Kayaking 101: Getting Started and What’s Right for You

Every year, I meet people both out on the Lake and in every day life who want to get into kayaking. Kayaking is an incredible sport that gives you access to waterways and relieves stress, but the buy-in can be expensive, and the consequences of not taking safety concerns seriously can be your life. 

In order to figure out how you want to get into kayaking, you need to determine what type of kayaking is best for you.

Recreational kayaks like this Wilderness Systems Pungo are perfect for calm inland lakes

First Question: Do you want to kayak on calm inland lakes and rivers, near shore, on mostly sunny days?

If your idea of a perfect paddle involves the sun, a swimsuit, and a cooler, check out sit on top kayaks like these. They’re stable, good for near shore waters, and you can swim off them and still easily get back on. If this is your perfect day look no further.* If you’re looking for a bigger challenge, head to the next question.

Touring kayaks are good for calm water camping

Second Question: Do you want to have the option to kayak longer distances and camp out of your kayak in warm weather on calm water?

If you’re looking for calm, near shore water, distance and camping options, you are looking for a touring kayak. A touring kayak allows you to pack gear, but doesn’t have the length, price tag, or required safety equipment of a sea kayak. Check out the Perception Conduit or the Wilderness Systems Tsunami

Third Question: Do you want to paddle on the Great Lakes, paddle in the winter, have the option to play in rough water and camp out of your boat for extended periods of time?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you’re looking for a sea kayak. 

What is a sea kayak?

A sea kayak is a boat longer than 14.5 feet, with sealed bulkheads, or pockets of air on both ends. The idea is that if you capsize, or fall out of your boat, you can still get back in, pump out the water, and keep going. Sea kayaks are faster than recreation kayaks, and safer on big water, but they do require an understanding of open water safety and some technical know how to use.

Pictured are two sea kayakers below a cliff line. When kayaking cliffs, sea kayaks are the best option. If you capsize you need to be able to get back in your boat; you won’t be able to climb the cliffs or swim back to shore.

Don’t buy a boat yet! Sea kayaking is an expensive sport that requires a lot of safety gear (PFD, wetsuit, paddle and a spare, marine radio, bilge pump, paddle float, etc.). Safety gear isn’t useful if you don’t know how to use it, and that’s a lot of money to spend if you don’t know if you like the sport yet. 

You know want to learn to sea kayak but don’t know where to start? The good news is there is probably a paddle club near you if you live near big water. Most of the Great Lakes states have one, as well as costal cities. Check your local Facebook Pages and get in contact with some of the group leaders. Often, you can go to an event and borrow gear, or register for a safety course.

Calm waters like this river don’t require a sea kayak, but you can still use one!

Take a guided tour. One of the easiest ways to decide if you want to start sea kayaking is to take a guided tour. This will allow you to try it out with an experienced guide.

Depending on the area and outfitter, you can start with anywhere from a three hour trip to a multi day trip. I’ve guided in the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, but other exciting places include the San Juan Islands in Washington, Maine, Alaska, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, coastal Florida, and the entire coast of British Columbia. 

Visit and learn about the American Canoe Association. The ACA can help you find paddling clubs, water trails, and events near you.

Another way to get into sea kayaking, especially if you’re interested in outdoor education and have a summer to spare, is to jump in and start guiding. A lot of outfitters will take on and train new guides, giving you access to both gear and instruction. Some will even provide housing. I got started in sea kayaking by jumping in as a guide.

Across the board, a good way to find entry-level gear is buying used. Check out your local Facebook groups, craigslist, and the classifieds at paddling.com

* a lot of people ask me if they can take their sit on top or recreational kayaks to places like the Apostle Islands Sea Caves or the Pictured Rocks. The short answer is you shouldn’t. You probably won’t die, but some people do. Lake Superior, and all the Great Lakes, play by their own rules. You might get lucky and get away with it; people do. But I’ve also seen people launch on glass calm sunny days in the bay, round the corner and find themselves in big trouble. After two years of guiding and more than that paddling, I still occasionally find myself in situations way over my head. Don’t mess around; if you’re not going to be easy swimming distance from shore, on any lake, get the right kayak and safety training for it.

Happy paddling!

2 thoughts on “Kayaking 101: Getting Started and What’s Right for You

  1. Again nicely done, I have kayaked for numerous years including multi month trips Alaska, britishcolumbia, bajapeninsula. I get worried about people who just “go out” seemingly without a clue. Sometimes it is scary. And disaster can be just around the corner. Nice words or wisdom thanks I enjoy the voice o reason.

    Liked by 1 person

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