When Valerie Edwards bought her kayaks from Costco 15 years ago, she figured they would just be fun for her family to have when out camping. They live outside Spokane, Wash., and they would visit campsites nearby in Idaho, where Edwards grew up.
“Even if you can find a semi-private destination to hike into, you have to have somewhere to park your car, and then you hike for two or three hours, and the spot that you think you’re going to get is already taken,” Edwards said of her Idaho spot. “But kayak-camping is a lot less common, so there are more opportunities to find seclusion.”
As the pandemic bred stir-craziness, “7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in the year prior,” according to a report by the American Canoe Association. Hiking trails, and national parks in particular, have become wildly more popular. Yellowstone and Grand Teton both have seen record numbers of visitors; Arches National Park in Utah has resorted to turning people away via Twitter.
But while park crowds show little sign of abating, some Americans are finding peace in the outdoors like Edwards’s family long has: by trading their backpacks for drybags and the trails for the water.
If you want to join them, here’s what to know about kayaking before you go.
From your safety to the risk of losing expensive gear, there’s a lot at stake on the water. “The first thing you should do is be comfortable in your kayak,” Edwards said.
It is best, then, to get your feet wet with a part-day trip to a lake or a relatively flat river. “Start easy, and don’t go overboard,” Edwards said (in either sense). You can look online to find kayak rentals near your destination; personal flotation devices, a safety essential, typically can be rented at the same place.
Eric Dean, 55, a former backcountry firefighter, practiced kayaking on the ocean when he lived in Alaska. That early feeling-out process proved critical during his 72-day trip on the Mississippi River last summer. “It helped me a lot as far as working on paddle strokes and feeling comfortable on the boat and on the water,” Dean said. “You know when you start getting tired. You know when you can improve or take a break.”
Day trips also offer a chance to practice core kayaking skills, such as recovering from capsizing or rolling, a maneuver kayakers use to keep from capsizing when they lose their balance. Nick Ingalls, a member of the Mesa County Search and Rescue Team in Colorado, said learning to roll is a “prerequisite” to attempting anything greater than Class II rapids, which he roughly defined as the roughest water one could safely swim.
If you’re serious about learning the craft, Ingalls also recommended reaching out to local kayaking clubs. “There’s a lot of learned experience and communal knowledge that you don’t get to tap into without having a more experienced kayaker teach you,” he said.
Find a route — and outline it
After getting comfortable in shorter spans, find a river or lake to visit for an extended excursion, whether you’re looking for a leisurely float or an upstream battle. American Whitewater, a river-recreation advocacy organization, maintains a map of whitewater routes across the country that features their difficulty, length and rate of flow.
A little route research can go a long way. When Michael Beynon, 34, of Norfolk, Va., went out on the Shenandoah River with a friend, “we took for granted that the river would be navigable,” he said. They were going in the fall, and water levels were low, creating new rapids and sections where they had to carry their gear.
Following a river isn’t always easy, either. “It’s typically not marked,” Beynon said. “It’s very easy to miss a turn if you’re not paying attention.” Edwards plots her routes by finding prominent features to follow ahead of time in Google Maps.
Whatever route you choose, though, make sure you have an appropriate vessel. Beynon learned that lesson after he brought a sea kayak on his second Shenandoah trip. “It was just too long to be nimble and navigate around the turns,” he said, so he capsized a few times. In case his kayak fills with water and he needs to bail it out, Beynon packs a car sponge; some places require a bailing device by law.
If you’re camping, you will also need to find a campsite, and while many rivers are surrounded by camp-able public land, not all are. (Remember that, for conservation reasons, many wilderness areas are “pack it in, pack it out,” requiring visitors to “leave no trace” they were there.)
One last consideration? Parking. Beynon’s group has left cars stationed at either end of their river routes, but he said many rivers will have local kayak guides that offer shuttle services. To avoid the hassle altogether, Edwards’s family sticks to lakes, where she and her family simply can paddle back to the same place they started.
Study the forecast
Leading up to your trip, stay on top of your destination’s current weather and the forecast.
Dean checked for storms and the direction of the wind every morning and night of his Mississippi River trip. “The wind can be stronger than you are and push you in directions you don’t want to go," he said. “That’s one of the biggest hazards on the river.” If the wind isn’t “on your side,” he said, just pull over. It’s better to be safe on dry land than in trouble on the water.
The sun is another danger — and Beynon recommends dressing for the worst-case scenario. “Doesn’t matter if it’s 100 degrees outside: I got a big goofy sun hat on and long sleeves and pants just so that I don’t ever have to worry about my sunscreen wearing off, because it’s brutal when you mess up,” he said.
The weather in the days and weeks before your trip matters, too, since rain and groundwater from surrounding areas will flow into and collect in rivers. Beynon’s group overlooked that point before going out on the Roanoke River in North Carolina: Hoping for an easy float, they instead found water levels nine feet above average.
Sometimes, though, preparation isn’t enough. On Lake Winnibigoshish, in Minnesota, Dean once was caught by a freak storm when crossing the channel, where whitecap waves can form quickly. “There are those moments,” he said, “where you’re like, ‘Wow, I really hope this ends well.’”
Find your line, and know your limits
On the water, the line you take downriver is the immediate concern. On a recent Colorado River trip, Ingalls, the search-and-rescue team member, stayed safe by pulling out above the rapids and checking a local guidebook. “Adrenaline is the enemy in kayaking,” he said. “You experience it, but [kayaking is] more about testing your skill and proving you have the skill to paddle something safely.”
Many swiftwater search-and-rescue missions are unremarkable, but Ingalls has seen someone die on the rapids, after capsizing and being pushed under a boulder. “Personally, I feel that responsibility to know those stories, to know what is possible and what has happened,” said Tina Elderkin, of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, who ran the Colorado with Ingalls. "It involved some really scary stories.”
Taking calculated risks, though, is part of the adventure, kayakers say. And in practice, as long as you’re not running rapids that are above your skill level, and as long as you’re wearing a personal flotation device, slipping on your walk down to the water is the most likely danger you’ll face, according to Sunny Pitcher, owner of Potomac Paddlesports in Maryland.
“Kayaking is so much more fun when you have some skills and you know how to handle the what-if situations, so safety goes hand-in-hand," said Pitcher, a kayaking instructor for more than 20 years.
Appreciate the ebb and flow
The rush of the rapids is a major draw for kayakers. But the quiet serenity of nature, many said, is right up there, too.
“All kinds of wildlife, they won’t even know you’re there until you’re right on top of them,” Beynon said.
“It was a journey of discovery,” Dean said of his 2,000-plus-mile Mississippi kayaking trip. “Even if there was not much happening, it was time for introspection, [to] just let your mind open up.”
“The harder a place is to get to, the more people will respect it,” Edwards said.
So, in between the rougher patches on the water, the kayakers recommended taking in the woodsy sights and gentler sounds.
You might also take in, as Edwards does, the absence of the sights and sounds of many other people.
“You’re getting to experience a lot of places that humans have had [an] impact, but not as much impact as the parking lot in Yosemite,” Ingalls said. “You’re getting to go to places that only a few people get to go a year.”