How to kayak: Advice for beginners

14th February 2022 Elena Manighetti

How to kayak: Advice for beginners

Planning to go on your first ever kayaking trip? You’re in the right place. It’s best to read up a little about how to kayak before you venture out on the water. This way, you’ll know what to expect and you’ll have a rough idea of what to do.

Kayaking for beginners: tips on how get started

Follow these tips to plan your first kayaking trip:

  • Go on at least one kayaking lesson, so an instructor can teach you how to stay safe

  • Rent or borrow a sit-on-top kayak for your first time - it’s easier to get in and out of

  • Choose a small, calm body of water

  • Don’t leave too late - make sure you have plenty of daylight hours

  • Try kayaking out on a sunny, windless day first

  • Find a sloping sandy beach to launch, so you can stand by the boat as you get in

  • Practice getting in and out of the boat before you go off on your first go

  • Stay close to your put-in point and hug the coast

  • Don’t go out for long - two hours is a good amount of time (your arms will get tired).

How to dress to go kayaking

Don’t go kayaking in casual clothes. You need to be prepared to sit in the boat, where you’ll likely get a bit wet, for a long time. 

We recommend wearing: 

  • Shorts or swimwear

  • A rashguard 

  • Neoprene footwear

  • A hat that protects your face and neck from the sun

  • If it’s cold, a fleece, a spray or rain jacket, and trousers (pants)

  • A wetsuit for temperatures under 15°C (60°F).

As a rule of thumb, don’t wear anything made of cotton - be it shorts or a t-shirt.

You will also need to carry essential safety gear, such as a non-inflating PFD and sunscreen. We wrote an article all about that here.

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How to launch a kayak

Launching a kayak from a beach is very easy. Here’s how to do it in 3 easy steps:

  1. Carry the boat to your put-in point without dragging the hull on the ground

  2. Slide a paddle under the deck line - let the shaft stick out

  3. Place the kayak in shallow water and let it float.

That’s it. It’s that simple. 

How to get in and out of a kayak

Now that the kayak is floating, you can board it: 

  1. Stand by the kayak while holding the cockpit

  2. Get onboard and scoot your butt back into the seat, then place your feet into the braces

  3. Grab the paddle and paddle out so you can’t beach it.

If you’re boarding the kayak from a dock, place the boat in the water and keep it close to the dock. If you can, tie off the painter line, so you can’t lose it. Keep the paddle right next to the kayak or slide it under the deck line. Then sit into the boat while keeping hold of the dock in the way that feels most secure to you. Find a balance between holding onto the dock and getting into the boat.

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When you get back, you’ll need to:

  1. Paddle to the put-in point until the water is shallow enough to stand in it (don’t beach the bow)

  2. Place a paddle blade under the deck line

  3. Lift your butt and pull your feet close to it

  4. Lift a foot and place it into the water

  5. Put your weight on the foot and slowly stand up on it

  6. Step out of the kayak.

If you have to exit the boat at a dock, you’ll need to place your hands on the dock, pull your knees in and raise yourself up. Don’t forget to tie the boat’s painter line off before you exit it, or to take the line with you as you get out of it.

This process will become natural once you’ve done it a couple of times. It’s a lot more complicated to explain it than to do it.

How to hold a kayak paddle

In order to make your strokes as effective as possible, you need to learn how to hold your paddle properly first.

Before you get into the water, check that the longer edge of each blade is on the top, while the scooped side faces you. 

It’s also important to make sure that the paddle blades are in line with each other. If they aren’t, adjust them. This is the best way to learn how to paddle. Once you’ve mastered the skill, you can choose how to position your blades.

Once you’re in the kayak,

  1. Grab your paddle with both hands and centre the shaft over your head

  2. Lower your arms and bend your elbows at 90 degrees

  3. Place your knuckles on top of the shaft, in line with the top of the blades

  4. Make an “O” with your index and thumb and lay the other fingers gently on the shaft.

There’s no need to overgrip the shaft, even though it’s tempting. It will just give you painful fingers.

Basic kayaking strokes

There are 3 strokes you need to get the hang of in order to be independent in a kayak. Performing these correctly will help you move efficiently though the water, conserve energy, and avoid injury.

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The forward stroke

This is the stroke you’ll use most of the time. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Keeping your legs straight, twist your torso and plunge a blade into the water 

  2. The blade needs to be fully underwater and the stroke needs to start level with your feet

  3. Rotate your torso to move the blade underwater, parallel to the boat, until it’s behind you

  4. While you do this, push against the shaft with your upper hand

  5. Only when the blade is behind your hips, raise it out of the water

  6. Now repeat the process on the other side of the boat.

You can slowly turn the boat by taking multiple forward strokes on one side of the boat.

The reverse stroke

You’ll need to use a reverse stroke to brake or go backwards. It’s the exact opposite of the forward stroke.

  1. Plunge the blade into the water in line with your hips

  2. Push the shaft with your lower hand to move the blade forward, parallel to the kayak

  3. When the blade is level with your feet, raise the blade out of the water.

The sweep stroke

To turn more quickly and precisely, you need to use a sweep stroke. Simply perform a forward stroke, but draw as wide an arch as you can, rather than keeping the paddle parallel to the kayak.

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If you’re kayaking with a partner, it’s important you synchronise your movements to be able to travel in a straight line. The paddler in the front should set the rhythm. The paddler in the back should match the strokes of the person in the front both in terms of timing and strength. Before changing direction or slowing down, you should agree on when to change stroke in advance. 

What to do if your kayak capsizes

Capsizing or falling out of a kayak happens sometimes. Remember to stay calm and to keep hold of your paddle, no matter what happens.

If the boat flipped, swim to the left or right to avoid banging your head against the hull as you surface. 

We’ll go through what to do in this situation on a sit-on-top kayak. If you’re using a sit-in kayak, it’s best you take a class to learn how to right it and re-enter it, as it’s more challenging. A sit-in kayak’s cockpit tends to fill with water and people are often attached to the boat via a spray skirt. You’ll need to learn how to perform an eskimo roll and a wet exit and these are maneuvres better tried under the supervision of an instructor.

How to right a sit-on-top kayak

To right it, kick your legs to push your torso against one side of the hull while you grab the other edge with your hands. Once you have secured the other side, bring your knees up and lean backwards, so you can use your body weight to right the boat.

How to re-enter a sit-on-top kayak in deep water

Kick your legs to get your torso on top of the boat. Let your legs float up to the surface. Once you feel stable, roll around, sit into the cockpit, and reposition yourself. 

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Kayaking safety tips 

Kayaking isn’t dangerous, but just like any watersport, you need to make sure you follow safety precautions. 

Here are our top kayaking safety tips:

  • Alway check the marine weather forecast before you make plans

  • If the conditions look rough when you get there, don’t go out

  • Heading out solo? Let family know where you’re going and when to expect you back

  • Don’t get in your kayak unless you have the necessary safety equipment

  • If it’s a little windy, paddle against the wind first.

Once you’ve memorised the basics of kayaking, it’s time to head out. Practicing getting in and out of a kayak, paddling, and turning the boat around will make you more and more comfortable out on the water. Take time to master all the basics before you step up your game and head out on a longer kayaking trip. 

Kayaking is a fantastic way to get out on the water and do some exercise. Go with friends or family to bond and have a fun time together. If you enjoy this watersport a lot, join a local kayaking club, so you can improve your technique and embark on new adventures with likeminded people.

Did you know there are a number of sports you can do aboard a kayak? Think of kayak polo, frisbee, basketball, and more. There may be a local team near you.


Download the Deckee app from the App Store or Google Play for free to plan your first kayaking trip. Look up boat ramps, check the weather forecast, find fishing spots, and more.

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