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Complete guide to kayaks

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The complete guide to all the gear and every idea you need before you jump in the water with your kayak.

Paddling in a kayak

Starting a new hobby can be intimidating. I should know, I’ve done it about three million times so far, and there’s a few more expensive hobbies to take up once I win Lotto. The combination of research, and the risk of blowing cash making a mistake is a barrier for most people. It ends with idea after idea being put on the ‘maybe one day’ pile that never gets smaller. However if kayaking is on your list, we’ve put together a guide that will make your dream achievable. We’ve covered everything you need to get started, from the pros and cons of the popular styles, to how to pick a kayak that’ll suit your needs, and even how to steer it once it’s in the water.

THE DEVIL’S IN THE DETAIL

Paddling in a kayak

No matter what style of kayak you’re looking at, there’s a few specific design elements that’ll affect everything from how it turns, to how easy it is to get in and out of.

Length - with kayak length you’ve got speed on one end and turning ability on the other. The longer a kayak is, the straighter it’ll track, and the faster it’ll travel. In wide open water where you’ve got plenty of distance to cover and turning isn’t as important, you’ll favour a long kayak. If you’re punting around tight waterways where manoeuvrability is key, a shorter kayak will suit you better.

Width - as length determines the kayak’s turning ability, width determines its stability. Wider kayaks can more easily resist rocking, so they’re perfect as a swimming platform, for standing on to fish, or if you’re a first-timer and want to feel confident getting in and out of the water. A narrower kayak pushes less water out of the way moving forward, trading that stability for extra speed. There’s a reason racing kayaks are long and skinny.

Hull shape - in kayaking, stability is broken up into two categories, primary and secondary. Primary stability is how steady the kayak is when sitting flat, making a stable platform for standing or diving, and easier entry and exit. Secondary stability is how stable the kayak is on an angle, giving confidence in rough waters and cornering. The design difference that affects this is known as the ‘chine’, or how many hard edges in the hull. A hard chine or V profile, will have greater primary stability with lesser secondary stability. A soft chine or curved hull will be the opposite. Multi-chine hulls fall somewhere in between depending on how they’re designed.

Rocker - the rocker, or curve of the boat from front to rear, affects the manoeuvrability and tracking of the kayak. The more aggressive the curve from front to rear, the less surface there is holding the boat in place. It will be easier to turn and it will also glide through rough water easily. The downside is it will tend to wander more and be difficult to keep in a straight line. A kayak with a straight hull will track straighter and hold steadier in windy conditions at the expense of manoeuvrability.

Rudders - while a rudder on a kayak might make it look like professional kit, they’re not always needed or even wanted. They’re often found on longer, skinnier kayaks to aid in turning ability and stability. They can either be controlled via foot sliders, or toe-operated paddles. They will add drag, making it harder work and can cause issues with submerged objects if they’re not retractable. Some kayaks will run a ‘skeg’, or non-steerable rudder which can aid in tracking.

Material - while there's a million combinations of kayak styles, materials are just as important as measurements. Most entry level kayaks will be polyethylene. They are inexpensive and are strong, but will scratch easily and are heavy. Polycarbonates reduce weight but aren’t as robust. Expensive materials like fibreglass and carbon fibre composites won’t hold up through shallow rock gardens. Timber boats can be light-weight and tailor-made, but expect to pay dearly.

TECHNIQUE

Paddling in a kayak

The good oar - if you’re a pro-level kayaker, there’s roughly a million paddle styles and paddling techniques at your disposal. However, just like you wouldn’t kick off a maths career with algebraic geometry, there’s plenty of basic paddle styles to get you out on the water. The first is getting your grip right. Place the paddle on top of your head then hold both hands up with your elbows at 90 degrees. From here there’s three strokes you’ll need to conquer to be confident on the water.

Forward stroke - this is the main stroke you’ll need to master. You’ll essentially run the paddle 90 per cent submerged, from your feet along the length of the kayak until it is level with your hips, then lift it out with your elbow and roll the paddle into the opposite side. This is the most efficient use of your energy without the paddle acting like an anchor or simply stirring the water. The key is to use your large core muscles, with your arms just there to transmit power. Even, consistent strokes will help keep you pointing forward, although you will naturally drift away from your dominant side.

Minor corrections - dragging the paddle momentarily can help either keep you tracking straight, or steer you in a specific direction. To practice, build momentum, then let the paddle rest in the water behind your back. Holding it vertical will act as a skeg keeping you straight, while leaning the top away from the kayak will steer you towards the paddle side. Leaning the top towards the kayak will steer you the opposite. 

Larger corrections - a sweep stroke will alter your course without robbing you of momentum or energy. Like a forward stroke, a sweep stroke will enter the water at the same location, then travel on a large arc, rather than in a straight line. The stroke is ended behind your back too, rather than parallel to your hips. Performing it from bow to stern will steer you away from the paddle side, while performing it from stern to bow will steer you towards the paddle.

STAYING AFLOAT

Kayaks

Sit-on - perfect for beginners, sit on top kayaks differ from most traditional offerings because, well, you sit on top. They’re wide and short making them stable and easily steerable on calm waters, with plenty of on-top storage. They’re exposed to the elements so are a warm weather only option. Despite sitting higher out of the water than other kayaks, their sealed nature and drainage through ‘scupper holes’ makes them impossible to sink, with the trade-off a reduction in speed. They’ll often have an aggressive rocker for manoeuvrability and no rudder.

Fishing - fishing kayaks are often sit-on style but are available in sit-in as well. They’re wider set than their counterparts, and allow more primary stability to help when standing, casting, or reeling in. They’ll often incorporate built-in wet boxes or tackle boxes with  rod holders and mounting points for GPS units, and fish finders. As they’re a platform for an activity, rather than an activity in themselves, they’re often outfitted with either electric motors, or pedal powered propellers.

Sea - designed for wide open bodies of water, sea kayaks are easily identifiable by their long sleek design, over the 4.5m (15ft) mark. They sit low in the water to reduce the effects of cross winds, and often have rudders or skegs to assist in manoeuvring their longer bodies. As they’re designed for the long haul they’ll have substantial water-proof storage, as well as air-tight compartments to maintain floatation if they become swamped. Their cockpits are tight on the occupant and with a skirt fitted, they will have minimal water-ingress, making them more suited to cold weather paddling. For longer expeditions, they can be fitted out with accessories such as sales and out-riggers.

Recreational - the perfect middle-ground, the recreational kayak aims somewhere between the long sleek speed of a sea-kayak and the agile nature of a sit-on. Generally around 3.6m (12ft) length they’re an all-rounder that’s capable of taking on coastal regions and inland waterways alike. Although not as extensive as a sea-kayak they’ll have plenty of dry and wet storage. They’re wider than a sea-kayak for increased primary stability, and with a higher profile can have more comfortable seats with higher back-rests. Despite having a more open cockpit, they can be fitted with a skirt and still have thigh-hooks allowing you to muscle the kayak around with your body, not just your arms.  

White water - ditch the storage, drop a few feet off the length, remove all their tracking and you’re left with a white-water kayak. They’re under the 3m (10ft) mark, and are incredibly agile. This makes them ideal for fast flowing rivers where speed is taken care of, letting you concentrate on steering. They have an enclosed cock-pit with a skirt keeping water out, and allowing the paddler to manoeuvre the kayak with their body, including the ability to self-recover. They have an aggressive rocker so will plough through rough water, but are difficult to keep in a straight line so generally aren’t considered beginner friendly. You wouldn’t want to cross a lake in one.

Canadian canoe - a hundred years ago, canoes and kayaks were easily identifiable. Now, and especially in competition use, the lines are blurred. That said, there are a few key defining aspects in the recreation world that set the two apart. Canoes will typically have a larger open cockpit, with higher sides and a physically larger size. Operators will either kneel in the hull, or sit on a slat style seat. They’ll also paddle with a single ended paddler compared to a kayak’s double ended paddle. Think of them like a dual cab ute. If you’re loading the family into a single boat with a weeks’ worth of camping gear, a canoe is your best option.  

Inflatable - you’re probably thinking of the dodgy inflatable boat you got for Christmas, but inflatable kayaks have improved in leaps and bounds. While they do still have their drawbacks, they’re incredibly compact and lightweight, making them the perfect travel companion and the only option if you’re hiking in. They’re available in most common kayak and canoe styles, but as a general rule, the more you spend the better product you’ll receive.  

Modular - like inflatable kayaks, modular offerings have a significant size benefit when it comes to finding storage space. They can also be broken down for easier transportation. Available in most common styles, they can easily and quickly be assembled by the water, and have proven more than reliable enough for sea-crossings. They can also be expanded into a tandem arrangement for bringing along a second paddler. The downsides are they are more expensive than their rigid or inflatable counterparts, and do have a slight weight penalty as well.

MORE OUTDOOR ADVENTURES

- For the ultimate kayaking adventure, check out the UK's Three Lakes Challenge.

- Planning a leisurely paddle close to home? These are the 10 best kayak day trips in Australia.

- Find out more about kayaking from world champion kayaker Rosalyn Lawrence.

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