How To Paddle A Kayak: The Complete Guide

March 23, 2022

Man paddling a kayak

It sounds so simple - but learning how to paddle a kayak correctly is one of the most important first steps in your kayaking journey. You may have been paddling for a while and think you have it all figured out. But trust us - with the proper technique, your strokes will be faster & more efficient. This will help you conserve energy and have more fun on the water.

This complete guide will teach you how to use a kayak paddle. You'll learn how to hold a kayak paddle, the four-stroke types, and advice for paddling through different types of water. This article will take you from complete beginner to paddle expert.

We've got a lot to cover - so let's not waste any more time. We will begin by discussing why learning to paddle a kayak is essential.

Is There A Right & Wrong Way To Paddle A Kayak?

Learning to use a kayak paddle can be simple. You hold the paddle and stick the blades in the water to move around. Simple, right?

But, contrary to popular belief, there are kayak paddling techniques you must learn if you want to get good at this activity. Sure - you can hop in some still water, push yourself around, and have a great time. But if you plan to kayak in the ocean or a river, you must know how to paddle through those types of water. These types of water require more advanced kayak strokes to help you maneuver more effectively.

Furthermore, if you plan on spending a long day out on the water - you want to conserve your energy as much as possible. Learning the correct way to paddle will help you unlock greater stroke efficiency. You'll also get more power out of your strokes, helping you accelerate faster in all boats, from inflatable kayaks to hardshell kayaks. There are even ways to enhance how you execute turns and save energy.

All of this said, there is no doubt about it - learning how to paddle a kayak is necessary. That's why we've taken the time to build this guide for you. Without any further ado, let's begin with the first step: how to hold a kayak paddle.

How To Hold A Kayak Paddle

Again, learning how to hold a kayak paddle is one thing some kayakers will first neglect. It's a paddle - you grab the grips, right? Is there anything else to it? Yes, there is.

You need to know a few things if you are hoping to hold your kayak paddle in the most efficient, optimized way. First, understand what type of blades you have - so you can orient them correctly. You also have to adjust where you grip the shaft and relax your hands to unlock a truly efficient, non-fatiguing stroke.

Learning How To Hold A Kayak Paddle Requires Knowing Your Paddle-Type

There are several types of kayak paddles, all of which vary in size & functionality. The right paddle may make all the difference, depending on your kayaking goals, body type, and water conditions.  Here are a few questions to ask yourself to determine if you’re holding the kayak paddle correctly:

Do you have matched or feathered blades? If your blades are feathered, angled to one another rather than straight on the same plane, you'll want to align them to be parallel (matched). This makes it easier for beginners to get started. You don't have to replace your paddle - simply push the button in the center of your paddle and rotate one side until it matches the other. It's as simple as that!

Do you have symmetrical or asymmetrical blades? This speaks to the actual shape of each blade. If one half of the blade does not match the other, your blades are asymmetrical. This will affect how you hold the paddle - which we'll cover shortly. Just take note of which type you have.

Do you have concave or curved blades? These are more or less the standard, so the answer is likely "yes." You'll want to grip your shaft such that the curved end helps you grab more water. Think of the blade as "scooping" water; you'll know you're holding it in the right direction.

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Orient Your Paddle Correctly

Now that you better understand the type of paddle blade setup, you can learn how to hold a kayak paddle correctly. It starts with orienting your paddle. Begin by holding the paddle straight out in front of you. Take note of these factors:

  • Your blades should be perpendicular to the water, and your knucks should face upwards with an overhand grip.
  • If you have asymmetrical blades, ensure the shorter side of your blade is on the bottom. This helps with stroke efficiency, helping you glide above the water and burn more calories over a greater distance.
  • If you have concave/curved blades, the concave side should face toward you to help scoop water more effectively and generate power.

Proper orientation is essential - but it's just half of the battle. Let's talk about the actual grip you take on the paddle shaft.

Gripping Your Paddle Correctly

Once your paddle is oriented correctly, raise it and rest it on your head. This helps you find the center point of your shaft. From there, you should strive for a 90-degree angle in your arms. This creates the most vital paddling position possible. Maintain this position, known as the "paddler's box," throughout every paddle stroke you take. If necessary, adjust your grips to accommodate the paddler's box.

You should also take note of the grip you have on your paddle. You shouldn't be squeezing your shaft - relax that grip if necessary. All a tight grip will do is tire your hands, wrists, forearms, and shoulders out prematurely. You should make an "O" around the shaft of your paddle - letting it sit loosely on the bottom of your "O." From there, you can wrap the rest of your fingers lightly around the shaft. This lighter grip will encourage you to paddle with your torso rather than your arms.

And there you have it - you know how to hold a kayak paddle correctly now! Let's move on to learning how to paddle.

How To Paddle: Kayak Paddling Techniques For Beginners

Ready to learn how to use a kayak paddle? There are four basic kayak paddle strokes we want to teach you today. These will make up the foundation of your kayak paddling technique. They are:

  1. The Forward Stroke
  2. The Reverse Stroke
  3. The Sweep Stroke
  4. The Draw Stroke

The Forward Stroke

As you can imagine, the forward stroke is the first you'll learn because it's what you'll use the most. The forward stroke is how you propel your kayak "forward," as the name suggests. When learning the forward stroke, it is essential to remember that with all these paddle strokes, you should strive to use your torso and core - not your arms. Sure, your arms will help but don't make them do all the work. Your torso is much stronger. Let it do the heavy lifting.

With that said, there are three phases of the forward stroke: The catch phase, the power phase, and the release phase. In the catch phase, you will rewind your torso and put your blade in the water. Try to insert the blade towards your feet - the further down you can initiate the catch phase, the more power will be generated in the next phase.

Once you've inserted your blade, it's time to initiate the power phase. Rotate your torso past the starting position, pulling the water with you. The blade should end up behind you at this point. You'll want to focus on pushing your other hand forward as you pull back. This mental cue will help you generate more significant efficiency. Finally, you can initiate the release phase - pulling the blade (now behind you) out of the water and beginning the catch phase on the other side of your body.

The Reverse Stroke

Now that you better understand the forward stroke let's talk about the opposite movement - the reverse stroke. You can already surmise that this is the stroke you'll use to stop your kayak or reverse direction altogether. And now that you know the forward stroke, you know that the three phases will just be reversed:

Start by rotating your torso and dropping your blade in the water behind your hip. Then, initiate the power phase by rotating your torso and pushing the water away from you - until your paddle blade ends up by your feet. At this point, you can initiate the release phase - slicing your blade out of the water and repeating the stroke on the other side to keep the movement going.

Simple enough, right? Let's discuss some more advanced strokes you can add to your arsenal.

The Sweep Stroke

Want to execute a turn on the water? You'll need to use the sweep stroke to do so. You can accomplish the same result by repeating a forward stroke on one side of the boat. But your turn will be much quicker and more efficient with the sweep stroke.

Start with the catch phase. Stick your blade near your feet on the side opposite you want to turn. For example, if you're seeking a right-hand turn, you'll initiate the catch phase on the left side. The turn phase is where you begin the sweeping motion. Create a wide arc back towards the turn of the boat. The key here is to create a wide arc - whereas you draw your paddle straight back with a forward stroke, you should pull your paddle in an arc towards the stern of your kayak. The release phase should be initiated once your paddle blade reaches the hull behind your cockpit. Slice your blade out of the water and get right back into the catch phase if necessary. Remember that, depending on the size of your kayak, you’ll need to adjust how early or late you turn. 

The Draw Stroke

Last but not least, we've got the drawstroke. This is a way to move your kayak sideways - without turning. You'll move in a straight line, either left or right. This stroke will be your bread and butter for pulling yourself into a friend's boat or a dock.

Start by rotating your grip on the paddle. It should be oriented so the blade is horizontal to the water's surface. Then, you can reach your blade about 2' away from you and touch the tip into the water. You'll notice that your paddle shaft is angled about 45 degrees from the water's surface. Using your lower hand, pull the water towards you. Once your paddle blade is about to touch your kayak, release and initiate another stroke if necessary.

Final Thoughts On How To Paddle A Kayak

There you have it - how to paddle a kayak with excellent efficiency and power. It's not as complicated as it may seem, but there are a few things you need to know before getting started. And now that you're aware of them, you're ready to hit the open water and enjoy all the bliss and excitement it offers!

If you still need to get all your kayak gear, don't worry - the folks here at OutdoorPlay have you covered. As lifelong paddlers, we know exactly what makes or breaks your time on the water. And we've carefully vetted and curated the products on our site to help you make the most of each adventure you set out on. We've got everything from clothing to safety equipment to actual kayaks for sale.

So, what are you waiting for? Get all your essentials today and enjoy your next trip to the water in style, safety, and convenience!

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Stacey JohnsonCustomer Experience ManagerStacey has been with Outdoorplay for over 17 years, sharing wisdom from her years of experience and passion for all kinds of kayaking (whitewater, recreational, and touring), stand-up paddle boarding, and rafting. When she's not out on the water, Stacey also enjoys camping with her family and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the Cascade mountains.