2024 Kayak Essentials for Beginners

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Joe Discher


kayaks on a river

2024 Kayak Essentials For Beginners

In this post, we’ll let you know about the different types of kayaks and how to get started the right way. Here’s what you need to know to get started!

If you are interested in kayaking itself, or even fishing from a kayak, the information in this article will cover kayaking for beginners. We will also cover information that will be helpful even if you have some experience. Kayaking can be a fun way to explore the water bodies and interact with nature. However, having the right gear and knowledge when kayaking as a beginner will make the experience more fun, and it will boost your confidence when getting a kayak in the water for the first time.  Whether fishing or just kayaking for fun, this guide will help you get started with your first adventure!

In this article, we will cover the following topics:

  • How To Choose A Kayak
  • How To Paddle
  • Tips on how to Enhance Your Kayaking Experience

Choosing The Right Kayak

The most important step in this kayaking for beginners blog is choosing the right kayak for you. Many factors come to play when choosing the right kayak, and in this section, we will walk through the most crucial ones to help you make the right choice for you!

Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-Inside Kayaks

Two of the most common kayaks you might hear about are Sit-On-Top kayaks and Sit-in-side kayaks, and as a beginner, you are probably wondering which one is right for you. Let’s take some time to dive into the difference between the two. Which one you should choose will depend on the activity you want to use your kayak for.

If you want to go fishing with your kayak, a sit-on-top kayak is for you. Sit-on-top kayaks have wider beams than sit-inside kayaks, giving them a higher center of gravity than sit-in kayaks, making them stable. In addition, the wide hull makes it easy for you to stand on the kayak and cast a line in the water.  Even if you are not an angler, I recommend fishing kayaks because there are so many benefits and much more storage.

Besides being stable, Sit-on-top kayaks are user-friendly. This is because you can quickly get in and out of the kayak without hassle. This is very important when kayaking as a beginner because you can quickly turn it over and get back into your boat if your kayak capsizes.

If you want to enjoy whitewater sports, shallow waters, touring, and cruising all types of waters then a sit-inside kayak might be right for you. The bow and stern of sit-inside kayaks are relatively slimmer, making them faster than sit-on-top kayaks, so they are an excellent option for sporting activities.

Additionally, sit-inside kayaks protect your body against the elements of the weather such as cold, wind, or getting wet from splashes. However, you need to be extra careful when using a sit-inside kayak since you cannot recover quickly when it capsizes. Also, when water gets inside the cockpit, it can be hard to get rid of the water. I highly recommend you take a class on how to roll and properly exit your sit-inside kayak for safety.

Pedal Vs Paddle Vs Power Driven Kayaks

Once you have decided on either a sit-on-top or a sit-inside kayak, the next step is to decide how you want to “power” your kayak. The two most popular options are pedaling or paddling style kayaks. Pedal kayaks are equipped with pedals and a drive train similar to a bicycle, and they allow you to use your legs to pedal the kayak freeing your hands for other things. Pedal kayaks are great for fishing because you can use your legs to power and steer your kayak so that you can use your hands to focus on fishing or other things! When you land the big one in a pedal kayak, you won’t have a paddle in your hands to struggle with so you only have to worry about the fish and fishing pole getting away rather than the kayak!

You can also pedal a kayak much faster than a paddle kayak so you can get to your favorite fishing spot or places you want to see on the water much faster, and you will be less fatigued when you get there. Some kayaks have a 180 or even 360-degree turn capability which will allow you to pedal backward or even sideways so you can maneuver with precision.  Where I live, the weather changes pretty quickly, and I like being able to pedal back quickly if a storm cloud blows up!

The downside of pedal kayaks is that they are more expensive than paddle kayaks. You can get an entry-level paddle kayak for a few hundred dollars.  Pedal kayaks cost well over $1,000. This makes the pedal kayak a bit expensive for beginners who may be deciding if kayaking is right for them; however, pedal kayaks hold their resale value much better. Also, pedal bikes are heavier than paddle bikes weighing in at 50 to 75 lbs. on average.

Besides being less expensive and lightweight, paddle kayaks are more suitable for shallow waters. This is because pedal kayaks have a lengthy pedal rudder system underneath which requires some underwater clearance to function properly. Therefore, if you are looking to explore shallow waters, purchasing a paddle kayak will be best.

A pedal kayak requires a bit more maintenance than a paddle kayak because they typically have a chain or other type of pulley system like a bicycle does, but maintenance is quick and easy.

Power-driven kayaks have battery-powered motors that will zip you across the water quickly and without any physical effort.  They will take you much further out on the water, so they can be great for large lakes or saltwater.  Some kayaks come with motors already pre-installed, but you can add on an aftermarket electric motor for many of the modern sit-on-top kayaks. This is a great way to turn your kayak into a small boat without paying the hefty price tag for a larger bass boat.  

The downside of power-driven kayaks is that you won’t get much exercise, and if you aren’t careful, you might get too far from shore to have enough battery juice to get back. I think it is a great feature to have as long as you don’t go any further than you can physically paddle back. 

My recommendation is a sit-on-top fishing paddle kayak because you can still use a paddle with it, and you might even be able to add an electric motor giving you the flexibility to power your kayak in many ways.  For those of you who only want to tackle the rivers, shallow waters or whitewater rafting, stick with sit-inside kayaks equipped with paddles.

Kayak Features

Kayaks come with a variety of features. Below are a few things that make kayaking for beginners a much more enjoyable experience:

Kayak Track system

Ensure that the kayak you purchase has a track system. A track system makes it easy for you to append other accessories such as a phone holder, camera mount, and any other accessories you might need for a great kayaking experience.

Kayak Flush Mount Rod Holder

If you plan to fish, rod holders will keep your fishing rods in a vertical fishing position to help you easily access your rod.

A Hatch For Kayaks

A hatch is a small compartment that can be found at the stern or bow of a kayak. These help you store and secure accessories such as excess fishing grip, pliers, knives, and any other item.

Storage For Kayaks

Storage is another feature to look out for when purchasing a kayak, especially for fishing. You want to make sure you have enough room to host all your gears and accessories. Sit-on-tops give you more space to keep your belongings dry and easily accessible..

Also, most sit-on-top kayaks give you the option of adding other storage compartments underneath the seat for more storage. And again, this is another reason why a sit-on-top is ideal for fishing or any adventurer who may be bringing electronics, binoculars or other accessories.

How To Paddle A Kayak

You must know how to paddle your kayak while on the water regardless of whether or not you have pedals or a motor. This is obvious if you choose a paddle kayak, but it is also important to know how to paddle in case your pedals or motor stops working. Paddling a kayak is one thing that scares most beginners; however, the truth is it is not as difficult as you may think. Anyone can learn to paddle a kayak with just a few trips to the water. With the tips we will share in this section, you should be able to paddle your kayak in no time!

The Feathered Vs. Unfeathered Paddle

The first thing most beginners struggle with when it comes to paddling their kayak involves whether to feather their paddle blades or not. The truth is that it depends on the situation. But before we dive into whether to feather your paddle or not, let’s look at what feathering means.

A feathered paddle has both blades offset anywhere from 60 degrees to 85 degrees. Feathering your blade becomes a very useful and efficient way to navigate the waters when you are kayaking in windy conditions. When you feather your paddle, it makes it easy for the blade outside the water (in the air) to slice easily and efficiently through the air while you stroke through the water with the other blade.

However, if there are no vigorous winds or waves, you can choose either an unfeathered paddle or a feathered paddle depending on your preference.

Your Sitting Posture Is Important When Kayaking

Another important aspect of paddling your kayak correctly is to have the correct sitting posture. Sitting with the right posture helps you paddle efficiently and helps you prevent any back pains since you might be kayaking for hours.

You want to ensure that you are sitting upright to start with. Next, fully stretch your legs out and flex them to a comfortable position so that your knees are facing upward and outward. By doing this you will be sitting upright with less tension on your hamstring.

If your kayak seat comes with adjustable back support, you should straighten the seat to get you in an upright position initially. It is okay to lean the seat back a little more whenever you want to relax; however, you do not want to be in that position for long. 

For pedal kayaks, start out in an upright position and stretch your legs out until there is only a slight bend in the knee when you are pedaling.  Most pedal kayaks come with adjustable pedals, so you may need to adjust the pedal distance/length until you find a comfortable position. You can usually adjust the seat to lean further back so that you can change positions and reduce fatigue after pedaling for a while.

Holding Your Paddle The Right Way

Now we have the right posture; the next step is properly holding or using our paddle. Depending on whether your paddle is feathered or unfeathered, the way you hold it might vary.

Let’s take a look at how to properly hold a feathered paddle.

How To Control a Feathered Paddle

  • The first step is to hold the paddle tightly and ensure that both hands are equal distance apart (where you adjust the offset angle) and equal from the distance of either blade (about 6 to 10 inches). Doing this ensures that you have good control and balance over the paddle. A good way to ensure that both hands are equal distance is to place the paddle over your head. Grip the paddle with your elbows bent at 90 degrees then lower your arms back down.
  • Once you are done adjusting the length of your grip, the next step is to align your dominant hand with the blade. To do this you want to hold the paddle firmly at a distance you established earlier and then ensure that the knuckles of the control hand are always in line with the upper edge of the blade. Aligning your hands with the blades makes it easy to twist your hands when stroking the water.
  • Now that you have your paddle in the right position, it’s time to start paddling! To paddle properly, you want to hold the paddle firmly while assuming the positions and distances I mentioned above. You want to stroke the water with your dominant hand, and then when you are about to switch to your non-dominant hand, you loosen the grip on your non-dominant hand and then rotate the shaft to change the position of the blade from horizontal to vertical. While rotating the shaft, you want to ensure that your dominant hand maintains the same position and firmness; the only thing you have to do is twist the dominant hand’s knuckles to accommodate the rotation.

How To Control an Unfeathered Paddle

To paddle with an unfeathered paddle, the process is the same except you do not have to rotate the paddle between strokes. All you have to do is hold the paddle firmly with both hands at an equal distance from the blade.

Generally, there are three types of strokes; these include:

  • Forward stroke
  • Backstroke
  • Sweep stroke

Getting familiar with these three strokes should enable you to explore most water bodies. Therefore, we recommend you watch some youtube videos on how to properly use these strokes to help you.

Beginner Kayaking Tip And Mistakes To Avoid

Your Kayaking Location Is Important

As a beginner, you need to choose a safe, calm location when paddling for the first time. Generally, we recommend that you go kayaking in waters closer to shores to make it easy for you to recover in case of an emergency. Also, don’t pick a day with any strong winds!  If at all possible, have someone go out on the water with you on their kayak. If you don’t know someone who has a kayak, bring a friend who might want to enjoy a picnic lunch on the shore while watching you get out there. At least someone will be there to help you if you run into any problems.  

If you decided to get a sit-inside kayak for rougher waters, we recommend that you take a lesson on rolling and exiting your kayak.

Prepare For A Capsize Or Deep Water Re-entry

When kayaking as a beginner in shallow waters, you want to ensure that you practice getting back into your kayak by intentionally capsizing your kayak. Even though it is not too difficult to get back into your kayak after it capsizes, you will be much calmer and prepared if it happens unexpectedly in deeper waters later on. 

Always Wear Your PFD or Life Jacket While Kayaking

You do not have to know how to swim in order to kayak, but you must not fear the water! Even if you do know how to swim, we always recommend you wear your Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Anything can happen on the water leaving you unconscious, so be prepared!  Flotation devices are much slimmer and lighter weight than they used to be, and if you like to fish, they have all kinds of pockets and storage too!

Protect Your Kayak 

You know that you should wear sunscreen or protect your skin from long days in the sun, but did you know that your Kayak also needs protection? Over time, the UV rays from the sun can compromise the structure of your kayak and also cause the colors to fade. So you want to be sure that you also protect your kayak in order to maximize longevity and performance. One way to protect your kayak from UV rays is to use a Marine Aerospace Protectant. 

Also, be sure to store your kayak indoors either upside down or resting on its side.  You can temporarily store your kayak in an upright position, such as the bed of a pickup truck, but NEVER store your kayak in an upright position for more than a few days. 

Look Beyond The Kayak’s Color

When people go to purchase a kayak, they typically choose one in their favorite color. However, we recommend that you choose a highly visible color that can be seen far away, especially from people on other boats. Doing this will keep you safe from potential accidents with other watercraft you are out on a busy day or especially at night. Brighter colors will also help rescue teams easily detect your kayak in an emergency.

If you already have a kayak that is dull or easily blends with the color of the water, then we highly recommend you purchase a flag or some bright decals to help others see you out on the water.

Always Notify Someone When You Go Kayaking

Before you explore the waters, be sure that someone knows you are out having fun or “gone fishing”; always inform a friend, a family, or a trusted person. You can even buy a tracking device to install in your kayak to help your friends or loved ones know where you are at all times. 

Watch The Weather When Kayaking

Before you go out kayaking or any sporting activity, you need to ensure that you read the latest meteorological report relevant to the area you want to go kayaking. Doing this helps you prepare for any weather conditions so you can pack the right gear. I ALWAYS carry a raincoat and a change of clothes just in case.  

Try Before You Buy A Kayak

You do not want to spend hundreds, or even thousands of dollars or more on a kayak without trying it out first unless you have some experience and know what you want to buy. Some local stores allow you to try kayaks in their in-person pools and ponds. If you are buying a used kayak from someone, try to schedule to with the seller and meet them up at a pond to try it out.

If you decide to purchase a kayak online, read thru some of the reviews on our website because we have selected and reviewed some of the top kayaks in the industry. Take a look around on our website to find out more.

Protect The Keel Of Your Kayak

Chances are you will run your kayak against a rock or rough surface when exiting the water. The keel is an important part of your kayak since it ensures that the kayak moves in a straight line and prevents it from swaying. One of the best ways to protect the keel of your kayak is to use a keel guard since most kayaks do not come with one preinstalled.

To Sum It All Up

Kayaking for beginners is not as difficult as it may seem. Most beginners can be comfortable in a new kayak just after a week of practice. All you need to do now is choose the right kayak for you, practice your paddling skills,  follow the tips that we shared and you should be good to go! Our reviews of the top kayaks should help you with your decision. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

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A certified Leave No Trace master and seasoned hiker, Joe Discher brings over a decade of trail wisdom and eco-conscious expertise to the outdoor community. His passion for kayaking and trailside cooking is matched by an in-depth knowledge of outdoor gear, ensuring readers receive advice they can trust. Joe's commitment to the wilderness and its preservation is at the core of every article, inspiring confidence and fostering responsible exploration.