Kayaking 101: Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Kayaking for Beginners

If you’ve kayaked before, you might be in the wrong place. But if you’re a beginning kayaker and always wanted to try kayaking, but didn’t know where to start, then you’ll want to keep reading. Whatever the case, this article is for the kayaking “beginner” in all of us.

When I first started kayaking, I was a total beginner.  No exaggeration here! I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it. But through trial and error (a bunch of wet paddling and falling out of my kayak), and a lot of research, it all started to come together.  

After I started this site to help other newbie kayakers figure it all out, I realized I had a wealth of tips for beginners that I wish I’d known when I first started.

So here it is, Paddle Camp’s Kayaking 101: Ultimate Guide For Beginners. We’ll cover everything you need to get started, from the kayaking gear you’ll need to how to get back in your kayak if you flip over.  

So, stick with me, because this article will help you avoid some of the mistakes I made when I first started.

Amazon and Affiliate Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means we will earn a commission (at no extra cost to you) on the products or services you purchase using the links.

What are the benefits of kayaking?

One of the first things you should ask yourself before you begin kayaking is, why kayak at all? After all, if you’re going to spend time, effort, and money to get into kayaking, you probably want to know that you’re going to get some benefit from it.

Well, you’ll be happy to know (and hopefully not surprised), that kayaking has a lot to offer you.  The benefits of kayaking include improved physical health, mental health and a better outlook on life.

And here are more of the awesome benefits of kayaking:

Kayaking’s Fun

Kayaking Health Benefits - Fun

It’s hard to find a picture of recreational kayakers that aren’t smiling. It’s a natural reaction. So first and foremost, kayaking’s great fun!

In my not-so-humble opinion,  few things compare to the experiences you’ll have in the seat of a kayak. Paddling the open water of a mountain lake, gliding down a lazy river, or getting up close and personal with Orcas from a sea kayak are all fantastically good times.

You’ll Make Friends Kayaking

Now, imagine experiencing all those good times with some other enthusiasts?  Suddenly, kayaking looks even better. 

It could be paddling with your family, or just one good friend, but kayaking gives you the opportunity to come together with other like-minded people. You’ll make new friends who are either beginners themselves, or who’ve already developed a love for the sport.  

Kayaking Improves your Mental Health

Go out in a kayak on the open water, in the open air, and you’ll explore wide open spaces that most people only watch on their TV.  That seems like reason enough to give kayaking a try.  Rushing rivers, placid lakes,  primal forests and wildlife are all waiting for you and your kayak.

Kayaking Gives you Access to Remote Areas

Believe it or not, there are still places on this earth that you can only get to by water. And kayaks, with their shallow draft and easily portaged weight,  can get to places most other boats can’t. 

Kayaking means you can paddle a narrow stream or a backcountry lake.  Those are still two of the few remaining “uncivilized” things we humans have left to experience. Why not learn to kayak and see these wild places yourself?

Kayaking’s Great Exercise

Kayaking is great exercise with some excellent health and fitness benefits. One of them is that it gets you out of your house and away from every online screen you own. Once you’re in a kayak, you’ll breath fresh air and use your muscles, burning plenty of calories.

Kayaking Can Burn Belly Fat

Obviously, kayaking is a great upper body workout. You’ll engage your arms, shoulders and back every moment you’re on the water. But the benefits don’t stop there. Once you learn to paddle correctly, you’ll find that your core muscles will get a great workout as well.

Kayaking is a Great Lower Body Workout

It’s true that kayaking relies heavily on paddling, and thus upper body strength and endurance.  That being said, your legs will also be put to good use. You’ll need to use your lower body to brace against the gunwales, and to apply pressure to foot rests to provide stability.

In addition, if you get a pedal-driven kayak (more on this later), you’ll get an amazing leg workout everytime you go out on the water.

Kayaking Improves Your Balance

Speaking of stability, kayaking is a great opportunity to develop balance. As your kayaking skill increases, so will your overall body torso balance. That’s a benefit that will help you throughout your daily life.  Even when you’re stuck in a desk chair, wishing you could be out on the water instead!

Kayaking has Mental Health Benefits

It goes without saying that most of us lead pretty go-go-go, stressful lives. There are few opportunities to get away from the hustle of everyday modern technological existence. 

Kayaking requires you to slow down and enjoy a pace that’s both relaxing and therapeutic. Plus, the mental process of learning a new skill, enjoying scenery you might not otherwise see, and just taking in the magnificence of the natural world has a calming effect that can’t be described until you experience it.

Kayaking Improves your Outlook on Life

Watching the news can be depressing. Experiencing life from behind the windshield of your car, while stuck in traffic, can leave you jaded and angry (whoops, that was my inner voice).

Regardless, if you spend a few hours kayaking out in the open, enjoying the scenery, getting some exercise… You’ll quickly remember just how awesome all this “life” stuff really is.

Do I need to take kayak lessons?

Kayaking Beginners Lesson

So, here’s a tip that I’m a total hypocrite for giving you.  In fact, Beginner-Kayaker-Me would have a few choice words if he was reading this.

Take a Kayak Lesson

Before you invest in kayaking gear, go take a lesson first.

Now, I’m a DIY, I’ll do it myself and buy-a-ton-of-gear-before-I-decide-if-I-like-a-sport kind of guy.

But the smarter way to get into kayaking is to start out by taking a lesson. Not only will you have more fun on your first time out, but you’ll learn more and you’ll learn faster. Plus, take it from me: you’ll stay much drier as well.

Not only that, but for what will probably be less than $100 in most places, you’ll figure out fast whether or not kayaking is going to be the sport for you. Better to figure it out first…before you invest hundreds of dollars in kayaking gear that you’ll just have to get rid of on eBay or Craigslist.

Now, I’m biased (obviously) so I’m betting that you’ll love kayaking. On the off chance  you don’t, though, you can slash it off your bucket list and you’ll only be out a hundred bucks. And if you do end up loving kayaking, you’ll have a head start on basic kayaking skills. Plus, you’ll know what size kayak, kayak paddle, and life vest you’ll need to invest in.

Should I buy or rent a kayak?

As you might have gathered, kayaking can be a big investment … sort of. Depending on how much you’re willing to spend, a kayak will run you $250-$1000.  A life vest is anywhere from  $50-$100. Miscellaneous gear will cost you about $100. You’ll also need reliable transport/rack for your kayak, not to mention storage costs in space and possibly storage rental…

Add all this up and “trying out” kayaking can get expensive, especially if you’re not sure you’ll like it. 

Fortunately,  there are cost-effective ways to give kayaking a try before you know if you’re ready to commit (yes, I’m confident you’ll want to commit!). 

What’s The Cost to Rent a Kayak? – For as little as $50-$100, you can try out kayaking by renting some decent equipment. Most places rent kayaks by the hour and by the day.  If you decide that paddling around a serene lake, down a lazy river, or around an ocean inlet isn’t for you, then you’re just out a small amount of time and money.

You can chalk it up to a useful experience, and you won’t have a pile of unwanted kayak gear you’ll have to try to sell later.

If you’re like me and you buy first and explore later, here’s an article on where to buy kayaks.

What kayak gear do I need?

That being said,  if you’ve tried out kayaking and liked it, then I’ve got good news for you. Dollar for dollar, it’s very inexpensive to get into kayaking.  Once you’re geared up, the actual paddling experience is virtually free. There’s boat gas to buy, very little maintenance to make, access fees are very affordable (if they exist at all) and if you take care of it, most of your gear will last a long long time.

In fact, only surfing comes as close as a water sport that you can enjoy for relatively low startup costs (Ok, swimming, but that’s another subject).  

Yes, of course, if you’re like me—gear junkie, guilty—you can spend all kinds of cash on kayaking “essentials”. But the point is you don’t have to do that to become a skilled kayaker.

Of course, there’s some essentials you’ll need to get you started.  

What should I bring on a kayaking trip?

Types of Kayaks

Yes, this seems pretty obvious.  Depending on your preference and fitness level, though, you’ll want to choose the right kayak for you.

Buy a cheap kayak first – You can get a pretty good, brand new recreational kayak for around $250-$300. When you’re first starting out, there’s little reason to invest more money than that. Especially if you skipped the “rental” and “lesson” tips above (hint: don’t skip the “rental” and “lesson” tips above).

I go into depth on the various types, purposes and shapes of kayaks in this article: Types of Kayaks

Meanwhile, here’s a quick summary of the main types and uses of different kayaks.

Sit-on-top kayak – One of the first things you’ll want to do is make sure you can get out of your kayak if you happen to capsize. Sit-on-top kayaks are designed for maximum durability, ease of use, and they’re less expensive than other designs.

But possibly their best benefit for beginners is that they’re easy to get out of in a hurry, especially if you happen to capsize.

On the downside, plan on getting wet when you’re paddling a sit-on-top kayak. Because sit-on-top kayaks are made for summer, fun, and … getting wet. If you’re okay with that, this is the type of kayak for you.

Sit-inside kayak – A recreational sit-inside kayak won’t get your back wet much more than a recreational sit-on-top will. It comes with a much wider cockpit opening than a touring, sea or racing kayak, so it’s easier to get out of if a boat wake, wave, or rambunctious friend tips you over.

You can also safely store gear in a sit-inside. Plus, it tracks a little better and paddles a little faster than a sit-on-top, depending on what brand of kayak you get.

The main bonus of a sit-inside kayak: less water will find its way onto your clothes.

For a deeper look at the differences and benefits of each, read this article on Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-In Kayaks.

Recreational kayaks – While most kayaks are technically “recreational”, kayaks that are designed specifically for the casual kayaker are cheaper, more durable, and easier for the beginning kayak enthusiast to learn on.

Recreational sit-on-top kayaks – These are great for summer splashing fun. Sit-inside recreational kayaks have larger cockpit openings, are shorter, and made for a calmer, more relaxed type of paddling.

Touring kayaks are similar in design to recreational sit-inside kayaks, but touring kayaks have smaller cockpits, are longer, and they’re made for long distance adventure/travel paddling.

Whitewater kayaks are the kayak of choice for adventure-seeking river runners.

Inflatable kayaks are great if you have limited storage and/or transportation space. Plus, some of the better ones are great as lazy to medium speed river runners.

How do I choose the best size kayak?

Buy the right size kayak for your weight – the biggest factor in finding the right kayak for you is weight. I wrote an entire article on how to size a kayak for your weight.

Buy the right size kayak for your height – Especially if you’re a taller paddler, finding a kayak that fits your height is a little more complicated than just how tall you are.

This article on how to find the right kayak for your height explains the other factors you need to be aware of in sizing a kayak for your height.

How do I choose the right kayak paddle?

Choose a kayak paddle that fits you – Having the right size kayak paddle can mean the difference between wearing yourself out with one that’s too big, or constantly banging the side of your kayak with your kayak paddle’s shaft.

We wrote a detailed article about how to choose the right length kayak paddle to help you with that. The right length for you is critical. A paddle that’s too long takes more energy to paddle and one that’s too short will bang the side of the kayak or cause you to lean too far to each side to paddle effectively.

Kayaking Life Vest

Do I really need a life vest for kayaking? – “Real” men/women don’t wear life vests when they kayak, you say? Well, you’re right. They drown. That’s as bluntly as I can put it. Many laws say you just have to have it on the kayak, but my family and I wear ours whenever we’re paddling.

Not only will wearing a kayaking life vest potentially save your life, but a kayak life vest is a great place to keep your whistle, sun screen, mobile phone, and other gear you use often.

Kayak Whistle

A kayak whistle could save your life – In a kayak, oftentimes, you’ll be the smallest craft on the water. You’re less visible, less able to paddle clear of motorized boats in a hurry, and hey, sometimes people just aren’t paying attention.

In addition, if you ever need rescue and people have a hard time finding you (it happens more often than you’d think), there’s nothing like a blast from a whistle to get them pointed at saving your butt faster.

Here’s what we consider to be the best whistle for kayaking.

Kayak Bilge Pump

If you’ve bought a sit-inside kayak, get a bilge pump – Remember that sit-inside kayak we were talking about earlier? Well, the funny thing about those is that once they get a lot of water in them, they don’t drain well. And if you find yourself far from shore with a kayak filled with water, you’ll need to get most of it out so you can paddle back.

A bilge will get all that water out, faster than you can figure out how to lift a submerged kayak over your head to empty it. (Yeah… you can’t lift a kayak over your head to empty it when you’re in the water with it.)

Kayak Lights

If you paddle at night, get a light – A 360 degree visible light is a requirement in most states if you’re paddling after dark. A light pole mounted behind you will satisfy most of the requirements (check your state and local laws). Once again, this is pure safety, because it’s twice as scary to get run over in a kayak … in the dark!

Besides, if you do get into trouble and need rescue, the light makes it easier for people to find you.

What should I wear for kayaking?

Dress for the water not the weather – I’ve come across this cliched statement so many times while looking for kayak clothing, that it almost makes me cringe. However, it remains true.

Simply put, it doesn’t matter if the open air’s 90 degrees outside, if the water in the river you’re paddling is 55 degrees and you go in it … you’ll be happy you’re wearing water resistant clothes. So, do yourself a favor and dress for the water like you’ll probably end up in it. 

Here’s my shortlist of ideal kayaking clothes:

  • Dry-Fit shirt
  • Dry-Fit pants
  • Polartec or wool beanie
  • Summer weight wetsuit
  • Surfing/swim shirt
  • Boardshorts or a swimsuit/swim trunks

For fabrics, Dry-Fit or polyester should be your ideal choice.

Whatever you do,  don’t wear cotton. There’s a reason they call cotton the “death fabric.” Cotton will actually make you colder and increase your risk of hypothermia.

And once you’re wet, cotton’s the enemy.  It will only make you colder faster.  Avoid cotton like your life depends on it, because it just might.

What should I wear for cold weather paddling? – Let’s face it, until you really get into kayaking, you’re probably not going kayaking when it’s freezing cold out. That being said, there are occasions when you’ll want a wetsuit or even a drysuit while you’re kayaking.

Many lakes and rivers in the northern U.S. stay on the cool side even at the height of summer.  Because once again, it’s the water temp and wind chill factor that will get you if you go into the water.

For a more detailed look at kayaking clothing, read this article on what to wear kayaking.

What shoes should I wear for kayaking?

Get a good pair of water shoes – Not only will you have to portage a kayak from your vehicle to the shore, but if you go ashore during your trip, have to wade through shallows with rocks, or just don’t like that super-squishy feeling of mud oozing between your toes, you’ll want some water shoes for kayaking.

Bonus reason – pit stops in public restrooms. Simply, ewwww…

Here’s a more in-depth look at the best shoes for kayaking.

Wear a Hat or Beanie

Baseball Cap

Any baseball cap will help keep the sun out of your eyes and off of your face. Once again, though, a baseball cap made of anything but cotton is better.  Check sporting and outdoor stores for versions made of materials like nylon or wool.

Straw Beach Hat 

If you’re looking for a more laid back alternative, I’ve seen so many full straw beach hats on kayakers that I can’t count them. They’re great sun protectors AND  they give you that cool “Cabo” relaxed vibe.

Warm Stocking Hat

In the morning and when it’s colder, you’ll want a beanie. For fabric, there’s just no substitute for wool or Polartec microfiber. Both have great insulating properties when wet.

Should I wear a helmet kayaking?

Protect your head, get a helmet – Okay, this may be a little overkill on a lazy lake. However, depending on the boating traffic, speed of the river, or if you just want to protect your kids when they decide to use their paddles for an impromptu jousting battle (yep, been there, done that…) a water helmet might be just the right thing to protect your head from unwanted trauma.

Just make sure you choose one that fits your head correctly, or it will be essentially useless.

Do I need sunglasses for kayaking?

Save Your Eyes, Get Sunglasses – Sure you can wear a hat and you should, but the constant bright sun bouncing back up off the reflective water and into your eyes will leave the whites of your eyes red at best.  At worst, you could actually damage your eyesight

Get a good pair of UV sunglasses to protect your vision.

Sunglasses double as protection from a rogue paddle to the eyes, as well. And if they’re polarized, they’ll also “triple” as a way to see down into the water, past the reflective surface.

What’s the best sunscreen for kayaking?

Don’t get roasted – All day on a kayak, paddling around the reflective water, even on a cloudy day, is a good way to get sunburned like a lobster.

You’ll want to use at least SPF 30, but 50 or 70 is even better. 

Choose a sunscreen that’s been formulated for sports.  They won’t wash off easily when your skin gets wet.

Better yet, you can get a fishing neck gaiter that can be used to cover your face, neck and, if you’re like me, that annoying bald spot on your head.

Can you fish from a kayak?

Kayaking Beginners - Fishing

There is no stronger niche within the kayaking community than kayak fishers. From mountain lake trout to ocean sharks, people catch it all while paddling or pedaling a kayak.

Possibly one of the biggest, fiercest, most serious, totally insanely dedicated, and just downright loyal subgroups of kayakers is … kayak fishermen … er, people?

You know what I mean.  

From lake fishing for trout, casting backwaters for bass, to braving the deep blue sea, ocean fishing for just about anything, kayak fishing is its own dedicated pursuit. Kayak fishing has an insane fan base willing to spend ludicrous amounts of money to reach down next to them and catch a fish from almost right in the water next to the fish.

Try kayak fishing – If you consider yourself a fishing enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to at least give kayak fishing a try.

Quick story…

Pinecrest Lake, CA LaborDay weekend, midday temps in the 90s (F)… My youngest daughter begged me to wake up early and go fishing from shore with her. Two hours and one curious water snake sighting later … not a nibble.

Her disappointment and my boredom was obvious. I finally convinced her that rainbow trout don’t like shallow water in the heat and so they were probably mid-lake in deep water staying cool. Her answer—”get in the kayaks.”

I’d been had!

Now, I didn’t think we’d catch any fish given the 90 degree heat, so I told her to head out and tell me how it went when she got back. Not 10 minutes later, she showed up, smiling ear to ear, holding up a fat 12″ rainbow trout. In another 30 minutes she had another rainbow in her net.

And now she’s hooked on kayak fishing!

How to Kayak: The Basics

Okay, so you’ve got all your gear, you’re dressed for success and you’re raring to go. Only one problem—how the heck do you get into a kayak?

You may have wondered, is a kayak stable enough for you to get in without incident?

The basics are below, but here’s an in-depth tutorial on how to get in and out of a kayak.

How to Get Into a Kayak from Shore

This is probably the easiest way to get into a kayak. There are several methods of getting into a kayak from shore.  I have two favorite ways, though,  that I like to show to beginners.   

Method one: 

  • Put your kayak in ankle deep water.
  •  Straddle the cockpit.
  • Then sit down directly into it, putting your feet in last. 

Method two: 

  • Nose your kayak halfway into the water so it’s more stable.
  • Get in the cockpit feet first.
  •  Then push yourself or have someone push your kayak out away from shore.

How to Get Into a Kayak from a Dock

Getting into a kayak from a dock is a little trickier than from the shore. Still, most beginners manage to master it after a couple of wobbly tries.

  • Once the kayak’s in the water, pull it parallel to and tight against the edge of the dock.
  • Place your paddle on the dock parallel to the kayak and close enough that you can grab it once you’re in the kayak.
  • Sit parallel on the dock next to and as close to the cockpit opening as you can.
  • Swing your feet into the kayak first, keep one hand on the dock, and “scoot” yourself into the cockpit while maintaining a grip on the dock.
  • Then grab your paddle, push away from the dock and you’re off. (I know, it’s easier said/written than done.)

Here’s a quick video on how to get in a kayak from a dock

How to Get Into a Kayak from Deep Water 

Here’s where things get tricky. At some point in your kayaking “career” you’re going to find yourself in the water trying to figure out how to get back into your kayak. There are basically three ways to do this:

Method One – Beginner

  • Grab the closest side of the cockpit with one hand.
  • Then reach across and grab the far side of the cockpit with your other.
  • With your arm all the way across the kayak, pull yourself up into your kayak so your belly is over the cockpit. 
  • Then twist/roll so that your butt is now in the cockpit. Your feet are probably dangling in the water. 
  • Swing your feet forward and twist in your seat to put your legs in front of you.

If that seems difficult, or doesn’t work for you, try this:

Method Two – Intermediate

  • Swim to the rear of your kayak. 
  • Reach forward with both hands and grab the back of the cockpit. P
  • Pull toward you and push down at the same time like you’re doing a push-up, and straddle the rear of the kayak. 
  • Then scoot forward until you are straddling the kayak cockpit. Sit in the cockpit and swing your legs into the kayak and in front of you.

Method Three – Advanced

  • This involves a piece of gear that fits on one end of your kayak paddle
  • It’s either foam floating or a blow up balloon/bladder – “Paddle Float”
  • It’s designed to provide lift to one end of your paddle 
  • You put that end in the water and the other end over the cockpit of your kayak 
  • Then, using the floating end of your paddle, you crawl up your paddle like a ladder and into your cockpit.

Any of these maneuvers can be difficult, but they’re pretty important to master.  If you ever flip out of your kayak in deep water far from shore, you’ll be in trouble if you aren’t able to get back in.  I suggest practicing in deep water that’s close to shore, and with a more experienced kayak friend to help (and possibly laugh…)

That’s a lot to read. So here’s a video on how to get in and out of your kayak.

How to Paddle a Kayak

Well, now that we’ve got you inside your kayak’s cockpit, how do we get this boat moving? First, let’s take a look at your kayak paddle.

Parts of a Kayak Paddle

First, let’s take a look at the basic parts of a kayak paddle:

  • Shaft – This is the part you grip and use to propel your kayak.
  • Blade – wide section of the paddle that goes in the water.
  • Power Face – The cupped side of the kayak paddle blade that pushes (or pulls) on the water as you stroke.
  • Back Face – The rounded backside of the kayak paddle opposite the power face.

How to Hold your Kayak Paddle

Holding your kayak paddle correctly is the key to a relaxed, sustainable paddling stroke that maintains your efficiency and doesn’t wear you out prematurely.

Holding your paddle in front of you, your grip should be on the shaft about 1/3 the distance from each end of the paddle. 

So, imagine splitting your paddle into 3 equal parts. Your hands should go at 1/3 and 2/3, roughly speaking.

Kayak Paddle Blade Orientation

  • Blades Parallel – This is the easiest way to learn to paddle a kayak. The blades are oriented in the same direction for easy side to side, slow and relaxed paddling.
  • Blades Slightly Angled – This is a more aggressive way to paddle. For beginners, it’s easier to learn how to paddle by using parallel blades.
  • Symmetrical or Asymmetrical Paddle Blades – Are both sides of the paddle the same length? (Symmetrical) Or is one side of the blades longer than the other? (Asymmetrical) If they are, the long end of the kayak paddle blade goes up.
  • Concave or Flat Bladed Paddle – Flat blades don’t matter which side of the blade is forward. With curved or concave blade face paddles, you want the cupped part to the rear and the curved out part to the front.

Kayak Paddling

Paddling is a relaxed side to side motion that, believe it or not, relies more on twisting at your core than it does pulling in big sweeping motions with your arms. Remember when I mentioned earlier how kayaking is a great core workout? 

When you use your core to twist as you paddle, rather than just swinging your arms and pulling all day, you’ll be able to paddle longer and more powerfully. It’s a learned skill, so in the beginning you’re going to use your arms. We all do.

There are several different kayak strokes used in kayaking. The top two you’ll use as a beginner are:

  1. The Forward Stroke – Reach forward with one of your paddle blades, dip the blade end into the water, and rotate your core at the same time you pull that blade toward the rear of the kayak. Then alternate sides with this stroke, and the kayak goes forward.
  2. The Reverse Stroke – This stroke is obviously the opposite. Simply reach back toward the rear of the kayak with one blade, dip the blade in the water, and push the blade forward as you twist at the core to assist you.

How to Get Out of a Kayak

Okay, so you’ve successfully gone from total rookie to paddling your kayak for the first hour or two of this amazing new adventurous sport. Now what?

Well, now you’ve got to get out of your kayak, that’s what.

From a dock:

  • Get your kayak parallel and next to the dock
  • Hold onto the dock with your hands
  • Pushing on the dock, stand up and step out of the kayak and onto the dock.
  • Or you can “scoot” your butt out of the kayak and onto the dock with your feet still in the boat.

From the shore:

  • Paddle your kayak up to the shore or beach and get perpendicular to the shoreline.
  • Ideally, you’ll paddle onto the shore a little with the front of your kayak
  • Now your kayak’s in a few inches of water.
  • Step out of the kayak cockpit, one foot at a time so you’re straddling the cockpit.
  • Lean forward and grab the front of the cockpit.
  • Pull yourself forward and stand up.

What are the laws for kayaking?

Argh! You’ve got to be kidding me?

Uh … no, I’m not. Yes, when you head out in a kayak, there will almost certainly be laws you’ll need to follow. 

On Paddle Camp, we dedicated an entire series of articles to the fast-changing, and ever-increasing US state-by-state paddling laws that are being enacted by each state. Click on the link to learn more about the laws in your area.

For various reasons, most of them safety-related, all 50 United States are enacting laws that are specific to kayaking and the paddling sports. In fact, just about every other place on the planet where you can paddle is doing the same thing.

This may seem frustrating, but at the end of the day these rules will help keep you and your loved ones accident-free on the water.

In a nutshell, here’s what most of them say:

Your kayak is a “vessel” – More and more government agencies are recognizing that kayaks are no different than any other vessel on the waterways. So they are treating them, and regulating them, as such.  Make sure your kayak meets or exceeds legal standards before you hit the water.

You must have a life vest – Your kayak will need one life vest per person on board.  Each vest must be properly sized by weight, and approved by the USCG (in the US).

Children must wear a life vest – Personally, I think that everyone should wear a life vest at all times. The agencies that regulate kayaking and paddling seem to realize there’d probably be way too much resistance to that, so they at least have made sure kids are required to wear them. Different states have different age requirements for personal flotation devices (PFDs) – here are the Kayaking Life Jacket Laws by State .

Don’t drink and kayakCan you get a DUI on a kayak? Yes, Virginia, yes you can.

DUI laws aside,  drinking while kayaking is just a bad idea. You’ll lose crucial cognitive motor skills that you need for paddling. You could become dehydrated from the sun and from exertion. You may even fail to notice if it’s getting dark or if the weather has changed for the worse. So do yourself a favor: enjoy your time on the water alcohol-free, and crack open a cold one around the campfire later.

You must take a boater’s education course – More and more jurisdictions now require kayakers to take a boating education course. Do yourself a favor and take the course even if it isn’t mandatory. Boat-ed, Boaterexam.com, and others offer state-specific NASBLA-approved (National Association of State Boating Law Administrators) boating safety and operation education.

You need to carry a whistle– I’ll admit, the first time I read this law I thought it was silly. But after watching kayakers and paddle boarders get nearly run over by powerboats that were either driving recklessly or just couldn’t see or hear kayakers frantically shouting at them, I bought whistles for my entire family to use while out on the water.  

At night, you need a light– This seems like a no-brainer. Make sure you have a light on board your kayak before you head out after sunset. Even if you’re planning to return to shore long before dark, it’s a good idea to have one with you. You never know if you’ll be delayed or just stay out much longer than you’d planned.

You need a VDS device onboard – It’s called a visual distress signalling device, and if you don’t have one no one will know you’re in distress. Again, this one should be a no-brainer. Have one in your kayak, especially if you’re heading out on your own for several hours.

If it’s motorized, it needs to be registered – In most states, if your kayak has a motor on it, you’ll have to register it like any other motorized watercraft.  Check the rules and regulations for your state.

Here’s the bottom line:

Live to paddle another day.  Have fun, but don’t be a fatality. Look, kayaks are smaller and slower than most of the other recreational vessels on the water.  This means kayakers have to be aware of risk factors that are beyond their control, like if you get in the crosshairs of a power boat. We should all expect power boaters to be safety conscious, but don’t expect every power boater  to look out for your safety.

Kayakers are fond of mentioning the huge consequences power boaters face if they cause an accident. But if you get run over by a power boat or a PWC, it won’t matter who was right or wrong, you’ll take the brunt of the punishment.

Kayaking 101 for Beginners: Final Words

There you have it: this is a pretty good introduction to the awesome sport of kayaking. Granted, most of the information I’ve shared here only scratches the surface of each subject.

The good news is, that here on Paddle Camp we write in-depth, how-to articles answering all of the major questions any beginner might have about kayaks, kayak gear, and kayaking.

I’d like to think I’ve written the “Kayaking 101” guide I never knew I needed when I was just starting out.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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