Paddling for Beginners

The Baffin Paddler recently gave all of us here at WR a lesson or two about paddling. Part of the interview she did with us was particularly useful to beginners, so we thought we'd break it off and publish it here as a Beginner's Guide to Paddling.

First we asked her what tips and safety recommendations she'd make to a friend of a friend to help them have fun and stay safe. Here's what she told us:

To have fun and stay safe you should do some research on the areas you plan to visit! Having fun and staying safe depends a lot on where you paddle, the time of year, and your level of fitness and experience, whether or not you have your own gear, and how much work you want to do to plan a trip.

Experienced paddlers and trippers already know! It’s a lot of work to plan a trip, pack gear, plan menus, purchase maps, and plan navigation routes in places you haven’t been before!

Learn as much as you can about the water you’re going to paddle: What is the water temperature, are there tides, currents, rocks, how deep is it? What kinds of creatures live in the water or near the shores? Check weather reports. Find out what other craft cruise the water you’re going to be on, motor boats, cruise ships, tankers, fast-moving lobster boats, sailboats, etc. All these things can have a big impact on your enjoyment and safety.

If you’re going with an outfitter or guide, see if you can find some reviews or get recommendations from other experienced paddlers. Some outfitters are reliable, some are not.

If you’re a beginner, and planning a kayaking trip, why not take some courses on paddle and rescue techniques beforehand. It can only make your trip better.

If you don’t have any paddle gear, you may want to consider, buying some good gear for yourself!

Purchase a good quality PFD (life jacket) designed for kayaking – not a life jacket for boating – they are not designed for paddling – in a bright colour that fits you properly and is comfortable to paddle in and swim in! Test it in the store! Try it on, grab a paddle and paddle air to see if it is comfortable or bothers you. Imitate swimming in air. Does it feel comfortable or rub you the wrong way in any spots on your body? If you don’t like it, you won’t wear it. Buy one you like and wear it always! You’ll look cool in it too. Kayakers are cool.

Buy some paddle booties that fit your feet and won’t fall off if you fall in the water and that are comfortable to walk in on land – you will spend a lot of time in these things! Paddle booties will help protect and cushion your feet from the hard foot pegs in the boat and the gritty sand that gathers in the bottom of the boat that can dig into and irritate your heels, hot sand and rocks on the beach, and help protect your feet from broken glass, beer bottle tops, and fish hooks that may be found in water along shorelines. In cold weather and water – more serious paddle boots keep your feet warm and insulated.

Purchase a long sleeve two- piece wet suit (lots of awesome water is pretty cold year round and windy shorelines can give you wind chill quickly), long sleeve Rash Guard with UV protection from the sun – you pick up more sun on the water, a paddle hat that won’t blow off in wind, a long sleeve fleece top – Merino wool base layers are excellent, and a quick drying technical top, shorts, and pants, and a waterproof paddle jacket.  

A wet suit won't keep you warm on a windy shore once it is wet, it gives you some protection while in the water.  If you can afford one, a dry suit is an excellent investment to keep you both warm and dry. They usually cost over $1,000 though and the zippers on them can be a chore to open and close. You may need help with that!  And you can still get cold in a dry suit if you don't wear the proper insulation underneath it. If a dry suit springs a hole, it won't be a happy experience either.

Even if you are travelling with an outfitter, bringing these items with you on your trip can make it more personal, comfortable, enjoyable, and help protect you from the elements you may encounter. When you get to the point where you bring all these things on a kayaking trip with an outfitter, along with a favourite paddle, you are likely becoming a paddler, and it’s time to buy your own boat – one that you love!

Comfort and the right gear is key! You can’t always count on outfitters to have good gear or the right gear for you. Some do, some don’t. And remember, a lot of other people have worn it and used it!

Kayaking can be a very gear intensive sport depending on where you go and what you do! You need to be self-sufficient on the water. And at the same time, keep it simple. 

Some of WR's recommended paddling trips:

When we asked her where she'd recommend people to go paddling on their first times out she said: 

I think beginner paddlers are better off to take lessons with a certified instructor then start out on shorter day paddles close to home with experienced guides or paddle buddies on smaller lakes and quiet stretches of river and gradually work their way up to more challenging water and conditions and longer trips.  

More challenging water that the BaffinPaddler would like to visit are:

Saguenay River, Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada

Georgian Bay (Lake Huron), Ontario, Canada

British Columbia, Canada

Newfoundland, Canada

Maine, U.S.A.

New Zealand

And for those not in North America or New Zealand we asked for advice what to look for when choosing a good kayaking destination:

Beautiful views! Awesome water! Clean water! Away from things but not too remote and that offer some comforts and amenities for camping or lodging. Safety is a big one too.

Opportunities for good food that I don’t have to cook are nice but not a requirement. And the opportunity for other types of sports like swimming (not all water you paddle is good for swimming!), hiking, yoga, and cycling nearby.

Paddling miles and miles of wilderness or open water day after day can get monotonous. Let’s say BORING! And you can get sore. The legs don’t do much.  Some adventure travel companies break up their trips to include a variety of activities for this very reason.

I like variety! But if it is a kayaking only trip, good company, and maybe a little entertainment is key! You can always bring a harmonica and a deck of cards. And keep busy with a camera.

Reputable outfitters and certified guides can be a necessity if I’m going somewhere new with challenging water that is not easy to figure out and navigate by myself or with paddle buddies who don’t know the area either.

I’m not a heavy-duty backcountry girl. As a paddler and vacationer, I fall into the category of soft adventures and ecotoursim. No extremes.  On land, I’m not a fan of grizzly bear country, mountain lions, panthers, or poisonous snakes.  On the water, I’m not a fan of big whitewater, unfriendly shorelines, nasty currents, big boats that can run me over, or creatures in the water that might want to tackle and eat a kayaker – like great white sharks.

When you paddle, you need to consider what is in and on the water, and what is on the land along the water routes you paddle!  Cost, time, and travel distances are always a consideration.  If I travel far and the trip is more costly, it has to be to something pretty spectacular and out of the ordinary from what I can find close to home in the National Capital Region.

Like the majestic Saguenay Fjord, which is breathtakingly beautiful from Tadoussac to Lac St. Jean in Quebec, Canada. There are lots of whales in this area, and in particular, beautiful small white Beluga whales which are not found everywhere. They are rare. And magic to see.

I really enjoy trips where I can bring my own sea kayaks and paddles. Not all outfitters have a great selection of boats.  I DO NOT like trips in tandem kayaks!  I want to paddle my own boat or a single kayak that I like that fits me comfortably.

One of the first questions I ask outfitters when I do research and call them beforehand is: “What kind of sea kayaks do you have?”  If they don’t know, I hang up.

Spending the day, or a longer trip in a boat you do not like to paddle or that is not comfortable, is not going to make you enjoy kayaking, no matter how nice the water, company, and views!

At the end of our chat we asked her where she'll be going on her next trip(s):

1000 Islands near Gananoque, St. Lawrence River, Ontario, Canada

Adirondacks, New York, U.S.A.

Killarney Provincial Park and Georgian Bay in Ontario, Canada

Or Maine, U.S.A.

All are awesome paddle spots closer to home that I can easily haul my boats to!

Thanks again to Peggy the Baffin Paddler for sharing her expertise with us.  And good luck with your first expedition, WR readers!

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