How To Paddle a Kayak – The Ultimate Guide For Beginners

Kayaks like the Sevylor Ottawa or the Sevylor Wabash give you the ability to travel almost anywhere on the body of water of your choosing, it would be then wise to understand how to paddle a kayak and how you can use certain strokes to manipulate the kayak into doing what you need it to.

In this article, you’ll learn all the strokes you need to know to have an enjoyable time on the water in your chosen kayak.

Here is a list of things you’ll learn;

  • How to properly grip your paddle
  • Forward stroke
  • Backwards/break stroke
  • Sweeping stroke (for the purpose of turning your raft)
  • Draw stroke (for the purpose of moving your kayak sideways – this is different from turning)

I’d recommend practising these techniques in your own time before you go on your newest adventure. No need to be practising all day every day and delaying your next trip out in your kayak but at the very least remember to familiarize yourself with the techniques so that you are equipped with the ability to manipulate the kayak in any way you wish when you need it the most.

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How to hold a kayak paddle

This is by far the most important thing you can improve on when learning how to paddle a kayak. Ensuring that you hold your paddle tight enough so that you can properly perform each stroke I’m going to teach you as well as loose enough so you don’t overwork your arms into fatiguing too early into your adventure (fatiguing is inevitable but delaying it is within your best interest)

Knowing how to hold a kayak paddle is made up of a couple of things, which we’ll go into in a little more detail;

  • Knowing what design of paddle you have
  • How to use the blades to your advantage
  • How you should grip the shaft
  • When to relax your hands on the shaft

Knowing your Kayak Oars (Kayak paddles)

Below we are a couple of questions you should ask yourself if you’re about to purchase a new/replacement kayak paddle as they will help you to identify the right kayaking paddle for your latest adventure.

All types of kayak oars and kayak paddles

Are your blades parallel?

I’m typically asking this question because I (and many others I’ve taught) have found it easier to use parallel blades when getting to grips with paddling and general kayak manoeuvres. This is also technically referred to as ‘matched blades’.

Are your blades feathered?

Feathered blades are at an angle from one another. If this is the case, look at the centre of the shaft and there should be a push-button which you can press to rotate the two halves of the shaft so that you can configure your blades to be parallel. As I said earlier, this is better if you’re a beginner as it decreases or at least eases the learning curve.

Are your blades Symmetrical?

If your blades feature a uniformed oval, then you have symmetrical blades. This is not a problem, although typically asymmetrical blades are more common; you can easily learn to paddle with ether.

Are your blades Asymmetrical?

If one side of each blade is a little shorter than its corresponding blade, then you will have asymmetrical blades. This can be a subtle change and may go unnoticed when/if you have purchased your paddle. Be sure to know which one you have so that you can learn in conjunction with the paddle type you possess.

Symmetrical or Asmtetreiral?

It doesn’t matter which one you have, although it would be down to preference and you may not have the pleasure of practising with both. So get either one based on what you read here; to reiterate an earlier point – you can learn with both but it’s just important to know what sort of paddle blades you have to ensure you can learn efficiently with the information laid out.

The shape is generally a concern because it helps you track straight so that you can pull straight through the water.

Are the blades curved?

Typically they would be but it’s important to look at the concave side faces when you grip the middle of the shaft of the oar. The shape of the blade, if it is curved, allows you to grab more water when thrusting through the surface.

How to hold your kayak paddle

Lastly, to know how to paddle a kayak, we’re going to go over the orientation your blade should be whilst practising any of the manoeuvres I list throughout this article. As well as where your hands should be on the kayak paddle shaft and finally how tight your grip needs to be for efficient paddling.

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Orient of your kayaks oar blades

Here is a checklist that you could follow when you first hold your paddle; something to go through each time you get ready to paddle:

  1. Have your knuckles pointed up and your blade perpendicular to the ground (water)
  2. The shorter side of the blade should always be at the bottom – if you have symmetrical blades this is not a concern
  3. The concave side of each blade should be facing you (This is not a concern if you have flat blades

Where to place your hands on the paddle shaft

Your hands should be at a comfortable resting point, the same sort of feeling you have driving a car. Griping your shaft so that your elbows are at a comfortable 90-degree angle.

A great way of looking at it is the ‘paddlers box’ which is a shaped formed in combination with your paddle shaft, arms, and chest. This allows you to rotate your torso properly which will allow you to maintain the rotation action required to do absolutely anything in your kayak.

where to place your hands on kayak shaft

Proper grip tension

Your grip should be conformable since you could be paddling for hours at a time. A relaxed grip allows for many harmless hours of paddling; preventing your arms, wrist, and hands from becoming fatigued – which in turn will remind you that you’re relying on your chest for a paddle instead of your hands.

Techniques for Kayaking

Following, using the previous tips I have stated. I am going to go over some helpful rowing techniques that are going to make you a better kayaker.

Keep in mind these techniques are at a beginner level, so if you’re looking for something more advanced then these may not be for you.

However, having said that it is always great to get a refresh on what the techniques are and how you should properly go about performing to ensure you’re on top of your game when you need it the most.

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Forward Stroke

Probably the most important stroke to have in your tool belt, the forward swipe stroke. It’s important to use the right technique with this one, as this is something you’re going to be doing the majority of the time. Using your core and back to doing most of the work, as we have previously mentioned, will allow you to paddle for hours without much fatigue

Here is the technique in a few easy steps (make sure you’re holding the paddle the way I’ve just taught you before attempting!)

1. Wind (not a twist motion) your torso and dip your blade fully into the water on of side of the boat, parallel to your feet.

2. Rotate your torso as the blade sweeps behind you. If it helps, follow your eyes with the blade and you should be able to continue along with your torso.

3. When your hand reaches your hip (in the middle of your rotation), slide the blade out of the water.

Then, repeat these steps over and over on both sides and you should be moving forward comfortably with your torso rotating and your hands relaxed – allowing your chest and back to do all the work.

Reverse Stroke

TIP: This stroke technique is perfect if you want to brake when you’re moving in a direction that you do not want to go in.

Reverse stroke is the perfect stroke for going backwards, whether you’re in a tight spot and there is no room to turn around or you’ve just gone the wrong way.

As you may imagine, the reverse stroke is just the opposite of the forward stroke we have previously mentioned.

Instead of immersing your blade at your feet, emerge it into the water near to your hip. And instead of slicing at your hip, slice at your feet – still using your chest and back to do all the work, you should be moving backwards with ease.

Sweep Stroke

Using the techniques you have previously learnt you can easily transition the knowledge to a sweep stroke.

You essentially take one part of the forward stroke technique, which is doing the sweeping technique on one side of the boat which will allow you to turn or pivot your raft into the direction you need to be facing; so that you can either reverse or go forward using the paddling manoeuvre you are now more knowledgeable about.

You should get to where you need to be with just one sweep. Using your blade as a sort of anchor to slow the turn down so that you can stop in a position you need to be.

Another essential one of the kayak strokes is the draw stroke. For this, you can’t really use any of the previous manoeuvres as a foundation as this one is something a little different but is fairly simple.

sweeping stroke

Draw Stroke

Draw strokes are essential to know/learn if you want to ever move your boat sideways – perfect if there is not enough room to turn your kayak/canoe.

Here is your step by step guide to ensure you can pull of the draw stroke perfectly:

  1. Rotate your paddle so your blade is horizontal
  2. Place the blade in the side of the water you wish to head towards;  you paddle should be at a steep angle – at about 30 degrees.
  3. Now, pull the water towards you and make sure to stop before your blade hits the side of the boat

Do this until you are in the position you want to be – generally this will be in several draw strokes.

draw stroke


Hopefully, even if you’re an advanced kayaker, you have learnt something from the previous article and you now understand how to paddle a kayak. As well as the basic techniques on how you can manipulate your paddle, the body of water you are in as well as your muscles in your body to get where you want to be in your own boat.

That will be all for today,