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This is just the very basics on the types of gear you'll need to think about as you get started paddling.

Kayak

Choosing the right kayak is a process on it's own. See our review of kayak types.

Paddle

Kayak paddles are important, and shouldn't be treated as an afterthought. Buy the best paddle you can afford, as it makes a tremendous difference to your comfort and enjoyment. Things to consider:
  • Length - Paddle lengths vary greatly. The persons height will affect the length to choose, as will the type of boat being paddled. In general, whitewater paddles will be shorter, varying in length from about 180 cm to 205 cm, and touring paddles from 210-240 cm. A wider kayak also dictates a longer paddle, such as some types of sit-on-tops or tandem kayaks. Many good kayak shops will allows demos on paddles, and it's highly suggested that you try them before you buy.
  • Material - 1 )Very inexpensive paddles will have a metal shaft and plastic blades. While inexpensive and durable, paddles like this typically have inefficient blade shapes and are heavy. 2) Paddles with fiberglass shafts and resin or plastic blades can offer a good value for the money, and are good backup or spare paddles. They typically have good blade shapes, but are a little heavy. 3) Fiberglass paddles (blades and shaft) are perhaps the best value for the money. They have efficient shapes and low weight, with good durability.
    4) Carbon-fiber or Graphite paddles are a premium choice. The feel is similar to fiberglass, but very light weight. Some have a foam core to the blade, which offers buoyancy and really nice feel in the water.
    5) Wood paddles vary a lot, from cheap and heavy, to sophisticated and light weight. They typically have some flex to them that gives them a lively feel.
  • Blade shape and size - the total area of the paddle blade is important. A larger area will give more bite, and power, but require more energy. Again, it's best to demo several and decide what feels right to you.

PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

Sometimes referred to as a "life jacket" this is the most important piece of safety gear you'll ever buy.
  • The most important characteristic of a PFD is fit. Try on as many as you can, and find the best fit. To test, put the PFD on will all the adjustment straps fully loosened. Pull down on the PFD, then start tightening the straps from the bottom first. They should be snug, but not restrictive. Once all the straps are tightened on the sides, remove any slack from the shoulder straps. Then, put your thumbs under the shoulder straps and pull up. The PFD should remain in place on your torso. If it rides up, try tightening the straps, or another PFD.
  • Simulate paddling movements, including turns, rolls, etc. Make sure the PFD doesn't bind or get in the way.
  • Once fit is established, your choices are primarily personal preference. Pockets and other accessories are nice, but should be considered secondary to fit.
  • Class I,II,III,IV,V - These Coast Guard ratings are seen on most PFD's sold in the US and group PFD's by type. Most kayak PFD's are Type III or V. For a full explanation of types, click here.

    Helmets

    Mandatory for whitewater paddlers, and sea kayakers dealing with surf or paddling in rocky areas.
    • Fit - Once again, fit is very important. Most helmets will come with foam fit kits that will allow you to customize the fit. Once adjusted, the helmet should remain in place even if you shake your head vigorously in any direction.
    • Coverage - Some helmets are very low profile, and offer minimal protection. Others cover the ears, and some even have face or chin guards. You should buy a helmet with the most coverage you are comfortable with.
    • Materials - Helmets come in both plastic and composite (fiberglass or composite). Composite helmets will tend to be light and stiff, but plastic helmets offer good value for the money. Unfortuantely, there is no certification process for helmets, so evaluating their integrity is nearly impossible.

      Shoes

      Choose shoes that will protect your feet, and stay on your feet if you swim. Most paddling shoes will drain quickly. It's never recommend to paddle barefoot, in an emergency bare feet can be a liability. In cold conditions, use neoprene booties or thin neoprene socks under shoes. In warm conditions, sandals or thin water shoes work well.

      Clothing

      Dress for immersion. If you end up in the water, cold water can sap strength in minutes, so it's important to dress for the conditions. In poor conditions or if paddling alone, dress even warmer. In many parts of the world, where air temperatures can be warm while the water is cold, this can be tricky and lead you to overheat while paddling. Remember, when kayaking, you can almost always cool down by entering the water. If you get cold, it's very difficult to warm up, so it's best to always err on the side of being overdressed. Layering is best, so you can adjust if conditions change.
      • Wetsuits are warm and great for insulation in the water, but are restrictive and don't breath much when not in the water. They are good for situations (like classes or practice) where you will be in the water a lot, or for beginning whitewater kayakers who might be swimming frequently.
      • Splash tops and Dry tops are waterproof tops that protect you from splashes and water. Dry tops have latex seals at the neck and wrists that seal water completely out.
      • Fleece and synthetic wicking layers allow you to adjust your warmth.
      • Avoid: Avoid cotton. Cotton, when wet, saps heat away and will keep you cold for a long time.

      Skirts

      The skirt is used to seal out water from the cockpit on a traditional kayak. They are necessary in all but very calm conditions. Neoprene skirts offer the best water proofing, with nylon skirts offering better breathability. Many nice sea kayaking skirts are a combination of the two, with a neoprene deck and a nylon tunnel.

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Nice Geoff,
I would add a couple of small tid bits: on PFD's when checking range of motion and overall fit, I like to think of the term "swim vest", in other words how well could I swim in that thing. On the Paddles, I would respectfully disagree about Carbon paddles feeling similar to Fiberglass; for me there is quite a notable difference in the feel between the two. Carbon being so much stiffer really has a solid "bite" on the water, and produces a much smoother powerful stroke. Obviously this is personal taste, and may or may not be worth the price difference to some.
Speaking of price differences, especially on paddles and clothes, I personally like to sort of divide out those cost differences by how many uses that piece of gear will likely see. In other words if a good dry top costs an extra $200 over a cheaper (and wetter option), that $200 seems like a lot of money for a weekend trip, but if I plan on paddling a hundred days or so a season and hope that top will last a season or two... that means that it's about an extra dollar or two a day to have the better top (a DEAL!). Ok that's about my extent of economic theory for ya...
JB
Geoff,

This is a nice article. It's good to know that I am doing some things right. There is one thing however that I'd like to point out regarding footwear.

Not everywhere we put in and take out is pristine. In fact, many places have rubbish and other debris strewn about. If you wear shoes with a thin sole, make sure you carefully watch where you put your feet while you are getting in and out of the boat. I wore some for a while and while getting out of my boat I stepped on a thick piece of stiff wire that went all the way through my shoe and almost into my foot. After that I got some shoes with thicker soles.

Oh, and your pfd link isn't working.

Rick
what about seats? are there any godd inexpensive seats with backs? I'm very new to whole kayak experience and just got a used kayak and need a decent seat..................
Shelly,

What kind of kayak did you get? Sit-on-top? You may consider a Surf-to-summit seat. I think they're pretty good with high backs.

Rick
If you are leaning back , you'll probably need to re-evaluate your posture and paddling stroke.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lef_ut8n0ms

You'll be most efficient leaning slightly Forward, crunching those abdominals a bit and using your feet.

Look around here for more info and tips
http://www.kayakpaddling.net

I strongly agree on the price per use. As a sophomore in High school my family thought I was insane to spend $350 on a down sleeping bag. My daughters have since graduated from college and I still carry that bag on every trip. The down has fallen some but it is still a good summer or back up bag.

On the paddle, if it is a two piece paddle, check the wiggle where the parts come together. If the fit is too loose it will only get more shakey. If it is too tight it might lock up.
I have a carbon fiber paddle and love the light weight. An extra pound in paddle weight can really add up stroke after stroke.
Rain gear: I have paid too much and not enough. A good tent is priceless! Clothing will get trashed over time, expect it.

One last tip, buy the best gear for your significant other with the understanding that you will use it when she is not around. It helps you keep a good set of back up gear and reduces the "YOU SPENT HOW MUCH ON WHAT!" factor.
I like your last point, but it doesn't work too well for my wife and I. I weigh nearly 2.5 times what she does, and am 11 inches taller. Not much shared gear for us! =>
Could anyone please tell what a good brand of kayak is for flatwater such as a freshwater lake or river. This would be a great help

I'm not into brand things myself but I have a little 10 footer and it works perfect for flatwater lakes and rivers its a Waterquest 100 and I got it from Dunhams Sports for like 250 but it works really great it has rigging, a decent seat, and foot pedals for stabilization.  These would be the things a look for if I had to buy another kayak for flatwater--although a storage hatch would be nice too

 

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