5 Things That Surprised Me About Kitesurfing Lessons (What to Expect as a Beginner)

If you’ve watched even one video of kite surfers gliding across the water and throwing big tricks, you understand the appeal on some level. Even I, with my risk-averse personality and mild fear of the ocean, think kite surfing looks incredible. Of course learning to kitesurf as a beginner is an entirely different activity from what you see in expert videos, but they’re still inspiring as heck.

So when my husband wanted to take kitesurfing lessons during our bikepacking trip in Morocco, I signed up too. I have some wakeboarding and snowboarding experience and generally can’t say no to adventure, especially if it scares me. I knew kiteboarding might not turn out to be my next favorite sport, but I was curious to try and learn the basics.

How did it go? You could say I both liked and disliked kiting more than I anticipated at different times during my lessons, and the process was not what I expected. I hope sharing my experience of learning to kitesurf will help others in the same shoes (or board straps, so to speak), especially others who, like me, are a bit hesitant.

It’s Not Dangerous (When You Take Lessons)

I know a few people who kite at an intermediate level, and pretty much all of them have at least one story of an injury or scary close call. Thus my biggest challenge when learning to kitesurf was definitely my fear and perception that it’s a dangerous activity.

I’m not going to tell you kiting is safe, as accidents do happen and then can be nasty. But during my lessons I came to feel that learning the basics, while under the instruction of a qualified instructor in a safe location, is safe enough.

Kiting is a risk-managed sport, similar to mountaineering or some types of rock climbing, where your safety depends on your skill, judgment, and mastery of your gear. Many accidents happen when intermediate kiters gain enough confidence to go out on their own but haven’t yet encountered all the weird things that can go wrong. An unexpected change of wind, gear issue, or lapse in judgment can send things sideways really fast.

Launching and landing are among the more dangerous parts of kiting, so your instructor will manage this process until you are ready.

If you want to progress in your kiting those are risks you’ll eventually need to take on, but by then you should have the training to handle them. Here’s the important part, if you’re a brand new beginner considering kiteboarding lessons: your instructor will manage the risk for you in the beginning, often in ways you’re not even aware of.

This is something I really wish my instructor had explained early in my lessons, but we had a bit of a language barrier and fear didn’t seem to be a recognizable emotion for him. So if you’re feeling nervous about kitesurfing lessons and wondering what kind of risk you’re taking on in the early days, here are some reasons why kiting isn’t as dangerous as you might think when learning with an IKO-certified instructor.

Your instructor fine-tunes your kite based on bodyweight and wind conditions, as well as your confidence and skill level. I’m a fairly light person at 120 pounds and worried I might “fly away.” While it certainly felt that way a couple times, it was actually not an issue because my instructor chose a smaller kite for me and adjusted its shape and line lengths based on the conditions and my learning progress.

Kites have several levels of safety features, and your instructor should explain them and let you practice using them. It helped me to understand the dynamics of how the bar and lines control the shape of the kite, and how the shape of the kite controls how much wind it catches. In brief, you have these three options:

  1. Let go of the bar, allowing it to slide upward. This will depower the kite so it catches less wind, which usually stops any strong pulling. This is a good reflex to practice, as doing the opposite (pulling the bar harder) can feel more natural but escalates bad situations quickly.
  2. Pull the “chicken loop” to completely flatten the kite so it catches no wind, helpful if something goes sideways and you want to take the wind out of the equation.
  3. Finally, in a true emergency you can release the entire kite from your harness.

Here’s an excellent video showing how these systems work in detail:

Gear is safer than used to be. I hear in the Good Old Days kites had no depower or safety features – yikes! I can imagine this made kiting a legitimately extreme and risky sport. Fortunately these days we have far more options when dealing with a sketchy situation, should one come up, and kiting is no longer only for folks with sky-high risk tolerance.

Spot details are very important, and a good beginner’s school will choose a spot with safe conditions or manage the dangers for you. I learned that a majority of kiting accidents happen during launch and landing when you’re near hard objects like rocks, trees, and buildings. Some spots, like where I took my lessons in Dakhla, offer endless wide sandy beach where even beginners can launch their own kites. Others may have a small beach with trees or buildings nearby, in which case your instructor will launch for you until you have the necessary kite control to do it safely.

Kite schools use safety gear and have backup options. You’ll wear a helmet and flotation vest during lessons. Many kite schools, though not all, have a safety boat on call if needed. They can help if you end up somewhere you don’t want to be, or even if you have trouble retrieving your board upwind.

Modern kites have several layers of safety features, and your instructor will help you practice using them before getting in the water.

You Don’t Need Upper Body Strength

If you watch kiters in action you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a killer upper body workout. In fact, kiteboarding requires very little upper body strength, especially compared to wakeboarding where all the force is transferred through your arms.

The pull of the kite transfers directly to your body through a hip or back harness, and the control bar can be moved with a single finger. Your instructor will probably coach you to use a very light touch on the bar, as this helps build the important reflex of letting go to depower the kite.

I’m a person who enjoys getting my workouts in, and I was actually disappointed by how little strength my kiteboarding lessons required! I was hoping for a burn in my core and upper body, but all I got was tired hip flexors from walking around in shallow water. That said, it does take a certain amount of physical stamina to be out in the water for a few hours, so you may feel generally tired after a session.

Kiting might look like an upper body workout from afar, but it actually requires a very light touch on the control bar. All force is transferred to your body through the harness, not your arms.

It’s All About Flying the Kite (At First)

Kitesurfing turns out to be a surprisingly technical sport. It might seem like it’s all about riding the board, but before you can even start learning how to stand up you first need to master controlling the kite.

This alone can take hours of instruction and practice. I didn’t feel like I really understood the essentials of kite control until day 3. It didn’t help that English wasn’t my instructor’s first language, so I ended up watching a lot of YouTube videos between lessons to piece together the fundamentals. Here are two of my favorite for understanding the wind window and kite control:

I’ve heard it said that kiteboarding is a bit like wakeboarding except you’re also driving the boat. So first you need to learn how to drive the boat (the kite), but instead of a steering wheel you have a complex setup of long lines, like puppet strings, that control the kite from afar. And then you have the wind, a powerful yet invisible force you must adapt to by feel. It’s a lot to absorb as a beginner, not to mention being able to do it all while skillfully riding a board and keeping an eye on your surroundings.

If you want to accelerate your kitesurf learning process, my best advice is to learn about kite control first. Watch videos (Kitesurf College has many great ones) to help you envision the wind window and start mentally mapping the actions of the control bar to the motion of the kite. If you have access to a small trainer kite you can even practice the basics before starting lessons.

A 2-line trainer kite is a great way to practice the basics of kite control before getting anywhere near the water.

The Fun Part Comes Later

Kiting isn’t something you can “just try” for a few hours, like wakeboarding or skiing. There’s really no way to rush through the phase of learning kite control, which can easily take a few hours in good conditions and longer if the wind isn’t cooperating.

Then comes body dragging, which I’m pretty sure is no one’s favorite part. You’ll practice controlling your kite with one hand while it drags you face-first through the water. It’s an important skill to master for retrieving your board later, but not really most people’s idea of fun.

By the time you’re finally ready to practice “water starts” and try standing up on the board, you’ve probably spent hours or even days just learning how to control your kite and get a feel for different wind conditions. And then, when you finally do manage to stand up, there’s a good chance you’ll crash repeatedly as you struggle to control your kite and ride the board at the same time.

Personally, I had almost no fun learning to kitesurf until days 4 and 5, when I finally got some successful water starts and decently long rides. If you’re struggling in the beginning, don’t give up! It may be that the hardest part comes right before the fun part. If you’re thinking “I’m not sure I want to do this anymore” there’s a good chance you’re almost there.

I see some kite schools offering a single 3-hour lesson and I don’t understand how this works. Maybe it’s just a teaser, with the hope of selling more lessons after? If you want to enjoy the feeling of gliding across the water being pulled by your kite, expect to invest in at least a few days of lessons and possibly more.

The bright side of this is that your board skills, or lack thereof, aren’t really a limiting factor in the early days of learning. If you’re patient enough to focus on perfecting your kite control early in your lessons, you’ll have as good a chance as anyone of progressing quickly once you start working with the board.

Lots of Women Are Learning

I’m a woman, and though I’m not one to shy away from male-majority activities, I expected to be a little annoyed by the lack of women in kitesurfing. Much to my surprise, at least in Dakhla where we took our lessons, there were almost as many women as men taking lessons and kiting independently. A month later we even took another lesson in Portugal from a woman-owned kite school.

For any women (or men) who need to hear this: kiting at a recreational level does NOT require huge amounts of upper body strength or risk tolerance. It’s actually a sport of finesse, technique, and risk management, all of which women and men can excel at equally. I don’t want to wade any deeper into stereotypes here, I just want to say that women should not feel they are at a disadvantage when learning to kite.

At expert levels, as with most extreme sports, kiting is indeed male dominated. But there are some truly world-class female kiteboarders out there, albeit in the minority, and they are amazing. If you’re a woman who wants to learn to kite, do yourself a favor and avoid those silly “kite girl” videos that are all about bootie shots and watch these instead:

Instructor Choice is Important

Given the technical nature of kiteboarding and the importance of managing risk, you can hopefully see how very important the instructor’s role is. The gold standard is IKO certification, which ensures a certain level of expertise and consistency of curriculum. It’s highly recommended, by me and pretty much everyone else, that you learn to kite from an IKO-certified school and instructor.

Be very, very wary of letting an experienced friend or partner (especially partner!) teach you how to kitesurf. Just because they have the skills themselves doesn’t mean they understand how to make the learning process safe for a brand new kiteboarder. This is how a lot of accidents happen, in fact I know someone who was injured while trying to learn from her boyfriend. Just don’t do it!

Even among IKO-certified instructors, some will be a better fit for certain students. My instructor in Dakhla had a fairly aggressive style and not much patience for my hesitation. He thought he was helping me by being “encouraging,” but I would have benefited much more from an instructor who took the time to explain the details and help me feel safe before sending me out into the water.

It’s common to travel for kiteboarding lessons, and I think it’s extremely important to choose an instructor you share a fluent language with. I was told my instructor would speak English, and he did, but with limited vocabulary (though to be fair, his English was much better than my Arabic or French, his first two languages). The technical side of kiteboarding can be nuanced, and I ended up learning most of my kite control basics from YouTube videos in the evenings.

Even in a fluent common language there’s room for misunderstanding, so be sure to ask for clarification if you don’t understand. I found it helpful to say “Let me repeat that back to make sure I understand” and then let him correct or add to my understanding as needed. It’s better to do this on land than to get out into the water and realize you didn’t understand how to turn around and come back to shore!

Book a private or semiprivate lesson if you can afford it. Learning how to kitesurf requires a lot of hands-on practice and instructor feedback. In a big group lesson you won’t get enough time on the equipment or enough feedback to progress quickly. My husband and I did semi-private lessons, one instructor and two kites, which felt like a pretty good compromise between affordability and individual attention from the instructor.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to tell your instructor what you need. They’re working for you, not the other way around. A good instructor can help you manage fear if that’s an issue for you; it’s part of their job and they’ve definitely seen it before. Once I let my instructor know I was struggling mentally, his style became more positive and he found ways to take some pressure off so I could focus more on learning and less on managing my fear.

The Dakhla Lagoon is an amazing beginner kite spot with instructors who work with all levels.

Example Daily Progression

If you’re wondering what to expect from beginner kiteboarding lessons, here are my daily notes from a weeklong stay at a kiteboarding resort in Dakhla. The lessons were not booked in advance, so I had the option to take either one or two lessons each day and usually chose one. My husband, who loves the ocean and surfing and is generally a fast learner, took a few days of double lessons and progressed a bit faster toward the end of the week.

Day 1: Not much wind, but we covered the fundamentals of setup, safety systems, and wind direction, and spent some time trying (and failing) to control kites in light wind. We stopped after about two hours because the conditions weren’t good enough. Flying the kite felt impossible, but in hindsight this was mostly due to insufficient wind.

Day 2: Not enough wind in the morning for lessons, but we borrowed a small 2-line trainer kite from the shop and practiced some fundamentals on our own. In the afternoon we did a three hour lesson covering kite control (easier now with enough wind) and body dragging. At this stage I still didn’t fully understand the kite and wind dynamics and was crashing a lot. I ended the lesson feeling stressed out and discouraged.

Day 3: Another long afternoon lesson, about 2.5 hours. We did some body dragging with the board, then started to practice water starts. The small kites with short lines didn’t provide enough power to stand up, but we practiced the body position with board on feet and the control sequence for diving the kite to generate power. I felt a little better after this lesson and was excited to try a real water start next time.

Day 4: Two hour morning lesson focused entirely on water starts, using full-length kite lines for the first time. We were both able to stand up on our boards and start riding short distances, but the multi-tasking of flying the kite and riding the board was intense and I crashed often. Still, this was the first day I can say I really had fun!

Day 5: Two hour morning lesson, continued practicing water starts and started riding more consistently. We were taught the basics of upwind riding, but I wasn’t cruising consistently enough to really practice it. I got a few more long runs in, but my water starts were still really inconsistent. Slightly gusty wind and a crowded area didn’t help, but it was still good to get the practice.

Day 6: Two hour morning lesson practicing water starts and working on body position (straighten front leg and lean back) once standing. Wind was kind of gusty and spot was crowded so I didn’t get in as many good rides as I hoped, but overall I felt comfortable and had a good time.

Day 7: Supposed to be our last day but there wasn’t enough wind for lessons, at least not without really big kites and our instructor seemed to think those wouldn’t work for us. So, we accepted that our kiteboarding practice was over for the time being and went to celebrate with a couple beers.

Final Tips

If you’re intrigued by kiteboarding I hope I’ve helped you understand what to expect from your first few lessons. If you’re nervous I recommend finding a beginner-friendly spot with smooth shallow water and an IKO-certified school with a safety boat. It’s a challenging sport and you’ll definitely need to work through your nerves if you want to progress, but as a beginner there are plenty of ways to get things started off on the right foot.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking, cycling, skiing, climbing, and traveling in some of the world’s most gorgeous places. I love using what I’ve learned to help others enjoy these places with skill, care, and curiosity. Learn more about me here.

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