How to Kayak: All You Need to Know to Paddle Like a Pro

Last Updated: December 2020

New to kayaking?

Have no fear! 

This beginner's guide to kayaking will get you out on the water paddling like a pro.

Let's start with the basics.

What is a Kayak? 

A kayak is a type of boat used by paddlers who want to sit and use a double-bladed paddle.

As opposed to a canoe or stand up paddleboard, kayaks are specifically designed to let the paddler sit in the boat with their legs in front of them. 

Kayak paddles have a blade (the part of the paddle that goes in the water) on both ends, so you never have to swap the paddle from one side of the boat to the other. 

Most kayaks come in one of two options: sit-in OR sit-on-top. Let's discuss them one by one.

Sit-in Kayak

sit in kayak

A sit-in kayak allows you to have your legs and feet inside the boat. This is great for paddling in areas where you might have to deal with a lot of splashing.

By adding a spray skirt to your boat, you can keep the water out of the boat, and you will have a better chance of staying in the boat.

Most kayaks that are specifically used for ocean kayaking or whitewater kayaking will be sit-in kayaks. They are also popular with paddlers who want to go on long-distance trips. 

Sit-on-top kayaks

sit on top kayak beach

Sit-on-top kayaks allow you to sit in the boat without having anything wrapped around you. These are great for casual paddling on mostly calm water and for fishing.

Sit-on-top kayaks that are made specifically for fishing can be a little heavier than average since they are made to be extra stable. 

Kayaks can be single (only one person can ride at a time) or tandem (two people can ride at a time).

If you're planning to purchase a kayak, make sure that you choose the seating option that's right for you. It can be pretty tough to paddle a tandem kayak by yourself. 

kayak girl mountain

Where to go Kayaking?

Kayaking is one of the easiest and most accessible water sports. Since kayaks are portable and easy to carry, you can put them in almost any waterway.

Before launching somewhere, though, double-check the waterway where you're choosing to paddle. 

Picking the right waterway:

Accessible to the public

Make sure that you're not paddling on private land or in an area that has paddling restrictions. While most rivers, lakes, and streams are public, some parks have rules against paddling in their ponds and lagoons.

Also, double-check that the area where you will launch your boat has public access. 

Safe for paddling

While paddling can be a great way to relax and exercise, it does come with some inherent risk.

If you're planning to paddle in a new waterway, do a little research before you go. 

Look for things like:

Water management structures 

If you don't already know the area, don't paddle around humanmade water management structures like dams or locks. They are designed to pull water in and push water out, and they can be extremely dangerous if you get stuck in them. 

Water level

The paddling conditions on some rivers and streams can change drastically if the water level rises or falls. If there has been a lot of rain upstream, the current can quickly get a lot stronger, and the water can fill with dangerous floating debris.

If you're new to the paddling area, call around to any local agencies that can give you up-to-date info on the paddling conditions. 


Generally speaking, there's nothing wrong with paddling in an area that has some wildlife—seeing wildlife. At the same time, paddling can make for a great experience!

However, you don't want to accidentally go paddling in an area that's known for having alligators during nesting season.

Double-check the type of wildlife that's prevalent in your paddling area and make sure you understand the right precautions for paddling there. 


When you're first learning how to kayak, test your skills in a waterway that's easy to use. A slow-moving body of water is great for this.

Start with something like a pond, lake, or bayou that will allow you to launch your boat easily and take out at the same spot when you're done. 

Unless you're going kayaking with a guiding company that will handle all of the logistics for you, go somewhere that's easy to get to.

While you're out paddling, make sure you stay in an area where you won't get lost. 

There are some great things to see and do once you're a little more experienced with paddling and navigation, but don't go too hard too fast. 

kayak girl mountains

What to Bring Kayaking?

When you're going on your first kayaking trip, packing can seem a little daunting.

Even if you're just going to be on the water for an hour or two, you want to make sure that you've got everything that you need. 

The items you'll need will vary a little bit from trip to trip, but the overall themes will stay the same.

Your main concern should be keeping your things dry while you're out on the water. If you don't already have one, consider buying a dry bag to make sure your dry stuff stays dry. 

Pro tip: If you buy a roll-top dry bag (the ones that roll up and have a little clip that brings the edges together), you can clip it to your boat, so you don't lose the bag if you flip!


Wear something that will be comfortable to paddle in. Typically, lightweight shorts and a t-shirt will be fine. If it's too cold for that, add some layers.

If you're worried about the cold, just make sure you're not wearing cotton. Cotton absorbs water more than wool or nylon, and it can make you colder quicker. 

If you're going to be out long enough that the temperature or weather could change before you can get back to shore, pack some extra layers.

If there's a chance of rain, make sure you've got your rain gear with you. If a storm rolls in, the temperature can drop pretty quickly, and you want to be prepared.  

Wear shoes that are comfortable for paddling. Typically, you'll want sandals rather than tennis shoes.

If you're planning on swimming, or if you're worried about your shoes floating away if you flip, wear sandals that have a back on them. 

couple kayaking

Food and Water

Pack enough food and water for the amount of time you'll be on the water, then add one extra snack. Kayaking can be more vigorous than most newbies expect, so it's a good idea to pack a little extra food. 

Most kayaks are big enough for a small cooler or a lunch box, so you should have no problem finding room for your food. 

Similarly, bring a little more water than you think you'll need.

Though you'll be surrounded by water, you're going to need some drinkable water as well. Make sure you don't get dehydrated out there!

Extra Stuff

There are a few extra things that you'll want to keep accessible if you plan to kayak for a few hours. These items aren't necessarily critical, but they're super helpful.

Some common items include:

  • Sunblock
  • Bug spray
  • Chapstick
  • Sunglasses
  • Watch
  • Camera
  • Pocket knife or PFD knife

How to Paddle a Kayak?

Now that you have you found your spot and have all of your gear, it is time to start paddling.

Check out this clip on the proper paddling technique - 

Kayaking on your own or with a guide?

Now that you know a bit more about what to expect from a basic kayaking trip let's narrow it down a little more.

There's a big difference in going kayaking on your own versus going with a guiding company.

Learning how to kayak on your own is undoubtedly more challenging than going with a guide, but each method has its pros and cons. 

Pros of kayaking by yourself

  • You can go where you want
  • You can follow your own schedule
  • You can pack what you want
  • You don't have to worry about anyone else
  • If you already own the gear, it's free

Cons of kayaking by yourself

  • You are responsible for planning all of the logistics for the trip
  • If something goes wrong, you are responsible for fixing the situation
  • You have to buy or borrow all of the gear

Pros of kayaking with a guide

  • They plan the route for you
  • They pack all of the gear, so you just have to worry about your personal stuff
  • They know the area and all of the hazards, so you don't have to worry about that
  • They know the history of the area and can give you local info

Cons of kayaking with a guide

  • It's not cheap. You're paying for what you get
  • You don't get to wander off from the group
  • You're stuck following their route and time frame

As you can see, both options have a lot of great things to offer. It just depends on the type of experience you're looking for and your confidence level.

If you don't feel confident in your kayaking ability, either go with a guiding service or have a knowledgable friend come on the paddling trip with you.

It's better to have help available when you are still learning how to kayak than to exceed your comfort level. 

kayak man sunset

Key Takeaways

Kayaking is one of the easiest, most accessible, and enjoyable water sports. 

As long as you know where to go and what to take, you are guaranteed to have a great time.

Happy Kayaking!

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