20 Tips for Inflatable Kayaking Beginners

Paddling in an inflatable kayak on a body of water seems like a pretty simple pursuit. But that is just the end result or product. What shouldn’t be overlooked is the process, from steps taken each outing to overall growth in knowledge and experience paddling on the water.

Packing and Preparation

1. Double Check Your Packing Before Leaving

The ideal goal to strive for is to never forget something to your inflatable kayak pack, but nobody is perfect. For one, make sure you have the actual inflatable kayak material. Other necessities include the paddle(s), your life vest, and inflation pump. You could always take the extra step to ensure a complete pack job by using a checklist each time or just keeping everything in the same area when stored. Routine and consistency can help limit forgotten items, while sometimes a missing item isn’t a big deal if it’s a short time on the water and something you could go without.

view of the inside of a well packed inflatable kayak bag

2. Pack Extra Materials for the Elements and Unplanned Situations

Being on the water for a couple hours to a whole day or multiple days warrants different packing. The longer you are on the water, the longer you are exposed to the elements or weather. Sunscreen, layers, and hats will help limit sun burns. Extra clothing is also important. Consider changes in the weather (temperature, wind, and rain) and your chances of getting soaked from splashing waves or rapids, or falling in. Other unplanned situations include being on the water longer than planned and taking out in a different location. You can’t go wrong with packing extra water and food, a headlamp, and a means of alerting others of your position (phone with service or GPS location, whistle, etc.).

3. Research the Impacting Elements (Weather, Water Volume)

You could pack for all of the possible elements or you can do some research beforehand and narrow your packing list down. Weather is always a factor. Check out the forecasted temperatures and wind, along with the possibilities of rain and storms. Don’t forget about lake or water effect, producing colder temperatures and stronger winds, which intensifies with larger bodies of water. And then there are considerations for the conditions of the water, like water level to a river or creek. Low water levels can make paddling impossible or more dangerous with exposed rocks and other hazards. Higher water levels can ramp up the velocity of the current creating concerns of its own.

4. Look Into Water Access Points and Transporting Circumstances

Having an inflatable kayak instead of a hard shell kayak means easier transporting or portability. This opens the door for access to remote bodies of water, with increased put-in and take-out points. This being said, it still helps to map out possible water access points and paths there beforehand, whether online or in person. Otherwise, you may leave yourself with more transport hiking than desired. And this is especially true for remote bodies of water. Do some research and plan it out, so you don’t get turned around and lost or have to pass through extra dense vegetation, rough terrain, and pesky insects.

inflatable kayak on boat landing

5. Alert Someone of Your Location and Expected Return

This is a consideration that you hear repeatedly growing up, but doesn’t stop when you become an adult. Sure, we have fancy technology and phones to stay in constant contact with other people, but those things don’t always transfer over to the outdoors. You may find yourself paddling on a body of water without cell phone service or maybe you accidentally drop your phone in the water (I know I have before). Either way, it will always be worth the extra step to alert at least one person of where you will be paddling and when you are planning to return. This is especially important when paddling on a river or creek.

Performance and Efficiency

6. Pay for Better Inflatable Kayak Design Quality and Added Products

There is a range to inflatable kayak prices and quality out there. But what makes an inflatable kayak better than others? The design is the main difference maker. Much of this comes down an inflatable kayak’s dimensions of length, width, height, and shape, producing how it sits and moves on the water. The type, thickness, and durability of the plastic material is another huge factor. Paying a little extra for a higher quality inflatable kayak will be worth it in time and the more you use it. You can also seek out additional products (tracking fin, outriggers, etc.) that will improve your paddling performance and efficiency.

7. Inflate and Pack for Equal Balance in your Inflatable Kayak

An inflatable kayak is designed to be stable and balanced, but some of this falls on the paddler as well. For one, there is an added element of inflating the vessel to create its shape. It’s possible to set yourself up for an unbalanced, lopsided paddling outing if you are just eyeballing compartment inflation levels. Instead, apply pressure to sides for a better feel or even use a tool (might come with an inflatable kayak) to get an actual reading. And then there is how you balance the weight inside the inflatable kayak (including yourself). 

view of the front of the inflatable kayak

8. Learn the Different Paddling Strokes and Use Quality Technique

Specific paddling strokes and technique used can carry over for a paddler, but this depends on what they have paddled in the past. Hard shell and inflatable kayaks require similar paddling strokes and techniques used. This being said, there are differences to how these kayaks move on the water, leaving room for altered techniques. If you are new to paddling in general, learn the basics to paddling forward on both sides, focusing on your form, stroke length, and how the paddle blade enters and moves in the water. But don’t forget about reverse strokes, which can produce a quicker maneuver or change of direction. Other more technical strokes are out there as well, including the draw stroke.

9. Learn How to Quickly Maneuver Your Inflatable Kayak for Serious Situations

You never know when you are going to need to quickly turn a direction or maneuver your positioning while paddling in an inflatable kayak. Big lake waves and serious river rapids come to mind here. This is where those more technical strokes can come in handy. You could also use the basics to change your positioning by alternating paddling sides as usual with one paddling forward and the other reverse. Now if you need to maintain your positioning, while moving sideways, the draw stroke is a perfect fit, as the stroke uses a horizontal movement instead of the typical vertical. There is also an altered technique to the forward and reverse stroke, looking like a C-motion, combining vertical and horizontal strokes into one motion.

10. Work with, not Against the Water (Smarter, not Harder)

There are three key components to paddling efficiency and we have covered two of them in past tips (inflatable kayak design and paddling strokes and technique). The other is where you are paddling on the water. Water is not all the same, even for lakes. There are the obvious movements of waves and rapids, but also currents to consider when paddling. This is especially true on a river. For one, you should be able to feel whether you are paddling up or down river. If paddling down river, staying in the current is your most efficient option, but that is no simple task. With more experience, paddlers can develop a better feel for being able to stay in currents and how to visually pick up on them.

Experience and Safety

11. Ensure that Your Inflatable Kayak is Designed for Durability

For quality and durability of an inflatable kayak, you are going to get what you pay for. It can help to put some time into researching and exploring different inflatable kayak options, looking more specifically at descriptions of plastic materials used for higher durability, as well as rated reviews. The plastic materials used for an inflatable kayak can differ in two key ways: types and combinations of plastics used and the resulting thickness of the materials. But there’s no need to go overboard in concern over these areas for durability as a beginning inflatable kayaker, as you likely aren’t paddling over intense rapids, huge waves, and strong currents from the start.

12. Familiarize with Patch and Repair Materials Used and Steps to Take

Accidents can happen and inflatable kayaks are by no means indestructible. Thankfully, it does take a lot to puncture a hole in your inflatable kayak. But, it happens, and could in the moment from a collision of some sorts or later on when noticing gradual air loss in compartments. Which brings us to the handy patch and repair materials that inflatable kayaks often come with (I know my SE330 did). Familiarizing yourself with these patch and repair materials and the process (not all are the same) will do nothing but help you. Put the time in learning and practicing it, so you are ready for that moment on or off the water, and also to feel some relief of anxiousness that comes with being unprepared.

13. Gain Experience on Calmer, Smaller Waters Before Progressing to Rougher Waters

No matter the task or situation, it’s almost always best to start small or slow and progress up with experience and knowledge being acquired in time. Paddling from an inflatable kayak is no different, as even getting a feel for your positioning, movements, and the actual paddling takes time to get right or more efficient. And then there is the different intensities to bodies of water that you can be paddling on. Paddling on a small calm lake may feel more different than similar to that of paddling down some intense river rapids. Rougher waters can offer a thrilling paddling experience, but one that needs to be much more technical as well. Once again, it takes time to build up to that point.

14. When Exploring New Waters, Go with a More Experienced Paddler

Even at the highest level, you always start back up as a beginner or learner when first experiencing a specific body of water from your inflatable kayak. Not every new body of water warrants the necessity of an accompanying guide or more experienced paddler. The smaller and calmer waters are safer to explore on your own, while rougher waters offer up amplified versions of waves or rapids and currents. And then there are the hidden hazards to a river and the concern over uncontrollably drifting away from the shore of a big lake or ocean. A more experienced paddler (to that body of water) can help you avoid serious dangers.

15. Know the Body of Water Your on and its Presenting Hazards

Being able to read the water (current, hazards, etc.) you are paddling on is a difficult task and may require some inside knowledge from someone that has been there and done that before. There is, though, less concern on smaller and calmer waters, as you have more control of your inflatable kayak movement and time to scope out possible hazards. On the other hand, a river offers endless hazards and much more momentum to your inflatable kayak movement. Oh and these hazards change throughout the year as the river volume and velocity fluctuates. This can happen with ocean water as well, with high and low tide creating presenting different hazards to avoid. Just don’t rush into paddling these types of waters and stay alert.

view of a submerged log in a lake while in a kayak

Specific Cases

16. Swimming from the Inflatable Kayak

Swimming from an inflatable kayak is a challenging task. Without question wear a life vest while swimming, while sticking to small and calm bodies of water is a safer bet. There isn’t much weight to an inflatable kayak, by design, so there is higher drift vulnerability when paddling. This is even more the case with your body weight removed when in the water swimming. If concerned, you could attach a leash (like surfers use) to your body or life vest and the inflatable kayak. An anchor line to the inflatable kayak could help as well. And then there is the challenge of returning to the inflatable kayak from the water. Getting this down can set you up to swim more often and freely, preparing yourself for the unintentional swim or fall in the water.

17. Fishing from the Inflatable Kayak

This is definitely a possibility. Some inflatable kayaks are designed specifically for fishing. Other have a more general design and can be adapted for fishing, which is likely where inflatable kayaking beginners find themselves. From here, you really just have to look at what sets a more general and a fishing specific inflatable kayak apart. Thicker plastic materials (sharp hooks, fish teeth and fins), rod and paddle holders (easy storing and frees hands), storage space (fishing tackle), D-rings and anchor lines (anchor into fishing spot), and rear fins (more control of kayak movement) are common additions. Consider what you can buy or make on your own (DIY) in regards to these areas to set yourself up for a safe and efficient fishing experience.

18. Tandem Paddling in an Inflatable Kayak

First off, do you have the right sized inflatable kayak for tandem or two-person paddling? You should be able to tell by how cramped the two of you feel in the inflatable kayak, from leg room to paddling space. Then you obviously need another person for this paddling pursuit, which can complicate things. Spacing and technique is key between paddlers, while rapport and communication are just as vital for success. And some of this, like paddling techniques and communication, can shift with different bodies of water and resulting paddling experiences. So don’t just jump into pursuing rougher waters or into paddling with any other person. It will likely take time to get to being a mutually skilled, knowledgeable, and efficient paddling duo.

19. Planning for One-Way River Trip Logistics

It can be easy to overlook the fact that paddling on a river is a one-way trip, unless you are up for the challenge of paddling up river. This can leave beginning river paddlers pondering where to start and end, and how to transport yourself and inflatable kayak. On your own, this can be a big hassle, but it is doable. There is the physically strenuous prospect of hiking or walking to to or from your vehicle to complete your trip. But you could also hitch a ride with a fellow paddler to start or end your trip, depending on where you left your vehicle. The logistics get much easier when you have another person that you are paddling with. You want to end up having a vehicle at the put-in and take-out locations, so it takes some configuring from there.

20. Planning for Overnight River Trips from Inflatable Kayak

There is a lot to planning for and completing an overnight river trip from your inflatable kayak. As a beginner, it is always best to first go with and learn from a more experienced person here. There are many questions to ask and areas to prepare for: What all will you need for food, sleeping, and others? How should you pack it all in your inflatable kayak? How many miles will you paddle? What campsites, if any, are available? Are there campsite fire restrictions? What are the guidelines for excreting waste and are you appropriately equipped to follow them? Other questions remain, while answers can vary by state and river. So thoroughly research and prepare yourself if you choose to turn a river experience into an overnight trip.