Beginner Kayaking Tips for First-Time Paddlers

Build confidence with these kayaking tips for beginners. Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.


This post is sponsored by REI

Interested in kayaking but don’t have a lot of experience? Luckily Bearfoot Theory’s former Community Manager, Kim Vawter, spent a summer as a kayak guide out at the Channel Islands, and I’ve done a number of overnight kayaking trips that we’ve shared on the blog in the past. In this post, we put our heads together to share some basic beginner kayaking tips to help you overcome your concerns so you can get out there, give it a try and have fun!

From the gear, to your technique, to common questions about what to wear or where to go, these beginner kayaking tips for first-time paddlers will have you out on the water with confidence.

In this blog post, we cover

Go paddling for the first time with these beginner kayaking tips – including info on kayaking gear, techniques, and more.

Types of Kayaks

  • Sit on Top vs. Sit In Kayaks

There are two main types of boats – sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks.

Sit-on top kayaks tend to be the easiest for beginners. They are very stable and easy to get in and out of, and for those of you who might feel nervous, a sit-on top kayak won’t leave you feeling trapped. Sit-on top kayaks are great for warm water, especially if you think you might want to swim from your kayak. On the other hand, if it’s cold, you will get wet on a sit-on top kayak.

Sit-on top vs Sit-in Kayaks // Build confidence with these beginner kayaking tips. Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.

Sit-inside kayaks have a “cockpit” where your legs go inside the hull of the kayak. For beginners, a sit-inside kayak may feel a little more confining until you get the hang of it. However, sit-inside kayaks are a lot more efficient, and if you are paddling a long distance, sit-inside kayaks will be more comfortable for the long-haul. They aren’t as easy to get in and out of, but if you are kayaking in colder water and want to stay dry, sit-in kayaks can be adapted with a “spray-skirt” to prevent water from getting inside the hull.

Sit-on top vs Sit-in Kayaks // Build confidence with these kayaking tips for beginners. Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.

  • Single vs. Double Kayaks

If you don’t have a partner, then single kayak it is. Single kayaks are lighter and quick on the water.

Double kayaks, also known as tandem kayaks, have two seats. Double kayaks are slightly heavier than single kayaks and take a bit of synchronization between the two paddlers to maneuver. Once you get into your groove, however, a double kayak can be very efficient. Double kayaks are a great choice for pairs where one person might not have the strength to power a kayak on their own. If you are on an overnight kayaking trip, double kayaks often have bigger hulls for storage.

Single vs double kayaks // Build confidence with these kayaking tips for beginners. Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.

Last year I took my parents and my Dutch relatives on their first kayaking trip. They opted for double kayaks since it gives you twice the man power.

How to Transport a Kayak

This is likely one of the trickiest things for first-time kayakers. How the hell do you get the boat from the shop to the water? For your first time, we recommend renting from somewhere on the water so you can bypass this step, but if you do need to load a kayak on the top of your vehicle, this video gives you step-by-step instructions.

If this seems like too much work, there are more portable kayak options to consider.

  • Inflatable Kayak: This Advanced Element Kayak can be used as a single or a double kayak and packs down into a bag for a very reasonable price. Simply unpack it at your launch point, hook it up to an air pump, and you’re ready to go.
  • ORU Foldable Kayak: A few years ago, I took an ORU Foldable Kayak with me to New Zealand and Canada. This basically packs down into a “box” and can be put together in about 10 minutes once you get the hang of it. Here is a time-lapse video I made that shows you how the ORU Kayak works.

Personally, if I was going to choose one of these, I would choose the inflatable. It packs down smaller, is easier to set up, and is more versatile. Plus the inflatable has a more affordable price point.

How to Sit in a Kayak

  • Body Posture

When you sit in the kayak, you want to be sitting with a straight back and your legs out in front of you, but you don’t want to be tense or uncomfortable. Slightly bend your knees and place them against the side of the kayak. This contact gives you more stability and power in your strokes. Most kayaks have a backrest that you can pull tighter or make looser to help you sit up more straight and relieve lower back strain. Make sure to adjust your backrest to your personal comfort.

  • Foot Position in a Kayak

If you’re in a sit-in kayak, there will be a pair of foot pegs at the front of your kayak near your feet. When you place your feet on the foot pegs and slightly bend your legs, your knees should move outward and touch the side of the kayak comfortably. If your legs are fully extended or bent too close to your body, adjust the foot pegs as needed.

How to sit in a kayak // Build confidence with these beginner kayaking tips. Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.

You can see how my knees are slightly bent in my kayak and pushed up against the sides

How to Paddle a Kayak

  • How to Hold A Kayak Paddle

You’ll want to hold the paddle similar to how you hold the handlebars on a bicycle with your hands gripping down on the paddle. If you rest the paddle on top of your head, your elbows should make a 90-degree angle. This is called a paddler’s box and tells you how far apart your hands should be spaced. You’re going to want to also make sure the scooped sides of your paddle blades are facing you. Remember you don’t need to have a death grip on your paddle, most paddles float if you drop it. You want to have a relaxed grip that is in the shape of an “o”. For more information on how to how your kayak paddle, check out this helpful post on the REI Blog.

  • How to go Forward

Engage your core & twist your torso to lean forward and put the paddle blade fully into the water near your feet. Then pull back to your seat with the blade and remove it from the water. Just remember, long strokes from your feet to your seat is the way to go. Don’t forget to switch sides or you’ll just paddle yourself in a circle.

  • How to go Backwards

You’ll just do the forward stroke in reverse. Put the paddle in the water at your seat and push it towards your feet then remove the paddle and switch sides doing the same motion.

How to paddle a kayak // Sit-on top vs Sit-in Kayaks // Build confidence with these kayaking tips for beginners. Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.

  • How to Stop

Put your paddle in the water like you are doing a backstroke and hold it there, dragging it against the water.

  • How to Turn

If you want to turn LEFT, then paddle only on your right. If you want to turn RIGHT, then paddle only on your left.

What to Wear & Bring Kayaking

Since you’ll likely be getting wet, you want to stay away from anything cotton which will leave you dripping and soggy all day. Assuming it’s warm and you don’t need a wet or drysuit of any kind, you’ll want lightweight, quick-drying layers – like a rash guard and boardshorts – which also protect you from the sun.

Life Vest

Always have a life vest, known as a PFD (personal floatation device) with you. In some cases, it’s the law. I recommend always wearing your PFD when you launch, and always have it within an arms reach so you can quickly put it on. If you decide to pull over and beach your kayaks for a bit, make sure to secure your PFD to your boat so the wind doesn’t blow it away.

Here is the clothing I like to wear on short, warm weather kayaking excursions:

Other Kayaking Essentials

  • Sunscreen (choose reef safe if kayaking in the ocean)
  • Lip Balm with SPF
  • Water Bottle – I love my Hydroflask. It’s big and heavy, but it keeps your water from getting hot in the sun. Don’t underestimate the amount of water you’ll need.
  • Paddling gloves – If you’re paddling for a long distance, a pair of paddling gloves can help prevent blisters
  • Snacks
  • Camera – A GoPro is an awesome choice for kayaking because it’s waterproof, great for POV shots, and can easily mount to different spots on your kayak.
  • Durable Dry Bag – 10 liters is good for a day trip and is necessary for keeping your stuff, like your phone, dry
  • Carabiner – you can use this to clip your dry bag or water bottle to your kayak.

If you’re just getting started with kayaking don’t feel like you have to run out & buy new clothing. You most likely have clothes at home that you can use for kayaking, and then you can choose to invest in specialized gear later on.

What to wear kayaking // Learn about different types of kayaks, what to wear, how to paddle & trip planning considerations.

Considerations for your First Kayaking Excursion

When you are planning your first kayaking trip, there are a few considerations you’ll want to make.

  • Trip Length: For your first time kayaking, plan a trip that is less than three hours. You don’t want to exhaust yourself or bite off more than you’re ready for. Three hours gives you enough to get a feel for kayaking and decide if you like it.
  • Wind/Water Conditions: If it’s really windy, you might opt for another day. Wind poses an additional challenge that sometimes is unavoidable…but we recommend trying kayaking for the first time when it’s calm out. Also, lake conditions tend to be easier than the ocean for new paddlers.
  • Take a class or go on a guided tour: If you’re nervous, consider taking a class or joining a guided tour for your first trip. Use REI’s Class Finder to see if there is one near you.  You’ll build a foundation, familiarity with the gear, and the confidence to go on your own next time. Or who knows? Maybe you’ll meet a new paddling partner in the class.

Once you are comfortable and ready to advance to the next level, check out my all-time favorite kayaking trips for inspiration:

San Juan Islands Kayaking // Learn what to wear kayaking in this blog post

Managing Common Kayaking Fears

As an ocean kayaking guide, BFT’s former Community Manager, Kim, has heard it all. What if I fall? Or get swept out to sea? If this sounds like you, here are Kim’s tips for addressing those fears.

  • What if I fall in?

First know, it takes a lot to flip a kayak over, and tandem kayaks are even harder. With that said, it’s important that you know how to get yourself back in the boat in that unlikely event. Kim actually recommends that you practice falling in, so that you have experience re-entering a kayak from the water. She also says, always wear your PFD. If you’re going with an outfitter or rental company, listen to their safety talk and ask any questions you have prior to heading out.

  • I’m afraid I won’t be fit enough

Kayaking in the morning is usually better than in the afternoon as winds can pick up in the afternoon making kayaking more difficult. The first half of your trip,  head into the wind, if possible. That way when you’re tired later on, you can then kayak downwind and get a little boost.

  • What about the sharks?

Kim gets this question because she guides in the Channel Islands. Know that it’s rare, but it’s something many people are afraid of. If you’re with a tour operator or renting from a business, it’s okay to ask them if they have frequent experience with sharks or if this is something you should be aware of.

We hope these beginner kayaking tips inspire you to try paddling for this first-time this summer. What questions or tips do you have? Leave them in the comments or join our Bearfoot Theory Outdoor Adventurers Facebook Group.

There are 6 comments on this post.

About the author

Hi! I'm Kristen....blogger, hiker, sunset-watcher, and dance floor shredder. I feel most alive in the outdoors and created this website to help you enjoy the best that the West has to offer.

6 Comments on “Beginner Kayaking Tips for First-Time Paddlers

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  1. I have found your article very informative and interesting. I appreciate your points of view and I agree with so many. You’ve done a great job with making this clear enough for anyone to understand.

    I like the tip about practicing to fall in the water so you can know how to get back in if you do. My sister loves kayaks, and she also wants to go on a camping trip soon. I wonder if she could rent some kayaks so we can play in the lake near the campsite.

    It’s interesting to know that ti-on top kayaks will be the best choice for beginners. My husband and his friends want to go kayaking next month, and we are looking for advice. I will make sure to follow your tips to make my first experience with kayaking a good one.

    My first time ever was in Morro Bay. It was awesome and I was immediately hooked. I have since kayaked 3 week+ salt water tours and of course countless days and overnighters.

    It’s not hard and if you have a guide you’ll find it’s a breeze. Only a couple of things that’s a bit of a pain is getting used to the feel of your kayak. Depending on the model some are a little wobbly until you get dialed in. The trade of is they tend to be a little faster and they also may have better handling in rougher water than a more flat bottom boat which are more stable. Either way, you’ll be dialed in within 15 minutes. However I did see a guy roll out of a boat once when he got in it. He had never been in a kayak before and got in an 18 foot slender touring boat. Was pretty funy. he was totally fine but lost his glasses.

    The other thin is just getting in and out of the boat can be a pain sometime depending on where you’re landing. If your beach landing expect to get wet feet.

    You’re going to have the time of your life in a Norwegian fjord. So jealous!

    I’ve got a 10 day section cruise coming up in the inside Passage of BC that I’m prepping for and am almost out of my mind with excitement over.

    Have a great time!

    Kind of informative and well-organized article. I must thank you. The author.

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