Kayak Basics for Beginners

by Chris Sherwood

About Chris Sherwood



Kayaking offers beginner paddlers a gentle introduction to getting out on the water. For your first casual forays, stick to salt marshes, ponds, lakes or flat rivers -- you're not ready to hit the rapids yet. Use a recreational kayak, which is short and wide for greater stability, with large cockpit openings for easy boarding. It's easier to learn kayaking if you're in your own vessel, so skip those tandem models for now. Certain basic fundamentals are important to practice and understand before setting out on your first kayaking adventure.

Holding the Paddle

Once you've donned your life vest and are seated in the kayak, find a paddle grip that is comfortable for you. In general, start with your hands approximately shoulder-width apart and centered to the paddle. Ensure that there is the same amount of distance between your hand and the paddle blade on both sides. One way to gauge your hold on the paddle is to place the paddle on your head and check to see that your elbows form slightly less than a 90-degree angle. You can adjust your grip as you paddle to see what hand placement feels the most comfortable.

Forward Stroke

You need to learn a few different basic strokes as you begin to operate the kayak. The most used stroke is going to be your power forward stroke. In this stroke, the side of the paddle you are placing in the water is held firm with your hand, while your other hand is more loose and open. You will switch this hold when you place the other side of the paddle in the water on the opposite side of the boat. For the front stroke, place the paddle in the water about where your toes are located. Pull the paddle back along the side of the boat until it reaches approximately the area of your hip. Once the hip is reached, pull the paddle out of the water and do the same action on the opposite side of the kayak.

Paddle Sweeps

Although you can switch directions in a kayak in several ways, one of the most used is the sweep method. Sweeps allow you to change direction without having to slow down the kayak. Place the paddle in the water as forward as you easily can with the power face facing away from the kayak. Hold the paddle tightly with the hand closest to the water and draw the paddle through the water in a big arc from the bow to the stern of the kayak. While doing this, keep your hands relatively still and use the turn of your torso to move the paddle. This sweeping motion should push the bow away from the paddle and the stern toward it, changing the direction of the boat.

Re-entering the Kayak

If you lose your balance or are pushed over while kayaking, you may be forced to abandon ship while in the water. To re-enter the kayak, simply reach across the bottom of the kayak, grab on to the scupper holes, and flip it back up if it's upside-down. Place yourself at the cockpit of the kayak and allow your feet to float up to the top of the water by floating on your belly button, using the flotation of the life jacket and the boat to help. Swim forward, pulling yourself onto the cockpit until your belly is centered on it. Roll over so that your backside is sitting in the cockpit. Sit up and move you feet back into the foot wells.


Before heading out on the water, it's important to map the area you plan to kayak, especially if you aim to kayak on a river. Although kayaks can navigate rapids, as a beginner you should steer clear of rough waters until you have a grasp on how to handle the kayak. Consider kayaking on a calm lake or even a backyard pool if it's big enough to practice in before putting yourself in rougher water. Also be sure to check the weather for wind advisories or other weather that can make your kayaking experience more difficult. No matter how calm the weather or waters, never kayak without wearing an approved safety vest.

Photo Credits:

  • Noel Hendrickson/Photodisc/Getty Images

This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.