure safety on the water. One of the most important regulations is the requirement to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) or life jacket.

In most cases, wearing a life jacket will be required by law. But even if it’s not, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. You should always wear a PFD; that’s non-negotiable. Safety should never be up for debate. 

You, your kids – heck, even your dog; anyone who’s going kayaking should be wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) .

And yes, that goes for strong swimmers and those going on short trips on calm waters, too. It’s the one thing that could save your life on the water and should be worn at all times. Period. 

4. Invest In A Decent Paddle

Close up of carbon kayak paddle in water

Sure, a budget-friendly, starter-kit paddle might suffice for the first couple of outings – but you’ll probably outgrow it pretty fast. That’s why I firmly believe that a paddle should be one of the first upgrades you make as you get more serious about kayaking.

No one expects you to invest money in a high-end, performance paddle made from Carbon fiber straight away. 

Again, having the right equipment is half the battle. Your choice of kayak paddle certainly makes a difference in your performance, more than you may realize in the very beginning. I’m speaking from personal experience here.

So with that in mind, make sure you get the correct paddle size and with a high or low angle paddle blade, depending on your paddling style. 

5. Dress For The Water, Not The Weather

Whats to wear kayaking - wetsuit and kayaking shoes drying on a rock

Cold shock and hypothermia rank pretty high on the list of kayaking dangers. It’s not something to take lightly – ever. And that brings me to the number one rule of choosing your kayaking attire:

Dress for the water, not the weather.

Stay away from cotton, and choose quick-drying, moisture-wicking fabrics, instead. And if the temperatures drop – think 60 degrees Fahrenheit or lower – be sure to wear a wetsuit or a dry suit, depending on how severe the conditions are

6. Buy A Dry Bag & Make Sure You Know How To Use It

There’s nothing that’ll ruin your outing faster than finding that all your valuables – smartphone, camera, wallet, and such – got damaged by water. In that sense, waterproof storage, such as dry bags, for example, are pretty much invaluable.

That brings us to a vital but often overlooked piece of advice for beginner kayakers:

Learn how to use a dry bag.

Yes, there’s a right and wrong way – and not knowing how to use a dry bag defeats the whole purpose of getting it in the first place.

How To Seal A Dry Bag

You’d be surprised how often I see paddlers using their dry bags the wrong way, causing them to unroll and leak. Don’t repeat other people’s mistakes; here’s the correct way to pack and fold a dry bag:

7. Pack A Change Of Clothes

Put that dry bag of yours to good use and pack some spare clothes in it. No, seriously, I advise you to pack extra clothes: 

It doesn’t matter how careful you are; getting wet is pretty much unavoidable.

You’ll appreciate having a change of clothes and a towel on hand when you’re done paddling for the day. It’ll make your trip home a lot more pleasant. If you’re planning an overnight stay, being able to change into a dry set of clothes becomes that much more critical.

It’s a matter of both comfort and good hygiene – especially for female paddlers. Even more so, it gives you a chance to air-dry your kayaking clothes before packing up.  

8. Make Sure You Can Be Seen

Kayak lights for kayaking at night - Man rowing kayak in the rain falling, evening light

I generally don’t think that it’s a good idea to go kayaking in low light conditions if you’re new to the sport. Kayaking at night can carry some inherent challenges that you, as a beginner, might not be prepared to deal with right now.

But if you can’t avoid it, the best piece of advice I can give you is to make sure that others can see you on the water.

There are several things you can do to ensure this, including:

  • Display a white light with 360-degree visibility when kayaking at night
  • Choose bright-colored clothing to make yourself more visible
  • Add reflective tape to your paddle and the sides of your kayak
  • Keep a noisemaker, like a signaling whistle or an air horn, onboard 

9. Pack A Roll Of Duct Tape

Duck tape

You probably wouldn’t think of duct tape as part of kayaking essentials, and to be frank, I don’t blame you for it. A paddle, a PFD, a kayak, a water bottle – possibly a dry bag and a few other items; that’s what most people would grab when heading out on the water.

But duct tape?

It rarely – if ever – ranks high on your list of must-have kayaking gear. Still, I’d say – and I think most outdoor enthusiasts would agree with me on this – you shouldn’t leave your home without it. Few things are as valuable as duct tape when you’re in a bind.

Need rope? Twisted duct tape will do. Found a tear? Patch it up with duct tape. There’s a crack in your paddle’s shaft? Tape it up. Need to secure loose items and prevent them from sliding all over the kayak’s deck? Use duct tape.

10. Always Carry A Bilge Pump 

This piece of advice is most relevant for those who have a sit-inside kayak. If you got yourself a sit-on-top, you could get away with not using a bilge pump since your kayak probably features scupper holes as part of its self-bailing design.

Kayak- Manual Bilge Pump

But like I said, for sit-in kayaks, a bilge pump is a must-have piece of gear. It’s the only way for you to remove excess water from the cockpit effectively – especially when paddling in rougher waters or trying to recover from capsizing your kayak.

11. Make Sure Your Kayak Is Set Up Correctly

First and foremost, make sure that you maintain good posture. You want to be sitting straight, with your legs out in front of you, knees slightly bent, and resting against the kayak’s side. That way, you’ll maintain stability and better control of the kayak.

Remember that nothing should feel tense or uncomfortable.

There’s a reason why kayaks – including the seat and foot and thigh braces – are adjustable. A well-adjusted kayak is a lot more comfortable to paddle. You’d be silly to skip this step.

Fine-tune the backrest so that it supports your lower back. Next, adjust the footpegs as needed to ensure that you can rest the balls of your feet on them while maintaining a slight bend in your knees and firm contact with the thigh braces. 

12. Stay Hydrated

Stay Hydrated

For some, bringing a water bottle everywhere they go is a no-brainer. But others might assume – wrongly, might I add – that, for short paddling trips, hydration isn’t that big of a deal. And it’s often the people who don’t realize how fast your body gets dehydrated that make this mistake.

In reality, any physical activity can quickly deplete your body’s water levels, leaving you feeling fatigued and light-headed – and your performance will suffer, too. Even if you’re kayaking at a leisurely pace, you’ll still put nearly all your muscles to work.

Our bodies are engines that require fluids to function correctly; it’s that simple.

So, whether you choose to bring your water bottle or a fancy hydration bladder, that’s entirely up to you. But I urge you to get in the habit of drinking enough water when you set out paddling. And by “enough,” I mean – take regular sips of water every 15 to 20 minutes. 

13. Don’t Drink And Boat

Kayak DUI- Kayak BUI- Group of young Caucasian people drinking beer on a wooden pier.

I know the idea of paddling to a remote location and having a few beers with your buddies does seem like a pretty neat way to spend a summer afternoon, but I cannot stress this enough:

Drinking and driving – or, in this case, boating – is a bad idea.

One, you’ll likely end up with a BUI if you get caught because boating under the influence is, in fact, illegal in most countries worldwide. And two, you’ll be endangering yourself and others and could end up causing a potentially fatal boating accident.

Roughly 23% of fatal boating accidents in 2019 have alcohol listed as the leading contributing factor.

Does that number sound scary or what? 

14. Make Sure Your Kayak Is Registered

kayak registration -rubber stamps marked with regulations and rules

Everyone knows that their car should be registered and wouldn’t dare driving around without a valid registration and license plate – but a kayak? Who bothers registering a kayak?

It’s something that can be easy to overlook when you’re first getting into kayaking since it’s not talked about very often. Still, yes, kayaks need to be registered, too – just like any other vehicles and motor-powered vessels do.

Sure, laws can vary, but many states – including Washington, DC, Ohio, Minnesota, Iowa, and Pennsylvania – require recreational non-powered vessels to be registered.

So, check with local authorities, register your kayak, and have the current state sticker (decal), proof of ownership, and registration card on board at all times. 

15. Plan Your Trip

Float Plan WaterSportsWhiz (1)

Start with choosing a place to go kayaking – preferably a small, calm body of water – and then research the area as thoroughly as possible. I don’t recommend trying to be spontaneous while you’re still new to kayaking; there will be plenty of time for that later when your skills improve – first timers should leave whitewater kayaking and class 2 plus rapids until they are a little more experienced. 

And even then, I’d still advise you to plan your outings.

That will allow you to identify any potential hazards – like low-head dams or wildlife encounters – in the area, as well as sections of the route that might require portaging. Plus, it allows you to determine which course best suits your current skill level and prepare for it accordingly.

Another thing you should consider doing is creating a float plan. Of course, this depends on the length of your kayaking trip and where you’ll be paddling, but it’s best to let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to be back, anyway. 

16. Check The Weather Forecast & Water Conditions

Adventurous girl on a red kayak is kayaking towards a thunderstorm

Kayaking in light rain and drizzle won’t be a big deal – but paddling your way through heavy rain will most definitely affect your time on the water.

So, yes, I suggest that you always check the weather forecast before heading out, not only the day of the trip but a few days prior to it, too. If there’s been heavy rain in the last couple of days, and there’s a chance of flooding and debris, it might be a good idea to postpone.

The same goes for water conditions. Keep an eye on tide predictions, water temperature – and make sure that you understand how weather conditions, like wind, can affect the water. 

17. Don’t Kayak Alone

group of kayakers on a trip down the river

When you’re still new to the sport, it’s easy to get nervous or make some beginner’s mistakes on the water. And having someone there – especially if they’re more experienced than you – can make things a bit less nerve-racking.

I generally advise people against paddling alone, regardless of their experience. However, when you’re a beginner, being a part of a paddling group becomes crucial.

Team up with another kayaker or two. You’ll see that it’s more fun – and not to mention, safer – that way. Plus, it can be a great learning opportunity for you, too.

There’s safety in numbers; remember that as you head out on the water for the first time. 

18. Kayaks Can Be Replaced – People Can’t

Hand coming up from underwater at night

You’ve spent quite a bit on your kayak; I get that. But should things go south, don’t put the boat first.

I know that might sound obvious right now – but all too often, people tend to lose sight of what matters most in distressful, panic-inducing situations.

So, let’s just get one thing straight:

Always go for the paddler first. You should rescue kayaks and other equipment, but only if you can do it safely.

You can always replace the kayak – but you can never replace a human life.

Yes, you’re allowed to mourn the loss of your new ‘yak or that perfect paddle you just got. That’s fine. But you should never – ever – prioritize gear over your fellow paddlers.

Beginner Kayak Tips: Summary 

So, there you have it; a list of must-know kayaking tips for beginners that will ensure your first kayaking experience goes as smoothly as possible. I’m confident that, as long as you remember what we talked about today and put in a little practice, you’ll be able to master this new hobby of yours in no time.

Use these bits of knowledge as the foundation for building your paddling skills, have fun – and, most importantly, stay safe! 

Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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