Tips for Learning to Kayak

Calendar Falls on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. One of my favorite spots on the planet.

Calendar Falls on the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone. One of my favorite spots on the planet.

Whitewater kayaking is a very challenging sport, and choosing the right instructor and equipment is a crucial part of a successful learning experience. The first steps of any sport are often the most important, and taking them in the right direction will gradually build confidence and ensure enjoyment and success. A kayaker who starts with a negative experience can easily become frustrated or frightened and never give the sport another chance. A few people have managed to teach themselves how to kayak, but they probably wouldn’t repeat the process.

A good teacher will get you going in the right direction, and a good class will give you the opportunity to meet some other beginners. There are numerous choices for instruction, so shop carefully. Many kayak schools offer a multi-day class which starts in a swimming pool or lake and finishes with a two or three day trip on an easy river. A class like this is highly recommended because it will teach the basic techniques of the sport and allow you to experience a great adventure. The success rate of these classes is very high, and most students will be ready to practice on their own after one of them. Choose a class that supplies most or all of the equipment so you will have an opportunity to sample the gear.

Things You’ll Need:

Kayak, Paddle, Spray Skirt, Helmet, Dry Top, Life Jacket, Short Wetsuit Pants, Wool or Polypropylene Sweater.

Find a comfortable boat that fits. Many sizes and styles are available, so shop carefully. The size of the boat is dependent on the weight of the paddler, but a medium-size boat with rounded edges is good for most beginners. Make sure that the boat is comfortable and easy to get in and out of. Avoid radical play boat or racing designs, as they are more difficult to paddle. Most kayak stores have demo policies or rentals which allow you to try the product. A large selection of used equipment is readily available in many areas, which can greatly decrease the cost. Many aspiring boaters decide that bouncing upside down over rocks in an icy river just isn’t their cup of tea, so it is often possible to buy a whole package of gear at a big discount.

Choose the right paddle. Paddles vary in length and style, and are available in left- or right-hand models. The paddle should be tested in a lake or easy river, and the experiences from the instruction in Step 1 should help you make this important decision.

Choose the rest of your gear. Unless you live in the tropics, a dry top paddling jacket is a crucial component of the kayaker’s wardrobe. These come with waterproof sleeve and neck gaskets, and will keep you warm and dry under most situations. The jacket should be sized a bit large so that it allows full motion and room for layers of wool or polypropylene underneath. A pair of wetsuit shorts will help to keep you warm, and keep you from sliding around in the seat. The helmet needs to fit comfortably and provide adequate protection. The life jacket needs to fit snugly and should be rated for whitewater use. It should also be comfortable and allow a full range of motion. The spray skirt needs to fit you snugly and must also be easy to attach to the boat. An expert boater will desire a very tight attachment to the cockpit, but this could be very dangerous for a beginner.

Customize the fit of the boat with a padding kit available at most kayak stores. The boat should be comfortable, but snug enough to keep you from sliding around in the seat. A successful kayaker will feel like the boat is an extension of his body.

Take a whitewater rescue or safety class and learn to be aware of the many hazards that exist. Whitewater kayaking is a dangerous sport, so choose your rivers carefully and paddle with experienced groups.

Always scout blind drops and set up safety on difficult rapids, and always bring along a throw bag for safety.

Practice on easy rivers, and start to explore the great wonders of the many canyons of the world.

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