Learn How To Paddle A Kayak


Learn How To Paddle A Kayak

We discovered kayaking while vacationing lakeside years ago. After renting a couple of kayaks it did not take long to figure out paddling is not as easy as it looks. Maybe this has happened to you as well.

This article will guide you in learning the basic techniques and skills needed to successfully paddle your next kayak. You will also learn the parts of a paddle, adjusting your kayak, how to hold a paddle and even paddling without getting wet!

You can then practice properly sitting in your kayak, using the basic paddling strokes and maneuvering your kayak where you want to go.

Let’s learn how to paddle a kayak!

Kayak Paddling Basics

Standard Parts Of A Paddle

Paddles are made up of three basic components.

  • Shaft. This is the handle of the paddle which has a blade on each end. The shaft can be straight or have a slight bend in the handle.
  • Blade. There are two fins or blades that provide thrust through the water with each stroke.  They are generally made from wood, fiberglass, aluminum, or plastic.
  • Tip. The end or tip of the blade.
  • Back Face. Convex or outer part of the blade scoop if it has one.
  • Power Face. Concave or the scoop of the blade.
  • Throat. Where the blade meets the shaft.
  • Ferrule. This part connects the two halves of the shaft, each one with a single blade. The ferrule system allows for a twist of 60 to 90 degrees to allow for paddle feathering.

Learn more about the kayak paddles here.

How To Sit In The Kayak

Kayak Adjustments

You will need to adjust your kayak and situate yourself before you begin.

  • Adjust foot pegs. If your kayak has foot pegs, reset them so that your knees are slightly bent. Otherwise, use the proper molded foot peg slots for your feet.
  • Reset the seat backrest. Tighten or loosen the backrest straps to properly fit your backside. It should be set to keep your rear end snuggly positioned.

Paddling Posture

  • Sit straight up and in the back of your seat
  • Have your legs together in front of you
  • Use an upright posture
  • Do not lean on your seat backrest to prevent a poor posture

How To Hold A Kayak Paddle

Hand Placement

  1. Pick up the paddle with hands shoulder width apart

    Keep your back straight and bend at your waist.

  2. Raise the paddle over your head

    Relax your hands on the paddle shaft and raise it knuckles up. Place the shaft on or close to the top of your head.

  3. Adjust where you grip the shaft

    Slide your hands until your elbows form a 90 degree angle. This grip provides a more powerful and efficient stroke.

  4. Lower the paddle at your waist

    Drop the paddle without losing your hand placement.

  5. Orient the starting blade position

    Turn the shaft until the blades are parallel to the water and the power face or scoop is facing downwards.

Paddling Strokes

There are five main strokes for paddling your kayak: forward stroke, reverse stroke, sweep stroke, draw stroke and stopping your kayak.

Your kayak will move in the direction your paddle is moving. When you stroke our paddle front to back, the kayak moves forward. Likewise, when your paddle moves from back to front, the kayak moves backward.

The proper technique is to allow your arms, shoulders and back to do most of the work and your legs to provide balance and lower strength. This can prevent back strain and give you a smoother stroke.

Going in a straight direction will take practice time, core strength building and tweaking your technique. All kayakers continually work on these areas, so relax and enjoy the journey.

Forward Stroke

Paddling Forward Stroke
Paddling Forward Stroke

You use this powerful stroke to move your kayak forward. This is like pressing your foot on the gas pedal. Take turns paddling on each side to keep a straight path.

  • Catch phase. This is when you put the blade in the water. Spear the blade into the water close to the kayak. Use with the power face (or scoop) facing back.
  • Power phase. Stroke front to back in a downward scooping motion. Use power in the beginning of the stroke with your legs spread and against the foot pegs for support.
  • Recovery phase. Pull the paddle from the water behind you. Turn and sweep the paddle forward with the blade flat and parallel to the water to cut through the wind.

Reverse Stroke

Paddling Reverse Stroke
Paddling Reverse Stroke

This stroke is use to slow a moving kayak. You can also use it to back up your kayak when stopped. Use paddle strokes from each side and adjust the paddle thrust to back up in a straight direction.

  • Catch phase. Reach back with your paddle almost parallel to the back of the kayak. Stretch to a comfortable position. Turn the blade scoop to face to downward.
  • Power phase. Stroke back to front in a downward scooping motion. Use power in the beginning of the stroke with your legs spread and against the foot pegs for support.
  • Recovery phase. Pull the paddle from the water in front of you. Turn and sweep the paddle backward with the blade flat, scoop down and parallel to the water to cut through the wind.

Sweep Stroke

Kayak Paddling Sweep Stroke and Reverse Sweep Stroke
Paddling Sweep Stroke

Use a wide sweeping stroke to turn the kayak left or to the right. A relaxed and easy motion avoid injury or strain to your back and shoulders.

Forward Sweep
  • Catch phase. Reach forward with your paddle to where your feet are located. Stretch to a comfortable position. Position the blade with the scoop pointing back.
  • Power phase. Drive your paddle to the back in a wide half circle motion just below the water surface.
    To turn right, sweep on the left side of the kayak, keeping your left elbow straight.
    To turn left, sweep on the right side, keeping your right elbow straight.
  • Recovery phase. Pull the paddle from the water located in the rear of the kayak. Turn and sweep the paddle to the front with the blade flat, scoop down and parallel to the water.
Reverse Sweep
  • Catch phase. Reach back with your paddle almost parallel to the back of the kayak. Stretch to a comfortable position. Turn the blade scoop to face to front.
  • Power phase. Drive your paddle forward in a wide half circle motion just below the water surface.
    To turn right, sweep on the right side of the kayak, keeping your right elbow straight.
    To turn left, sweep on the left side, keeping your left elbow straight.
  • Recovery phase. Pull the paddle from the water located in the front of the kayak. Turn and sweep the paddle to the back with the blade flat, scoop down and parallel to the water.

Draw Or Sculling Stroke

This stroke is useful for moving your kayak sideways to a dock or water bank. It is kind of like parallel parking your car.

  • Catch phase. Place the blade about a foot in the water on the opposite side you want to move.
  • Power phase. Stir the blade in a sculling motion left to right. Turn the blade power face as you stroke in a figure eight motion.
  • Recovery phase. The blade will stay in the water during this stroke.

Stopping Your Kayak

This stroke works like a reverse stroke with shorter, choppy paddle strokes. Make sure to alternate sides evenly to keep pointing forward.

  • Catch phase. Reach back with your paddle about halfway to the back of the kayak. Turn the blade scoop to face to downward.
  • Power phase. Stroke back to front in a shallow sweeping motion. This should be in quick strokes opposite of your movement.
  • Recovery phase. Pull the paddle from the water in front of you. Turn and sweep the paddle forward with the blade flat, scoop down.

Paddle Feathering

Most paddles have the option of putting a slight twist or feathering between the two blades. The reason for this is to allow smoother stroking through the water and wind resistance.

This is done with the ferrule system that is built into the shaft. The edge of the blades can be offset by 60 degrees, 90 degrees or sometimes a variable amount through an adjustable ferrule.

Ken Whiting does a terrific job in the following AquaBoundTV video of explaining how paddle feathering works, how it affects your arms and shoulders, and other pros and cons of using this paddle adjustment.

How To Paddle A Kayak Without Getting Wet

This is what can steal the joy for my wife and kids – you know – getting wet while paddling the kayak. Especially when it is colder outside. The main cause is water running down the shaft and dripping over your hands and down your arm or dripping from the shaft onto your lap.

There are things you can use to keep getting wet to a minimum. Here are a few:

  1. Use kayak paddle drip rings on the paddle shaft

    Recreational and touring kayakers often use paddle drip rings to deflect water near the paddle. You can place the paddle drip rings about a distance of your fist from the paddle to be most effective.

  2. Change your paddle to one without grooves

    Certain paddles are designed to route the water down the shaft to optimize speed and friction in the water. Going to a non-grooved design can flowing down the shaft.

  3. Install a kayak skirt for sit-inside kayaks

    A buttoned-down kayak skirt will hug the kayaker at the waist that protects the torso and legs from water and the cold environment.sit-inside kayak skirt

  4. Plug the scupper holes for sit-on-top kayaks

    You can use scupper plugs to prevent the water from rising and pooling around your feet. There are usually four in the front cockpit and two in the rear tank well.

  5. Use a bilge pump to remove water from hatches and the cockpit

    These tools can easily pump the water from your seat and leg areas and drain it outside the kayak. You can also remove water from storage hatches that have filled with water.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can I go for hands-on paddling training?

Look for kayak instructional classes, a one-on-one instructor, or join a local kayaking group.

How can I paddle a kayak straight?

Alternate sides while stroking or practice stroking each side with a more equal paddle angle, time, and thrust.

What weather conditions are ok to kayak?

Pick conditions where the wind speed is below 10 knots, the water current is slow and there is no lightening present or predicted. Wind speed 20 knots or above is too dangerous to kayak for any skill level.

Tracy Villarreal

I'm the owner of Active At The Beach. I grew up in a beach town in which I was fortunate enough to spend tons of time around the sea and the beach.

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