November 21, 2021

How to Paddle a Kayak: Basic Strokes

by Roger

There are far more reasons to spend the day on the water that is exhilarating and hard to paddle a kayak. Paddling is a fun way to be active while enjoying the outdoors; it might appear easy from the outside – you dip the paddle into the water and then use the momentum to drive you forward. 

Kayaking is more difficult than it appears. To maximize outcomes and reduce physical strain, you need first to understand how to paddle your watercraft and initiate, turn, stop, and execute every stroke type.

There’s much more to mastering how to paddle a kayak than just practicing a few strokes; in fact, you will have to learn how to choose the kayak paddle before you even get on the water. 

An appropriate paddle will be tailored to your requirements, so it’s crucial to get it properly. Note that, in a canoe or kayak, you tend to be the engine, and the right paddle and technique will properly translate your energy into motion.

Table of Contents

How to Hold a Paddle in a Kayak

How to Hold a Paddle in a Kayak

Placing your kayak paddle above your head is the first and greatest approach to figuring out how to handle the paddle. The elbows must be at a right angle or 90-degree. For power and comfort, this approach ensures optimal hand spacing. 

After which, you should make the needed improvements now to make sure that: While holding the paddle, the hands need to be shoulder-width apart – or slightly broader – with the knuckles facing up.

Again, the hands should be approximately 6 inches apart from the blade heads on every side. Now with a kayak paddle hoisted on top of the head, your elbows form a 90-degree angle. Its blades remain parallel to the surface and suitably aligned. While at it, keep in mind that their shorter edge needs to be facing the bottom if they are uneven.

The grip appears firm but not overly so. Your “power hand” has a tighter grip, though not excessively so. Keep in mind that your other hand should maintain an O-shaped grasp that is quite slack.

Related Article: What Should You Do When Approaching a Low Head Dam in a Canoe or Kayak?

Learning the Forward Stroke

Learning the Forward Stroke
© By Use with attribution.

Now that you understand how to hold a kayak paddle, let’s move on to the paddling techniques. Mastering the forward stroke is the common technique in paddling – and you will spend 90% of your time paddling a kayak. And since it’s the basic go-to-approach of propelling the canoe in a straight line, have it at the top of the to-do list.

A simple forward stroke should look like this:

  • Sit up straight and keep the gaze fixed on your horizon.
  • Whirl the torso and hold the kayak paddle blade near the feet inside the water. All through the stroke, you should hold it in an adjacent position and be completely submerged.
  • To move your kayak forward, you need to activate your core and back muscles and begin dragging the paddle towards you along the side of the hull. With the other hand, press against the kayak shaft.
  • Then, slice your blade out from the river as it gets to your hip.
  • Repeat this process but from the other side by rotating the body and dipping the out-of-water blade in water.

The Reverse Stroke

The Reverse Stroke
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Similar to a car, reversing gets you where you want to go. Paddling backward is a healthy habit to learn since it helps one balance those muscles that become overworked when paddling forward.

Sometimes you might need to back up the kayak now and then to pull yourself out of a tight spot. Like when you approach a creek that’s too narrow for the kayak to turn or you need to avoid an obstacle while on water, you get the idea.

In any case, mastering the backward stroke is a skill you’ll need before you can even begin discovering new waters. But that shouldn’t be difficult. You’re still doing a typical forward stroke backward, from the stern to the bow.

It would help if you first looked at the situation behind you before you began to move backward. Then anchor the kayak blade behind the hip and sweep it towards your hip. 

You can now slice your blade from the water at your hip point and repeat the process on the other end as you alternate until you get to the destination.

Slowing the kayak down and stopping to use the reverse technique

You also have to comprehend how to slow down to a full stop, which is as critically important as knowing how to paddle forward. Now that the kayak lacks a magical stop button or a set of brakes, you need the paddles to figure out how to do it:

Suppose you are moving forward; finish three to four forceful and short back paddle forward strokes on both sides. If moving backward, finish three to four forceful and short back backward paddle strokes on both sides.

Sweep Stroke Technique

Sweep Stroke Technique
© By Use with attribution.

Note that the typical forward stroke is more than adequate to help you paddle in a straight line; what about turning the kayak? It’s an entirely different can of worms!

Sure, depending on a built-in rudder for steering is a great option. However, each kayaker needs to know how to survive while paddling in water without it by just using the most basic tool you got – the paddle. Sweep strokes are vital for turning and reversing. It’s categorized into two- reverse and forward.

A forward sweep stroke will assist you in turning as you move forward and needs a C-shaped sweeping movement from front to the back. On the other hand, reverse sweep stroke will do the opposite – it allows you to turn as you move backward.

It’s the forward sweep but done backward. You submerge the blade in the water at your back and move in the opposite path, towards the toes and halting after it gets to the front of your kayak.

Here’s how to sweep stroke works:

Submerge the blade in water on the opposite side of the kayak where you are turning to. Then using the torso, move your blades in an arcing, sweeping motion that halts at the end of the vessel.

Now, lift your paddle from the water once it gets to the stern. It would help if you continued until you reached your destination. When it comes to huge turns, position the paddle shaft horizontally for great results. 

Your kayak needs to do a gradual turn using less to no loss of momentum; if needed, you can repeat the sweep technique or resume using the basic forward strokes.

Draw Stroke

Draw Stroke
© By Use with attribution.

Anytime you are looking to get nearer to anything, the draw stroke comes in handy. You use it to pull up alongside a fellow paddler for some snacks on the water or if you want to land next to a dock. It’s a technique that shifts the vessel sideways. Also, it aids in maintaining control when following a straight or direct path.

Here’s how a draw stroke works:

  • Face the route you wish to go by rotating the torso towards the side.
  • Turn your kayak paddle, for the blade sits horizontally inside the water on the side that you intend to move to. Then direct the other blade to face you and the boat direction.
  • Make a pushing movement with the paddle away from the vessel’s side to bring it nearer to it, maintaining the blade tip immersed.
  • Slightly position the paddle behind you, and once you get closer to your paddle, begin doing fast slicing motions in the water that stretch to the back of your boat as you get nearer to the paddle.
  • Rep until you move to the side using a series of fast draw strokes.

Power Stroke

It’s a technique that increases the force of your paddle. It enables you to move more quickly and with greater control. The greatest method to perfect a power stroke would be to exercise the moves until they are second nature – the forward, reverse, sweep, and draw strokes. 

The quicker you improve at all those, the more strength you’ll be able to squeeze out of them. Train to keep the movements fluid and smooth, particularly when switching sides in between strokes. Keep the core and torso active at all times, as they will accomplish the majority of the heavy work for you, how to train for kayaking is a good starting point.

Final Thoughts on How to Paddle a Kayak

With that, keep in mind that kayaking is a fascinating way to experience the outdoors from a fresh perspective while exploring waterways.

Going on a guided tour that generally includes instruction and the necessary tools is a terrific way to start kayaking. If you’ve attempted kayaking and want to get into it, this article has done it for you, from the tools and the fundamental abilities you’ll need.

But you’ve already made it this far; you are now fully aware of how to paddle a kayak and have developed appropriate kayaking techniques. It might take more time to perfect the abilities and skills you gained today, but that should not deter you. The end outcome is well worth the effort.

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About the author 


Roger was born into a family of climbers. As the youngest of his siblings, he was also the most ardent climber of them. Small and agile, he practiced climbing all day. Today, Roger teaches children how to climb the large rock walls safely.

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