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How to Kayak Like a Pro: A Beginner’s Guide

Last Updated on March 26, 2024 by Jess Grigsby

In This Article

beginners guide kayaking

Imagine gliding through glassy water on a peaceful morning. The warm breeze is gentle on your face, seabirds call all around you, and otters play together just offshore…

That’s the magic of kayaking!

If you’re a beginner kayaker interested in getting on the water, we’re here to help!

At Kayak Connection, our team offers kayak rentals, lessons, and guided tours in Santa Cruz and the Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing, and we LOVE helping new kayakers discover the sport.

In this blog, we’ve compiled our staff’s expert knowledge to create a comprehensive beginner’s guide to kayaking.

Keep reading for details about the gear, skills, and clothing you’ll need to hit the water!

What is Kayaking? 

Kayaking has been around for thousands of years.

The Inuit and Aleut tribes of the Arctic North were the first to use primitive kayaks for hunting and exploration.

In fact, the word kayak actually means “hunter’s boat.”

The concept is simple – a small, narrow watercraft propelled by a double-bladed paddle.

While sea kayaking is popular around Santa Cruz, California, kayaking takes all sorts of forms – from whitewater river kayaking to multi-day expedition kayaking in the Arctic Circle. 

Can a Beginner Kayak? 

Part of what we love about kayaking is that it’s the ultimate beginner-friendly sport.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve never paddled anything in your life – you can enjoy and excel at kayaking.

Kids, older adults, people with injuries, and even dogs can all enjoy kayaking! 

Because kayaking requires mostly upper body exertion, people with knee or foot pain or mobility issues can glide across even large spans of water without issue.

Our locations are suitable for kayaking because they are protected from open ocean paddling, which can be challenging for a beginner.

How to Get Started with Kayaking

kayaking basics

Want to get started with kayaking? Here’s what you need to do.

1. Rent a Kayak

First things first – you’ll need the gear to start kayaking.

Don’t worry, though. You don’t have to buy a kayak right away. Instead, visit Kayak Connection if you’re headed to the Central Coast here in California.

Our team will help you find a kayak, paddle, and personal flotation device (PFD) that fit you and will keep you comfortable during your kayaking adventure.

We love helping both locals and visitors experience the magic of kayaking.

2. Sign up for a Lesson or Tour

Now that you’ve got all your kayaking gear, you’ll want to learn how to use it.

Here at Kayak Connection, we offer professional kayak lessons and tours to help you get the hang of things.

During a professional lesson, you’ll learn the proper mechanics and fundamentals of a strong forward stroke, which will help you avoid injury and fatigue while paddling.

Sign up for a private lesson with a friend or family member, or opt for a guided tour, instead.

Our tours cover Elkhorn Slough and the Santa Cruz Harbor, so you have plenty of options. 

3. Keep Learning

Part of what makes kayaking fun is that you can always get better. 

Once you’ve got some basic skills, consider challenging yourself by signing up for one of our kayak fishing clinics or joining our sea kayaking club – a 4-week course that will teach you everything from basic paddling strokes to water rescue skills.

How to Use a Kayak

how to use a kayak

Getting In and Out of the Kayak

Place the kayak in shallow water parallel to the shore.

Sit on the edge of the cockpit, and swing your legs in one at a time.

To exit, reverse the process, pushing the kayak back into the water if necessary.

Adjusting the Fit

Adjust the foot pegs so that your knees are slightly bent and can comfortably touch the sides of the kayak.

Ensure the backrest supports your lower back adequately for comfortable paddling.

Launching the Kayak

Push the kayak into deeper water until it’s floating.

Use your paddle across the kayak for stability as you get in.

Push off from the ground or dock with your hands or paddle once seated.

Holding a Paddle

Hold the paddle with both hands, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.

Ensure the blades’ concave sides face you and the paddle’s curve matches your forward motion.

Executing Basic Strokes

  • Forward Stroke: Rotate your torso and extend the paddle on one side, pulling water towards you, then repeat on the other side.
  • Reverse Stroke: The opposite of the forward stroke, push the paddle forward in the water on one side to move backward and then the other.
  • Sweep Stroke: Perform a wide arc with the paddle on one side of the kayak to turn the kayak in the opposite direction.

Basic Parts of a Kayak

  • Hull: The bottom of the kayak, which can be designed for stability (flat) or speed (rounded).
  • Deck: The top part of the kayak, where you’ll often find storage and other fittings.
  • Cockpit: The opening in the deck where the paddler sits.
  • Foot Pegs: Adjustable pegs within the kayak for foot support, aiding in control.
  • Bow and Stern: The front and back end of the kayak, respectively.

Where to Go Kayaking

moss landing kayaking

California offers dozens of beautiful kayaking locations.

Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing

Perfect for beginning kayakers, Elkhorn Slough at Moss Landing is a protected, scenic stretch of water that’s famous for offering guaranteed sea otter sightings.

Unlike the open ocean, the slough is a sheltered area, which means you won’t have to deal with swells and waves pushing your kayak around.

2. Pleasure Point

Santa Cruz’s Pleasure Point is an active beach community that’s a great place for beginning kayakers to enjoy their first voyages.

Ask our team about the best areas to explore in Pleasure Point.

3. Cannery Row

Cannery Row in Monterey is an excellent place to try your hand at kayaking and see sea otters in the process.

Nearby San Carlos Beach is another perfect option.

4. Lovers Point Park and Beach

Located in Pacific Grove, Lovers Point Park is a protected, scenic area home to a thriving kelp forest.

The site is also home to a resident otter population that kayakers are almost guaranteed to see.

5. Stillwater Cove at Pebble Beach

Stillwater Cove is a scenic, white sand beach that spans the area below Pebble Beach Golf Club. Although an entrance fee is required to enter Pebble Beach, it’s an excellent, beginner-friendly kayak location.

6. Natural Bridges State Beach

Natural Bridges State Beach got its name from the stunning rock formations that dot its coastline.

This park and beach are a great place to view shore birds and whales, as well as seals and sea otters.

What to Wear When Kayaking

what to wear kayaking

Kayaking is a dynamic sport, and the conditions can change rapidly during a day on the water.

With that in mind, it’s important to dress appropriately. Here’s what we recommend wearing:

In Hot Weather

Here are the pieces you’ll want to wear if you’re going kayaking in the summer or spring: 

  • UV-blocking, long-sleeve shirt in non-cotton, non-denim material.
  • Sun hat with a wide brim.
  • Sunglasses with an attached retainer to keep them from falling in the water.
  • Swimsuit bottom or shorts made of non-cotton and non-binding material.
  • Lightweight, UV-blocking neck gaiter.
  • UV-blocking fishing gloves to protect the back of your hands from the sun.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Water shoes.
  • A properly-fitted personal flotation device (PFD).
  • Water.
  • Snacks. You should also bring a packed lunch if you intend to kayak all day.
  • Change of clothes for once you’ve finished kayaking.
  • Waterproof phone case that will float and protect your phone from water in the unlikely event that you capsize. This ensures you’ll have a way to contact the Coast Guard or other emergency personnel in case of emergency.
  • Ginger chews and Dramamine if you’re prone to seasickness.
  • Dry bag to keep your valuables dry (we like the Sea to Summit Lightweight 13L dry sack with waterproof roll-top and clip to attach to your kayak).

In Cool Weather

Going kayaking in the winter or in colder weather? Here’s what you’ll need:

  • UV-blocking, long-sleeve shirt in non-cotton, non-denim material.
  • Sun hat with a wide brim.
  • Sunglasses with an attached retainer to keep them from falling in the water.
  • Light shell pants. Stay away from cotton or binding material.
  • Lightweight, UV-blocking neck gaiter.
  • UV-blocking fishing gloves to protect the back of your hands from the sun.
  • Sunscreen.
  • Water shoes.
  • Waterproof and windproof jacket. We recommend Immersion Research core kayaking gear.
  • Light fleece jacket or vest.
  • Beanie or warm hat.
  • Properly-fitted PFD. 
  • Water.
  • Change of clothes for once you’ve finished kayaking.  
  • Snacks. You should also bring a packed lunch if you intend to kayak all day.
  • Waterproof phone case that will float and protect your phone from water in the unlikely event that you capsize. This ensures you’ll have a way to contact the Coast Guard or other emergency personnel in case of emergency.
  • Ginger chews and Dramamine if you’re prone to seasickness.
  • Dry bag to keep your valuables dry (we like the Sea to Summit Lightweight 13L dry sack with waterproof roll-top and clip to attach to your kayak).

What to Bring on Your Kayaking Adventure

Stay comfortable, energized, and safe all day long when you bring this kayaking equipment on the water:

Essential Gear

  • Kayak paddle. Have yours fitted by our team to ensure it’s the right size and length. 
  • Bilge pump. This will allow you to pump excess water out of your kayak if you encounter a rogue wave or a well-placed splash.
  • Portable first-aid kit.
  • Signaling whistle to keep yourself safe on the water.
  • Waterproof watch to keep track of time. 
  • Change of clothes for after you’ve finished kayaking. 

Personal Belongings

  • Reusable steel or plastic water bottle filled with cold water.
  • Snacks and a bagged lunch if you plan to paddle for a full day.
  • Headlamp in case you stay out past dark.
  • Helmet and wetsuit if you want to wear them.
  • Dry bag to store all your personal items.

What is the Best Kayak for Beginners?

ocean kayak best kayak

The best kayak for you depends on a few factors, including your height, weight, and how you intend to use the kayak.

That said, we carry a wide variety of beginner-friendly kayaks, including the following:


We recommend our Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5.

For smaller paddlers, we recommend our Ocean Kayak Tetra or Venus.

For paddlers looking for a recreational-style kayak (not a true sit-inside), we recommend the Old Town Vapor 10.

If you’re looking for a pedal-drive kayak you can both paddle and peddle, we recommend the Hobie Compass 10.5 & 11 or the Hobie Passport 10.5 & 11.


We recommend our Ocean Kayak Malibu 2XL or Malibu 2 Perception Tribe, which can be geared as a double or triple kayak.

In addition to the kayaks listed above, we carry a wide selection of fishing kayaks and stable, beginner-friendly sit-on-top kayaks, like our popular Ocean Kayak Prowler 13 Angler, or our Wilderness Systems Radar, Hobie Outback, Hobie ProAngler 12, and Hobie Compass.  

If you’re considering buying a beginner-friendly kayak, visit our shop. 

Our kayak experts will help you find the perfect model for you and your intended purposes and get you set up with the gear you need to have a great time on the water. 

9 Important Kayaking Safety Tips

kayak safety tips

Stay safe on the water with these pro tips:

1. Always Paddle with a Buddy

Any time you’re out on the water, obey the “buddy rule.” Always paddle with another kayaker who knows where you are and can call for help or provide assistance if needed.

Be sure to always stay within eyeshot of your buddy.

2. Formulate a “Float Plan”

Before you head out on the water, let someone back home know where you’re going and how long you intend to be gone. That way, they can call for help if you’re out longer than expected. 

If you’re going on a longer expedition, you can file an official float plan with the US Coast Guard. 

3. Know Your Limit

As a beginning kayaker, you’ll probably get tired quickly. After all, kayaking is hard work!

To keep yourself safe, never paddle further from shore than you could easily swim and ensure you’re not exhausting yourself with too-long days.

Instead, start with short, beginner-friendly paddles, and work your way up as you gain skill and stamina.

4. Ask Before You Go

Before heading out on a kayak adventure, ask an expert, like a local kayak guide, about places to avoid.

You should also know about currents, tides, and weather forecasts. The National Weather Service website is a great resource. 

Finally, avoid paddling in the ocean on days when there is a small craft advisory forecast.

5. When to Wear a Wetsuit

The water temperature in Monterey Bay is cold, and hypothermia from exposure can be dangerous.

In the unlikely event that you capsize, the wetsuit will keep you warm in the water.

If you are kayaking in a closed-decked-kayak, you should always dress for immersion and plan to wear a wetsuit.

If you are paddling a sit-on-top kayak where you can quickly re-enter the boat after capsizing, you do not need a wetsuit unless traveling far from shore or on rougher days on the Bay.

6. Invest in a Well-Fitted PFD

Your PFD can only protect you if it fits and functions well. Look for one that fits tightly but is loose enough to allow you to breathe easily. 

For safety, we recommend wearing your PFD as your base layer, so you never have to remove it on the water. Jackets and outerwear should fit OVER your PFD.

7. Avoid Neoprene Spray Skirts Until You’re More Experienced

When you rent a kayak from Kayak Connection, we’ll fit you for a spray skirt. These vinyl rental spray skirts are easy to remove and suitable for kayakers from beginners to experts.

If you’re not renting a kayak, though, you’ll want to steer clear of neoprene spray skirts, which fit very snugly to the cockpit and can be challenging to unfasten in the unlikely event that you capsize.

With this in mind, avoid neoprene spray skirts until you’ve learned how to properly pop the skirt off and complete a successful wet exit. 

8. Bring a Whistle

According to the US Coast Guard, “A vessel of fewer than 39.4 feet (12 meters) must, at a minimum, have some means of making an efficient sound signal (i.e., handheld air horn, athletic whistle, installed horn, etc.).” 

To keep these things handy, attach them to the top of your PFD.

Make sure you bring your kayak whistle along when you paddle. Remember that the universal signal for distress is three long blasts

9. Be Mindful of the Weather

Do what you can to only kayak during mild weather.

You should always avoid kayaking in a thunderstorm or being on the water whenever there are high winds or lightning. 

Where Can I Rent a Kayak?

where to rent kayak

Renting a kayak is a foundational part of your kayak adventure. After all, you need the right gear to hit the water! 

Here are a few tips to help you find the right kayak rental company:

1. Choose a Team that Also Offers Lessons and Tours

When it comes to kayak gear, you want to rent from a team that uses it! Choose a kayak rental team that offers full-service kayak rentals, including lessons and tours.

Here at Kayak Connection, our team of expert kayak guides helps customers discover the joy of kayaking every day.

You can count on our team to provide passionate, high-quality guidance during every step of your foray into kayaking. 

2. Look for Highly Trained Guides

Look for a company that employs folks who are certified with the American Canoe and Kayak Association (ACA).

At Kayak Connection, many of our instructors have completed hours of intensive on-the-water ACA training courses, which make them experts in their fields.

3. Choose a Company that Makes Location Recommendations

Once you’ve got your rental gear, you need to know where to use it!

While kayaking is a safe sport, it’s essential to know which areas are beginner-friendly and which areas to avoid.

At Kayak Connection, our team can take you on a guided tour of Elkhorn Slough or wildlife tour that leaves the Santa Cruz Harbor and explores the kelp beds of the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary.

Our location recommendations keep your paddle safe and beginner-friendly and set you up to see wildlife and more. 

4. Choose a Company that Offers a Variety of Kayaks

If you’re just starting kayaking, you might prefer a wide, stable, sit-on-top kayak to a faster, more protected sit-inside kayak.

No matter what, you’ll want to choose a rental team that offers an assortment of kayaks and will help you choose the right one. 

Visit us at the shop if you’re ready to rent a kayak and all the gear you need to get on the water.

Our team will work with you to help you find the right equipment for your trip and give you the skills you need to have a safe, fun trip.

Kayaking FAQs 

1. Is kayaking good exercise?

Kayaking is an excellent, low-impact activity that can improve aerobic fitness, flexibility, and strength.

Specific health benefits include better heart health, stronger muscles (especially in your back, arms, chest, and shoulders), and lots of calories burned each hour you spend on the water!

2. Is kayaking dangerous?

While no water activity is free of risk, kayaking is a fun sport as long as you take safety precautions.

Making sure you have the right gear, always wearing your PDF, asking an expert about where you should go (or taking a guided tour), and always keeping an eye on the weather, tides, and wind direction will help you stay safe and happy on the water.

3. Is it hard to kayak? 

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of gliding through the water in a kayak. While it’s not hard for most people to kayak, there is a learning curve. 

Some find it a little awkward to paddle at first and may notice some soreness in their arms, neck, and back after their first kayaking trip. 

Don’t worry, though – you’ll quickly get the hang of paddling, turning, and gliding – especially if you invest in a professional lesson or two to get you started.

During a lesson, you’ll learn the fundamentals of core rotation, which is key to taking the pressure off of your spine and reducing soreness in your arm muscles.

4. What is the difference between canoeing and kayaking? 

Canoes are traditionally wood or metal, whereas most kayaks are plastic or fiberglass. Canoes are meant to be paddled with a single-bladed paddle on either side of the canoe from a kneeling position.

Kayaks are paddled from a seated position with a double-bladed paddle that does not require changing the paddle position to the other hand.

Both canoes and kayaks can be single, double, or triple, but canoes usually accommodate more paddlers.

5. How can I stay dry in a sit-on-top kayak? 

While sit-on-top kayaks are generally more stable than sit-in kayaks, they can be a little tougher to stay dry in.

We recommend hitting the water on a nice, calm day and paddling with the wind.

You may also want to wear long, lightweight, water-proof pants to keep your legs dry.

If you find that you are not staying dry in your kayak, check the position of your paddle.

High-angle paddlers (those who hold the paddle blade high above themselves) tend to get a bit soggier than low-angle paddlers.

To minimize splashing, lower the angle of the paddle blade as you take it out of the water.  

6. How much does it cost to go kayaking? 

It depends on a few factors: how much gear you rent, whether you book a lesson or a guided tour, and how many people you’re kayaking with, to name a few.

Generally, our rentals will cost $25-$35 for a good amount of time on the water.

For specific pricing information, give our shop a call. We’ll be happy to help you budget for your big kayaking adventure. 

Ready to Go Kayaking? Kayak Connection is Your One-Stop-Shop to Get Out on the Water! 

Kayaking is an excellent way to stay active and explore Santa Cruz’s beautiful marine landscape.

If you’re ready to enjoy your kayak adventure, our team is here to help you get started. 

Stop by our shop (we have locations in Elkhorn Slough and the Santa Cruz Harbor) to meet our team. We offer tours, classes, rentals, and everything else you need to hit the water.

Give us a call to learn more or book your kayak adventure online today!

Author: Jess Grigsby

Since 2012, Jess has co-owned and operated Kayak Connection together with her husband Dave. She is a lawyer, coach, avid kayak enthusiast and mother of two teenage girls. At Kayak Connection, Jess oversees a team of experienced kayak guides who are all CPR certified, with many holding advanced Wilderness First Responder (WFR) certifications. Our team is composed of environmental educators, naturalists and classroom teachers with experience working with all kinds of visitors, from school groups to large corporate teams.