What is a Kayak: Fun Watercraft or Dangerous trap?

There are a lot of ways to have fun on the water. A lot of sports, a lot of activities and a lot of choices in regards to making it as fun as possible. One of these choices is the kayak, an often times misunderstood, underestimated and at the same time overestimated watercraft.

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With a lot of confusion, misused terms and misunderstood purposes, it is quite easy to end up owning something that is neither safe or right for your needs, which can lead to a lot of problems and even serious injury.

This is why it is of the utmost importance that, before venturing out, we ask ourselves : “What is a kayak?”.

Identifying a kayak

One of the biggest problems people are confronted with is actually identifying the vessel in the first place. This is because it shares a lot of traits and characteristics with the canoe.

First and foremost, the kayak is a small watercraft, narrow and long, with a covered deck that has openings in them called cockpits in which the paddler sits.

Most kayaks seat 1 paddler, however, there are some models that are able to sit 2 paddlers. The traditional models are capable of seating 2 paddlers comfortably and are a lot longer than the commercial models. They are traditionally propelled by double-bladed paddles.

Parts of a kayak

There are, however, models on the market that allow the paddler to make use of small flippers at the rear of the craft to propel them forward while some can even use rotational propellers and small engines.

The rather narrow profile of the craft is what really makes it easy to identify it. Wide enough in the middle for a person to fit comfortably, growing increasingly narrower towards the tips. It is also the main reason why people tend to mistake it for the canoe, which shares the same profile principle however without the covered deck and using normal single-bladed paddles.

While there are clear and separate names for them, in the united Kingdom as well as in several countries in Eastern Europe, it is commonly referred to as a “Kayak-Canoe”.

A man with kayak

Depending on its uses, a kayak also has a lot of extras at its disposal that more or less modify and adapt it for use in several different environments. One of the more popular ones is the spray deck, a waterproof covering that that covers the cockpit around the paddler and prevents water from entering and building up in the craft.

There are also more complicated systems that can be installed on a kayak, like a small rudder on the back of the boat, connected to pedals placed at the feet of the paddler.

Different designs for different uses

There are a lot of uses and a lot of situations where a kayak is in its own element, from the most docile and relaxing ones to the most strenuous and physically demanding sports that we could imagine. Are you going fishing? Check out our review of the top fishing kayak to give you more choices.

It was initially developed and used by hunters in the subarctic regions of the world, the Inuit, Yupik and Aleut people being the first documented indigenous tribes to use them. Because of their slim and narrow profile, they were found to be easy to control, agile on the water surface and capable of traversing long stretches of water without much effort.

Young woman in a kayak

In modern times, they are used mainly for recreational purposes, each and every one of them having their own design and specifications to which the craft must adhere to.

The sea Kayak

These are the longer kayaks out there, designed for long trips over great stretches of water, they are able to cover vast distances and take full advantage of the currents while allowing the paddler to be in complete control.

Everything about this watercraft was designed with long sea voyages in mind. The extended length provides better flow and gives the paddler more control over the craft while dealing with swells, waves and sea currents.

The paddle used with this type of kayak has a long base, usually slightly longer than an adult man’s arm span, the blades themselves being elongated and narrow. This allows the paddler to move more efficiently and preserve his energy, grabbing long volumes of water and using them to propel the boat forward with less energy required.

Sea kayaking

Simplicity is key here and often times you will find that there are next to no extras designed for them. The few that are there to be chosen from usually revolve around the comfort of the paddler and not the actual performance of the craft.

In regards to safety, the sea kayak is among the safest,becauseevent though it has a much narrower frame than the rest of them. It allows the paddler to hold his balance with ease and the cockpit is generally big enough to permit his ejection if things do go wrong.

One thing that this craft does not lack though is storage space. While in general, you can’t really carry much on a kayak, these often come with small storage cockpits covered with spray decks in which the paddler can store essential supplies for long trips. This is also one of the reasons for which this type is also called the “Touring”, it allows the paddler to go on long tours without having to worry about much.

The Slalom Kayak

Also known as an “Official Competition Model”, it was designed for racing and water challenges. It is important to say that this type of kayak is also among the least encountered because of the expensive price that comes with it, however, it is a common sight at events, shows, and competitions on calm waters.

It is shaped like a diamond, with the cockpit off-centered slightly towards the front. The front of the craft is thick and sturdy, allowing the paddler to sit comfortably, while the back starts thinning from the cockpit towards the rear tip, allowing for increased control and hydrodynamic agility.

The length of the paddle base is similar to the sea kayak, however, the blades are often tear-shaped and gently bent. This allows the paddler to take full advantage of small bursts of power which can help with turns and abrupt steering.

The slalom kayak

As the name implies, the slalom type was designed to turn with both ease and grace. With a few modifications though and a couple of extras like a pedal rudder system and a spray deck, it can take on gentle and easy whitewater courses.

While it might not look like much, the secret behind the performance of this watercraft is its internal structure. Usually made out of fiberglass, or carbon fiber in some cases, the internal structure is lightweight and strong. This allows the craft to turn and execute its maneuvers without bending or warping while doing so.

In regards to safety, this one is, in fact, one of the least safe kayaks out there, demanding the full attention of the paddler when taken on more turbulent and challenging waters. While it does provide a comfortable ride, it is also difficult to escape if things go wrong.

The river runner

This is what most people think about these days when talking about kayaks and kayaking. The craft steers clear of the traditional designs and opts for something that is practical and capable of living up to performance expectations .

As the name implies, this type was designed to run with the rapids and cut through whitewater like a hot knife through butter, taking on shallow lakes, waterfalls, whirlpools and everything that a fast moving river can throw at it. It is also the design that s favored by adrenaline junkies with a passion for fast rivers.

This craft can perform with a lot of paddles, however, a general rule of thumb is that the base of the paddles has to be around half the arm span of an adult man with curved and asymmetrical blades.

The first thing that you will notice when looking at one is the fact that it is a lot shorter than the rest. In fact, it is half the length of a sea kayak. Unlike other models, the river runner is missing the narrowness that these crafts are known for, being shaped like an elongated oval, with a cockpit in the middle.

River runner kayak

While it might seem odd that this craft is so different from the rest, there is a lot of method to this madness. The craft has to be light, easy to maneuver and though, hence the drastically reduced length. Another thing that it has to be is agile in order to make fast turns and negotiate difficult obstacles in a matter of seconds, hence the stockier shape which allows the paddler to lean and duck a lot deeper and a lot more abruptly.

This, in turn, translates to more turning power and more balance. As far as safety goes, this is, in fact, one of the safest types out there.

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While whitewater kayaking may not be the safest choice, the river runner allows for very quick escapes and because of its shape it is also able to recover a lot faster and a lot better than other types.

One last thing to mention about the river runner is the fact that it comes in a lot of variations such as open-decked, top-decked and so on. It is generally up to the personal preferences of the buyer what variation he should go with, however as far as performance goes there are only minor variations between them.

The freestyle kayak

Also known as the little rodeo, this one is by far the shortest and the stockiest of them all. Resembling a dinghy more than anything else, this craft was made to freestyle, meaning that it follows no actual guidelines and no actual design limitations. It is roughly one-third the size of a sea kayak , with a rounded front and an almost flat back, it is literally shaped like a bullet.

Often times, because of their reduced length, these kayaks are open-decked, meaning that the legs are actually exposed, however, there are some that are still covered but with a large bulge in thefront of the cockpit in order to allow for the knees to properly bend.

The paddles that these use are also among the smallest ones. With a base that is roughly half the size of an adult man’s arm span, with short yet stocky symmetrical blades, they are among the smallest but fastest of them all.

The reason behind the popularity of this kayak is the fact that it was made for extreme sports and whitewater stunts. Light enough to catch even the faintest of currents yet strong enough to take on small waterfalls and whirlpools, this little craft can really pull off some tricks and stunts, provided that the paddler is sufficiently skilled.

In regards to safety, it must be said that the vast majority of the responsibility rests within the hands of the paddler, the freestyle kayak being specifically designed for the most dangerous rapids out there.

With that in mind, while its environment is among the most dangerous, overall this craft is reasonably safe. It allows for reasonably quick escapes, it is incredibly easy to flip back into position and it is easy to re-balance. The catch here is that the paddler must be experienced and properly trained, otherwise, it is incredibly dangerous.

How to kayak

Kayaking is not something complicated but at the same time nor is it something exactly easy. It is an activity that requires balance, strength, and stamina while at the same time demanding generous amounts of attention.

Depending on what kind of kayak you went for, you will have to deal with different seating arrangements. Some allow for more leg room, some are  bit tight in that regard, but in all of them you will have to keep your legs more or less straight and your knees low under the deck.

It is in the paddler’s best interest to stretch his legs thoroughly before casting off in order to prevent his legs from falling asleep or muscles cramping up. A quick tip, focus on the tendons in and around the knees.

Woman relaxing on a hayak

After stretching, it is time to prepare for castoff. First of all, make sure that the craft is properly insulated. Check the seams for integrity issues, apply insulation and resin if needed, however if there are serious problems and breaches it is highly advised to take it in for repairs.

Make sure that the seat is in proper condition and that it is adjusted to your requirements if applicable. Check the rudder and pedal system, if applicable, making sure that the cables are nice and taut and that the rudder and pedals are perfectly synced. Unfold the spray deck and check to see if there are any holes, rips or tears in it. The last thing you want happening is to havewater leak in.

See also: Hunting Waterfowl by Kayak: Go Where No Other Hunters Can Go

Check the integrity of the paddle, starting wit the base and finishing with the blades. Make sure that there are no cracks, no indentations, no irregularities and that there is no bending or warping in the blades. Finally, check your gear. You should be wearing appropriate gear at all times, depending on what kind of kayaking you will be doing.

If you are going out at sea or over long stretches of water like lakes, make sure to have a life preserver equipped, with signaling devices attached and properly insulated clothes. If you are going on the rapids and dealing with fast-moving waterfalls and whitewater, you will need to have a helmet, elbow and knee pads, padded gloves with wrist shock dampeners and, if applicable, a shock absorbing vest.

Once you’ve checked your craft and gear, limbered up and finished prepping, it is time to castoff.

Push the craft into the water to the point where it is just about to start floating, put your first foot inside the craft, then plant yourself on the seat in the cockpit while at the same time pushing away with the other leg. This is something that takes roughly a couple of seconds and you can also use the paddle while pushing away for an extra boost.

Once in the kayak, remember to fasten the spray deck around your waist, effectively insulating and protecting the inside of the craft from the water.

Now it is time to start moving forward. Simply grab the paddle with both arms, hands positioned comfortably on the base of the paddle and start to gently paddle forward. Use a circular motion to plant a paddle blade into the water and push the craft forward, lifting it and planting the opposing one in.

People on a kayaks

Once you have a rhythm going, you are ready to venture out. Steering is where you will have to become a bit more creative. Chances are you will not have a rudder, seeing as very few kayaks come with such a system, so you will have to do it the old fashioned way.

The first way is the gentle steer. You build up forward momentum, and when you want to steer, you simply stop paddling, lean in the direction you want to turn and gently put that side of the paddle into the water. That paddle will act as a small break, forcing the kayak to turn in that direction, however at the same time causing you to lose a lot of momentum and speed.

The second way is the double/triple paddle. What you do is simply lean towards the direction you want to turn and only use the paddle blade opposite to that direction, essentially pushing the kayak in the direction you want it to go.

Kayaking on river

Stopping is actually fairly easy. What you do is either stop paddling and wait for the craft to come to a stop, or you use the paddle as a break by submerging one blade at a time and making them act like stiff water breaks. This will cause you to change course slightly, so make sure to alternate between the blades in order to level off and not veer off-course.

One of the important things you will be doing while kayaking is trying to maintain your balance. It is comparable to riding a bicycle, the faster you go the more balance you will have. However with every single move that you make you are pushing yourself and your craft sideways, so you will have to steady yourself quite often.

Woman kayaking

The dangers related to kayaking

There are some dangers associated with this activity, some a lot more serious than others.

Whitewater kayaking is known to be the most physically demanding form of kayaking out there, pushing both the mind and body to their limits. The dangers revolving around it are mainly focused on physical injury.

Riding a rushing stream can cause the paddler to build up quite a bit of speed and with it a lot of kinetic force. At the same time, the paddler has to be on the lookout for rocks and obstacles that he has to dodge in order to keep his momentum going and not damage the craft or himself.

That being said, every now and again things don;t go as planned and the paddler will hit something. More often than not, the only victim here is the kayak, however depending on how much force was behind the hit, what the angle of approach was and the position of the paddler upon impact, a crash can lead to physical injury.

Whitewater kayaking

The strain is another risk that kayaking brings to the table. The entire idea with this sport is using the paddles to propel the craft, however, the repetitive rotational movement actually places a lot of stress on our joints from our wrists to our shoulders. If done long enough without proper training and rest, the stress and strain of the joints in the arms can lead to a lot of serious problems, adding a lot of wear and tear to our bones and muscles.

One of the greatest risks out there, a real nightmare for even the most experienced kayakers, is rolling over or capsizing. This is when your craft is turned upside down in the water, because of either the paddler losing balance or an external force acting on the sides of the craft. Either way, the results can be catastrophic.

With smaller crafts this is not really that big of a problem, the paddler being able to turn the craft back right side up without great difficulties. Very experienced kayaking enthusiasts and stuntmen actually do tricks where they capsize them on purpose then flipping them back up using only the paddles and their body weight.

Kayak rolling

However, as the craft gets bigger, the harder it is to roll it back up. Kayaks are not exactly big and roomy, to begin with, they are actually a rather snug fit around th paddler’s waist, especially with a spray deck around it. This makes ejecting the paddler not an easy task to begin with. Factor in the fear that naturally occurs when suddenly capsizing the craft and you have yourself a dangerous situation waiting to happen.

There have been reports in the past regarding kayak paddlers being found drowned, still in the capsized cockpits because they could not get out in time.

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This does not mean that kayaks are deathtraps, though. It just means that the paddler has to prepare a lot better and keep calm if something happens. It is also a very good idea to get some training from more experienced paddlers and practice in a safe environment. This way you can make sure that you will be able to not only survive but also have the right answers ready for when such a situation would arise.

The rewards

There are a lot of reasons for which people choose to take on this sport, either for actual performance and fitness reasons or simply for the joy, fun and relaxation that is associated with it.


Whatever your reasons are, kayaking can provide you with a few rewards.

Physical development –  like any other sport, this one will help you develop your body. Regardless of what form of kayaking you got for, the increase in muscular activity will help shape and tone your muscles while at the same time increasing your overall strength. Increased staminahis sport can act as a form of cardiovascular training if the paddler is pushing himself accordingly.

While whitewater runs can help the paddler build up resistance and burst stamina, long touring or sea voyages can help improve overall endurance. Alternating between the 2 is actually recommended in order to properly build up and expand our stamina as paddlers.

A better sense of balance – one of the most important aspects of kayaking is balance. It helps with everything from steering to avoiding obstacles, riding waves and even taking on waterfalls and whirlpools.

The sense of balance is heightened in a paddled the more kayaking he does. Not only that but the paddler becomes more adept at shifting his center of gravity and bodyweight, naturally giving him a finer sense of balance.

A more relaxed mindset – this comes naturally when we do what we like and for a lot of people kayaking is the thing that gives them the relaxation that they need.

You might be paddling up the gentle coast or down the most agitated river that you can find, either way, you will get a strong adrenaline rush which will then lead to a relaxed mindset. This, in turn, will help you deal with stress and the hardships that modern life brings to the table.

A sense of accomplishment – the more kayaking a person does, the more experienced they become and with that experience comes the boldness and drive to do more.

Going further and further every single time, traveling over longer distances, taking on more dangerous rivers and crossings, at the end of it all, when you pull the boat in, you will have a great sense of accomplishment and a story to tell.

In conclusion

A kayak can be a lot of things for a lot of people. It can be a source of relaxation for some, it can be a source of adrenaline rushes for others, but it can be a great sport for everyone.


With the right type of kayak, the appropriate training and the appropriate drive, anyone and everyone can master this craft and tame the waters that they want to tame.

As long as they know what they want to do and what kind of kayaking experience they are looking for, all paddlers will find their groove. To choose between a kayak and a canoe, see our useful comparison between the two.


Dennis Owens

Dennis Owens is a graduate of National Camping School and REI Outdoor School. He knows everything about what gear to take with you, how to plan your trip to stay safe and what to do if you get lost in the mountains. We are lucky to have Dennis with us as he is a ‘walking encyclopedia’ when it comes to the wilderness.