Gear guidance for the beginner kayaker.
As I have mentioned, my brother got me into this sport. An avid kayaker and hoarder, the contents of his garage could outfit a dozen boaters for a month long expedition to Ecuador (and keep them quite drunk the whole time). I was very lucky to come into this sport with someone I could turn to for all the gear I would need to get started.
A lot of people are able to borrow gear to get them started. A lot of people aren’t. Regardless of which category you fall into, you’re going to need to start looking to buy gear of your own pretty soon.
Borrowed gear is great. The only problem is that it often doesn't fit as well as it should. And that’s fine for a while. Ultimately, you’ll have better boat control and be more comfortable in properly fitting gear.
I am proud to announce that after one year of kayaking, I am now 100% borrowed-gear free. My new Jackson Karma and the other gear I picked up at the NPFF silent auction take my total to two boats, two spray skirts, two helmets, a life jacket (PFD), a paddle, dry box, dry bag, dry suit, Hydroskin top, river shoes, throw bag, and a float bag/blow up doll named Gertrude. Seems like a lot, huh? But all of this was acquired by trolling Craigslist, hitting up online sales, and being very specific with my Christmas list.
Once you get everything you need, kayaking is only as expensive as you want to make it. But getting started can be a little pricey. The best way to manage the start-up cost of this hobby is by prioritizing what you need the most, and by being patient and flexible when buying it.
The following list will help guide you in your purchases….
What You’ll Need and When
As soon as possible (as in, you cannot get on a river without these things)
Choose your first kayak based on your skill level. You get to own more than one kayak in your life time and they hold their value well if you decide to trade up in the future. Even if you have aspirations of being a Red Bull sponsored surfer, a play boat is not usually a great idea for a beginner. Creek boats offer the stability you will need to learn boat control and gain confidence. That being said, there are many different types of excellent beginner boats that will continue to serve your needs for years. A great resource for researching the different types of boats is http://www.nrs.com/kayaks/kayak_terminology.asp.
I wouldn’t sweat this too much. You’ll learn and grow plenty with almost any whitewater paddle that’s roughly the right size for you. Paddles have a pretty big price range, but going out and buying a top of the line paddle won’t make you a badass boater. Also worth mentioning, I lost my paddle on the river twice in my first year. I was lucky enough to recover it both times, but the experience was stressful enough without worrying about how much I paid for it. A great beginner paddle is a Werner Sherpa, but there are many others to choose from.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
You’ll want a whitewater PFD that fits you snuggly without suffocating you. Any whitewater PFD that fits properly is going to be fine, so my suggestion is to just pick the prettiest one.
Your spray skirt doesn’t just have to fit you. It also has to fit your boat. Once you buy your first kayak, you will need to find the cockpit dimensions for your boat’s brand and size. An excellent resource for this is http://www.skirtfit.com/whitewater/. Keep in mind that different skirt brands size differently (i.e. Medium and large vs. 1.7 and 2.2). Make sure you’re buying a whitewater skirt, and not one for sea kayaking or recreational boating. Read unbiased reviews of the skirt’s performance to make sure it will keep you dry. Choose the waist size based on the skirt manufacturer’s guidelines. Tight skirts are great, but leave a little room for it to fit over winter gear without affecting your breathing.
I have two helmets, a half-cut and a full face. When you flip over (and you will), you may be surprised to find out that the bottom of the river is quite rocky. If you stay tucked properly, a regular helmet will protect your head and face almost all of the time. However, there is some risk of injury to your face and ears, and broken noses and teeth can happen. Full face masks can protect you in pushy, rocky water, but many people find them less comfortable, and opt to switch back and forth based on the likelihood that the extra protection will be needed. For the beginner friendly rivers you will start out on, most people will opt for a half helmet, but it’s a decision that you will need to make for yourself.
Nose-plugs (if you’re like me)
The nose plug debate: People who do not wear nose plugs will tell you that they are a handicap, that if you rely on them and then flip over without them on, it will cause you to freak out and swim. There’s some truth to this. However, if you are like me and snort a gallon of water up your sinuses every time you roll without your nose plugs, then flipping over isn’t going to be much fun and you will ultimately be less confident about practicing rolls and pushing yourself on the river. There’s no right or wrong here. Lots of people wear nose plugs. Buy a couple of pairs and wear them proudly. But don’t let them get soaked in sunscreen. I’ve noticed this tends to eat them up.
Keep an eye out
Dry bag or box
You’ll want to pick up a decent dry bag or dry box pretty soon. A small dry box will be easily accessible in your boat and will keep small river amenities dry and secure. My dry box is always packed with a five hour energy, a granola bar, Advil and lip balm. It’s like my boat’s glove compartment. A dry bag is often stored in a less accessible place and is great for bigger items. I usually stash an extra water bottle and extra layers of river clothes in mine, but because I have an super cheap one, it doesn't so much keep things dry as it does keep them together if I flip and swim, which is pretty much just as important.
Neoprene Top or Dry top
Even if you’re sure you never plan to be a cold weather paddler, some cold water protection is a must. Remember that you must dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature. Getting too cold while you’re paddling can be uncomfortable at best and dangerous at worst. Not all rivers are warm, even in the summer.
Unless you have a truck you can throw your boat into, you’re going to need some way to securely fasten boats to your vehicle. Some factory roof racks will do, and some won’t. I am really not the right person to give anyone roof rack advice, but the internet is a wealth of information on the subject and you’ll have plenty of people to poll at the clinic.
Go to Canoe Kentucky or J&H Outdoors and buy some NRS straps. They come in a variety of sizes, but keep in mind that too long is much better than too short. In the last year, I have used my straps to tie down my boats, tie down other people’s boats, hang clothes to dry and campsites, as a makeshift halter for an escaped horse (okay, not really me), and to tow my car up an icy driveway. They performed each task beautifully and I wouldn’t bother with any other kind of strap, but there are those who prefer ropes when tied properly. Just remember that losing a boat on the interstate may cost you a boat or cause a serious accident for which you are liable.
Float bags are pushed into empty space in a kayak to keep the boat from completely filling with water when you swim out of it. While not absolutely necessary, they will save you a lot of time and effort by keeping your boat buoyant and relatively light as you drag it to the shore (or side of the pool) and drain it. *Author's note: This item was upgraded from the "it can wait" category when some readers emphasized its importance. As I have had my trusty blow up doll Gertrude since I first started, I've never had to recover a fully submerged boat. If you do not want to invest in a float bag, other inflatable items such as beach balls will make adequate temporary substitutes.
When I started boating, I made the mistake of wearing any type of shoe that I would wear lounging around a lake. Flip flops, sandals, $9.00 water shoes, or even no shoes at all. No, no, no, no, no. Remember when you prepare for a kayaking trip, no matter the type or distance, you should dress for the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is that you will swim turbulent whitewater or have to hike rugged, slippery terrain. River booties are going to be as safe as possible for navigating rocky rapids and shore lines. If you’re looking for something a little more stylish with the same benefits, Astral makes great multi-purpose river shoes that can be worn on and off the water.
Hand paddles are a great way to work on your technique and force you to anticipate what’s ahead of you on the river. They are a work out, but some boaters use them almost exclusively. At the very least, you should consider keeping a pair stashed in your boat in the event that you or another boater loses a paddle and has to navigate the rest of the river without it (which, again, has happened to me).
It can wait
A dry suit is a must for cold weather paddling. Without a dry suit, the river will drain you of your energy extremely quickly, which creates a very dangerous situation. Unfortunately, dry suits are expensive, usually running between $700 and $1100. Wait until you’re sure you will need a dry suit before making this purchase. Keeping an eye on for seasonal clearance sales and used suits can save you a lot of money.
A happy seat is an inflatable seat that will keep your butt more comfortable for all day paddling, and add extra ability to adjust your position in the boat.
Kayaking used to be “the greatest non-spectator sport,” but with the invention of GoPro’s and other waterproof recording devices, you can now record your adventures on the water and amaze your family and friends. Just be prepared for the unfortunate phenomenon that results in even the biggest, baddest rapids looking like little ripples on your video.
Where to find it
There are many excellent sources for whitewater gear. Personally, I will always recommend shopping at local shops like Canoe Kentucky and J&H Outdoors.
Located in Frankfort, KY, Canoe Kentucky goes above and beyond to support the members of the BWA. They allow BWA members to demo their boats on the river, personally deliver them to most roll classes for new boaters to try out, and offer an automatic 10% discount to club members, on top of their already reasonable prices. They are also an excellent resource for purchasing advice.
Places to look online include stores like Jackson, Liquid Logic, Dagger, NRS, Seal, Immersion Research, Whitewater Warehouse and many, many more.
And, of course, there is always Craigslist, Boater Talk, the BWA forum, and other person to person used gear sources. If you can buy it new, you can buy it used, but when buying used gear, consult someone knowledgeable about what to look for in that particular product.
Roll classes and the spring clinic will give you the opportunity to talk to experienced kayakers about the best gear, rope tying techniques and places to buy what you need. Take advantage of this!
P.S. This blog post was a bitch to write. Stay tuned for the upcoming (and much less complicated) review of my first clinic, which will include all the things that I wish I had known going into it.