October 13, 2022 8 min read

Kayak Paddle Strokes

kids holding a black kayak paddle

It may seem like kayaking is a fairly easy sport to get the hang of, and it is, as long as you can master your balance and perfect your paddle strokes. If you want the freedom to explore bodies of water all over the globe, then you’re going to need to be able to control your craft and control it efficiently.

The strokes we have included today in this article are the most basic kayaking strokes that you can use to move your kayak forwards and backwards and for turning or scooting your kayak to the side. So, if you’re after all the kayak paddle strokes and how to do them, keep on reading!

How to Hold Your Paddle

Man paddling with a small red kayak

Before we even get into the paddle strokes, it is crucial that you know how to properly hold your paddle. By holding your paddle in the correct way, you will limit the amount of fatigue each stroke will have on your body, and you’ll find that your strokes are more efficient and powerful. 

We have an entire article regarding How to Choose a Kayak Paddle so you can ensure that you’re set up for success from the very start of your paddling journey.

Understanding Your Paddle Blades

The paddle blades may seem insignificant, but understanding them and the way they work is extremely important. You’ll find that kayak paddle blades come in a range of shapes, sizes, and configurations, all designed for different styles of paddling. 

Blade Positioning

Most kayak paddles will have adjustable blades that you can set to a parallel or feathered position. To do this, there should be a button down the paddle shaft that you can press to readjust the blades. A parallel position, which is the best setup for beginner paddlers, means that the blades are pointed in the exact same direction. Feathered paddle blades, on the other hand, will be pointing in slightly different directions.

Blade Symmetry

Blades will sometimes have symmetrical sides, where both are exactly the same length, or they will have asymmetrical sides, where one is slightly shorter than the other. Asymmetrical sides help the paddle track straight, but you can learn to paddle with either shape, just as long as you know which one you have. 

Blade Curvature

Most blades will be slightly curved in one direction as this helps them grab more water in order to enhance the power in the stroke.

Position Your Blades Correctly

The position of your paddle blades is going to determine how efficient each of your paddle strokes will be. Follow these steps for the perfect paddle blade position:

  • Place your hands on the paddle shaft so your knuckles are pointed up, and your paddle blades are perpendicular to the ground. 
  • If you have asymmetrical blades, you will want the shorter side of the blade to be at the bottom.
  • The curvature of the blade should be facing towards you. If your blade is flat, then this step is irrelevant.

Adjust Your Hands Down the Shaft

The best way to position your hands on the shaft is by resting the paddle shaft on the center point of your head and moving your hands down the shaft, so your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. Once you bring the paddle down in front of you, your arms, chest, and the paddle shaft will form what’s known as the paddler’s box. 

By maintaining this box shape as you paddle the basic strokes, you will rotate your torso correctly, which in turn aids in good kayak paddling techniques.

Relax Your Grip on the Shaft

If your upper body is stiff, you’ll find that your wrists, arms, and hands will become fatigued fairly quickly. A relaxed grip is key when it comes to the perfect paddle stroke, so allow all the power to come from your torso.

Forward Stroke

Woman on a white kayak practicing forward stroke

The first stroke which you’ll be spending most of your time doing is the forward stroke. And, as it is the fundamental stroke of kayaking, it’s crucial that you get it right to prevent injury to your muscles so you can paddle the most efficiently through the water.

When performing the forward stroke, be sure to engage your back and core, allowing these muscles to do the majority of the work.

How to Perform the Forward Stroke

  1. Hold your paddle correctly and wind your torso to immerse your blade in the water to the side of the kayak. You want the blade to enter the water where your feet are positioned. This is called the catch phase.
  2. Next, perform the power phase by rotating your torso and pulling your paddle blade back towards you. A handy tip is to follow the blade that’s in the water with your eyes, and your torso will follow accordingly. 
  3. Finally, when the blade is behind your hip, pull it out of the water. This end move is the release phase.
  4. To continue paddling, simply repeat the process.

Tips and Tricks for the Forward Stroke

  • Always use your core and back muscles to power your strokes, as your weaker arm muscles will tire far quicker.
  • Keep the paddler’s box in mind during your entire paddle. You want your body to be as upright as possible so you can maintain your balance and paddle efficiently. 
  • Make sure that all your blade is immersed in the water at an almost vertical orientation. This will help you move faster and track straighter. 

Reverse Stroke

Kayak paddle on the waters

The next stroke is the reverse stroke, which, you guessed it, is going to make your kayak reverse. As well as being a way to edge yourself backwards in the water, you can also use the reverse stroke as a brake to stop your kayak. 

How to Perform the Reverse Stroke

  1. Fully immerse your paddle blade in the water at your hip. You’ll do the same winding motion with your torso, just this time, it’s in reverse. This is the drop phase of the reverse stroke. 
  2. From there, execute the power phase by rotating your torso and pulling the blade in front of you.
  3. Finally, when your paddle blade has reached your feet, pull the blade out of the water to finish the stroke with the release phase.
  4. To continue reversing or braking, simply repeat the process.

Sweep Stroke

Orange kayak and yellow blade kayak paddle

Now that you’ve mastered the forward and reverse strokes, it’s time to learn how to turn the kayak. If you paddle the forward stroke repeating on one side of the kayak, you’ll notice that the kayak will begin to turn in the opposite direction. The sweep stroke not only keeps your kayak moving in a straight line but also allows you to paddle over to objects or land more efficiently. 

How to Perform the Sweep Stroke

  1. Start off with your catch phase by extending your arms forward and immersing your blade in the water at your feet. If you want to turn left, position your blade on the right-hand side of your kayak; if you want to turn right, position the blade on the left-hand side of your kayak. 
  2. Sweep the blade in an arc toward the back of the kayak. You will need to really engage your core muscles through this turning phase to optimize the stroke effectively. 
  3. Finally, once the blade has reached the back end of the cockpit, they finish the release phase by pulling the blade out of the water.
  4. Repeat the process on the same side until the front end of your kayak is facing in the direction you wish to paddle in. 

Draw Stroke

Woman on a red shirt on a kayak performing a draw stroke

The final stroke that every kayaker should know is the draw stroke. Draw strokes are a great way to hoist yourself sideways if you need to pull up close to a dock or another kayak.

How to Perform the Draw Stroke

  1. Rotate your paddle, so the blade is horizontal to the kayak. 
  2. Place your paddle blade in the water roughly two feet away from your kayak.
  3. Use your lower hand to drag your paddle blade towards you with the tip of the blade fully immersed in the water at all times. 
  4. Before the blade hits the boat, stop and pull it out of the water. 

Paddles for Kayaking

If you’ve mastered your paddling technique but you’re still finding that you’re getting fatigued fairly quickly, it may be because your paddle is of poor quality. Kayak paddles come in a range of different materials, with the three most popular being aluminum, fiberglass, and carbon fiber.

Aluminum paddles are the cheapest of the three, and although they’re the most budget-friendly, they’re also the heaviest. Having a heavy paddle makes it more difficult to paddle and requires more power from your muscles. If you’re getting serious about kayaking, then it may be time to upgrade.

The next paddle up from an aluminum paddle is a fiberglass paddle which is considerably lighter and also more expensive. And finally, the best of the best are carbon fiber paddles.

Carbon fiber paddles are extremely lightweight and easy to use in the water. If you purchase a carbon fiber paddle, you’ll see a huge difference in your paddling technique, and the length of time you can paddle, and although carbon fiber paddles are the most expensive of the bunch, in our opinion, they’re worth it. 

If you’re ready to upgrade your paddle, then check out our article on the Top 8 Carbon Fiber Kayak Paddles.


🏆 What Is the most common kayak paddling stroke?

There are four common kayak paddling strokes that are all used for different purposes. The first is the forward stroke which you use to propel your kayak in a forward direction. Next is the reverse stroke, which you can use to slow down the kayak or have it reverse in a backward direction. 

Then you have the sweep stroke, which turns the kayak left and right, and finally, the draw stroke, which helps you edge the kayak towards docks or other boats.

👍 What type of kayak paddle works best?

The best type of kayak paddle is a carbon fiber paddle. These paddles are extremely lightweight and easy to use on the water, allowing their paddler to cover vast stretches of water without getting fatigued. The only downfall to a carbon fiber paddle is its price, but many paddlers will agree that the price is totally worth it. 

🏝️ Is kayaking easy to learn?

Kayaking is extremely easy to learn, and people of all ages and abilities can get the hang of paddling if they follow some simple paddling techniques. Balance is the first thing to master, followed by the four main paddle strokes: the forward stroke, the reverse stroke, the sweep stroke, and the draw stroke.

❓ Are kayak strokes the same as paddle board strokes?

Kayak strokes and paddle board strokes are extremely similar, with the main difference being that on a paddle board, you’re powering your strokes from a standing position. Here's 5 things you need to know before buying a paddle board. We have gone into detail about paddle board strokes over on The Ultimate Guide to Paddle Board Strokes.

📦 Do you burn calories while kayaking?

Kayaking is an excellent form of exercise that burns more calories than you’d think. The amount of calories you’d burn kayaking comes down to a few different factors such as your weight, age, the speed you’re paddling, and the amount of time you spend paddling.

For a person who weighs around 200 pounds and paddles at a moderate speed, you can look at burning as much as 476 calories per hour. 

For more information on kayaking and calories, check out How Many Calories Do You Burn Kayaking?

Megan Bryant
Megan Bryant

Based in Bali, her favorite SUP spot is the GILI Islands themselves. Travel is another passion of hers - she dreams to see the entire world one day.

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