Whitewater Kayak Essentials: Build Your Kit
Once you decide to get into whitewater kayaking it’s time to start building your kit. There’s a considerable amount of kayak gear on the market and it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed when attempting to choose specific products.
Following is a list of essentials and accessories you’ll need to have a great day and stay safe on the river.
PFD & Helmet
Your PFD (Personal Flotation Device) and helmet are the two most important accessories on the river. In the event of a swim, your PFD will help keep you above water. Rapids are very good at pulling objects, including bodies underwater … I think it goes without saying that this is bad!
I recommend choosing a whitewater-specific PFD from a brand like Stohlquist, Astral, or Kokatat. These differ from recreational PFDs in that they are lower-profile for a better range of motion and can feature devices like a quick-release harness, which is an essential for swift-water rescue applications.
Your brain bucket is just as important as the PFD. If you end up rolling in any kind of whitewater, especially at lower water levels, chances are your head will be bouncing off rocks. Again, it goes without saying that hitting your head on a rock while upside down and underwater would be very unpleasant without a helmet.
Just like the PFD, I recommend a paddling-specific helmet. They are constructed largely in part of non-absorbent materials, allowing them to dry and drain very quickly. Many helmets also feature a brim to keep both water spray and the sun out of your eyes.
A whitewater-specific paddle is also necessary. Whitewater paddles generally have blades that are more streamlined than recreational paddles, yet larger than those on sea kayaking paddles. Additionally, whitewater paddles are not collapsible like many sea kayaking or recreational models.
The two main differences you’ll see between whitewater paddles is a bent versus straight-shaft design, and whether it’s made of fiberglass, carbon fiber or a combination of the two. Bent-shaft paddles differ from those with straight shafts in that the area of the paddle that you hold is angled slightly inward. This creates a more natural “resting” position for your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
It comes down to preference whether or not you should choose a straight or bent shaft, but it’s worth looking into a bent shaft model if you have any arm problems or get sore wrists, elbows or shoulders while using a straight shaft. As someone with a bad wrist and a survivor of two shoulder surgeries, I swear by my bent-shaft AT2 paddle.
In terms of materials, composites are used to make the paddle as light as possible to reduce fatigue. Fiberglass paddles are the strongest and are at the lower end of the price range, while carbon fiber paddles are the lightest and on the higher end of the price range. If you are a beginner paddler I recommend choosing a fiberglass paddle; they are not much heavier than those made of carbon and can take a bit more abuse.
Another consideration for choosing a paddle is the length. As a general rule of thumb, choose a shorter paddle for play boating and freestyle, and a longer paddle for river running and creeking. For the average paddler (5’4”-6’0”) look for a paddle in the 194cm-203cm range.
The last feature that should be taken into account while choosing a paddle is the feather angle. This is the angle at which one paddle blade is offset from the other, which was originally developed to decrease the amount of resistance while paddling into the wind. Years ago, a 90-degree offset was the norm. Perhaps the most common angle you will see on standard paddles nowadays is 30 degrees, however many paddlers, especially freestyle and play boaters, prefer a zero-offset paddle since it simplifies paddle strokes and makes rolling easier. It doesn’t take long to get used to a 30-degree offset, but beginners who are still learning to roll may benefit from a zero-offset version.
A good spray skirt is absolutely essential to whitewater kayaking. It acts as the interface between you and the kayak, sealing the cockpit from incoming water. Without a skirt, just a few large waves could swamp your boat.
Since the size of the cockpit on each kayak varies, it’s very important you get the correct size spray skirt to ensure that it does not pop off or implode while you’re paddling, but isn’t so tight that it’s overly difficult to put on and remove. It’s important to note that a neoprene spray skirt with a bungee or rand is required for whitewater applications; nylon skirts used for recreational and sea kayaking will not seal tightly enough to keep the water out.
While looking at spray skirts, you’ll notice a pretty big variation in price between brands and models. Most of this difference has to do with the skirt’s durability and implosion resistance. The highest end skirts are made of thicker, stronger neoprene and may be reinforced with materials such as Kevlar. If you plan on creeking, I recommend choosing a higher end skirt since high volume water and the force from landing drops can cause skirt implosion. If you are play boating or river running in smaller water you can get away with a slightly cheaper model, but you may end up needing a new skirt if you start running larger rivers with bigger waves.
Each brand of spray skirt has its own sizing chart that should be referenced to find the correct fit for you and your boat, based on your kayak’s cockpit dimensions (circumference or L x W) and your waist size.
The rivers you paddle, the weather and the time of year all play a large role in what you should wear while kayaking. Rivers that contain sections of whitewater are generally fed by snowmelt, heavy rain, or a dam, which means that the water you’re in is usually pretty cold. It’s important to remember that even if the air temperature is warm, it’s still very possible to get hypothermia from cold water (it only takes 30-60 minutes to reach exhaustion or unconsciousness in 40-50 degree F water); something to keep you dry is usually a must.
There are several types of kayak clothing:
A dry suit offers the most waterproof protection. A one-piece design waterproof / breathable fabric with integrated socks, rubber gaskets at the wrists and neck and a burly waterproof zipper keeps all water out and regulates your temperature.
Although dry suits come with a hefty price tag, I strongly recommend investing in one. If taken care of they can last an extremely long time and are irreplaceable when you’re floating downriver with your boat alongside.
Dry tops are the next best option for staying warm, dry and non-hypothermic in cold water. Designed similarly to a complete dry suit, dry tops still have rubber gaskets at the neck and wrists but do not completely seal at the waist. Therefore, a dry top won’t keep you dry for long in the event of a swim.
A full wetsuit doesn’t really have a place in kayaking. One with full arms, especially at a thickness that would provide any real benefit in frigid water, is too bulky and restrictive for paddling use.
The only type of wetsuit I recommend for paddling is a “John” style suit that does not have arms. One of these in a 4/5mm thickness can be used stand-alone under your PFD if you’re paddling in warmer water, or worn under a dry top on cooler days.
My paddling kit includes all three options, and depending on the water and weather I’ll use the dry suit, combine the wetsuit and dry top, or just wear the wetsuit. I like having options!
Good footwear cannot be overlooked on the river. Bare feet or sandals will not do. Rivers are full of sharp rocks, slippery rocks and foreign matter like old bits of metal and fishhooks, all of which can do some serious damage.
When selecting footwear it’s important to choose something with a relatively solid sole and good grip on wet, slimy river rocks. Although a stout sole is important, kayaking shoes that are too bulky may not fit in your kayak, especially a play boat. Neoprene booties and standard water shoes are both great options – I prefer standard water shoes because many companies make models that look casual enough to wear around town.
Paddle Safety & Accessories
Beyond your paddle, helmet, skirt and clothing there are several accessories that are irreplaceable on the river.
A throw bag is simply a rope stuffed into a bag, and is a must-have for every paddler. By holding the leading end of the rope and throwing the bag toward a paddler in need, the rope unravels in the air and with a good toss, delivers the other end of the rope to the victim. Its main purpose is for rescuing other paddlers who are either stuck in a feature or went for a bad swim, but a length of rope has many other uses on the river.
I recommend choosing a 70ft rope and tossing in a couple of wide-mouth locking carabiners. Also, remember to practice your throws regularly!
Entrapment can turn a fun day of boating into a horror show in just a few seconds. A river knife attached to your PFD’s lash tab can come in extreme handy if you or another paddler becomes tangled in a throw rope or monofilament fishing line. Additionally a knife is nice to have for cutting twigs when it comes time for a riverside warm-up campfire.
Dry Bags / Float Bags
Float bags are used to take up air space in the bow and stern of your boat. In the event of a swim, water will fill your boat very quickly and without float bags, your kayak will both be hard to retrieve from the current, and difficult to pull up onto shore to empty (Even a small, 55 gallon play boat can weigh several hundred pounds if the whole kayak is filled with water).
Dry bags create an air and watertight seal, and are used to keep valuables dry. I keep two 35L dry bags in the stern of my creek boat to hold a towel, food, camera and first-aid kit. Instead of forcing all of the air out of the bags, as I seal them I keep as much air in the bags as possible so they assist in flotation in the event of a swim.
Paddling Gloves & Pogies
Paddling gloves can go a long way when you’re paddling in colder climates. There are many different thicknesses of neoprene gloves on the market, as well as something called a pogie (among other names). Pogies are essentially neoprene covers that attach directly to where you grip your paddle. I prefer pogies to gloves because they keep your hands warm yet provide an unobstructed grip on the paddle.
Ready to dive in? Remember, if you have questions about any of this gear, you can always talk to a Backcountry.com Gearhead, who will be able to steer you in the right direction. Happy paddling!