Easy to use and fun to paddle, kayaks open up vast new watery worlds to explore. You might find yourself floating above a sea of starfish, nosing through a lily-pad oasis, or rocking and rolling among the ocean waves.
Ready to get out there? This article offers you tips from the experienced instructors at the REI Outdoor School.
Before launching a full-scale outing, be sure to practice your newfound skills. Your best bet: calm, protected water with low wind and scant motorized boat traffic. Gear up so that capsizing doesn't become a life-threatening event. Without proper clothing, a dunking in cold—or even cool—water poses the very real threat of hypothermia.
Ready to go farther? Always plan your trip well in advance, taking into consideration the skill level of everyone in your party. As your trip date nears, check the weather. Keep on top of shifting conditions, including wind speed and direction, water temperature, wave size and strength of currents and tides. Read more about trip planning here.
A properly adjusted kayak allows greater comfort and more efficient paddling. Think about maintaining 3 points of contact at all times:
In your quest for the perfect adjustment, don't wedge yourself too tightly into the boat. The fit should be snug enough to give you control of the kayak, but loose enough that you can exit smoothly if the need arises.
A smooth kayak launch takes some practice, but it gets easier the more you do it. Here's how to make the transition from shoreline to waterway:
With the kayak at water's edge (bow first and mostly afloat), stand facing the boat. Place your paddle across it, just behind the cockpit. Extend the other end of the paddle to rest on the shoreline, using it as an outrigger to steady the boat. Be sure the rounded side of the blade is on the ground and the spoon (concave) side is facing up.
With one hand on the paddle shaft and the other on the cockpit's coaming (raised edge), you're ready to slide into the cockpit. Maintain a low center of gravity as you enter the boat. Keep your weight on the side of the kayak that's supported by the paddle resting on the ground.
Enter the kayak in 3 stages:
Once afloat, your basic means of forward propulsion is the forward stroke. This consists of a push-pull motion as you move either end of the paddle through the water.
The key to a strong, efficient forward stroke? Torso rotation. Contrary to appearances, paddling isn't just about using your arms. The large muscles in your trunk hold much more power than your arm muscles. You'll discover much greater endurance and strength when you rotate your trunk as you paddle.
With paddle in hand, most kayakers tend naturally to pull the blade toward themselves. Equally important: pushing the blade strongly through the water. Aided by torso rotation, this pushing motion provides enormous leverage, adding power and ease to your forward stroke.
A paddling buddy: Paddling alone can be a dangerous undertaking, especially for beginners. Always bring a buddy.
Safety equipment: At minimum, every paddler in your party should be outfitted with a PFD (personal flotation device), a light, rescue gear and a communication device. Learn more about safety gear here.
Proper clothing: Dress not just for the weather but for the water temperature. Prepare to get wet! Layering is key for comfort and safety when kayaking. Read more about choosing paddling clothing.
The Ten Essentials: Your kayak should have the Ten Essentials on board. Read more about this time-honored list of emergency and safety gear in our REI Expert Advice article, The Ten Essentials.
By Kelly Huffman
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Last updated: 02/18/2014
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