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22 Ways to Improve Your Kayaking Skills Forever

Practice rolling to improve your kayaking skills

We paddle because it’s fun and relaxing and sometimes challenging and risky. When it isn’t fun, it’s usually because our skills aren’t up to the challenge. In those circumstances, we can either grit our teeth and deal with it, or we can try to improve our skills so that next time we can smile and laugh instead of grinding the grit from our teeth. Improve your kayaking skills and kayaking techniques today by trying one or more of these 22 ideas.

  1. Set up a training schedule. As with any physical activity, if you train for it, you grow your skills. Although you might rather stand on your head and drink Tabasco sauce than get out and train, I have news for you: Training for kayaking is fun, because as the old clich√© goes, “A bad day of kayaking is better than anything else on Earth.” To set up your training schedule pick a couple of days during the week that you’re going to go out and work on rusty skills. If you need help coming up with ideas, I’d suggest doing sets of forward and reverse sweep 360 degree turns, high and low braces, rolls, reverse paddling, draws, side slips and sprints.
  2. Learn freestyle canoeing. Yes, I used the dirty word “canoeing” in an article about kayaking. Freestyle canoeing, also known as canoe ballet, uses balance to make a highly-leaned canoe do what doesn’t even look possible. Check out this video of Karen Knight to see an example. Freestyle canoeing is all about the conservation of energy. It’s about turning your canoe quickly with minimal work, and to top it off, you only get one blade to pull it off. As Karen Knight says, it’s “about doing more with less energy.” If you even learn a few techniques like posts and axles, your draws, rudders and side slips will feel easy.
  3. Take a course. Many kayakers never take a kayaking course, because everything seems so easy. The main problem is that you’re setting yourself up to experience the Dunning-Kruger effect. Just read the four points below about the D-K, and I shouldn’t need to say more.

    1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
    2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
    3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
    4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

  4. Plan and succeed on a long trip. There’s nothing like reaching the take-out after a long and successful trip. You just want to howl at the moon, to scream at the sun, to high five your partner and basically smile while gloating about how cool you are. If a successful trip doesn’t increase your enthusiasm to kayak more, then maybe you should take up yo-yoing. Plus, you gain the experience of planning and carrying out a mission. While it might not seem to be, trip planning is a kayaking skill, because every time you get on the water, you’re taking a paddling trip.
  5. Spend lots of time in the seat. Someone once told me that the difference between kayakers is the amount of time in the seat. You can take all the courses and lessons that you can afford, but unless you get out on the water in all kinds of conditions, all that training does nothing for you. You need seat time to practice and refine your techniques, and the only way to get that is to paddle, paddle and paddle.
  6. Fail at a tough trip. Failing sucks. It sucks big time. It’s depressing. It’s demoralizing, but it teaches a lesson. When you fail, you can usually trace it to one or more specific reasons, and you should take the time to figure out why you failed. Next time you attempt a tough trip, incorporate the lessons learned to give yourself a better chance at success.
  7. Get pounded in the surf. I don’t know about you, but I’m afraid of water. It’s a deep seated fear that comes from being thrown into a swimming pool multiple times as a kid until I passed the highest levels of swimming certification at the YMCA. And surf looks scary, because it’s scary water that becomes all bubbly, foaming and really tall. When you get pounded in the surf and survive, you get used to it, and it doesn’t look so scary the next time around. After awhile, racing down a wave’s face, being pushed by a mass of foaming froth becomes fun.
  8. Learn to roll. Swimming after you flip your kayak is fine and all if you like to swim, but it takes too much energy to get back into the boat. If you learn to roll, you just pop back up in a few seconds. It’s soooooo sooooo so much easier.
  9. Braces! Braces! Braces! Braces keep you upright. When you’re upright you can breath. Therefore, braces keep you breathing. I think that logic sounds sound.
  10. Paddle with someone better than you. When you paddle with someone that’s better than you are, you can push your skills and know that someone is around to help you out if you get into trouble or have questions. Also, watching a more skilled paddler can help you learn what you need to do.
  11. Teach someone a skill you’re good at. There’s an old saying, “Those that can do, do, and those that can’t, teach.” In kayaking, that just isn’t true, because if you’re going to teach the skill, you need to show that skill. When you learn to teach something correctly, you improve your skills, because you need to know everything about it.
  12. Go to a symposium or gathering. A symposium is what happens when you take a bunch of kayakers with different skill levels, different ideas on what kayaking is, different ideas about teaching, and put them in a bag, shake them up and then dump them out on the beach. They’re good places to learn new skills or new takes on old ones.
  13. Dream. Go kayaking, find a remote beach with tree, set up a hammock and dream. Think of life as a circle that starts with dreaming. You pick a dream to live in, make the dream come true, and then let it fade away. Afterwards, you go back to dreaming another dream. To improve your kayaking skills forever, you always need to dream something into existence.
  14. Kayak up against a rocky shoreline in waves. Not only is this the best way to make it look like you paddle your shinning new kayak by coating it with deep scratches, it also requires that you use draws, braces and almost every skill in your quiver. Just make sure to protect your head with a sturdy helmet.
  15. Learn to land on cliffs. So, we determined that somewhere along the line you can avoid swimming if you roll. All true, but if you want to land on cliffs, you take a swim, climb up the cliff and pull your boat to shore afterward. Although it can be dangerous, it’s also a blast, plus it builds the skills needed to land on rough shorelines.
  16. Practice reentry and rolling. It takes a long time to get back into your boat after a swim. Not only is reentry and rolling faster, but it increases your sense of being part of the boat, because you need to use tactile feelings in your legs to make sure everything is in the right place for rolling. Kayakers often forget about using their legs — out of sight and out of mind — but your legs help propel the boat and more. Develop that feel and use your legs.
  17. Crawl from stern to stem. Paddle out to deep water, sit on the rear deck of your kayak and crawl to the stern. Then crawl to the bow, spin around on the bow without falling in and go back to the stern. Do laps. This exercise builds better balance. You might want to make sure that nobody sees you, because it looks pretty silly.
  18. Stand up. Seriously. Just stand up in your kayak. Just do it.
  19. Tow someone for a mile. Towing someone for a mile doesn’t sounds like fun, unless you’re the towee and you get to lean back and drink a cocktail, but it does teach you how bad your forward stroke is. It also prepares you for those times when you actually need to tow an injured, tried or sick paddler. The day after you finish the tow, if your arms hurt more than your torso, you probably need to work on torso rotation. What’s torso rotation, you ask; read this article by Oscar Chalupsky and Greg Barton to learn more.
  20. Paddle a different kayak. Your boat feels like an old pair of worn jeans. So, why would you buy anything else until you put holes in its knees? Because, a different kayak might test your skills in different ways. It’ll feel like you need to relearn all your strokes to make the new boat perform like your old. After the break-in period, you might find a new favorite pair of pants, or you might find that your old pair fits even better than before.
  21. Give a slide show about kayaking. When you give a slideshow about a kayaking trip, you’re forced to pick the best and worst moments to talk about. Those moments can teach you something about yourself and also about your kayaking skills.
  22. Navigate in the fog. Unlike in cartoons, when a character cuts a hole through pea soup fog to see the other side, you can’t do that in a kayak. You just need to paddle and use your compass to find your direction and your watch to figure out how far you’ve come. Holding a course with a compass and no landmarks can quickly show you if your forward stroke needs work or if you need new glasses.


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  • Awesome list Bryan! I can only check 9 items off of the list (9.5 if I include my solo canoeing as half a point), but I’ll keep working on it. There are not a lot of cliffs here in Saskatchewan and there haven’t been any sea kayak symposia here. I can travel to find cliffs and looks like I’ll have to plan a symposium. Want to come up to lead a couple of symposium sessions?

  • Hi Bryan,
    Great List with lot of valid points. I also struggling to get far over half of the points. Technically it looks not too bad for me :-) But everything time related I have to admit that I fail to pass those points.
    Good to see, that you recommend partly the same things I regular do, when I am on the water with my daughters (play with the boats, play with the water).

    I totally agree to the “Seat” point – I both meanings. The “paddle, paddle, paddle” thing and the other one – the “comfort” thing. I recently bought an old Nordkapp and expected the seat to be the Problem, but it wasn’t. The “new” Footrest build in from the former owner is the Problem. After two hours paddling I got a cramp in both thighs… . This point is also related to the “different Kayak” point.


    • I hope you’re enjoying the Nordkapp despite the footrest problem. I’m always surprised that more people don’t play around on their boats. In our kayaking club, I’m usually the only person trying to stand in the boat or doing the fun stuff.

      • Yep – the Nordkapp (a 1977 one) is a great design. Paddles nearly effortless.

        I am not a club member but have to agree – you nearly never see some one playing around with any kind of boats. I restarted again playing around with my boats, when I started teaching my kids. That’s the way I learned it decades ago – a escape back to childhood :-) Feels good.
        Most of the audience is shaking heads and criticizes me not being “serious” when I teach my kids. But we love it that way – so who cares.

  • Great article, every point a winner. this should be required reading for all our club members.

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