Basic Paddling Skills


The best way to get started is to take a few classes from a certified (ACA, BCU, etc.) instructor.  Many kayak outfitters have instructors on staff and some give free or discounted lessons when you purchase a kayak from them.  Take advantage of their offers if possible.  If no classes are available locally, join a kayak club and find someone who can give you some good pointers. Sometimes just having another person who can watch you while you are paddling and give you some advice makes all the difference.  You will find more pleasure in your kayaking a lot faster with some good instruction up front.

If you don’t understand some of the terms used here, check out our page on Kayaking Terminology.


When paddling you will have a control hand and a “floating” hand.  The control hand keeps a light grip on the paddle at all times while the “floating” hand holds the paddle more loosely allowing the paddle shaft to rotate within the hand.  In general, if you are right-handed then your right hand will be the control hand, but this is not always the case.  You will need to experiment a bit to find what it most natural for you.


These are the basic strokes that you should work on during your first weeks – or months.  All other strokes are based upon these or are add-ons to these, so concentrating on getting these few basics correct will help you all along the way.

Paddle Rest Position
First, adjust your seat, backrest and foot pedals. Sit in the cockpit in flat water, adjust the seat so that you are sitting straight up or leaning just a bit forward.  Your seat back or back band is not a lounge chair, its purpose is to keep you in the seat when you press forward on the foot pedals.  The back rest or back band should cup the top of your hips and the base of the small of your back. Now bend your knees a little, turning your knees a bit to the outside (a little like a frog) and adjust your foot pedals so that the balls of your feet are on the pedals, your heels on the bottom of the hull and your knees are just slightly raised.  From this position you should be able to easily raise your knees and/or thighs just a bit and lock them under your thigh braces or the underside of the deck.  Relax your legs and your thighs and knees will lower a fraction leaving a small gap.  Tighten your thighs/raise your knees and they resume contact with the boat.  Most of the time your legs will be relaxed, but when you need contact with the boat – for edging, when you get hit by a wave, boat wake or cross current, or want to make a sharp turn – it only takes a split second to brace yourself in the boat.

Next, make sure you are holding the paddle correctly. The paddle should be held with the long side of the blades on the top and the slightly scooped side (usually with the paddle maker’s logo) facing you. Your hands should loosely hold the paddle in an overhand grip (fingers curled around the top, thumb around the bottom) and your hands should be about shoulder-width apart with your elbows at about a 90-degree angle. Relax your shoulders.  This is what we call the “paddle rest” position – relaxed and alert.  You are now “one with the boat”.  When you shift position slightly, the boat will move.  When the boat moves with the water you can feel any slight shift in balance and easily compensate.  You should feel relaxed and comfortable.

Originally we had a bunch of text here to describe the strokes, but since “a picture is worth a thousand words” we’ve replaced them with links to videos.  The only problem we had in finding appropriate videos is that almost all of them are created by high-angle kayak sprinters, racers, white-water enthusiasts, and all-out ocean kayakers rather than low-angle touring and recreational kayakers. Not that they are incorrect but they emphasize short-term speed over long-range comfort and endurance.  But we have found a few to help you get started, particularly for the all-important forward stroke.  (For the difference between high-angle and low-angle, see our Paddles page.)

Forward Stroke
The forward stroke helps you and your kayak move (duh!) forward. Since probably 90% of your paddling will involve this basic stroke, it’s wise to practice it until it feels natural to you – you will build up muscle memory as you paddle.

For one of the best videos we have found for the total picture of the forward stroke, click HERE. Notice around 5:35 the red life jacket zipper moving back and forth as the torso rotates from the hips but the head remains in the same position.  It also shows using the legs to help with the stroke.

Another really great video that covers both low and high-angle can be found HERE.

Finally, here’s another video that emphasizes a Low-Angle Forward Stroke.

In contrast, see this video for High-Angle Forward Stroke.


When practicing your forward stroke, remember these things:
Arms and hands are used for guiding the paddle into and out of the water, strength comes from the big muscles in your torso – not your arms.  If your upper arms and shoulders are really sore at the end of the day you aren’t doing it properly.

While your torso twists from side to side (or winds and unwinds, as some instructors explain it), keep your head and center of gravity in the same position in the middle of the kayak, facing forward.

Keep your upper hand level throughout the stroke.

Keep your back straight, your feet planted on the pegs, and your knees/thighs braced in the boat.

Keep the paddle along the side of the boat – within 6 inches or so – not way out to the side.

Get the whole paddle blade in the water, not just the tip or the lower edge.

Keep the paddle face (the scooped side) perpendicular to the water throughout the stroke.

Don’t grip the paddle too tightly. If your knuckles are white, you’re holding it way too tight!  If your hands are sore at the end of your paddle you are holding it way too tight.  You’ll may also get blisters, increase fatigue, and can strain your wrists and elbows.

Experiment with both unfeathered and feathered blades until you find what feels most natural for you.  If you have paddled unfeathered for some time and switch to feathered (or vice versa) it will feel strange until muscle memory takes effect.  So give yourself several paddling sessions to try the switch.  And do try both to see which works best for you.

Keep your upper hand between chest and ear-level.  Raising your upper hand too high can lead to shoulder injury.

If you find your hands wandering along the paddle (several inches inside or outside of shoulder-width) try placing a couple of wraps of electrical tape just inside of where your hands should be placed as a gentle reminder.

Your push muscles are stronger than your pull muscles.  Push with your upper arm and guide (don’t pull too hard) with your lower arm.

If you see the bow of your boat wobbling wildly from side to side as you paddle on the right then the left, your strokes are too strong.  Try relaxing a bit and pull less strongly on each side. Just like with a bicycle, to go faster speed up your cadence (stroke rate) rather than taking bigger bites of the water.

Reverse (or Back) stroke
Being able to back up in a fairly straight line is obviously needed at times and the stroke is also used to slow down or stop, while staying straight.

Video:  Reverse Stroke

Things to remember for the reverse stroke:
Keep the paddle back (the non-scooped side) perpendicular to the water throughout the stroke.

Keep your elbows slightly bent to avoid joint damage.

Keep your head facing straight ahead.

Glance back over your shoulder every couple of strokes to make sure of your direction.

Your push muscles are stronger than your pull muscles.  Push with your lower arm and guide (don’t pull too hard) with your upper arm.


Forward Sweep
Sweeps are used to turn the boat.  A forward sweep (sometimes just called a sweep) will turn the boat away from the side on which you are paddling.  So a forward sweep on the right side will turn the bow of the boat to the left and a forward sweep on the left side will turn the bow of the boat to the right.  Back sweeps turn the boat in the opposite direction from a forward sweep.  So a back sweep on the right side will turn the bow of the boat to the right and a back sweep on the left side will turn the bow of the boat to the left. Do not confuse a back sweep with a stern pry or rudder stroke.  Sweeps are for slow or small adjustments to your heading over time, while rudders and prys are for abrupt changes.  (See below for rudder and pry strokes.)

Video:  Forward and Back Sweeps  and another good one is HERE.

Things to remember for sweeps:
Power the stroke from your torso, not your arms.

Keep the paddle fully immersed in the water.

Keep your elbows extended but NOT straight.  Always keep your elbows relaxed and slightly bent to avoid elbow and shoulder damage.

Remember to keep your hands low so you can reach effectively.

Keep your head facing forward and your body centered in the boat.

You’ve probably already figured it out, but by combining a back sweep on one side and rotating immediately into a forward sweep on the other side you can turn in a complete circle.  Practice these sweeps until you can spin in a circle on flat water.


So now you can maneuver the boat forward and backward and turn to the right and to the left. What else do you need?

Draw Stroke
How about moving sideways?  Let’s say you need to approach a dock.  You head towards it, execute a nice forward sweep but you pull up just out of reach of the dock.  You could paddle out and try it again or ask someone to throw you a line, but if you know the draw stroke you can slide sideways a couple of feet to bring you right up to the dock or shoreline.

Video for Draw stroke with out of water recovery
Video for Draw stroke with in-water recovery (very elegant)

Another good Draw Stroke video.

Things to remember with the draw:
Stay upright in the boat.  DO NOT LEAN out over the paddle – it’s a good way to get a mouth full of dock. (We speak from experience here!)  If anything, lean away from the stroke.  It will be less efficient, but you won’t fall in the water right at the dock which, if nothing else, can be very embarrassing, especially when done in front of fisherfolk and other kayakers.

Don’t reach out too far.  The draw stroke can be powerful and it’s easy to over extend and end up in the water.

Make several small quick strokes rather than one long one.

Keep your body centered over the boat.

Don’t reach out to the dock until it is near your elbow.  Again, we’ve ended up in the water a few times by over-reaching.

Stern Rudder – Stern Pry/Stern Draw
With a stern pry or stern draw stroke you place your paddle in the water with the blade behind your hips and parallel to the boat.  Then you flip it out to the side causing the stern to jerk away from the side with the paddle. Do a stern pry on the right side and the stern is pushed to the left so the bow comes around to your right.  A stern draw on the right side will pull your stern to the right so the bow comes around to your left.

While this stroke is quite effective while underway, it significantly cuts your momentum. Sweep strokes will maintain much of your momentum while still turning the boat but in moving water when a sharp little correction is needed to avoid a rock or log the stern rudder can come in handy.  Especially when you combine it with a forward stroke or forward sweep.

Video for Stern Rudder

Edging is simply putting your boat over on its side.  With a different hull configuration in the water, you can generally turn more easily.  Edging is NOT leaning your body over to one side – that’s a good way to end up in the water. Edging can only be done while the boat is underway, that is, you have to have some momentum going.  To edge you lift one knee slightly and lower the opposite hip while keeping your torso and head straight up and over the center of the kayak.  If you want to edge on the right side, lift your left knee and lower your right hip. The right side of the kayak will dip lower in the water while the left side of the hull will rise. Combine edging with a sweep and/or low brace (see next stroke) and you can literally turn the boat within it’s own length. Edging is used a lot in intermediate and advanced boat maneuvering. Start practicing now so it will be second nature later on.

Why does it work? When you edge to the right, you are lifting a part of the left side of the hull out of the water, shortening the waterline.  You can make much more effective turns with less hull in the water. Practice edging with all of your strokes until you can paddle along for several minutes with the edge of your deck underwater.  Needless to say, the only way you can really go up on edge is if you are wearing a skirt, but even a slight change in the amount of hull below the water can make for shorter turns.

Videos for Edging Technique.
Edging vs Leaning
Quick turns with Edging
Are you doing it properly?
Edging for turning, surfing, and currents


Low Brace
The low brace can be used when you become slightly off balance to help prevent a capsize or it can be combined with an edge and a sweep to give you a sharp turn.  The “Low” in Low Brace means you keep both of your hands (and thus the paddle) low – below your elbows – and use the back side of the paddle against the water for support.  Basically, you are giving the surface of the water a short, sharp slap with the back side of your paddle.

Video Low “Anti-Capsize” Brace  and another HERE.  (Never mind that it’s a white-water kayak, the stroke is the same.)

Low Brace Turn
The low brace turn can only be done while your kayak is moving.  When done properly it can look quite elegant and impressive.  (Remember the fisherfolk at the dock?  Give them a show!) It’s a good turn to use when approaching a dock because it will give you a sharp turn while slowing you down almost to a stop.  It’s a combination of forward sweep, reverse sweep, and low brace.

Video HERE and HERE and HERE.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *