How to Kayak – General safety & etiquette

Have you ever wanted to learn how to kayak? Here is your chance to learn kayaking.

Steeped in tradition that traces back to the Inuit, kayaking has evolved from a necessity into a fun and heart healthy recreation and sport.

Regardless of the many differences in size and shape, kayaks are usually driven by one person with a paddle sitting in its cockpit.

How to Kayak –  This guide is an Introduction to Kayaking for Beginners, covers the essentials step-by-step without overwhelming you with intimidating diagrams and lists. It walks you through everything you need to know to become a competent and responsible paddler.

Safety First

When you go kayaking it is important to know some things about safety. To begin with you should know how to swim, wear a PFD and make sure to check the weather. Needless to say, on sunny days don’t forget the sunscreen, on cold days don’t forget your cold weather gear. If you are going to be whitewater kayaking, put on a helmet.

Check your equipment before heading out. Know a thing or two about water safety and first aid. Just make sure to use common sense. Remember accidents happen when you least expect them.

Kayaking safety involves a wide range of activities and the use of important safety gear and equipment. As a rule of thumb, you should consider the following:

  • 1. Take a CourseWhether it’s for safety or general skill development, an ACA on-water instruction course will provide the information you need for kayaking or safety & rescue.
  • 2. Wear your Lifejacket You are going to capsize and swim occasionally when paddling a kayak. It is par for the course and part of the process. You should learn as much as you can about just how important PFDs are.
  • 3. Cold Water SafetyCold water is very dangerous. The most deadly situation you can encounter is becoming wet and not being able to get dry or warm. Hypothermia sets in very quickly, so in colder weather and especially in colder water, it is essential to be prepared with securely stowed dry clothing and extra layers for additional protection.
  • 4. You need to learn the Rules of the RoadIf you are on active waterways you should know who has the right of way and how to pass.
  • 5. Safety CheckMake sure to be reasonable and use a degree of common sense. This doesn’t just mean being prepared with a First Aid Kit and ensuring that everything is in working order, it means knowing your limitations. If you can’t swim, I don’t recommend kayaking. If you aren’t in shape, then you may want to start a fitness regimen. If you are new, don’t shoot the rapids. Know your limits and everything will fall into place.

Basic Kayak Terms

Paddling is a unique sport and recreation that is steeped in tradition and dates back centuries in North America. Before getting started, it is important to become familiar with common boating terminology. As you add to your vocabulary, you are going to find that some of the terms make perfect sense, while others may seem a bit arbitrary.

Aside from the terms used for the different parts of the boat, there are also certain terms that we commonly use while on the water. Some of these basic paddling terms are:

  • Aft: Back part of boat.
  • Astern: Back part of boat.
  • Amidship: Center of boat.
  • Ballast: Weight that lowers center of gravity and adds stability.
  • Bow: Front part of the boat.
  • Forward: Ahead; toward the front of the Boat.
  • Leeward: This is also called ‘Lee’. This is the direction to which the wind is blowing, downwind.
  • Offside: Direction of a maneuver in which the craft moves away from the bow; designated paddling side.
  • Onside: Direction of a maneuver in which the craft moves toward the bow; designated paddling side
  • Port: When you are facing the bow (the front of the boat) the side to your left is the port side.
  • Powerface: Side of paddle blade pressed against the water during a forward stroke.
  • Spraydeck (sprayskirt): Neoprene or nylon covering worn around the waist and attached to the cockpit to keep water out of the kayak.
  • Starboard: Starboard is the right side of the boat when facing the bow.
  • Stern: Back part of boat.
  • Trim: Balanced from end to end and side to side.
  • Windward: As the name might imply, windward is the direction from which the wind is blowing, upwind.

Kayak Types

I thought I would start you off on your introduction into kayaking by identifying some of the basic kayak types, so that when you do get on the water you will be able to readily pick out the different types. Like everything else kayaks come in many shapes and sizes.

In general, kayaks will fall into three specific types. These are the touring kayak, the whitewater kayak and the recreational kayak.

Touring kayak

Touring kayaks are better-performing and more versatile than recreational kayaks, though they’re typically more expensive. The with the touring kayak you can travel long distances in open water, and handle in rough conditions.

They have more storage space (especially multiday boats) and bulkheads with sealed hatches enhance safety. These compartments trap air, which gives the kayak flotation even if the cockpit fills with water.

Touring kayaks are usually 12 to 17 feet (3.7 to 5.18 m) feet long, and their hulls are shaped to increase lift in waves and rough water. Most have a tracking system such as a skeg or rudder, or a combination of the two.

Cockpits are likely to be built for paddling efficiency and use with a spray skirt, which may feel confining to some.

Touring kayaks can be made of plastic or a lightweight and durable composite blend.

Whitewater kayak

Whitewater kayaks are rotomolded in a semi-rigid, high impact plastic, usually polyethylene. Careful construction ensures that the boat remains structurally sound when subjected to fast-moving water.

The plastic hull allows these kayaks to bounce off rocks without leaking, although they scratch and eventually wear through with enough use. Whitewater kayaks range from 4 to 10 feet (1.2 to 3.0 m) long.

Recreational kayak

Recreational kayaks are designed for the casual paddler interested in fishing, photography, or a peaceful paddle on a lake, flatwater stream or protected salt water away from strong ocean waves.

These boats presently make up the largest segment of kayak sales. Compared to other kayaks, recreational kayaks have a larger cockpit for easier entry and exit and a wider beam (27–36 inches (69–91 cm)) for more stability. They are generally less than 12 feet (3.7 m) in length and have limited cargo capacity. Less expensive materials like polyethylene and fewer options keep these boats relatively inexpensive.

Most kayak clubs offer introductory instruction in recreational boats. They do not perform as well in the sea. The recreational kayak is usually a type of touring kayak.

​Kayak Parts

Kayaks are different from canoes by virtue of their narrower, lower shape and the fact that they are enclosed. The basic Inuit kayak is the basis for today’s kayak while the necessities dictated by recreational and whitewater uses have shortened and narrowed the boat.

A kayak is propelled with a paddle that has a blade on each end whereas there is only one on a canoe paddle. Different hull shapes and edge designs serve different purposes such as speed, maneuverability and stability.

Although kayaks come in a great variety of lengths and widths, they all share some common characteristics. For example, some of these common features are the cockpit, the deck, the hatches and the handles.

  • Bow: Front of the boat.
  • Beam: Width of the boat.
  • Bulkhead: Used to reinforce craft structure.
  • Cockpit: Opening where the paddler sits.
  • Cockpit Coaming: Watertight material around the rim of the cockpit.
  • Deck: Top of the kayak.
  • Footbraces: Pegs where you place your feet.
  • Handle: Rope loop and handle that lets you hold on to the end of the kayak, attach a towline, or tie the kayak on a car top rack or other transport.
  • Hatch: Compartment used for storing gear.
  • Port: The left side of the boat.
  • Rigging: Rigging can be a practical and useful addition to your boat. Your forward deck rigging is a useful place for your water bottle, small tackle box or a place to rest the paddle . The stern deck rigging is required for setting up a paddle float self-rescue and carrying your paddle float and pump.
  • Seat: Inside the cockpit where the paddler sits.
  • Starboard: Right side of the boat.
  • Stern: Back part of the boat.

Kayak Paddles

Kayak paddles are long and double bladed. In general, there are two types of kayak paddles: touring and whitewater.

Whitewater paddles have a rigid shaft, wide blades, and typically are feathered (blades set at an angle to each other). This allows the paddler to have control while traveling through rapids. On the other hand, Touring paddles are designed for efficiency and comfort and are good for traveling. They have a more narrow and smaller blade. Blades may be cupped (spoon) or flat. Flat blades are better for beginners.

Kayak paddles have either right-hand or left-hand control. This allows a designated hand to maintain a firm grasp on the paddle while controlling the angle of the blades. It also allows the shaft to rotate within the other hand between strokes and maintain a firm grasp during the stroke.

Hand control is determined by the powerface of the blade. For example, if the power stroke is on the right side of the kayak, and the powerface of the opposite blade is facing up, then it is a right-hand control paddle. Most paddles sold are right-hand control. Straight and bent shafts also are available in kayak paddles. Most beginners use straight shafts. There are two throats and tips in a kayak paddle because they are double bladed.


When sizing a kayak paddle, consider the type of paddling you will be doing, the width of the kayak, and your torso length. A general rule is that an average size paddler (5’2” – 6’2”) in an average sized solo boat can use a 200-220 cm (80-88 inches) paddle.

Getting out on the water is easier than you think. We have taken the intimidation out and given you the tools to get out there Kayaking on your first day!

​Be safe & have fun!​

1 thought on “How to Kayak – General safety & etiquette”

  1. This is great! I just moved to the Monterey area & plan to take up kayaking again. This refresher is super helpful thanks!


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