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How To Paddle A Kayak – Strokes & Techniques Explained

Mark Armstrong
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Learning how to paddle a kayak can usually take a bit of practice, not to mention some patience. But getting out on the water can be a lot of fun once you’ve mastered the techniques.

We have put together a quick guide to explain some of these techniques and give you some tips on how to improve your paddling strokes.

How To Paddle A Kayak - Strokes & Techniques Explained - PinterestPin

First Up: How To Sit In A Kayak

Adjust Your Seat And Footrests

When you first get into your kayak you may need to adjust the seat back and footrests so that they suit your comfort level and your leg length.

The footrests are designed to help support your paddling position and let you stabilize yourself in the boat. You should have the footrests in a position that lets you bend your knees slightly, so that you can get further control over the boat with your body.

If you have a sit-inside kayak, your knees should be resting against the knee or thigh braces that you may have near the rim of your cockpit. However, not all sit-insides will have this feature.

Getting in and out of a kayak with bad knees

Video: How To Position Yourself Correctly In A Kayak

You may find that you need to adjust the level of support from the backrest of your seat. This should be comfortable but snug around your back and should let you sit in a more upright position rather than reclined.

Sit Up Straight

Sitting up straight in your kayak can be an optimum position for paddling, as this can let you paddle each stroke more efficiently and can allow you to better control your boat.

Video: How To Sit In A Kayak

Sitting upright in your seat can also help you balance and means you can move your torso more easily while paddling. This can be the same whether you’re in a sit-inside or a sit-on-top vessel. You’ll probably find that sitting up straight is more beneficial for your back and could help to minimize pain later on.

Next: How To Hold Your Paddle

Our kayak paddle guide goes into more detail relating to how paddles work.

1. Have Your Paddle Facing The Right Direction

Paddle blades are designed with a power face and a back face. Many paddles will have a slightly concave shape to the blade, with the inside of the curve being the power face and the outside of the curve being the back face. However, some blades will be flat.

The power face, or concave side, should be facing you when you hold the paddle shaft. You should also make sure that the shorter edge of your blade is facing down and the longer edge is facing up.

2. Hold The Paddle Above Your Head

This will let you make sure that your hands are positioned correctly on the paddle shaft. Holding your paddle, lift it above your head and rest the shaft on top of your head, so that your arms form a right angle at your elbows.

Where To Hold A Kayak Paddle Shaft correct 90 degree anglePin

You may need to adjust the placement of your hands in order to make the right angle with your elbow.

3. Balance Your Paddle

Each hand should be at an equal distance from the blades so that your paddle is balanced evenly in your grip.

If your hands are not placed at equal distances from your blades, you may need to repeat step two and hold the paddle above your head so that your arms form right angles.

4. Keep Your Knuckles On Top

When holding your paddle your knuckles should be facing up on the top of your paddle shaft, with your fingers underneath. Your knuckles should line up with the top edge of your blade.

5. Keep Your Grip Loose

To paddle more efficiently it can be important to keep a loose grip of your paddle shaft. Your wrists should be straight and in line with your arm.

Video: How To Hold A Kayak Paddle

You may find it helps to move your fingers every so often while you paddle, so that you minimize the risk of blisters. This can also help to remind you to maintain a loose grip during your paddling session.

Paddle grips may help.

Paddling Strokes Explained

Forward Stroke

A forward stroke is probably the most important stroke in kayaking, as it is what you will use to travel…well…forwards!

Forward Stroke Paddle KayakPin

1. Put Your Blade In The Water

Rotating your torso slightly, put your paddle blade in the water adjacent to your toes, so that the blade is fully under the water. The blade should enter the water edge first rather than face first.

2. Pull Back

Keeping a loose grip on your paddle, pull the blade back along the side of your kayak, rotating your torso as you pull. Try to keep your blade as close to the edge of your kayak as you can while you’re pulling it back.

It can also be useful to push the shaft with your other hand as you pull back with your power hand.

3. Remove The Blade

When your blade becomes in line with your hips, remove the blade from the water, edge first, and repeat all steps on the other side.

TIP: The closer your blade is to your boat, the more likely it is that you’ll paddle in a straight line.

Sweep Stroke

The sweep stroke is what you will generally use in order to turn your boat. It can be a more efficient way to turn than simply using the forward stroke all on one side.

Sweep Stroke technique for kayakersPin

1. Reach Forward With Your Blade

Rotate your torso so that you can reach forward with your blade. Put your blade in the water near your toes as if you were doing a forward stroke. You may want to reach beyond your usual forward stroke blade entry point if you can.

Remember to reach to the opposite side of the direction you want to turn. For example, if you want to turn right, you need to put your blade in the water on the left and vice versa.

2. Sweep

Instead of pulling straight back like a forward stroke, extend your blade in an arc when you pull it back. This is so that you create a semi-circular motion with your blade as it travels towards the stern (the back) of your boat.

Video: Kayak Technique – Sweep Strokes

Rotate your torso as you sweep, as this should help you maintain the arc shape and improve your efficiency.

3. Remove The Blade And Repeat

Remove the blade from the water once you’ve completed the arc. Your blade should be close to the stern of your kayak at this point.

Repeat the steps until you’ve turned your boat sufficiently.

TIP: The wider the sweep, the sharper your turn should be.

Reverse Stroke

The reverse stroke, or back stroke, is basically the opposite of the forward stroke and can allow you to travel backwards. You may not always need to use the reverse stroke, particularly if you’re able to turn around.

Reverse Stroke technique for kayak paddlersPin

1. Put Your Blade In At Your Hips

Just as the forward stroke finishes at your hips, the reverse stroke begins at your hips. Rotate your torso and put your blade fully under the water next to your hips.

You don’t need to rotate your blade, as the reverse stroke uses the back face of the blade rather than the power face.

Video: The Back / Reverse Stroke – Sea Kayak Technique

2. Push Through The Water

With your blade fully under the water, push with your power hand so that your blade moves through the water towards your toes. Your torso should rotate as you push the blade.

3. Release Your Blade

Once you’ve pushed your blade along the side of your kayak towards your toes, release the blade from the water. Because your torso should rotate with your stroke, you should be in the correct position to repeat the steps on the other side.

TIP: Make sure your blade hits and leaves the water edge first for more efficiency and less splashing.

Draw Stroke

You may not often need to use this stroke but it can be useful if you’re docking at a pier or floating dock. The stroke allows you to travel sideways, so you can pull up alongside another kayak, for example, in a rescue situation.

Draw Stroke KayakingPin

1. Rotate

Rotate your torso in the direction that you want to travel. Then rotate your blade so that it’s roughly a 90 degree angle from where you would normally have it for travelling forwards.

2. Reach Out With Your Blade Tip

With your torso and blade rotated, reach out to the side of your kayak and put your blade in the water tip first. Your paddle shaft should be almost vertical, with your opposite hand almost above your head.

3. Pull Your Blade Towards You

Pull your blade back towards the side of your boat but don’t let your blade hit the side of your kayak. If your blade does get stuck on the side of your boat, relax your grip and let go of your paddle with your top hand, otherwise you could flip your kayak.

Video: Kayaking Technique – Draw Strokes

4. Remove The Blade From The Water

Slice your blade out of the water towards the stern of your kayak and repeat the steps if necessary.

TIP: Try to pull the blade directly towards yourself for direct sideways travel, otherwise you could move too far forwards or backwards.

Ok, I’m Ready To Try. Is Kayaking Hard?

In general, kayaking is not difficult, especially once you’ve learned the basic paddling skills. Paddling in a straight line, for example, will probably take some practice, so it can be important not to get discouraged if you don’t get it right away.

Having a suitable kayak can help you feel more comfortable on the water when you’re just starting out. A stable recreational kayak can be easier to control and can let you develop your skills on flatwater. A shorter, wider hull can be ideal for beginners.

It can be important to wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) while you’re kayaking on any water and always remember to tell someone where you’re heading, especially if you’re kayaking alone. However, it can be best to paddle with a buddy if you’re new to paddling.

Final Words

When you’re paddling a kayak it can be important to think about the placement of your hands and the position of your blades when they’re in the water.

This is so that you can move your paddle more effectively, which can be more efficient and can minimize fatigue. Your posture in the kayak can also help with this.

Do you find one technique easier than another? Let us know. If you think this could help any of your buddies, share it with them.

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