This is just the very basics on the types of gear you'll need to think about as you get started paddling.
Choosing the right kayak is a process on it's own. See our review of kayak types.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.