Answers to Questions that New Paddlers Ask
By Tamia Nelson
July 13, 2004
Just starting out? Then I bet you have questions.
You're not alone. We get mail year-round from folks who've bought their first
boats, or who've been thinking about getting a canoe or kayak for the first time,
and who now have a few questions. And for years we've answered their letters as
best we could, one question at a time. Sometimes our replies ended up in "Our Readers Write." But
that wasn't enough. There were always more questions the next week.
OK. The questions keep coming. And the answers many of them, anyway
don't change. So it's high time we got organized. If you're just starting
out, take heart. This article is for you. Here's where you'll find answers to many
of the questions that beginners have asked us over the years, along with links to
more articles that cover important topics in greater detail.
Just starting out? Relax. Enjoy. We were all beginners once. A few questions. A
few answers. And then you're on your way. Experience starts when you begin.
Kayaking (or canoeing) looks like a blast, but I've never paddled. How can
I find out if it's really for me?
The only way to find out if you'll like anything is to try it. No surprise
there, eh? If you've got a paddling friend or co-worker, ask him if he'll take you
out on the water some sunny afternoon. (You can always rent a boat if you need
one.) Make sure he knows that this will be your first time out, though. You're
looking for an easy paddle around Golden Pond, not a marathon jaunt down Dangerous
But what if you don't know anyone who paddles? Then stop in at the nearest
outfitter. Ask if they have guided trips for beginning paddlers. And check their
bulletin board. Find out if there's a local paddling club. Most clubs have graded
outings some of them suitable for beginners and many provide formal
instruction. Colleges occasionally offer courses for beginning paddlers, too.
Then, while you're waiting for the big day to arrive, do some background
reading. You won't learn to paddle in an easy chair, of course, but you can't drown
in your living room, either. And you'll find that a little preliminary study is a
big help when you first venture out on the water.
What about us women? I'm just getting my feet wet, so to speak, and my
partner isn't all that interested in paddling. I am, though. Do you think I'm up to
You bet! Man or woman the water doesn't care, and neither does the boat.
To be sure, upper-body strength is helpful. It's even necessary in some conditions.
Spend enough time on the water, though, and the strength will be there. The rest is
mostly common sense and the skill that comes with practice. From what I've seen,
neither of these is a gender-specific attribute.
I loved my first paddling trip, but my husband (or wife or son or mother
) just heard a story on the local news about a canoeist who drowned. Now
he's (she's) nagging me to find a less dangerous hobby. What's going on here? Is
Yes, it is. And no, it isn't. It all depends on what you mean by "safe."
Everything we do involves some risk, and canoeing and kayaking are no exception.
In the final analysis, your safety depends on you. More often than not, when
a boater dies, it was carelessness that killed her.
How can you stack the odds in your favor? Don't paddle alone. Buy good
equipment. Practice on easy water until you and your boat are one. And know your
limits. Speaking of limits, there's one we share with every other mammal: we have
to breath air. In order to do that, we need to keep our heads or at least
our nostrils above water. So keep your priorities straight. Many paddlers
agonize over buying their first boat, but the most important purchase they'll ever
make is a life vest (aka "Personal Flotation Device," or PFD). What's more
important than breathing? A life vest should be the very first thing you buy. Make
sure it fits, and then wear it whenever you're on (or near) the water.
And that's just the start. Are you hoping to run whitewater or paddle ocean
surf? Then a helmet should be your second purchase. Few canoeists wear helmets.
More should. (Young kids should probably wear helmets whenever they're in a boat.)
It only takes one rock to put a big dent in your life.
That's not all. Water can be cold even in midsummer, and cold can kill. Whenever
and wherever you paddle, always dress for the water temperature. Often this
means you'll be wearing a wetsuit or drysuit when the folks on the beach have
stripped down to thongs and bikinis. But they're at the beach. If they feel cold,
they can easily get out of the water and into a towel. If they get into trouble, a
lifeguard is only a hundred yards away. You and your companions are on your own,
however. Never forget that. Be warned: temperature regulation isn't
straightforward, particularly in summer. Heat can be a killer, too. Drink
water, fruit juice, or "sports drinks" early and often. And keep your head
covered whenever you're not wearing a helmet. Your brain will thank you.
Is paddling safe? That's up to you. It's just as safe as you make it.
My mind's made up. I've tried kayaking (or canoeing) a couple of times,
and I love it. Now I want a kayak (or canoe) of my own. But which boat's right for
I don't know. That's one question only you can answer. Remember, too, that no
one boat can do everything well. You'll be happiest if you get a boat which
satisfies most of your needs most of the time.
Want a little help deciding among the thousands of choices? Then begin by asking
yourself these questions:
- Will I be going solo alone in my canoe or kayak (but not, I hope,
alone on the water)? Or will I usually be paddling with a partner in the same
boat? And how about the kids? Or Fido?
- Where do I want to paddle? Beaver ponds or small lakes? An arm of the
sea? Swamps? A lazy, meandering river? Steep mountain streams? Rock gardens? BIG
- How full is the piggy bank? Generally, you pay more for less. Less
weight, that is. Cheap. Light. Strong. You get to choose only two out of three.
- Where will I store my boat? A 20-foot sea kayak is a lovely thing,
but it's an awkward companion in a fifth-floor studio apartment.
- Will I fit? While most boats can be used by most people, very tall
(or very big) and very short folks may have trouble getting a good fit. Strength
plays a role, too. If you have trouble heaving a fifty-pound sack of fertilizer
into your car's trunk, you probably don't want a 105-pound "expedition" canoe.
When you've answered all these questions, use what you've learned to narrow the
field. Once you've done that, you're ready to compile a short list of suitable
boats. Need a little help deciding if a particular canoe or kayak might suit you?
It's as close as a click. Thousands of
Paddling.net's readers have reviewed the boats they've owned. And their reviews
aren't based on one-night stands. These are the boats they've lived with. So
read what they have to say before you make your short list.
All done? Then it's time to take a few test drives. Borrow or rent each boat on
your list and try it out on easy water. (If you haven't already done so, get some
instruction now before taking a boat out. And bring an experienced
friend along with you if you can.) Don't be in too much of a hurry to hand over
your money. Buying a boat is a little bit like getting married. If you make a
mistake, you'll have plenty of time to regret it. On the other hand, don't expect
any boat to be perfect. It doesn't have to be. It just has to be good enough.
Unless you're a racer or an expedition paddler, you can probably have a great time
in almost anything that floats. Remember this when you find yourself frozen into
immobility in an outfitter's showroom.
I'm going to pick up my boat tomorrow. What else do I need?
Every paddler needs a life vest (and maybe a helmet), a paddle, suitable
clothing, and a good, sharp knife. Kayakers will want a spray skirt, too. You'll
also need a spare paddle, one or more float bags (think of them as PFDs
for your boat), painters (aka bow and stern lines), a bailer and sponge, a throw
bag or heaving line, the "ten essentials," and at least one waterproof gear bag.
Oh, yes don't make the mistake I once did. You need to bring your boat home.
You'll want a rack for your car.
Is that all? No. But it's a good start. Add other items a deck compass,
for example, or camping gear only as you need them.
Glad you mentioned car racks. I've never car-topped a boat before. Just
what do I have to do to take my boat on the road?
It's more complicated than you might think. First, buy a good rack. It has to
fit both your car and your boat. Then tie your boat down well: bow, stern, and
midships. (If you're not strong, get help lifting your boat on and off the car.)
Once you're on the road, stop every hour or so and check to be sure everything is
still tight. Stop immediately if you suspect that a tie-down has come loose.
Do you own a really BIG boat? Or is your SUV taller than you are? Then consider
a trailer, or use rollers to help you get your boat on your rack. Both will require
a little practice before you're ready to hit the road. A trailer will also need to
be registered and insured.
Owners of folding boats and inflatables have it easier, of course. They can even
haul their boats behind a bicycle, or backpack them into remote ponds. Sometimes
small is beautiful!
Wow! Paddles, wetsuit, float bags, rack.
It looks like the
accessories will cost more than the boat. What can I do to keep the total
Buy used. A well-put-together boat is good for more than one season. Some are
still going strong after ten years. And scratches hurt a lot less when they're not
the first. All in all, it's hard to beat a used boat. Where can you find one?
Outfitters' end-of-year sales. (Many outfitters sell off their rental fleet in the
fall.) Paddling club swap-meets. Paddling.net's Classified section.
On-line auction sites. Your local paper.
There's a bonus. Used boats often come fully outfitted: paddles, float bags,
spray skirt even painters and life vests. (These life vests make good
spares, but you're better off buying your own.) The savings can really mount up.
Caveats? Sure, but nothing that will come as a surprise. Shop for a used boat
just as carefully as you'd shop for a new one. More carefully, in fact. Unless you
buy from an outfitter and maybe not even then a used boat probably
won't come with a guarantee. Once you've found a boat you like, take it out for a
spin. And when the time comes to close the deal, don't be shy about bargaining.
I've got my boat home. Now I need a place to put it. My wife (or the
landlord or the homeowner's association) doesn't like me leaving it on the lawn,
and I can't keep it on the car all the time. Help!
Relax. Modern materials are pretty forgiving. Aluminum canoes can be stored just
about anywhere, although thermoplastic and fiberglass craft should be kept out of
the sun and protected from heavy snow and no boat should be stored where
water will drip on it. (Wet wooden gunwales and seats will rot; freezing water can
open seams and delaminate lay-ups.) So get you boat off the ground and under cover.
A tarp will do fine, though you'll need to lash both tarp and boat down if you
don't want the wind blowing them away. And make sure that no tree limb (or wood
pile) is likely to topple on your pride and joy.
Wind and damp aren't the only hazards. Boats attract the attention of thieves,
too. A lock always helps to keep honest men honest.
I've taken a few lessons, got my boat and gear, and solved my storage and
transportation problems. Now I'm ready to log some real float time. Where should I
Pick up the scent of water and follow your nose. You don't have to travel to the
far corners of the earth to find a place to paddle. Wherever you live unless
you live in a desert or smack in the middle of an arid megapolis chances are
pretty good that there's a trip of a lifetime within an hour's drive of your home.
Scouting is part of the fun. Get out your maps. Check a few guidebooks out of
your local library, too. (Old guidebooks are fine for finding new places to paddle,
though they can't be relied on for current conditions.) Talk to other paddlers in
your area. Better yet, join a paddling club and sign up for some of their trips. Be
sure to ask the leader if the trip is within your abilities first, however.
Above all, keep your paddle in the water. Learning to paddle is a little like
learning to ride a bike. The basic skills are easily mastered, and they stay with
you for life. But they're only a beginning. You'll learn something new every time
you launch, even if you never leave Golden Pond. So get out on the water whenever
Don't get cocky, though. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and hubris has
struck a lot of novice paddlers down. Paddle with experienced companions whenever
possible. (Never run difficult whitewater solo, or venture out onto big
water alone.) And always make sure that someone knows where you're going and
when you'll be back. Most important of all, listen to your inner voice. If
it whispers "No," don't ignore the warning. You can always come back another day.
I'm having second thoughts. Sure, I enjoy paddling, but I'm getting on, I
weigh a few pounds more than I ought to, and my knees aren't what they used to be.
Maybe it's time for the La-Z-Boy®. What do you think?
What do you think? That's what matters. Aches and pains are the price we
pay for an active life. Most can be managed with the help of a knowledgeable
physician or other health professional. If you're having fun, why fight it?
Paddling isn't just for the young. One of the happiest kayakers I've had the
pleasure of paddling with was a chubby chain-smoker in his 80s, who started
kayaking sometime after he turned 70. He convinced his 72-year-old "girlfriend" to
give it a try, too. And they didn't stick to Golden Pond. They were running Class
III-IV water on the Hudson River in high style when we first met.
Nor is paddlesport only for athletes. The best rock-garden technician I ever saw
was a wizened, freshly dried-out dipso, with a list of health problems as long as
my paddle. He didn't look as if he could lift a day-pack, yet he threaded his
overloaded shallow-draft "cottage canoe" unerringly through Class II-III rapids on
the Missinaibi including some drops that swamped our big Tripper
and he never took more than a canteen cup of water over the gunwales. (The
rain sometimes filled his boat; the river never did.) He wheezed and stumbled
on the portages, but he flew across the water. And he had the time of his life
into the bargain.
Then there was my grandfather. He lived hard and he died hard, after a long,
grinding illness. Yet he paddled his own canoe right up until the day he left for
his last trip to the hospital. Make no mistake: canoeing and kayaking are sports
A few questions. A few answers. And then you're on your way. There's plenty more
to learn, but experience starts when you begin. The recipe is simple. Take it easy.
Don't bet against the odds. Have a good time. What could be more straightforward
or more enjoyable?
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