A Kayak Guide for Beginner Paddlers
Not everyone has the same idea when it comes to kayaking. Some folks think of still, glassy waters, while others conjure up thoughts of roiling rapids. And depending on the type of kayaking you're doing, the vessel itself can look and function a bit differently. For an activity that's as simple as sitting down and paddling, there can be a lot to sort through if you're a first-timer. If you find yourself in that boat (sorry), take a look through our kayak guide. Along with learning the basics on the anatomy of the kayak, you'll get some useful specifics on what to expect when you the hit water in some of the more popular types of kayaking.
The Anatomy of a Kayak
The double-bladed paddles that propel kayaks come in a range of styles: feathered blades cut down on wind resistance during a stroke, curved blades increase stroke power, and flat blades direct the water around the surface upon contact.
Like the paddle, a kayak's hull can look different depending on its purpose. Whitewater kayaks, with short, rounded hulls and soft chines (that is, the curve of the sides) enable pilots to execute tricks and rolls in rough water. Surf kayaks look similar, but their front ends curve up more sharply for better maneuverability in high waves. Sea-touring kayaks are used in coastal waters, such as those off the shores of Hawaii, and possess flat hulls and sharp chines to stay upright in choppy waters.
Many types of kayaks have enclosed cockpits, which allow the pilot to roll upright when capsized—a maneuver that takes a while to master but can be a major asset when negotiating rapids. Alternatively, sit-on-top kayaks leave paddlers exposed but free to exercise greater mobility, preferable for gently cruising calm waters.
Types of Kayaking
This is an ideal style for those learning how to kayak, as paddlers will always be within easy reach of a shore, bank, or the kayak guide leading your paddling session. The primary goal is just to have fun and sightsee.
Where you'll be: a well-protected lake, river, or reservoir with easy access to the shore
Intensity level: low (1–3 mph pace)
Solo, partnered, or group?: solo or partnered
Strokes to know: forward stroke for propulsion (alternate evenly on each side); forward sweep for turning (place the paddle into the water at the opposite side you want to turn, then curve the paddle all the way to the back of the boat)
If you fall out: First, pop up onto the kayak using a kicking motion for momentum. Slowly roll across the top so that you end up sidesaddle in the cockpit with your feet in the water, then right yourself in the seat and put your legs in one at a time.
Semi-Open-Water Sea Kayaking
This kayaking style takes place anywhere from 2 to 15 miles away from the shore and requires beginners to learn more advanced navigational concepts from the get-go.
Where you'll be: a semi-protected waterway or shore with exposure to open ocean
Intensity level: low to moderate (2–4 mph pace)
Solo, partnered, or group?: partnered or group
Strokes to know (beyond the basics): bow draw for quick changes of direction (plant one end of the paddle to the side and pull it in toward the front, finishing with a regular forward stroke); backstroke for reversing quickly (alternate evenly from side to side in a reverse motion)
If you fall out: Swim to the back of the kayak and lift yourself up (the salt water will keep the boat buyant). Then sit up, spread your legs over the boat saddle style, and slowly slide into the cockpit.
This is when water sport turns into water adventure. It's by far the most exciting style—and also the most intense, especially for beginners, thanks to fast moving waters with occasional dips and twists.
Where you'll be: rivers, streams, and creeks where whitewater is present
Intensity level: moderate to high (greater than 4 mph pace)
Solo, partnered, or group?: group, always
Even more strokes to know: front ferry stroke for getting to shore quickly (keep the kayak's front pointed toward the side of the river you want to go, then paddle upstream in that direction); stern draw stroke to control veer (place one blade in the water, holding the paddle as vertical as possible, then rotate your body in the direction you want to go).
If you fall out: Go into the "whitewater flotation position" with your feet up on the surface and your arms stretched to the side. Then aggressively swim toward the shore, making sure not to stand up in fast moving water, no matter how shallow.
Ready to get paddling?
Then check out the Guide's list of the best kayaking tours currently available on our site, from gator-spotting swamp tours to moonlit floats in Galveston Bay.
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