How To Paddle a Kayak Correctly: Technique 101

Once you’re on the water, the excitement begins. It’s time to start paddling.

But there are a handful of tricks and technique fundamentals to make your outing more safe, efficient and enjoyable, from proper posture to different strokes. Before heading too far out, practice these different strokes by paddling around in alternating circles. To get even better, sign up for a lesson or a guided trip (check with your local paddling shop). Start off with a few of the following pointers. 

Paddle Grip

Grab your paddle loosely with hands shoulder-width apart, with the blade’s “scoop” facing you (otherwise known as the blade’s power face). Note: If you’re using asymmetrical paddle blades, make sure the longest part of the blade is on the top, lined up with your knuckles. 


Don’t slouch. While many kayaks have backrests, sit up straight to get into the active paddling position. Keep your hips loose and relaxed, with your head and body balanced over the kayak and hands out front. Picture your arms, chest and paddle forming a box. 


Instead of just using your arms, rotate your entire torso for each stroke by twisting at the waist. This harnesses the most power, utilizing your whole upper body, including shoulders, back and stomach muscles. 

Turning and Leaning

If you’re moving forward and your boat turns—either by catching a current, the wind or from executing a turning stroke—lean your boat into the turn so your outside edge doesn’t catch (i.e. lean right if you’re turning right, and left if you’re turning left). For additional support, place your paddle blade flat to the water’s surface and out in front of you on the same side that you’re turning toward.  

Forward Stroke

This is the stroke you’ll use most often. Twisting your body, reach one blade forward toward your feet and place it in the water; twist back to pull the blade to your hips. Take the blade out when it reaches your hips and repeat on the opposite side. 

Reverse Stroke

This is executed the same as the forward stroke but in reverse. To stop, slow down or move backward: Keep the same relaxed grip, place your blade at your hip and push gently forward away from your body, also twisting your torso. Alternate sides to stay straight when slowing down or backing up.  

Forward Sweep Stroke

Going straight, especially in shorter kayaks, can be tricky. Use correction or “sweep” strokes to stay on course while maintaining momentum. Start the way you would a forward stroke by reaching one blade forward toward your feet and placing it in the water. Only instead of pulling the blade to your hips, keep it near the surface and “sweep” it out away from the side of your kayak, making a wide C-shaped motion. Use it on the right to turn left, and on the left to turn right.

Backward Sweep Stroke

Like the forward sweep, this stroke is designed to help turn the boat, but from behind. Plant the backside of your paddle blade at the boat’s stern and, rotating your upper body, sweep the blade forward in a “C” away from the boat, keeping the blade near the surface. Do it on the right to turn right, and left to turn left. Combine this stroke with a forward sweep stroke on the opposite side to turn even faster. 

Rudder Stroke

Use this to help turn your craft once you have speed (Note: You have to be moving forward for it to work). To do so, reach back and place the back (non-scooped) end of your paddle near the stern of the boat behind you and gently pry forward. Do it on the right to turn right, and left to turn left. Think of it as the first part of the reverse sweep stroke. 

Brace Stroke

This is a good technique for more advanced paddlers to help stabilize your kayak. If your boat is hit by a wave or other obstacle and listing to the side, try “bracing” on that same side to gain additional support and get back upright. To do so, reach out and slap the power face of your paddle blade on top of the water. At the same time, snap your hips back upright, keeping your head down. This maneuver requires practice, especially as you work on the “low brace” variation of this stroke, which uses the backside of the blade face (knuckles down) to contact the water and restabilize you back to your active paddling position.

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.