two people kayak on a flat lake at sunset
two people kayak on a flat lake at sunset

Let’s Try Kayaking!

Have you ever wanted to try kayaking? We’re talking flatwater kayaking — cruising around lakes, exploring slow-moving rivers, and discovering protected bays, not bouncing down rapids through fast-moving whitewater.

Flatwater kayaking is a sport almost anyone can do. Sure, the more experience you have, the more adventurous you can get. But it’s a sport that can be enjoyed by all ages and without experience, lengthy lessons, or a guide. You just need to go where there’s water.

Luckily for us, KEEN HQ in Portland, Oregon, is within easy driving distance of many rivers and lakes, so there are loads of options for getting our feet wet in a kayak. And if that’s not enough, the Pacific Ocean, a couple of hours drive away, offers a lifetime’s worth of kayak adventure opportunities. Here are some first-timer tips we’ve learned while exploring our home waterways by kayak.

Kayaking Is Fun for All Ages

Kayaking is something the whole family can enjoy together. While there is a learning curve to develop an efficient paddle stroke and to learn to maneuver your boat, it’s a short curve. A beginner can get in a flatwater kayak and be paddling happily around calm water in a matter of minutes. Give it an hour, and most people will be comfortable enough to start exploring further afield. The more comfortable you get, the more adventurous you can be with your choice of water and the places you explore. From simply staying cool on a hot afternoon to exploring a mountain lake or touring a coastal estuary, you can do it all in a kayak.

If you want to paddle with small children, try a tandem kayak that seats two people and lets you handle most of the effort. Older kids and teenagers will pick up paddling as fast as an adult (if not faster). Regardless of your age or experience level, it’s important to know how to swim and to always wear a PFD (personal flotation device) whenever in a kayak.

a boy kayaks on a river

Kayaks Come in Many Different Shapes and Sizes

Flatwater kayaks come in many different shapes and sizes, but they all fit into two general categories: sit-in or sit-on-top. You’ll find hard shell varieties and inflatable designs, plus kayaks made for fishing, and others made for surfing. There are ocean-going touring kayaks and tandem (two-person) kayaks, too.

What’s a Sit-on-Top Kayak?

Sit-on-top kayaks are a great place to start for a total beginner. Most sit-on-top boats are designed for casual recreational use. They are more stable than sit-in designs and are made for warm water, since you’re going to get wet when paddling a sit-on-top!

The best part of a sit-on-top is that, because you are just sitting on top, there are no special skills required if you tip over (except for knowing how to swim). In fact, the easy-on and easy-off nature of a sit-on-top boat is often the main attraction on a hot summer day! They are even designed to be self-draining thanks to what are called scupper holes — drain holes in the deck that allow water to pass through. In other words, if you capsize, you just flip the kayak back over, slide back on, and keep paddling.

Depending on your ambitions, we recommend a boat with a good selection of stash spots and deck bungees for attaching a water bottle and supplies for the day like a dry bag with snacks, sunscreen, binoculars, or a towel. Sit-on-tops are great for fishing, too. You’ll find designs with accessories for holding rods, a net, and even pedal systems that let you “paddle” with your feet and free up your hands for fishing!

What’s a Sit-in Kayak?

Sit-in kayaks are the original kayak design for touring and exploring. And like the name implies, you sit down in the boat in what’s called the cockpit. In general, they are more efficient to paddle than sit-on-top boats and include covered cargo compartments, so they are the best choice for destination paddling and multi-day trips.

Although sit-in flatwater kayaks can be pretty stable, it’s a good idea to learn a technique called a wet exit. A wet exit is the ability to slip out of the boat in the case of a capsize. It also involves learning to right the boat, drain out the water, and get back in. While it does take a little practice to safely wet exit a sit-in kayak, we’re talking an hour of practice, not days, to master the moves.

When it comes to choosing the right sit-in kayak, you’ll find easy-to-paddle recreational boats and more advanced touring and ocean-going models. Sit-in boats tend to go faster and track straighter than sit-on-tops and are the better choice for cold water and cool-weather paddling. Many offer the option of a spray skirt, too. A spray skirt is a waterproof cockpit cover that goes around your waist and seals the seating area. A spray skirt is important for rougher water and cold-weather paddling.

colorful kayaks waiting out of the water

Get to Know Kayak Lingo

Flatwater kayaking doesn’t have as much insider lingo as whitewater kayaking, but being familiar with the parts of a kayak as well as paddling techniques will help if you’re shopping for a boat and when learning more advanced handling. If you have any general boating experience, some of these terms are likely to sound familiar.

Back stroke: The technique used for moving backward by pushing instead of pulling the paddle through the water.

Bow: The front end of the kayak

Bulkhead: A wall inside a kayak that provides structural support and watertight compartments for flotation or storage.

Deck: The top part of a kayak

Forward stroke: The most basic stroke used to move a kayak in a forward direction.

Hull: The bottom of the kayak. Its shape influences how a kayak performs.

PFD: Personal flotation device, or life jacket

Portage: To carry a kayak over land

Sculling draw: A figure-eight stroke used to pull the kayak sideways

Spray skirt: A waterproof neoprene or nylon skirt worn by a kayaker that attaches to the seating area and seals out water on a sit-in kayak.

Stern: The rear or back end of a kayak

Swamp: To fill a kayak with water when it flips over or takes on water from a wave.

Wet exit: Exiting a capsized kayak

Do I Need to Take a Kayaking Lesson?

Whether you need a kayaking lesson depends on your ambitions and comfort level in the water. Provided you are a decent swimmer and have access to calm water, most people can simply get on (or in) a kayak and learn the basics on their own. It’s as simple as paddling forwards and backwards and learning how to keep the boat tracking straight.

If you’re planning a multi-day tour or are looking to expand your skills beyond paddling in calm, protected water, a lesson is the way to go. A lesson is also a great way to try a few different types of kayaks. Most paddling shops and outfitters offer lessons that range from indoor pool sessions to getting out on a local lake or river. You’ll learn the different paddle strokes and, for sit-in kayaks, be able to practice a wet exit with the safety of an instructor at your side.

Just Add Water

One of the great things about kayaking is that there’s not a lot of gear required beyond the kayak, a paddle, and a PFD, especially to get started for casual recreational kayaking. Before you take the plunge and buy a kayak, we suggest you test the waters (literally :)) with a kayak rental. There’s plenty of time to get more ambitious and gear up for adventure. But for starters, a bathing suit, a sun hat, the water shoes of your choice, and a rental boat will do the trick.

Whether you take your first paddle strokes in a sheltered mountain lake or a protected coastal bay, flatwater kayaking is about exploring, watching wildlife, and seeing cool places that are only accessible by water. And sometimes, kayaking is simply about staying cool on a hot summer day.

two people get ready to kayak on a quiet lake on a sunny day

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