Flatwater Kayaking

Flatwater Kayaking: Getting Started

Whether you’re going out for a day or a week, kayaking unlocks a whole new world of adventure. There are two main categories of kayaks when it comes to flatwater paddling (as opposed to whitewater): touring kayaks and recreational kayaks. Below we’ll help you determine which type of boat is right for you, and how to get started.   

Touring Kayaks

This type of craft, also known as a sea kayak, is ideal for paddling on flatwater rivers, large lakes, bays, and oceans. 

  • Touring kayaks are long and narrow compared to other types of kayaks. 
  • This design improves speed and tracking (staying straight). It reduces primary stability, making touring kayaks a little wobbly when not moving, compared to wider, recreational models.
  • Internal compartments store gear; large boats can easily stow a week’s worth of camping gear and supplies. Bulkheads divide the kayak into separate compartments and waterproof hatches allow access. 
  • Bungee cords on the decking let you keep things like maps, water bottles, and snacks within easy reach.
  • Many touring kayaks have a “closed deck” design. With these, you sit inside a cockpit and a spray skirt seals around your waist. The neoprene seals your lower torso and legs inside the boat where they stay dry. It also lets skilled tourers ”roll” their kayaks to right themselves should they capsize. Kayaks without a cockpit are called “sit-on-tops” and are easier to use for beginners, but can’t be rolled. 
  • Touring kayaks usually have either a rudder or skeg, which help you maintain direction in open water.

Recreational Kayaks

These boats are best for trips of up to one day on flatwater rivers and lakes.  

  • Recreational kayaks are shorter and wider than touring kayaks (they’re generally less than 12 feet long). 
  • This design improves stability, which is great for beginners, but makes them a little slower than their touring cousins.
  • Recreational kayaks are often “sit-on-top” designs that favor comfort and ease of getting in and out, but can’t be sealed at the waist like a closed deck kayak. 
  • Expect limited storage with a recreational kayak. These boats might have bungee cords and a small compartment for carrying lunch and a few layers, but they can’t transport camping gear like a touring kayak. 

Pick an appropriate spot

When you’re just starting out, choose a spot where you will be comfortable. Look for calm water with easy places to get in and out of your kayak (avoid strong currents, waves, and wind). Until you know how to perform a self-rescue in open water, never paddle far from shore; you should be able to comfortably swim to safety. 

Before you go: Let people know where you are going and when to expect you back (and who to call if you don’t return on time). Check the weather and current conditions, and make sure you get any required permits. Always paddle with another person so that you can help each other should anything go wrong. 

How to get in your kayak

If you can walk into the water from shore, start by floating the kayak in just a few inches of water. Straddle the kayak with a leg on either side, and slowly lower yourself into the cockpit (or seat). Pull your legs into the boat, seal the spray skirt if you’re using one, and paddle away. 

If you are entering a kayak from a dock or other surface above the water, put the kayak alongside the dock. Slide your legs over the edge and put your feet into the boat. Face the front of the kayak (the bow) and, while holding firmly to the dock, lower yourself into the boat with a single smooth motion. Do so while making sure your paddle stays within reach on the dock. 

For both methods of entry, simply reverse the process to get out of the boat. 

Use Your Legs

Powerful kayaking strokes involve rotating your torso and using your core. Getting your feet involved as a strong base will help you create powerful strokes. If your kayak has adjustable foot pegs, move them so your knees are slightly bent when you’re seated.

How to Hold the Paddle 

Extend your arms straight to either side and bend your elbows so your fists point forward in front of you. This is how far your hands should be apart when you’re holding the paddle. Now grasp the paddle and center it to your chest, with the shaft perpendicular to your boat. 

How to Paddle

Twist your core and put one paddle blade in the water near your feet. Push the paddle with your upper arm while simultaneously pulling with your lower arm. Engage your core, putting power into the stroke. Alternate to the other side, continuing this push and pull motion. 

The closer the paddle blade is to your boat, the straighter you’ll go. And like with most athletic movements, remember to stay relaxed, especially in your hands, to prevent fatigue.

Cut Yourself in Two

Let your upper and lower halves work independently. Stay loose throughout your body. While your upper body focuses on paddling, use your lower body to shift weight and deal with waves, tilt your kayak to either side, and maintain your balance. The more comfortable you are with this, the more capable you will be of learning more kayaking skills.  

Pack Your Boat Well

While touring kayaks are capable of hauling a week’s worth of gear and supplies, that doesn’t mean you can just toss everything in. A poorly packed kayak will not only slow you down, it can become a safety concern as handling and balance suffer. 

The goal: Distribute your load so that without you in the kayak, it still sits evenly in the water, without pitching forward or backward. Heavier items—like tents, cooking gear, food, and water—should be closer to the center and low in the boat with lighter items farther out and higher. Pack supplies in dry bags that can easily be stowed. (The same principles apply to recreational kayaks, but you’ll have much less gear to manage.)

Bring Safety Gear

Always wear a Coast Guard approved PFD. This is non-negotiable, like wearing a seatbelt or a bike helmet. Bring a whistle to signal distress, a bilge-pump and sponge to remove water, and, for longer trips, a spare paddle.

Wear Appropriate Clothing

Clothing is weather dependent. In cold climates, you might need to wear a wet or dry suit to stay warm, or at least a paddle jacket (or rain shell) to stay dry. In hotter climates, a sun shirt is a must to protect from UV rays, which are reflected off the water, magnifying the sun’s power. Likewise, a hat and sunglasses provide critical protection. You’ll also want a sturdy pair of insulated paddling shoes (in cold temps) or sandals (in warm temps). 

Have a Self-Rescue Plan 

Before you leave shore, you need to have a plan to right yourself should you capsize. For experienced kayakers using a spray skirt, this often means executing a roll to flip themselves upright. It’s a move that requires confidence and lots of practice, especially to be able to execute it in rough conditions. 

When you’re just starting out, practice re-entering your kayak with the help of a paddling partner who can help stabilize your boat as you climb back in. Do not go onto open water to tour until you are confident that you can get back into your boat should you capsize or fall out. Until you have mastered this skill, only paddle as far from shore as you are capable of swimming if you need to. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.