How to Paddle a Kayak: Techniques and Tips

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Whether you have never been in a kayak before, or you are a hobbyist that wants to get a little more serious about technique, knowing how to paddle a kayak correctly is the most important thing you can study for this watersport. Not only does proper paddling help you go faster, navigate and steer better, and stay safer on the water, it will also improve how you feel the next day – no more aching paddler shoulders!

There are four main things to know when paddling your kayak: you need to understand your paddle and how it works; you need to know how to hold the paddle for what you want to accomplish; how to adjust your body positioning for what you need; and finally, the various types of row paddling techniques that can be used with kayak paddles. In this guide to paddling basics, we’ll cover all that and more. Keep in mind, that these paddling techniques and tips apply to all type of kayaks, including wooden, inflatable kayaks, and composite kayaks.

Table of Contents

Know Your Paddle

There are four features to your kayak paddle that change how it is operated, and how it will work best for you.

The first thing is the size of the paddle. Paddles come in different lengths to work for different people. Take a look at the grip areas on the paddle, and then imagine the paddle was balanced on your head. If you reached your arms upwards, forming two 90-degree angles on either side of your head, would your hands be at the grips? If so, then the paddle is likely a good size for you. A grip that is too wide will injure or tire your arms, while a grip that is too narrow doesn’t give you enough power.

The next thing is how the blades are positioned compared to one another. Are they both laying flat in the same way, or does one lay flat when you turn the paddle one way, while the other lays flat when you rotate the paddle another way? If the paddles are oriented at an angle to one another, they are called feathered, and these can be a bit harder to use for beginners.

The next thing to consider is the shape of each individual paddle. They are considered asymmetrical if one side of the blade, at the end closest to your hand, stops sooner than the other side. This shape is perfect for a beginner because it means that the paddle is a little less likely to spin due to the force of the water. However, beginners can easily learn proper paddling technique with standard symmetrical blades as well.

Finally, the last feature is whether your paddles are curved or not. Most paddles do have a slight concave, and you should always point the paddle so that the “scoop” of the curve is pointing towards your rear. Then, as you dip the paddle into the water and pull back, the shape helps you to get more power in your stroke.

Hold Your Paddle Correctly

The next thing to know about the proper form for rowing kayaks is how you hold your paddle. The number one mistake that beginners make is gripping the kayak handle too tightly. This just puts strain on your arms and makes you get tired faster. Hold your fingers fairly loose and open, like you are making an “O” with your forefinger and thumb.

Again, remember to keep your grip just slightly wider than shoulder length, neither too narrow or too wide. When you are holding the paddle in front of you, your paddle blades should be perpendicular to the water (that is, the blades should be pointing up to the sky and down to the water, rather than pointing forward and to the rear). Your first row of knuckles should be pointed upwards as well.

Be sure that if you have asymmetrical blades, the shorter end of the blade is on the bottom, pointing towards the water.

Video: Proper Kayaking Techniques

Adjust Your Body Positioning

The next thing to do to achieve the perfect kayak paddle is to adjust your body positioning. Your arms should be at 90-degree angles with your elbows up and back. Your back should be straight, and not leaning forward or back. Keep your shoulders nice and loose, and remember not to grip too hard. These are the keys to a solid foundation for good kayak paddling.

To make paddling even easier, keep your legs together when you paddle, with your knees slightly bent. Then push your legs out against the hull for balance as you rotate your torso. In this way, each time you take a stroke with the paddle, your torso and legs are actually doing most of the work. Your arms will be less likely to tire out if you keep your body positioned this way.

Types of Kayak Strokes

There are multiple types of kayak strokes that you may use while paddling, but the two most common are:

The forward stroke

This is the basic foundational kayak paddle technique that you will use most often. You will rotate your torso to face one side of the paddle, and immerse the blade in the water by your feet. Then you’ll rotate your torso to the other side, pulling the bade back as you do so, scooping the water by pushing with your opposite hand. When the paddle is by your hip, slice it up out of the water. Then repeat on the other side.

The reverse stroke

This stroke allows you to slow down, turn your kayak, or paddle backwards, and works in exactly the opposite way as the forward stroke. You’ll begin at the hips and push the paddle towards the feet by rotating the torso.

Stay Safe When Kayaking

As you continue on in your kayaking adventures, you’ll learn more strokes and paddling techniques. However, there is one important safety tip that you need to know about kayaking. If you are paddling and the paddle hits the side of the boat, don’t react by yanking the paddle up out of the water. Instead, just relax and let the paddle move away from the kayak naturally, then retry the stroke. This will keep you from capsizing.

Now that you know how to properly begin paddling your kayak, you can build your skills on the water!