How to Paddle a Kayak Properly – Tips and Techniques

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Paddling a Kayak

Paddling a kayak is easy, if you’re on calm waters, especially if it’s just sort of coasting about and not trying to get anywhere special.

But even then you should grasp the paddle correctly to avoid blisters and get the most efficient use of this small type of boat. If you’re using your kayak for fishing or hunting, or to travel on a stream that’s not calm, it’s even more important to use the proper technique.

First, the basics.

When you put your hands on the paddle, your hands should be a few inches farther apart than your shoulders.

Once you get the right grip, this distance should feel very comfortable. Your grip should be comfortable and firm, but don’t squeeze the handle.

Your hands will naturally tighten when you being to paddle.

Straight Blade for Beginners

Don’t be tempted to buy a paddle with off-set blades, unless you’re a veteran kayaker and the main goal is professional action (racing, white water). Sit comfortably in the seat (sometimes called cockpit) and adjust the back rest if possible so your body position is upright but not stiff. It’s important to adjust the foot braces before you push off into the water.

Those braces shouldn’t be out so far that your legs feel stretched or uncomfortably straight. Start with braces at the full length of your leg then move them in/back until you have a snug fit for the thighs and knees. Straight legs when kayaking puts too much stress on the lower back.

You will be using the forward stroke most, so it’s important to get this technique down very well. Reach out slightly so the blade of your paddle enters the water even with your toes. Pull the paddle smoothly and evenly back so it’s even with your hip. Then lift the paddle and move to the other side, repeating the stroke. In essence, you’re pulling the kayak forward.

Efficiency is the Key

You can use this same basic stroke to turn, though you may want to sweep the paddle a bit more as you pull. This turns the bow of your kayak away from the side you’re paddling on. That would seem to be more than enough information to help you get around on almost any water, but there is one more point to be made.

Get more efficient by focusing on the use of your shoulders and upper body. This means you won’t be using just your arms. You can accomplish this while keep your back straight to avoid strain. If your hands are placed properly on the handle, you’ll have about the same length of handle between your hands as from your bottom hand to the end of the blade. This can change from one individual to another, of course.

If you use a feathered or off-set blade paddle, and you want to have what is commonly called “right-hand control” hold the right blade in a vertical position. The curve or “scoop” of the left blade should be up. Experienced kayakers say the starting grip should be right hand tighter than the left when you use the “right-hand control.” Reverse this for “left-hand control.”

Beginner’s Mistakes

As mentioned at the start, poor posture is one of the most common mistakes made by people who are just starting to use a kayak. It’s essential to keep the back straight, but not stiff. This allows the right amount of rotation of the torso, providing maximum efficiency. It has also been mentioned that the proper length of the stroke if from level with the toes to the hip.

Beginners often put the top hand too far forward, which puts the blade in the water behind toe level. In addition, they often push so far behind the hip when finished the stroke, they waste energy and motion. You should also keep the wrists from bending too much, which causes strain. And, you must avoid rocking the kayak from side to side. Stay balanced.

Different Strokes

You can use the sweep stroke to turn, keeping in mind that the more your tilt the kayak the more efficient the turn. The forward sweep is quite basic. Start with the back of the paddle blade against the bow of the kayak, near your foot. Holding the shaft horizontally, keep the blade in the water and sweep back toward the back. Reverse this motion for the reverse sweep.

Paddle backwards by simply reversing your forward stroke motion, but be sure to work each side of the kayak evenly as you alternate sides. Check out this short but effective video for paddling tips.

On the Water Safely

It’s also extremely important to be able to launch your kayak correctly, safely, keeping yourself dry in the process. Put on your life vest first. If you’re leaving from a dock. Place the paddle across the kayak, just behind the cockpit. But most of the paddle should be on the dock. Sit on the dock, feet forward. Place one hand on the top of the kayak and the paddle handle, the other on the dock. Put your feet in, then lift yourself with your hands and place yourself gently into the seat.

General Information for Kayak Fishing

Now that you know the basics of paddling your kayak and getting into it safely from the dock, you should devote a little time to advice about elements such as weather, wind, and using your kayak for activity such as fishing. The first step for any kayak outing should be to check the weather forecast and stay home if storms are in the area. Open water is no place to be during a thunderstorm.

Windy conditions are dangerous conditions, especially for beginning kayakers. This is a condition that increases the chances of overturning. A good kayak in the hands of an experienced person can handle some rough water, but it’s important not to allow waves to hit the kayak broadside. Using your paddling strokes above to keep the bow or stern directed at an angle, into the waves.

Always wear a vest or flotation device and have a method of signalling. A whistle attached to your vest is the best method. If you overturn or go into the water, stay with the kayak. When you’re fishing from a kayak, keep your paddle handy. Across your lap is best. Practice using the paddle with one hand to make small moves, so you can be ready to cast and work your fishing rod with the other.

You can move quite a bit this way, when you’re trying to focus on where the fish are. Allow your kayak to drift, making small corrections as needed. If the wind is too strong and is moving you more than you’d like, try paddling onto some vegetation to hold you in place. If you’re having luck close to shore, you can use a pin or small rod to hold your position. It’s even possible to tie onto vegetation if necessary.

Remember that safety should always be your first priority when in any kind of boat. Do a thorough inventory check before setting out, to save time and energy that might be wasted by returning to shore.

Photo of author

Sammy Garrard

I am the Founder and Chief Editor of soutdoors.com and a prepper with over 15 years of experience. I’m excited to my knowledge and the things I learn while travelling in British Columbia, Canada where I live and around the world. Feel free to follow me on Twitter!

6 thoughts on “How to Paddle a Kayak Properly – Tips and Techniques”

  1. Great advice thank you, especially on the posture. It’s a very difficult thing to both learn and teach and I remember the difficulty I had when I first started paddling. It was quite a few months before I really got the hang of it!

    Reply
  2. Thanks for talking about the danger of wind while kayaking and the increased chance of turning over. My sister loves the outdoors and her birthday’s coming up, so I was thinking of buying a kayak for her. If I get her a kayak, I’d want her to know the dangers of kayaking in the wind so she can be safe and enjoy the present.

    Reply
  3. I think this blog is really nice for all people who are beginners in the field of kayaking or having a plan of going kayaking. This blog is detailed and tells us how to paddle during kayaking. The tips are nice and very easy to read.

    Reply
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