Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking

It's easy and you get a great workout; here's how to get started.

July 13, 2011

If you’ve been tempted to go kayaking but think it might be too strenuous, or technical, or just too much of a hassle, it’s actually none of those things. Rather, it’s a fantastic, no-stress way to get some exercise and fresh air and see the world from a duck’s-eye view. But it is a tough workout, right? Sure, it can be, but that’s totally up to you, says Joe Carberry, managing editor of Canoe & Kayak magazine. "Kayaking is way more approachable than a lot of people think," says Carberry. "You can learn the basics in a matter of minutes, and for lots of people, that’s going to be as much as they want so they can paddle around leisurely." And even a leisurely kayaking trip can burn upwards of 350 calories per hour while toning your arm, back, upper body, and core muscles.

Workout aside, "it can be such a joy to be out on the water," says Carberry, "as long as you’re smart about it, and get some lessons before you go. With kayaking, you never want to put yourself in dangerous situations."


Here are Carberry’s 6 tips for getting started:

#1: Go to the pros.
Before you go kayaking, find a good local outfitter with a certified instructor who can give you a lesson. "There are outfitters everywhere," says Carberry. "Just look in the phonebook or search online under ‘kayak outfitters’ and you’ll find one."

#2: Get sized up.
An instructor will teach you the basics, but also will get you in the right type and the right size kayak. Sea kayaks tend to be less tippy than shorter whitewater kayaks, for example, so they’re often the best type for beginners. You’ll want the seat and foot pegs adjusted to fit you, along with your all-important PFD (personal flotation device).

#3: Go wide for stability.
The wider the hull, the more stable the kayak will be. "Beginners tend to go with the open cockpit style, as well," says Carberry. It’s a lot easier to get in and out of.

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#4: Don’t push yourself.
Kayaking is like anything you do for the first time: You need to be honest about what you’re capable of, says Carberry. So go easy at first, and concentrate on learning the technique. "When you get the technique down—which isn’t difficult to do—you can paddle along almost effortlessly," he says. "You don’t need to be in great shape to do it, by any means."

#5: Sit up straight.
"Your instructor will tell you about technique, but basically you need to sit upright, with maybe a slightly forward lean," says Carberry. "In the kayak, you have less control when you lean back." As for your paddling stroke, he adds, "think toes to butt, toes to butt. Put your paddle in the water as far forward as your toes, and pull it out of the water when it gets even with your butt."

#6: Head for "flatwater" if you’re not sure of your ability.
That’s the term kayakers use for ponds or lakes, where the water isn’t moving. "If you’re the athletic, outdoorsy type, you’ll be fine on a river or stream as long as you get instruction first," says Carberry. "But if you’re not confident about it, flatwater is probably best at first."

Here are more ways to get fit and have fun:
Start running: 10 Expert Tips for Beginning Runners
Ride a mountain bike: How to Start Mountain Biking
Take a hike: Beginner's Guide to Hiking
Try sculling: How to Start Sculling for Exercise

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