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10 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started Kayaking

Kayaking of all kinds can be a lot of fun, but anytime you are venturing out on the water, you are entering a foreign environment for air-breathers.   While it is true that you are probably safer in a kayak than you were in the car that drove you to the water, there is still a lot that a beginning paddler can learn to stay safe and to have more fun!  The following are just some of the things that I’ve heard people say they wish they had known, and things that I wish I had known when I started kayaking.

1.) Get instruction right away – before you buy your gear. 

  • What you don’t know CAN hurt you.
  • Instruction will help you learn all the important stuff you need to know in numbers 2-10 below.
  • Gear alone can’t keep you safe if you don’t know how to use it properly.
  • Good technique gives you greater paddling stamina and reduces the likelihood of injury.
  • Your skills do not improve based on the number of years since you started paddling.  You need to learn and practice to become a better kayaker.  Lessons speed that learning curve.
  • Paddlers with better skills are safer when the conditions deteriorate unexpectedly.
  • The knowledge you gain will help you make smarter choices in buying gear and save you money in the long run.

2.) Get a life jacket (PFD) that fits and is comfortable and then WEAR IT whenever you are on the water.

  • This is the number one thing that you can do to keep yourself safe when kayaking and it’s so easy to do!  The greatest number of fatalities on the water occur in boats that are less than 16-feet long.  Most of those deaths are due to drowning.  Simply wearing a good life jacket can go a long way toward mitigating that risk.
  • Avoid the cheap, Type II horsecollar styles as they are uncomfortable and not as secure.
  • After putting a life jacket on, make sure to snug up all the straps and buckles.  You should not be able to lift the jacket up past your ears when you grab the shoulder straps and pull.
  • Women with a short torso or curvy bustline may need to look at life jackets that are designed specifically for women.  Some of these jackets fit guys well also so don’t be put off by the idea that they may have feminine sounding names.
  • In a recreational kayak with a high seat back you may be more comfortable with a PFD that has little or no foam on the lower portion of the back of the jacket.

3.) Having a GOOD paddle is so important to your enjoyment of kayaking.

4.)  Kayaking is a water sport, so dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.

5.) Budget for your accessories before you start looking at kayaks.  You’ll need to do some research and be careful about going cheap.

6.) Using the wrong kind of kayak in the wrong environment can be dangerous.

  • Recreational kayaks should only be used on small, inland lakes and slow-moving rivers.  They lack the safety and design features found in whitewater and sea kayaks needed for use in more challenging environments.
  • Whitewater kayaks have special safety features and are exceptionally maneuverable making them best suited for fast-moving rivers and rapids.
  • Sea kayaks have extra buoyancy, usually in the form of bulkheads and hatches, that make it possible to do re-entry skills from deep water after a capsize, and they can be rolled by someone possessing that skill.

7.) Get a kayak that fits you, if possible.  Slightly too large is better than too small.  You can always pad or modify the cockpit on a boat that is a bit too large.

8.) Rudders are NOT a necessity and rudders are NOT steering wheels.

  • You should be comfortable controlling and maneuvering your kayak with your paddle and edging skills alone.
  • Rudders are mechanical devices that can break at the worst possible moments and so should never be totally relied upon.  (Same for skegs.)
  • Rudders are intended to help keep a boat tracking straight, not as a way to turn your kayak.

9.) Don’t worry too much about the weight of your boat.  There are lots of ways to help you move your boat around.

10.) You are always responsible for your own safety.  Don’t expect to rely on the skills and experience of the paddlers you are with.  Those other paddlers will certainly help you as much as they can, BUT. . .

  • Those other paddlers may not have as much skill as you think.
  • In an extreme situation, they may be struggling to save themselves and may not be able to assist you.
  • At times, even the best efforts of a skilled paddler may not be able to help a novice who has gotten in over his/her head in challenging conditions.

This may seem like an awful lot to digest before getting started and there is actually a whole lot more you could learn.  Don’t let it discourage you.  It’s one of the things that makes kayaking so fun and interesting.  Use some common sense and always err on the side of caution.  Remember that it’s always better to be on shore wishing you were on the water than to be on the water wishing you were on shore.  Keep in mind that there will always be another safer day to get out kayaking, and someday you may have developed the skills to take on those more challenging conditions if that is what you aspire to do.


This Post Has 4 Comments
  1. My wife (Kathy) and I enjoy you as a teacher. You listen well and are a keen observer. You helped me with my wing paddle technique during the Skills Buffet at Door County last year. Do you teach at the Great Lakes Symposium in Grand Marais,Mi? Roy Green

  2. Thanks for the feedback! I have taught at the Great Lakes Sea Kayak Symposium in the past, but I haven’t been there for several years since it conflicted with another event that I teach at. I may try to make it to GLSKS again in 2015.

  3. What an excellent list! I had seen this in my inbox for several weeks now and knew that I wanted to save it for when I had a bit of time so as not to dismiss it. I’m glad I did, it was worth it. Every one of your 10 points is one I can wholeheartedly agree with and attest to.
    Thanks for the post, I’ll be sharing it with some of my students.

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