Last updated: June 15

How to Steer a Kayak

Kayaking is a great way to experience being out on the water. 

However, knowing how to steer and turn the kayak you're in is crucial to navigating whatever waters you are in safely.

Mastering this takes an investment of practice and time. 

However, when you develop the appropriate skill set, you can focus more on enjoying yourself on the water, given how natural paddling and steering will come to you.

What do you use to steer a kayak?

To steer a kayak in the water, you use your paddle. Paddling and steering go hand in hand when you're in a kayak. 

If you put your paddle into the water behind you but parallel to your kayak, then it acts as a rudder does on a boat.

If you would like to turn left, you need to keep paddling on the right side of the kayak. 

Conversely, if you want to start turning right, then keep paddling on the left. 

How do you steer a kayak?

Unlike a car, where you turn the steering wheel the direction you want to go, you instead paddle on the other side of the kayak to steer a kayak.

This technique is known as the opposite side paddling technique. 

It's a combination of two different yet basic paddle strokes. One is the forward sweeping stroke, and the second is the stern rudder stroke.

First, master the forward sweeping stroke

The forward sweeping stroke starts with you reaching forward so you can put the paddle down into the water along the side of your kayak's hull. 

You then sweep the paddle blade outward and backward, following a wide arc, before pushing the bow in the direction opposite of your sweep. 

Sweeping strokes to the right steer your kayak left, whereas the same strokes to the left send you to the right. 

You can learn how to be very effective with just a few sweeping strokes for minor course adjustments. However, if you want to truly change direction, it's likely to take multiple strokes.

Pitfalls of the forward sweeping stroke

While you practice this, it might seem simple enough at first. However, there are potential pitfalls to be aware of. 

For instance, misusing the opposite side technique might just make the kayak go faster without it turning. 

Also, only paddling on a single side can also mean over-shooting the turn you want to make, necessitating another course correction while you're also frustrated.

Proper refinement of your steering technique is crucial. 

Something you need to ingrain into your mind early on is that the whole point of opposite side paddling is forcing your bow in the direction you want to go. 

As you remember this, you'll start mastering how steering strokes need to be made physically away from your kayak hull. 

Your paddles should pull the stern of your kayak for better turning.

Next, learn more advanced techniques

While opposite paddling is the most basic form of steering your kayak, the next level of paddling mastery and knowing how to steer your kayak involves learning a set of four strokes, two of which are used in opposite paddling. 

These include the forward stroke, the sweep stroke, the reverse stroke, and the draw stroke.

Before you do anything, consider the possibility of learning from a master or professional trainer. Even the most studious self-learner can form bad habits that are hard to find and harder to break.

Also, make sure you have a good paddle. Check with your instructor or local paddle shop to find the right paddle length for you. 

This is crucial to having a stroke that is efficient and won't wear you down.

The forward stroke

The most fundamental stroke is the forward stroke. 

You'll do it more than anything, and probably more than everything else combined. 

There's more than arm power to it, as you need to let your core and back muscles do the heavy work.

The forward stroke itself has three phases:

  1. Catch phase - where you wind your torso so you can immerse the whole blade to one side by your feet. 
  2. Power phase - where you rotate your torso, and the blade then moves behind you. If you let your eyes follow the blade in the water, then your torso will follow, and you should focus on using your upper hand to push against the shaft while you move. 
  3. Release phase - when your hand gets just behind your hip, you need to slice the blade from the water for the third phase, the release phase.

The reverse stroke

The reverse stroke is used to either slow down or stop your kayak. 

If you're moving, use it to start slowing down. If you're stopped, use it to start backing up. 

This stroke is directly opposed to the forward stroke, meaning it too has three phases:

  1. Drop phase - this involves winding your torso so you can fully immerse the blade aside your hip. 
  2. Power phase - this involves rotating your torso while the blade moves ahead of you. 
  3. Release phase - this is when you get the blade out from the water when it gets even with your feet.

The sweep stroke

Noticing how all these strokes have three phases? The sweep stroke follows suit. 

You can turn your boat by doing repeated forward strokes on one side, but a sweep stroke is considerably more efficient if you master it properly.

Here are the phases of the sweep stroke:

  1. Catch phase - to start this, extend your arms in a forward direction so you can immerse the blade close to your feet. Do this on the opposite boat side from where you want to head.
  2. Turn phase - sweep your paddle blade into a wide arc towards the stern. Maximize your stroke using power in your body's rotation, particularly after your paddle passes the cockpit.
  3. Release phase - simply slice your blade from the water when it gets close to the hull that's behind your cockpit.

The draw stroke

Draw strokes are intended to move your boat to one side or another instead of changing course while moving. 

These are used for pulling away from other boats or close to a dock.

You need to rotate the blade of the paddle to a horizontal state. 

Reach out so that the tip of your blade is touching the water around you about two feet out right on one side of your boat. 

The shaft of your paddle is going to be angled quite steeply.

Apply your lower hand so it can start pulling the blade right to you, but keep the blade tip in the water during your stroke. 

Stop before your blade hits the side of your kayak.


Whether you intend to kayak on moving water or flatwater, you need to know how to steer your kayak. 

Doing so isn't just a matter of safety, but being able to keep up with your group and get where you're going. 

For that matter, you need to know this just to get in and out of the water.

Whether you learn on your own or as part of a class, it's helpful to practice your strokes out of the water first, just so your body can get some muscle memory going. 

Also, start small and then build when you get in the water.

Finally, don’t forget that kayaking is an excellent form of exercise for the core and upper body, and spending time in nature is quite healthy for the mind and soul, too, so long as it isn't too taxing on your body.

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