How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques [year]

Everyone loves a kayak ride. But not everyone knows how to paddle a kayak.

When you don’t paddle properly, you get tired much sooner and aren’t capable of dealing with dangerous situations. 

The right paddling technique allows you to paddle fast and cause less stress on your body.

In this guide, you will learn the most important kayaking technique – proper paddling: from learning how to hold a paddle to making various types of strokes including forward, reverse, sweep, and draw.

Step 1: Learn How to Hold the Paddle

How you hold the paddle affects the effectiveness of each stroke as well as the fatigue you get while paddling. Before you learn to hold the paddle, make sure you choose a kayak paddle of the right length. 

To hold a paddle correctly, you need to understand a few things: 

  • the type of paddle blades
  • whether the blades are correctly oriented
  • the position of the grip on the shaft
  • keeping a relaxed grip

A. Type of Paddle Blades

a) Matched vs Feathered


How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Rei
How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Rei


Check whether the paddle blades are parallel (matched) to each other or at an angle (feathered) to each other. Paddling with parallel blades is easier.

If the blades are feathered, use the push button at the center of the shaft and rotate the two halves to make the blades parallel. This will allow you to paddle easily.

On the other hand, using a feathered paddle is slightly difficult and not for beginners. With a feathered paddle, you have to rotate the shaft so that the water slices at a vertical angle. As you do this, the other blade will move horizontally, slicing the air.

Feathered blades are helpful when you are paddling into high winds since they reduce the wind resistance with their angular motion.

b) Symmetrical

Asymmetrical paddle blades have one side shorter than the other on each blade. This asymmetric design prevents the paddle from spinning and allows it to track straight. If each blade of your paddle is uniform oval, it is symmetrical.

Knowing each type is important, even though you can paddle with both kinds.

c) Concave

Look closely at your paddle blade and see if it is a little curved or concave. Most paddle blades have this curved shape. Make sure to grip the shaft in a way that the curved shape fetches more water resulting in a powerful stroke.

B. Orienting your paddle blades

In this step, you learn how to hold the paddle. 

First, hold the paddle in your hand with your large knuckles pointing upward and the paddle blades perpendicular to the ground. If the paddle has asymmetrical blades, keep the shorter side on the bottom. The concave-shaped side of the blades should be facing you unless your paddle blades aren’t concave.

C. The Position Where You Hold The Shaft

  • Hold the shaft so that its center sits on your head. 
  • Grip the shaft in such a way that your elbows are perpendicular to it.

See this position in the picture below. 

D. Don’t Keep a Tight Grip

One of the rookie mistakes is to hold the paddle shaft too tight in hopes of making better strokes. On the contrary, a tight grip only causes more fatigue. 

The correct way is to keep a moderate or relaxed grip and harness the force from your torso to move the paddle.


How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques | Credits:
How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques | Credits:

Step 2: Check Your Posture

The Right Posture for Paddling

You can’t paddle a kayak well with the wrong posture. So you need to learn the right posture to safely operate a paddle boat. Make sure you sit straight, keep your shoulders relaxed and keep your chest muscles relaxed for easy and full breathing. As much as you may want to lean against the backrest, don’t do it!

You should keep your legs together with the feet resting comfortably on the footpegs. You can press the foot against the foot pedals to support the stroke. The knees should be slightly bent.

Keeping your legs together in a comfortable position lets you use your torso better to power through the strokes. Remember that your arms and shoulders only
‘transmit’ the power. The power actually comes from your torso and legs as you make a stroke.

Step 3: Forward Stroke

Once you have learned how to hold the paddle, get ready for the next step. 

The first and most basic stroke you should learn is the forward stroke. This is the stroke that you will be making most of the time you paddle a kayak. 

But remember that the stroke isn’t about brute force coming from your hand. In fact, you have to bring the force from your torso to push the water back with the paddle, in turn moving the kayak forward. 

There are three parts to the forward stroke:

  • Catch

In the catch phase, you plant the paddle blade in the water. Make sure you sit with your back erect and have a relaxed grip on the paddle. 

Use the force of your arms and shoulder to put the blade in the water. To use your shoulders to exert force, you will have to bend at your waist.

If you are paddling on the left, you will bend your left shoulder forward as you place the paddle blade in the water. 

  • Power 

Now with the blade immersed in water, move it behind you. Your torso will rotate as you move the paddle. To master this movement, just keep looking at the blade and your core will rotate. When you are done with the stroke, your right shoulder will be bending forward.

With this torso position, you are ready to take the next stroke.

  • Release

When the forward stroke is complete, your lower hand would go behind your hip. In this position, slice the blade up out of the water. This is the release phase. 

Now you’re ready for another forward stroke. With this blade out of the water, plant the other blade in the water, for which your torso is already twisted correctly. 


There are a few things you should keep in mind to master the forward stroke:

  • Use your core muscles and not your arms to power through the stroke
  • Keeping the blade almost vertical and immersed fully throughout the stroke helps with speed and tracking
  • Sit upright to keep your balance and make a better stroke
  • Focus on maintaining the ‘the paddle box’ – the box shape comprising your arms, chest, and the shaft. You can learn more about it in the video below.

Step 4: Reverse Stroke

How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Rei
How to Paddle a Kayak | Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Rei

Reverse stroke helps you stop the kayak if it is moving forward or move it backwards if it is stationary. 

Remember that the reverse stroke uses the back face of the paddle. Here is how to perform the reverse stroke:

  • Drop

To make the reverse stroke, dip the paddle blade in the water alongside your hip. 

  • Power

Now move the blade forward while rotating your torso in sync with the motion. 

  • Release

When the blade reaches as far as your feet, slice the blade up out of water.

With this blade out of water, put the other blade on the opposite side in water, right next to your hip. 

Step 5: Sweep Stroke

Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Rei
Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Rei

When you want to turn the boat, it is best to use the sweep stroke. While you can do the forward stroke on the same side again and again to make a turn, the sweep stroke makes the job much easier.

Here is how to make the sweep stroke:

  • Catch

Extending your arms forward, place the blade in the water alongside your feet. This is the starting position of the stroke. 

Make sure you place the blade on the opposite side of where you want to turn. For example, if you want to turn right, then start the sweep on the left. 

  • Turn

This phase of the stroke requires the power of your torso. Make a “sweeping” arc with the blade from the starting position toward the stern of the boat as far as it goes while keeping your torso balanced.

You will need to exert the force from your torso especially after the paddle has passed the cockpit. 

  • Release

The stroke is complete when the blade reaches the hull near the stern. At this point, you have to slice the blade up out of water. 

This is one complete sweep stroke. This should have your kayak turn as you wanted. After the sweep stroke, you can either go forward with the forward stroke or turn some more with another sweep stroke.

Step 6: Draw Stroke

Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Paddling
Kayaking Techniques | Credits: Paddling

The draw stroke allows you to move the kayak sideways without turning from the bow or the stern. This helps when you want to move near the deck or toward another boat. 

Here is how you perform the draw stroke:

  1. Turn the paddle blade to make it horizontal.
  2. Place the tip of the blade a couple feet away from the kayak on your side. The shaft would be bending at a sharp angle.
  3. Pull the blade toward your kayak while the blade is dipped in the water.
  4. Stop right before the blade reaches the side of the kayak. 

In a real life situation, you would need to make several draw strokes. So once you complete a single draw stroke, rotate the paddle blade 90 degrees and slice it up out of water in a sideways motion. 

Now, you are free to make another draw stroke using the steps above.

Safety Tip:If the paddle blade hits the side of your kayak, don’t force the blade out of water as it may tip your kayak. Instead of forcing it out, release your upper hand and start over.

But handling the paddle is not enough, you should also keep the right posture.

Final Thoughts

Kayaking is a fantastic way to have fun whether you do it alone or with your buddies. 

But before you can have fun, learning how to paddle a kayak is more important.

This means learning different types of strokes and their function, before you hit the water. 

Following the steps in this guide will ensure that you don’t get tired and stay safe in the case of dangerous situations.


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