Helena sent me this question (via ask outsidemom) a few months back, and I decided to keep her in suspense for awhile before responding. You know, just to keep things interesting… (sorry Helena)
I want to start kayaking but have never been before! The closest I’ve come is rafting. So my question is… what’s the best way to get started/learn, and when is it safe to take a child along? What age etc.?
First I asked Helena if she was interested in flat water kayaking or whitewater kayaking. Her reply: Well, we are a military family currently stationed in Florida. We will probably always be stationed near the ocean, so probably flat water.
Although come to think of it, I suppose the steps for starting out would be very similar no matter what kind of kayaking you’re looking to do. After all, as a whitewater kayaker, the first place I learned to paddle was on a big flat lake in northwestern Washington. For this reason I’m mainly covering flat water kayaking related issues.
1. Choose a boat
Pretty obvious I guess, but the most important piece of equipment you’ll need is the actual kayak. There are two major types of kayaks: Recreational and Whitewater.
Recreational kayaks are for flat water, like lakes, oceans, or long stretches of class I river. This video on choosing the right recreational kayak covers all the different types of kayaks there are to choose from. Sit-on-tops vs. sit insides, overnight trips vs paddling short distances, kayaking with kids vs kayaking alone, hard shell vs. inflatable, etc.
Whitewater kayaks are for, well, whitewater. These are the different types of whitewater kayaks (and apparently they also have one random ocean kayak?). It will show you the creek boat (which comes in handy for overnight trips), the river boat (for general river running), and a play boat (for doing tricks on the water). I have one of each that all come in handy, depending on the type of experience I’m looking for.
The type of paddle you need will depend on the kayak you choose.
2. Get some safety equipment
- Choose a good and comfortable flotation device. I like one that is not too bulky, and won’t interfere with my paddling. There is a lot more manuevering that must be done with a kayak as opposed to a canoe, so getting the right life jacket can make the difference between annoying and not even noticed.
- Get a helmet (if you will be on whitewater).
- Make a safety kit and keep it in a waterproof bag.
3. Wear suitable clothing
What you will wear will depend entirely on what kind of kayaking you’re doing, and in what type of weather. Dress in lightweight layers that can be added or removed as conditions change. It’s always better to overdress then take off layers as needed. Wear water resistant clothing if possible. Wear shoes that were made to get wet.
4. Practice getting in and our of your boat
Getting in and out of your boat is the first skill you will need to learn. It’s not only handy for the beginning and end of your trip, but also for those times in between when you find yourself suddenly, unexpectedly, out of your boat. Practice getting in and out on the shore, as well as getting in and out in the middle of a large body of water.
5. Practice paddling your boat
Using the proper paddling technique from the beginning is very important. Practice paddling until it become second nature, then paddle around for as long as it takes for you to feel comfortable in your boat. This could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
Pick something mild for the first trip… think of it as a road trip on the water. The point is just to get comfortable. Worry about technicalities later.
6. Plan for going upside down
Beginning paddlers often tip over. It just happens. Make sure you are mentally and physically prepared.
- Know how to get back in your boat (as we mentioned before).
- Make sure you hold onto your paddle so you don’t loose it.
- Strap all loose items to your boat before you launch.
- Put valuable items (camera, keys, lunch etc.) in some type of dry bag. Note that not all dry bags are created equal, and getting a good one, especially if your stuff is valuable to you, is worth the money. I’ve used mine for more than just kayaking too–they come in handy on canyon hikes, inner-tube rides, and backpacking in rainy country.
When is it ok to take kids along?
This really depends on the comfort level of the parents and their kids when it comes to water. I’ve known parents who start their kids really young, with the idea that if they grow up around water they will be more comfortable with it. I’ve also known parents who will not let their child step foot in a water vessel without being competent swimmers.
If you’re new to kayaking and just learning yourself you probably don’t want to take small children until you yourself have mastered some skills (i.e. see the bullet point above about how beginners tip over). If your kids are older and know how to swim it would be great to learn as a family.
When it comes to kids and water I only have two steadfast rules. Make sure each kid has a life jacket and make sure they know how to stay safe near water.
And as always, readers, please add any tips you have for Helena.