Welcome to your new adventure sport! If you’re in the market for a new whitewater kayak and stuff, then this article is for you. This article will discuss all the equipment you will need to get before you take your kayak to the river.
If you have the money and are buying new, your outfitter will make sure you have everything you need but plan on spending about $2000. It’s not a bad idea to start with borrowing or buying some stuff used until you’ve tried different things and know what you want.
There are 5 essential pieces of equipment and 9 “should-have” things for a new whitewater kayaker. Enjoy the post!
The kayak is the first and single most expensive piece of equipment you’ll need.
They come in all shapes and sizes, depending on your intended purpose, shorter for playboating, longer for river running, and higher volume for creeking. A new kayak will cost $1000 – $1300, so better to test a few and talk to a few people before you make this investment. Many dealers will let you demo a boat before you buy it, and there are many outfitters who rent kayaks out for the day.
Whitewater kayaks are different from recreational kayaks, which shouldn’t be used on whitewater, so if your intent is to paddle whitewater, make sure your boat is whitewater worthy. Used boats are a good way to get started, and you can find decent used boats for $200 – $500. (You can go to paddling.com to find the used kayak online.)
Spray skirts are necessary for whitewater paddling to keep water from filling the kayak. Spray skirts have two opening measurements, one to fit the kayak, and one to fit your waist. Most kayak cockpits have a few standard sizes, you just need to make sure your spray skirt is the proper size to fit your boat.
The tunnel size for your waist is usually Sm, Med, Lg, XLg, etc. You want a snug fit to keep water from leaking in, but not so tight that you have difficulty breathing.
Spray skirts will stretch a little when wet, so if you have difficulty stretching it over your cockpit, just take a quick dip in the water first. You want the shock cord around the spray skirt to be tight around the cockpit so it doesn’t pop open accidentally at the wrong time.
Whitewater spray skirts are made of neoprene with a bungee cord around the cockpit side edge. The nylon skirts are specific for recreational kayaks and will not work on whitewater.
There is a wide range of prices for spray skirts. Higher quality and more durable skirts cost more. A good beginner quality skirt can be bought for under $130, while higher quality skirts with kevlar reinforced rims can cost over $200. If you think you want to paddle creeks and larger rapids, I would splurge a little to get a better quality skirt. Snapdragon and Immersion Research (Check the current price on Amazon) are popular brands.
Your spray skirt will last longer (and smell nicer) if you wash it out after you paddle. Chlorine isn’t good for neoprene, so be sure to rinse it after you’ve practiced rolling in a pool.
Even though it’s a shaft with blades at both ends, kayak paddles have a wide variety of options to consider and from which to choose. A more thorough and in-depth discussion of paddles can be found at “How to Choose the Right Kayak Paddle”
Straight vs Bent Shaft
The paddle shaft is the more or less straight pole which connects the two blades. Although the straight shaft is pretty standard, a more ergonomic “bent shaft” has become popular to relieve stress on your wrists during the power phase of the stroke. Bent shafts tend to be a little heavier than straight shafts.
Paddles come in many different lengths and it’s a relative science to determine the best length for you. The proper length is determined mostly by your height, but other factors can include the width of the kayak and the type of paddling you intend to do. Paddle length is measured in centimeters and range from 188 to 204 cm. Generally, playboaters prefer shorter length paddles while river runners like longer lengths.
The width of the shaft determines the comfort of your grip, and there are basically two sizes, one narrower, and one thicker. The thicker shaft is somewhat stronger, although less comfortable for people with smaller hands. The grip area is often oblong for added comfort rather than round.
Paddles are made of plastic, a composite, or of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber paddles are the strongest and least likely to break paddles, but also the most expensive. The range in paddle prices is between $100 for a cheaper plastic paddle to $425 for a carbon fiber paddle.
It’s the surface area of the blade that gives you the “purchase” when stroke through the water. Playboaters prefer a thinner blade, while river runners prefer a wider blade to get more power from each stroke. Blades can come in different colors as an added distinctive option.
Feathering refers to the different offset angles of the blades relative to each other and enables you to paddle with the best posture, most power, and greatest efficiency. Offsets are usually 0, 15, 30, or 45 degrees. It’s said that beginners and playboaters benefit from a lower offset, while river runners prefer a higher offset. In my experience, the 30 degree offset is the most popular. For an average size male beginner, I would recommend a 198 cm straight shaft with a 30 degree offset.
Werner(Check the price on Amazon) is one of the most reputable brand names for good quality paddles. Although mine has gotten rather worn, it’s lasted me for 20 years. The paddle is the easiest piece of equipment to lose, so I would recommend inscribing your name and phone number somewhere on the blade in case it disappears when you swim. If you can’t manage to hold on to both your kayak and your paddle, at least try to hold on to your paddle which can be more difficult to locate and retrieve.
There are also hand paddles and breakdown paddles which can be stored inside your boat. Hopefully, one person in the group will carry them as a spare so that no one becomes up that proverbial creek without a paddle.
A whitewater life jacket or PFD (Personal Flotation Device) is the most important piece of safety equipment and mandatory in the United States.
The whitewater PFD is less bulky and allows a greater range of motion for paddling. Recreational life jackets are too bulky and uncomfortable for whitewater purposes. While currents and hydraulics can try to pull you to the bottom, your PFD will help you float to the surface. It should be adjusted to be tight enough that it doesn’t rise up your body very far when you’re floating in the water. Some vests come with pockets to store your sunscreen, an energy bar, or your keys, and many have clips where you can attach your knife and whistle.
PFD’s can range in price from $100 to $250. Look for multiple adjustable bands, a good fit on you allowing a full range of motion, and one that doesn’t ride up when you’re seated in your kayak. Popular brands include NRS, Astral, Stohlquist, and Kokatat. Another discussion of PFD’s can be found at “The Mighty PFD: Personal Flotation Safety for Beginners“
A good whitewater helmet is a necessity for protecting your head, which is very vulnerable to rocks and paddles when you’re on the river.
The quality of the helmet you choose depends on how much you value your head. I’ve seen people try to use bicycle and batting helmets, but you really need a helmet that fits your head properly and tested for whitewater. Options may include visors to help keep the sun out of your eyes, and full-face helmets to protect the nose and jaw. Plan on spending at least $100 for a decent helmet.
Because rivers can contain sharp rocks, glass, and barnacles, footwear is necessary equipment. Although a neoprene booty is sufficient, something with at least a thin sole is more comfortable, particularly if you have to carry your kayak any distance to or from the river.
During the summer a thin snorkel shoe works well, but the rest of the year you’ll want a neoprene boot to help keep your feet warm. Water shoes cost between $25 and $50, and I would recommend something without laces which might get tangled on something when you exit the kayak on the river.
River shoes are renowned for being the stinkiest piece of equipment. Soaking them in a mouthwash solution and letting them dry will help minimize the odor.
Most whitewater kayaks made today are a molded polyethylene soft plastic which usually floats somewhat even when filled with water. However, a semi-submerged boat is very heavy and difficult push or tow. Flotation (or float bags) are air bladders designed to fit in the bow or stern of a kayak which serves to displace water volume, making the capsized kayak more manageable.
A kayak with flotation is less likely to get pinned or wrapped around a rock. Your friends might rescue you once or twice without it but will ultimately insist that you get some. As rescues are inherently dangerous for everyone involved, you will be doing your friends a favor and add to everyone’s enjoyment by equipping your boat with flotation.
A pair of float bags can cost anywhere from $30 to $100 depending a lot on your type of kayak and the size of your space. You will need to check them each time you paddle to make sure they are fully inflated.
Just a small cheap plastic whistle will work fine attached with a short lanyard to your PFD. Three long blasts on a whistle is the river signal for help or emergency, although any whistle blast will get everyone’s attention within half a mile.
When your kayak flips, you become upside-down underwater. Water will naturally enter your nose and flood your sinuses.
Besides being uncomfortable, river water is filled with aquatic life, bacteria, pollutants….lots of nasty stuff that can cause a serious sinus infection. Exhaling through your nostrils when you’re underwater will help prevent this, but as a newbie, you’re going to want to save your precious breath. A nose clip is very effective and can be attached to your helmet so that you can use it only when you think you might need it such as going through rapids or practicing your roll.
“Smileys” (because of their shape) are the most popular, inconspicuous, inexpensive, stay on well in the harshest conditions, and hold up well to repeated use for several months. They cost between $6.95 – $9.95. You will want to keep a few extra sets on hand. If you’re prone to ear infections, you may consider getting earplugs as well.
Check the price on Amazon
Most whitewater PFD’s have a place to attach a river knife, which is a piece of safety equipment. If you’re wondering if you’ll have the presence of mind to use it free yourself when you’re trapped underwater, relax.
It’s more likely you would use it assist another boater in trouble. Although I’ve never used mine in twenty years of paddling, I never want to be in a situation where I needed it and didn’t have one. They can be easily lost when they are bumped, so I recommend securing it with a Scunci hair band. A decent knife will cost $30 – $50
A throw bag is another piece of safety equipment that you carry mostly to assist or rescue fellow kayakers.
It should be easily accessible which means strapping it between your legs or carrying it around your waist. I highly recommend taking a safety course where you will learn to use a throw bag effectively.
My personal favorite is a Salamander, which has both a throw rope and a tow rope, worn around my waist and giving my back a little extra support. Throw bags cost around $20 and up. My Salamander costs around $80.(Check the price on Amazon)
Unless you’re proficient with ropes and knots, straps are the easiest way to secure your kayak to your shuttle vehicle. You will need at least two 12-15 foot 1-inch straps, although I’ve seen people use a single strap. If you’re using a roof rack, I would recommend looping the strap twice over the center of the rack for added anchorage.
Even if you’re just throwing your kayak into the back of a truck, I would still use a strap to secure it and recommend the NRS brand straps, which cost $10 – $15 per pair.
As with any outdoor sports activity, it’s important to stay well hydrated. If you don’t drink enough water, you can get to feeling tired and fatigued, irritable, headachey, and just generally rotten.
Most whitewater kayaks are made with a special space to carry a water bottle strapped in front of the seat between your legs. Many outfitters will give you a free water bottle for buying a new kayak from them. Otherwise, I would suggest just recycling an old Gatorade or bottled water container. No need to spend money when you don’t have to. If you insist, you spend $10 for a water bottle.
Some people enjoy a Camelback, worn on their back under their PFD. These can cost $20 or more, so unless you already have one, I wouldn’t recommend one, at least not at first.
Dry bags are useful for keeping things dry (duh). Things like your lunch, a snack or energy bar, cell phones, or your electronic car keys, or even a small article of clothing. They can be made from vinyl or polyurethane-coated fabric.
Dry bags come in many sizes. A smaller size will attach and fit nicely behind your kayak seat and will cost $5 – $10.
Hope this post was helpful to you and that you have a very successful adventure in the water. If you find anything wrong or outdated in the post, please leave your comment below. I’ll update it as soon as possible.