Kayaking and canoeing offer a wide range of activities to a broad group of people. From the young to the old, from the casual day-tripper to the dedicated explorer, there is a form of kayaking or canoeing to suit all.

There are many different forms of the sport, requiring different boats, equipment, skills and water conditions. The four main classifications are sea kayaking, white-water, surf, and canoe.

What's the difference between kayaking and canoeing? In kayaking, the paddler sits down and uses a double-bladed paddle. In canoeing, the paddler kneels and uses a single-bladed paddle.

Open canoe

Open Canoeing The open canoe is a versatile craft that can be used on placid, moving, white and open water. Open canoeing, also known as Canadian canoeing, originated in North America as a method of transportation and hunting and is becoming increasingly popular as a recreational activity.

Open canoes can be paddled solo or as doubles, poled through shallower water or sailed when the winds allow. Perfect for exploring and multi-day expeditions, equipment is stored within the boat allowing the paddler to be self-sufficient and enjoy wilderness camping trips.

Boats come in three main classes, recreational and family, solo and touring. Most types of canoe are available in either plastic or royalex. For white-water, good outfitting and extra buoyancy are essential. More specialist boats allow paddlers with the right experience to tackle all grades of white water.

Neil Baxter at Thurso Championships

Surf Surf kayaking allows the paddler to combine their kayaking skills with the power of the ocean waves. Surfing takes place year round subject to suitable surf conditions. Surf manoeuvres include taking-off, diagonal run, bottom turn, top turn and floater through to 360s, aerials, pirouettes and cartwheels. Good surf etiquette is paramount to ensure surf safety.

Other Disciplines:


Slalom Slalom is a competitive form of kayaking requiring high levels of technical ability. Paddlers negotiate a designated section of river as fast as possible, while correctly negotiating gates. There are usually 20-25 gates in a race which must be navigated in sequential order. Slalom events normally take place on grade 2 - 4 rapids. The placement of the gates combined with the rapids determines the difficulty of the course. A series of divisions allows participants to progress.

Drew Batchelor 100802

Marathon Marathon kayaking involves paddling long distances as part of a race. When done over longer time periods it would be classed as touring. Marathon paddling takes place on most types of water including lakes, canals, rivers and inshore waters. Races take place throughout the year and cater for differing abilities from the beginner to world class athletes.

Canoe polo

Canoe Polo Canoe polo is a competitive sport, played within a defined field, between two teams with five players on each team. The object of the game is to score the most goals within a set time. Polo combines paddling and ball handling skills with tactical play. It is fast paced, and often described as a combination of kayaking, water polo and basketball. Polo starts at beginner level, and progresses through to international levels. Some clubs provide opportunities to 'come and play'.


White Water White-water kayaking is paddling a kayak on a moving body of water. This would typically be a river, but can also be on the sea where strong tidal movement is present.

It can range from paddling a calm meandering river to demanding white-water rapids. River rapids are graded from one (barely moving water) to six (severe white-water) and it is imperative that paddlers only attempt the river classification suitable to their ability.

River boats are smaller than sea kayaks or open canoes so equipment for expeditions is often carried on a support raft. Boats are typically made of tough plastic that is slightly flexible and very durable. Knowledge and experience of water conditions and white-water rescue procedures are essential to participate safely.

River Tummel

There are sub-categories to white-water kayaking: river-running, creeking, and playboating.

River-running involves journeying down a section of river, water conditions range from the grade 1 through to a full grade 6 rapid.


Creeking is often seen as a sub-category of river-running and focuses on paddling very technical and difficult rapids on a river (grade 4-6).

Bow stall

Playboating, also known as rodeo or freestyle, is the art of performing technical, often gymnastic moves, in a kayak. Whilst most forms of kayaking require the paddler to travel from point A to B. With playboating the paddler performs a series of technical moves in one playspot. Moves include cartwheels, spinning, surfingand loops, amongst manyothers, and require the paddler to move the boat on all possible axes of rotation.

Who can do it?

Kayaking is a very accessible sport and people of all age groups and abilities regularly take to Scotland's waters. This is a sport with something for everyone, whether you are looking for a gentle river trip or the thrill of crossing open seas. Do bear in mind that as a water sport the ability to swim is desirable.

Where can I do it?

White water

The safest way to take up kayaking is to either join a local affiliated club or attend a course at an approved outdoor centre. The Scottish Canoe Association provides information on clubs and courses throughout Scotland.

The British Canoe Union offers paddlesport performance awards that allow participants to progress their skills through set achievable targets. They provide the technical skills and knowledge that allows paddlers to go paddling.

With its craggy coastline and numerous inland waters Scotland has many great places to practise kayaking. The west coast and islands offer great locations for sea kayaking and there are many lochs and rivers across the country which are suitable for gentle journeys to white-knuckle rides over rapids. Surf kayaking is particularly good in the rough swell near Thurso.

When can I do it?

The sport can be enjoyed all year round but it is very important to note that during the colder months the weather and water temperature add a considerable element of risk. Local water sport centres will be able to advise on when and where it is safe to kayak.

The correct equipment, knowledge of the water and training on how to handle the boat is essential. You should never paddle alone or without a buoyancy aid.

What equipment do I need?

The essential equipment – the kayak, paddle, life jacket and helmet – can be hired at most centres. What you should bring along is warm and waterproof clothing. A spare set of clothes to change into would be wise since the chances are high that you will not be as dry after going kayaking as you were before you started!

How much does it cost?

Boat hire can start as low as £30 a day but organised courses can be more expensive. Sea kayaking trips lasting a couple days start from around £160.

Page first published on Wednesday 29th August 2007
Page last updated on Wednesday 11th June 2008

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