What is Flatwater Kayaking?

Have you ever heard someone mention they enjoy “flatwater kayaking” but you just weren’t 100% sure what they meant? This is one of the main types of kayaking, and by the time this post is over you’ll know exactly what they mean.

So, what is flatwater kayaking? Flatwater kayaking refers to a type of kayaking that takes place on a body of water that is sheltered from waves, excessive wind, and current. It most typically takes place on small lakes, ponds and other tranquil bodies of water such as marshes or swamps. As there are fewer obstacles and challenges, flatwater kayaking is a great fit for beginners.

If you’re like myself, you may have intuitively understood flatwater kayaking from its wonderfully straightforward name. Ah, so it takes place on water that’s flat? That’s easy. Check. While that part was simple, there’s a lot more to flatwater kayaking and this post is your one-stop resource for everything you need to know.

Everything You Need to Know About Flatwater Kayaking

An excellent option for beginners looking to dip their toe in the big world of kayaking, flatwater kayaking is approachable, budget friendly, and a wonderful way to spend a day on the water.

What Types of Kayaking Are There?

Before we get into the nitty gritty details about flatwater kayaking, it’s helpful to take a few minutes to understand how flatwater kayaking fits into the world of kayaking. While there aren’t necessarily formal definitions, most kayakers agree that there are two main types of kayaking: flatwater kayaking and whitewater kayaking.

flatwater kayaking on a small lake in wisconsin with an inflatable kayak
Flatwater kayaking on a small lake in Southern Wisconsin

While kayaking refers to a person navigating a body of water with a kayak, flatwater kayaking occurs when someone navigates a tranquil body of water. This typically occurs on small lakes, ponds, marshes, and swamps. While these bodies of water may have challenges unique to them, they almost never present a person with external forces that can manipulate the direction and stability of the kayak.

On the other hand, whitewater kayaking is when a user navigates a body of water that does not fall into the flatwater category. This can occur on a wide variety of bodies of water and tends to be a much broader category. Kayaking on the sea or ocean is a very different challenge than paddling a small river, but both fall into the category of whitewater kayaking.

Where You Can Go Flatwater Kayaking

Small to medium-sized lakes are usually the best places to start flatwater kayaking. Most of the time these lakes have densely-treed shorelines that serve as a great windbreak. As you may have noticed, the further you get away from the shore, the greater the likelihood that you run into higher gusts of wind. Some wind is to be expected no matter where you are on a lake, but the sustained winds associated with open areas on larger lakes will tire out a paddler more quickly and create additional challenges. If you’re inexperienced and want to get started kayaking, picking a small lake (less than a few hundred acres in size) will likely be your best bet.

a small lake in suburbs of chicago good for flatwater kayaking
Small lakes such as this are a great starting point for beginner kayakers

Marshes and swamps also offer many great options for flatwater kayaking, but they are generally less popular and often a bit more difficult to navigate. As they are less popular, it might be slightly more difficult to find a launch point. If you don’t own a kayak and need to find a rental shop, it may be difficult to find a rental service with access to a swamp or marsh. Obviously, much of this depends on the bodies of water common to your location, as places like the Everglades should be able to easily accommodate those looking to rent a kayak. The best part about kayaking a swamp or marsh is that it allows you to immerse yourself in nature and get an up-close look at an unique and often undervalued ecosystem. You never know just what you’ll encounter!

What You Need to Get Started Flatwater Kayaking

So you’ve found a location for flatwater kayaking and you’re itching to get on the water. What kind of equipment and gear will you need? Here’s a list:

  • Hardshell Kayak or Inflatable Kayak
  • Kayak Paddle
  • Some Kind of Personal Flotation Device (Usually a Life Jacket)

Each of these things seem simple enough, yet millions of words have been written about choosing the right kayaks, PFDs, and kayak paddles. If you’re just testing the waters of kayaking, I wouldn’t spend too much time diving into the nuances of each thing just yet. Just make sure you have each one. Yes, even the PFD. I know, all of us at one point in our lives have been the cool kid thinking “Life jacket? Nah, I’ll be fine.” Just. Wear. The. PFD.

Do You Need a Specific Kind of Kayak for Flatwater Kayaking?

It depends. Most people that get into flatwater kayaking are going to end up with a kayak that’s referred to as a recreational kayak. Recreational kayaks are the further split up into two aptly-named groups: sit-on-top kayaks and sit-inside kayaks.

If you’re just getting started with kayaking and don’t think you’ll be spending a ton of time on the water, don’t fret too much over the exact kayak you end up with. You’re best bet will usually be a rental kayak or something you borrow from a friend, as what they have will likely be more than sufficient for your purposes. If you find that you really like flatwater kayaking and you’re interested in getting your own kayak, you can always build on what you’ve learned.

view of a small lake from a hill on a sunny day

If you expect that you’ll get plenty of use of your kayak, your best option is likely to work with a local kayak shop once you decide to make the plunge into kayak ownership. They’ll be able to show you the wide variety of options available and if you’re lucky, you might be able to test a few kayaks out on the water.

How to Get Started Flatwater Kayaking

There are a lot of different ways you might get started with flatwater kayaking, but here are two of the most straightforwards paths you can take.

Take a Rental Kayak for a Spin at a Nearby Lake

Renting a kayak on a small to medium-sized lake is one of the best ways to get started flatwater kayaking. While not super cheap, the rental cost is usually quite affordable and this allows you to get first-hand experience on the water, without having to spend hundreds of dollars or figure out just how you’re going to store your new 12-foot long kayak.

Most of the time kayak rentals are billed by the hour and often they offer a discounted rate for a full day rental. If you’re just getting started with flatwater kayaking, start with an hour and maybe extend it to a second hour if you’re really enjoying yourself. I wouldn’t recommend more than two hours of kayaking for a beginner, as kayaking works a specific set of muscles and it’s usually best to build your strength up slowly.

Go Out with a Friend that has a Spare Kayak

Have a friend that always posts neat pictures of them out on a lake kayaking? You know, the outdoorsy type that loves granola and reminds you of a Subaru commercial? Get in touch and see if they’re able to help you get on the water. The vast majority of people in the kayaking community love helping beginners out and would be more than willing to share their knowledge.

Most paddlers remember what it was like to be a beginner in the often confusing world of kayaking, and many people might even have an extra kayak you could borrow.

Related Questions

Is flatwater kayaking only for beginners? Not at all! Flatwater kayaking is wonderful for paddlers of all levels of experience. Not everyone wants to be confronted with the challenging realities that river currents, choppy waters, and waves bring. Some people, myself included, are usually just looking for an enjoyable day on the water and maybe a little exercise.

Are sit-on-top kayaks or sit-inside kayaks better for flatwater kayaking? There are benefits to each, and mostly this will come down to personal preference. While beginners can capably use sit-inside kayaks, they do require slightly more skill in the event of a flipped kayak. Sit-on-top kayaks are about as user friendly as they get, so are a great starting point for absolute beginners.