Kayaking for Beginners – Gear, Clothing & Destinations Guide

Think kayaking is just for the pros? Think again! Kayaking is an awesome activity for beginners to explore the great outdoors from a fresh perspective. It’s a unique way to escape the hustle, reconnect with nature, and get up close with waterways and ecosystems. Grab a paddle and let the rhythm of the water guide your next journey. New to the kayaking game? No sweat! Our guide is packed with all the essentials you’ll need to get started, from gear must-haves to finding the perfect paddling spots. We’ll help you shorten your learning curve, give the scoop on rentals, tours and lessons, and explore the health perks that come with this paddle-powered pastime.

copper harbor kayak rentals
Keweenaw Adventure Company – Copper Harbor, MI

Health Benefits of Kayaking

To improve or maintain your fitness, you need to be active; however, as we age or experience injury, many of us seek low-impact exercise. Kayaking is an ideal solution for those looking for a cardiovascular exercise with low impact to sensitive joints such as knees and hips. Plus, paddling a kayak is an excellent way to gain upper body and core strength.

Kayaking serves up a powerhouse of health benefits for both your body and mind.  Getting on the water, with the rhythmic motion of your paddling transcends mere physical activity—it becomes a meditative practice and wonderful stress reliever.  Find your zen while kayaking.

Beginners Guide to Kayaking

Although you can watch how-to kayak videos, nothing beats learning by holding a paddle in your hand. Learning to kayak is easy, but best done in-person. If you don’t know a family member or friend who can show you the ropes, learn the basics by renting a kayak from an outfitter. Your rental and/or tour may include a lesson and/or a guide who can give you pointers along the way, explain kayak terms, and help you with all the necessary kayaking gear for beginners.

Kayaking Gear Guide – Which Kayak is Right for You & the Destination

The right kayak for you depends on your level of skill, where you are kayaking, and if you are solo or in a pair. Here are the basic types of kayaks:

ultimate kayaking gear guide

Sit-In Kayak

Sit-in, or sit-inside, kayaks are used for river, lake, and sea kayaking trips. To prevent water from coming into the kayak, a skirt may be placed around the paddler to seal the cockpit. Thus, these kayaks are particularly useful in cold water destinations. Sit-in kayaks are very stable. However, the con of sit-in kayaks is the ease of getting in and out of the kayak, which can be a bit more difficult, especially in the middle of a lake!

sit on top kayak

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-on-top Kayaks are popular for rentals, especially in warmer lakes, rivers, and ocean trips. These kayaks are very stable and easy to get on and off. Sit-on-top kayaks are ideal for day trips and beaching.

Solo vs. Tandem Kayaks

All kayak types come in solo and tandem models. Your ideal choice should depend on two things: if you will be going alone or with another paddler and the weight of the kayak. Tandems are larger and can be more difficult to steer – but you also have the power of two people paddling.  Solo kayaks are much lighter and easier to transport than tandems.

inflatable kayak

Inflatable Kayak

Inflatable kayaks are growing in popularity because they are lightweight, strong and portable.  The technology to make inflatable kayaks has continued to improve, making them a great alternative to a traditional kayak that is safe, sturdy and reliable.  They are a great choice for rivers with small rapids, as they bounce easier off rocks than a hard shell kayak.

Kayak Paddle

A kayak paddle is a two-sided paddle allowing the paddler to utilize both upper body strength as well as his/her core muscles. Most kayak paddles come apart in the middle for easier transport. They can be made from plastic, wood, metal, or carbon fiber. Prices vary depending on the material, weight, and brand. Many experienced kayakers recommend getting a paddle leash for when (not if) a capsizing or messy put in or take out event happens.

Kayaking Gear – It’s More than Just the Vessel

If you plan on transporting your kayak, you will need tie down straps and/or a roof rack for your vehicle. Visit a kayaking outfitter near you for selecting the right kayak, tying down the kayak, and securing the other necessary kayaking equipment: life vest and a waterproof drysack.  These two essentials in kayaking safety prepare you for the inevitable capsizing occurrence.

What to Wear for Kayaking

For an in-depth review of what to wear kayaking, check out what to wear kayaking guide. 

The attire for kayaking depends on the weather conditions where you will be paddling. The basics are good water shoes, SPF clothing, a hat, quick dry apparel, and neoprene gear/wetsuit.

Kayak Footwear

The best kayak footwear assists with your put in (launching the kayak) and take out (returning to dock/land) of the kayak. Both of which can be dangerous with a slippery surface or jagged rocks. Most seasoned kayakers choose sandals that have durable soles and toes; plus, they dry quickly. Some reputable brands are Keen, Teva, and Merrell.

Kayaking Clothes

Avid adventurers know that you must prepare for the weather. Many kayak trips expose paddlers to the sun; so, sun protection is crucial. SPF sunscreens can help protect, but the best combo is to use sunscreen as well as SPF clothing. Many designers make lightweight, quick-dry, long sleeve shirts for water sports lovers. Also, wearing a hat is wise; however, choose appropriately for the amount of wind and other elements.

The rest of your kayaking outfit is determined by the setting in which you are paddling. If you are in warmer temperatures, paddlers only need a bathing suit and/or quick dry shorts and top. However, if you are paddling in colder waters like many mountain lakes, rivers, and white water rapids, paddlers opt for neoprene apparel from tops, wetsuits, socks, and gloves.

Kayak Camping Gear List

If you plan on taking your time or doing a longer paddle, you may want to consider kayak camping. Some of the best wildlife and mother nature’s masterpieces come out after everyone else has returned his/her kayak and is heading back home. Kayak camping is a great way to break up a longer trip as well as to get back to basics. Although there are many camping niceties, you want to stick to lightweight, waterproof items as you will be getting wet and under your own power.

Stick to this simple gear list:

  • Lightweight tent with rain fly
  • Camping pad(s)
  • Lightweight sleeping bag rated for the temperature
  • Small gas stove
  • Camping pot, cup, and utensils
  • Dehydrated food
  • Water filter
  • Pocket knife or leatherman
  • Headlamp
  • Drysack for all of your gear – The best have backpack straps to assist in hauling to campsite
  • Extra set of dry clothes and camp shoes – Wash out your clothes at the end of each day with an extra set ready for you. Don’t forget to dry out your kayaking shoes at camp at night.
  • Lighter for lighting the gas stove is starter doesn’t work as well as if campfires are permitted
  • Whistle

Kayak Safety Equipment

Regardless of what type of kayaking you select , make sure that you are a competent swimmer. Not all, but most kayak trips include at least one spill. For safety, many recreation areas require every kayaker to wear a personal floatation device (PFD). Although cell service is available for some kayaking trips, you may want to investigate purchasing a satellite communication device for any emergencies that occur outside of cellular service.

Best Places to Kayak in the United States

Once the kayak gear and kayaking clothing is covered, the next question is often: where to kayak near me?!  Here are some favorite kayaking destinations across the US, as well as routes and outfitters along the way.

Flatwater River Kayaking

crystal river fl kayaking

Crystal River, Florida

For a dose of real Florida, away from Disneyland and the neon lights of South Beach, head for Crystal River in Northern Florida. You can get close to nature by paddling alongside manatees, alligators, and countless bird species.  Crystal River is one of the top paddling destinations in Florida for a good reason.  We recommend private and small group kayak tours in Crystal River.

driggs idaho kayaking

Jackson, WY

For scenic kayaking with a high probability of wildlife sightings and gorgeous views of the Tetons, head to Jackson, Wyoming.  A favorite paddle there is Oxbow Bend on the Snake River, ½ mile below the Jackson lake dam. The highlights of this paddle include stunning scenery, grand views of the Tetons, and perhaps sightings of moose, river otters, bears, and more.  It’s a relaxing paddle with little to no rapids, perfect for the whole family!

Enjoy Napa Valley kayaking
Enjoy Napa Valley Kayak Tours

Napa, CA

Although Napa is world-renowned for its wine, the Napa River in California is a great spot to kayak with or sans wine. If you are looking to beat the crowds for a smooth, calm paddle, escape to Napa River for kayaking. Rent a kayak or SUP or try a guided tour to experience this local favorite in Napa Valley.

New River, Jefferson, North Carolina

The New River has a paddle for everyone. From relaxing day-trips to 5-day camping trips, the New River is very scenic. In fact, it is an American Heritage River. Rent a kayak for your paddle trip from local favorite and trusted TripOutside outfitter.

Flatwater Lake Kayaking

Lake Tahoe, California/Nevada

For an amazing scenic paddle with pristine nature all around you, head to Lake Tahoe.  This may be one of the most scenic lake paddles on earth.  However, be warned: the water looks very inviting, but it is rather chilly. Experts recommend layers and neoprene socks.

bwca kayaking

Boundary Waters Canoe Area, Minnesota

To escape the crowds, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is a perfect spot. You can decide to kayak or canoe through endless routes covering multiple lakes without traffic jams. This is an ideal destination for kayaking and canoeing, as well as camping. For all your gear rental and insider’s information, check out Ely Outfitting Company or Piragis Northwoods Company in Ely, MN on the western edge of the wilderness.

lake powell kayaking

Page, AZ – Lake Powell 

Even though Arizona is known for being a dry state, it has some amazing lakes. Paddling Lake Powell near Page, AZ offers incredible views of the red rocks surrounding the lake and calm, refreshing waters. A local favorite is paddling majestic Antelope Canyon. For the best in tours and/or rental, check out Lake Powell Paddleboards and Kayaks.

Sea Kayaking

Kama'aina Kayak and Snorkel Eco-Ventures
Kama’aina Kayak and Snorkel Eco-Ventures

Kane‘ohe, Oahu, Hawai‘i

For calm, protected sea kayaking in Oahu, He’eia State Park right on Kaneohe bay is a local favorite. Its pristine reef provides a great backdrop for so many marine life sightings such as sea turtles (honu), dolphins, rays, tropical fish, and more. Kayaking this protected bay will be the highlight of your trip to Oahu!

Everglades National Park, Florida

Uncover the beauty of the Everglades National Park up close and personal via kayak. Witness manatees, alligators, dolphins, and numerous birds like nowhere else.  TripOutside has vetted the best Everglades kayak gear and guided adventures for your adventure.

Laguna Beach, CA

For an unforgettable paddle along an amazing coastline, Laguna Beach is the ultimate. With a 25,000-acre marine preserve, you are bound to spot abundant sea life, including sea lions, dolphins, and whales on your Laguna kayak adventure.

River Kayaking with Rapids

arkansas river kayak rentals

Salida, CO

For some of the best river kayaking, take a full day or half-day to paddle along the Arkansas River in Colorado. The river offers exciting rapids surrounded by the beauty of the Rockies – this area boasts 14 peaks over 14,000 feet!  Locals recommend inflatable kayaking – book with the best, whether you want a rental or guided adventure.

Moab, UT

With an epic backdrop of the red rock canyons of Moab, Utah, you can’t go wrong with a kayak adventure whether on the Colorado or Green Rivers. These paddle trips are worth writing home about for sure. Learn more adventures in Moab including pack rafting and canyoneering in our Moab podcast!

Upper James River, Virginia

The Upper James River in Virginia has some incredible kayaking, rafting, and float opportunities. Enjoy the great mountain scenery and small class I and II rapids, depending on the section you chose to float.  Whether you want to rent gear, get a shuttle, or a tour, find the best local outfitters.

bend kayak rental
Bend Kayak School

Deschutes River, Bend, Oregon

The Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon is an adventurous spirit’s choice for river kayaking with gorgeous views as well as rapids. To gear up and get local knowledge about the river and Bend, hit up Bend Kayak School.

Power Your Next Adventure via Kayak

After getting our expert tips, tricks, and recommendations of the best U.S. kayaking destinations and kayak gear guide, it’s time to exchange your gas pedal for a paddle. Power your next adventure via kayak. Ready, set, paddle!

Happy Kayaking!

Post contributed by Author and Adventurer, Heidi Siefkas. Her favorite kayaking destinations listed above are Crystal River, Florida as well as O‘ahu Hawai‘i.

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