Kayaking, Canoeing & Rafting

Essential Kayaking Techniques Every Beginner Needs To Know

Do you know these beginner kayaking techniques? Watch these video tutorials and learn how to get started

How many of these kayaking techniques do you already know? Photo: Nina Zietman

Learning proper kayaking techniques are an important part of being a beginner kayaker. Whether you have never been in a kayak before or you are looking to improve your paddling skills, there are a few kayaking techniques that every paddler is taught on their first kayaking course.

Once you’ve nailed these skills, you can start to venture further afield and discover the best places to go kayaking in the UK and kayaking across the world

Kayaking for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know About Kayaking

While it’s good to learn about kayaking techniques in advance – by reading articles and watching kayaking videos – the best way to learn is to book a kayaking lesson with a trained instructor. They will go through these kayaking techniques with you on the water – and they will make much more sense.

Not sure what to wear for your first kayaking lesson? Read our guide to kayaking kit here.


Knowing how to hold your paddle is one of the most crucial beginner kayaking techniques. Photo: iStock

Kayak paddles have two blades, one on either end, unlike canoe paddles. The shaft is the part of the paddle you hold and the blade dips into the water, propelling you forward. You can learn more about the difference between kayaking and canoeing here.

Firstly, hold the paddle just a little wider than shoulder width. You want to make sure that the paddle is the right way around. This is a common mistake among kayaking beginners. Check that the concave part of the blade is facing you – that’s the part that you want to dip in the water.

It might not seem to make a difference to a beginner, but it will have a big impact on the power of your strokes.

Try to have a relaxed grip rather than clenching your paddle shaft too tightly. It will just make you exhausted more quickly. Knuckles should be pointing towards the sky and one of the blades should be slicing vertically into the water.


Sit upright, place the vertical blade in the water and pull it towards you. If you are using a feathered paddle, you will need to turn the shaft by rolling opposite wrist backwards. Now dip the otherside of the paddle in the water and pull towards you. Keep repeating this action to move forward. You don’t need to worry about going in a perfectly straight line to start with – roughly straight is good enough.

Once you’ve got the hang of this, start to include some upper body rotation. This will mean you are not just using your arms and shoulders to paddle but you are rotating your torso as well. Using your upper body and back muscles will make kayaking less tiring. Try to keep the entire blade in the water but not the shaft. Long slow strokes are great to start, don’t worry about going fast – you’re not trying to make the Olympic qualis!

When practicing your forward stroke, think of putting your blade in the water and moving past it, rather than pulling the blade through the water. This should make the action feel a little easier.


Photo: iStock

Unless it is a super calm flat day, you will notice that the wind will have an effect on your kayak – just like it would if you were windsurfing or kitesurfing. You might be trying to paddle straight but find the wind keeps pushing you off course. This is totally normal. You can compensate for the wind by paddling a little harder or adding an extra stroke on the downwind side. Some kayaks – especially sea kayaks – have a rudder to help keep you on a straight course.


Reverse forward stroke is pretty much what it says on the tin – it’s a backwards paddle stroke. Reverse forward stroke is helpful for controlling your speed and stopping.

Turn your shoulders and chest towards the back of the boat. Keeping the blade in the same position as you would paddling forwards, dip the blade in the water towards the back of the boat. Unwind your torso as you push the blade towards the front of the boat. Repeat on the other side. Glance over your shoulder every three strokes to check you’re not crashing into anything or anyone.


Sweep stroke is the best way of making your kayak turn. You might think the easiest way to change direction in a kayak is to paddle harder on the opposite side, but this expends a lot of energy and isn’t very efficient.

Sweep stroke works when your kayak is stationary and also on the move. Take your paddle blade and place it in the water as far forward as you can reach. Draw a big arc with the blade starting at the top of the kayak and finishing near the stern. Make sure you rotate your torso while doing this. It will make the boat turn quickly and efficiently.

You can do the same backwards, starting at the stern and pushing the paddle towards the bow, to turn the other direction. Sweep stroke can be practiced on either side.


Draw stroke is the most efficient stroke for moving your kayak sideways. It’s useful when rafting up to another kayak or approaching to pick up something from the water, whether it’s a piece of rubbish or another kayaker who has capsized. Later on you’ll use draw stroke to dodge rocks on moving rivers and get into eddies.

Start with your paddle in a basic paddling position. Bring your right arm up and across until your right elbow is in front of your nose and the paddle shaft is nearly vertical. The left blade will be in the water. Place the blade in the water as far away from the kayak as you can. The blade should be facing the side of the kayak. Pull the blade towards the kayak – this was create the ‘draw’ movement and pull the kayak sideways. By pushing your top hand forwards, the paddle will slice out of the water. Repeat this process again.

Watch the video above for more instructions on how to practice draw stroke.

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