Tips for the beginning kayaker

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.

10 Comments so far

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  1. malissaw

    My kids are 6 and 8 and they have been paddling for a few years now. Last year I got them sit on top sets from Dicks made for kids. I have had them in swimming lessons since they were babies and both have been competitive swimming for the last 1-3 summer seasons. I am in the school that being a competent swimmer at a young age is extremely important and the biggest and best investment I could give my kids. They are perfectly comfortable in the water now. I started whitewater 2 years ago and when I get with my club in the winter pool sessions, I take the kids along and let them have fun with their boats in the pool. We practice capsizing and righting their boats and they have a blast, but they also know that if this would happen on the lake or small creeks we float on, they would know what to do. My daughter did a clinic for slalom racing this fall and got to try a whitewater boat (unskirted). She did great and got to feel the pull of the eddy lines and stuff. Lucky for her, she was so light, it didn’t give her any consequences. Join a club if you can….get lots of rescue practice and knowledge yourself so that you know what you are doing as well. Water (especially moving) can be dangerous, so it is important to get whatever education you can. Also, dress for the water temp! I have little wet suits for my kids to wear in the early/late season. Have fun out there and good luck!

    • malissaw

      PS…when the kids rode with us in our rec boats, we never had any issues and never capsized. We chose boats with very large cockpits to fit them in. They always wear a PFD and when on moving water, they wear whitewater helmets. We did that for afew seasons, but about 5/6 years they because too big to fit anymore and that is why they got the boot out of our boats! :) They do a great job controlling the sit on tops!

    • Malissaw – Thanks for the input! You are so smart to have gotten your kids in the water at a young age, I think that is key! Sounds like some lucky kids you have there!!

  2. Elizabeth Saunders

    As a beginning kayaker, I can attest that you will turn over. A LOT. I’m not sure that I’d feel competent and comfortable with a kid in a boat with me. It sort of reminds me of when is it okay to put a rider on the back of your banana seat bicycle. It would have to be a combination of when you know your own abilities well, you know your vessel, and you are really confident that you understand the river and what challenges it will present. I would imagine that there is also a learning curve of having the extra weight and reduced mobility of a second passenger.

  3. Thanks so much for writing this. We are new to paddling and chose a canoe over a kayak because we have no experience or training in flipping a kayak (and getting back in). The thought of learning a new sport with a preschooler on board was scary. That being said, we really want to get a recreational kayak next summer that will hopefully be super stable for flat water. I’ll definitely be checking out the video above and the links you’ve posted.

    • Tanya – Thanks for the comment, I think a canoe is also a pretty great family water vessel! You can sure fit a lot of stuff on those things, I’m just not as familiar with canoes. The important thing is to get out on the water :)

  4. When we take the kayak out (in safe, quiet water only – no big rapids for us), we sometimes attach a rope to it and then tie it to the bank, so my youngest can practice the paddling technique (or just float around peering over) and not float away from our reach. It gives her a little bit of freedom without the fear of a current taking her downstream.

    As I have never kayaked in water that is fast moving, I can say, I have never flipped it! I am not ready for that!!!

  5. Lacey

    I recommend going with an inflatable kayak if paddling with kids. It’s super fun for adults and kids!

  6. Helena

    Thank you for posting this and answering my question! This really helps a lot. I can’t wait to get started :)

    The reason why I asked about children is that I had seen a picture of a woman breastfeeding what appeared to be an about 8 month old in a kayak. I don’t know that I would EVER take a baby into a kayak, considering that accidents can happen expectantly.

    Thanks again!


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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