You’re thinking about getting into kayaking, but aren’t sure what kind of investment it’s going to take. Am I in good enough shape? How much will it cost to start out? Do I need to book private lessons? It’s a lot bigger commitment than getting into a sport like jogging or cycling, but if it’s something you’re serious about, you’ll want to ease yourself into it. Those who jump in without doing their research or preparing are often the ones who decide to quit the sport. It doesn’t have to be that way though, with just these few pieces of advice, you can set yourself on the path of becoming an expert kayaker before you even get out on the water.
Get in Shape
For the most part, kayaking can be as strenuous or relaxing as you want it to be. It only requires a moderate amount of flexibility to maneuver your way into the cockpit of a kayak (and none at all for a sit-on-top kayak), and a bare minimum level of strength to paddle the boat in calm waters. Larger paddlers will also have no trouble finding a boat that can accommodate them.
None of this is to say that physical fitness isn’t a big asset; expert paddlers are in peak physical condition and keep themselves that way by getting plenty of exercise when they’re not paddling. However, it’s possible to get into the sport without being in great shape, and it’s part of what makes it such an accessible sport.
However, if you do want to get in shape for paddling, start by doing a half hour of aerobic exercise five times per week: jogging, cycling, playing sports, or even just vigorous walking. Build on that workout routine by adding in two days of strength training. You won’t need bulging biceps to be a successful kayaker, but good core strength, flexibility, and range of motion will make paddling easier and more fun. As most of your paddling strength comes from your hips, certain yoga poses will stretch them and give you a better range of motion (pigeon, low or high lunge, and figure four are quite effective). You’ll also want to protect your rotator cuff, as this is where many kayakers are injured (mostly due to improper paddling technique using shoulder instead of core strength). You can build up the rotator cuff muscles to prevent injury using some tubing bands and these exercises. Oh, and don’t forget that the best way to maintain your kayaking fitness is by paddling more.
Getting into kayaking isn’t like taking up jogging, where you can spend $60 on some tennis shoes and be ready to go (be very weary if someone tries to sell you a $60 kayak!). To start out, you don’t need the best kayaking equipment, but you will need some essentials, and it’s good to know where you splurge and where you shouldn’t. A realistic estimate for getting into the sport is between $500 and $600 using new equipment.
A recreational kayak is a good thing to start out on. You’ll learn how to paddle and brace, and you won’t need something that could stand up to big waves. A plastic ten- or twelve-foot boat is manageable and good for practicing the fundamental skills. Don’t spend too much money on your first boat; you’ll probably end up with something that’s designed for a more advanced paddler, and it will make it harder to learn anything. You’ll also want to get a sense of what kind of paddling you want to do – whitewater, fishing, sea-kayaking, etc. – and probably eventually get a more specialized boat anyway. For your first boat, just choose a reputable brand so it will have some resale value later (just don’t buy the top model of that brand). Pick a kayak from our best beginner kayak list and you won't go wrong
This is where you’ll want to make your investment. Having a quality paddle is critical; cheap ones are flimsy, leading to rougher strokes, and the paddle could break while you’re far from shore. This is a recipe for disaster, so pick a good one the first time and keep using it as you upgrade your boat. If you can afford it, purchase a carbon fiber paddle, as it will be lighter and stronger than aluminum or plastic ones. You’ll enjoy the sport much more with a paddle that allows stronger strokes and less fatigue.
PFD, aka Lifejacket
Everyone needs a PFD, and what’s important is that you use a PFD that’s made for kayaking. One designed for jet skiing, for instance, is not going to feel comfortable after a few hours of paddling; it wasn’t designed for sitting in a cramped cockpit. All kayaking PFDs cost around a hundred dollars, and they’ll all function the same, so fit is the only determining factor. Look for good deals at the end of the kayaking season in your area.
Of course there’s plenty of other gear that you’ll want as you get more experienced: dry bags, spray skirt, paddle float, etc. None of it’s necessary for getting started, though. Buy more only when you come to need the equipment.
Learning the Technique
While recreational kayaking can be accomplished with only a YouTube video for instruction, and many people start paddling without even that, you’ll be far better off taking a lesson (or a few). Getting instruction will prevent you from picking up bad habits in your paddling technique, and you’ll learn things that will make you a much safer paddler. Without a lesson, you might be able to paddle your way down a river, but do you know how to do a proper low brace or high brace? Many whitewater kayakers also prefect their roll in a swimming pool before they ever take their boat into fast-moving water. Having an experienced kayaker critique you is a whole lot more helpful than watching a video and then trying it on your own.
Choosing your First Paddling Destination
First off, know what your boat (and your skill level) is capable of doing. A recreational boat is never appropriate for class III and above rapids and wouldn’t be safe in the open ocean. They just have don’t have the maneuverability or safety features necessary for the demanding conditions.
Before any paddling expedition, map out your route and know what kind of features are along it. Will there be sections where you can pull your boat ashore and rest (make sure you know your state’s stream access laws)? What landmarks will tell you when the take out point is near? It’s a good idea to do some surveying of the route if you can – hike alongside the river to look for obstacles, and take a look around at the take out point.
The best way to choose your first kayaking destination is to talk to someone who’s done it. Find out where they think a good beginner’s paddle would be. Failing that, check out a kayaking guidebook for your area.
Make Some Friends!
Paddling is always more fun (and safer) with a buddy or two. Maybe you don’t have any friends who are willing to make the time and financial commitment to get into the sport, though. Not a problem. If you live in a medium to large city it’s easy to find fellow kayakers using sites like MeetUp. If you live in a smaller town, ask your local sporting goods store if they know of any groups or a friendly, experienced kayaker. Paddlers are usually excited to see new people getting into the sport, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a buddy.
Hopefully this doesn’t sound like too much preparation to get into the sport. At its heart, kayaking is simple – moving downstream in a very buoyant boat. As a beginner, you probably won’t run into too many issues. However, not taking the time to prepare as a newbie can lead to trouble when you get more experienced. You could end up wasting money on your first boat, and it will take longer to save up for the second one that has all the features you actually need. You can learn bad paddling habits, or fail to join a community of kayakers who could help you to become a better paddler. In any case, take your time getting into the sport and you’ll have a lot more fun down the road (or river in this case).