In this post, I’ll share 13 kayaking tips I wish I knew when I first started.
Experience can be a great teacher. Invariably something will go wrong and often all it takes is a simple observation to get your game back on track. Some things just need to be learned the hard way.
In the interest of hoping your learning curve is shorter and less painful than mine, I’d like to share with you some of the tips that took me years to learn and figure out. I hope these 13 tips are helpful to your kayaking experience.
Although my background and passion is mostly whitewater, most of these sage nuggets will help you wherever you paddle.
Table of Contents
Join a Group
There are so many good reasons for joining a group. There is safety in numbers and camaraderie from watching each other’s backs. Groups often offer classes and clinics and at least you get to share and learn from the collective guidance. Your skills will advance faster from the tutelage of more experienced paddlers.
There will be a never-ending flow of advice on river levels, what to wear, what gear to purchase. Friends may let you demo their boats. You can find pick-up trips and scheduled trips, and share in shuttling your kayak from the take out back to your vehicle.
Paddle clubs are everywhere and can usually be found locally with a google search using kayak clubs, canoeing clubs, or paddling clubs. It’s never a good idea to paddle alone.
Learn to Roll
Rolling techniques will deserve their own article. Until you learn to roll you will be limited in the places you can safely paddle. Once you learn, your confidence and ability will skyrocket. Find a friend with a pool or a club that offers classes or assistance. Anyone can learn. And keep practicing whenever you paddle.
There are several different techniques. The most common are the C-to-C and the Sweep roll. The C-to-C is the easiest to teach and therefore most often taught. See More: Kayaking Fundamentals: Mastering the C-to-C Kayak Roll
The sweep roll is similar but combines a few steps. You will eventually find your own style that works for you.
Much of kayaking is counter-intuitive. Rolling your kayak is a practiced art. As a beginner, when you flip upside-down, the first thing you want to do is get your head up to grab a breath of air, right? Wrong! Although it’s instinctive and you may be able to grab a quick breath, your roll will automatically fail as a result.
The roll depends on hip snap leverage from engaging one of your knees depending on which side you are attempting to come up. You cannot raise your head without engaging the opposite knee and thereby negating your leverage and causing you to roll back under again.
So much for wanting to breathe. Worse, failing your first attempt causes your anxiety level to increase as your confidence is challenged and making you even more desperate for air.
For a successful roll, your head needs to come up last. Some people practice by holding a sponge between their chin and shoulder, others by watching their watch or paddle blade as it sweeps through the water.
Nothing is worse than getting to the put-in only to realize you’ve forgotten a necessary piece of equipment.
Before you leave the house and as you’re setting the shuttle, it’s a good idea to Count 5 – Kayak, Spray Skirt, Paddle, PFD, Helmet. Without any one of these 5, you won’t be able to paddle whitewater. A little organization is key.
A good idea is to always store your helmet, PFD, and Spray Skirt on a large ‘Beaner so that they’re always together. It’s also not a bad idea to carry extra equipment if you have it, just in case one of your buddies forgets something that day. See more: 10 Gear You Need on Your First Kayaking Trip
Dry Suits are So Worth It
I know they’re expensive….the largest expense next to the kayak.
When the weather gets chilly and you’re not ready to quite kayaking for the season, you’ll try a variety of layers, paddle jackets, wetsuits, and dry tops with varying degrees of success.
With a good dry suit, you’re able to extend your season to year round and even paddle when the air temperatures are in the 30’s and 40’s. I wear a nice fleece underneath or even long johns if it’s below 45. I would recommend a single suit with closed footies and a relief zipper. My personal preference is Kokotat because I’ve had excellent experience with customer service when my gaskets need replacing.
(Check the current price on Amazon)
Pogies are warmer than gloves
When the weather gets cooler you can put on more layers, paddle jackets, and dry tops. But it’s always your hands that seem to get cold first and stay cold. I had heard of pogies, pockets that fit on your paddle, but like most people, I was somewhat apprehensive about them being warm enough and being able to get my hands out if necessary.
So I was always a glove type of person. I experimented with several types and asked around, and finally discovered Glacier Gloves. Favored by fishermen in the Northwest, I figured they had to be good, and they are. Fleece lined, curved hands and velcro strap make them warm and ideal, but my hands still eventually got cold.
Then I noticed a few people start to use Pogies then more and more, so I finally gave them a try and was surprised at how warm my hands stayed….kind of like mittens, except you, can easily take your hands out whenever you need too. I haven’t used my gloves since!
Paddle, paddle, paddle!
You’re on the river! You’ve demonstrated your wet exit and are now on moving water. You know the basic strokes and can somewhat steer your kayak and keep it relatively straight. You feel the sense of excitement as you advance from ripples to Class II or III wave trains.
Your guide and a few other paddlers acting as your safety net have proceeded before you, leaving the sweep behind you, and now you’re next in line, it’s your turn to run the rapid! Off you go!
The world suddenly changes….what was once a nice smoothly flowing current suddenly erupts into white-water, huge waves, curlers coming at you from either side, sometimes rocks or obstacles to paddle past. And then it happens…indecision.
Where do you place your paddle next? What to do? Almost every newbie does it. Your safety net paddlers watching from downstream will see you get that deer-in-the-headlights look as you bring and hold your paddle horizontal and stop paddling.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” They will all start screaming in unison above the roar of the rapid. It’s so predictable, it’s comical. You might not see the humor in it because at that moment you’re too petrified and only want to survive. You get tense and rigid, and because you’ve stopped paddling, you’ve lost control of the kayak and that next wave or curler will have an easier time flipping you over.
Things to Avoid
Rivers have many features that give it character and make life interesting. Some are scenic, some are challenging, and some are hazards to be avoided.
Unless you’re a more experienced paddler intent on “boofing”, rocks are to be avoided, particularly if you’re a newbie paddler.
Don’t look at the rock!
The first trick is to NOT look at the rock, as rocks have magnetic personalities and will draw you to them. Have you noticed that? This is because the kayak tends to go in the direction that you’re looking. Look away from the rock and you’re more likely to miss it.
Lean INTO the rock!
You had to look, didn’t you? And now that rock you were hoping to avoid is right there in your path and you’re going to brush past it. Your inclination is to lean away to avoid hitting it, but that is a huge mistake.
Think counterintuitive again. If you lean away, your outside edge will drop and you will most certainly flip over. When you get that close, think of rocks as your friend that needs a hug….lean into it. This will keep your outside edge up and keep you from flipping.
Holes occur when the bottom of the river drops causing the water on top to flow back over itself to form a hydraulic. More experienced paddlers sometimes play and surf in holes, but to a beginner paddler, they’re best to avoid. You will recognize them as nasty looking cauldrons, usually around rock formations.
Sometimes you can paddle through holes, particularly if your bow has some rocker to it. Otherwise, it’s safer and easier to follow the green water to the side.
Strainers are objects in the water, usually fallen trees, that can act as a sieve, collecting everything that passes through it, including you. Sometimes you can paddle around a strainer, but sometimes, if it’s river wide, you have to get out and portage.
Strainers are particularly noticeable in the spring after the rain and flooding erode the roots of trees along the river banks. You will be surprised at how little of a current it takes to pin you against one and drag you under. Give strainers a wide berth because they often extend invisibly underwater as well.
Despite all the upstream warning signs, people drown every year by not paying attention, particularly rec boaters and fisherman.
Low head dams create a deep and intense river wide hydraulic which is difficult to escape. The backflow will recirculate you over and over again. If you should happen to get stuck, conventional wisdom is to get a good breath, go deep, and hope the bottom current will spit you out many many yards downstream.
Keep a blade in the water
When you’re a beginner, other paddlers will watch you struggle and will often offer sage advice based on their observations. This single nugget of information helped transform me from a frequently upside down beginner into a more confident novice paddler.
Too often newbies will hold their paddles horizontally when they don’t know where to take the next stroke, yielding their control of the kayak to the river. Having a blade in the water gives you greater control and stability by giving you a second point of contact with the water.
Lift your upstream edge
At some point, you will find yourself sideways to the current on the river. If you lean the wrong way, the river will grab your edge and window-shade you very quickly.
The tip is to always keep your upstream edge lifted by putting pressure on your upstream leg against the thigh brace. This position can be assisted by planting your paddle on the downstream side.
This maneuver can be practiced by side surfing small holes, or by peeling-out from an eddy. Maybe you’ll get enough confidence to surf in large holes. I’m not there yet!
Flotation is the airbags that fit into the bow or more usually the stern of a kayak to displace water when you capsize and swim. You need two, one for each side, but many people see them as an unnecessary added expense. Check NRS Split Kayak Flotation on Amazon.
What you need to understand is that they aren’t just for YOUR benefit. When you swim, your kayak will fill up with water making it VERY HEAVY and DIFFICULT for your buddies to push/pull it to shore. Show some consideration for your would-be rescuers and get flotation. In my club, you get one warning, and then no one wants to paddle with you.
When you swim
For whatever reason, your roll has failed, and you make the decision to pull the loop on your spray skirt and go for a swim. It happens to the best of us. We are all between swims.
It can be a chaotic and stressful situation at first as you are at the mercy of the river and dependent on your fellow paddlers to rescue you. If you can keep your presence of mind, try to remember a few basic rules:
- Hold on to your paddle
This will save someone from having to paddle after it. You can also use it to help “paddle” your way to shore.
- NEVER try to stand up in moving water
You’d be surprised how much force the slightest current carries. The danger is that your foot will become entrapped between rocks and over you go to the bottom unable to get up.
- Float feet first through the rapid
This will help minimize bumps and bruises and keep your feet from getting entrapped. When you get a chance, you can roll over to side-stroke or swim to safety.
- Don’t tip your rescuer
Follow their instructions and grab the stern of their boat, but never the sides. They now have a strenuous job to tow you to safety. Kick with your feet if you can to assist them.
Don’t follow Nancy
There is one in every group. At least one, sometimes more. They’re well-intentioned and seasoned paddlers that think they can lead you down the rapids. They’re experts at reading the river and excellent paddlers and genuinely nice people. But they’re poor teachers.
They don’t know the easy lines because they never paddle them. Invariably they will boof a rock, or jump into a hole, or catch a quick eddy, leaving you….where?
I call these “oh sh*t” moments when you’re left on your own not knowing where to go or what to do. They make it look soooo easy! You’ll be tempted to follow them, and your skills will increase exponentially when you do, but that’s probably better left for when you’ve advanced from novice to intermediate, but not as a newbie.
The real danger is that you’ll have a mishap or bad experience which will leave you afraid and shake your confidence too early in your paddling career so that you’ll never want to advance your skills and attempt more challenging features ever again. I’ve seen people give up the sport entirely too soon after a nasty but unnecessary swim which could have been avoided by an easier line.
Better to find a more intermediate “mother duck” to lead you down. These are generally more soft-spoken intermediate paddlers that love to teach and get great satisfaction at “giving back” because someone once taught them. They’re good at explaining what’s going on, pointing out your mistakes, giving you instruction and guidance, and giving you praise to build your confidence. Their mission is to get you through the trip with a minimal amount of carnage, even if it means missing their favorite wave.
The first person who volunteers to lead you might not be the best person for you to follow. A good group will assign you to follow someone they routinely trust with newbies, the designated teacher. Ask beforehand. If you’re not assigned to follow anyone, watch the group.
It’s sometimes fairly easy to see who’s choosing the easier lines and who are working their way down catching every eddy and surfing every wave. Be patient at first. Your time will come. Just be advised not to follow the Nancy’s too soon.
Hopefully, a beginning paddler will find some of these tips insightful. There is always more advice to be had. If you’re an experienced paddler reading these, please feel free to share your favorite river wisdom in the comment section below.
If you’re a beginner paddler, we would welcome hearing about your experiences, too. Let the discussion begin!
Thanks for reading, Happy kayaking.