Kayaking Lessons: Are They Really Necessary? (Facts to Know)

If you are the adventurist type, wanting to learn kayaking could be one of the multiple things on your bucket list. Maybe now is that phase of your life when you have both the time and the inclination needed to learn the sport. But do you need kayaking lessons to do that, or can you learn it all by yourself?

Kayaking lessons are not necessary, but they are strongly recommended. Kayakers that learn on their own are at a higher risk of developing bad paddling habits. These bad habits may not seriously affect recreational kayakers, but the performance of whitewater and touring kayakers may suffer greatly.

Before you kayak in local bodies of water or vacation spots across the globe, you have to know your basics. Keep reading to learn expert tips on how you could more effectively teach yourself how to kayak, as well as the little-known benefits of kayaking lessons that many first-timers overlook.

Why Kayaking Lessons are Recommended, But Not Necessary

Based on your interest in this introductory kayaking topic, you’re most likely looking to sign up for lessons to see if this water sport is for you. Right now, you probably do not have any intention of crossing whitewater rapids or venturing on all-day paddling expeditions.

Contrary to popular opinion, self-teaching and experimenting through trial and error is perfectly fine for getting a taste of the kayaking experience in most cases. If you’re still not convinced of this fact, keep reading.

You Can Easily Teach Yourself Paddling Basics

Various books and websites are dedicated to helping you learn the basic paddling strokes and practically everything you’ll need to get started with kayaking. You can do your research online and learn all about the essentials, like…

  • safe water locations that are favorable for kayaking
  • what to bring along for a journey on the water
  • how to maintain proper paddling posture
  • how to enter and exit a kayak without falling in

All of this knowledge can make a tremendous difference if you make a consistent effort to put this information to good use.

Numerous Tutorial Videos are Available Online for Free

The internet is a valuable beginner’s resource for an assortment of activities, including kayaking. Just do a simple search on the web, and you’ll be presented with massive amounts of kayaking information—both in the form of written articles and informative videos.

Sites such as YouTube, for instance, have thousands of videos on kayaking—covering everything from the basics to the advanced stuff. For example, here is a video that delineates what beginner kayakers should know before venturing out on the water:

If you’d like to learn certain kayaking tips and tricks—like how to choose a kayak, for instance—YouTube has tons of videos on those topics too. There’s basically no shortage of information on the web. You just need to scavenge for the answers you’re looking for. Thanks to Youtube’s algorithms and site design, you get similar video recommendations, setting you off on a learning spree without you having to seek out this information actively.

Not Everyone Plans to Kayak in Whitewater Conditions

You can kayak in various water locations, ranging from calm lakes or rivers with beautiful scenery to aggressive whitewater rapids that are rather unforgiving to paddlers.

If all these prospective paddling landscapes overwhelm you, you need not worry as you could learn how to paddle in one terrain at a time. In other words, you don’t need to plan on paddling in all kinds of kayaking conditions as a beginner. In fact, it’s an infrequent occurrence for novice kayakers to test themselves with whitewater kayaking for their first paddling experience.

As an amateur, you can start with laidback, slow-paced kayaking carried out in safe bodies of water, such as calm, peaceful lakes. The kayaks meant for this type of recreational paddling are purposefully designed with extra width, enhancing stability on flat waters. These recreational kayaks can be acquired for rent on lake home shores all across the country. Needless to say, such recreational kayaking doesn’t need formal training.

The Little-Known Benefits of Taking Kayaking Lessons

Though not necessary, taking proper kayaking lessons could go a long way in determining how you learn to kayak and how much you enjoy the sport. With proper guidance, you will learn vital skills, like how to paddle with correct technique, respond to hostile situations, and minimize exhaustion on the water.

But how do kayaking lessons promote these skills exactly?

Provides Beginners with an Extra Vote of Confidence

Paddling with poise and confidence comes from learning the different techniques the right way. Most self-teaching novice paddlers will experience an underlying sense of uncertainty because they don’t have a kayaking expert there for reassurance.

This uncertainty even applies to the most basic of paddling strokes: the forward stroke. Although this stroke appears fairly simple, it takes time to learn and master the subtle intricacies that separate a novice paddler from an expert paddler. A kayaking instructor can teach you these subtle intricacies right away, like how to correctly disassociate your upper and lower body and use your core to muscle the kayak through the water.

Plus, kayaking lessons expose you to paddling strokes that you never would’ve otherwise thought to use. This expanded repertoire of paddling strokes can come in handy, which will further fuel your confidence to tackle any situation thrown your way.

In addition, kayaking lessons emphasize self-rescue techniques, like how to re-enter a kayak after a capsize properly. When under shock or stress, kayak re-entry could be a tough move to pull off. Without an instructor by your side, you may doubt your own abilities and find it difficult to pick up on these critical self-rescue techniques.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from kayaking lessons is the removal of fear.

When treading waters, you should expect the unexpected or be prepared for mishaps. The confidence you derive from the skills you possess can go a long way in determining how efficient a kayaker you are. 

Upon learning the aforementioned fundamentals of paddling strokes and self-rescue techniques, you will not fear the water anymore. In fact, you may even develop a newfound respect for it.

You Avoid Developing Bad Paddling Habits

Individuals who are self-taught kayakers can certainly learn to paddle like the pros. However, the learning stage for self-taught kayakers may be much more prolonged than kayakers who immediately took formal lessons. Unfortunately, self-taught kayakers tend to waste much of their time trying to do things differently or reinventing the wheel.

Kayaking is no rocket science. But without proper coaching, you could be paddling in circles during the first thirty minutes of your starting session. During this trial and error process, you could also inadvertently learn some wrong paddling techniques or pick up certain bad habits.

A bad kayaking habit could be something as fundamental as not entering the cockpit of a kayak the correct way. In fact, even self-taught kayakers who might be paddling for decades may struggle to execute a roll or re-enter the boat in deep waters.

To give you an idea of why kayaking lessons can be so valuable, here’s a list of several other bad kayaking habits that amateur, self-trained paddlers are usually guilty of:

  • Choosing a large, turbulent body of water for kayaking.
  • Investing in the wrong boat or learning in a boat that’s not suited for a particular body of water.
  • Launching the boat from a mucky, steep, and rocky shoreline instead of a gentle, sloping sandy beach.
  • Not holding the paddle correctly. For the right hold, the paddle should be held with both hands slightly above shoulder-distance apart. The blade’s concave part should be facing the kayaker.
  • Paddling against the wind in a heavy breeze. Not sitting properly in the kayak is another mistake most beginner, self-taught kayakers make.
  • Paddling for too long and ending up exhausted as a result. It’s usually recommended to not paddle for more than two hours. Most beginner paddlers set off on an expedition that lasts more than a couple of hours.
  • Not wearing buoyancy aid or life jackets that permit increased movement around the neck and arms.
  • Dressing for the air temperature and not the water temperature. It could be hot and sunny outside, but the temperature of the water could be icy cold. Wearing a t-shirt and shorts to go kayaking would be a blunder in such weather conditions.
  • Not carrying alternate clothes. Carrying a backup set of clothes is strongly recommended when kayaking, even if you’re quite confident in your ability to keep the boat upright.
  • Perhaps the biggest mistake most beginner kayakers commit is kayaking alone. Kayaking by yourself is never a great idea – particularly if you are an amateur. Besides the companionship and fun element associated with paddling in groups, having a paddling buddy makes sure someone can help when things go wrong.

Most self-taught kayakers who realize their mistakes end up getting some form of formal training to complement or build on their existing skills.

Diversifies the Water Environments You Can Paddle In

Kayaking courses are usually classified based on the trainee’s skills and the kind of water one wants to kayak in. There are lessons dedicated to kayaking in rivers, coastal areas, lakes, and an assortment of other aquatic landscapes. Like tours in whitewater rapids, some kayaking expeditions require a much higher degree of formal training than others. 

You learn several worthwhile pieces of information when taking up kayaking lessons that pertain to specific waters. For example, you’ll learn what specific gear to buy and how to ensure your own personal safety in the event of a capsize (like bow rescue and wet-exit strategies).

As a beginner kayaker, you may assume that you would be content paddling shallow, protected waters. However, once you take your kayak classes—particularly the advanced ones—you realize there are more paddling water environments to explore.

For instance, upon learning how to manage tidal currents, you’ll be tempted to paddle around long barrier islands and see beautiful sights like uninhabited beaches, wide-stretching dunes, and wild horses. The possibilities are just endless.

Fortunately, local kayaking schools or clubs typically have lessons dedicated to kayaking in a diversity of aquatic landscapes. Some of these kayaking instructional programs even offer a discounted package where multiple classes are bundle up into one advanced course.

Decreases the Risk for Potential Injury 

Learning the right paddling techniques makes you more efficient and decreases your likelihood of getting injured. Knowing how to safeguard vulnerable joints, grip the paddle properly, and activate the appropriate muscle groups will ensure a safe, injury-free kayaking expedition.

Moreover, a kayaking class also trains you to think critically. In other words, you are taught how to assess certain safety scenarios and think beforehand. For instance, you’ll learn:

  • The distance you should paddle at a stretch
  • How to dress accordingly to the water temperature
  • Which water locations to avoid at all costs
  • How to interpret tides, water currents, and weather forecasts

If you’re a true paddling beginner, remember not to stray too far away from the shore. This is particularly important if you do not consider yourself a capable swimmer or have not had rescue training of any kind. 

As far as a kayaking outfit goes, kayaking classes would teach you how to dress for accidents—such as a boat capsize. If the water is less than 60 °F (15.5 °C) in temperature, you must wear a wetsuit. The exact type and nature of the suit is something you’ll learn about only when you take proper kayaking lessons.

Every kayaking instructor—and any experienced paddler—will tell you’ll need a life jacket or personal floatation device (PFD) to stay afloat when an accident occurs. The right PFD is the one approved by the United States Coast Guard (source)

For those of you that don’t know, there are different classes of PFD’s: 

  • Type I: Ideal for rougher, harsher sea conditions.
  • Type II and III: Suited for calmer waters where “quick rescue” chances are good. Compared to Type II, Type III PFDs are a lot more comfortable.
  • Type V: These PFDs are usually earmarked for specific uses. In other words, some of the Type V PFDs may not be suitable for kayaking. If you are looking to buy one, make sure you get the right kind.

Type IV does not fall in the category of PFDs as it is made to supplement an individual’s buoyancy already overboard. In other words, it’s not meant to be worn but held on to.   

If you’re not sure which vest would be ideal for safe kayaking, the USCG-approved Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest is recommended as it suits all kinds of water sport activities, including canoeing.   

How to Decide if Kayak Lessons are Right for You

Most people think learning paddling fundamentals is unnecessary. What these people overlook, however, is the fact that kayaking is more than just paddling. Even experienced, self-taught paddlers may struggle with stopping the boat on time or executing simple sharp turns. Boarding the kayak in deep waters is another move most paddlers may not be adept at.

If you want to learn all these skills at once and not do it through hard-fought trial and error, you need kayak lessons. But before you proceed any further, there are a few other things you must consider.

Establish What Your Kayaking Goals Are

Not all kinds of kayaking or kayaking goals require formal training. Based on your aptitude and interest in the sport, you could self-teach certain forms of kayaking. For instance, you don’t require lessons for kayaking on a lake. Lake kayaking can be fun and easy, even if your technique isn’t right. Watching a few videos on YouTube should help you get rolling or rowing.

Similarly, not all kayaking classes teach everything. In fact, there is only so much a class could cover in a specific period. Also, your brain can imbibe and process a certain amount of data within a period. Therefore, know your kayaking objectives and check whether the class you’re contemplating includes the lessons that cater to your specific requirements.

You should also know whether you want to kayak in whitewater, the ocean, or just lakes. You should look for classes that focus on kayaking safety if you are fairly adept at different paddling strokes but are unsure of specific safety measures, like rescuing yourself and others in the water.

Determine Whether Kayaking Lessons Fit Your Budget

The amount of time and money you spend on a kayaking class directly correlates with how much you end up learning. You should expect to spend anywhere between $100 to $450 for a series of six to ten classes. 

The prices could go up and down based on your region and the instructor. The costs also take into account other factors, such as:

  • The specific times you are learning
  • The amount of miles you get to practice paddling
  • The class to instructor ratio

Research Whether Any Reputable Kayaking Instructional Classes Offered Locally

Reputable kayaking classes get you a boat and all the necessary gear you need to get started. Most importantly, look for paddling instructors and schools certified and/or trained under the American Canoe Association programs (source).

Not all quality paddling instructors and schools have an ACA affiliation. Therefore, you may have to dig deep and do a lot more research to ascertain the quality of those non-affiliated institutes. Of course, it goes without saying that a kayak instructor should have solid teaching skills besides being a skilled kayaker.

To offer you a useful example, Kayak Chicago is a great place in my local area to learn all the ins and outs of sea kayaking (source). The classes combine on-the-water and on-the-beach lessons, offering the ideal learning environment. Urban Kayaks is another option that offers native Chicagoans a kayaking experience that helps avid adventurers explore the place in a unique and interesting way (source).


Learning to ride a bicycle doesn’t require formal training. Similarly, you don’t need kayaking lessons to learn how to paddle. Formal classes to learn the basics will waste time and money, particularly with so much free online information. However, if you have no clues about kayaking and are not an autodidact, you will find kayaking lessons to be extremely convenient.

Just make sure you find the right institute, like the aforementioned ones. Learn more about the teacher and find out what past students have to say before handing over your money.

If you want to excel at kayaking, treat kayaking lessons as a stepping stone. You may even have to experiment with a combination of learning resources to teach yourself how to kayak, like formal kayaking lessons, books, videos, and interactions with other paddlers. Continuing education holds the key to excelling in any field or learning a sport such as kayaking.

Sources: 1 2 3 4

Austin Carmody

I am the owner of HydroPursuit. I enjoy kicking back and getting out on the water as much as I can in my free time.

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