Kayaks 101: Everything You Need To Know

​Kayaking is sport that anyone can enjoy: even you! Though it may start as a hobby, it will soon turn into a passion once you’ve experienced the peaceful activity.

As your boat glides across the lake, while the strokes of your paddle create delicate ripples on the water’s surface, you are bound to experience the calming effects the outdoor provides. On a kayaking trip on Lake Michigan, I found my own form of serenity on the water that helped me discover my passion for kayaking. While I sat in my kayak, I glanced through the clear water to see aquatic plants and fish swimming below me. The wind softly rustled through the trees that lined the shore. Looking across lake, I saw the sun glimmering over the water as it began to sink beyond the horizon. The sense of beauty and peace I found out on the water made me fall in love with kayaking.

As beautiful of an experience it is to have, I will admit that kayaking can be tricky at first as you learn how to balance and maneuver the boat. Yet once you put in an hour or so of practice, it will be smooth sailing. Not only is the activity fun, but it also provides you with an intense arm workout. So who wouldn’t want to know more about a water sport that provides you with a sense of calm and a workout?

Before you are ready to try your hand at kayaking, you need to have access to the proper equipment, the most obvious being a kayak. Depending on where you want to kayak, how intense you want your experience to be, and how you intend to transport your boat, you will need different types of equipment. If you are not ready to commit to purchasing such equipment yourself, there are many sporting goods stores and recreational departments whom you can rent from.

Different Types of Kayaks

The first step to getting ready to kayak is finding a kayak that fits your needs. To find the right kayak, consider these questions:

1

Where do you want to kayak? What type of water interests you?

  • Kayaking is an activity that can be done in various types of water. It can be done in oceans, lakes, or rivers. You can find a place to paddle anywhere, you just need to find a launch site to help you get your kayak in the water with ease.
  • When you figure out the type of water you will be kayaking in, it will help you figure out the type of kayak will suit it best. For each body of water, you will need a different type of boat. Sea kayaks are different than lake kayaks; each type of boat has certain features to help you take on the challenges each body of water presents.


2

How would you like your kayaking experience to be?

Kayaking can be done at a relaxing or fast pace depending on the body of water you kayak in. The fast, unpredictable currents of a river provide you with an upbeat, thrilling experience, while ocean and river kayaking are more mellow. Ocean or river kayaking excursion are usually long distance, and require slow strokes, offering you a more relaxing experience.

3

How do you plan to transport your kayak?

  • You should consider if you plan to take your kayak on road trips, backpacking trips, or simply out for the day. Figuring this out will allow you to select the weight and length that would best suit your type of trip.
  • ​If you would be going for road trips you may want to get a folding kayak due to the large scale of most kayaks. Otherwise, you will have to purchase a cargo rack for the top of your vehicle.

Once you establish your answer to each question, it will help you distinguish what type of kayak is right for you. As you read through the various types of kayaks, keep these answers in mind to help you narrow down your choice.

Inflatable Kayaks

The inflatable kayak is great for beginners. It is lightweight, which makes it easy to transport. This kayak fits any type of activity that you might like to do: every kayaker would be covered, whether you like an easy paddle or prefer white rapids. A perk an inflatable kayak is it’s very reasonably price, which is beneficial for those of you on a budget. It also does not require the same amount of upkeep as a hard shell kayak does.

The risk you take with purchasing an inflatable kayak, due to the material that enables its inflatability, is the potential for it to pop. If you are cruising along a river and hit a sharp rock, you will be left with a damaged kayak. That is not to say that they don’t have repair kits you could bring along on any trip, but who wants to continue to repair a kayak every time a sharp rock makes an appearance? Another shortcoming is its speed. Hard shell kayaks perform better in this category due to the width of inflatable kayaks.

To learn more about inflatable kayaks, click here.

Fishing Kayaks

Fishing requires you to be stealthy when sneaking up on fish, which is why a kayak is a great option for your next fishing outing. The fishing kayak allows for you to silently maneuver through the water because the boat is propelled through the water using quiet paddles rather than a noisy engine. Another perk of fishing kayaks is that you can easily get in tight spaces to fish thanks to its slim dimensions. There are two different types of kayaks within this category: sit on top kayak and a sit in kayak.

The sit on top kayak allows for better stability. As you fish, particularly when you catch a big fish, this type of kayak will allow you to easily stand to reel in your catch. You will also be able to quickly access your gear.

With this option, you also get less speed due to the bulky nature of the kayak. Although it allows for quick access to gear, it doesn’t allow a lot of room for it to be stored. Paddling can also be a challenge: since the seat is on top, you are presented with an odd angle from which to paddle.

Sit in kayaks will allow for more control of the boat. It is also easier to paddle due to its low center of gravity, which in turn will allow for greater speed. Sit in kayaks also provide you with more storage.

To learn more about fishing kayaks, click here.


Folding Kayaks

The perk of this kayak is right in its name; you can fold it up and place it into a backpack, providing great portability. If you plan to kayak on backpacking or camping trips, this is a worthwhile investment to consider. That being said, folding kayaks are something you may want to hold off on until you fall in love with the sport because of the astronomical amount of money that you would need to spend to purchase one. Another downfall with folding kayaks is their assembly time.

Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are different from most other types of kayaks in that they do not track in a straight line and have no keel. The keel is found at the bottom of the kayak and prohibits it from turning side to side. When in the quick rapids, you need to quickly turn side to side depending on the direction of the water which the lack of keel enables.

This type of kayak is usually short: typically less than ten feet. These factors make them very maneuverable and agile. The cockpit, which is where you will be sitting, is tight and designed to keep you in the boat in rough conditions.

Since the whitewater kayak doesn’t not easily stay in a straight line, it makes it hard to manage. You typically have to make very precise and small paddle strokes to make sure you are not placing yourself in the wrong position. Hence, you will need to have expert skill in maneuverability and the capability to keep the kayak stable at all times.

Tandem vs. Single Kayaks

A tandem kayak is a kayak in which there are two seats, allowing for two people to enjoy kayaking together. Because it is designed for a pair, trying to maneuver a tandem kayak alone is very challenging to do. When bringing along gear in a tandem kayak, you have to make sure to keep the kayak equal in weight in the front and the back.

A single kayak is easier to maneuver than tandem kayaks, for tandem kayaks require much coordination and cooperation between the two people to function effectively. Single kayaks are also more stable and are easier to pump dry if the kayak is fully submerged in the water.

Sea Kayaks

Sea kayaks are also referred to as touring kayaks or ocean kayaks. This type of kayak sits low in the water to reduce the effects of cross winds. They are designed for the sport of paddling on open waters of lakes, bays, and the ocean. Sea kayaks are meant for long journeys, like a multi-day trip, and they excel in comfort and cargo space. They are also designed to make it easy for you to paddle in a straight line.

Sea kayaks typically measure fifteen feet or more. At such a large size, sea kayaks can be especially difficult to transport. If you intend to transport such kayaks on the top of your car, you will need to also invest in a cargo holder for the top of your vehicle.

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks will best suit a beginner or low intensity paddlers. They have great stability and large cockpits to allow for a quick entrance and exit of the kayak. These kayaks are perfect for lakes, ponds, gentle rivers, and creeks, because such waters remain relatively calm and flat.

This kayak is not meant for high intensity kayaking, which means whitewater is out of the question. When trying to maneuver fast in the water it will become hard in this type of kayak, due to its bulky design.

To learn more about recreational kayaks, click here.

Once you’ve decided on the type of kayaking you want to pursue and the appropriate boat you will need to either rent or buy, you are now ready to consider the appropriate gear. Depending on your experience level, and the intensity of kayaking you intend to be doing, certain, but not all, gear is necessary.

Kayaking Gear List

Water Shoes

Water shoes will suit your need when kayaking, and are essential for safety and comfort. The type of water shoes to get will depend on the type of activities you will be doing in and out of your kayak.

Most likely, you will want to purchase shoes that provide grip on the bottom and are covered in mesh. The grip from the grooved rubber soles will provide good traction on slippery rocks, which will allow you to tightly grip the ground while placing your kayak in and out of the water. Most water shoes offer a certain level of quality sole that allows for good traction but make sure to read previous customer reviews because it is not always apparent from the design of the sole. The mesh will make sure you don’t cringe as you take them off, since it will allow air to flow through and allow for it to quickly dry.

As important as shoes are, I will admit that on some of my shorter, more relaxed kayaking trips to local lakes and ponds, I wore a simpler version closed toed sandals. You could attempt bare feet on your own relaxing kayaking trips, but beware that you are likely to stub your toes on something as you transport the kayak in and out of the water.

Gloves

Gloves may be unnecessary depending on the type of kayaking you plan to do. For relaxed outings on lakes, slow rivers, and calm seas, gloves may not be needed. However if you plan to tackle the fast, whitewater rapids, then gloves are highly recommend to ensure you have a strong, solid grip on your paddle.

Gloves offer great dexterity and allow for a tight grip on the paddle. This means no blisters. keep in mind that even though they are referred to as gloves, they don’t provide much warmth.

When purchasing gloves for kayaking, make sure to consider the following:

  • Make sure they are waterproof
  • They have a non-slip surface for holding firmly onto the paddle shaft
  • The shape of the glove mimics the natural position of your hand

Note that the size is measured around the width of the hand at the knuckles and the length of the fingers.

Kayak Paddles

Every type of kayak and body of water will require a specific type of paddle. Once you figure out the type of activity and kayak you are using, you will need to examine the length, material, design, and shaft to determine the best option for you.

Length

The length of the paddle will be determined by your paddling style. A relaxed style paddler who paddles at a slower rate will want to purchase a low-angle paddle, which is slightly longer than high-angle paddles.

High-angle paddles will be for the more aggressive style paddler because you need ample force for each stroke. It will also be preferred in moving water, such as rivers and ocean currents, where you need to move quickly.

You will also need to consider your own height and the width of the boat. For a person who is tall or a boat that is large in width, you will need to purchase a longer paddle.

Material

The material of the blade is also an important factor: the lighter the weight, the easier it is to paddle. When finding the best paddle for you, consider looking for a paddle that offers the right balance of weight and strength for the type of trip you will be taking. The various types of material to consider are:

Fiberglass

  1. Falls in the middle price range
  2. Typically used for recreational use
  3. Relatively lightweight
  4. Excellent durability

Carbon Fiber

  1. High performance choice
  2. Costs more than other material
  3. Good for multi-day trips
  4. Extremely lightweight

Nylon/Aluminum/Plastic

  1. Affordable price
  2. Durable
  3. Good choice for beginners
  4. Relatively heavy

Design

The design of the blade is broken up into two categories that take into account the type of feathering (the blade shape). In regards to feathering, the blade can either be feathered or non-feathered.

Feathered: 

  • Reduces wind resistance and wrist fatigue
  • One blade strokes through the water, while the other slices through the air
  • One hand always maintains control of the paddle

Unfeathered:

  • The blades are positioned in line with each other
  • Increases wind resistance and wrist fatigue

Shaft 

The shaft is the part of the paddle that you hold onto. Most paddles have a straight shaft, but another option is a bent-shaft paddle. The bent-shaft paddle allows you to position your hands at a more comfortable angle during the power portion of a stroke.

You can also purchase shafts that break down for easy storage and movability. You can either purchase a two-piece shaft or go even smaller and purchase a 4-piece shaft.

The shaft will come in two shapes: oval and round. If you are looking for a more comfortable grip, opt for an oval shaft. They allow for a better grip since it features oval hand sections, often referred to as oval indexing.

After you choose a paddle that matches your specific criteria, you need to make sure you have one per person and always bring an extra.

To learn more about kayak paddles, click here.

Paddle Leash

When you are down river or in a great rapid, you want to have the peace of mind that your paddle is secured to your kayak. As you are kayaking, the paddle leash can be used to keep the paddle secured to the kayak. Also, with a paddle leash, your paddle will be safely attached to your kayak if you hit a big rapid or wave.

Spray Skirt

Staying dry while in your kayak will require a spray skirt. When you inspect a spray skirt, you will notice that they all share the same anatomy.

The paddler’s waist wears the torso or tunnel. From the paddler’s torso to the boat’s cockpit is referred to as the deck. The rand then holds the deck tightly over the cockpit. The biggest factors when considering a spray skirt are the material and design.

A spray skirt is only necessary in a more intense, fast body of water. If you are kayaking on a calm lake or slow river, a spray skirt may be superfluous.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

A personal flotation device is also commonly referred to as a life jacket. Kayakers will want to remain safe while partaking in the activity and the best way to do so is to be prepared. No one wants to fall out of their kayak or get hit by a wave or rapid; but if you do, a PFD will allow you to float above water so you remain safe and seen. Keep in mind that though you may not want to wear a life vest, many states require, by law, for there to be just as many life vests in the boat as there are people: not only that, but these vest must fit each person properly.

Now You Know Everything You Need: Time to Kayak!

Once you are prepared with the right type of kayak, in addition to the proper equipment, you are ready to get out on the water and experience this amazing sport for yourself. Each climate offers different bodies of water, and in turn different kayaking experiences. Do your research to discover where there are good kayaking locations near you; from guide books, to websites, to friends and family, there are many resources to find the perfect place to kayak. Once you are fully informed, prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime. Where as kayaking was once a hobby of mine, I now consider it a true passion. After you experience kayaking for the first time, you will most likely feel the same.