Step 1. Decide what kind of kayaking you want to do.
In other words, what kind of water do you want to paddle on? Knowing where you are going to paddle will help you figure out what kayak will be the best choice for you. If you like fast-moving rivers with lots of drops and wave trains, you will want to get into whitewater kayaking. If you desire to paddle on the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, or the oceans of the world, then you need to become a sea kayaker. If you only want to meander down slow-moving rivers or small, inland lakes watching wildlife while you get a little exercise, then you will probably be happy with a recreational kayak.
Once you have decided what kind of kayaking you want to pursue, you will need to learn more about what the differences are between whitewater, sea, and recreational kayaks. The best way to do that is to move on to “Step 2.”
Step 2. Get instruction.
Taking a class along with the information you may have gathered out of books, DVD’s, and on the internet will help you to make much better and more informed choices when it comes time to rent or purchase your kayak and accessory gear. The money you spend to take that class will be more than worth it when you buy the right gear the first time instead of ending up with a kayak that is not at all what you were looking for and a paddle that is the wrong length or poorly designed. A good deal on equipment is only good if you get something you really need and want. Even a cheap kayak, paddle, and PFD can be a very expensive mistake if it is the wrong equipment for the kind of kayaking you want to do.
Instruction will keep you safer on the water. Beginners don’t usually get into trouble because they were trying to do something risky. They usually do something risky because they simply had no idea that what they were doing was dangerous. Assuming that you avoid getting killed or seriously injured, having a close call on the water can still leave you with fears that will prevent you from being able to enjoy the sport of kayaking as fully as you otherwise would. A couple of capsizes while canoeing early on in my paddling career before I knew what I was doing kept me off all but the slowest rivers for over 10 years. It took a lot more instruction after the fact to overcome my fears than it would have taken to learn to handle moving water correctly in the beginning.
Developing proper technique will reduce your incidence of injuries. Good forward stroke technique prevents repetitive motion injuries of the wrist and elbow. Learning proper bracing and rolling skills will make it less likely that you will experience a serious shoulder dislocation or rotator cuff injury.
Learning a good forward stroke will also leave you less fatigued at the end of a day of paddling. You will be able to paddle longer and stronger. Using your core muscles and torso rotation on a stroke can be hard for most people to learn on their own. You need someone who knows what they are doing to watch your stroke and help you make the necessary corrections.
Instruction will also give you greater confidence to challenge yourself in more difficult conditions. Having strong, efficient strokes will give you the assurance that when you need to turn your kayak into a wind, waves, or a strong current you will be able to do it. Even if you don’t aspire to paddling in challenging environments, it is comforting to know that you would have the skills to manage if the winds got stronger or the waves got bigger than expected in the middle of your trip.
Step 3: Choose the appropriate accessory gear that you will need to get started in your preferred area of kayaking.
Everyone who paddles a kayak is going to need the following pieces of accessory gear:
- Life jacket (PFD)
- Method to transport your kayak
- Immersion clothing suitable for the water temperatures in which you will paddle
- A minimum amount of specialized safety gear for sea kayaking or whitewater kayaking (Sea kayakers will need a pump, paddle float, and sprayskirt. Whitewater kayakers will need a helmet, throwbag, float bags, and neoprene sprayskirt.)
Keep in mind that these are not the ONLY pieces of accessory gear that you will need, but these are the items that you should be budgeting for in your initial purchases.
Step 4. Develop your paddling network.
You are going to want to find other people to paddle with if you don’t already know some. Here are some ways to go about doing it.
- Join paddling clubs
- Attend paddling events like a symposium, Canoecopia, test paddling events, speaker presentations, networking/social gatherings, pool sessions, and anything else you can find that has to do with kayaking.
- Take the initiative and talk to other paddlers you see on the water. Most tend to be very friendly.
- Visit your local specialty paddle sports store. The employees are usually paddlers and will know of ways that you can find other paddlers in your community.
- Use the many forums on the internet to communicate with other paddlers in your area. I have several linked on the resources page of this website.
If you follow these four steps, you will be well on your way to making kayaking a part of your life that you will be able to enjoy for decades to come. Do you have any ideas that you would like to add to help out an aspiring beginner? Your age, fitness level, and degree of athleticism should not deter you from getting started. There is a place in the kayaking community for everyone!