How to Paddle a Kayak

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It may seem like such a no brainer on how to paddle a kayak, but the truth is that there is some technique involved.

If you don’t use the proper technique you can end up with some soreness, cramps or even an injury.

Not to mention that you will get worn out fast and won’t be able to stay on the water for very long.

This guide will give you some really easy to understand tips on how to paddle a kayak in a straight line plus some other maneuvers.

How To Hold Your Paddle

You’ll need to have the right length paddle for your height and the type of kayak you plan to fish from, but once you settle on the right one, then the way you hold it is very important.

There are four keys to holding your paddle properly:

  • Know your blade types as there are high angle and low angle which will determine how high you hold the paddle
  • Make sure the blades are facing the right direction before you begin to paddle
  • Holding the shaft in the right spot according to your height and how high you are sitting in relation to the water
  • Don’t grip too hard, instead use a loose grip that cradles the shaft

Let me go into detail about each of those factors so you can understand what they mean.

Know Your Blade Type

Are your blades high angle or low? A low angle blade means you will be holding the shaft parallel and very close to the level of the water. The blades don’t go very deep into the water. These are great to use as fishing kayak paddles.

High angle blades are for when you are sitting higher up in the kayak and the blade will enter deep into the water.

There are also some other factors like feathering. This is when you have the paddle blades at different angles. To learn the proper paddling technique it is easier to learn when the paddles are matched or parallel to each other.

Blades can also be asymmetrical, meaning that they are different on either end of the shaft instead of looking identical. These types of paddles are meant for people with experience who will know how to get the most out of the paddles based on the shape of the blades.

Orient Your Blades

You will want your blades perpendicular to the surface of the water. Pick up your paddle and make sure your knuckles are facing up and the blades are positioned correctly when you do this.

If your blades are not perfectly oval then make sure the shorter end of the blade is on the bottom.

Then, the concave side of the blade should be facing you as this is the side that is going to be pushing the water. Think of it like having cupped hands and the inside of the hands would need to be pushing the water.

Know Where To Hold The Shaft

Hold the paddle over your head and find the center over your head. Then grab the shaft with both hands spaced evenly apart. Your elbows should be at a 90° angle so if you were to see yourself from the front it would look like your arms and the paddle form a box. Then lower your paddle in front of you and keep the box shape. That is how your paddle should always be in front of you. 

It’s called the paddler’s box and helps you to rotate your torso to paddle instead of using your arms.

Relax Your Grip

Don’t hold onto the paddle too tightly. Hold on just enough to keep the paddle from sliding in your hands but try to maintain a sort of open grip.

Your forefinger and thumb should be holding on while the rest of your fingers are loose and there for support.

Forward Stroke

Remember what I said in the last section. Your arms are not meant to do the paddling here. That sounds counterintuitive, I know, but it is actually your torso that is going to do the heavy lifting here.

Keeping your arms in that box shape, you want to wind your torso so the blade of the paddle turns and is about where your feet are. Then dip down and pull back while still maintaining the paddler’s box. Follow the blade with your eyes so your torso follows and twists to avoid using your arms.

When the blade reaches where your torso is, twist the blade so it slices out of the water.

Repeat the same process for the other side and that is your forward stroke. 

Reverse Stroke

When you want to break or slow down your forward motion, then you need to use the reverse stroke. It’s the same concept as a boat that puts the engine in reverse to stop.

Once you’ve stopped the kayak, then you can continue to use the reverse stroke to back up or change your position to then go forward again.

How to paddle a kayak in reverse goes like this:

  • The drop phase: Wind your torso and immerse your blade fully on the side of the boat next to your hip. You’re starting with the blade behind your torso instead of where your feet are to do the reverse stroke.
  • The power phase: Rotate your torso as the blade moves in front of you. You’re pushing the water towards your feet in this maneuver.
  • The release phase: When your paddle blade is even with your feet, twist the blade like you did on the forward stroke and slice it out of the water. You may need to do this a few times and depending on how you want to position yourself you may only need to do this on one side and not a stroke on each.

Sweep Stroke

If you want to turn the kayak while you paddle then you’ll need to repeat the forward stroke but only on one side. 

For instance, if you want to turn right, then you need to do the sweep stroke on the left side. Have a point on the horizon you want to aim for and do as many strokes as it takes until your bow of the kayak is pointed towards it.

The stroke is exactly the same as the forward stroke where you will use your torso to pull the water towards you with the paddle.

Draw Stroke

When you need to draw closer to a pier or another kayak, you’ll need to use this stroke to pull your kayak broadside toward the object you are trying to get close to.

Rotate your paddle until it is horizontal and stretch your arm out as far as it can go. Now dip the blade into the water and pull your arm in closer to you. The blade will pull the water towards you and draw the kayak sideways towards the area you want to get closer to.

Stop before the blade hits the hull. If it does hit the side of the kayak and end up underneath the hull somewhat, don’t push the blade through the water. Let go with one hand and when the blade comes back out then raise it from the water. You don’t want to risk capsizing at this point.

Repeat as often as it takes until you get where you need the kayak to be.

Sit Up Straight

The last tip on how to paddle a kayak is about your posture. Make sure that you are sitting up straight so your core muscles can function properly. They are going to be doing the work of propelling your kayak and should be opened up. This can only happen if you sit up straight. If you are slouched you will likely strain your back or end up using your arms instead of your torso and get fatigued really fast.

Good posture will make sure that you are able to stay out on the water as long as possible without exerting yourself or getting over tired.

Take Frequent Breaks

Even if you are in good shape and using your torso to paddle properly, you’ll need to make sure that you don’t overdo it. Take a few strokes and coast so you aren’t constantly straining yourself to keep moving. Stop once in a while and have a drink of water. 

Don’t forget that you have to get back to the launch at some point so if you get too tired the way back can be taxing if not dangerous if you are too tired to paddle.


While it may seem easy, and it is really, paddling is somethign that has to be perfected. If you think you already know how to paddle a kayak, then make sure you read these tips to know if you may be doing it improperly.

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