August 06, 2021 9 min read

As outdoors fun goes, paddling a kayak suits nearly any attitude or fitness level. The freewheeling joy of gliding across a lake or bobbing through ocean waters gets even better after you learn the proper way to paddle a kayak. A kayak paddling stroke is a natural motion that, with practice, ups the enjoyment several notches as you learn by doing.  Once you master a few kayak tips and techniques your paddle will begin to feel like a natural extension of your arms and hands.

Since many people learn how to paddle by renting a boat while on vacation, they don’t necessarily take the technique part too seriously. However, we believe if you learn proper paddling techniques, the fun factor will multiply - and it will help get you out of potentially sticky situations.

Novices swiftly conclude they won’t move forward unless the paddle blade is in the right position and jump to the conclusion that they’ve mastered the forward stroke. Some new kayakers even figure out how to back up, when faced with a crocodile, water moccasin or loud, large family of geese. Yet paddle strokes vary, and grasping the fundamentals of blade orientation, paddle motion, and body position will propel you from neophyte to paddling ninja in a matter of days.

The essential kayak techniques for paddling are the same in all water conditions: engage the core, stabilize (abdominal) muscles and push the paddle away from the body at the shoulder while pulling back toward the body with core, chest, back and arm muscles. For river paddling, however, we’ll cover a few maneuvering techniques that can help newbies feel more secure in rapids and currents.  All paddle strokes require proper grip: knuckles up, hands shoulder width apart and centered.

The type of boat you use will affect your speed, but you will also want to consider the size and type of paddle you buy. Unless you purchase custom paddles, most kayak paddles come in 210, 220, 230 or 240 centimeters and your optimal length is based on your kayak’s width, your size, and your desired paddling angle.

A Few Words About Paddle Size

Professionals advise using the shortest paddle you can get away with based on width of boat and your own wingspan. Taller people in wider boats can go long, but for those under 5’5”, the shorter paddle is better, if possible.

The boats range from 9.5 feet long (33” wide) to the 12 foot tandem model, so a longer paddle is necessary; a shorter person might choose a 230 cm, while someone taller should go for a 240 cm.

For a 31” wide boat, paddles in the 230 cm range are acceptable, especially if you are on the taller side. Shorter individuals should use the smallest paddle that will comfortably clear the boat during paddling, so for kayakers between 5 feet and 5’5” a 220 cm paddle may be the best choice.

In a tandem boat, the shortest recommended paddle would be 230 cm since the width is 34” (although slightly less when measured at seat location).

Kayak paddling the “right way” is more of a challenge with a paddle that is the wrong length for your boat and body type.  We’ve created a chart to help you pick the right paddle for your Ocean Kayak craft, however, you’ll still need to consider your height when choosing the paddle length for you.

Kayak Strokes for Ocean and Near the Shore

The two key techniques we’ll discuss for ocean paddling are how foot pedal adjustment can optimize vertical transfer and how to launch in surf.

The ocean presents unique challenges. The best paddling technique on the high seas eats up distance with smooth strokes, despite encountering swells and wind.

Ocean paddling, like canoeing or rowing, is much improved with proper vertical transfer, which involves use full body motion, and especially core engagement, in each stroke.

Your foundation for optimizing vertical transfer lies in foot placement. Sea kayaks are built with adjustable foot pegs to brace the body and maintain an upright position, so that your legs also power your forward motion. In a sit on top, molded plastic foot wells also offer a place to brace feet against the boat.

Vertical transfer refers to the energy that moves from foot, lower leg, upper leg, and torso to the arms and upper body. This energy, which begins with braced feet placed on foot pegs or in foot wells, is transferred from lower body to upper body by engaging leg muscles and core (abdominal) muscles. The muscles engaged include those in the feet, legs, core, chest/back, and arms/shoulders.

From a distance, kayaking looks like an arms-only endeavor, but don’t believe everything you see, as proper kayaking technique uses all major muscle groups.

On ocean waters, maintaining posture and body position is particularly important because the sea’s constant undulation can tempt a paddler to slump or lose core engagement (similar to what can occur on a bicycle or motorcycle on a long ride).

While core engagement seems like “common sense,” it is rarely how novice kayakers paddle. Whether you are learning how to paddle a sit on top kayak or a traditional sit inside design, activating core muscles requires conscious effort, especially for those of us who aren’t bounding to CrossFit class twice weekly.

You’ll want a strong and durable paddle to use as you hit those ocean waters.

Before ever getting in the water, set your sea kayak’s adjustable foot pegs. Position the foot pegs so your legs are slightly bent at the knee (as on a bicycle). As you adjust, remember you are making this decision to optimize vertical transfer and make the most of your fitness level.

Ocean Paddling Hazards

The primary hazards on the ocean are wind and swells. Surf launching and returning to the beach also require a specific paddling technique.

 In windy conditions and swells, maintaining proper paddling position can be challenging; kayakers are tempted to break stride and “reach” for the water as it disappears underneath them.

The best way to conserve energy on long voyages is to maintain form and create a steady rhythm. Consistent paddling preserves forward momentum and maintains the boat’s position in a straight line.

Launching in Surf

To paddle like a pro when entering moderate (we don’t recommend heavy) surf, focus on technique and don’t be concerned about a spill. Always choose an area of the beach where there is as little slope as possible to minimize the surf’s height.

Launch in surf by getting the boat into two to three feet of water so you begin from a float position. As you approach the incoming wave, paddle with force and purpose as quickly as possible while maintaining an upright posture and keeping your kayak perpendicular to the wave.

Make sure you have one powerful downward/forward stroke as waves break over the kayak’s bow. This power stroke reinforces forward momentum, while the paddle-in-water position stabilizes you to minimize chances of tipping.

All paddling when launching should be decisive, quick and confident. Much of the instruction on how to paddle into breaking surf is intuitive, but the key is assertively sprinting forward at the right time.

Kayak Strokes for Lakes (Still Water)

The key technique for lake paddling is sustaining momentum by using vertical transfer and correct posture while correctly using arms and upper body.

Lakes are the best place to practice a smooth forward stroke. Calm conditions allow you to test your technique without distraction as you can better estimate your speed. On a glassy surface, momentum is your friend and you have an opportunity to observe how straight your line is and how relaxed you are.

Lakes do not demand the same range of skills as ocean or river kayaking, but conditions can change without much warning whenever you are in open water so the ability to close distances is helpful.

Lake kayakers look as if they are dipping their blade in the water, then pulling it back toward the body. In fact, proper technique requires pushing the arm (from the shoulder, using a stable core) away from the body, while simultaneously pulling back with the opposite arm. The arm placed higher on the paddle pushes, the arm placed lower pulls. The emphasis should be on pushing with the upper paddle blade, from the shoulder, while pulling the lower blade into the body’s core.

In practicing the push-pull technique, pay attention to the force originating from your shoulder.

Bicycling offers an analogy. When riding a bike with clip-in pedals, the majority of the force is the down stroke (pushing) while some energy gained on the upstroke (pulling the foot and leg back toward the body). Efficient cyclists turn pushing and pulling motion into a smooth revolution to get the most out of up and down strokes.

Push from shoulder, stabilize core, and keep full-body focus on vertical transfer with knees slightly bent and force of foot against the boat’s recessed footrest or pedal. In kayaking, using legs, core and arms in coordination maximizes your body’s power.  If you’re primarily a lake paddler, consider the Carlisle Magic Plus.

Lake Paddling Hazards

Lakes offer an illusion of safe, easy, trouble-free paddling. But predicting lake winds is tricky, even for experienced paddlers.

A steady use of your forward stroke paddling technique is essential to make forward progress if strong winds arise. In unrelenting headwinds, proper kayaking technique can mean the difference between reaching your car or staggering onto the nearest rocky beach, exhausted, for an unplanned night of camping.

Over distances, lake kayakers can generate a good rhythm with the right form—getting into a groove that makes paddling meditation-like, even if conditions aren’t ideal.

Kayak Strokes for Rivers (Moving Water)

The key techniques for river paddling relate to maneuverability, which starts with the versatile draw stroke for a controlled turn. Combining forward, draw and reverse strokes will give you confidence to handle 90% of what rivers throw at you, before you tackle the bigger waves beyond class I and II rapids.

River kayaking requires more paddling experience and practice because of the range of skills involved. By the same token, running rivers will allow you to accelerate your paddling ability.

Extended river trips are likely to expose kayakers to every hazard imaginable, including hidden currents and sunken obstacles. In the current, you are more likely to need to reverse, spin around quickly, steer, and slow yourself down. You are far more likely to come across an unexpected obstacle that requires sudden adjustment than you would during an ocean or lake outing.

Because river conditions are constantly changing, we recommend learning how to make a controlled turn and stop or reverse your kayak. A combination of forward, reverse, and draw strokes will allow you to reach shore as swiftly as possible, steer, or cross the river if an intriguing fork presents itself.

The Draw Stroke

The draw stroke makes use of your paddle as a keel that keeps the boat from wildly swinging left or right. In other words, this stroke gives you a steering wheel.

A draw stroke is to a paddler what the bowline knot is to sailors—an incredibly useful friend for almost any condition. To execute it, position your paddle nearly upright, blade in water, slightly behind you, edge forward. To achieve a vertical—or near vertical—paddle-in-water you will want to face the paddle as you turn to the side.

When getting into a draw stroke, the paddle should be close to vertical with the leading edge (the edge of the paddle that points forward) in “closed face” position, meaning the leading edge is slightly angled in, toward the boat. This position creates something similar to a sail on a sailboat, allowing for a controlled turn in an arc while the paddle serves as your control mechanism.

With a draw stroke, putting the paddle slightly behind your body and facing the paddle are key. If your paddle goes into the water vertically with closed-face position but the paddle is slightly ahead of you, your boat will tend to “slide out” and spin you in a circle.

The Reverse Stroke

The best river kayak techniques will boost your ability to maneuver around obstacles. In swift water, this includes sudden drops, or rocks and riffles that indicate submerged rocks or strainers. The draw stroke ensures a controlled turn by using the paddle as both rudder and sail, but the reverse stroke gives you the control you need to stop yourself or turn around rapidly. The reverse stroke is analogous to a wedge on downhill skis – a fundamental safety skill.

The reverse stroke also allows you to quickly turn around if you need a fast and forceful forward paddle to get out of harm’s way.

To execute the reverse stroke, perform the forward stroke backward. First, flip the paddle 180 degrees—so the blades are slightly concave as they point toward the sky—and instead of “pulling” the paddle toward the body, place blade in water with leading and trailing edges perpendicular to your body, then push it away from yourself toward the front (bow).

Remember to utilize your shoulders, as you would with the forward stroke. Place paddle edge into the water from a position somewhat behind your body to push more water out of the way and move the boat backward with more power. 

Safety May Be Boring, But It’s Very Important 

Advancing your paddling skills not only significantly ups your kayaking game it is also code for graduating into a safety genius.

Kayak paddling techniques are a natural fit in river conditions because the paddle will become an appendage for making your boat go where you command. On lakes, however, where many newbies test their kayak chops, poor paddling techniques abound.

Kayaking is a sport that can lull newcomers into a false sense of security and safety. Any time spent on water, however, is inherently dangerous because of the potential for suddenly changing conditions.

Practicing and perfecting paddling skills protects you against the sudden changes weather and water may toss your way. As your technique improves, you will gain confidence in dealing with the unexpected and unforeseen. That mastery also puts you in a position to help others if need be. You can be sure someone—maybe everyone!—in your group is a novice who hasn’t yet learned how to paddle like a pro.

Whether you are kayaking under clear blue skies or through a sudden storm, your fun ratio is bound to improve when you can maneuver your way out of trouble and into the flow.


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