Most of us don't have a river or the ocean in our backyard, or a kayak and accessories waiting on the shore. Unless you do, kayaking requires a little more advance planning than many sports. Taking the time is well worth it.

"Kayaking is a great sport for connecting with nature," says Oliver Fix, the 1996 Olympic men's kayak champion. Being on the water "provides an excellent environment for mental relaxation and physical challenge," Fix adds.

Consider making kayaking part of a backpacking trip, nature excursion, or adventure vacation, and you'll see things you would never see on foot, in a car, or from a train. Your options are almost limitless. "There's whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, paddling in Canadian Lakes, or for that matter, anywhere in the world," Fix enthuses.

Body Benefits

If the call of the wild isn't enough to get you to trek to the nearest body of water and paddle away, consider the fact that kayaking provides a unique upper body strength and aerobic workout that nothing you do at home can match. "Kayaking provides tremendous stimulation to your lower back and abdominal muscles," says Richard Cotton, an executive wellness coach. "It also works your upper back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, and forearms."

Increased Strength

Cotton says you can get great strength benefits and build your anaerobic capacity by doing interval training in a kayak—going hard for one minute, then relaxing for two to three minutes, then going hard again. "Athletes training for kayaking competition do a lot of intervals," he adds.

Aerobic Power

In addition to building upper body strength, kayaking is "a fabulous aerobic workout," Cotton says. "It doesn't burn quite as many calories as running or cross-country skiing, but your heart gets a great workout and it's probably something you will really enjoy doing." Kayaking at a moderate pace burns about the same calories per hour as moderate swimming or slow jogging—around 300 calories for a 130 pound female and 400 calories for a 170 pound male. Not many sports offer such a great combination aerobic and strength workout.

Balancing Upper and Lower Body Exercise

"Kayaking is an excellent cross-training modality," Cotton attests, "especially for runners, who often have great legs and wimpy arms." Fix agrees. He says that kayaking is a great alternative to conventional fitness training, which focuses mainly on the lower body. "For people with knee problems, kayaking takes an unhealthy stress off and allows them to challenge themselves and increase their fitness levels."

Don't Get Hurt

Kayaking offers a chance to cross-train and rest your legs, so don't go hurting other parts of your body. Cotton reminds beginners to start gradually—especially if you have back problems to begin with. "If you do too much right away," he says, "you'll be very sore the next day." He also warns that if you go too hard or don't have enough strength, you could risk throwing your back out.

If you can, get ready for kayaking at least a few weeks in advance by strengthening your abdominal and lower back muscles to help you with the twisting motion. Also work to increase the flexibility in your lower back and hamstrings "so you don't have to slouch" when you are in your kayak, Cotton suggests. Also look for kayaks with good web back support.

Immediately before going out on the water, Cotton recommends warming up for 5-10 minutes with a brisk walk or jog, then stretching the hamstrings, lower back, triceps, and shoulders. Two stretches he likes are:

  • With feet shoulder width apart, keep your hips square and twist your shoulders until you feel a stretch. Hold for 15 seconds or more.
  • Draw your arm across your chest and hold with the opposite hand to stretch the shoulders and triceps muscles.

Neophytes Need to Know

"Beginners should definitely take a course," says Kym Lutz, a spokesperson for the Nantahala Outdoor center in Bryson City, North Carolina, a paddling outfitter that has offered kayaking instruction since 1972. Nantahala offers one to six day classes that teach everything from basic strokes to rolls to wet exits—that's how you get out of the boat underwater if you don't know how to roll. Rolling is one of the most important skills because "once you get it, you get it," Lutz says, and you won't have to worry about what will happen if you tip.

If you'll be paddling in whitewater, Fix advises that you hook up with a professional instructor who understands river safety and can help you understand how river features "change dramatically with only slight changes in water level."

On flat water the chances for tipping are slim, but you never know what will happen and having basic exit and roll skills is a good idea. On whitewater or in the ocean, you need to be especially well-prepared. Another option for beginners, Lutz says, is a sit-on-top boat for which learning to roll or wet exit is unnecessary. If you are set on a sleek sit-inside boat, you can find a class at the YMCA, local colleges, or local paddling clubs.

Gear Basics

According to Lutz, there are five pieces of equipment you need before you hit the water. These include:

  • Paddle—These cost anywhere from $99 to $200.
  • Boat—Prices for kayaks range from $800 to $1,000 for whitewater kayaks, which are generally made from plastic. Recreational boats fall into a similar price range. Ocean kayaks, which may be made from wood, fiberglass, or a blend of materials, are more expensive, with prices up to $3,000 or more for custom made boats.
  • Personal flotation device (PFD)—Something good to have for any sport done in deep water. A good PFD costs around $80.
  • Spray skirt—These cost around $100 and keep splashing water and rain from filling your compartment.
  • Helmet—If you'll be kayaking in moving water, you need one. Expect to spend about $30.

If you want to give kayaking a try and you're not ready to buy, rental prices are generally reasonable. Contact an outfitter near where you'll be kayaking to get their hourly and daily rates.