The Complete Guide to Kayaking in the UK

Kayaking allows you to explore waterways up close and is an excellent low-impact cardio workout. Kayaks come in different shapes and sizes, from inflatable models to rigid kayaks made of plastic, fiberglass, or carbon fibre. Kayaks designed for Whitewater rapids differ from those used for flatwater paddling. Kayaking is becoming an increasingly popular activity in the UK, as more people discover the fun and adventure of paddling a kayak on rivers, lakes, and along the coast. This article provides a comprehensive overview of kayaking in the UK for beginners, from the different types of kayaks to where you can enjoy kayaking across Britain.

Difference Between Kayak and Canoe

While kayaks and canoes appear quite similar at first glance, there are several important differences between these two types of small watercraft.

Kayaks sit lower in the water, with the paddler’s legs extended forward inside the hull and their body sealed in with a spray skirt. This makes kayaks faster and more manoeuvrable, but requires practice to master balance and Eskimo rolls in case of capsizing. In contrast, canoes sit higher on the water, with the paddler kneeling or sitting on a raised seat. This provides a more stable platform that is harder to capsize, but sacrifices some speed.

Most kayaks are propelled by double-bladed paddles, which provide power on both the forward and backward strokes. Canoes use single-bladed paddles that are more efficient on forward strokes but cannot easily reverse. The paddle blade shape also varies, with kayak paddles having a more pronounced ‘spoon’ shape for increased acceleration.

Kayaks typically have a closed deck, while canoes are open. This means kayaks can fill with water if capsized, requiring bilge pumps and skills like the Eskimo roll to return upright. Canoes will take on some water if overturned but remain partially buoyant.

There are also key differences in optimal body position between kayaking and canoeing. Good kayaking form requires a straight back to maximize rotation and transmit power through the core. Canoeing encourages a slight lean of the torso over the thighs and knees for an optimal paddling position. Leg positioning also varies, with kayakers keeping legs extended and canoeists kneeling or crouching.

Here is a comparison table highlighting some of the main differences:

Lower profile in waterSits higher in water
Use double-bladed paddlesUse single-bladed paddles
Paddler enclosed by spray skirtOpen, no spray skirt
Legs extended forwardPaddler kneels/sits raised
Efficient forward & reverseMore efficient forward
Harder to capsize but can fill with water if overturnedMore stable but can take on some water if capsized
Manoeuvrable, fasterWider, more stable, less nimble
Difference between Kayak and Canoe

In summary, kayaks favour speed, nimbleness and use a low paddling position, while canoes provide more stability and drier paddling for leisurely exploration. Consider your intended activity, paddling environment and skill level when deciding between these popular paddle crafts.

Kayak Materials: What’s Best for UK Paddlers

Kayaks designed for use in the UK employ three primary construction materials, each with advantages for different paddling activities.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks use durable PVC or Hypalon fabric stretched over inflatable tubes to create a portable yet rugged paddle craft. Key attributes:

  • Lightweight at under 20kg for easy car-top transport
  • Quick inflation/deflation for setup in minutes
  • Budget-friendly prices from £200-£500
  • Vulnerable to punctures from rocks/debris
  • Ideal for casual paddling in calm waters
  • Popular brands like Itiwit and Advanced Elements

Polyethylene Plastic Kayaks

Rotomolded polyethylene creates a heavy but robust kayak. Key features:

  • Ultra durable material resists dings and abrasion
  • Stable and forgiving for beginners
  • Good value from £500-£1200
  • Moulded-in handles for convenient carrying
  • Available as recreational, touring and sea kayaks
  • Trusted UK brands like Wilderness Systems, RTM

Composite Kayaks

Materials like fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon fibre allow lightweight yet strong hulls. Attributes include:

  • Very lightweight for speed and acceleration
  • Costs from £1000-£3000+ depending on materials
  • More delicate construction requires careful handling
  • Ideal for competitive paddling and long expeditions
  • Used in performance sea kayaks and racing boats
  • Quality UK makers like P&H, Rockpool, Valley

Kayak materials compared

MaterialDurabilityWeightCostBest use
InflatableModerateVery Light£200-£500Recreation
CompositeModerateVery Light£1000-£3000+Touring, Performance
Kayak materials compared

With priorities in portability, durability, performance and budget, select the optimal kayak material for your needs. Try out each to determine what works best for you kayaking in the UK!

Kayak Design: Sit-On-Top vs Sit-Inside

When choosing a kayak, one of the most fundamental decisions is whether to opt for a sit-on-top or sit-inside design. These two configurations differ greatly in their paddling dynamics, performance attributes, and intended use cases.

Sit-on-top kayaks offer a more casual and convenient paddling experience. With the paddler seated on an open deck above the water line, sit-on-top kayaks emphasize stability, comfort and accessibility. The open cockpit allows easy ingress and egress for activities like swimming and fishing. Water drains freely through scupper holes in the self-draining hull, making sit-on-top kayaks ideal for surfing, Whitewater paddling and family recreation in both salt and fresh water environments. While not as fast as sit-inside alternatives, sit-on-top kayaks provide a user-friendly option for paddlers of all ages and skill levels.

In contrast, sit-inside kayaks enclose the paddler’s lower body within the closed hull for a tighter, performance-driven experience. The narrow cockpit and low seating position increase forward paddling efficiency and allow greater speeds. The trade-off is a loss of stability, requiring solid bracing skills to handle rockier conditions. Spray skirts seal out water but require wet exit techniques to escape if capsized. While requiring more skill, sit-inside kayaks excel at covering distance efficiently in touring and competitive paddling across lakes, coastal waters and surf.

Key features of sit-on-top kayak designs:

  • Open cockpit with high, padded seats for comfort
  • Paddler sits above water level for excellent visibility
  • Self-draining design; water drains through scupper holes
  • Easy to get in and out for swimming and fishing
  • Wide, stable hulls good for beginners and kids
  • Great for surfing, Whitewater and recreational paddling

Key attributes of sit-inside kayak configurations:

  • Closed deck enables efficient forward paddling
  • Spray skirts seal out water but require wet exits if overturned
  • Narrow hull and low sitting position increase speed
  • Responsiveness aids performance and manoeuvrability
  • Can fill with water if capsized, requiring recovery skills
  • Ideal for touring, sea kayaking and competitive paddling

Kayak Sizes: Solo, Tandem, Child

When purchasing a kayak, choosing between a solo or tandem model is a key decision. Solo kayaks are optimized for individual paddling, while tandem kayaks allow two people to paddle together.

1 person kayak (Solo) provide an immersive on-water experience for a single paddler. With the boat tailored to individual proportions and needs, solo kayakers can achieve optimal ergonomics, control and efficiency. The intimate connection with the water and ability to independently steer your course makes solo paddling highly rewarding, whether taking a relaxed cruise or tackling technical rapids. For those seeking a deeply personal paddling experience, a solo kayak can’t be beat.

2 person kayak (Tandem) offer a different experience by allowing two people to share a kayak. Tandem models allow paddlers to venture out together while splitting the effort of propelling a larger boat. Coordination is key as the pair works in unison to power forward efficiently and steer on course. Tandem kayaking promotes interaction, teamwork and camaraderie between paddling partners, providing a fun social experience on the water. Whether recreational paddling or expeditioning, tandem kayaks expand possibilities for spending time on the water with friends and family.

Key features of 1 person kayak (solo kayaks):

  • Typically 8-18 feet long, with shorter being more manoeuvrable
  • Narrow beam and lower weight for efficient paddling
  • Hull contours tailored to individual body and paddling mechanics
  • Allow immersive experience and connection with the water
  • Give paddler full control over speed and direction

Key attributes of 2 person kayak (tandem kayaks):

  • Range from 10-15 feet long to provide adequate space
  • Wider beam provides stability with two people onboard
  • Heavier construction supports increased load capacity
  • Two cockpits with adjustable seating positions
  • Require coordination between paddlers
  • Offer chance to paddle with partner or small group

In deciding between 1 person kayak and 2 person kayak options, factor in whether you’ll be paddling alone or with a partner the majority of the time. Solo kayaks provide optimal ergonomics and control for the individual, while tandems enable paddling with company. Test paddle both to see which format suits your needs.

yellow 2 person kayak with people kayaking on a lake

Kayaking Accessories: Kayak Paddles, Safety Gear and More

The right accessories can enhance comfort, safety and performance on the water. Here are some key kayaking gear items:

Kayak Paddles Arguably the most critical accessory, kayak paddles provide propulsion and steering.

Key features to consider:

  • Blade shape affects power and catching of water
  • Wider blades have more surface area for acceleration
  • Spoon-shaped blades have more bite for quick turns
  • Length ranges from 210-260cm; sized to paddler and kayak
  • Materials like fiberglass, plastic, carbon fibre or wood
  • Double or single blade; doubles allow quick pivots

Paddle blades also vary in shape/cross-section:

-Symmetrical blades provide equal power on both sides
-Asymmetrical blades have more surface on power side -Dihedral blades have curved power face for added lift

Other Kayaking Gear Essentials:


  • Lifejacket (PFD) for flotation
  • Helmet for Whitewater protection
  • Signal devices like whistles and flares


  • Dry bags and storage compartments
  • Seat cushions and backrests
  • Eyeglass straps and water shoes


  • Spray skirts for sit-inside cockpits
  • Rudder kits for tracking in wind
  • Flotation bags for trimming boat

Try out different paddle designs and kayaking accessories to determine what works best for your paddling needs and preferences. Having the right gear enhances your skills, safety and enjoyment on the water.

Top Kayaking Destinations in the UK

With extensive coastlines and abundant inland waterways, the UK provides idyllic and varied locales for kayaking adventures. From urban rivers to remote sea lochs, here are some top destinations for kayaking in the UK:

River Thames

Passing through the heart of London, the Thames provides a unique urban paddling experience. Beginning at the Thames Barrier, kayakers can take in sights like the Tower of London, Parliament, and the London Eye before reaching peaceful stretches flanked by green space upstream. Useful for day trips or multi-day journeys towards Oxford.

Lake District

Situated in northwest England, the Lake District National Park contains scenic lakes ringed by rugged peaks. Lakes like Derwentwater, Coniston and Windermere provide breath taking backdrops for kayaking, with islands to explore and gently rippled waters that are ideal for beginners. Kayakers can also enjoy passages between adjoining lakes.

Scottish Sea Lochs and Islands

The deeply indented coastline of Scotland contains dramatic sea lochs well-suited for sea kayaking. Popular destinations include Loch Linnhe, Loch Hourn and Loch Nevis, which offer sheltered waters flanked by mountains. The nearby Hebrides islands provide remote paddling and camping opportunities amid stunning coastal scenery.

Anglesey, Wales

Surrounded by the Irish Sea, the island of Anglesey off North Wales presents scenic coastline paddling. Key spots include the Menai Strait between the island and mainland, Cemlyn Bay, and the quiet bays around Caernarfon.

Devon and Cornwall

The southwestern peninsulas of Devon and Cornwall offer miles of ocean coast and beaches to explore by kayak. Paddlers can enjoy the contrast between the bustling harbours of towns like Dartmouth and Salcombe and more remote sections like Hartland Point with secluded coves.

With such diversity, UK kayakers can choose between urban paddles, mountain lakes, sinuous sea lochs and rugged ocean coastlines when planning their next adventure. Where will your paddle take you?

yellow kayak on river

Top 5 Kayaks for Beginners

Great starter kayaks in the UK include:

  1. Intex Challenger K2: Budget-friendly inflatable for casual paddling.
  2. ITIWIT Touring Kayak: Inflatable kayak with 3 raised adult seats
  3. RTM Kayaks Tempo: British-made rotomolded polyethylene kayak.
  4. Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100: Versatile sit-on-top fishing kayak.
  5. Z Pro Tango 300 : Stable tandem kayak for paddling with a partner or two.


Kayaking has cemented itself as one of the most popular watersports in the UK for good reason. Few activities allow you to intimately explore Britain’s wealth of waterways quite like paddling a sleek kayak. From meandering rivers and tranquil lakes to the rugged ocean coast, kayaks unlock adventure across the country.

Yet as rewarding as the sport is, new paddlers must take time to gain essential knowledge. This includes choosing the right kayak and gear for your needs, learning fundamental paddling skills, and knowing cold water safety precautions. Start on calm, sheltered waters and take lessons to build competency before advancing to more challenging conditions.

The payoff is untold hours of fun, exercise and freedom out on the water. Glide silently through ever-changing landscapes, stop to swim in remote areas, and get an aquatic perspective of the British countryside and coastline. As you progress, kayaking in the UK may lead to overnight expeditions and new friendships with fellow paddlers.

Kayaking can be as relaxing or as thrilling as you desire. With patience and proper preparation, it promises a lifetime of adventure accessible to nearly all ages and ability levels. Whether a simple day paddle or an epic sea kayak journey, UK waterways offer scenic venues to pursue your paddling dreams. Grab a paddle, get on the water, and embrace all this magnificent sport has to offer. For those looking for something a bit different you can check out our complete guide on paddle boards here.