An Introduction to Kayaking for Beginners

Since the dawn of time, man has had an affinity with water. For many of us, there’s a sense of excitement, yet calmness that washes over us (pardon the pun) when we’re around water in the great outdoors. Water is, after all, the natural life-bringer, but it offers us so much more.

For those of you who can’t get enough of the great outdoors, you’ll find there are plenty of adventure sports and activities which can be performed on the water. One activity which is proving to be particularly popular as of late, is kayaking, and it is kayaking which we’re going to be looking at today. If you’re considering taking up kayaking, or if you’d simply like to learn more, here is a definitive introduction to kayaking for beginners. Contained within this guide is everything you could ever wish to know about kayaking.

A brief history of kayaking

If you were paying attention during our introduction, you’ll remember how we said that we’d be looking at everything you could ever wish to know about kayaking. We weren’t saying that just to try and sound clever, we said it because it’s true. Though this section on the history of kayaking is unlikely to ever prove useful whilst on the open water, it is still very interesting and it’s a great way to show off with your kayaking buddies at the bar after an awesome afternoon on the water.

Kayaking can be traced back to ancient Inuit culture several thousand years back. The name literally meant ‘hunter’s boat’. Needless to say, with a name like that, you can probably guess what the boats were used for.

That’s right, they weren’t designed to provide a leisurely mode of transport down a soothing and calming river, they were designed to act as transportation vessels to allow the Inuit hunters to stalk animals from the water and sneak up on them from the water’s edge. Nowadays, kayaks come in all shapes and sizes, and are made from durable and hard-wearing materials. Back then however, they were commonly made from lumps of driftwood, as well as whale bones, which were then wrapped in animal skins to help prevent them from becoming waterlogged.

As fantastic as those designs were, they were of course flawed, and kayaks nowadays wouldn’t hold up if they were made to those specs. Thankfully for keen kayakers out there, kayak designs have evolved dramatically and nowadays kayaks are commonly made from durable and hard-wearing materials such as fibre glass or polyethylene plastic.


Common types of kayak

Whilst there are kayaks which hold multiple person’s, when out on the water, the most common kayak design you’re likely to encounter is a traditional single cockpit model. Here, the paddler will sit inside of the boat and will be sealed in using a spray deck which also happens to be bendy. You can get hardwearing plastic kayaks, upmarket fibreglass ones, tandem kayaks, and much more besides. As well as being made from different materials, and coming in different shapes and sizes, you’ll also find that many kayaks also come in different colours, shapes, sizes, and designs.


Okay, so what exactly is kayaking?

Now that we’ve looked at the history of kayaks, as well as where they originated, how they’ve evolved, and what they are, we now need to take a look at precisely what kayaking is. Kayaking isn’t some complex water sport which requires expensive kit and a wealth of knowledge. It’s actually very simple. Basically, kayaking is an activity in which you sit in a kayak, get onto the water, and leisurely paddle along to your heart’s content. You propel yourself through the water with a double-bladed paddle.


What happens when my kayak capsizes?

Okay, notice how we said ‘when’ your kayak capsizes, rather than ‘if’? Well, the reason for that is simply down to the fact that you will end up in the water at some point, as a capsize can happen to even the most advanced of kayaker. Now, there are all kinds of horror stories on the internet about people becoming stuck in kayaks and drowning under the water as they couldn’t break free. Needless to say, like most stories on the internet, these tails are simply not true.

When your kayak capsizes, the more likely scenario is that you’ll be ejected from the cockpit, in which case you simply roll the kayak over and carefully climb back in. If you aren’t ejected, don’t panic, and simply perform a forward roll to free yourself. Experienced kayakers may perform an ‘Eskimo roll’ in which case they’ll use momentum and their paddle to rotate themselves 360 degrees under and out of the water until the kayak is once again on the surface of the water. You will be shown all of this by your instructor, and don’t worry, we’ll be looking at that a little later on in this guide. For now however, simply accept the fact that you will NOT drown if your kayak capsizes, providing you do as you’re instructed.


Isn’t kayaking just a fancy name for canoeing?

Okay, first off, if you value your life, never refer to kayaking as canoeing in front of a kayak enthusiast, or canoeing as kayaking in front of a canoeing enthusiast. The two activities use paddles, and take place on the water, and that is pretty much it as far as similarities go. Some might argue that both vessels are similarly shaped, in that they’re small and pointy, but the two activities are like chalk and cheese in terms of differences.

Kayaking is very different to canoeing, in that you use different safety gear, you’ll use different equipment, you’ll use different clothing, and the techniques associated with both sports could not be anymore different. No doubt there will be some stubborn individuals out there that refuse to accept the fact that kayaking and canoeing are two completely different activities, in which case you need to get them to look at the paddles used. A canoe paddle is much shorter than a kayak paddle, and it has just one single blade on the end. A kayak paddle is much longer and it features two blades set 90 degrees to one another. So, remember, one blade is a canoe paddle, and two blades is a kayak paddle. In summary, no kayaking is not a fancy name for canoeing.


Are there different types of kayaking to be enjoyed?

So, now that we know that kayaking is basically a form of sailing/rowing, where exactly do you do it? Do you do it in your bathtub? The local swimming pool? An abandoned quarry? Well, no to all of the above, but yes to the following. Here’s a look at some of the many different forms of kayaking which can be enjoyed:


Sea kayaking

There are very few people that do not enjoy being by the sea. The sea is calming, it’s stunning to look at, it’s stunning to listen to, it gives everything a clean and fresh smell, and it’s just fantastic. As you can probably tell, we’re big fans of the sea here, and so are countless others.

If you enjoy kayaking, and enjoy the sea, why not combine the two together with a spot of sea kayaking? Sea kayaking will give you the opportunity to get your kayak onto the sea and paddle around at your leisure. You do not head out to sea like Columbus did, the idea is that you instead paddle around quieter sections of coastline close to land.

Sea kayaking is fantastic because as well as the enjoyment and exercise you get from kayaking, you’ll also encounter some truly stunning marine life. Whereas there are some very popular sea kayaking spots, particularly in summer, it is sometimes better to find quieter, undiscovered sections of coast so that you get to enjoy it to yourself. The quieter it is, the more chance you’ll have of encountering some marine wildlife as well.


White water kayaking

When you see kayaking advertised in magazines, on the web, or on the TV, you’ll find that generally there’s an image of a kayaker, clearly an adrenalin junkie, firmly planted in his or her kayak, teetering on the edge of a small waterfall, surrounded by foamy white water, ready to take the plunge. This is white water kayaking, and it is considered to be the ultimate adrenaline-fuelled variation of kayaking.

White water kayaking takes place on fast-flowing rivers, fierce rapids, and stretches littered with small waterfalls. This is about as much fun as you could expect from kayaking, though we certainly do not recommend it for beginners. Only experienced kayakers choose to embark on white water kayaking, but once you get to that level, you’ll find that it sure is a whole lot of fun.


Freestyle Kayaking

Whereas white water kayaking was for the thrill-seekers amongst you, freestyle kayaking would be best suited for the showmen and women amongst you. Freestyle kayaking combines elements from white water kayaking and kayak surfing, along with nifty tricks in the water.

It is the ultimate spectator sport though it is even better to be involved in the water and actually doing it. Freestyle kayaking is very much designed with expert kayakers in mind. In fact, experienced kayakers with years of experience under their belts would still probably struggle with freestyle kayaking. Just to give you an idea of what to expect from freestyle kayaking, you’ll see Eskimo rolls, front flips, back flips, surfing, and much more besides. On the subject of surfing…


Kayak surfing

Kayak surfing is ideal for anybody out there who wishes to take up both kayaking and surfing together. Instead of doing one or the other however, who not combine the two together and get the best of both worlds? Kayak surfing, not surprisingly, takes place on the sea. It is sea kayaking with the volume cranked way up. Rather than balancing on a surfboard however, you instead sit in your kayak and surf the waves that way. On some days the waves can get pretty big, so if that’s your thing, kayak surfing is ideal.


Kayak touring

So far, we’ve placed an emphasis on thrill-seeking, adrenaline-fuelled enjoyment when it comes to kayaking. If that’s your bag, then that’s perfectly fine by us. Not everybody that takes up kayaking, however, does so with action in mind. Kayaking can also be a very leisurely and relaxing activity too.

If you enjoy the great outdoors and want to see all that Mother Nature has to offer at your own leisure, might we recommend kayak touring instead? Kayak touring is typically performed on canals, lakes, rivers, or even streams if they’re large and deep enough. It’s about gently paddling along the water, listening to the trickle of running water, enjoying the lush green scenery, listening to the birds singing, and wishing you could stay on the water forever.

Kayak touring is performed on calm, relatively still waters with no water, no rapids, no waterfalls, no rocks, and no obstacles for you to worry about. When it comes to kayaking for beginners, kayak touring is a great place to begin. Whereas some kayakers use it as a way of honing their craft and advancing onto bigger challenges, others are quite content to stick solely with kayak touring as their go-to form of kayaking, and we don’t blame them in the slightest.


Competitive kayaking

If you’ve a competitive streak in you and you want to really challenge yourself whilst kayaking, might we recommend competitive kayaking? Competitive kayaking is a form of kayaking which you will likely have seen at the Olympic games. Typically a form of white water kayaking, competitive kayaking is done for points, in which you will compete against other kayakers. There are slalom and sprint events performed in competitive kayaking, and it is definitely not easy.


Kayaking tips for beginners

Now that you’re familiar with some of the different types of kayaking to choose from, we’ll now share a few tried and tested kayaking tips for beginners. If you’re thinking of taking up kayaking but aren’t sure where to begin, kayaking is perfect. Here are a series of kayaking tips for beginners.


Take kayaking lessons

First and foremost, arguably the most important tip of all when taking up kayaking, is to take the time to hire an instructor and take kayaking lessons. Kayaking is not as easy to master as you may have thought, and if you do attempt to teach yourself, there are always risks when you make your way into open water.

Now, even if you’re able to keep yourself afloat and maybe even paddle a few lengths, there is a lot more of kayaking to master than you may have initially imagined. This is where it pays to take kayaking lessons. By taking lessons, you’ll learn how to safely board and dismount your kayak, you’ll learn what to do when you capsize, how to navigate the water properly, how to master your kayaking technique, and much more besides. You’ll also learn what equipment you’ll need to purchase, but we’ll have more on that a little later.

Kayaking lessons are not expensive, so there really is no reason not to take them before you hit the water.


Select the correct kayak

As we’ve mentioned a few times already, kayaks have advanced and evolved massively since their early days on the water all of those thousands of years ago. We now have access to the most advanced and sophisticated materials that money can buy, and it shows. Kayaks come in different sizes, shapes, colours, and designs, and it is vital that you select the right one for you. You can purchase narrow elongated racing kayaks, freestyle leisure boats, twin cockpit kayaks, and plenty more besides.

Different kayaks are also made from different materials, depending on where they’re designed to be used. White water kayaks for example, will be made from stronger and more durable materials than touring kayaks, because they take a lot more punishment as they’ll be used in harsher conditions. Once you’ve decided which type of kayaking you wish to master, choose the relevant kayak accordingly.


Always dress for the water

In the midst of summer when the sun is shining fiercely and the sky is blue with not a cloud in sight, it can be tempting to throw on a vest, a pair of shorts, and some flipflops so that you can stay cool and top up your tan whilst you kayak. However, expert kayakers always stress the importance of dressing for the water, rather than the weather.

No matter how hot the sun is, the water could feel icy cold, and if, sorry, when, you do capsize, the contrast in temperature could come as a massive shock to you.

Without sounding extreme, there is the potential for cardiac issues when you alternate between extreme temperatures. Therefore, when kayaking, a wetsuit is recommended, as well as kayak gloves if necessary, and water shoes.

We’re going to look at kayak equipment in more detail a little later on, but for now, just remember to respect the water and dress accordingly. If you do get too hot you can always go for a quick swim in the water to cool down. Oh, and whilst we’re on the subject, always remember a waterproof sunscreen.


Always sit correctly in your kayak

When you take kayak lessons, one of the first things your instructor will teach you will be how to sit properly in your kayak. Being told how to sit down may sound a little condescending but there is actually a right and wrong way to sit in a kayak. First off, you must resist the urge to slouch.

No matter how comfortable the backrest might be, you need to ensure that your back is straight, and that you sit upright with your buttocks and lower back virtually 90 degrees from one another.

Located on either side of the vessel will be foot pegs for your feet. Be sure to bend the knees outwards and upwards, with your thighs planted firmly onto the thigh braces. This