Over the past few years, more and more people are discovering paddlesports like stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), canoeing, and kayaking – and for good reason. They’re great ways to have fun with friends and family, stay fit, and explore the UK’s stunning coastlines and waterways.
Although, if you’ve never tried kayaking before but you’re interested in giving it a go, it can be a little tricky to know where to start. So, to help, we’ve put together this introductory guide.
Here, you’ll find information on what kayaking is, what the health benefits are, what equipment you’ll need, and how to get started.
What is kayaking?
Kayaking was first invented by the Inuit people thousands of years ago in the North Artic regions as a way to hunt, fish, and transport goods and people. It involves paddling a small boat across water using a double-bladed paddle (unlike canoeing, which uses a single-bladed paddle).
Today, kayaking is usually undertaken as a recreational activity. You can explore calm, quiet coves that can’t be accessed by foot or plummet down roaring whitewater. Although – having been an Olympic sport since the 1930s – it’s also done competitively in races and slaloms.
While ‘canoeing’ and ‘kayaking’ are often used interchangeably as a way to describe a sit-down paddlesport, the two are, in fact, quite different. Other than the paddles, which we’ve already mentioned, the main differences are in the technique and the vessels themselves.
Kayaks are generally more lightweight and nimble than canoes, and rowers tend to sit with their legs outstretched in front of them. In canoes, you generally sit down on small benches or kneel. Kayaks can also come in closed-top (meaning that to deck surrounds your lower half in order to keep the water out) or open-top varieties, while canoes are typically open-top.
What are the benefits of kayaking?
There’s a wide range of reasons why kayaking is a great pastime. First of all, it’s an excellent way to stay fit. Paddlesports are not only good cardiovascular workouts, which can help you to maintain a healthy weight, boost your heart health, and strengthen your immune system, but they’re also effective ways to improve upper body strength – particularly in the arms, shoulders, chest, and back.
But the health benefits of kayaking aren’t limited to our physical well-being. As with all exercise, kayaking causes our body to release endorphins – chemical messengers that boost our mood and reduce stress. Plus, spending time in natural blue and green spaces (like forests and waterways) is proven to be particularly good for our mental wellbeing, especially when doing a mindful activity like kayaking, which many consider to be a form of ‘moving meditation’.
And last but not least, whether you’re leisurely paddling down your local stretch of canal or exploring some remote and rugged piece of coastline, kayaking is fun! It’s the perfect activity to do alone if you’re looking to get some me time, or with others as a social day out.
How do I get started with kayaking?
As kayaking is quite an intuitive sport, it’s relatively easy to become a competent paddler quickly. You could pick up some kayaking equipment and head out straight away if you wanted to (this video has some great information on technique if that’s what you want to do), though do bear in mind that you may need a license (we’ll explain more about this later). However, the best way to get started with kayaking is to join a club.
Heading to your local paddling club is a great way to start your kayaking journey. This is mainly because many clubs will offer taster sessions, where you can learn a little bit of the basics (including technique and best safety practices), and see if kayaking is for you.
Clubs will also typically provide all of the gear you need, such as buoyancy aids, paddles, and the boats themselves. This will prevent you from investing in lots of expensive equipment before you know if kayaking is for you.
Other reasons for joining your local paddling club are that you’ll usually be able to organise ongoing lessons if you want to develop your skills with an instructor, and it can provide a good opportunity to meet some interesting and like-minded people.
Plus, you may be able to paddle under your club’s license and liability insurance. And your club might even organise annual kayaking trips, which will give you a good opportunity to explore new places and get sociable with your fellow club members, all while developing your skills.
What to wear kayaking
Once you’ve signed up for a taster session or beginner’s course, you might be wondering what to wear.
Kayaking is one of those in-between sports; you’re not swimming but you won’t exactly be staying dry either. So, what you wear will largely depend on the weather and water temperature.
Other than your helmet and flotation device (which your club will provide for you), on a hot summer’s day, you may be able to get away with a T-shirt and shorts that you don’t mind getting wet, or swimming shorts and a rash vest. Dry tops and cagoules are also popular among kayakers – and though these won’t keep you dry if you fall in or capsize, they’ll keep the rain and odd splash off you.
As for your feet, it’s generally advisable to wear wet shoes when kayaking. These are lightweight, slipper-like shoes that are typically made of neoprene – the same material as wetsuits. Their thick soles will protect your feet if you step on anything on the bank or bed.
It’s worth speaking to your instructor beforehand about what to wear, as they’ll have a good idea of what the conditions will be. For more tips and advice on what to wear when kayaking – like ‘wear layers’ and ‘avoid cotton’ – why not check out this article from Decathlon?
What equipment do I need for kayaking?
As we’ve already mentioned, one of the best reasons for joining a kayaking club is that they’ll typically provide you with all the equipment you need to paddle. However, once you develop your skills, you might find that you want some of your own gear.
Below, we’ll take you through all of the essentials…
On the surface, it might seem like all kayaks are pretty much the same. But, there are various types of kayaks that come in all different shapes and sizes. The type of kayak you choose will depend on factors like your size, skill level, and what type of kayaking you’d like to do.
Some kayaks are also more popular with/suitable for beginners than others. To give you an idea of what’s available, we’ve listed some of the most common types below…
- Sit on top kayaks (SOTs) – Great for beginners and those simply looking for a leisurely ride on calm waters, STOs are stable and straightforward. Their open-top design means that there’s no enclosed cockpit. Instead, as the name suggests, you just sit on top and go! This also means that they’re perfect for kayakers who want to hop off their boat for a quick dip. You can usually buy these in solo, tandem, and three-person varieties, so they’re perfect for families.
- Inflatable kayaks – Another great choice for beginner paddlers and families wanting a day out on relatively calm water, these types of kayaks are wide, stable, and can be inflated/deflated for easy transportation. You can find inflatable kayaks in both sit-in and sit-on varieties, and they come as solo, tandem, and three-person boats.
- Touring kayaks – Ideal for explorers who want to spend a little more time out on the water, touring kayaks are closed-top and designed with comfort as a top priority. They’re great for novices, experts, and everything in between – and are usually employed on relatively calm water. They can also have various different storage compartments, giving you room for everything you need for a day out on the water. Touring kayaks come in single or double varieties.
- Sea kayaks – Sea kayaks are similar to touring kayaks, but they’re designed specifically for the more testing conditions that paddling in coastal waters provides. For example, they’re more curved, which helps them to crest waves. Sea kayaks also tend to have more storage space than touring kayaks. Plus, they’re longer, faster, and generally provide a more adrenaline-filled experience. Like touring kayaks, sea kayaks typically come as solo or tandem boats.
- Whitewater kayaks – Whitewater kayaking includes anything from cruising down an easy-going river to flying down roaring rapids. Shorter than other types of kayaks and made of hard-wearing plastic, whitewater kayaks are built to navigate tight, rocky areas where the water is flowing fast. Though not for beginners, once you’ve become a bit of a pro on the flat water, you can progress to whitewater kayaking. Whitewater kayaks usually come as one-person boats, but there are two-person varieties out there.
From pedal kayaks to fishing kayaks, there are many more kayak styles to choose from, depending on your needs and preferences. For more information, including some tips on what size kayak you’ll need and what the best models on the market are right now, why not take a look at this ultimate kayak buying guide from Gili?
Other than the kayak itself, a paddle is the most important piece of equipment that you’ll need to get kayaking – and whether or not you choose the right one will have a big effect on your performance.
When buying a paddle, you’ll need to consider a range of factors, for example, the length (which will depend on the width of your boat and your height), the materials, the blade size and shape, and the shape of the shaft.
This guide on how to choose a kayak paddle from REI will take you through all of these questions and more, to make sure that you get the right paddle for you. You also might want to consider investing in a paddle leash – a piece of cord that’ll prevent you from losing your paddle.
Buoyancy aids – also known as personal flotation devices (PFDs) – are similar to lifejackets, only they allow a little more mobility around the neck and arms, so they’re more suitable for watersports like kayaking.
Even if you’re a strong swimmer and/or you’re on calm water, it’s advisable to wear a buoyancy aid, as you never know when you might get into trouble and need some extra flotation assistance.
Buoyancy aids are available to buy online at places like Decathlon and Wetsuit Outlet, but it’s generally best to buy them in person at your nearest watersports shop, so you can try them on beforehand. This is because if it doesn’t fit properly, it could restrict your mobility.
To find out more about buoyancy aids, check out this article from Escape Watersports.
Although some situations pose more of a risk than others (for example, whitewater kayaking), just as with a buoyancy aid, it’s a good idea to wear a helmet at all times when kayaking, even when paddling on calm water.
Wearing a helmet can protect you from hazards like rocks, waves, other kayakers, and even yourself – as it’s common for kayakers of all abilities to knock themselves on the head once in a while with their paddle.
You can buy helmets online from places like Wetsuit Outlet, but, again, it’s advisable to visit your local watersports shop so you can get the right fit. For more information about the best kayaking helmets on the market, why not check out this article from Wow Travel?
Some other pieces of equipment
While not absolutely necessary, there are a few other important pieces of equipment that you might want to invest in as you become a regular kayaker:
- Dry bag – While many kayaks have storage compartments, many aren’t completely waterproof. So if you’re going on a kayaking trip, or just a day out on the water, a dry bag will help to keep all the things you have with you from getting wet.
Take a look at this article from Paddling Magazine to find out about the best dry bags out there.
- Spraydeck – Also known as a ‘sprayskirt’, a spray deck is a flexible waterproof covering for your sit-in kayak. You wear it around your waist and it folds over the cockpit, preventing your boat from becoming waterlogged in rough weather, and keeping you warm and dry when it’s cold.
- Bilge pump – This will help you to get water out of your boat if you capsize, or if the weather is rough.
- Rope bag – Many kayakers will recommend that you take a rope bag with you on almost every kayaking trip. This will become invaluable if someone needs rescuing or towing. Throw rope bags are specifically designed for water rescue. You can find out more information about them on the Paddling Life website.
- Paddling knife – Taking a knife with you just in case you need to cut the rope is also a good idea. Though, it isn’t advised to take something like a kitchen knife. Instead, you can buy a specially-designed paddling knife that’ll sit safely in a sheath on your buoyancy aid.
You can find out more about kayaking knives, including some information about some of the best out there on the Kayak Help website.
Do I need a license to go kayaking?
No matter where you live in the UK, you’re never too far from a place to go kayaking – whether it’s a river, canal, lake, reservoir, or even the ocean. However, before you head out, it’s important to check whether or not you need a waterways licence to paddle in that particular area.
While not all bodies of water require a license (for example, the sea), there are lots that do, especially in England and Wales. These are typically inland waterways like canals and rivers that are managed by authorities like the Environmental Agency and the Canal and River Trust.
You can buy individual licences with these authorities. Although, the best value option is to purchase a membership with British Canoeing (BA) or Canoe Wales (CW), which gives canoers, kayakers, and stand-up paddleboarders access to all the waterways managed by the major authorities – plus a few extra benefits like civil liability insurance.
Due to the 2003 Land Reform Act, what’s often referred to as the ‘right to roam’, you don’t need a licence to kayak in Scotland. But, if you’re a regular paddler, you might want to join the Scottish Canoe Association (SCA) because, as with BA and CW, you’ll get a few benefits like insurance.
As for Northern Ireland, you don’t need a licence but you may have to register your boat before heading out onto certain waters. You can find out more information about that on the GOV.UK website. Northern Ireland also has a governing body that you become a member of called the Canoe Association of Northern Ireland (CANI).
So, there you have it. If you’d like to get stuck into a new hobby that’s entertaining, will help keep you fit, and allow you to explore some of our stunning waterways, why not give kayaking a try?
We hope this guide has given you enough information to get started on your paddling journey. If you’re on the lookout for a new pastime but kayaking hasn’t taken your fancy, why not head over to the hobbies and activities section of our website? Here, you’ll find introductory guides to a wide range of activities, from Pilates to pickleball.