Paddling: Learn About the Gear

Q. Which type of kayak should I get?

A. There is no one boat for the multitude of paddlers out there, or one that handles all conditions equally well. Generally, the more open the water, the longer the boat you'll need. The right choice really depends on what you see yourself doing most, the type of water you intend to paddle on (lake, river, ocean or bay), and whether you are planning extended paddles with camping gear or just afternoon excursions. The experienced paddlers on our Outdoor Hotline staff can help guide you in the right direction. Give them a call at 800-226-7552 any day between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. EST, or drop them a line via email.

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Q. What role does the length of a kayak play?

A. The longer the boat the faster the hull speed. So if your friends are paddling kayaks that are 17' long and you are in a 12' kayak, you'll be paddling much harder just to keep up. If you intend to paddle on smaller bodies of water, say ponds or small lakes where distance is not a factor, length is not so important. But if you live (or plan to paddle) on a bay, then you should consider more of a touring boat which will track straighter and move through the water with greater stability as well as speed.

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Q. What are key features of the latest recreational kayaks?

A. The latest generation of recreational kayaks are very beamy (wide), shorter and have huge cockpits where thigh contact isn't really an option. These boats feel stable right from the start and are ideal for paddlers who are not in any particular hurry. Sit-on-top kayaks are great for beginners – they are easy to handle and more stable than other styles. The industry trend has seen an explosion of interest in these recreational kayaks which provide greater initial stability at the expense of higher performance.

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Q. Should I buy a plastic or fiberglass kayak?

A. Plastic and fiberglass are the two materials the majority of kayak manufacturers are using today. Plastic kayaks are lower priced, have the largest selection of models and are known for being rugged. The down side of a plastic hull is that it doesn't hold an exact shape and it's softer (therefore slower). Plastic boats weigh a little more than fiberglass but you can't perform field repairs on them. Fiberglass boats have much stiffer hulls, move faster through the water and you can repair them.

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Q. What do "beam" and "rocker" mean?

A. The beam of a boat is its width and, generally, the wider the beam the more stable the kayak. The more rocker a boat has, the easier it will be to turn (and, conversely, the greater challenge it will be to paddle straight). On a river with lots of obstacles, you would want a boat with more rocker for quicker turns. On the ocean and for long straight paddles, a kayak with less rocker is preferable.

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Q. What are some features of a safe touring kayak?

A. A boat designed for greater touring distances and a higher degree of safety would have a smaller cockpit, hatches and bulkheads. The smaller cockpit allows for contact with your knees for control. The hatches and bulkheads are designed to be, for the most part, air- and watertight. You can store gear (in dry bags) in these as well as have hundreds of pounds of positive buoyancy should your cockpit fill with water.

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Q. Can I paddle the same boat on rivers and the ocean?

A. You can, but it's all about compromise – and safety. Generally, the shorter the boat the easier it will turn (great for rivers and white water), but the slower you'll be getting from point A to point B. The longer the boat (most sea kayaks) the better it generally tracks allowing you to move faster through water without as much effort.

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Q. What clothing and accessories are recommended?

A. This is what we recommend to students attending our Outdoor Discovery Paddling School:

  • Shirts and shorts made of synthetic blends that wick moisture and dry quickly
  • Windbreaker
  • Hat or visor
  • Sunglasses with strap
  • Shoes that you don't mind getting wet
  • Change of clothes in a dry bag
  • Sunscreen
  • Snacks like Power Bars for quick energy
  • Drinking water

Important items we provide to students in the classes:

  • Personal flotation device (PFD)
  • Paddle
  • Paddle float
  • Pump and sponge
  • Spray skirt
  • Chart and compass
  • Signal devices (whistle, flashlight, strobe, flares, glow sticks) depending on the paddling location

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Q. Which type of canoe is best for fishing? Which for touring? For white water?

A. For fishing, a canoe with extra stability will increase your enjoyment as well as your safety, so a wider canoe, one that is 36" or wider with a flat bottom (versus a V bottom) is a good choice.

When touring, i.e., paddling some miles and hauling camping gear, a canoe in the 16' to 17' length range is a proven favorite. A 34" to 37" width will deliver a good combination of speed, paddling ease and stability.

In white water, a canoe with high sides and good volume in the bow for riding over standing waves and holes is preferred. Some rocker in the keel line makes the boat easier and quicker to maneuver around obstacles and handle current well. Make sure you bring float bags with you, which will displace water in the event of a capsize.

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Q. What features should I look for in a PFD?

A. You want a PFD that is comfortable to wear so you will wear it. Look for soft foam, plenty of room around the arms and good clearance around your neck. The vest should be able to be snugged up around your waist and mid section so that it won't ride up on you when you are in the water. Front pockets are handy for holding sunscreen and other essentials. PFDs with foam sections that articulate and bend with your movement are generally more comfortable than those without. Torso length adjustments on the shoulders of higher-end PFDs also help ensure the best fit, especially for women, who tend to have shorter torsos.

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Q. What about aluminum canoes?

A. Well-made aluminum canoes are rugged and most dents can be punched out. They are the ultimate no-maintenance canoe. Even when left outdoors all year, neither rain nor snow affects them and they will not take on weight with age. They are rigged with flotation air tanks or foam compartments to render them unsinkable. On the downside, aluminum canoes are noisy, tend to cling to (rather than glide over) rocks, and conduct heat and cold. Most aluminum canoes carry their beam well forward and aft so that they push rather than cut through the water. This hull design, however, makes them initially more stable and increases their carrying capacity.

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Q. How do fiberglass canoes stack up against other canoes?

A. The relatively low cost of fiberglass has accounted for much of its popularity. Its toughness, too, makes it attractive. Minor repairs, even at riverside, are not difficult, although major ones may be costly. Like aluminum, fiberglass can be left out in all sorts of weather, maintenance is virtually nil and, with the color built in, repainting is eliminated. Since fiberglass will not float, buoyancy is achieved with the use of air chambers or foam compartments. Many of the best fiberglass canoes have a balsa-wood filler, sandwiched between fiberglass cloth and matting, making them considerably stronger. While usually heavier than ABS (about 20 lb. more than equivalent ABS models) and some aluminum models, fiberglass canoe weights can be considered reasonable.

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Q. What are the uses and advantages of inflatable canoes?

A. Inflatable canoes have considerable appeal for certain uses. When folded they are quite compact and their weight – about twenty to thirty pounds - makes them ideal for toting to remote fishing waters or for storage in today's small car trunks. The better-quality versions are made of heavy-duty vinyl-coated polyester, or PVC, with multiple air compartments (so if one compartment springs a leak, you still have some flotation). Restrictions include speed, since inflatables are relatively slow, and they have minimal carrying capacity. Repair kits are a must on most trips. Also, you will want to have a foot pump to inflate the canoe before starting out.

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Q. What other gear should I consider before heading out canoeing?

A. Here's a list of other gear we would suggest:

  • A sturdy roof rack on your car (it will greatly reduce problems and add to your enjoyment)
  • Bow and stern tie-down lines – these are critical to the safe transport of your canoe when you are on the road
  • A set of wheels to make getting your canoe to the water easier
  • A bailer and sponge, as well as float bags which displace water in the event of a capsize
  • Padded canoe seats for longer journeys
  • Dry bags to keep extra clothes and snacks protected from water coming in off your paddle, as well as from bow spray or rain

Our Outdoor Discovery Paddling School offers a great selection of introductory and advanced instruction in all aspects of canoeing.

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Q. How long should my canoe paddle be?

A. When you are sitting in the boat and the blade is totally immersed, the top grip should be about shoulder high for general and touring use. For white water and more specialized paddling, a longer paddle, especially for the stern paddler, provides more reach and leverage for maneuvering the boat.

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Q. What are the advantages and disadvantages of wood canoes?

A. Traditional wood or cedar-strip canoes have wooden hulls covered with clear fiberglass so the beauty of the wood shows through. The cedar strips run longitudinally, making possible a hull shape with a very fine "entry," for speed and ease of paddling. These handsome canoes are light but also relatively fragile and easily damaged in white water. They are all handmade and owners generally restrict their use to flat water. (Wood/canvas canoes are another type of traditional canoe that has become increasingly rare since the introduction of less-expensive aluminum and other nonwood canoes. Though highly responsive, they are relatively expensive to buy, require steady maintenance and more-than-minor repairs are difficult to make.)

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Q. Why is ABS a popular canoe material?

A. ABS, or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, has earned a reputation among canoeists for near indestructibility. It is one of the most damage-resistant canoe materials in use today. Badly dented hulls, even those that have literally been bent around a rock, have been restored to their original shape, without cracks or leaks, by the application of heat. Canoeists have dubbed ABS craft "rubber boats" and with good reason. Since the material tends to flex slightly, it is forgiving, tending to slide over rocks, or bounce off them, with little more than a surface scratch. Some of its limitations are marginal buoyancy - it will float when capsized but just barely, so don't expect to climb into a swamped ABS canoe to await rescue, or to hand-paddle it ashore. Also, when wet, the floor of an ABS canoe is slippery, which can prove troublesome in rapids. ABS canoes require little maintenance and can be left outdoors all year - although ones with wooden gunwales and peaks should be propped to avoid ground moisture. ABS canoes also require special epoxy resins for repairs.

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Q. Why are polyethylene canoes so popular?

A. Polyethylene is probably the toughest of all canoe materials and used more extensively than any other. Besides its durability, it is also relatively inexpensive, adding to its attractiveness for manufacturers and consumers alike. Polyethylene canoe prices are about two-thirds to one-half those of ABS models. While they are exceptionally tough, making field repairs uncommon, when major repairs are required to polyethylene canoes they require special repair materials.

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Q. How big should a kneeling pad be?

A. If you plan to kneel while canoeing, you'll want a kneeling pad that is large enough to protect your knees and toes, and that will stick to the hull of your boat. You may choose to glue the pad to your boat, or buy or make one that will stay where you put it to give you a cushy grip with your knees.

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