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How to Kayak: The Ultimate Beginners Guide

I’ve always enjoyed hiking and camping, but since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve found myself wanting to explore some of the beautiful waterways both inland and along the coastline. There are a lot of remote locations you can really only access via boat, and there really is something spectacular about venturing out on the water where it really is just you and nature.

After doing some research, I concluded that the easiest and least expensive way to get into boating would be to learn how to kayak. You can purchase a kayak for around $200, and once you learn a few basics (launching, forward and reverse strokes, coming back to shore), you are pretty much good to go.

I’ve already been on some incredible day trips as well as an overnight kayaking and camping expedition which was just amazing. It’s been one of the most rewarding hobbies I’ve embarked on, so it’s something I want to share with others.

What is a Kayak?

noun
  1. A type of canoe originally used by the Inuit Tribe, designed of a light frame with a watertight covering having a small opening in the top for users to sit in.
verb
  1. travel in or use a kayak.

Kayak for beginners

* We have researched and put together our opinion of the Best Kayak for Beginners

Before you can learn how to kayak, you need to either rent or buy your first kayak. If you are shopping for a kayak, you need some familiarity with the different types:

Different Types of Kayaks

  • Recreational kayaks. If in doubt, this is an excellent starting point. Recreational kayaks are great for general use and are ideal for tranquil waters (lakes, ponds, calmer rivers). These kayaks tend to be wide and short, which makes it easy to maneuver them.

* Read our post on Best Recreational Kayaks 

  • Whitewater kayaks. These kayaks are even more maneuverable than recreational kayaks, but they are hard to paddle straight. This makes them ideal for rapids, but bad for touring. Naturally you are not going to start kayaking in rapids, so you do not want to start with a whitewater kayak.
  • ​Touring kayaks. Also known as sea kayaks, touring kayaks are designed for long trips. They are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks and harder to turn, but great for straight paddling. They generally offer plenty of storage capacity for gear.
  • Downriver kayaks. These are racing kayaks. They are very long and narrow and may tip over easily. Avoid these as a beginner.
  • Modular kayaks. These are kayaks which are designed to snap apart into modular sections for compact storage and transport.
  • ​Sit-on-top kayaks. These are kayaks you sit on top of, instead of inside. They are wide, slow, stable, and easy to maneuver, making them ideal for calm waters and beginning paddlers. They are best for warm climates.

* Best Sit on Top Kayaks

  • Inflatable kayaks. You can save some money with an inflatable kayak. They are actually quite durable, though not as resilient as non-inflatable models. They also require more exertion to paddle.
  • Folding kayaks. You can assemble or disassemble a folding kayak in 15 minutes. When a folding kayak is fully collapsed, it can fit in a backpack, making it perfect for touring.
  • Fishing kayaks. These kayaks include extra features specifically for fishermen.

* See our resource on Best Fishing Kayaks

As you can see, what type of kayak you should buy depends in part on what you want to do. But in general, I would say most beginners are best suited with:

  • Recreational kayaks
  • ​Sit-on-top kayaks
  • ​Inflatable kayaks
  • Touring kayaks

All of these models are stable and maneuverable and are designed especially for use in the calm waters you will be frequenting as a beginner.

* If you're looking for Best Shoes for Kayaking

For beginners looking to get started with kayaking, read this next section carefully. We provide clarity on the debate of whether to go low-cost or not on your first boat. 

We describe in detail different ideas to seriously consider when deciding on your purchase. We have collected the opinions of expert kayakers on this topic and conveniently put it together for you. 

Authorized Boots

How Much Should You Spend on Your First Kayak?

Now that you have some idea which types of kayaks make the most sense for beginners and which you may want to avoid for the time being, you are probably wondering how much you should be prepared to spend.

* For Best Value Fishing Kayak

Cheap Kayaks: Worth It Or Not?

Shopping for a beginner kayak online, you may have seen boats for sale in the $200-$400 range. If you are buying used, you may even find a kayak which costs under $200.

At first glance, this looks to be an outstanding deal. But is it? Or is a $200 kayak too good to be true?

The answer depends in part on what you are shopping for. If you want a sit-on-top kayak, a $200 may be just fine—so long as it is made out of quality, sturdy materials which will stand up to repeated use and you will stay relatively close to shore.

If on the other hand you are shopping for a sit-in kayak, you probably should be avoiding cheap recreational boats for reasons we will describe.

The Importance of Bulkheads

The problem with recreational sit-in kayaks in the $200-$400 range is that they typically do not include any bulkhead forward or aft.

Bulkheads are an important safety feature for several reasons:

1. They make it a lot less likely that the cockpit of your boat will flood.

2. If your kayak capsizes, the bulkheads make it possible for you to right the boat again, empty the water out, and bring it back safely to shore. Without bulkheads, kayaks almost always sink if they capsize.

3. If your cockpit fills with water and your boat is still upright, bulkheads may actually make it possible for you to paddle back to shore without emptying out the water at all. Two bulkheads may keep the entire kayak above the water. One may keep part of the boat above the water while the other section is submerged (the section without the bulkhead). What happens with no bulkheads? The kayak sinks to the bottom. There are some awesome pictures on this page which demonstrate this effect.

Does this mean that a cheap sit-in kayak in the $200-$400 range is utterly useless? No, but it is very limited in its safe use. Boats like these are fine if you plan to hover within several feet of the shoreline. They may also be fine if you intend to go a little farther out, but only if you are a strong swimmer. On top of that, you need to be in a situation where you can easily reach the shoreline. If there is any hazardous riprap, rough water or so on, you should not rely on a cheap kayak to keep you safe.

In short:

If you plan to stay near the shoreline and/or you are a strong swimmer and paddle only in calm waters, a cheap sit-in kayak may be fine. Otherwise, avoid them. Stick with a higher-quality sit-in with at least one bulkhead, preferably two—or go with a sit-on-top model.

The Impact of Materials on Cost

There is another issue to consider when it comes to the price of your kayak, and that is the cost of the materials used in construction. Assuming you are not shopping for an inflatable boat, you are going to encounter several common options:

  • Plastic
  • Fiberglass
  • Kevlar

There are different schools of thought on the pros and cons of each of these materials, but generally speaking, here is what you can expect as far as performance goes:

  • Plastic ($1,000-$2,000): These are the least expensive kayaks, usually constructed out of polyethylene (HDPE #2). Despite this, they can take quite a beating without developing fractures or holes. This may save you from some trips to the repair shop. Why is plastic so durable? Ironically, it is because it is so bendable. This means that it can bear a lot of stress without cracking. The problem here is that it means that plastic can also deform, so your plastic boat may lose its shape years before fiberglass or Kevlar vessels.
  • Fiberglass ($2,000-$3,000): With fiberglass, you may end up with more damage that requires professional repair. That said, the boat is not going to deform as easily as its plastic counterparts, so it will stand the test of time. This means it will have a longer life, and may offer a better value.
  • Kevlar ($3,000+): Kevlar is actually not as sturdy as fiberglass, but it is a lot lighter. This can be useful if you do a lot of portage. Say for example that you go on a lot of long tours and you need to carry the kayak to and from campgrounds which are set back from shore a ways—or you need to move the boat from one body of water to another—you might benefit from the lightweight build.

If plastic is all you can afford, by all means, go for it. If you can fork the bill for a fiberglass kayak though, you should strongly consider it.

Other Important Considerations

Here are a few more important features to think about when you are shopping for your first kayak.

Dimensions and Weight

The shape and size of your kayak will impact its performance (in terms of turning, etc.). But also take into account storage and transport issues. Will you be able to lift the boat on your own? Where will you keep it?

Rudder and Skeg

These are optional parts which can help your kayak to go straight through the water. You might think that sounds great right off the top, but kayaking enthusiasts actually debate their usefulness on an ongoing basis.

Proponents like them for the obvious reason; they help you to maintain position and course, which means you can expend your energy on propulsion.

Those who oppose rudders say that they tempt kayakers to rely too much on them instead of developing their own maneuvering skills. As a rudder can fail, this could land you in an awkward and potentially hazardous situation someday.

If you like to do other activities while you are kayaking such as taking pictures or videos or watching birds, a rudder can free up your hands and your energy so you can multi-task.

If you do decide to buy a kayak with a rudder, you are giving yourself more flexibility and options. But it is a smart idea to learn how to paddle without it (just pull it out of the water). That way you can use it because you want it and not because you need it.

A Realistic Budget For Your First Kayak

The more features you opt for, the more your kayak is going to cost. Larger, longer kayaks generally will cost more than their smaller counterparts as well, all else being equal. And as you now know, the materials used in manufacture factor into the price as does the inclusion of bulkheads.

So while you may get away with $400 or less for a nice sit-on-top beginner’s kayak, for a sit-in model you should plan to spend at least $1,000. At the high end, you will probably pay around $3,000. Optimally, you will go for a fiberglass model with bulkheads, which could run you anywhere from $2,000-$3,000.

What to Wear When Kayaking

What should you wear when you head out? Your first thought is probably to dress for the weather, but what you should be thinking about most is the water temperature, because you will get wet.

You need the following layers if you want to stay reasonably dry and comfortable:

  • Moisture control layer: Wear wicking fabrics like polypropylene as your base layer. Nylon makes a good choice as well. Whatever you do, stay away from cotton, which absorbs moisture readily and holds it in.
  • Insulation layer: Wool, fleece or pile should be your next layer.
  • Wind and water protection layer: To shield you from the wind and water, you can wear breathable layers of waterproof or water-resistant clothing on top of everything else. In a cold climate, you may also be able to get away with non-breathable waterproof and water-resistant layers. If you will be kayaking in whitewater or on the ocean, you may also want to consider a spray jacket and spray pants.

Don’t forget that you also need quality socks and footwear. If you are in a warm climate, you can wear pretty much anything you want, but in a cold climate, you will definitely want to keep your feet as dry as possible. Gore-Tex® socks work great, as do rubber boots.

Be sure to consider a hat and gloves as well—even in a warm climate. Gloves can protect your hands from blistering and a hat can keep the sun off. Remember to bring plenty of sunscreen if you are going to be paddling in a hot climate and cannot layer up against the sun.

While you are at it, I recommend you get some formal kayak and first aid training before you head out on your own. I also suggest bringing a buddy with you while you are learning.

Where to Kayak

If you are brand new to kayaking, you shouldn’t be putting yourself in a situation where you are dealing with harsh currents or waves. So stay out of the ocean and away from whitewater. Head to “flatwater.” A calm lake or a pond is ideal for learning. If you cannot find either, a lazy river would be the next best choice.

Getting the Kayak to the Water

Before you can start paddling, you need to get your kayak to the water. This is pretty simple. You lay the boat down flat on the ground. Then bend down next to the seat and hoist it up over your shoulder. Stand up and walk to the water. You should find it easy to balance the kayak—you shouldn’t even need to use your hands.

Learn to Kayak

In this section, we will illustrate how to kayak step-by-step. 

How to Launch Your Kayak

How you launch your kayak depends on the shape of the shoreline.

If the shore slopes down gently into the water …

Launching in this situation is easy. Just slide the kayak down into the water with the bow pointing in the direction you want to go (perpendicular to the shore). Climb inside and use your hands to push off from the shore. The boat will glide out into the water and you can start paddling.

If there is an abrupt, steep descent like a rocky shore …

Obviously if there is a drop between the shoreline and the water, you cannot launch the way you do from a shallow, sloping shore.

So what you do is put the boat down in the water parallel to the shore. Place the paddle just behind the seat, perpendicular to the shore. You want to use it to brace the boat and hold it in place. Climb inside, putting just enough pressure on the paddle to hold the boat steady while you position yourself. You can then start paddling and be on your way.

This video shows on how to launch your kayak.


Posture

Good posture is key in kayaking both so that you can paddle effectively and so that you avoid injuring yourself.

To position yourself correctly, make sure that you are sitting up straight. This extends your spine so that it is easier for you to rotate your torso from side to side, which is part of the paddling movement.

To hold the paddle properly, place your hands a tad wider than shoulder-width apart. A good test to make sure you are holding the paddle properly is to position your hands, and then raise the paddle over your head. The angle of your arms at the elbows should be just a little less than 90 degrees.

Your legs and feet also need to be positioned properly. Your knees should be bent and should be touching the sides of the cockpit. The balls of your feet should be pressed up against the pedals, allowing you to control the rudder. Make sure that the pedals are adjusted correctly.

This video shows on how to paddle your kayak.


How to Paddle a Kayak: Basic Kayak Strokes and Maneuvers

Here are the most important kayak strokes and maneuvers for you to learn starting out:

  • Forward
  • ​Reverse
  • ​Making turns
  • Rolling

Basic Forward Stroke

When it comes to your forward stroke, the basic motion is pretty straightforward. But there are a few pointers which may not be immediately obvious which can help you to perfect your stroke:

  • Keep the paddle close to the kayak. If you bring it down further away from the sides of the boat, the boat is going to try to turn.
  • ​Twist your torso as you paddle. This will increase the power of your strokes.
  • You need to push with your legs while you are paddling as well. This makes your stroke even stronger.

Basically, you want to use the strong muscles in your torso and legs to help propel you along. If you are just using your arms, you will have to expend a lot more energy to move the kayak, and you will tire quickly. On the contrary, you want to relax your upper arms and not grip the paddle too tightly. This will help your arm muscles to get the rest they need while your entire body works to push the boat forward. Be careful not to shift your weight around too much.

Basic Reverse Stroke

This is quite literally the forward stroke in reverse, and is used to back up the kayak.

How to Turn the Kayak

You can turn the kayak by performing what is known as a “sweep stroke.” There are forwards sweep strokes and backwards sweep strokes. To perform a forward sweep which will turn your kayak to the left (counterclockwise), keep the paddle low (beneath your shoulders) and start your stroke in front and to the right of your seat. But instead of pulling straight back, arc the paddle around to the back, twisting your torso as you do so. This should pull the boat around counterclockwise.

If you want to turn clockwise/right, you simply do the same movement with your paddle coming down on the left.

Sculling Draw

This is a stroke you can use to move the kayak sideways, which may be helpful if you wish to approach a dock or another boat. To perform this stroke, you hold the paddle along the side of the boat; it should be the same side you are trying to move toward. Hold both your hands over the water so that the paddle is inserted at a steep angle. The leading edge of the blade should be angled away from your kayak as you push the blade forward. At the end of that stroke, you need to flip the paddle so that the blade’s edge is now angled away from the boat. You then pull the paddle back.

If you do this repeatedly, your boat will move sideways.

Rolling

What happens if you capsize your kayak while you are in it? You will need to learn how to roll to get back upright.

Practicing rolling can be scary, because you need to deliberately capsize yourself in order to roll back upright again. It is actually not a challenging maneuver, but you should learn it in a swimming pool if possible, and you definitely should practice with an instructor.

Even though rolling isn’t particularly complicated, it isn’t easy to explain or understand it in words, so it is best to watch a video:

This video demonstrates how to roll a kayak


I recommend that you spend some time learning how to roll on dry land as well. Obviously you cannot go all the way over and back up again, but you can practice the basic motions and posture. Once you teach your muscles what to do, you can try it in the water and you should find that it comes a lot more naturally—even if you are anxious with your head underwater.

The Scramble

Suppose you find yourself abruptly thrown out of your kayak? This can happen when for example you perform a roll incorrectly.

If you need to get back in fast, you need to perform a maneuver called “the scramble.”

Begin by flipping your kayak so that it is right-side up. Swim to the side near the stern and then hoist yourself up using roughly the same motion you would if you were trying to hoist yourself up out of a swimming pool. At this point, you can throw your leg up over the boat so you are straddling it. You can now inch forward and get your legs back inside. At that point, you can seat yourself, reassume your posture, and get back to paddling.

The Scramble - Sea Kayak Self Rescue Technique


I see a lot of basic articles and guides on how to kayak which only emphasize learning the forward stroke. It is essential to learn the roll and scramble and the sweep stroke before you get into a kayak. These maneuvers keep you safe!

Getting Out of the Kayak

Once you know how to get into a kayak, you know how to get out of one. Landing your kayak is just like launching it—you simply follow the steps in reverse. This even applies in a situation where you are getting in and out at a dock or a rocky shore. You can again position the paddle perpendicular to the shore and the kayak and use it for support as you climb out.

Here's a video on how to get in and out of a kayak.


Keeping your Kayak Gear Dry

If you are planning on longer kayaking trips, you are going to need to bring a fair amount of gear with you. You are going to have to keep that gear dry.

There are a number of packing supplies which I recommend you buy to protect your items:

  • Dry bags, a.k.a. “wet bags” (I know—how weird is that?)
  • ​Soft packs
  • ​Barrels
  • ​Dry boxes
  • ​Pack liners
  • Map cases

If you can, it is a smart idea to double-pack everything. Even though these are all containers which are designed to be waterproof, any seal has the potential to fail.

Here are a few more tips for packing your gear and keeping it dry:

  • While you may be tempted to try and fit everything inside a few big containers, you are stuck with a confined space in your kayak. Smaller bags and containers may be easier to stack under the deck.
  • ​Do not put too many items inside your containers. If you strain the materials, they may snap. It just isn’t worth it.
  • Come up with a smart organizational system which helps you to figure out which packs each of your supplies is in. You can number everything, color code, etc. The last thing you need to be doing in an emergency is digging frantically to try and figure out where a survival supply is.

Make sure that you store all of your waterproof packing supplies in a cool, dark location!

Maintaining Your Kayak

You are going to be investing a couple hundred dollars or more in a kayak in all likelihood; even an inflatable model will likely cost you $50 or more.

For that reason as well as for reasons of safety, you need to take care to properly store and maintain your vessel.

You should always keep your boat in a cool, dry, temperate location, out of the way of excessive heat, cold, or light. An ideal location would be a basement or garage. Never store the kayak upright outdoors, or rain may pool inside, gradually causing damage.

Make sure that if you go kayaking in the ocean, you take a few minutes to rinse the salt residue off before you put the boat in storage. Salt can corrode metal, damaging your vessel. This may also be a problem if you live in an area where sea breezes come through and you keep your kayak outdoors. If that is the case, rinse it routinely.

Over time, your kayak will take on damage. This may include shallow and deep scratches and dents as well as holes and warping.

You can generally ignore minor scratches or dents; they are unavoidable and rarely a problem.

If you have larger dents or warping, you can fix both quite easily in many cases. Plastic responds to heat. Put the kayak outdoors in the sun on a hot day from morning until evening and you may find the plastic has reassumed its proper shape by the day’s end.

Holes in your kayak need to be dealt with as soon as possible. Small holes tend to grow into large holes given time, and you don’t want even small holes in your boat!

Here's a video on how to maintain your sea kayak.


Important Safety Precautions for Kayakers

Because kayaking is relatively easy to learn, it is tempting to think you can just purchase a boat and go straight out into the water with it. But if you do not take appropriate safety measures, you can find yourself in a bad situation fast.

So here are some quick safety tips:

  • Do consider at least a few formal training sessions, especially with rolling.
  • ​Bring a friend with you the first few times you go out on the water. Make sure you do not practice rolling on your own in the beginning. You must have someone there to ensure that you stay safe, especially if you are likely to panic underwater.
  • ​Do not assume you know what you are doing just because you have mastered the basic forward stroke. You need to be able to maneuver and take evasive action in an emergency.
  • ​You should learn how to not only rescue yourself, but other rowers and paddlers.
  • ​Always start learning in safe, calm waters.
  • ​Be mindful of how you dress, especially in a cold climate. If you go out wearing heavy cotton for example, you may think you are protecting yourself from the cold wind—but when that cotton soaks up all the cold water, you may become dangerously cold.
  • ​Wear a lifejacket.
  • ​If you will be paddling in water which is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, be aware that you could end up swimming if you capsize. Believe it or not, just a few minutes in water this cold can result in what is known as “cold water shock.” Unlike hypothermia, cold water shock can cause death within minutes. For this reason you should always wear a wetsuit or even a drysuit in conditions like these.
  • ​You should endeavor to stay as visible as possible when you are paddling. This means that your clothing should be bright and easy to spot, and you should consider adding reflective tape to your blades. Bring a whistle as well.
  • ​Know the rules for sharing waterways with other kayakers as well as larger vessels.
  • Always check the weather and visibility conditions you can expect before you head out on a trip—but never assume that the weather will behave according to the forecast. Bring supplies to deal with the unexpected.

Here's a video on how to go kayaking safely.


Tips and Tricks for Kayakers

You now should have a pretty solid idea what you are doing. Still, it never hurts to have some more advice on your side, so here are a few tips and tricks which helped me out and which I think will benefit you:

  • Many beginners find that paddles with square blades are the easiest to learn with. While offset paddles are preferred by most experienced paddlers, you may want to start out with the square blades.
  • ​Learn your knots, so that you can make use of the deck line which is probably attached already to your kayak.
  • ​Need a break while you are on a long trip, but don’t want to (or cannot) paddle all the way back to shore? If you happen to be in a body of water which has a lot of kelp, you may be able to “park” your kayak in a kelp bed, using the kelp to stabilize the boat while you take a breather. You can also rig a kelp bulb into an effectively loud horn in an emergency.
  • ​Check to make sure that you are only putting dry items inside your dry bags. Otherwise, the bag will contain the moisture so well that everything in the bag will end up becoming damp.
  • ​Always check your bearings when you can see clearly. So for example, if you are camping for the night and you have a clear view to where you want to go the next day, you should take a compass reading before you go to sleep. Why? In the morning it could be too foggy to see, but at least you will have a heading.
  • Buy a larger pair of binoculars. Smaller binoculars may be lightweight and compact, but they are also much harder to see through when your kayak is bobbing around.

Check this out: Top 5 Kayaking Tips


Common Mistakes to Avoid When Kayaking

Finally, here are a few common newbie mistakes that you will want to make sure you avoid when you start paddling.

  • “Paddle hugging.” This is an incorrect posture which newbie kayakers sometimes assume where they bend their elbows excessively and hold the paddle really close to the body. The shoulders are typically locked in this position along with the torso. This position may give you a feeling like you have better control, but in reality it will just tire you out. Worse, it may actually lead to some nasty injuries.
  • ​Forgetting about sun protection and hydration. For some reason, newbies often go out on the water without thinking about the effects of the sun. Be sure to bring plenty of water. You are going to sweat a lot kayaking.
  • Dressing incorrectly. Newbie kayakers often layer up too much or too little. Layering up too much is better than layering up too little since you can at least remove unnecessary layers—you cannot add layers you do not have.
  • ​Holding the paddle upside-down. It is common for some reason for beginning kayakers to hold their paddles upside-down. How do you know if your paddle is facing the right way? If your paddle blade has words on it and you can read them properly from left to right, you are in good shape. If there are no words to look at, you can examine the shape of the blade itself. The top of the blade tends to be longer than the bottom, which is more tapered. The top of the blade also generally is flatter, while the bottom is more angled.
  • ​Holding the paddle backwards. The blade of the paddle should be curved toward you, not away. If it is curved away, you are holding the paddle backwards. This will reduce the power of your strokes.
  • ​Leaning away from obstacles when a collision is impending. If your boat is ready to collide with an obstacle, what do you do? Your impulse is always going to be to shoot across to the other side. You don’t really have anywhere to go, so this will lead you to lean away from the obstacle. Unfortunately this is the exact worst thing you can do in a kayak, because it will likely cause the boat to flip right over. Lean toward the obstacle instead. Shield yourself with your arms if you have to.
  • Leaning upstream if the kayak is sideways in a river. This is also instinct, but it is incorrect, and is more likely to cause your boat to capsize. Lean downstream if anything to regain control.
  • Getting the posture wrong and failing to use the entire body to control the kayak. Many newbies do not use the backrest or the foot supports. If you do not position yourself in your seat properly, you will not be able to leverage the power of your legs and torso to help you paddle and keep the kayak in an upright position. Learn how to sit correctly first, and then practice using your entire body to paddle.

Glossary of Kayaking Terms

I want to wrap this guide up by providing you with a glossary of kayaking terms. For the sake of brevity, I will not repeat terms I have already defined throughout this guide.

Parts and Specifications of a Kayak:

  • Bulkheads: While foot-pegs are nice to have, most kayaks simply do not have the space to accommodate them, so you will instead prop your feet up against the bulkheads.
  • Chine: This is the part of the kayak on either side where the sides join with the bottom. A “hard chine” has more of an edge, whereas a “soft chine” is more rounded. There are numerous angles for hard chine edges and as many levels of hardness or softness, so you will find endless options available. Generally speaking, a soft chine is more forgiving and less likely to catch on an obstacle, but a hard chine technically provides you with superior control for carving. Arguably a soft chine is the “easier” option for a beginner, but a hard chine may actually help you to develop superior habits, so what you go with is up to you.
  • Cockpit: This is where you sit in the kayak.
  • Deck Bungees: These straps are located either toward the bow or the stern on the deck of your boat. Their purpose is to help you to stow more gear on top of the kayak.
  • Drain plugs: These accessories speed up drainage of water from inside the kayak. Some boats come with them while others do not (you can add them yourself if you wish).
  • Float bags: These inflatable air bags go inside the bow and stern of your kayak. Their purpose is to take up space so that if your boat fills with water, it will not be as full of water. This reduces the weight significantly, making it easier to pull it back to shore and empty it out.
  • Foot-pegs: Some but not all kayaks include adjustable foot-pegs. These are great if you can find them.
  • Hull: The hull of your kayak is the bottom of the craft. There are two main types: displacement hulls and planing hulls. Vessels with planing hulls spin easily; as a beginner, you should be shopping for a standard displacement hull.
  • Pillar: This is a vertical wall which you will find in front of and behind the cockpit. It helps to stabilize the boat.
  • Ram caps: The tips of your kayak are going to take a lot of abuse. That is true pretty much no matter what you are doing in the boat. You can protect them by purchasing accessories called ram caps which you glue or bolt onto the tips of the kayak.
  • ​Rocker: This is the curve of your kayak across the bottom from bow to stern. The two main styles are continuous rockers and kick rockers. A continuous rocker has a steady, continuous curve, whereas a kick rocker has a relatively flat section in the middle of the hull. A kick rocker is better for play moves, but a continuous rocker is preferable if you are looking for faster turns.
  • ​Stability (primary and secondary): “Primary” stability refers to how stable a kayak is when it is sitting upright on the water. Interestingly enough, a planing hull is more stable than a displacement hull on flat water. “Secondary” stability refers to how stable a kayak is on its side. A displacement hull provides superior secondary stability, as does a soft chine.
  • Thigh-hooks: Muscle isolation is a key component of kayak control. Thigh-hooks make it easier for you to transfer the movements of your lower body to the boat. Thigh-hooks come in a couple of varieties, referred to as “more aggressive” or “less aggressive” hooks. The more “aggressive” the hooks, the more of your legs they hold. This increases your level of control, though the hooks may sometimes get in the way when you are attempting to get out of the kayak.
  • Volume: Volume is measured in gallons and refers to the capacity inside your kayak. As a beginner, you probably should be looking into buying a high-volume craft. These vessels have an easier time staying on top of the water. If you become more skillful at kayaking someday and want to try freestyle, a low-volume vessel may suit you.

Other Useful Terms to Know:

  • Booties: This is just a colloquial term to refer to tight-fitting Neoprene shoes.
  • Cam straps: This term refers to webbing which includes a metal buckle. You can use cam straps to tie your kayak to a roof rack.
  • Carabiner: This is simply a metal loop which you can open and close. There are a million things you can use a carabiner for. They are excellent for securing your gear and can also be very useful in a rescue operation.
  • Class A: This refers to “flatwater” as defined earlier. This is water with no perceptible movement, like a lake or pond.
  • Class I Rapids: When you first start getting into whitewater kayaking, you should aim to stick with Class I rapids. These are the most sedate rapids and are unlikely to result in capsizing or other dangers. Still, keep in mind that even class I rapids can be hazardous if you are unprepared for them, so learn to kayak in calm waters first!
  • Class II Rapids: These rapids are considered “moderate’ in difficulty. There may be more obstacles and perils, but there are still plenty of open channels you can use. You do need to have some maneuvering skills to navigate through Class II rapids safely.
  • Class III Rapids: These are moderately difficult rapids. If you are inexperienced with Class II Rapids, you should not be attempting Class III rapids. Visually inspecting the rapids before you attempt them in a must at this level.
  • Class IV Rapids: These rapids are firmly in the difficult category and should not be attempted unless you are an expert kayaker. There are plenty of obstacles and rough currents which could easily injure or kill you.
  • Class V Rapids: These extremely difficult rapids are incredibly dangerous, featuring steep drops, numerous obstacles and continuous violent currents. Leave these to the absolute experts.
  • ​Class VI Rapids: Unless you are an Olympic-level kayaker, you should never, ever attempt Class VI rapids. Death is pretty much a guarantee unless you are at the absolute peak of ability and conditions are favorable.
  • Downstream V: If you see a patch of dark water which looks like a “V” shape and has whitewater around its edges, you are looking at what is known as a “downstream V.” It is useful to know how to spot these, because they generally indicate the deepest water in the rapids. This is the clearest and safest path.
  • ​Drytop: This is a paddling jacket which is equipped with latex gaskets at the wrists and neck. These gaskets form a seal which keeps out water entirely. This can keep your upper body entirely dry.
  • Edge control: This refers to how well you are able to maneuver your kayak by adjusting your edge. You will hear this term a lot if you are learning whitewater kayaking, but for basic recreational kayaking, it is not all that essential.
  • Eskimo roll: This is the basic rolling move which I talked about before that helps you to right yourself if you capsize.
  • Feather: A basic “non-feathered” paddle has both of the blades at the same angle. If you have a “feathered” paddle, one of the blades is at an angle to the other, often perpendicular. It may be difficult to picture what this means, but think of a situation where you are paddling and you are encountering a lot of wind resistance. Wouldn’t it be great if the paddle blade which is up in the air isn’t fighting the wind? If you have a feathered paddle, that blade is turned at an angle where the air is slicing right around it without causing resistance. You then rotate the paddle as you work it so that you can maintain this effect with the other blade, and so on. This page has a good, concise, clear explanation. Feathering isn’t “better” or “worse” for paddling, objectively speaking—it is a matter of personal preference.
  • J-cradles: This J-shaped rack helps you to latch your kayak onto your car.
  • Paddle jacket/splash top: You can contrast this with a drytop. A drytop has gaskets which keep out water at the neck and wrists, but a splash top does not. It repels wind and some amount of moisture, but it will not keep you totally dry.
  • PFD: This is short for “Personal Flotation Device.” Your PFD is simply your lifejacket, and it is something you should always have.
  • Portage: If you find yourself in a tight spot and you don’t want to actually paddle through it, you might decide to paddle to shore, climb out, and carry the kayak around it to the next point in the river where you feel comfortable. This is referred to as portage.
  • ​Shortie: This is a colloquial term referring to a paddle jacket which has short sleeves.
  • Skeg: You can compare a skeg with a rudder. Like a rudder, it helps to keep your kayak in a straight alignment and it is useful for steering, but unlike a rudder, you cannot control it using your feet.

Other Resources:


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