How To Paddle a Kayak: From Beginner to Expert

Learning how to paddle a kayak as a beginner is straightforward, but understanding the finer points of technique can make an enormous difference in your performance. 

Kayak paddling has a surprising amount of depth, but is also accessible for beginners. So if you’re new to kayaking, don’t be overwhelmed – take bits at a time and put the hours in, and you’ll see huge differences in your technique.  

This how-to guide will cover everything you need to know to take your technique from solid foundations to confident expertise. 

But before you start, let’s take stock of the essentials. 

The Essentials (Before You Start paddling)

Before you grab your paddle and hit the water make sure you’ve got the following: 

  • A PFD (Personal Flotation Device – is a legal requirement in the States and an absolutely essential piece of kayak safety equipment. 
  • A Kayak paddle – this may seem obvious but there are some things that beginners should understand about what makes a good kayak paddle which will be explained later. 
  • Clothing that’s comfy, protective, and waterproof. 

Proper Kayak Paddling Technique is Essential

An efficient paddling technique will allow you to avoid injury, have fun, and just generally enjoy your kayaking more. However, there are some essential tips that you should follow that apply to all kayak paddling techniques: 

  • Practicing your technique in safe, calm waters under the guidance of an experienced instructor will help you make the most efficient progress. 
  • Don’t sweat it if you don’t get it – as you practice your technique will get better, they’ll be stumbling blocks along the way to mastery, don’t try to paddle like a pro from day one. 
  • Good technique requires a decent amount of attention to detail, but a novice can grasp the basics of kayak paddling quickly
  • Don’t grip your paddle shaft too tightly (this is referred to as white-knuckling it and is the leading cause of elbow and hand problems in kayakers, not to mention that it tires you out faster). 
  • Learn to connect your core with your arm movements – the muscles around the torso and upper body provide all the power for kayaking. If your arms are getting tired quickly then it means you’re not using your core enough.
  • Your technique will constantly be evolving as you get better – it’s best to think about this as a journey that never ends rather than a goal to be optimized. 
kayaking woman

Choose The Right Kayak Paddle For You

The paddle you’re using is an important part of the kayaking puzzle and some enthusiasts take a lot of time to figure out what the best-sized paddle is for them. 

Generally, professionals will recommend that you use the shortest paddle you can manage, but this depends on your height and the width of your boat. However, if you’re a beginner then this is just a distraction. 

If you’re using rentals or on a limited budget, you might not have as many options for paddle lengths. It can actually be beneficial for kayaking newbies to experiment with different paddle lengths and paddle blades, so that you can feel first-hand what the differing sizes and shapes can do for your technique. 

So, in a nutshell, don’t worry too much about paddle length if you’re a newbie. Once you’re more advanced, then maybe start thinking about the different lengths and sizes you prefer. 

A paddle that has a comfortable grip and gives you enough reach without tiring you out is all you need and unless you’re very tall or very short this shouldn’t be too much trouble. 

If you’re struggling to figure out if a paddle is the right size for you or having other difficulties when paddling, an instructor or any local sports shops that sell kayaking gear can help you out here and provide a ton of good information. 

How To Hold a Kayak Paddle

Proper grip and good posture are the two foundations of good paddling technique. 

However, understanding the anatomy of a paddle will help you use it more effectively. The paddle blade is the most important piece to understand – most will feature matching blades (which means they’re parallel). 

Some paddle blades are feathered, but you can usually push a button and rotate the blades to parallel. It’s much easier to learn basic kayak strokes with matching blades and most kayak rental spaces will have this kind of paddle anyway. 

The second thing to look at is if the paddle blade is symmetrical (the blades are the same size all the way around) or asymmetrical (usually one side of the paddle blade is slightly shorter than the other). Neither is necessarily better than the other, and you can learn good techniques with both. 

Are the blades curved? Most kayak paddles are slightly curved or concave but some are flat. Curved paddle blades help push the water. 

Now you understand the blades, let’s look at how to grip. 

Learn Proper Grip

In order to paddle correctly your grip needs to be firm but not so tight that your arm muscles are supplying the power to your paddle stroke. This is one of the big mistakes that beginners make, but it can shorten your learning curve considerably if you master a good grip. 

First, pick up the paddle shaft and hold it vertically in front of you – check the following: 

  • Your knuckles should be pointed up toward the sky and the edge of your paddle blades should be perpendicular to the water
  • Your hands are slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  • The concave or curved side of the blade should face toward you
  • If you have asymmetrical blades then the shorter side should be at the bottom, closest to the water. If you have matching blades then don’t worry about this. 

Know you’ve got the blades the right way you want your hands to be in the right place on the shaft. 

  • Raise the paddle over your head (keeping the blades in position) and move your hands down until your elbows have a roughly 90-degree bend. 
  • Bring the paddle down in front of you, this forms what is known as a paddler’s box
  • Relax your grip – it can be tempting to tense your arms and hands while you’re learning to hold this position but do your best to not overgrip – as this harms your technique. 

Once you’ve done the above, take some time to readjust your posture. 

Maintain Good Posture

Good kayaking posture is simple. Place your feet on the pedals (if there are any, otherwise place your feet where pedals would be) with your knees slightly bent, and push your knees out. Keep your back upright and sit slightly forward, if you lean back too much you’ll most likely start to feel your leg muscles complaining. 

Use the seat to keep your back in an upright position, and your spine slightly forward from vertical. This position prevents your core muscles from tiring out – another issue that beginners often have. 

It can take a little time to find an exact posture that’s comfortable for you, but the above serves as some solid guidelines and should make it easier to maintain balance in your kayak. 

The Four Major Kayak Paddle Strokes

Good kayak paddling technique can be broken down into four basic strokes. Some of these are trickier than others but given enough time anyone can master these movements. 

While proper paddling techniques are an important part of anyone’s kayaking journey, there’s no need to be concerned or get frustrated if one or more of these proves frustrating. Most beginner kayakers have difficulty with certain elements of a technique. 

1. Forward Stroke

The basic forward stroke is one of the most fundamental paddling skills. The forward stroke is the main way to paddle forward on a kayak and is the stroke that you’ll spend the most time using. 

It’s also the stroke that teaches you the importance of correct body position and alignment as it promotes an efficient stroke. 

The forward stroke involves putting your blade into the water at your toes and then pulling it towards your hips. The forward stroke has three “phases” called the catch, rotation, and recovery

Catching is the part where the blade enters the water at your toes – it involves using the muscles of the torso to put the water into the blade. You’re rotating with your hips and using your shoulder. 

Rotation is the part where you’re using your torso muscles to pull the blade immersed into the water to your hips. Your elbows should be kept down in order to facilitate this range of motion. 

Recovery is when you lift the paddle out of the water when it’s at your hip, this resets the torso and allows you to put the opposite blade into the water. 

At first, you might find that your kayak is a bit “noisy” as it bobs and splashes a bit, but you’ll know you’re improving when your kayak is a lot quieter. 

Tips for Forward Stroke

  • Focus on maintaining the paddler’s box. 
  • Take one “phase” of the forward stroke and learn it thoroughly, then focus on another, this can really speed up your progression. 
  • Always keep upright, as otherwise, you’ll start to disengage your torso muscles. 

2. Sweep Stroke

The sweep strokes are for when you need to do a more complicated turn, you might want to pivot without doing a complete circle, or you need to turn into a strong wind. 

The sweep stroke comes in two varieties; the forward sweep stroke and the reverse stroke. 

The forward sweep stroke goes from the bow to the stern or the front to the back of the kayak. 

You start by keeping your paddle shaft as horizontal as possible and then immerse the blade into the water at the front and then pull the blade back in an almost crescent moon or bow-like shape. 

Rotate your torso following the path that your paddle blade takes. This is what allows the kayak to turn smoothly. It’s almost like you’re using the paddle as an anchor and your hips are turning the kayak. 

The reverse sweep stroke goes from the back of the kayak to the front and follows the same bow-like motion as the forward sweep but in reverse. 

The paddle shaft is as horizontal as possible and you have to use your torso muscles to follow the path of the blade. 

Tips for Sweep Stroke

  • It can be tempting to use your arms to speed up the paddle as it moves through the water, but this prevents you from turning properly. 
  • You should be careful not to lean to the side too much when focusing on rotating your torso as you can potentially capsize yourself. 
  • Following the paddle blade with your eyes helps you engage your torso muscles. 

3. Draw Stroke

The draw stroke helps you move your kayak sideways. This technique allows you to pull your kayak closer to a dock or towards a fellow kayaker. 

Start by turning your paddle blade horizontally and rotating your upper body to face the direction you want to go in. 

Place the blade into the water a good distance from your kayak and use the arm closest to the water to pull the blade towards you. 

Stop pulling before your blade hits the side of the kayak and then rotate the blade about 90 degrees and slice it out of the water. 

Tips for Draw Stroke

  • The more vertical your paddle shaft, the more easily you’ll pull your kayak sideways. 
  • Try and pull the blade towards you in a straight line, because pulling at an angle or towards the front and back will cause the kayak to turn instead of being pulled along. 

4. Sculling Stroke

The sculling stroke is another way to propel you sideways through the water. 

You start by rotating your torso and keeping your paddle shaft horizontally with both blades above the water. 

Slice the blade forward with the leading edge away from the kayak, then twist the paddle slightly and slice it black. 

A slice just means the blade goes in or out of the water with side edges.

Tips for Sculling Stroke

  • The sculling stroke can be a bit tricky to learn. Focus on mastering the rest of the basic strokes and then come back to this one if you’re completely new. 
  • Don’t twist the paddle too much when the side edges are in the water or the kayak will rotate instead of being pulled along. 

Paddling Backwards

In case you need to slow down or reverse you also have the reverse stroke. The easiest way to learn how to do reverse strokes is to learn the forward stroke and then just do the opposite

Start from the recovery position, push and rotate the blade with your torso from your hips, and then lift out when it’s near your toes. 

How To Paddle a Tandem Kayak

Tandem kayaks are operated by two people (up to a maximum of three). They are wider, tend to be more stable, and are the mode of choice to teach children and newbies how to paddle a kayak and develop basic stroke techniques.

Usually, the stronger paddler sits at the back, as they can dictate the pace of the kayak. The paddle strokes are the same as for a solo kayaker – the forward stroke, sweep strokes, sculling, and others can all be employed. 

If a duo can establish a rhythm and paddle in unison then tandem kayaks can go surprisingly quickly. 

How To Paddle a Kayak in a Straight Line

The kayaking term for moving in a straight line is called “tracking” and is another important concept to understand. 

To track straight depends on a few factors, but as long as you have good technique and are using decent, comfortable equipment you should be able to keep paddling forward in a straight line with no problems. 

You can learn more about tracking in our detailed guide.

Conclusion

Learning how to paddle a kayak can take time, and while some of the techniques here may seem a bit complicated, once you have a little practice you’ll start to pick them up. Before you know it, they’ll be second nature. 

We hope you’ve enjoyed reading all about how to learn the proper technique for all the different kayaking strokes. If you have your own hints then please tell us in the comments, or share the information here with anyone who you think might find it useful.