A Kayak Guide for Beginner Paddlers

BY: Shannon Grilli |4 Jun 2019


I had always thought my first time kayaking would be somewhere low-key. Exploring local architecture on the Chicago river maybe, or paddling down some other contained local waterway where I could easily swim to shore if something went awry. So it's pretty surprising that my first time involved a 3-mile paddle on the open waters of Lake Superior.

If you've never had the pleasure of setting eyes upon this Great Lake, let me assure you: it's intimidating. Standing on the shore in Bayfield, Wisconsin, I could spot other paddlers in the distance, their tiny sea kayaks looking as small as brightly-colored grains of sand speckling a huge expanse of greyish-blue. I suddenly began to wonder whether this whole open-water kayaking thing wasn't a terrible idea. But my friend and I had our hearts set on exploring the sea caves around Wisconsin's Apostle Islands, and the only way to reach them was via kayak. So while I was pretty sure we were doomed, I got in the kayak anyway.

And I'm glad I did because we had a great time! We didn't tip over and we got to see some amazing natural scenery and some pretty cool wildlife to boot. In fact, I'm so grateful I didn't let me fear of the big, bad lake stop me from enjoying this experience that I decided to put together this kayak guide for beginners. If you're preparing for your first kayaking trip, I hope you'll find these tips and insights helpful and that they help to quiet any lingering fears you might have. If I can do it, you can do it!

Tip 1: Book a Tour

This should go without saying, but if you're kayaking for the first time, please don't go alone. Kayaking guides will know what to do if you accidentally capsize in your kayak and can help you get back in your kayak or transport you to shore safely.

Plus, your tour will include a bit of paddling instruction so you can practice your maneuvers before you even get in the boat. Because you might be navigating some narrow waterways, you'll need to know a few techniques, such as how to paddle backward and how to hold your paddle in tight spaces. Truth be told, I forgot most of what was taught by the time we got into the water, but paddling the kayak turned out to be pretty easy and intuitive. Major relief!

Lastly, one of the toughest parts about kayaking for beginners is launching the kayak, since you need to put the boat safely in the water AND climb into the cockpit at the same time. If you're in a beginner-friendly tour group, your kayak guide will likely help you get comfortably situated in your seat, then launch the kayak into the water for you.

kayak paddle

Tip 2: Dress Appropriately

Know this: if you get into a kayak, you are going to get wet. This is true even if your kayak uses a spray skirt (a piece of fabric that sits snugly around the cockpit and keeps (most of the) water out.

For our tour, I knew that we'd be picking up wet suits from the tour company on the way to the launch site and I figured it didn't matter too much what I'd be wearing over my bathing suit, since I'd just ditch my clothes and put the wet suit on over it instead. So I picked a light cotton dress, figuring it would be easy to take on and off. However, when we arrived at the launch site, we were informed that we didn't need the wet suits for our trip after all.

I could have gone with just my bathing suit on, but I was feeling a bit self-conscious around so many new people. So I kept the dress on over the suit. It was comfortable enough during our paddle, but sitting in a wet dress during the 30-minute car ride back to the hotel was not so fun. So just remember that anything you take into the kayak is likely to get wet and stay that way until you have a chance to change.

dry bag

Tip 3: Buy a Cell Phone Dry Bag!

This was by far the best decision we made ahead of our trip (I'm taking credit, but really it was my friend's idea).

If you booked a tour, your guide(s) will likely provide dry bags for you. But these dry bags are rolled up tightly and closed, then tied onto the hull of your kayak. This can make getting things (like a camera) out of them kind of tricky, especially if you are seated in the front of a tandem kayak, since you will have to turn around to reach the dry bag.

That's what made these little cell phone bags so great! They're tightly sealed to keep water out and they come with a little lanyard you can wear around your neck. And since they're clear, you can just shoot pictures right through the plastic! Our photos turned out great, our phones stayed bone dry, and we didn't have to keep fishing around awkwardly in our larger dry bags the way many of our fellow paddlers did.


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One of the surprisingly great photos taken with my phone through the dry bag.


Tip 4: Get Comfortable, It's Gonna be a Long Ride

When you sit in a kayak, your legs are stretched out in front of you and your feet go into little adjustable foot holds. These can be adjusted up and down to accommodate varying leg lengths.

It's super important to adjust these correctly when you first get into your kayak. Ideally, you want to have enough of a bend in your knees that your legs sit comfortably against the thigh braces. This helps ensure your weight is distributed evenly throughout your feet and legs.

When I first got into my kayak, I thought I had achieved a comfortable position with only a slight bend in my knees. However, after an hour or so of paddling, my legs and lower back began to ache and my feet fell asleep. My legs were too straight, so I lacked proper support to stay comfortable for so long.

Luckily, I discovered that I could readjust my foot pedals by grabbing them with my toes and pulling up. However, I wouldn't recommend this to other people. Instead, I'd advise taking extra time before your launch, and asking your guide for help if you're unsure of your position.

tandem kayak

Tip 5: Go Tandem

If you're still feeling nervous about your first time kayaking, then why not go with a buddy? On our tour, we used tandem kayaks, and I felt a huge sense of relief knowing I wouldn't be out on the big lake alone. My friend Tina isn't exactly a seasoned kayaker, but she had at least been in one before, so I felt good knowing that at least one of us would know what she was doing.

If you do go tandem, know that the person in the back seat will have slightly more work to do as they'll be in charge of controlling the rudder, which steers the kayak. You may want to assign this task to whichever person has more kayaking experience. Or you would just draw straws. Since Tina had more experience in a kayak than me, she volunteered to sit in the back. But judging by the number of times she accidentally steered us into cave walls, I'm guessing I probably could have handled it just as capably (sorry, Tina).

Pro Tip: the tandem kayak will move through the water faster if you paddle in sync. If you fall out of sync with your partner, just pick up your paddle for a moment and wait for their next down stroke.

Ready to get paddling?