A Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking: From Learning to Paddle to Buying a Kayak


Kayaking is one of our favorite activities. We love the feeling of being in the water, seeing wildlife and birds, and the relaxation of just diving in a paddle and floating around. Since we live on a lake and own kayaks, we have endless possibilities to be on the water.

We’ve also kayaked on vacation, explored the bioluminescent bays of Puerto Rico, kayaked around Arcadia Bay, spotted grizzly bears from Alaskan waters, and floated down the Delaware River in the Delaware Water Gap. And the highlight of a lifetime – kayaking in Antarctica.

For us kayaking is all about relaxation – we are not white water, long distance or fast kayakers. Sure, we exercise and have done some hard kayaking, but enjoying the scenery and being with the water is our main focus.

Kayaking can be practiced by almost anyone. Here are some tips to start your kayaking journey.

Regina in her sit-in kayak

(Photo credit: Sue Davies / Traveling for Life Now)

1. If you don’t try kayaking, you’ll never know how much fun it is

Our first tip for beginners is to do it. If you don’t try, you will never discover the joy of being in the water and paddling calmly. Take a deep breath and go for it.

2. Start Slow – Don’t Bite More Than You Can Chew

Kayaking looks very easy, and it can be. However, if you are new to kayaking, it is best to take it slow. Starting out in a calm lake is much easier than tackling the Delaware River or ocean rapids on your first attempt.

It can be useful to make your first trip with an organized tour or take a lesson. That way, you’ll have someone to teach you how to hold the paddle, turn, avoid hazards, and have the most enjoyable experience. If you decide to go on an excursion, try to find a short trip instead of embarking on a long 2-3 day adventure.

3. Learn to paddle, turn and stop

Learning to maneuver a kayak is essential. You have to know how to turn right, left, stop or even reverse. Basically, the kayak goes in the direction of the side you are paddling on. If you take an organized tour they will give you a lesson on how to do it on your first day. Some kayaks (often used by tour operators) have rudders for steering.

4. Rent before you buy

We had been kayaking for over a decade before we considered buying a kayak. In the early years we usually rented kayaks or joined organized tours. This had many advantages. We learned that we love kayaking and were able to experiment with different types of kayaks. Once we felt strong enough, we transitioned from organized tours to renting kayaks and heading out on our own. From there we bought our own kayaks.

Kayaking on Lake Kemah

Sue and Regina are kayaking on Lake Kemah

(Photo credit: Sue Davies / Traveling for Life Now)

5. Always go out with a friend

For a very experienced kayaker, going out alone is quite safe. For new kayakers, this is not the case. We always kayak together, even in our backyard lake. You never know when something can go wrong and you can find yourself in a dangerous situation.

6. Don’t forget water, snacks, sunscreen, insect repellent and hats

One way to ruin a kayaking trip is to be unprepared. Being on the water in the sun means you are exposed to the elements and can become dehydrated. Be sure to bring water, sunscreen, and a hat. We wear lycra so we don’t have to reapply sunscreen frequently. If you’re going for a long day in the water, snacks are essential. Insect repellent will also be useful. To get on the boat, we wear water shoes.

7. Always put on a life jacket

We always wear life jackets. It doesn’t matter if we only go out for half an hour or more. You could accidentally capsize and wearing a life jacket might be the only thing keeping you afloat. In fact, we require everyone visiting the lake to wear a life jacket when kayaking.

8. Keep things dry while kayaking

In the summer, you probably don’t mind getting wet from kayak spray. But your camera, phone, and wallet won’t be so happy to get soaked. This is where a dry bag comes in. Dry bags are inexpensive and are designed to keep things dry when you’re in a boat or kayak. It’s an essential investment if you want to take pictures from your kayak or even just have your phone with you. These days, you can even get a little protective cover just for your smartphone and attach a foam float in case your phone falls in water.

9. Enter a kayak gracefully

The easiest way to board a kayak is from a beach or the shallow end of a lake. All you have to do is straddle the kayak, waddle up to the seat, put your butt in the seat, then tuck your legs in. It sounds simple, but it takes some getting used to. It is also possible to board a kayak from a dock or a zodiac. It takes more practice or you’ll end up in the water next to the kayak – which we did more than once. Make sure you have your paddles nearby because you won’t want to come back up.

Sit-in kayak

Sit-in kayak

(Photo credit: Sue Davies / Traveling for Life Now)

10. Buy your first kayak

Our first kayak was an inflatable kayak. It was inexpensive and easy to transport and inflate. It is also easy to store. 7 years later, we still use it occasionally. We then bought inexpensive recreational Pelican kayaks, which are our main kayaks today. Since our car didn’t have a roof rack, we had to make two very slow trips with the kayaks attached to our car to get them home.

If you’re buying a kayak, you’ll need to be prepared to store it out of season and carry it wherever you kayak. We have trouble lifting our kayaks to put them on a roof rack, so make sure you are able to do this before investing in a rack and kayak.

11. Choose the right type of kayak

There are many types of kayaks, including touring, fishing, competition, and whitewater. Some are made for one person and others for two (tandem kayaks). It is best to do some research before buying. There are sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks. If you are very tall, make sure you have a kayak you feel comfortable in.

towed sit kayaks

A trailer of sit-on-top kayaks

(Photo credit: Sue Davies / Traveling for Life Now)

What are the advantages of a sit-on-top kayak?

With a sit-on-top kayak, you sit on the kayak. Your legs are exposed to the sun (be sure to put on sunscreen) and the elements. They are very easy to put on and are better suited for warmer climates as you tend to get wet. Sit-in kayaks tend to be wider and easier to pull up if they capsize. They are good for beginners.

What are the benefits of a sit-in kayak?

Sit-in kayaks offer more protection from the elements since you sit inside. They can be harder for a beginner to tackle, and you’ll need to make sure you’re comfortable with the size of the kayak. Sit-ins have a lower center of gravity, so they are very stable and easier to control. Most sit-ins have compartments for dry bags and cup holders for drinks.

Either way, make sure the kayak gives you enough back support, or you’ll end up with back pain.

What about folding kayaks?

There are a few companies that manufacture folding kayaks. We have kayaking friends who love them. They can fit in a trunk and be much easier for city dwellers to store.

Reggie with kayak paddles

Regina with kayak paddles

(Photo credit: Sue Davies / Traveling for Life Now)

12. Buy your paddles

Paddles are also available in a wide variety. We have paddles that come apart and are adjustable in size. They are inexpensive and easy to store. Be sure to select the correct paddle length for your kayak and your size.

13. The importance of a skirt

A sprayskirt is a waterproof fabric that fits around your waist and covers the opening of a sit-in kayak. It prevents you from getting wet from sea spray and is important if you are kayaking in the cold, such as in Alaska or Antarctica.

Sue Kayaking in the fall with a wetsuit

Sue in her sit-in kayak and wetsuit during fall

(Photo credit: Regina Ang/Travel For Life Now)

14. You can kayak in the cold…with the right gear.

You can kayak in cold weather, but having the right gear is essential if you plan to. We advise you to invest in a drysuit and a quality skirt. A wetsuit will keep you warm, but a drysuit will keep you dry. In Antarctica, we kayaked with thermals in a drysuit. In the fall in New Jersey, we use wetsuits to keep us warm. You should also be very careful that your hands do not get wet. Large dishwashing gloves over warm ones can be very effective.

We’ve spent hundreds of hours in our kayaks, enjoying the wildlife, the sunset, or just floating around. We hope these tips are helpful when you get out on the water. Happy kayaking!

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