Get the Gear

Paddles, skirt, pfd, other gear and a checklist....


Whitewater kayak paddles are usually about 180 cm long, and made of durable plastics and resins. You’ll notice that the blades are offset by 45 to 60 degrees, so you will want a quick lesson in holding the paddle with the correct grip so the blades catch the water correctly.

Top-of-the-line paddles range from $250 to $400, while standard versions can cost $100 to $150. The most inexpensive paddles might cost $20 or $30. These cheap ones have an aluminum shaft and a plastic blade. Rarely do these maintenance-free models have a solid or stiff feel in the water.

It's amazing how many times I discover a student of mine using what I consider a war club instead of a quality paddle. A lightweight, yet stiff paddle is the key to having fun kayaking. A well designed blade pulls and slices easily in the water. It feels like a natural extension of your upper body movements.

Paddle Materials

Paddles are made of two materials: wood and synthetics such as plastic or fiberglass. Wood paddles reward you with a delightful feel both in and out of the water. They respond with a softness and warmth in your hands. However, wood paddles require occasional varnishing and sanding. Also, they are more expensive than synthetics.

Synthetic paddles have aluminum or fiberglass shafts. Their blades are usually fiberglass. They have a broad range in quality and cost. The least expensive ones can be unacceptably flexible and weak, while the best synthetic paddle can rival the finest wood paddle.

Material advantage disadvantage cost

Wood delightful feel & aesthetics occasional maintenance $250

Fiberglass strength shaft shape and feel $250-400

Carbon light weight fragile $375+

Plastic inexpensive less precise feel $100+

Blade Shape

Blade shape is important to paddle performance. It allows slicing easily through the water and a secure stroke. The inside of the curved blade is called the power face. Some blades are dihedral, which is a convex, spoon-shape that improves the blade's performance.

Kayak paddle blades are offset; when you lay them on the ground, the blades face in different directions. This is called the feather, or the offset. Today's paddles are offset about 45 to 60 degrees. Ten years ago, virtually all the paddles were offset at 90 degrees. The sport is evolving to small offsets, which many kayakers believe is easier on the wrist. This offset, or blade feathering, makes the paddle easier to use in a headwind, and allows for more power on a wide variety of strokes.

Sizing a Paddle

To size a paddle, hold it over your head with arms at right angles to the shaft. Whitewater kayakers should have a fist width, four or five inches, between their hand and the blade. Sea kayakers hold their hands slightly closer, and have 10-20 inches between their hands and the blades. The following chart shows the correlation between height and arm span in relation to the paddle length. When shopping for a paddle, expect to find paddles sized in centimeters.

Your height (and arm span) Whitewater paddle

<5' 190 cm

5'- 5'6" 190-197 cm

5'6"- 6' 197cm

6'-6'6" 200 cm

Kayak paddles are one of the only things only measured in Metrics here in the US, probably because the largest paddle-makers are of Germanic descent!

Small people should pay attention to the shaft's diameter. Most shafts are standard sized to fit the average male adult's hand size. People with small hands, especially women and children, may want to order their paddles special to have a smaller blade and shaft diameter. If you experience wrist problems or mild tendonitis, your paddle might be the cause.

Spray Skirt

You will also want a spray skirt, which goes around your waist and the kayak’s cockpit rim to keep the water out. A helmet, lifejacket, and throw rope are important for your own safety. You’ll also want warm clothing, like a wetsuit or drysuit to protect your body temperature in colder regions. The rule of thumb is to wear extra warmth whenever the air plus the water temperature is under 120 degrees.

Buying the Right PFD aka Lifejacket

A PFD, a personal flotation device, is the most essential part of a kayakers gear. You'll wear it all the time in or near the water. Fortunately, PFD's are made for comfort; so you'll hardly even notice it. In fact, you'll get so accustomed to it that you'll feel naked without it.

A PFD helps you float easily in the event of a swim. It helps you getting back into your boat and provides some insulation as well as padding. Many states require that you always have a pfd on when in a kayak, but even if laws don't require it you should make it a habit. It just makes good sense to be prepared for a capsize by wearing vest style PFD's at all times. When you're starting out you should start with a PFD that is Coast Guard approved as there are a growing number of places that require that certification.

A US Coast Guard approved Type III PFD costs between $100 and $200. This vest model is usually used by kayakers because it's construction provides adequate flotation in rough waters. Other Coast Guard types are designed for larger craft, and are not appropriate for kayaking. A PFD also protects you from abrasion and provides extra warmth on cold days.

A PFD consists of flotation foam sewn into a nylon cover. In some models the foam is a broad flat panel, in others the foam is in tubes that run vertically in narrow pockets. There are a couple of life jackets or PFD's that you should avoid. Avoid the horse collar kapok type II, with a bulky collar that drapes uncomfortably around your neck. Throwable flotation devices, (Type IV), or boat cushions are handy as backup rescue devices but they should never be substituted for a Type III life vest. It's hard to rescue a kayak or swim while using a cushion for flotation. They're fine for when an airplane crashes.

Wearing a PFD properly

A properly fitting PFD will feel snug, but will not inhibit your breathing. The best way to test a PFD is in the water, making sure that it stays low and snug around your torso and doesn't ride up.

A PFD can be tested on land. After adjusting the side straps, the waist strap and zipper, try tugging up at the shoulders. You shouldn't be able to lift the shoulders up past the middle of your ear. If you can raise them past the middle of your ear then you may need a snugger adjustement or a smaller size. Make sure that your PFD fits comfortably over layers of clothing. A wet suit, sweater and paddle jacket are commonly worn on the water.

I find that in the teaching I do, I'm constantly reminding my students that the responsibility is on them to make sure that their PFD is fitted, adjusted very snugly, and always on.

Other Essentials

Nobody needs to be a gear-head to enjoy kayaking. The basic equipment is required, and the same gear works well on most any water. However, the initial investment can be a shocking experience.

I recommend top quality equipment for every paddler. If you need to cut corners, do it by buying a used boat. A used boat is easy to sell after a year or two. If you take a real liking for the sport, then it's time to upgrade.

The Spray Skirt $100-150

The spray skirt fits around your waist and the rim of the boat's cockpit. The skirt elastic edge seals tightly to the rim. Generally the inside of the boat stays almost dry. Most paddlers use neoprene skirts which fit securely to keep water out effectively. Sea kayaking skirts are sometimes made of nylon, a material well-suited for the boat's large cockpit and the weathering affects of salt water, but they aren't waterproof..

Spray skirts are sized to fit your waist and cockpit size. A skirt's pull cord remain in front and on top of the cockpit. A pull releases the skirt for a quick wet exit after a flip. This loop is a kayaker's rip cord. Even without pulling the cord, a spray skirt should not hold you in the boat against your will.

Helmets $50-130

Whitewater helmets should fit snugly cover your forehead and temples. Test the fit by moving the helmet with your hand... it should slightly move the skin on your forehead, but not be so tight as to be uncomfortable. Stick with helmets designed for whitewater, to insure that they drain water easily. Sea kayakers rarely wear helmets... They wear them only when they are exploring caves or messing around in rocky surf.

Boat Rack

Once you have a boat you'll need a way to get it to the river. The best way to do this is on top of your vehicle. Rarely are the roof racks that come on a vehicle appropriate for boats, but if your car has rain gutters it is easy to add a boat rack. Most bike or paddling stores sell racks that fit nicely on the car. When you tie down your boat, do it securely with ropes or webbing straps. Boats flying off the cars at 55 miles an hour are a serious hazard to other road users and a serious hazard to your equipment as well. The standard minimum is to tie across your boat on each of the two racks, and bow line and a stern lines to the bumpers of your car.

Tip Hide the keys on or near your car, rather than risk losing them in the water.

Dressing for Success

Regardless of the clothing you wear, you'll get wet, be it from a paddle splash or a complete flip. The possibility of capsizing exists in all waters and it happens when you least expect it. What's more important is staying warm after the splash or soak. Coldness can lead to hypothermia, which is life threatening.

Choosing the proper clothing and accessories

Regardless of clothing you wear, you'll get wet, be it from a paddle splash or a complete flip. The possibility of capsizing exists in all waters and it happens when you least expect it. What's more important is staying warm after the splash or soak. Coldness can lead to hypothermia which is life threatening.

Loose, quick-drying apparel is the best clothing for kayaking. Jackets should feel comfortably loose. They shouldn't restrict torso movement while sitting. Choose roomy shorts and pants that don't bind when you sit. Synthetic materials dry quickly and will keep you warmer and more comfortable in the boat than will wool. Cotton can be used only in the hot, summer months because once it's wet, it remains that way with no insulating ability. Even cotton underwear should be avoided. Most boaters wear a nylon swimsuit under their layers, even in cooler weather.

Be prepared for cooler temperatures, especially from wind on large bodies of water. And remember that water temperature, rather than air temperature, is the most important consideration. The typical temperature of spring runoff rivers, lakes, and bays can be a frigid 40 degrees.... enough to rob you of your strength after a few minutes of immersion. It's wise to always be prepared for an unexpected swim. As you progress in the sport, you'll need to accumulate enough kayaking gear to protect you in a wide range of elements.

Clothing list

The following items of clothing are advisable, especially for cool weather or cold water paddling. Prices are in US dollars.

Paddling jacket $80-100. A paddling jacket is made of coated nylon with neck and wrist cuffs to prevent water from dripping in the arms and upper body. Made of a windproof fabric, it contains your body heat. Paddle jackets generally are not waterproof, yet it can maintain a fair amount of heat if you've been soaked.

Dry Top $180-350 Dry tops are an alternative to paddle jackets. While the tight seals at wrist and neck are less comfortable, the treated synthetic material eliminates all water getting in, keeping you dry. Most dry tops feature sealed neoprene closures seals at the wrists, a tight drawstring at the waist and a very tight neck seal. While a dry top affords you the luxury of staying warm and dry, it doesn't offer much in comfort. Until it's broken in, the neck seal binds and constricts. After enough wearings the jacket feels comfortable, but the neck seal begins breaking down. Dry tops are generally more expensive than paddling jackets.

Dry Suits $200-350 Dry suits resemble dry tops, but have no seal at the waist, and instead extend down the legs to ankle seals. Dry suits are great, if you end up swimming a bunch they can keep you dry. The disadvantage is again the discomfort of a tight neck gasket. Getting in and out of some of these suits is no easy chore.

Pullover or sweater $50-$150 . A synthetic sweater or pullover provides extra insulation and sheds water when wet. Wool provides warmth, but stays wet even though it wicks water away from the body. Some pullovers are made to wear specifically under paddling jackets with a low cut neck and shorter sleeves.

Farmer John wetsuit. $50 to $150 The Farmer John wetsuit is many paddlers' favorite for warm weather gear. Made of neoprene, it is a one piece body suit with thigh or calf length legs and a sleeveless top. A zippered front allows easy access, while some have a velcro or snap closure at the shoulder. The most popular thickness is three sixteenths to a quarter inch. The Farmer John is designed to get wet and provides some padding for those unfortunate swims in rocky waters. Its neoprene insulation works best when wet. By keeping a thin layer of water next to your skin which heats it to your body temperature, your warmth is maintained. For beginning paddlers, the Farmer John style wet suit is the best way to go in terms of warmth and durability. Perhaps the best combination for all kayakers is the the Farmer John combined with a wool or synthetic sweater and covered by a paddle jacket or a dry top .

Footwear $20 to $80. Foot protection from litter on the shore or rocks on the river bottom is real important. Not only will a sturdy soled shoe or bootie prevent a foot injury, it will enable you to run swiftly in the case of a loose boat slipping downriver, or a PFD's sudden flight with the wind. I recommend avoiding river sandals entirely, except as something to carry stowed in a dry bag or behind the seat. Booties will keep your feet warm, provide enough protection for walking on rocks, take up less foot room in today’s smaller boats, and have no straps, buckles or stiff soles to get hung up on hardware inside the boat. Ultimately you'll want footware that are specifically designed for kayak paddling. Strongly consider wet-suit booties or paddling shoes. They keep the sand out, your feet in better than most sandals or tennis shoes. Depending on the boat you buy, foot space may be limited!

Headgear $10 to 25 . Almost 75% of your body heat escapes through the head and neck. A wool hat is essential to staying warm on cold days whether you get wet or stay dry. On the coldest days, neoprene caps can save your life, especially in the event of a flip. A cheap but very workable alternative is a swimming cap combined with a wool hat.

Handy Accessories Personal preparedness goes beyond clothing; it includes the accessories that add to your general comfort. A baseball cap or a hat with a wide brim helps protect against the sun. Because water reflects the sun's rays, almost doubling their effects, it's not surprising to hear the unprepared paddler complain of a headache.

However, the sun isn't always the cause of headaches. Sometimes it's water, not drinking enough of it. Since kayakers engage in vigorous activity, their water needs are high, though often not noticed. A waterbottle that can tie or clip into the boat within easy reach is a good hedge against a symptom of dehydration, a headache.

Good quality sun glasses help minimize the glare reflected off the water. Paddlers wearing contact lenses rather than glasses are at an advantage because they are free to switch their sunglasses on and off without interfering with their vision. I use the disposable lenses and find that they work very well, even in whitewater.

A dry bag or a dry box, serve as waterproof containers to protect your extra clothing and food. Available in a wide range of sizes they can cost anywhere from $10 to $120. A small waterproof bag, is useful for storing your sunscreen, (an essential) lip balm, (preferably the kind with sunscreen) your car keys and driver's license, and a first aid kit, depending on its size. A high energy bar stashed in the ditty bag can give you a needed lift at the end of long day of paddling.

First Aid supplies

While carrying your boat to shore you puncture your foot on a stick poking through the sand. Scrambling to shore after a flip you scrape your calf on a rough rock. You cut your thumb while slicing cheese during a lunch stop. Injuries like these, and they are not uncommon, can jeopardize your day of paddling. Don't let a lack of a first aid kit ruin your trip. First aid kits can be purchased for $25 to $100 or you can develop your own kit based on your first aid skills and the remoteness of the paddling you will be doing.

Tailor the amount of first aid gear to the size and needs of your group. Know the medical history of every group member and check on everyone's current health before you leave on a tour, whether it's a day trip or a week long adventure. Find out if anyone in the group has a known allergy to bee stings and if so, include an antihistamine kit. A quick exit off a lake or river, regardless of an injury can be difficult and sometimes impossible.

\Tip\ If you are thirsty, then your body is a quart low on fluids. Drink before you get thirsty to stay properly hydrated.

A gear list

Kayakers have a lot of gear to remember, and as an instructor, I've seen many a day ruined when a beginning paddler forgot some of his or her gear. Even things like a hat or your visor, sun glasses, and water bottle are essential, and showing up with them at the start of your trip helps ensure you'll have a good day.

A kayaking gear list:
spray skirt
boat flotation (air bags or equivalent)
Adequate weather protection for the season:
paddle jacket or drytop
booties, poagies (special gloves for hands and paddle), headgear
sunglasses w/ strap
drinking water
lunch, extra food
Throw Rope
rescue knife