Michigan Kayaking – A Beginners Guide

My love affair with kayaking began when I learned about kayak touring – multi-day paddling trips carrying camping gear in the kayak. I was an experienced hiker and backpacker, and the idea that I could use a kayak to explore rivers was entrancing.

My first kayak touring experience was a three day paddle on the James River in Virginia. The slow, lazy river was just right for a beginner, and I delighted in pulling my kayak ashore each night and falling asleep to the sounds of the river. Since then, I’ve explored sea kayaking on beautiful Lake Superior, gnarly whitewater kayaking, and more challenging wilderness paddling trips on the Au Sable River.

Kayaking is one of the most popular water sports today, and Michigan is fortunate to have some of the best paddling opportunities in the country. Paddlers can enjoy quiet inland lakes and rivers as well as kayaking along Michigan’s more than 3,200 miles of freshwater coastline.

Kayaking on Charlevoix

Most kayaking falls into three broad categories:

  • Recreational kayaking is done on lakes and slow-moving flat rivers. This is the type of kayaking best suited for beginners, so that they can focus on learning proper paddling techniques without worrying too much about fast moving water and waves. Photographers and fishermen often prefer the stability and size of recreational boats.
  • Sea kayaking, sometimes called kayak touring, is done on open bodies of water like lakes, bays, and oceans.
  • Whitewater kayaking is possibly the most extreme form of adventure paddling and involves paddling in river rapids classified as class 2 and above. Whitewater kayaks are short and maneuverable, and always have spray skirts to keep water out and paddlers in!

5 Tips for kayak beginners:

1. Take a basic paddling class:

A kayaking class will teach you the basics of entering, exiting, paddling, and other important techniques. You’ll have the opportunity to learn under the guidance of an expert and be able to ask questions. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources offers summer kayaking classes, races, and events throughout the state. Many Michigan university outdoors clubs sponsor pool days and outings to teach basic paddling techniques and give beginners a safe place to practice. Outfitters in your area can also help you learn about paddling clubs, nearby rivers and streams, and local hazards. Classes and clubs are a great way to meet new paddling buddies.

2. Learn how to enter and exit a kayak safely:

It’s important to learn how to get into a kayak without overturning it, and how to safely exit the boat. The key to entering a kayak is to keep your weight centered and low. Always enter a kayak from calm, shallow water, so that you can do so in a controlled manner.

Exiting a kayak safely is probably the most important skill to learn. If your kayak requires a spray skirt, then you must learn and practice wet exits in case of a capsize, since the spray skirt is designed to keep you in the boat even underwater. Practice exiting an open kayak in shallow water and try to avoid flooding it. Practice entries and exits in deep water so that you learn how your kayak behaves when you’re not in it.


Shelldrake River

3. Learn and practice basic paddling techniques:

Basic paddling is all about becoming comfortable in a boat and learning how to move it efficiently in the water. Learn to relax while paddling and use your legs and core more than your arms when you paddle. Basic strokes like the forward and sweep strokes move your boat forward and turn it. Try and paddle your boat forward in a straight line. The back or reverse paddle is important to learn as a building block to the emergency stop. Practice holding your paddle lightly and reversing your boat in a straight line.

4. Learn about local hazards and carry safety equipment:

Each region and waterway is home to its own hazards. Talk to local paddlers or read forums to learn about how to spot and avoid water hazards like sweepers (trees/debris pushing out of the water), strainers (hard-to-see underwater trees), and other obstacles. Lowhead dams are particularly deadly hazards in waterways running through developed areas. These “drowning machines” are responsible for many water deaths because of their deceptive appearance (many have drops of only a few inches) and unpredictable hydraulics.

The Michigan DNR reports that more than 70% of boating fatalities are caused by drowning. Always paddle with a life jacket and file a float plan with a friend or family member, letting them know the “who, what, where, and when” of your trip. Paddle with more experienced kayakers and learn the basics of water rescue so that you can help someone else in an emergency.

5. Learn which kayak is right for you:

Don’t rush out to buy a kayak at the beginning. Spend some time in rented or borrowed kayaks while learning and practicing basic techniques. Once you’ve gotten some experience, you can make a better decision about which kind of kayak suits your style. Whatever choice you make, fit and comfort are supremely important.

Recreational and sea kayaks are easy to find in outdoor stores and many offer kayak demo days where you can try out boats in the water. Some dealers offer beginner packages that include paddles and life vests. Whitewater kayaks can be difficult to find in areas outside of well-known whitewater areas. You can often find deals by buying used rental boats at the beginning or end of the season, or cruising local classifieds.

Kayaking on the Au Sable River

Types of kayaks:

  • Sit-On-Top Kayak: Cheap, stable, easy to get into/out of, commonly used for recreational paddling and fishing in calm water;
  • Tandem Kayak: Designed to seat two paddlers, found in recreational and sea kayaks;
  • Inflatable Kayak: Low-cost, versatile, can be broken down for easy transport and storage, but is not suitable for shallow rivers;
  • Sea Touring Kayak: Long, fast, and tippy, 10-18 feet in length; used on coastal waters, bays, and big lakes; designed for cargo hauling, speed, and long distance paddling;
  • Whitewater Kayak: Shorter than recreational and sea kayaks, designed for maneuverability and short bursts of speed;
  • Playboat: Short, stubby, highly maneuverable whitewater kayak designed for surfing river waves, and playing in rapids.

Kayaking Grand Isle

Hopefully you’ve learned enough in this article to get you out there and paddling! Most areas have at least a few rivers, streams, or lakes suitable for recreational kayaking and lessons are easy to find through clubs and local outdoor outfitters. Don’t be afraid or intimidated to meet local kayakers; most paddlers are friendly and are happy to mentor newbies. Kayaking is a wonderful way to explore new parts of your home while getting exercise and fresh air.

Here are a few beginner-friendly Michigan kayak day trips that will whet your appetite for adventure:

Daniela BakerDaniela Baker is a social media advocate at CreditDonkey.  When she’s not busy exploring the outdoors, she shares her insights on travel rewards credit cards on her blog.




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17 thoughts on “Michigan Kayaking – A Beginners Guide

  1. Great post….I grew up on Michigan but have lived in New Mexico for the last 22 or so years and boat the Rio Grande. Very nice to see Michigan is a kayak destination! Thanks so much.

  2. Hi I was curious on your input! I have a small recreational kayak, just shy of 10 feet, I bought it this summer- I live in the detroit area and have taken it all over metro detroit including the detroit river off Belle Isle as well- I would be interested in kayaking pictured rocks this coming summer, I’ve noticed all the rental places around there only offer sea kayak rental- my little boat is very stable, is it something you would recomend kayaking in a recreational kayak?

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  9. Looking for a few good places for beginners and some intermediate kayakers to go on a 2 hour trip.  We’ve gone on the ROgue RIver in ROckford, and love it, but we want to try someting different.  ANy ideas?

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  11. Does anyone know of a place in the Irish Hills area of Michigan for a short 3-4 hour kyacking trip? Thanks!

  12. Thanks for writing/posting this article! I went kayaking once with a friend last summer and have been wanting to go again. This info will give me a great start.

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  15. Very cool post. We try to do at the least one Northern Michigan paddle trip a year. This year we did the Betsie River, last year was the Pigeon and before that the Muskegon. Paddling is great in Michigan and doing 3-4 day trips living right out of the kayak is beautiful, relaxing and fun.

    In between northern trips we stay local to the Huron river which offers great scenery and a few well maintained camps along the rivers banks.

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