Everything You Need to Know to Start Kayaking the Milwaukee River

A quick-reference guide to get you on the water, paddle in hand.

IF YOU’VE FOUND YOURSELF in Downtown Milwaukee on a sunny day, chances are you’ve seen the flotilla of colorful little longboats paddling up and down the waterways of the Milwaukee River. We’re talking, of course, about kayaks.

Kayaking is a great way to explore Milwaukee, get a workout and soak up some summer sun, but if you don’t know where to start, it can be a little intimidating. Luckily, it’s really not that complicated. With this shortlist of answers to your burning kayaking questions, you’ll be a paddling champ in no time.


Do I need to take a class?

Nope! It’s that easy to get out on the river and paddle. When you arrive at your kayak dock of choice, you’ll likely get a quick rundown from a knowledgeable staff member (Brew City Kayak offers a free beginners’ lesson with every rental), but you don’t need any formal training or licensure to hop in a kayak today.

If a self-directed float down the river isn’t your style, don’t worry! Most kayak docks offer guided tours for a smooth and educational paddling experience for new and seasoned kayakers alike. Call ahead or check online to see what packages are offered by your dock of choice.

What should I bring with me?

You can expect a life jacket and paddle thrown in with your kayak rental, but there are a few items you’ll need to bring. It’s critical to dress for the weather – hat, sunglasses, water shoes or sandals are all essential. Don’t forget your sunscreen!

Stopping for dockside bites at one of Milwaukee’s many waterfront eateries is one of the highlights of kayaking in an urban setting, so make sure to remember ID and cash if you plan to make any stops. If you don’t have your own dry bag, you may be able to borrow one with your rental.

Perhaps most importantly, bring a cooler and some water. You’ll be taking in a lot of sun, so it’s really important to stay hydrated.

Where do I sign up?

The first step is to book your kayak rental online or over the phone with a dock. Rentals vary in price and duration, so it’s important to check them all out — no sense paying for an all-day rental if you’re only going to paddle for an hour, right?

Milwaukee Kayak Company offers four-hour rentals for single and tandem kayaks, canoes and paddleboards at their main location, and two-hour rentals at their weekends-only Schlitz Park location.

Brew City Kayak offers half- and full-day rentals and a number of guided tours, including a monthly full moon tour. They’re also currently working on a full-day guided tour starting north of the city, ending in the harbor district.

Milwaukee Kayak Tours also offers half- and full-day rentals alongside a number of guided tours, including “City Skyline” and “Best of Milwaukee.”

When does kayaking season end?

The end of the season depends entirely on river conditions, but Beth Handle, owner and operator at Milwaukee Kayak Company, says conditions typically stay good until about mid-October. That means you’ve still got plenty of time to hit the river and see if you’ve got a new favorite outdoor activity for next summer.

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Calvin Lemieux is a Communication graduate from University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point. Following an internship with Milwaukee Magazine in Fall 2019 and graduation in Spring 2020, he returned to work as a freelance writer.