How Kayaking Works

By: Charles W. Bryant
Person adventuring outdoors with oar for extreme sports.
This white-water kayaker is getting his money's worth.
Toshi Kawano/Getty Images

You could zoom down a mountain river gorge as white-water mist pummels your face. Or maybe you'd rather navigate the serene waters of a placid mountain lake at sunset. Perhaps paddling in the shadows of urban skyscrapers is your cup of tea. If you seek thrills, you might enjoy an aerial maneuver in the pounding surf of the Pacific. Whatever your preference, kayaking has a lot to offer any outdoor lover.

The kayak is a versatile vessel. Depending on where you want to paddle, you can find a kayak tailor-made for the journey. Some are long, narrow and built for speed. Some are short, wide and can turn on a dime. They can be made from fiberglass, plastic, Kevlar and even wood. Some kayaks have you sit inside a cockpit with your legs extended in front of you. Some have a seat on top of an open cockpit, much like a canoe. The paddles can be short or long, curved or flat, parallel or offset -- but they're all two-sided. Deciding which kayak and what paddles to use depends on a variety of factors. In this article, we'll help clear up the confusion. We'll also learn about the history of the kayak, teach you about the gear you'll need and roll into some of the common maneuvers.


Types of Kayaks

Types of kayaks
2008 HowStuffWorks

There are several main styles of kayaking, and each one has a craft unique to its purpose. In order to understand more about the boats, give the following terms a look:

  • Stern - rear of the boat
  • Bow - front of the boat
  • Hull - kayak's bottom
  • Chine - the curve between the sides and the bottom
  • Rocker - amount of curve from bow to stern that sits above the waterline
  • Flare - angle of the sides, outward from the hull

Sea kayaks or touring kayaks are long, stable and have plenty of interior and exterior cargo room. They have flat hulls, hard chines and are wide, giving them great flare. This makes them less maneuverable, but fast on a straight line. They also glide further per stroke, so they're more efficient than their short, sporty cousins. They can come in one-seat or two-seat varieties and many have rudders to help steer them. You can sit inside the hull of a sea kayak, or go with one that allows you to sit on top -- more like a canoe.


White-water kayaks are shorter and a little less stable but are far more maneuverable. They're also more durable and built to handle the beating that white-water rapids offer. Typically about 8 to 9 feet long with rounded hulls, they have softer chines and minimal flare. This helps them in performing tricks and rolls because less of the kayak makes contact with the water. They also have a great deal of rocker, once again limiting the contact with the water. All white-water kayaks are "sit inside" vessels, and they never have rudders.

Surf kayaks aren't too different from the white-water models. One major difference is the rocker. Surf kayaks have rocker only on the bow side -- the stern is flat, like a surfboard. Many surf kayaks also have fins like a surfboard.

Surf kayak
Steven Meredith in action during the men's Surf Ski race at the National Surf League competition held at Surfers Paradise Beach on the Gold Coast, Australia.
Darren England/Getty Images

Kayaks are made from many different materials. Surf kayaks are also almost exclusively fiberglass -- white-water models are often made from plastic. This is because traditional plastics don't offer the light weight and stiffness of fiberglass. Sea kayaks are typically plastic as well, but can also be crafted from wood. Some newer white-water kayaks are made from durable and lightweight Kevlar. The material used has the most impact on the price of the kayak. Plastic is the least expensive, but also the heaviest. Fiberglass is lighter than plastic, but costs about 20 percent more. Kevlar is the lightest and strongest of them all, but costs about twice as much as fiberglass. Weight is something to consider, because unfortunately, you'll spend more time out of the water than in it. This means lugging it around by hand and getting it on and off your car's roof rack.

You can also go with a traditional, soft-sided folding kayak or an inflatable model. Inflatable kayaks are lightweight and more durable than you'd think. Here's a general pricing guideline:

  • Plastic - $250-$1500
  • Fiberglass - $1,000-$3,000
  • Kevlar - up to $4,000
  • Inflatable - $250-$2,000
  • Folding - $1,300-$4,500

[source: kayakonline]

In the next section, we'll look at some other kayaking gear you'll need.


Kayaking Gear

HSW 2008

So you've got your kayak and you're ready to drop into the rushing rapids. Not so fast. There are quite a few other things you're going to need first. The most vital piece of gear aside from your boat is your paddle. Without a paddle, you might as well buy an inner tube and float downstream. As far as paddles are concerned, there are variations in the blade's length and shape, the shaft's length and shape and what it's made from. To decide which combination of features is right for you, consider what kind of paddling you'll be doing, how big your kayak is and how big you are. If you're short and not so strong, you'll want a shorter and lighter paddle. Wider and taller kayaks might require longer paddles.

As for the blade, there are several options. Wider blades touch more water, giving you greater acceleration. They also have more resistance, which means more effort on your end. A narrower blade will require more strokes, but less effort per stroke. Some blades are parallel to each other -- these are unfeathered. Blades offset at an angle between 70 and 90 degrees are called feathered. The angle cuts down on wind resistance as the blade not in the water is flat against the breeze. Blades also come curved or flat. The curved blade will increase the power of the stroke, while the flat ones help direct water around them. Paddles can be made from aluminum, fiberglass, graphite, plastic, carbon Kevlar and wood. To decide what paddle is right for you, it's best to try one out. If you can't, ask someone at your local outfitter store -- they'll steer you in the right direction.


kayak paddle
Kayak paddle -- note the curve and offset angle of the blade. This is called a feathered blade.

Another important piece of equipment is the life vest, known to kayakers as the fancier-sounding personal flotation device (PFD). You should always wear a PFD, whether you're in the rapids or floating on a calm lake. PFDs for kayakers feature larger necks, narrow shoulder straps and wide arm holes for maximum range of motion.

Spray skirts are another thing you'll need. This is what keeps you in the boat and keeps the water out. They basically look like minikayaks made from nylon or neoprene. The paddler puts on the skirt, which fits tightly around the waist, and then slips into the boat. Then the skirt connects to the cockpit to form a watertight seal. One thing to look for in a spray skirt is how easy you can get out of it. You'll want something easy to remove in case you find yourself accidentally capsized. Skirts are typically used in surf and white-water kayaking.

White-water kayakers will also want a good helmet. This will protect your noggin from the river rocks you'll be sure to encounter. Additionally, there are all kinds of extra goodies you can get for your kayaking adventures. Water bags seal in your valuables. Dry tops and pants help to keep you warm and dry. Neoprene booties give you great traction on slippery rocks. Gloves aren't a bad idea to prevent blisters during long days on the water. Grab a small anchor for your touring kayak if you want to stay in one place. For transport, roof rack systems for your car are the way to go.

On the next page, we'll look at some common kayaking techniques.


Basic Kayaking Techniques

Low brace
The low brace technique.
HSW 2008

If you've never been in a kayak, it might feel pretty unstable at first, and the paddle itself may frustrate you. Just getting the boat to go straight is a little tricky, so taking a beginner's class is a great way to get moving in the right direction.

It's best to start out in a calm lake to get the basic strokes down. Once you're in the water, pick out an object on shore and try to paddle toward it. You'll most likely find yourself zigzagging or going in circles at first. Keep your strokes short and close to the kayak -- the farther out the blade is, the more you'll turn. For a basic forward stroke:


  • Sit up straight.
  • Put the blade in the water near where your feet are.
  • Keep a relaxed grip.
  • Stroke deep.
  • Make even strokes on both sides to stay on a straight line.

Once you're moving in a straight line, you need to learn how to turn. One way is to use the paddle blade as a rudder. Drag the blade behind you in the water, close to the boat. The sharper the angle from your forward position, the more the boat will turn. The kayak will turn toward the same side as the blade. So if you want to go left, drag it on the left. Practice moving toward an object on shore and you'll get used to how long you need to rudder to correct your path.

This rudder action will slow the kayak down, so you should also work on a steering stroke to keep the boat moving forward. The forward sweep stroke is similar to the regular forward stroke. Put the blade in near your feet, but instead of paddling straight back, arc the stroke out more and bring it further back toward the rear of the kayak. The harder the stroke, the more you'll turn. Again, practice this stroke until you get a good feel for it.

Another widely used stroke is the low brace. This is used to avoid capsizing when you feel the kayak beginning to tip:

  • Pull the paddle in close to your belly, on the deck.
  • Stick your elbows out straight and high on each side.
  • Depending on what side you're tipping, put the back side of the blade flat against the water.
  • Apply downward pressure -- this will brace the boat and keep you from tipping further.
  • Use your hips to bring the kayak back under your body, while the blade keeps you steady.

These are just a few of the basic strokes. It's impossible to learn all you need to know by reading about it -- the only way to really get the hang of it is to try it out in the water. Touring kayaks are much easier to master than white-water boats. Never attempt to white-water kayak unless you've taken lessons and go with an experienced boater.

In the next section, we'll look at the history behind kayaking.


History of Kayaking

Inuit and kayak
Inuits continue the tradition of crafting boats from sealskin.
Flip Nicklin/Getty Images

The Inuit and Aleut tribes of Arctic North America were the first people to build and use kayaks. There were two basic types of kayaks at this point: One was built with light driftwood, while the others were made by stretching animal skins over frames made of whalebone. The tribe members used whale fat to waterproof the vessels. To improve buoyancy, they'd fill seal bladders with air and tuck them into the fore and aft sections.

In addition to the single-person versions that look like modern kayaks, they also used umiaqs -- larger kayaks that could carry entire families and their possessions. Some umiaqs were as long as 60 feet (18.3 meters). The smaller kayaks were primarily used for hunting. The word kayak actually means "hunter's boat." Kayaks are ideal for hunting because of their stealth nature. Inuits could sneak up on unsuspecting animals on the shoreline or in the water.


The kayak found its way to Europe in the early to mid-1800s as a soft-sided frame boat, and German and French men soon began kayaking for sport. Kayaks also maintained their practical use in icy waters -- explorers of the North Pole and South Pole carried them in their expeditions. Soon after, kayakers got a little adventurous. In 1931, a man named Adolf Anderle became the first person to kayak down the Salzachofen Gorge. This may have been the birth of modern white-water kayaking. The International Scale of River Difficulty was established not long after to classify how dangerous a river's rapids were -- the same classification system used today.

In 1936, the Olympics included kayak races in the Berlin games. The United States began to get on board at this point, as did women -- two years after the Olympics, Genevieve De Colmont paddled the white-water of the Green and Colorado rivers. Fiberglass "rigid" kayaks came on the scene in the 1950s and were the standard until polyethylene plastic took over in the 1980s. Kayaking enjoyed modest participation as a fringe sport in the U.S. until the 1970s, when it began to move more to the mainstream. Now the Olympic Games feature more than 10 different white-water kayak events.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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