When planning a kayak adventure, it is key to get a sense for how far you can paddle a kayak in a day.
Overestimate the distance and you’ll find yourself in your boat at 11:00pm at night, hoping that nothing jumps out of the shadows to eat you.
Underestimate the distance and you’ll arrive at your destination by lunchtime with nothing to do but paddle around in circles for a few hours.
So, how do you figure out how far you can paddle your kayak in a single day? First measure the waterline length of the boat. This will allow you to approximately calculate the maximum speed of your kayak. Then assess your fitness level, paddling technique, weather conditions and number of hours to spend on the water. With these inputs, you can roughly calculate how far you can paddle a kayak in a day.
On average, a reasonably experienced kayaker paddling a mid-sized solo boat can be expected to comfortably paddle between 10-20 miles a day. But it’s complicated.
How far can a human paddle in a kayak over a long period of time?
As you might expect, world-class paddlers cover a lot of ground quickly.
The furthest distance ever covered by a kayak on flat water in 24 hours is 156.4 miles. That works out to an average of 6.51 miles per hour over a 24-hour period. Sebastian Szubski from Poland accomplished this feat in 2019.
The furthest distance covered by a female-captained kayak on flat water over the same time-period is 125 miles. This works out to a still-blistering average speed of 5.2 miles per hour. Nice work Anjeanine Lees of Australia!
These distances represent the extremes of what humankind can accomplish paddling a kayak for a single day. Most of us don’t operate at such rarified levels.
Click to View Post Navigation
How fast can a kayak actually go?
To begin to get a sense for how far you can paddle a kayak in a day, it helps to first understand the maximum speed of your boat.
I wrote an article here discussing some of the intricacies of kayak speed. However, if you really want to get into the hydrostatic weeds, check out this resource.
You can approximately calculate the maximum speed of your kayak by multiplying the square root of your kayak’s waterline by 1.34. We call this the Hull Speed.
If you were to plug the equation into excel, it would look like this:
Maximum Speed = (SQRT(Waterline Length))*1.34
This is by no means a perfect calculation, but it does provide a jumping-off point for trying to understand how fast (and far) your kayak can go.
The table above illustrates the relative maximum speeds attainable by kayaks of varying waterline lengths.
The waterline length is the length of the very bottom of the kayak that actually sits in the water.
Clearly, longer kayaks are able to operate at higher speeds. Remember though, that there are other factors that also impact the speed of a kayak that we don’t capture in this simple equation.
Also, note that you require a disproportionate increase in horsepower to operate a longer kayak at its capacity speed.
How fast can you paddle your kayak?
Smart people who spend time thinking about these things estimate that, on average, recreational kayakers operate their boats at 33%-50% of their calculated maximum speed (depending on the length of the boat).
The table above illustrates, not only the maximum speed of a kayak given its waterline length, but also the realized speed of a kayaker asserting either light, medium or high effort (measured in miles per hour).
These ‘Effort’ columns might also be considered proxies for paddling technique. In other words, you could assume that a kayaker paddling with superior technique might be enjoying the benefits of higher speeds that are found in the ‘High Effort’ column.
On average, kayakers paddling mid-to-long touring kayaks at light-to-medium effort can be expected to travel at speeds of 2-3.5 knots. The paddling world already knows this, but now you know how the data shakes out!
What other factors impact the paddling speed of your kayak?
Wind can be your best friend or your worst enemy. A stiff breeze at your back can reduce your paddling time significantly. As long as you are able to comfortably maintain control of your kayak, a wind at your back can help you get where you are going while expending much less effort than you had initially budgeted.
Obviously, this is a two-way relationship. A stiff wind in your face can be a heartbreaking setback to any day of paddling.
So, paddling with the wind at your back typically increases your average speed while paddling with the wind in your face reduces it. Sometimes a lot.
If you spend time paddling in coastal climates, learn about the wind patterns of your particular location. I discuss coastal wind and waves here.
Waves are often the natural result of wind. While waves can be super-fun if your intent is to play in them, usually they don’t do much to help your average traveling speed.
Sure, if your trip is done and you are riding the back of a wave to shore, then your average speed might pick up a smidge (if you don’t biff in the process). However, if you are mid-voyage, then waves really only serve to increase your energy usage and reduce your average speed.
Current acts a lot like wind but doesn’t blow your helmet off. The force of flowing water can jettison you forward at exhilarating pace or literally stop you dead in your tracks.
A river expedition that flows downstream may see you and your company attain significant average speeds.
However, an unfriendly tidal current can add an hour or two to your scheduled voyage (particularly if it is the end of the day and you are already fatigued).
When considering the speed tables in this article, think about areas of your trek that are prone to wind, waves and current. Then adjust your average speed estimation up or down according to what you expect to find en-route to your various destinations.
Kayak weight lowers average speed but increases stability (if packed correctly). Normally, the heavier your kayak, the deeper it sits in the water. The lower your kayak sits, the more water it is forced to displace and the slower your average speed. This is true when compared to paddling in perfect, glassy-water conditions.
However, if you are paddling in choppy water, then the extra weight in your kayak can actually increase your stability. In turn, this increased stability can actually improve your average speed compared to what it would otherwise be in choppy conditions.
You’ll need to pack your kayak properly to benefit from increased stability. In brief, keep your light gear at the far ends of your kayak and your heavier gear towards the middle. Also, be sure to maintain side-to-side balance.
How much time do you plan to spend paddling your kayak?
Be realistic. How many constructive hours are you going to spend in the seat and behind the wheel?
Groups are slow. If you are traveling with a group of other paddlers, then you will move slower than if you are traveling solo or with a companion. Everyone wants to stop and take a picture of something different. And it’s not like you synched up your bladders before you left, either. Life just moves slower in groups. Which is fine. You simply need to budget for it.
Motivations are different. Also, some people set out on kayak trips to do a lot of paddling. Others set out to do only the necessary amount of paddling to get to the rest stops and campsites where food and relaxation happen. Which are you? What about your travel companions?
Fitness and trip duration impact kayak seat-time. If you are in your mid-20s, then you can likely follow three long, hard days of paddling with a fourth long, hard day of paddling.
If you are in your mid-50s, things might be different. While your endurance might be as good as it ever was, your musculature will have likely decreased. You probably paddle slower than you did 20 years ago.
Also, your body may require more recovery time than it used to.
All of this to say that the amount of time you are able to spend in your kayak paddling is impacted by several factors. Some of these factors are in your control. Others aren’t.
Ok. How far can you actually paddle your kayak in a day?
Let’s assume that you are an experienced, physically fit paddler. Your kayak boasts a 16 foot waterline length, the boat is empty (except for you) and the weather is perfect. Thus, you expect to be able to operate your kayak at about 50% of its calculated maximum speed. (The earlier tables illustrate that this combination equates to a speed of about 3.1 miles per hour.)
Now, consider the tables above. 5 hours of paddling at 3.1mph will allow you to cover about 15 miles. 10 hours of paddling will get you to 30 miles.
This isn’t intended to perfectly predict how far you will actually be able to paddle your kayak on any given day. However, it does provide a frame of reference when trying to schedule your next trek.
How long does it take to kayak a mile?
Consider the above example again. Your kayak waterline is 16 feet and you are a fit, experienced paddler operating in ideal weather conditions. At a pace of 3.1mph, you would take just under 20 minutes to kayak a mile.
A more recreational kayaker paddling a kayak with a 14-foot waterline in the same conditions, would likely track closer to 2mph. This paddler would be able to kayak a mile in 30 minutes.
The special case of tandem kayaks
If you really want to zip across the water far and fast, consider the special case of the tandem kayak.
Granted, in order to enjoy all of the benefits of a tandem kayak, you’ll require a skilled paddling partner with whom you play well. But, let’s assume you have one.
Tandem kayaks are long. They have to be long by definition, in order to fit two paddlers.
A long kayak results in a long waterline length. As the models above have illustrated, a longer waterline length results in a higher potential maximum speed.
Now, the problem with big, long boats is that it takes a great deal of effort for a solo paddler to operate them anywhere near their maximum speed levels. However, with two paddlers (that paddle efficiently), the work load is cut in half. It is much easier for two paddlers to operate a long tandem kayak closer to its maximum speed. And because tandem boats are so long, their maximum speeds are higher-than-average, to begin with.
Strong-paddling tandem kayakers eat up liquid real estate at an alarming rate. According to the tables above, an 18-foot waterline boat (which is admittedly very long) operated at a mere 67% of its maximum speed can cover over 40km during a 10-hour day. Operated at full capacity, this same boat could travel as far as 65 miles in a day.
If you are a typical recreational kayaker, how far can you paddle your kayak in a day?
Well, such a paddler can be reasonably expected to operate a kayak with a 12-foot waterline at an average speed of approximately 2.25 miles per hour.
This equates to a 26 minute mile.
It further maps to a 5-hour distance of 11.25 miles and a 10-hour distance of 22.5 miles.
There are several factors that impact the ability of a kayaker to paddle their boat up to its maximum speed capacity. Among these are external factors that include, wind, waves and current. Internal factors including friction, and weight also play a meaningful role.
As you plan your next adventure, consider the speed and distance tables above. The will offer you needed guidance regarding how far you can paddle your kayak in a day.