I know that I tend to focus mostly on gear for sea kayakers in many of my posts. Partly that is because I do a lot of sea kayaking myself, and partly because there is a lot of gear used by sea kayakers. Recreational paddlers often get overlooked when it comes to gear discussions. I apologize for my role in that oversight, and today I’m going to spend some time addressing just that subject.
Naturally, your number one piece of gear is your kayak. By definition, a recreational kayak is one that is only suitable for use on smaller, inland lakes and slow-moving rivers. Recreational kayaks lack the safety features and flotation needed for paddling in more extreme conditions like the ocean, large lakes, and whitewater rivers and so should not be used in those environments. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give some thought to the kayak you choose for recreational paddling. Many small lakes and rivers have a lot of boat traffic in the summer, so you may want to consider getting your kayak in a bright and highly visible color like yellow, orange, mango, lime green, or robins egg blue. If you are a larger, heavier person, you may want to look at the longer recreational kayaks since they will usually have a higher weight capacity. Getting a boat with inadequate weight capacity can result in poor paddling performance since the boat will sit too low in the water, and the kayak will also be less stable which is often a high priority for recreational paddlers. Even if you are a small person, you may want to seriously consider boats in the 11-12′ lengths rather than the 9-10′ lengths. Shorter kayaks don’t tend to track as well as longer kayaks (although there are other aspects of the hull design that affect tracking besides length alone). And something that most people don’t stop to realize is that the shorter kayaks are usually the widest kayaks. In order to displace enough water to support an adult paddler, the shorter boats have to be wider. Kayaks that displace more water by having a longer length can get by with a narrower width. If you are a person with a short torso or short arms, having a narrower kayak can be much more comfortable to paddle.
The second piece of gear that most kayakers look at is a paddle. Please don’t just pick up the cheapest paddle on the rack. Your paddle is more important than your kayak when it comes to how much you will enjoy the sport. Get a good one. Look for light weight and efficient blade design. The blades should not be overly flexible, and you don’t want the weight to be concentrated out in the blades. Two paddles with the same overall weight will feel very different if one has all the weight out in the ends of the blades and another has the weight concentrated in the shaft. You have to lift those heavy blades over your head with every stroke. A few extra ounces can add up to a lot of pounds in a hurry! Length will be determined mostly by the width of your kayak. A narrower kayak of 24-25″ wide may only require a 220cm paddle length. Most recreational kayaks will do well with a 230cm paddle length. A few of the widest kayaks (over 30″ wide) may benefit from a 240cm paddle. If you are under 5′ tall go with a slightly shorter paddle than recommended, and if you are over 6’4″ you should consider getting a slightly longer paddle than recommended.
Arguably, your most critical gear item is going to be your life jacket or PFD (personal flotation device). Look for a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type III jacket and get one that fits you comfortably. When all the straps are snugged down, you should be able to grab the shoulders of the PFD and lift up and the jacket should essentially stay in place. If the shoulder straps lift up past your ears, you either did not have the jacket cinched properly, or you need to find a different jacket. For women, make sure to sit down in a kayak and make sure that the jacket does not ride up in front under your chin or next to your ears. There are many women-specific life jacket designs being made, so there is not reason to put up with a jacket that fits poorly and is uncomfortable to paddle in. No matter what the weather or conditions, you should be wearing that life jacket every time you get into your kayak. Period. No exceptions!
For the most part, the kayak, paddle, and life jacket are all you need to get started in recreational kayaking, but there are some additional items that you are going to want or need, so I have listed them below.
- Means to transport your kayak. This could be an inexpensive universal foam block carrier kit, a roof rack system, or a trailer.
- A mini-skirt. Like a sprayskirt, but it doesn’t cover the whole cockpit opening and is easier to use in the larger cockpits of most recreational kayaks. It helps keep the water dripping off your paddle from ending up in your lap.
- A rescue whistle to attach to your life jacket.
- A bilge pump to get water out of your boat.
- A sponge to mop up the last bit of water that your pump can’t reach.
- Drybags for carrying things with you on the water that need to stay dry (keys, cell phone, snacks, etc.)
- A portable weather radio to keep track of changing weather and approaching storms.
- Assorted paddle clothing to protect you from the water temperature like a wetsuit and/or paddle jacket. This is most important for paddling in the early spring and summer and later in the fall as the water is colder at those times. The rule of thumb is that you should always dress for the water temperature. (Read my blog posts on “Dressing For Paddling – Parts 1,2, & 3”)
- Paddling footwear that protects your feet when you step in and out of the kayak and can get wet. This could be wetsuit booties, river sandals, or old canvas tennis shoes.
- Lessons to improve your paddling technique (not actually gear, but learning how to use your gear better).
What do you think of this list? Your gear should add to your safety and general enjoyment when paddling. Is there an indispensible item that I’ve forgotten? Do you have questions or need more explanation about any of the items I’ve listed? There are usually some good spring sales at the paddling and outdoor stores, so start thinking about what you need to purchase this season and consider taking part in a little economic stimulation!