What gear do I need for kayaking?
As with my page about buying a kayak, this is geared towards people in Michigan, but most of it applies to kayakers everywhere. There are a number of items that you must have to go kayaking, such as a paddle, but then there are other things that may not be essential or required, but are good things to have with you when you are kayaking, either for safety reasons, or to make the sport more enjoyable.
The first thing you’ll need is a Personal Floatation Device (PFD), otherwise known as a life jacket. They are required by law in Michigan, you don’t have to be wearing it if you are an adult, but you must have one with you. Children under six years of age must have them on when on the water. It helps if you buy one at the same time you are shopping for kayaks, so you can try them on and sit in the kayak to be sure everything fits well, and that it won’t interfere with paddling.
You have to have one of course, but I see more people trying to kayak with the wrong paddle than I see trying to use the wrong kayak. I don’t know who is selling these paddles to people, but other than the kayak itself, the paddle is the most important piece of gear you need, and it has to be sized to you and your kayak!
I see it all the time, usually with women, but with guys too, who don’t have much experience kayaking. They join our group and I see that they are using a heavy paddle with a very inefficient blade and the paddle is a foot or more too long for them, or once in a while, too short for them. I think that to cut back on costs, some stores only stock longer paddles, and sell them to every one, regardless of what length paddle the person should be using. That makes for a long hard day of paddling. The right paddle will make paddling a lot easier, and more enjoyable. You don’t need the most expensive, high-tech paddles that are on the market unless you kayak even more often than I do. What you do need is a light paddle with an efficient blade that is the correct length for you and your kayak.
By efficient blade, I mean one that is slightly cup-shaped to catch the water as you paddle. Do not buy a paddle that has the handle molded into the face of the blade so that the face of the blade ends up being somewhat convex, you’ll have to paddle twice as hard as you would with a cup-shaped blade.
As to handle style, there are straight handles and the bent handles known as crankshaft handles. I use a crankshaft handled paddle only because the area I place my hands is “D” shaped on a crankshaft handle, and I like the way that fits my hand. A straight handle is fine, I carry one as a spare and use it often when I am letting people with the wrong paddle use my crankshaft paddle. The length of the paddle is more important than the shape of the shaft.
How long your paddle should be depends on your size, and the width of your boat. If you use a paddle that is too long, your arms and shoulders will have to work harder because you lose leverage when your paddle is too long. Your hands should be on your paddle just slightly over the width of your shoulders apart, and the closer your hand is to the blade of the paddle, the more leverage you will have during the paddle stroke, as long as you can reach the water in a normal sitting position. If your paddle is too long, you’ll find yourself spreading your arms wider to gain leverage, but that puts added strain on your shoulder and back muscles.
If your paddle is too short, you’ll find yourself leaning a little with every stroke to reach the water, and your “off hand”, the hand on the end of the paddle out of the water, will be raised too high, putting strain on that shoulder. Your off hand should never go much higher than your shoulder. You want to be able to keep your arms and shoulders as close to horizontal as you can and still reach the water with the blade of your paddle. If you find yourself hitting the side of your kayak with your paddle shaft often, your paddle is probably too short.
As to what material the handle and blade should be made from, that depends on where you plan to paddle, and how far you plan to go. For short trips on inland lakes, the materials don’t matter too much, a plastic blade will hold up fine. For rivers with rocks, a good fiberglass blade will hold up better when you hit rocks with your paddle. The farther you plan to paddle, and the more remote the area, the more money you should spend on a paddle, both to save weight, and so that your paddle doesn’t fail by breaking or falling apart.
Those are the two “must haves” for kayaking, all the rest of these things are for safety or to make kayaking more enjoyable. Before I begin on those things, a note here, you should attach everything you bring with you in a kayak to you or the kayak in some manner. You don’t want to lose things if you roll. In no particular order, here are the other items of gear you may find useful.
Dry bags are designed to keep other items of gear you bring with you dry during your excursion. There are different styles, many different sizes, made from different materials, but they all serve the same purpose. Many people start out using ziplock bags or resealable plastic containers like Tupperware to hold things like a camera, cell phone, or food. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. You are probably going to get at least some water in your kayak, either from waves on lakes, or rapids on rivers, so having a secure place to store things you don’t want to get wet is essential. Even if your kayak has a dry storage area, dry bags are a good idea, because not all the dry storage areas in kayaks are as dry as you may think they are.
I normally use three dry bags, a large one that holds a complete change of clothes and a towel for the event that I roll my kayak. This is extremely important if you plan on off-season kayaking during the cooler months. Even during the summer months, having a change of clothes along with you is a wise idea in case of the unexpected.
A second, smaller dry bag holds my survival kit, which I’ll get to later, and I have a very small dry bag that I keep my wallet, car keys, and cell phone in while kayaking.
Remember to attach your dry bags to your kayak in some manner, carabiners, or beiners as they are often called, work great for this purpose. They are “D” shaped rings with a hinged opening you can use to clip things to you or your kayak. They were designed for mountain climbers, but they have so many uses, that they are available in many stores now. You don’t need the super expensive ones sold for mountain climbers who’s lives depend on their beiners, many stores sell cheap ones that work great for clipping your gear to the bungee system of your kayak for example.
If you plan on kayaking rivers or the Great Lakes, you should be carrying a survival kit with you, containing items to insure that you can survive at least one night in the wild. The unexpected can, and does happen, this was driven home to me by the death of a friend while he was kayaking in Canada. Kayaking is great fun, but it can also be dangerous in two ways, drowning or hypothermia. I have put together a survival kit that always goes with me while I am kayaking, no matter how tame the river, and how nice the weather is. I have the contents listed here, you can use that as a guide and adjust to suit you and the places you plan on paddling.
Paddle leashes and floats.
The idea behind both paddle leashes and floats is to prevent some one from losing their paddle. It seems like a simple enough idea, but it’s more complicated than it would seem. Having a way of recovering your paddle in the event you roll is an excellent idea, we had some one with our kayaking group lose an expensive paddle when they rolled their kayak in a logjam a few years back. Luckily, some one had a spare paddle for them to use for the rest of the float. But, the leashes themselves maybe somewhat dangerous, I’ll explain as I go.
I have never used a paddle float, but I’ll start with them. They are like PFDs for your paddle. If you drop your paddle in the water, or roll your kayak, the paddle floats keep your paddle from sinking. On still waters like lakes, they probably work fine, but I’m not so sure about rivers. In the first place, many paddles float on their own without a paddle float, at least for a while. In the second place, I’m not so sure that watching your paddle float downstream without you if you roll in a river is a good thing. Without a paddle, you’re stuck, or at least at the mercy of the river currents, so I use a paddle leash rather than a float since I kayak rivers much more than lakes.
Paddle leashes come in different styles and lengths, they are a cord or cable that has a cuff on one end that wraps around the shaft of your paddle and is held in place by velcro, and the other end clips to you or your boat. The one I use is a self coiling cable that is very long, at least ten feet long, I have never stretched it out to its full length to find out how long it is. Other paddle leashes are straight cords four to six feet long.
Here’s where it gets tricky. The experts say to clip the free end of the paddle leash to you, but, I disagree with that, especially in rivers. The idea of having the paddle attached to me while I am fighting the current in a river if I have rolled doesn’t sound safe to me. This was confirmed recently, some one from the group rolled their kayak, and they had their paddle leash attached to their boat, thank God! I say that because the current there was so strong that it broke the paddle leash they were using. Maybe paddle lashes are designed to break at a certain point, I don’t know. What I do know is that moving water is a lot stronger than many people realize. I don’t want anything, especially a paddle, attached to me if I find myself in moving water. I am not sure what the outcome would have been, had the person that rolled had the paddle leash attached to them rather than their boat. It very well may have held them under water, and there may not have been enough force on them to break the paddle leash, as a kayak is much larger than a person.
On the other hand, some one else rolled once while using the same coiled paddle leash I use, attached to the deck bungee of their boat, and their feet got tangled up in the paddle leash for a second or two after they rolled. They were able to free themselves from the leash, but it was still a scary second or two.
Let’s go back to the incident where the paddle leash broke, as that also ended up being the first time I have rolled my kayak. I didn’t see that person go over, or how the paddle leash got broken. I saw the person struggling in the water, with their paddle and other things floating down river ahead of them and their kayak, which was floating upside down, but floating. They were trying to regain their feet ,and they were using their floating kayak to help them stay above water. I was able to get to their paddle and the other things and retrieve them, but I was then floating backward, and not paying attention to where I was going.
The back of my kayak started under a log that was way too low for me to go under, and I could tell it was going to be my first wet exit. I threw my paddle away from me, towards the front of my boat as I started to roll. Then I was able to slide out of my boat without any trouble, or getting caught in the paddle leash, but the paddle leash did its job and I was able to stay with my boat, and pull it and the paddle to shore.
So here are my recommendations, you can take them or leave them as you wish, but please, don’t sue me if you drown. After seeing many people roll, I think a paddle leash is a good idea. I think the very long, coiled ones like I use are the best ones to use if you use one. I attach mine to the dry bag that holds my survival kit, and that is in turn held in place on the front deck of my kayak by the deck bungee system. The idea is that if there is enough force exerted against the paddle, the dry bag will pull free from under the bungee and act as a paddle float of sorts, at least a marker so I know where my paddle is. If I ever find myself going over again, I am going to do the same thing I did the first time, get rid of the paddle by throwing it towards the front of my boat so that I will be free of the paddle leash when I slide out of the boat. The paddle, paddle leash, survival kit, and kayak aren’t going to do me any good if I drown.
I think if you are kayaking, you should have a rope that you can throw to other people in case of an emergency. They sell throw ropes in bags just for kayakers, but you don’t need to have one of those, just a rope to throw is enough. It should be around 25 feet long, and strong enough that you can pull some one to safety against a strong current if the need arises, or to pull a kayak free from a logjam. A 3/8 inch quality nylon rope should be enough in most cases.
Some people tie their rope to the front handle of their kayak, then coil the rest of the rope either under the deck bungee or in their cockpit, I don’t like that idea, and here’s why. I kayak mostly rivers, and I don’t want anything attached to the front of my boat out of reach that can get caught in tree branches or logjams, it’s that simple. I had a branch find its way through the front handle of my kayak one time while I was working my way through the top of a tree that had fallen in the river, it was a pain working my way out of that one. A rope getting tangled up in the branches would have made it even worse.
Some one related a story to me, I am not sure if it is true or not, but the story was this. Some one drowned in their kayak when they rolled because they had a rope tied to the front of their kayak and coiled up in their cockpit. The rope acted to tie them into their kayak when they rolled, and they weren’t able to free themselves.
So if you carry a rope, coil it up and put it under the deck bungee or in the cockpit, don’t tie it to your kayak.
If you only paddle lakes, you can probably get by going barefoot or with flip-flops, but if you are going to kayak rivers on a regular basis, I recommend that you purchase a pair of water sandals for in the summer, and boots for in the cool seasons. Water sandals will protect your feet from sharp, jagged rocks, or the trash that people throw in the water, such as broken glass or fish hooks. Good water sandals will also give you better footing in wet, slippery rocks, and protect your feet if you have to portage around obstacles in the river. My water sandals also serve as lightweight summertime hiking sandals as well, so they do double duty. For the cool seasons, I have a pair of what are called mud boots here locally, they are rubber boots that come up to the knee.
On or around the water you should always protect your eyes from sunlight. You probably already have sunglasses, you don’t need anything special for kayaking. I was blessed with excellent eyesight, and want to keep it, so I always wear quality sunglasses that block UV radiation, and are polarized. Polarized sunglasses are great for kayaking as they help you see through the surface glare to see underwater obstructions to avoid. Sunglasses will also protect your eyes from twigs and branches if you kayak rivers and have to crash through fallen trees on occasion. I do suggest that you use a strap to hold your sunglasses on in the event you roll.
For summertime kayaking you don’t need anything special as far as clothing, what ever you are comfortable in is fine, I do recommend that you bring rain gear with you just in case of a summer pop up shower. The rain gear can also help keep you warm if the weather turns cooler than expected. I keep a rain suit in the dry bag that holds my change of clothing so it is always with me when I am kayaking. That way I have a light jacket with me, and I don’t have to remember to pack one. Sometimes trips take longer than expected, so having an extra layer of clothing along is always a good idea in case the weather turns cooler.
For cool or cold weather kayaking, it is hard to beat fleece. Fleece holds its insulating qualities fairly well when wet, dries quickly, and is light. Wool also retains your body heat when it is wet, but wool is heavy when wet, not a good thing if you find yourself in the water. For winter kayaking, having a change of clothes along becomes a must have, rather than just a nice thing to have along.
A spray skirt is a waterproof cover that fits around the outside of the cockpit of your kayak and has an elasticized opening for you in it. Its purpose is to keep water out of your kayak. Where ever you kayak, there is the possibility of getting water in your kayak, sometimes enough to swamp your boat. On larger bodies of water, there can be natural waves built up by the wind, or the wakes from powerboats and personal watercraft. On rivers, there are the standing waves in rapids that can fill your boat with water. A spray skirt is designed to prevent that from happening.
On the Great Lakes, I would not venture too far from shore without a spray skirt no matter what season it is, and I use mine when winter kayaking everywhere. During the summer months on rivers, getting splashed is fun, like the water rides at amusement parks, but in the winter, that water is cold, and I don’t want it in my boat with me.
With a spray skirt on, it is possible to do a complete roll, but I have never tried it. I do mostly rivers, and I worry about striking rocks with my head if I tried a complete roll. I don’t do a lot of open water kayaking, but if I did, I would learn how to do a complete roll from some one who knew how, or I would sign up for a kayaking class to learn how.
Bilge pumps and bailing sponges.
The purpose of these items is to get the water out of your boat if you’re not using a spray skirt and get hit by a wave, or get water in your kayak for some other reason. I carry a bailing sponge in my survival kit, and if I did more open water kayaking, I would get a bilge pump. I would consider one of the hand-operated bilge pumps to be an essential piece of gear for kayaking the Great Lakes, even if I were wearing a spray skirt. Being able to pump the water out of your kayak out in open water could be a life saver. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, you may want a bilge pump with you even on small inland lakes, especially if you kayak alone.
For rivers, a bilge pump isn’t as important, you can normally pull your kayak out of the water and drain any water that is in your kayak out without a pump, but I know a few people who carry them anyway, so it is up to you.
The more I kayak, the more important I think having a spare paddle along is. As I mentioned earlier, some one paddling with our group lost their paddle when they rolled, and I have seen several paddles break. The more remote the area you paddle, the more important a spare paddle could be. If you own a cheap paddle, here’s your excuse to upgrade. If you already have a good paddle, then picking up a cheap one is a good idea, even for a couple that paddles together.
I don’t think that you need a spare paddle for every person paddling together as a group, but having one or two along with the group would be enough. If you do like I do and paddle remote areas by yorself, then I would bring a spare paddle along.