Photo: Beth Skwarecki
To clear your head and move easily, the only thing that beats walking is getting on the water. I’m lucky enough to live close enough to a lake that I can go kayaking at sunset for a few days a week, where I watch birds and sometimes just bring a snack, drop anchor, and swim a bit.
I finally bought my own kayak a few years ago and I have absolutely no regrets. It took kayaking from something I did when the weather was fine and the rentals were open to something I can do anytime. Here’s what you need to know if you want to join me.
Rent a kayak before buying one
Before buying a kayak – which is a good option if you know you will be using it often – it is wise to rent one a few times. If you don’t have a way to store and transport it, renting it might be your only option anyway. (There are inflatable and foldable models, but more on that another time.)
My kayaking experience is mainly on rivers and lakes; I don’t know about sea kayaking even though I’ve heard it’s a thing. I’m also a fair weather kayaker so don’t ask me about wetsuits or skirts or how to perform a role.
If you want to paddle down a river, the rental equipment will take you a few miles up the river and you will meet them at the end. This is difficult to do alone without friends and several cars.
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A chiller experience is renting a kayak in a location by a lake and going out for an hour or whatever you feel like doing. Almost every state park where I live has a lake, and almost every lake has a place where you can rent canoes, single and double kayaks, and sometimes a selection of other watercraft such as row boats, pedal boats, and stand-up paddleboards.
The site will give you all the necessary equipment (boat, paddle, life jacket), give you a crash course on how to propel and steer your boat, and warn you of all parts of the lake that you should stay away from.
Do you get wet on a kayak?
The inside of a sit-in kayak is a relatively dry place, but no guarantees. My personal rule of thumb when planning a trip on the lake is to assume that one day I might turn the boat around and throw myself and my belongings overboard. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m prepared.
It is also only wise to get dressed to get wet as the paddle will leak and you may have to wade in the water to get in and out of your boat.
On a typical day, I wear shorts and waterproof sandals and dress as usual from the thighs up (t-shirt or whatever). I attach my car keys to my belt. I put my phone in a plastic bag and put it in a zip pocket or belt pouch, or leave it in the car. Sometimes I bring an old phone with me because a deactivated phone can still call 911 in an emergency.
How do you paddle at all?
The first time out in a kayak, you’ll focus on practical considerations, like how the hell am I controlling this thing. It’s okay if you don’t think any further. (here, by the way, is a video that shows you how to control this thing.)
If you don’t care how far or how fast you go, you can go without instructions. You certainly don’t need a class just to frolic around a calm lake. However, if you want to move skillfully on the water or use paddling as a workout, learning a technique will help.
A proper paddle stroke uses your torso and lats (upper back) to pull the paddle towards you as you brace your body against the boat. You may also have sore deltoids (shoulders) the first time after lifting the free end of the paddle out of the water. All in all, a tough paddling session falls somewhere between cardio and strength training.
What should i do in a kayak?
Once you get used to the mechanics of paddling, it’s time to go exploring in your small boat. Even on the little lake in my county park, I know that if I start at one end, I have a few choices of where to go and I may see different wildlife in different parts of the lake.
For me, observing nature is the most beautiful thing, because I like birds and cool animals and often see animals by the lake that I don’t see in my garden just a few kilometers away. There is often a great blue heron somewhere in the shade, perhaps a green heron hunting for fish at the bottom of the marshy end of the lake, a colony of swallows scurrying around to catch beetles, and the occasional swimming muskrat. The other day, an osprey circled overhead a few times before finally splashing in to catch a fish. Once I saw a dark brown figure swimming in front of me, and I paddled softly closer, only to see it dive down and hit its tail into the water. A beaver!
(If you love fishing, a boat allows you to fish in parts of the lake that you can’t get to from land. I don’t know about kayak fishing, but if you are a fisherman I am sure you will find out or find someone to do it.)
If you can get an anchor (from $ 10 at your local bait shop plus whatever it costs for a line), you can drop it in your favorite part of the lake and relax a little. This is a good time to pick up drawing supplies or a packed lunch. True to my “what if I fall in” rule, I just bring blank paper, not a filled sketchbook, and put my snacks in a paper bag instead of a sweet bento.
Kayaking with friends is more fun, but if you are bringing a dog or child please make sure they are safe. Children under the age of 12 should always wear a properly fitting PFD (Personal Flotation Device, also known as a life jacket), and no matter how good an idea seems, they should not be tied to the boat. Same goes for pets – yes, Your puppy needs a life jacket.
If you want to buy a kayak
If you enjoy paddling another paddler’s kayak, buying your own might be a good idea. Remember, you are now responsible for providing your own PFD, paddle, and any other accessories or safety equipment you may need.
For the kayak itself, you need to make a few decisions:
- Sit-in or Sit-on-Top? A sit-in kayak is the traditional way and will keep you a little drier. A sit-on-top is more convenient when you want to get on and off for a swim.
- How long? Long thin kayaks move faster and steer straighter. Shorter, wider ones are a little more stable on the sides, but your paddling won’t be as efficient.
- One person or two? Two-person (tandem) kayaks are usually longer and heavier, and they may not balance or maneuver properly if you paddle them with just one person inside.
- What is the weight limit? In addition to your own weight, consider whether you plan to bring a dog, child, or a picnic cooler with you.
Be sure to check the rules for paddling; For example, you need a boat launch permit. And think about whether you can pick up your boat yourself and attach it to the car; A lighter kayak is much more comfortable than a heavier one when you are usually alone.
In the end I got one very basic 10 foot sit-in kayak. I paddle on calm lakes where a little inefficiency isn’t a big deal and thought that I would do most of my trips on my own. The weight limit is enough that I can paddle it with a child, or my husband could paddle it alone. If I had a bigger budget, I would probably have gone for a longer, fancier boat – maybe even for two.
When pricing, keep in mind that you need a paddle, a PFD, and a car carrier, and you need a place to store them. (There are some clever storage options available so you can store your kayak on a wall or ceiling.) If storage is a potential dealbreaker, inflatable and foldable kayaks also exist – but more on that next time.