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 You Set Out

You'll have a much more enjoyable—and safer—time on the water with a few key navigation and paddling skills under your belt. Check your local REI store for clinics or referrals to area paddling clubs. The REI Outdoor School offers navigation and paddling classes in most REI markets.

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.

Boat Adjustments

A properly adjusted kayak allows greater comfort and more efficient paddling. Think about maintaining 3 points of contact at all times:

  1. The small of your back is tight against the seatback. Sit in the cockpit and adjust the seatback so that you're sitting up straight, or even slightly forward.
  2. The balls of your feet brace against the foot pedals, which control the rudder. Adjust the foot pedals to the length of your legs, keeping a bend in the knees
  3. Your bent knees are in firm contact with the either side of the cockpit. Once you're on the water, this is how you'll control the side-to-side motion of the boat.

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 Basic Launch

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:

  1. Feet: Step into the boat and slide forward so that your feet are on the foot braces.
  2. Seat: Sit up straight with your back snug against the upright seatback.
  3. Knees: Place your knees under the side coaming of the cockpit.

The Forward Stroke

Forward Stroke

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.

What to Bring

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.

REI.com and, seasonally, many REI stores offer a wide range of kayaks, kayak paddles and kayak accessories. Outfitted with paddling know-how and the proper gear, you're all set to explore the waterways. Happy kayaking!