Paddling: Learn About the Gear

Kayaks

Before purchasing a kayak, you need to decide how you are going to use it. Do you want to paddle in rivers and white water; estuaries, lakes and ponds or long distances along coastlines and in open water? Kayaks that combine versatile handling characteristics with reasonable weight and low maintenance are a good choice for recreational kayakers. Most kayaks are made from plastic or fiberglass. Plastic boats offer durability on rocky shorelines and are less expensive than fiberglass boats. Fiberglass boats are lighter and faster and can be repaired if cracked. The length and width of a kayak is also important. Shorter and wider plastic kayaks are are a good choice for recreational paddling on smaller bodies of water. Sea kayaks (plastic and fiberglass) are longer so they will track straight and move faster over long distances. You should also consider hatch size and storage space if you plan to do overnight kayak trips. See Frequently Asked Questions to learn more about which types of boats are best for which activities.

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Paddles

A light, well-balanced paddle will greatly add to your kayaking enjoyment. Like the boats they are designed to propel, today's kayaking paddles are made of many different materials: fiberglass, plastic, metal, Kevlar®, wood or combinations of these. One-piece wood paddles are beautiful to look at and a joy to use. Two-piece paddles let you customize blade positioning and are easier to store and portage. Four-piece paddles are a good option for travel or an emergency. The paddle that is right for you should be determined by the type of paddling you intend to do most, and an extra paddle is a good item to have on any trip. If you need more advice on paddle selection, call our Outdoor Hotline staff 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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Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Make sure your PFD rides comfortably over your spray skirt and can be adjusted to fit snugly over a swim suit, wet suit or dry suit. The armholes and neck should be cut generously enough so they do not chafe when you're paddling aggressively. It's important that there are enough pockets and attachment points for all your safety equipment: whistle, compass, strobe, lip balm, sunscreen and whatever else you like to carry. Swim in your PFD so you know how it will feel. Get one that is highly visible, because kayakers are not always easily seen by other boaters. Wear it every time you paddle.

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Spray Skirt

Except in the gentlest water, a spray skirt is essential to a kayaker. It snugs around your waist and stretches over the top of the cockpit to keep water from entering the kayak. It keeps water out during a capsize, and if you need to exit the boat while upside down ("wet exit"), it pulls away from the cockpit allowing you to return to the surface quickly.

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Paddling Jacket

Made of either a waterproof/breathable fabric like Gore-Tex® or coated nylon, these jackets are light and will keep you protected from wind and spray. A short-sleeved pullover style keeps the torso warm when the air temperature starts to drop. A long-sleeved jacket with latex gaskets at the neck and/or wrists is wonderful for colder days or colder water. Wrist gaskets keep your sleeves from filling up with drips off the paddle. Neck and wrist gaskets keep water out in rough white water or in the event of a capsize in cold water.

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Clothing

Choose clothes made from quick-drying, moisture-wicking fabrics. Nylon shorts, polyester long underwear, fleece or polyester tops and nylon or Gore-Tex windshells. Wet suits and dry suits are important when the water is cold. No matter how warm the air is, dress for the water temperature. If you get too hot paddling, you can always get wet to cool off, but if you're not dressed for the water, you could be in dangerous conditions very quickly. If you're not willing to get totally wet at the beginning of the trip, you're not adequately prepared.

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Headgear

Hats with big brims are great for summer paddling as they shade your eyes, and protect your face and neck from the sun. Wool or fleece ski hats are a must when it's cold, and a helmet is always in order when paddling in surf or white water.

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Footwear

Flexible neoprene booties are comfortable and offer protection when getting in and out of the boat ? and they're warm. Avoid shoes that have laces or straps that could get tangled in the foot pedals of your kayak. Sandals are a good choice for the beach and around camp. Wool or fleece socks are best for warmth, but fleece socks dry faster.

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Hand Pump and Sponge

If you paddle without a skirt or have to wet exit, a hand pump and sponge are a must to have along. Even on a short excursion they are essential gear for enjoyable paddling.

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Safety Equipment

For touring bring a first aid kit (which includes motion sickness tablets or wrist band), and an emergency kit that contains fire-starting materials, compass, map, high-energy food, a plan (or equipment) for emergency shelter, extra clothing, throw bag and towing harness. Your safety equipment list should get longer as the trip distance and remoteness increase.

The following is a list of items you should consider bringing with you when sea kayaking:

  1. Compass, chart and chart case (plan your route ahead of time)
  2. At least one signaling device (flashlight, strobe, three flares, horn/whistle, cell phone, VHF radio, orange flag, mirror)
  3. Sunscreen and lip balm
  4. Flotation bags if your kayak doesn't have waterproof compartments (and to increase safety in a fiberglass boat)
  5. An extra pair of prescription glasses or contacts
  6. Extra food and drinking water

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Off the Water

A good quality roof rack system or trailer is a must for transporting your boat. A small portable boat cart also makes bringing your boat down to the water and back to your car much easier.

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Learn More Skills

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

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Canoes

Canoes that combine versatile handling characteristics with reasonable weight and low maintenance are the best choices for most recreational canoeists. There are plenty of types to choose from, made from different materials. ABS and polyethylene canoes are known for their near indestructability and are among the most popular canoes manufactured today. Aluminum canoes have drawbacks but are the ultimate low-maintenance boats. Wood canoes are the most fragile and beautiful (and often most cherished by their owners). Our Frequently Asked Questions section on canoeing addresses many of the questions around which types of boats are best for which activities.

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Paddles

Paddles can be made of different materials: plastics, metal, fiberglass, Kevlar®, wood, or combinations of these. Because you will pick up and place your paddle thousands of times every day you canoe, you will find that a light, well balanced paddle will make this activity much more pleasant, and having a beautiful paddle will add to your padding pleasure.

The ideal paddle should be well balanced, comfortable to hold and pick up. It should provide a good "grip" on the water but still slice effortlessly through it. The proper size for your paddle will vary with paddling style, boat type, and body size. Generally, the complete blade of the paddle, but none of the shaft, should be in the water when you do your forward stroke. (A quick check of proper shaft length can be made by sitting on a firm bench and putting the grip of the paddle on the bench between your legs. The throat of the paddle should come to the bridge of your nose – shorter for bent shaft paddles, longer for straight shaft. This gauge works well except for half-grown kids and people with smaller torsos, who sometimes need a longer shaft in order to reach the water.)

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Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Get a PFD that is comfortable and can be adjusted to fit snugly over just your swimsuit but still fit over all the layers that you'll need to wear in early spring or late fall. Make sure that the armholes and neck are cut generously enough to not chafe when you're active. It's important that there are enough pockets and attachment points for all your safety equipment: whistle, compass, strobe, lip balm, sunscreen, tow belt, and whatever else you may need. Swim in your PFD so you know how it will feel. Get one that is a highly visible color and then wear it every time you paddle.

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Paddle Jacket

Made of either a waterproof/breathable fabric like Gore-Tex? or coated nylon, these jackets are light, protective and warm. A short-sleeved pullover style keeps the torso warm when the air temperature starts to drop, or on cold-water days. A long-sleeved jacket with latex gaskets at the wrists is wonderful for really cool days or colder water. The gaskets keep your sleeves from filling up with drips off the paddle.

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Headgear

Hats with big brims are great for summer paddling as they shade your eyes, and protect your face and neck from the sun. Wool or fleece ski hats are a must when it's cold, and a helmet is always in order when playing in white water.

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Paddle Clothing

As with kayaking, nylon shorts, polyester long underwear, fleece, Cool Max® or polyester tops and nylon windshells are the clothes of choice for canoeing. Wet suits and dry suits are important when the water is cold. No matter how warm the air is, dress for the water temperature. If you get too hot paddling, you can always get wet to cool off, but if you're not dressed for the water, you could be in dangerous conditions very quickly. A useful guideline is: if you're not willing to get totally wet at the beginning of the trip, you're not adequately prepared.

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Footgear

Flexible neoprene booties are comfortable to kneel in and offer your feet protection when getting in and out of the canoe ? and they're warm. Tevas® or other sandals are good for walking around and work well if you sit on your canoe seat and don't kneel while paddling. But the straps rub on the top of your foot when you kneel, and the soles are also stiff for kneeling. Barefoot paddling is fun, and okay if you are paddling in quiet water where a swim won't involve bobbing through rapids using your feet to protect yourself from rock scrapes. Wool socks are best for warmth, either in your sandals or booties, although fleece socks are a close second for comfort ? and dry a lot faster.

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Safety Equipment

A first aid kit (pinch, blister and small cut care); an emergency kit containing fire-starting materials, compass, map, high-energy food, a plan (or equipment) for emergency shelter; extra clothing, float bags (which displace water in the even of a capsize) and towing harness. Your safety equipment list should get longer as the trip distance and remoteness increase.

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Kneeling Pad

If you plan to kneel at some point while canoeing, you will 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 into 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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Thwart Bag

A thwart bag acts like a large glove compartment for your canoe. It secures to the canoe's thwart and provides storage for maps, a camera, field guide, binoculars, snacks, extra clothing and anything else that you might need. It can also serve as a rucksack for days when you don't want to hang around the put-in and want to do some exploring.

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Expand Your Skills

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

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