A leader’s guide to the Kayaking merit badge

MOVE OVER, CANOEING. Kayaking is here. Recreational kayaking’s popularity increased by 32 percent in the past three years, according to the 2013 Outdoor Participation Report published by the Outdoor Industry Association. And as of summer 2012 — a decade after the Kayaking BSA activity patch was introduced — America’s fastest-growing paddle sport now has its very own merit badge. Kayaking MB

To learn more about the badge and how to teach it, we caught up with Richard Thomas, the project leader for the Kayaking merit badge pamphlet, and Pat Noack, chairman of the BSA’s National Aquatics Task Force. Here’s what they had to say.

Where does the Kayaking merit badge fit into the advancement program?
The Kayaking merit badge teaches entry-level skills. “It’s designed as a flat-water experience — quiet water without significant wind, waves or current,” Noack says.

Scouts who are interested in whitewater kayaking should pursue the Whitewater merit badge after earning Kayaking. “In contrast to flat-water or quiet-water paddling, there’s a large range of skills that are necessary in whitewater kayaking,” Thomas says. “That really takes additional training from qualified Whitewater merit badge counselors.”

The new Kayaking merit badge doesn’t replace the Kayaking BSA award (which is worn on swim trunks) available to Boy Scouts, Venturers and adult leaders who want to get a taste of the sport. Find more information about this award at bit.ly/kayakingaward.

How hard is kayaking to learn?
If you’ve ever watched an experienced kayaker shoot a set of rapids, you may think kayaking is more difficult than other paddle sports. Think again. While those advanced skills do require plenty of practice, getting started with kayaking is actually easier than getting started with canoeing.

“The strokes required in kayaking are much fewer than in canoeing. In literally 30 minutes, you can teach the basic strokes Scouts need to learn to paddle a kayak in a straight line, turn or pivot it, or paddle it in reverse,” Thomas says.

Another advantage: the double-bladed paddle. “You’re doing synchronous movements on both sides of the boat,” Noack says. “That helps you stay in a straight line as a novice.”

How well do canoeing skills transfer?
“Many of the principles of paddling are the same for both canoeing and kayaking in terms of upper-body rotation and using the muscles of the upper torso and back,” Thomas says.

Which kind of kayak should be used?
The merit badge requirements allow for several types of boats: hard-shell kayaks, sit-on-tops and inflatables. A hard-shell kayak with a large, open cockpit may be the best option if you have a choice. “The advantage of this type of boat is that it can be used in practically any conditions,” Thomas says. Scouts will get wet using sit-on-tops, so those are better in warmer climates. Some inflatable kayaks can perform with the best hard-shell kayaks, while others are harder to turn and offer more resistance when paddling.

Which teaching techniques work?
Noack and Thomas say kayaking games make learning fun and easy. For example, Scouts can play Follow the Leader with their counselor or navigate a simple slalom skiing course to practice paddling techniques. Other ideas:

  • Simon Says: The counselor gives commands like “Simon says, ‘Move your boat to the right’ ” or “Pivot to the left.”
  • Sponge Tag: Scouts in kayaks try to tag each other with a wet sponge.
  • Red Light, Green Light: The counselor stands on shore. When he says “green light,” the boats move toward shore. When he says “red light,” they must stop within a boat’s length.

For more games, see the American Canoe Association’s book, Kayak and Canoe Games.

Where can you find counselors?
While kayaking is relatively easy to learn, your Scouts will need qualified merit badge counselors who have been approved by your council’s advancement committee. Where can you find them? “Your council aquatics committee would be the first place to go,” Thomas says. “They, in turn, might be aware of paddling clubs, many of which are affiliated with the American Canoe Association.”

The ACA, which was deeply involved in the development of the new badge, has several thousand trained kayaking instructors. It has also been setting standards for paddle-sport education for more than 100 years. “That’s really one of the beauties of working with the ACA on this badge,” Noack says. “They have a good pool of instructors that are possible to tap into as merit badge counselors.” (You can find local ACA kayaking instructors through the ACA website, americancanoe.org.)

Within Scouting, Noack recommends instructors who have completed the Aquatics Supervision: Paddle Craft Safety course, which includes a kayaking module. Another good resource is Aquatics Supervision (No. 34737), the primary resource for aquatics at the unit level.

Thomas says just having a kayak or watching a video isn’t enough. “Individuals who are counselors for this merit badge should be experienced and should have had some training in teaching kayaking, so that we can maximize both the safety and the quality of the instruction,” he says.

Fortunately, groups like the ACA are full of kayakers who love to share their enthusiasm for the sport. Many of them, like Thomas, first tried kayaking at Scout camp, so they understand the merit badge program — even though they never got a chance to earn the Kayaking merit badge.

What about gear?
Plenty of kayaking equipment is available for rental at local marinas, many of which offer Scouting discounts. Check out this feature highlighting some of our favorite kayaking gear on the market.

Find more leader’s guides to merit badges at SCOUTINGMAGAZINE.ORG/MERITBADGECLINIC.


  1. I find the information shared is very interesting about Kayaking.
    This topic was brought up at our last meeting for leaders concerning the merit badge for kayaking for scouts.Where can I turn for more information on this?

  2. I have three scouts that finished their Kayaking Merit Badge. Would this merit badge qualify them for a Kayaking BSA Patch besides the Merit badge?

    • Hi Everyone,
      I have the same question. Can a Scout that completes the Kayaking Merit Badge automatically qualify for the Kayaking BSA Patch?
      Thank you for your help.
      Eric Grund

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