Kayaking for Beginners: Tips and Tricks for Your First Paddle

Most Chicagoans would agree that exploring Chicago’s splendor has always been best from the water. In recent years kayaking has become a favorite pastime for locals and tourists alike, but don’t be fooled, this is not your whitewater terror-filled paddle, kayaking on Lake Michigan is a relaxing way to get up close and personal with one of the world’s largest freshwater lakes and the United States third largest city. The lapping shores of Lake Michigan are a phenomenon you won’t see every day; it’s where nature and industry collide. Where the beauty of Lake Michigan slowly kisses the concrete jungle made up of some of the finest architecture in the world. Whether you’re a seasoned pro with the paddle blade, or a beginner kayaker in a sit-in kayak, going for a paddle down Lake Michigan is an experience the whole family can enjoy.

What is Kayaking?

youth camp attendees celebrating what kayaking is about

Kayaking is a water-based activity that lets you glide across lakes and rivers using a paddle with blades on both ends. Although it originated in Arctic regions, kayaking has become a popular sport and recreational activity worldwide. In Chicago, renting a kayak offers a unique way to see the city and get up close to nature, all while getting some exercise.

Kayaking in Chicago offers something for every skill level, from total beginners to seasoned pros. Various rental locations provide all the gear you’ll need, often with instructors to guide you. It’s an inclusive outdoor activity, requiring only a willingness to learn and a love for the great outdoors.

Types of Kayaks

Kayaks and kayak paddles come in all shapes and sizes depending on your desired experience. A custom double-bladed paddle won’t be necessary, as most outfits will provide you will all the tools you need to tackle the waters for recreational paddling. We’ve provided some information about the most common kayaks for beginners.

Sit-In Kayak

sit in kayak on Chicago waters

These sit-inside kayaks have a closed cockpit that offers protection from water splashes, making them ideal for Chicago’s unpredictable weather. Sit-in kayaks are versatile, offering the paddler more control and making them a perfect fit for the varied water conditions of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. They are well-suited for those who want to spend a long day on the water, as they have ample storage for your gear.

Inflatable Kayak

inflatable kayak on the water

If you’re looking for ease of use, inflatable kayaks are your go-to option. These kayaks are light and portable, allowing you to pack them up quickly for spontaneous trips to local water spots. Constructed with robust materials, they can withstand everyday wear and tear. They’re fantastic for a leisurely paddle on calm waters, though they’re less stable in windy conditions.

Tandem Kayak

tandem kayaking on lake michigan chicago

Tandem kayaks have two cockpits, allowing two people to paddle together. This kayaking experience makes for a fantastic date activity, as it allows couples to work together, encouraging communication and teamwork. Imagine paddling in unison down the Chicago River, taking in the skyline, and enjoying each other’s company. The shared experience can turn a regular day out into an unforgettable adventure.

Whether you’re planning a romantic date or just looking for a new way to enjoy Chicago’s waterways, tandem kayaking in Chicago is a versatile and accessible option. From the stability and control offered by sit-in kayaks to the convenience and portability of inflatables, there’s a kayak that fits your needs. Remember, the best part about kayaking is that it truly is for all ages and experience levels.

Where to Go Kayaking

kayaking by the Chicago skyline on lake michigan

Choosing a body of water is the first step to planning a kayaking adventure! Difference bodies of water offer unique experiences that can change where you launch and what your day will look like. Shallow water is always an option for newcomers, but often river and lake kayaking can result in a more engaging kayaking trip. Calm waters are an excellent starting point for your kayak adventure, whether you’re in a single kayak or double kayak (tandem).

Kayaking on Lake Michigan

Finding the right spot to kayak on the lake is…well easier than you would think. There are launch points all across the shoreline making it easy to access the water from almost every beach along the coast. North Avenue Beach is a popular destination for beachgoers of every activity, with its convenient food stalls, volleyball courts, and docks it is one of Chicago’s busiest beaches. It’s even a spectacular location for a sunset kayak rental for breathtaking views as the sun sets behind the windy city. This being said, due to the volume of beachgoers you will want to watch out for pedestrian swimmers closer to the shore, and you won’t want to kayak too far out into the cold water.

Kayaking at Ohio Street Beach

One of the best beaches for beginner kayakers is Ohio Street Beach. Located in the heart of downtown Chicago, Ohio Street Beach is the launch point for the one and only playpen. This is an area where boaters come to anchor down, listen to music, and enjoy a party-filled day on the water. There is a section of the playpen off of Ohio Street Beach where the boats won’t come and here is where you’ll get unparalleled views of the skyline’s man-made mountain. You’ll again want to be aware of anyone swimming in this area and of the boats that might be around as well but in general, this is the spot to see the city.

Along the Chicago River

The Chicago River offers a unique kayaking experience that combines urban scenery with natural beauty. Starting your journey from any of several launch points, such as the Riverwalk or Ping Tom Memorial Park, puts you in proximity to iconic landmarks like the Willis Tower, Marina City, and Merchandise Mart. As you paddle along, you’ll wind through the heart of the city, passing beneath historic bridges and alongside architectural marvels. Skyscrapers rise up on either side, reflecting in the water and providing a striking contrast to the greenery of the riverbanks. While the river is bustling with activity, designated kayaking lanes keep you separate from larger boat traffic. This route offers a blend of visual delights and navigational challenges, making it a must-visit spot for kayakers seeking a distinctive Chicago adventure.

Safety Considerations

youth camp attendees showing that kayak safety is important

Sunscreen

You’ve picked your launch point, now it’s time to prepare for your adventure. Be sure to lather up with your SPF at least 30 minutes before entering in the kayak. The water will reflect the sunlight back onto your skin doubling your exposure to the powerful rays of the sun. Don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen after going for a swim!

Life Jackets and Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

This is also a good time to mention life jackets, no matter how excellent of a swimmer you are, Lake Michigan is basically a mini ocean. You should always consider your safety and that of your party and wearing life jackets while going for a paddle is a must for every adventurer no matter your skill level. You should also consider wearing clothes like a waterproof jacket that can resist the elements during your trip and keep you warm. Even if you don’t plan on dipping into the water, the droplets from your paddle will inevitably make their way onto your person and into your boat.

Remember a Dry Bag

One last little bit of advice, bring a dry bag. I wouldn’t personally leave any of my valuables along the beach while you’re out for a paddle. Chicago in general is a pretty nice city with those midwestern sensibilities, but alas not all humans are always kind. The predicament now is your phone wasn’t made to be doused in water from head to toe, and although not every kayaking adventure ends with your person or belongings going for a swim, an abundance of water in and around your kayak is to be expected. Get a dry bag. It will protect not only your technological devices but it can keep your wallet and towel from getting wet during your adventure. Dry bags in general are a great life investment because you can use and reuse them anytime to venture out on the water.

Check Local Weather Conditions

First and foremost remember that although this is meant to be a relaxing and hopefully joyful experience, you are now in Mother Nature’s playground and she is an indifferent mistress. Always check the weather conditions before committing to a paddle. If a storm is brewing and the water is violent it is best to postpone your trip on the water. It is also best to check to see if a storm system is sweeping in at all on your chosen day, this part of the midwest has volatile weather and conditions can change quickly. Always be prepared. It’s also worth noting here that it is illegal to operate any vessel in Lake Michigan while intoxicated, this includes a kayak.

How to Kayak for Beginners

kids learning how to kayak for beginners on Lake Michigan in Chicago

Kayaking adventurers! You’ve picked your spot, you’ve prepped your party and now you’re ready to go for the actual paddle…but that is precisely the problem…how do you paddle? Kayaking paddles are double sided with a fine at the end of each shaft. These poles can cause problems with kayaking in tandem with other people, make sure you’re aware of whether you’re swinging your paddle so you don’t accidentally give your partner a black eye. Check out some of our beginner kayaking tips for having a safe and fun trip!

Paddling Techniques and Safety Tips

As you dip your paddle into the water you’ll want the flat off the fin to be perpendicular to the water so you can push the water back. This means you’ll want to put your fin near the nose of the kayak and then pull it back towards you letting the water swirl to the back of the vessel. You’ll repeat this motion on the other side to propel yourself forward. To turn your kayak around you’ll want to reverse this motion but only paddle on one side of the boat. If this is your first time getting in a kayak, we highly recommend taking a few minutes in the shallow area of the water getting used to the mechanics of paddling before you venture out further away from shore.

The basic maneuverings will take you a few minutes to grasp and a few paddles to master, never paddle further out than you’re comfortable or capable of paddling back to shore less if you need rescuing by the coast guard. Our Baywatch-tier Coast Guard may be a great story to tell at Thanksgiving but the embarrassment/ risk to your person is not worth the risk.

Know Your Limits

There is nothing wrong with staying close to shore and taking things easy. Have fun, but don’t try to show off before you’re ready. When in doubt, go out with a buddy! Kayaking, in my opinion, is already enhanced by working in tandem with a friend. The conversation ebbs and flows and the companionship makes the harder paddles fly by. It is also an asset to have another mind to problem solve and converse with when you’re hit with a harder section on the water or an unexpected obstacle.

Respecting Marine Laws and Mechanical Boats

On the lake, Sailboats have the right of way over mechanical boats. As a novice Kayaker, I would steer away from the sailboats. If you’re in sailboat territory you’re too far off shore. If you are coming up to another boat and wish to pass them it is a courtesy to pass on the left-hand side. Don’t take our word for it though, if you plan to operate any vessel on the lake we would recommend checking out the official laws of marine safety. It’s always wise to check your local laws and ordinances before jumping on the waterways.

Wet Exit: How to Escape From a Capsized Kayak

If the thought of capsizing your kayak fills you with unease, you’re not alone. It’s a common concern for beginners, but there’s good news: mastering the wet exit technique can make all the difference. A wet exit is essentially a safe and controlled method of getting out of your kayak if it tips over. Don’t worry, kayaks are designed to make this process as straightforward as possible.

If you capsize, the first thing to remember is to stay calm. Your life vest will keep you afloat. Place your hands on the sides of the cockpit and push yourself out, allowing your buoyancy to help you rise to the surface. Once you’re out, you can hold onto your kayak and paddle, making it easier for you to be assisted back in or to swim to shore. Knowing how to perform a wet exit provides a safety net that can make your kayaking experience in Chicago’s lakes and rivers much more enjoyable and stress-free.

Why Chicago is an Incredible Place to Learn Kayaking

kayaking child showing why Chicago is a great place to learn kayaking

I’ve spent a lot of time on safety on this blog, don’t let this deter you from getting out on the water! With proper preparation kayaking on Lake Michigan is one of the most underrated activities Chicago has to offer. Not only can you get views of the skyline from the lake, but you’ll also be getting a more grounded experience being able to feel and experience the real magnitude of our skyscrapers from your smaller craft. Views from Ohio Street beach at sunset are world-class. Having spent many nights on the river, there isn’t any other view the city has to offer that surpasses the sunset over the skyline from the lake. Let the twilight ease the stress off of your shoulders as wonder fills your senses at the magnitude of this man-made marvel.

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