Kayak beginners will love this list of 12 first-time kayaking tips & tricks that will help to ease your learning curve. Fortunately, kayaking isn’t an overly technical skill.
That being said, your safety on the water requires you to learn technical skills like how to self-rescue or how to execute an Eskimo roll. Some kayakers will only use these maneuvers a handful of times in their lives.
Of course, certain types of kayaking (such as whitewater versus recreational paddling) require more technical skills than others.
In short, the more difficult your style of paddling, the more time you will spend mastering the skills required to do it safely. This article, however, focuses on tips and tricks that all first-time kayakers can benefit from when learning this amazing sport.
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First-Time Kayaking Tips For Beginners
- Tip #1. Wear a PFD (And Put It On Correctly!)
- Tip #2. Choose The Right Type of Kayak
- Tip #3. Choose a Beginner-Friendly Launch Location
- Tip #4. Plan Your Route Smartly
- Tip #5. Pick a Day with Good Weather
- Tip #6. Pack Appropriately
- Tip #7. Get Your Posture Correct
- Tip #8. Get Familiar With How Your Kayak Seat Adjusts
- Tip #9. Activate Your Core With Each Paddle Stroke
- Tip #10. Avoid Excessive Leaning
- Tip #11. Play with Multiple Hand Positions
- Tip #12. Consider The Angle of Your Paddle
- Bonus Tip #13. Don’t Kayak Alone!
- Final Thoughts
- Enjoyed 12 First Time Kayaking Tips & Tricks? Share it with your friends so they too can follow the Kayakhelp journey.
In outlining these tips for first-time kayakers, I tried to keep them in a logical order. You can progress through them as you prepare for your kayaking outing to make sure you have a safe and educational time on the water.
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The vast majority of all major kayaking incidents could have been prevented if a kayaking life vest had been worn (or worn properly) by the participant. Sure, some places only legally require that you have a PFD on your kayak, but they do not insist that you wear it at all times.
Unfortunately, if something unexpected happens that causes you to enter the water and become separated from your kayak, a kayak fishing PFD that is strapped to the bungee cord at the bow of your kayak isn’t going to do much good for you once you are already swimming.
If you go to a popular launching location near you, you should see most of the experienced kayakers there wearing life jackets. It is the smartest thing you can do to guarantee your safety on the water and it is a must for beginners.
Simply putting your life vest over your shoulders isn’t enough to make it actually work effectively for you when you need it. Follow these quick tips to make sure you are wearing your PFD correctly:
- Put your arms through the armholes or slide the PFD on over your head (depending on the style)
- Buckle all buckles or secure the zipper
- Tighten down all straps until snug
- Place thumbs underneath shoulder straps and attempt to lift the PFD up
- If you are able to lift the shoulder straps higher than the tops of your ears, the straps need to be tighter or you need to choose a smaller PFD
The idea behind this technique is to simulate what will happen to your PFD when you enter the water. If it is too loose, it will slide right off your torso and leave you swimming without any extra buoyancy.
If you would like to see a visual version of the PFD fitting process we outlined above, check out this video!
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Choosing the right type of kayak for your first time is kind of like installing training wheels before learning how to ride a bicycle. Certain types of kayaks are more beginner-friendly than others and there are various reasons why this is the case.
First of all, using a highly specialized kayak for your first time on the water is likely to lead to frustration quickly. Picking one of the best sea kayaks that are designed for long-distance expeditions, for example, is likely to cause beginners to struggle with maneuverability.
These kayaks aren’t intended to make quick turns and, instead, they are specialized for long-distance efficiency. When you are kayaking for the first time, however, the difference between a kayak that can average two miles per hour versus one that can average close to five miles per hour shouldn’t be your top priority.
That is why we recommend that first-time kayakers start out with one of the best sit-on-top kayaks for recreational paddling. These kayaks are easy to enter and exit, easy to maneuver, and highly forgiving for beginners.
They also naturally drain water out of the cockpit through the use of scupper holes that are built into the hull. This is really important for beginners who are more likely to capsize than experienced paddlers.
If you capsize in a sit-in kayak, the cockpit can create a seal with the surface of the water that makes it much harder to flip the kayak back over. Once you do, you will also find a lot of water inside the cockpit that you will need a bilge pump to remove.
Sit-in kayaks also require a more technical approach to re-entering that requires more upper body and core strength than sit-on-top kayaks. For all of these reasons, first-time kayakers should always be using a sit-on-top kayak.
If for some reason the location you are thinking of paddling in doesn’t offer this style of kayak, there may be an underlying reason that should make you think twice about paddling in that location for your first time.
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The next first-time kayaking trick you can use to your advantage is to choose an easy launch location. This looks like a nice sandy beach with a gentle or even a boat ramp that isn’t crowded with expensive bass boats.
Rocky shorelines are not recommended for beginners because they make it more difficult to keep your footing when climbing in and out of your kayak. They also create more of an injury risk for you and a higher likelihood of damage to your kayak.
Steep shorelines also make it difficult to enter and exit a kayak because it is simply harder to balance on steep ground in general. You will also need to enter your kayak from a higher angle, which increases the likelihood of immediately capsizing if your weight shifts too far in one direction.
This is the same reason why we also do not recommend that first-time kayakers start from an elevated dock. Unless the dock is equipped with ADA-accessible kayak launch ramps, the higher-angled entry can be difficult for beginners.
So, to summarize once again, a nice, warm sandy beach with a very gentle slope from the beach into the water is the best-case scenario for first-time kayakers.
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As a kayak guide on Lake Tahoe, I have steered countless first-time kayakers away from getting into their kayak and paddling straight out towards the middle of the lake.
Of course, with a lake that is 22 miles long and 12 miles wide, they would never get anywhere close to the actual center regardless of having my help or not.
The point here is that a really important first-time kayaking tip is to plan your route to go along a shoreline instead of away from one. Ideally, that shoreline also has several different options for beaches you can pull your kayak up onto if you need a break.
When planning your route, you should also consider emergency exit locations. If all goes according to plan, you will likely start and finish at the same lakefront beach or boat ramp.
If something goes awry or you find that kayaking is a whole lot more tiring than you thought it would be, it is always smart to have one or two emergency exits you can fall back on just in case.
Sure, this might mean that you have to hitch a ride or call an Uber to get back to your car before returning to pick up your kayak. That is a whole lot better of an alternative than getting so tired that you put yourself (and other kayakers/boaters on the water with you) in danger.
In addition, first-time kayakers should mostly be paddling on shallow lakes or ponds with friendly shorelines. This will allow you to go for as short or as long of a paddle as you feel comfortable with while providing plenty of chances for breaks or emergency exit points if you need them.
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There is quite possibly nothing that could ruin your first kayaking outing more than getting caught in really bad weather. It is hard to enjoy any type of outdoor recreation when it is cold and raining, for example, and kayaking is no different.
With kayaking, however, wind becomes a much more important weather factor to consider than it often is for hiking and other forms of land-based outdoor recreation. Even if it’s completely sunny and there is zero rain in the forecast, wind can ruin even the best-laid kayak plans.
Ideally, you pick a day with temperatures about 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit, zero chance of precipitation, and little to no wind. If you do have to contend with wind, try to pick a day where maximum wind speeds are less than 10 miles per hour.
Wind will have a larger impact on larger bodies of water and sustained winds can create large waves that threaten to capsize even experienced kayakers. Smaller bodies of water tend to be more wind-protected, but wind can also reduce the overall air temperature dramatically.
We could dive really deep into the specifics of how weather impacts kayakers and how to prepare for cold weather kayaking, but we want to keep things simpler here. If it is a day where you would be comfortable laying out on the beach in boardshorts or a bikini, it is probably a good day for your first kayaking adventure.
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The next thing that first-time kayakers need to learn is how to pack appropriately. You do not have to learn how to pack a kayak for camping when you are just starting out, but you definitely need the basics for a safe paddle.
This includes the following items (at an absolute minimum):
- Drinking water
- First Aid Kit
- Extra clothing layers in a dry bag (i.e. to replace all wet layers if you capsize unexpectedly)
- Waterproof phone case (to keep your phone safe in case you need it for an emergency call)
- An extra kayak paddle (better to have it and not need it than to get stuck up the creek without a paddle)
- A tow line (in case you get tired or injured and need to be towed back to shore)
There is a much longer list of essential kayaking safety equipment that you should also consider adding to your kayak as your experience grows and tour outings get longer.
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Many first-time kayakers get tired quickly because they are not practicing proper kayaking posture. When you sit in your kayak, your back should be relatively upright and your shoulders should be over your hips.
With your feet, find the footrests that allow you to bend your knees slightly. This is where many beginners go wrong and they simply lay their legs flat inside the cockpit of the kayak.
By placing your feet in the footrests that allow for a slight knee bend, you will be able to gently push into the footrests to keep your back upright. This will also help you engage your core and reduce the likelihood of lower back pain as your day progresses.
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Now, although the most ergonomic paddle position is to have a straight back, you should also feel comfortable in your kayak. So before you even begin paddling, take a second to get familiar with how the seat adjusts.
If it has straps at your hips, play with them to learn how they help you recline further or retain that upright position. Knowing how to adjust your kayak seat before you get out on the water will help you make micro-adjustments to keep yourself comfortable once you start paddling.
Some aluminum-framed kayak seats only offer 2-3 set positions for you to toggle through. Whether your seat has straps adjustments or a toggle-style option, you just need to know how it works before you start paddling.
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Coming back to our earlier point about how to sit with the correct posture in your kayak, this posture will also allow you to engage your core muscles with each paddle stroke. Ideally, your entire torso twists ever so slightly from side to side with each paddle stroke.
Many first-time kayakers do not even realize that they are using their core muscles when they paddle. If you are leaning too far back in your kayak seat, for example, you will only be using your shoulders, biceps, and triceps when you paddle.
This is going to cause these muscles to become fatigued much more quickly and it will shorten your kayak outings. While you shouldn’t be envisioning 5-6 hour excursions on your first time, it is also the best time to start building proper paddling habits.
Consciously think about engaging your core muscles as you are pulling the blade of your kayak through the water. This will naturally cause your body to twist slightly towards where your blade is in the water and it has the added benefit of giving you a more complete upper body workout on your first kayaking trip.
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Perhaps the best trick for first-time kayakers I have heard is in relation to how to keep your kayak stable. For many beginners, the fear of capsizing is the number one factor that causes them to cut their trip short or not explore kayaking at all.
If you are worried about stability, the best advice I have heard is to be conscious about keeping your nose over your belly button once you are seated in your kayak. As we mentioned above, your torso can twist slightly in the cockpit, but you shouldn’t be excessively leaning in one direction or the other.
Leaning tends to happen to beginners when they feel like they aren’t going fast enough. There is a natural tendency to lean over in order to get the blade of the paddle deeper into the water in an attempt to generate more power.
The further that your center of gravity moves away from the centerline of your kayak, however, the more likely you are to capsize. So keeping your nose and belly button aligned with that centerline is the best way for beginners to remain stable and it is especially important if you are learning how to kayak without knowing how to swim.
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I have also noticed that many first-time kayakers develop blisters quickly. These blisters tend to occur on the insides of the thumbs where the thumb rubs against the shaft of the kayak paddle.
To avoid this discomfort, you can play with multiple hand positions. This includes wrapping your thumbs underneath the shaft of the paddle (normal), wrapping them back up and over the top of the paddle shaft (variation #1), and placing them along the paddle shaft (variation #2).
These two variations will feel weird to you if you are trying them for the first time, but they are meant to give you relief from the rubbing that causes first-time kayakers so much irritation.
To be clear, I don’t recommend sliding your hands closer together or further apart on the shaft of your paddle. Your hand placement along the paddle shaft should form a paddler’s box (a rectangle between your arms bent at 90 degrees and the shaft of your paddle) when you place the center point of the paddle shaft on top of your head.
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One of my final tips for first-time kayakers is to consider the angle of your paddle. There is no reason for beginners to have a paddle that is nearly vertical because it increases the amount of effort you expend per paddle stroke.
Keep a low-angled paddle stroke to exert less energy and find a rhythm that allows you to take your mind off paddling for a moment and enjoy the beautiful scenery around you!
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Bonus tip! Don’t go alone or, better yet, sign up for an Introduction to Kayaking course. These are typically offered by local recreation districts or private kayak guide companies.
If you aren’t able to find a course, look on social media to see if there are any kayaking groups in your region. Join a group to help you meet other local kayakers with more experience than yourself.
It will also help you meet people with similar interests and add to your motivation to kayak more frequently. Ultimately, kayaking is like any skill and your ability will steadily improve with practice.
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Follow these first-time kayaking tips and tricks to enjoy safe outings while you are learning the basics of how to paddle a kayak. We hope you have found them useful and follow them diligently while you are introduced to the wonderful world of kayaking!