Kayaking is the act of moving a kayak across water. It’s different than canoeing; a canoe has one blade on each paddle and typically has an open structure. A kayak does not. It’s enclosed in a ‘deck’ and has two blades on each paddle. This allows for greater speed than canoeing.
Also, a kayak sits deeper in water than the average canoe. The lower centre of gravity gives them more stability.
Kayaking is a broadly defined activity, with many styles. Spend any time on this blog and you’ve likely seen a few whitewater kayaking videos. That’s because, while you might equate the Ozaki 8 with wingsuits and surfboards, kayaking is actually the first of the Ozaki 8 ordeals. A quick read of this post I wrote two years ago about Emerging Force reveals the deadlier side of whitewater kayaking – and leaves no doubt as to why this popular activity belongs on any list of extreme sports.
Kayaking is an ancient activity. The Inuit, Aleut and Yup’ik of what is now Northern Canada developed kayaks for hunting. Intricately linked to the history of North America, kayaks have evolved for function and recreational purposes. Kayaking styles include:
Recreational Kayaking – Less extreme and more ‘go with the flow’. Recreational kayaking involves slower activities, like fishing and photography. It’s typically done on a slower moving or sheltered body of water. Recreational kayaks are usually wider than other kayaks, and with a larger cockpit for better stability.
Sea Kayaking – Sea kayaks are designed for one, two or three paddlers and sometimes even room for gear. They often have less maneuverability than river kayaks but greater seaworthiness.
Surf Kayaking – As the name implies, surf kayaks are designed to surf waves with kayaks. Classified as either High Performance or International Class, they’re usually a little shorter than a traditional surfboard (although this can vary). Surf kayaking is a growing sport – especially in areas frequented by surfers, like Tofino.
Note that surf kayaks are different than sit-on-top kayaks. The latter, ironically, bears greater resemblance to a surfboard than a surf kayak. Sit-on-top kayaks have no cockpit. A paddler ‘sits on top’ (shocker, huh?) and paddles away. They’re similar to a paddle board.
Whitewater Kayaking – Here’s where shit starts to get real. Whitewater kayaks are semi-rigid, high impact hulls designed for the demands of fast-moving water. They’re anywhere from four to ten feet long and best exemplify kayaking as an extreme sport.
Tyler Bradt’s record-setting 10 storey drop down Palouse Falls in 2013 was done in a whitewater kayak. Ben Marr, Evan Garcia, Rafa Ortiz and others who could vie for title of World’s Best Kayaker are all known for their whitewater skills. Indeed, whitewater kayaking is such a broad style it incorporates 5 sub-categories, like Creeking and Slalom.
But that’s a conversation worthy of its own post :).
Drainage Ditch Kayaking – This is an extreme form of Creekboating, in which kayakers race through a ditch. Rarely done, and highly dangerous, I think it was invented (if not perfected) by Ben Marr and Rush Sturges in 2014. Behold:
Who says kayaking can’t be a F**king hoot?
You need a kayak, paddle and buoyancy device to go kayaking. Perhaps a more appropriate factor is what kind of kayaking you want to pursue. Some styles are more demanding than others and will need special equipment.
Go whitewater kayaking, for example, and you’ll need:
- A Whitewater Kayak
- A Paddle
- A Buoyancy Aid (Or Personal Flotation Device)
- A Spray Deck
- A Helmet
You may also want a throw bag, knife and whistle for safety gear, regardless of what kind of kayaking you’re doing.
Still, the kayak itself will likely be the most influential gear in your paddling experience. Check out REI’s article on how to choose the right kayak for the activity you’re looking for, and the gear you’ll need to make the experience.
When You’re Starting Out
Like any extreme sport, kayaking takes time and persistence. It’s not without risks either. Just ask Kent Bretzlaff about the Jalacingo River – while a lazy afternoon on a fishing kayak likely won’t trigger a nasty email from your insurance agent, think about these 10 tips for kayak beginners before you hit the water.
Take a Lesson – Here’s why you’ll want to learn from a professional BEFORE you head out for the first time:
An instructor can teach you how to get in and out of your kayak (much love Max, we’re laughing WITH you). He or she can also teach you the basics of paddling and recover from a rollover. Google ‘Kayak lessons near me’. It really is that simple.
Dress For the Water, NOT the Weather – The weather may be hot and sunny, but that’s pointless if you’re in the drink and the latter is colder than a polar bear’s lunch. A wetsuit and kayak gloves may be more appropriate than shorts and a tank top.
Choose the Right Kayak – We’ve talked about this already. While you can buy kayaks online, there really is no substitute for visiting a gear shop in person. Ask for help – you’ll likely want a flat-bottomed kayak for lake paddling. And a sit-on-top kayak is great for beginners.
ALWAYS Wear a Buoyancy Aid – Ever heard of ‘drowning’? A buoyancy aid is like a life jacket but allows for greater movement of the arms and neck. You never know when it might save your life. Tell yourself even pros like Evan Garcia wear a buoyancy aid if it’s hard on the ego.
Sit Properly – Your position makes a huge difference in your kayak experience. As as general rule of thumb, your back should be straight, at a 90 degree angle with your rear. You’ve got foot pegs on either side of you kayak. Put your feet in them, toes outward and heels toward the centre. Your legs should be bent upward and outwards, touching the thigh braces.
Hold the Paddle Correctly – The correct way to hold a kayak paddle is with both hands slightly more than shoulder-width apart. The concave of the paddle should face you and should sweep through the water when paddling. Make sure your knuckles are in line with the blade.
Bring a Spare Set of Clothes – Remember what we said about dressing for the water? Always bring extra clothes – even if you think you won’t get wet.
Learn Rescue Skills – There may come a time when you have to rescue yourself or someone else. Be prepared; stay with your boat if you capsize. Have your instructor go through a capsize drill with you. For reference:
People Are More Important Than Boats – You can replace a kayak. A person you can’t. Don’t stress if you lose a paddle or even the boat. If the paddlers are safe, you’re in the clear.
Don’t Kayak Alone – Don’t do this. While it’s the perfect activity for solitude and contemplation, the buddy system works. Kayaking gets a lot more dicey when buddy’s not there.
Kayaking is a social activity. It’s good to connect with others who know the sport and can give you tips, field reports, goals and maybe even a paddle buddy. Broaden your boundaries, mate, and check out these kayak/canoe and stand-up paddle forums on your journey to kayak nirvana.
Paddling.com – The message boards on Paddling.com are the place to connect for folks who feel naked without a paddle. It’s arguably the most comprehensive kayaking forum out there. Question, meet answer. You’ll likely find what you’re looking for here.
WestCoastPaddler – West Coast Paddler slants a little more to us folks on the west coast of North America. Still, this is a very comprehensive kayaking forum and a great place to both chat and meet with your fellow paddlers.
KayakForum – Three guesses what this is about? Don’t let the skeletal design fool you. Here you’ll learn paddling techniques, read field reports, buyers guides and, heck, even learn how to build a kayak yourself.
10 Kayakers to Watch
Want to see what’s possible when kayak meets water? Watch these guys. Here are some of the best kayakers on the planet. They’re all on social media and make big waves when they go places – usually on an angry river swell.
@RushSturges – Point Break fans, you have reason to worship American kayaker Rush Sturges. Aside from being a talented film maker, he’s one of only four people in history to successfully kayak the Inga Rapids. Bodhi’s fiction – Rush Sturges is fact. Any dude who can navigate the most dangerous rapids on Earth has a big ole’ set of cojones.
@davefusilli – Part kayaker, part joker, David Fusilli is another American paddler you’ll want to follow. Together with brothers Jared and Graham Seiler, Fusilli founded ‘Demshitz’ – a group of kayakers meaning ‘those people’ (is THAT what it means?). He’s funny as hell, and known as much for his inside jokes as for his stunning photography.
@danejackson – Son of Olympic paddler Eric Jackson, Dane lives for kayaking. With all three international extreme Whitewater Grand Prix titles under his belt at the tender age of 24, he’s one of the most accomplished athletes in the whitewater community. He’s also got a thing for waterfall drops.
@tylerbradt – Speaking of waterfalls, currently record holder Tyler Bradt raised a few eyebrows when he kayaked down Palouse Falls in 2013. And he’s got something else on his kayaking resume. Remember how just four people have survived the Inga Rapids? Tyler Bradt is one of them.
@benmarr – OK, we need a little Canadian content on here. Ben Marr fills that role nicely – as one of the only two Inga Rapids survivors we’ve yet to talk about. He’s also known for that awesome drainage ditch kayaking video you just watched. It was filmed in Lion’s Bay, Vancouver, in 2013 – and he did a follow up video (HIGHER, FASTER, MORE EPIC!) in the same spot last year.
@patkeller – Some spots are renowned for their whitewater mojo. North Carolina is one of them, and native son Pat Keller does his state proud as Canoe & Kayak’s esteemed Male Paddler of the Year Award for 2014. Known for his aggressive racing style, he’s also won the Green Race multiple times – otherwise known as the highest-celebrated race in the whitewater community.
@nourianewman – The ladies are represented nicely in whitewater with Nouria Newman. The French paddler and academic has a Masters in Journalism and Political Science. She’s also a master of Slalom, as evident in her win at the 2012 Whitewater Grand Prix and the 2013 Adidas Sickline. Sick line, indeed.
@evangarcia – Evan Garcia is another big name we’ve seen in whitewater kayaking over the past five years. The Bozeman, Montana native didn’t complete the Inga Rapids due to injury, but he’s well-known for having the cojones to try massive waterfall drops. Case in point, this 115-foot drop down Puma Falls in Chile, which broke his leg.
@rafaortiz – Five years ago, Mexican kayaker Rafa Ortiz planned to ride his kayak down the grand-daddy of all waterfalls. No, not Angel Falls. He was going to do Niagara Falls, but pulled out after years of planning when he stared down the falls and got an empty feeling. Still, don’t hold it against him. Ortiz successfully dropped 189-foot Palouse Falls in Washington State in 2013 – a good 17 feet higher than Niagara. He’s just the second person to do that, after Tyler Bradt.
@stevefisher – It’s a matter of principle that Steve Fisher should be on this list. We’ve talked repeatedly about Inga Rapids, and that just four kayakers have survived this mighty beast. Fisher is the remaining paddler on the esteemed list, and at talented film-maker in his own right.
In the Movies
Kayaking hasn’t permeated Hollywood like surfing and other extreme sports. That’s Hollywood’s loss – some of the kayakers we’ve talked about are talented film makers. The kayaking films here are some of the best about whitewater, and make a good watch if you need a little inspiration.
Solo: Lost At Sea – Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley was attempting to cross the Tasman Sea when he disappeared just a day before finishing his journey. What follows is the heart-wrenching story of a driven man, and winner of the Best Documentary Film at the 2011 Reel Paddling Film Festival.
Paddle to Seattle – Want to take a kayaking trip? Watch Paddle to Seattle – a story of friendship and adversity while sea kayaking and the many things the guys encounter along the way.
Paddle to the Ocean – Faced with grief from the loss of his paddling buddy, Canadian Zac Crouse cycles, kayaks and strums his banjo from Ottawa to Halifax. The film won the 2014 RPFF Best Sea Kayaking film, with a soundtrack featuring Zac’s own music. You’ll love it.
Kayaking ain’t a spectator sport. You’ve got to actually get in a kayak and hit the water to get good at this rewarding pastime. The following kayaking tours offer a great balance of travel with value and (gasp!) kayaking. If you want a kayaking vacation, start here. Note these are affiliate links.
Self-Guided Kayaking & Camping – Sweden 5 Days – A self-guided kayaking tour? Yup – and it’s one of the highest-rated kayaking tours anywhere. The operator, Do the North, helps with food orders, cooking/camping gear, airport transfer and kayaking equipment. You’ve also got a safety net, including a cell phone for emergencies. Then they give you the keys, er, paddles, and you and your fellow kayakers spend the next 5 days kayaking down the Swedish Coast. Self-guide, full-service.
This trip has 43 reviews as of this writing. Each is 5 stars.
Offered By: Do the North
In North America
Costa Rica Kayaking Adventure – This is a 9 day canoe and kayaking tour through the cities and jungles of Costa Rica. You’ll have an expert guide. As you’d expect, you’ll have to be physically fit for this tour. But it’s definitely worth it – you’ll kayak Lake Arenal, do a boat tour of Tortuguero National Park and hone your kayaking skills in this ecological gem of a country.
Offered By: G Adventures