How to Paddle a Kayak | Techniques for Beginners

So, you have finally decided to act on your desire to go kayaking. Then this is an excellent place to start before you head out for your first session. Knowing how to paddle a kayak will significantly affect how smoothly and efficiently you fare on water.

Whether you want to take on kayaking for recreational purposes, for its many health benefits, or as a challenge, you should know the basics of how to paddle a kayak.

Knowing the basics will help you glide smoothly through water without tiring out your body too quickly. You should understand what paddling equipment to invest in beforehand and prepare yourself for most water situations. The following are tips on how to paddle more efficiently with a focus on techniques and form.

Hand Placement and Grip

The first thing you want to do is make sure your hands are in the proper positions. You can do this by placing the paddle on top of your head, then bending your elbows at a 90-degree angle. This placement will allow you enough space between your arms and torso while you paddle.

For proper kayak paddling, you need to have a loose but sturdy grip. Whether you are right or left-handed, you want your most substantial hand to be in control. Your control hand should be gripped securely about 6-12 inches from the paddle blade. Align your big knuckles with the edge of the paddle blade.

Your other hand should be the same distance from the paddle blade as your control hand. Make sure to always have a relaxed but secure grip on your paddle and keep your arms straight. This way, you won’t tire out or injure your wrists.

River Kayaking

Basic Strokes

Every pro paddler started off small and so can you. Here are the most basic strokes for you to start with:

Forward Stroke

One of the rudimentary strokes in kayaking is the forward stroke. A complete forward stroke involves three steps:

  1. Catch phase: Wind your left shoulder forward and immerse your blade into the water beside your left foot.
  2. Rotation: Next, pull the blade through the water with your left hand and allow your torso to follow the paddle blade until it is behind you. At the same time, you want to push the paddle shaft with your right hand.
  3. Unwind recovery: Finally, slice the blade out of the water once you have reached just behind your left hip; this will be your release motion.

Repeat these three steps on the right-hand side to have an effective forward stroke.

Sweep Stroke

If you need to turn your boat, you will use the sweep stroke. The sweep stroke is divided into three steps:

  1. Catch phase: Start on the opposite side of the boat from the direction you intend to turn to.
  2. Turn phase: Use a wide arc to sweep the paddle towards the cockpit. Utilize the rotation of your torso while you do this maneuver. Remember to push the shaft with the opposite hand.
  3. Release phase: Once your blade reaches the hull of your cockpit, release it out of the water.

Repeat these steps on the same side of the boat until you have turned in your desired direction.

Draw Stroke

The purpose of the draw stroke is to maneuver your kayak sideways. The draw stroke allows you to pull up next to another boat or a dock.

To do a draw stroke:

  • Rotate your torso in the direction you want to go.
  • Reach out on the side of the kayak and pull water towards you.
  • Keep your paddle as vertical as possible while you do this.
  • Finally, to prevent the boat from tipping over, slice the paddle blade out from behind you at the end of the sweep.

Reverse/Stop Stroke

This stroke is the opposite of the forward stroke, which allows you to stop your kayak and move backward. To halt your boat, use the back face of the paddle, then wind your torso backward, look back while you wind, and finally, immerse your blade in the water between your hip and stern. This maneuver will allow your moving boat to stop.

To Move Backward:

  1. Continue to rotate your torso backward as you look back.
  2. Place your back-facing blade against the water at the catch, while keeping the paddle blade in the same position between your hip and the end of the stern.
  3. Release the blade out of the water, unwind your torso, continue to look behind you, and repeat this backward movement on the other side of the boat.
  4. Allow your weight to shift on each side for a more efficient reverse stroke.

Best Kayaking Paddling Techniques for Flat or White Water

The two common conditions that you will find yourself kayaking in are flatwater or white water conditions. Note that it would be best if you started with the basic flatwater techniques before you try to face white water conditions.

Paddling Techniques for Flatwater

Flatwater kayaking happens on tranquil bodies of water with fewer challenges and obstacles. Lakes, rivers, swamps, and marshes are all examples of flatwater conditions. Kayaking on flatwater is excellent for beginners; this is where you can learn how to master basic kayaking paddle techniques.

Focus on your form, how to move your torso, hand placement, and how to make your strokes. You would need to learn how to do a forward stroke and a reverse stroke first. Once you get the hang of these, it will be easier to use other techniques and navigate efficiently through the water.

Ultimately, for flatwater, you want to stick to all the basics and try to master them before you move on to more challenging terrain.

Flatwater Kayaking

White Water Paddling for Beginners

On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have white water kayaking. This type of kayaking can occur at any body of rapid water, so it may be a stream or waves, as long as the water is not stationary. After you have trained on flatwater and upgraded to appropriate equipment, make your transition to white water kayaking.

You still have to rely on the basic techniques as with any other sport. Since white water presents a lot more obstacles, you must navigate quickly around these obstacles. Knowing how to move your kayak quickly in any direction is vital, bringing us to white water’s critical paddling techniques.

Here is the beginners guide if you want to learn more about white water kayaking than just the paddling techniques.


This technique should be practiced in flat water conditions first. Edging entails that you lift either your right or left knee to tilt the boat forwards in your desired direction.

It would be best to practice this technique in flatwater to prevent flipping over in rough water. It will allow you to paddle a kayak as quickly as possible. Keep in mind that you need to lift the opposite knee of the direction you wish to edge your boat, i.e., lift your left knee to edge towards the right.

Eddy turns

Avoid capsizing by edging away from an oncoming current. Edge towards the opposite direction of a current and use your paddle to move away from it. To eddy turn efficiently, you need to have mastered edging.


Keep your bow (tip of the kayak) above water by using this technique. Boofing is essential to learn for white water conditions such as waterfalls, a steep drop in the river, pour overs, and other obstacles. You will have to use the boof stroke when you reach the outer edge of a water hole or drop.

Use a powerful forward stroke over the edge of the obstacle and thrust your hips forward to keep your bow above water. Finally, lean forward with all your weight as you land. Note that if you don’t do all these steps and land flat, you could risk breaking your spine. There are other risks of injuries associated with white water kayaking to be aware of.

White Water Kayaking

Proper Kayaking Form

Proper kayaking form will prevent unwanted injuries and overworked muscles. The most important factors are how you sit and how you hold your kayak.

Paddler’s Box

Use the paddler’s box to prevent shoulder injury for kayak rowing. The paddle box is a rectangle you create between your shoulders, arms, and paddle. Once you are in your paddler’s box, try not to move outside of it. Instead, move your upper body with your paddle to ensure a consistent shape and form.

Posture and Sitting Position

You want to sit upright and abstain from leaning forwards or slouching backwards. Once you sit in your kayak, you want to allow certain body parts to contact certain areas of the inside of the boat.

You want your rear to be on the seat, of course, with your hips touching the sides of the seat and your back touching the backrest. Your thighs should be inside the cockpit and touching the sides of the kayak.

Finally, rest the bottom of your feet on the footrest and touch the hull of the boat with your heels and ankles. You get a better sense of movement with the boat once you make these contact points.

Which Kayak Paddles to Use

Here are some tips to help give you an idea of which type of paddle to use. Many professionals suggest that you start with renting from a kayak club because of how quickly you need to upgrade when you begin to kayak.

But you can still make an informed choice whether you rent or purchase a paddle. The type of paddle you use will considerably impact your strokes, speed, and risk of injury.

Straight Shaft or Bent Shaft

How do you know which paddle type to choose? Most beginners opt for a straight shaft as it is lighter, making it easier to maneuver and less strenuous on your wrists.

At the same time, a bent shaft could be more beneficial for those who want to do white water kayaking. A bent shaft is also more suitable for anyone who suffers from wrist or shoulder injuries.

Consider the advantages of either a straight or bent shaft so that you can make the best decision when it comes to selecting your paddle.

Straight Shaft

  • Freehand location movement.
  • Less expensive.
  • Less strenuous wrist position.
  • More flexible.

Bent Shaft

  • Fixed hand location movement for white water and windy conditions.
  • Forward strokes are more efficient, and you have better control of each stroke.
  • Provides a better inclination of the blade, thus making it easier to position your paddle in any water condition.
  • You’re allowed more technical movements.
  • The paddle puts less strain on your joints.
  • It provides for a less-fatiguing technique.

Feathered or Un-feathered

Your choice of a feathered or un-feathered paddle will depend on the length of the shaft. If your paddle is shorter, go with a feathered blade angled at about 30-45 degrees. But if you use a long paddle, go with an un-feathered blade.

Size & Type of Paddle

You can purchase a paddle size customized to your body height or choose from a wide range of sizes. The type of paddle you decide on depends on the purpose of the kayak.

Kayak sizes generally range from anywhere between 6-16 feet in length. Opt for shorter kayaks when in flatwater conditions for recreation purposes.

On the other hand, opt for narrower kayaks when you want to do white water kayaking for speed and performance purposes. Furthermore, wider boats are more stable while narrower ones are faster, as mentioned above.

Before you head out to the water, try different sizes to see which beginner’s kayaks will suit you best. Once you have the right size kayak, choosing the suitable paddle will be much easier.

Kayak Boats

Pro Kayaking Paddling Tips

Here are some tips from people who have been paddling for years. These tips can benefit any beginner:

  • When you paddle, you want to keep your wrists as straight as possible.
  • Use your torso to make the most out of each stroke.
  • Steady and consistent strokes are key. Keeping a steady pace is more efficient than doing hastened strokes.
  • Focus on maintaining your center of balance and paddler’s box.
  • Push your paddle forwards with your waist and shoulders instead of pulling the paddle backward.

Final Thoughts on How to Paddle a Kayak

Most kayakers talk about how easy it is to begin a kayaking journey, but knowing how to paddle beforehand can significantly boost your confidence. With these tips and tricks, you can hopefully become a kayaking master. Along the way, you will pick up new skills, develop a better sense of movement and balance, and gain a killer workout regime.

So, what is stopping you from picking up a paddle and heading out to the nearest kayak club?