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Paddle Gear & Essentials

If you’re looking to drift away, you’re in the right place.


Maybe you’re just breaking the surface, or maybe you’re well-versed in water ways. Either way, these top picks and Gearhead® recs are meant to connect water goers of all levels with the best gear and apparel for however they prefer to paddle.


Paddle Gear


Drifting off doesn’t always mean we’re lost. Paddling lets us find new perspectives and quite literally enables us to tune in to nature’s current. Whether it’s the weightless feeling of floating that brings serenity, or the rush of whitewater that activates all our senses, there’s no other environment where we’re as subjected to the will of Earth’s greatest resource.

 

Floating over that resource can be as simple or complex as you’d like, so we’ve outlined this guide with all the essentials to match the wide range of ways to paddle. Start channeling your inner amphibian with the apparel, PFDs, and footwear for aquatic activity, or go deeper with our top stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and more watercrafts.

 


Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUPs)


Stand-up paddleboards are a type of watercraft resembling a larger and wider surfboard, designed for standing on while paddling with a single-bladed paddle. They’re extremely versatile and approachable, offering a way for paddlers of all levels to explore their water networks, but there’s a few things to know and consider before you head to the water with yours.

 

Solid Vs. Inflatable Boards: SUPs are made from either solid materials like plastic, fiberglass, or carbon, or inflatable materials like drop-stitched PVC.

  • Solid SUPs are a bit more stable and durable, and they perform better in choppy waters. However, they’re more cumbersome to transport and store.
  • Inflatable SUPs are easier to travel with, transport, and store. They usually roll or fold when not in use, and they come with an air pump. This makes them ideal for bringing to waterbodies that are only accessible by foot, too. We also like having an electric SUP pump to make the inflation process smoother, and get us on the water sooner.

 

Hull Type: The hull plays a key role in performance, and it’s broken out into two types: planing hulls and displacement hulls.

  • Planing hulls are flat and wide, making them highly stable and maneuverable. They’re a good choice for beginners, leisure paddling, SUP yoga, and whitewater.
  • Displacement hulls feature pointed noses, making them faster and more efficient. They’re best for fitness paddling and long-distance SUP touring.

 

Volume & Weight Capacity: Consider the total amount of weight your board will be carrying, including your body weight plus the weight of your gear. Higher volume boards can handle greater amounts of weight, and most boards will have unique rider weight capacities.

 

Length: Longer boards are faster and track straighter, but shorter boards are more nimble. If you’re paddling through tight canyons or streams, you might be better off with a shorter board, whereas a longer board will be better suited for longer trips in open water. SUPs range from about 9ft to 14ft, and a good all-rounder will land at about 10ft to 12 ft.

 

Width: Wider boards will always be more stable, so if you’re new to paddleboarding, consider opting for a board on the wider end. If you’re planning on extended trips that require coolers, tents, and more gear, a wider board will also accommodate that extra space. Wide boards can be slower (and harder to paddle) than skinnier options, though. Generally, you can match your body size to the board. If you’re a smaller person or experienced paddler, a narrow board should be just fine. SUPs widths range from about 31in to 36in.

 

Fins: There are three common fin configurations you’ll come across: single fin, 3-fin, and 2+1 fin setups.

  • Single fin setups provide solid tracking with minimal drag and are best for flatwater.
  • 3-fin setups usually have fins that are all about the same size and they offer better control in surf.
  • 2+1 setups feature one large and two smaller fins and they’re common on SUPs designed for surfing.

 


Best SUP


BOTE LowRider Aero Tandem Inflatable SUP


Fully loaded would’t be saying enough about what the LowRider has aboard. It includes two inflatable seats that let it easily transition from a SUP to a kayak-style watercraft. Two-in-one paddles are included, too. At 36in wide, it’s one of the most stable boards we’ve ever paddled. And we love that it has plenty of straps on both the font and back to secure gear, and it packs into a rollable backpack that makes moving it around much easier.

 

Get The LowRider Aero Tandem

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Packrafts, as their name suggests, combine aspects of both backpacking and rafting. They’re durable, lightweight, compact, singe-user vessels designed to be packed and carried, opening up opportunities for exploring water bodies you normally wouldn’t be able to reach. Most packrafts weigh between about 4 and 13lbs.

 

Our Herd prefers packrafts that are light, tough, and versatile, so they can withstand miles of floating and bobbing off rocks or other obstacles whether it’s in rowdy whitewater or calm streams. Depending on where we’re traveling, we might opt for a packraft with a fin to help us track in low-flow zones, a self-bailing floor that prevents water buildup in the vessel, internal storage to keep our gear safe and dry, or a packraft with a skirt for cold rapids.


Kayaks are best for floating trips that aren’t hike-intensive. These vessels are less concerned with weight and storage savings, and more concerned with making the most of your time on the water.

  • Recreational hardshell kayaks are beginner friendly and the most affordable option. They’re stable, easy to get in and out of, and easy to maneuver. They’re best for flatwater or tame rivers, and they come in either sit-on or sit-in models.
  • Whitewater hardshell kayaks generally have rockered shapes and sharper edges that make them suitable for fast and choppy water. But there are a lot of aspects that play into a whitewater kayak’s performance, so we recommend reading our How To Choose A Whitewater Kayak Article for the best intel.
  • Inflatable kayaks (IKs) are typically made from durable materials like PVC or rubberized fabrics. These kayaks come in various sizes and designs, ranging from solo to tandem models, and they're suitable for recreational paddling, fishing, whitewater rafting, or touring. Despite being inflatable, they can offer stability and performance comparable to traditional hardshell kayaks. Inflatable kayaks are more portable and easier to travel with, too.

Rafts are large watercrafts built for big water. They’re roomy and can carry a lot of weight, making them a great choice for families or big groups. Hypalon or PVC are materials of preference here. Frames can be added for additional cargo or fishing capabilities. And as far as sizing, 12ft to 14ft boats can be used for three or less people on short overnight trips, while 14ft to 15ft boats are better suited for longer trips with four or more people.

 

 



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Personal Floatation Devices (PFDs)


If you’re a leisurely paddler, there may be nothing wrong with wearing the classic life jacket you probably have floating around the garage. But for more demanding, multi-mile missions, paddle-specific PFDs offer a more suitable fit and additional features for easy, comfortable water-going.

 

U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) approval ratings categorize PFDs into types I–V, each indicating the PFD’s flotation efficacy in specific water conditions.

  • For whitewater paddling, a type V PFD made specifically for this activity is essential.
  • For stillwater paddling, we recommend wearing any type III USCG-approved PFD that you find comfortable.

 

Standard PFDs are the most common and resemble a vest. They rely on flotation material like foam for buoyancy.

Inflatable PFDs

rely on manual or automatic mechanisms to provide buoyancy. Automatically inflating PFDs fill with air on their own when submerged, while manually-inflating PFDs require the user to trigger a built-in C02 cartridge. If you’re considering an inflatable life jacket for paddling, we recommend one that inflates manually to prevent accidental inflation when wet.

Hybrid PFDs combine inflatable PFD technology with low-volume flotation material, like foam, offering the best of both worlds.


Best Men’s PFD


Mustang Survival Khimera Hybrid PFD


This low-volume, ultra-slim-fitting vest is built with a standard 7.5 pounds of foam for floatation. But its life-saving efficacy is furthered by the ability to tigger the CO2 cartridge and add buoyancy in a particularly sticky situation. We love that we’re able to adjust the fit, and move and paddle freely in this vest. Its front pocket carries a backup cartridge and other small essentials, too.

 


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Best Women’s PFD


Astral E-YTV PFD


This low-profile look is our women’s top pick, but this unisex vest can certainly be a life-saver for anyone on the water. Rated as a type V PDF, this vest is designed for whitewater missions but can be used for more mellow adventures, too. We love that Astral is using recycled materials in this design, and that its foam is PFC-free. That doesn't affect its durability, though. The E-YTV’s construction is long-lasting, and its shape flows well with the type of movements we make with a paddle in hand.

 


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UPF Apparel For Paddling


Floating in wild weather can be its own unique adventure. But if you’re anything like us, heat waves are more likely to lure you into the water than storm systems. Here are the key considerations and top picks for sun-proofing your skin under the sun and on the water during golden, warm-weather days.

 

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF): Sun-protective clothing is the simplest way to keep your skin safe. Garment construction, color, treatments, and fiber type all contribute to a specific piece of clothing’s UPF rating, which ranges from 10 to 50+.

 

We recommend 50+ rated apparel to get the most peace-of-mind for your body. The best UPF apparel has a hood to cover your neck and thumbholes to cover your hands. It should breathe easily to keep you cool while you’re wearing it, too. Non-abrasive materials and seams are another important consideration to prevent chafing or rubbing against your arms or torso during long days of paddling.


Best Men’s UPF Layer


Backcountry Tahoe Sun Hoodie


Our Gearheads wove this hoodie together with all your water-centered endeavors in mind. It’s UPF 50+ rated, offering more protection than we’re even allowed to mention. The Tahoe Hoodie’s stretchy blend of movement-friendly fabric prevents discomfort during arm-to-PFD rubbing. It’s got the back of your neck, the top of your hands, and all your aquatic adventures covered.

 


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Best Women’s UPF Layer


Backcountry Tahoe Sun Hoodie


With its stretchy blend of UPF 50+ fabric that feels as sweet as sun kisses, the Tahoe Sun Hoodie might be the only constant piece of our summer plans. The women’s version of this bestselling favorite floats along with all the same features as the men’s version above, but with a women’s-specific fit and raglan sleeves. It’s sweat-wicking, quick-drying, and designed to eliminate the need for sunscreen while you soak up the positive energy from Earth’s closest star.

 


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Sun Accessories

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Water Footwear


Every waterway will have its own footwear champ, determined by factors like water temperature, anticipated conditions, and the type of paddling you'll be doing. High-intensity missions in cold weather often call for footwear that keeps your feet warm when they inevitably get wet, such as neoprene booties or wetsocks. But for most paddle trips, especially those in warm-weather, we’re keen on keeping it simple with a pair of sandals, or hybrid sandal/shoe combos.

 


How We Choose Water Shoes


When we’re choosing a pair for paddling, we look for a solemate that gives us traction for slippery put-ins and take-outs, and materials that won’t rub against our skin and cause blisters—whether wet or dry. We also opt for a pair that’ll hold up through seasons of logging water miles, so we like sandals with materials that pair with water and that withstand repeated water exposure without degrading.

 

With sandals available in various shapes and designs, and every foot being unique, we recommend giving a few different closure-types a test-drive to see what floats your boat and keeps your feet going swimmingly. But here are a few of our Herd’s faves for water- and sun-soaked days.

 


Best Men’s Water Shoes


Chaco Mega Z Cloud Sandal


An all-around warm-weather winner. Every step in the Chaco Mega Z lands on a bed of clouds. It’s got plenty of arch support for more comfortable walking, wading, or SUP-standing, too. Beneath the sole, there are plenty of grippy lugs to secure us in watery scrambles, and its upper webbing is both water-friendly and chafe-resisting.

 


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Best Women’s Water Shoes


Teva Original Universal Sandal


Folks in the Herd can't find consensus on how to say “Teva," but we all agree that this classic is one of their greatest hits. Its beautifully simplified design fits in anywhere—whether it’s on the raft, in the water, or along the shore. The foam footbed is wonderfully comfortable and we’ve found its velcro straps are both secure and comfortable, wherever we wander. We’ve never had issues with security in watery environments, either.

 


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Drysuits & Accessories


Drysuits and dry tops come into play during paddling trips in cold water. Even in warm weather, paddling in cold water can be extremely dangerous. Cold water can quickly lead to shock and hypothermia, thus the need for clothing that seals out water to keep paddlers dry and warm. The "120 rule" is a guideline often referenced in kayaking safety. It suggests that if the combined air and water temperature is less than 120°F, then extra precautions should be taken to prevent hypothermia and other cold-related risks.

 

Dry tops waterproof your upper body by completely sealing water out of your neck and waist—although leaks are almost inevitable in the event of a swim. They’re primarily used for flatwater kayaking and can be paired with dry bottoms or a kayak skirt to further increase their waterproofing. Rafters, packrafters, and kayakers paddling in cold water usually opt for full drysuits since those activities have a greater risk for water exposure.

 

Accessories like drybags, navigation devices, and other safety gear add an extra layer of comfort and security to our water adventures. Keep scrolling to explore the other essentials we’re paddling with.

Best Dry Bag


SealLine Discovery Dry Bag


Paddle trips with a leaky dry bag can quickly water down the adventure, so we turn to the Discovery Dry Bag for total assurance that our gear will stay safe. We’ve only uncovered pleasant discoveries when using this lightweight, ultra-durable bag. Its solid PVC-free construction withstands splashing and submersion alike. With plenty of size options ranging from 10L to 50L, and a shoulder strap to secure it to yourself or the boat, it delivers everything we could ask for and more.

 


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For peace of mind that everything stays dry.


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To keep your upper body out of harm’s way.


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To prevent the bad kind of chilling.


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Odds and ends that make all the difference.

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