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Kayak Speed: How fast can Kayaks go?

How fast is a kayak? This question often comes from paddlers who are planning a longer trip. For this purpose it is important to know the average speed of the kayak. With the help of this value the total distance can be divided into individual distances.

The daily distance is determined by the average speed. The maximum speed and average speed that can be achieved with a kayak depend on many factors, but which values are realistic for the average kayaker? Or: How fast is a kayak?

The average kayaker with some experience and a moderate fitness level reaches an average speed of 5 kilometres per hour. Numerous factors such as paddling technique, power, endurance, swell, wind speed, current speed, loading, length and construction of the kayak influence the average speed. Experienced paddlers can also reach average speeds of 6 to 7 kilometres per hour with a long kayak.

These values can be used to divide a kayak trip of several days into individual sections, but what is the maximum speed for a kayak? In fact, there are records in the Guinness Book of Records. The endurance athlete Brandon Nelson covered an incredible 244.4 kilometres in just one day in 2013. He reached an average speed of over 10 kilometres per hour – and that over a full 24 hours. The average speed also includes the three times Nelson fell into the water during the record attempt.

The theoretical maximum speed with a kayak

The maximum possible speed according to theory is determined by the length of the kayak and is known as the hull speed. The value (in km/h) is calculated with the following formula: The square root of the length of the kayak multiplied by a factor of 4.5.

At a waterline of 4 metres the highest possible speed is therefore 9 km/h. With a 5.5 metre long kayak, on the other hand, a maximum speed of 10.55 km/h can be achieved. We should note that with a four-metre kayak the hull speed is a limitation. Experienced paddlers can reach this speed and are braked accordingly. In the case of a 5.5 metre long kayak only a few really well trained and experienced kayakers can reach the maximum speed of 10.55 km/h. The kayakers are not able to reach this speed.

The connection between kayak speed and material

Acceleration is much easier with light boats. The low weight ensures that the kayaks react quickly and are generally very agile in the water. However, the riding characteristics are also more strongly influenced by the wind and this can lead to drifting. In general, kayaks made of lightweight materials such as glass fibre, Kevlar or carbon are faster than PE kayaks, which are especially popular with beginners because they are very robust.

If you are aiming for high speeds or want to ride long tours, it is best to use a high-quality kayak material that is not too heavy at the same time. Fixed kayaks made of fibreglass and co cost a little more, but are also much faster. A rule of thumb is that compared to a PE kayak the models made of GFK, Kelvlar or Carbon are 1 km/h faster.

The advantage of polyethylene kayaks, however, is that these boats can forgive one or two collisions due to their robust construction. Let’s come back to the speed difference. The value of 1km/h doesn’t sound like much in the beginning. If you pronounce the difference in full form, you already get one kilometer per hour.

If you cover one kilometer more every paddle hour with the same amount of power, you will reach your goal much faster. With five hours paddling per day, this quickly makes the difference between two campsites. You also benefit from the extra speed in countercurrents.

With a countercurrent of 2 km/h and an average speed of 4 km/h in a PE kayak, you cover two kilometres per hour. With a lighter kayak it would be three kilometres – 50% more.

The small calculation example clearly shows that even the flows are not negligible in route planning. In addition to the flow velocity of the water, the wind also plays an important role. At wind speeds of 20 km/h or less there are no problems. For beginners, however, progress can be difficult with a headwind of 40 km/h (wind force 5 to 6). The view into the weather report should therefore also be made part of the preparation. On open waters, the waves have a significant influence on the average and maximum speed.

What does this mean for the daily kilometres?

For tour planning it is important to determine how many daily kilometres can be covered. When dividing a total distance into individual daily tours, it is therefore very important to estimate the average speed. For the average kayaker, who has already completed several tours, an average speed of 5 kilometres per hour applies. As a rule, 10 to 20 kilometres per day can therefore be expected.

For fit paddlers who have a good paddling technique and are equipped with a long kayak, the true speed limit can easily be twice or three times as high. Of course, you don’t have to get close to the 244 kilometres that Brandon Nelson has covered on his world record attempt. The distance covered by Nelson is, however, a good sign to see what is possible.

When planning the daily route, current speed, wind speed and waves play an important role. The availability of rest areas must also be taken into account. If there is a campsite every three kilometres on the route, you will need less planning than if you have to choose between two rest areas, each of which can only be reached by branching off from the route.

Don’t forget: Transfer points and land transports

The many small tasks must not be neglected when it comes to time planning. If you go on a kayak tour with a tent, you always have to plan a few minutes for the erection and dismantling. Checking in and out of the rest area and shopping for provisions also takes time. Not to be neglected is the cost of land transportation. Transfer points are not only exhausting, but must also be observed in terms of time.

When it comes to water sports, the weather must always be taken into account. After all, it is an outdoor sport that always depends on wind and weather. Especially in mountainous areas the weather can change in a few moments. What was just sunshine can become a heavy downpour a few minutes later.

During the planning, of course, the devil does not have to be painted on the wall. You should rather plan two days too much for a kayak tour of several weeks, so that you don’t have to drive when the water is bad. Don’t simply divide the whole trip into equal parts and assign them to the individual days, otherwise you’ll have to get on the water even in bad weather. But even if this is the case: If you are still well behind schedule, you can of course make up for the distance in the rain with the right equipment.


On longer trips, average kayakers reach an average speed of 5 kilometres per hour. Factors such as experience with sports equipment, fitness, kayaking and weather influence this speed. Beginners are typically between 3 and 4 km/h. Experienced paddlers, on the other hand, can maintain a speed of 6 to 7 km/h or more.



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