Whitewater Kayak Essentials

Once you decide that whitewater kayaking is for you, you will need to start the process of weeding through all of the available gear out there. Hopefully this article will help you make an informed decision as you start or continue to make decisions regarding your equipment. Keep in mind gear preferences / requirements can be subjective and, will change with the type of conditions you are paddling in. It is our goal to provide you with some basic information and let you take it from there. We are, of course, always available to answer technical questions anytime! 

1.) Whitewater Kayak Paddles:

A Whitewater paddle should be one piece in order to provide you with the strength and stiffness you require while in the river. One of the first things to decide is what blade shape you are after,

There are two types:

River Running Blades: These blades have more surface area above the center line of the providing an improved catch and greater on demand power.

Play Boating BladesThese blades have a larger portion of the surface area below the center giving the blade it’s down turned shape.  This shape allows for enhanced maneuverability when linking strokes.

Sizing a whitewater paddle is a function of many things: paddler height, boat width, blade shape and personal preference. Shorter paddles will force the paddler to take a stroke at a higher angle (top hand around eye level). By doing so the paddler gains a bit more power and can paddle at a higher cadence. Longer paddles allow for a bit more leverage when bracing, rolling and when initiating freestyle maneuvers. Try a couple of different lengths and see what works best for you.

Read more about choosing a whitewater paddle.

2.) Whitewater Friendly PFD (life-jacket)

Type III PFD (most whitewater PFD's): A whitewater PFD (Life Jacket) should fit you well. It should be snug but still allow for excellent range of motion, not only in the shoulders but it the torso as well. Typically whitewater PFD's will sit higher up on the paddlers torso to allow for torso rotation and freedom of movement when leaning forward/back and side/side.

Type V PFD's (Rescue Jackets) - These PFD's are for paddlers who been trained in swiftwater rescue techniques and come equipped with a built in tow system. The system is built and reinforced to withstand the strain and stress put on the gear is swift water rescue scenarios. Some type V PFD's also have extra floatation to aid the paddler in rough and or aerated water.

Women's Specific PFD's: Most manufacturers also make women's specific life jackets. These PFD's are cut and proportioned slightly differently to fit ladies better.

In short make sure your try on a couple of different vests and remember that your vest will fit differently when you are standing up so make sure you sit down or get in a kayak to ensure you like the feel of the life-jacket while seated.

Read More about Choosing a PFD (Life Jacket)

3.) Whitewater Kayak Helmet

Always wear a helmet when whitewater kayaking since it is not a matter of if you will capsize but a matter of when! Many rapids are shallow and contain hidden obstacles like rocks and logs. Protect your dome with a helmet designed specially for whitewater kayaking. Whitewater kayak helmets should be snug and sit just above your brow line fully covering your forehead. While you are adjusting you helmet make sure that it does not tip back on your head to expose your forehead. If so readjust or find a helemt that has adequate support on the back of your neck to keep the helmet from rocking back. Exposed forehead = no fun if you meet a rock or other submerged obstacle.

You can find whitewater helmets that are vented and unvented. The vents allow for water to exit through the top of the helmet and make a big difference when paddling "bigger water". The amount of energy that will pull on your helmet in class 3 or above rivers or in the surf larger than about 3 feet can be uncomfortable without vents. The vents allow water to escape out of the top of the helmet and lesson the force trying to suck it off your head.

Added bonus, whitewater kayak helmets help keep you warm!

4.) Whitewater Kayak Spray Skirt:

The proper skirt can definitely make or break your day on the river. There are many options out there so lets take a second and break some options down briefly:

Bungee vs Rand:

Bungee skirts will keep your kayak a bit drier but are a bit more prone to implosion. Randed skirts are a great option for paddling bigger condition where the demand on the gear is greater since they are much less prone to implosion. If you are paddling bigger water and want to stick with a bungee skirt since they are also a bit easier to get on and off your cockpit, you may want to consider going with an implosion bar or going with a more robust neoprene. 

*if you are new to whitewater or even you are an old pro, we recommend doing a couple of wet exits in a shallow water calm environment with your new skirt prior to heading out so you know what to expect.

Learn more about choosing a whitewater spray skirt.

5.) Whitewater Kayak Clothing (dry suits, wet suits, dry tops);

How you dress for a day on the river is a function of a couple of factors. First and foremost consider the water temperature. The cooler the water is the more thermal protection you will need to have on. Second, consider your / your paddling groups experience, proficiency and risk for the paddle. Less experienced paddlers or groups of paddlers need to wear more thermal protection to protect against prolonged immersion. When in doubt, more is better!

There are many clothing choices out there and what you choose is of course a bit subjective in regard to fit, price, appearance etc.. but the thermal protection that each of the garments provide should be considered and the proper kayak clothing should be worn for the proper situation as it relates to safety and paddler comfort. Here is a list of potential paddling outfits 

Whitewater Dry Suits: Provide the highest degree of thermal protection and are a must in cold environments. Dry Suits will protected the paddler from the cold during prolonged immersion when worn with proper insulating layers. Make sure your check to make your gaskets are in good shape and your suit is leak free before you start your paddle.

Dry suits come in many different configurations and materials for both Men and Women. Learn more about choosing the proper dry suit.

*Avoid suits with hoods in the river!

3mm Farmer John Wetsuit and Dry Top: A great option for a paddler who may be on a budget who still needs a high degree of thermal protection. 

The Dry Top will keep the paddler dry when paddling and rolling and the 3mm wetsuit will provide thermal protection for the paddler in the event of a swim. Make sure you wear a long sleeve base layer under your wetsuit and dry top.

Dry Top and Shorts: A great combo for paddling comfortably in a warmer environment for paddlers for have some experience and proficiency. This combo only for beginners who are paddling in Class I - II with other experienced paddlers in warmer conditions, other wise should only be worn once proper skills are learned and honed.

*The take away from this section should be error on the side of caution. Your skill set, decisions and experience are what a paddler rely on to get themselves out of a "pickle" not the clothing.

Whitewater Kayak Footwear: Proper footwear is important in the river when walking around on jagged slippery rocks. There can also be objects like fish hooks, scrap metal or other types of garbage that can ruin your day. Always wear something with a hardy grippy sole and, in my option, something with ankle support to avoid ankle injuries from slipping. There are low profile options for paddlers who may have a tighter fit in the kayak.

6.) Whitewater Safety / Accessories:

Float Bags: Go in the stern of your whitewater kayak to provide flotation if you should exit your boat. They of course keep your boat afloat but also make rescues a bit easier.

Knife: A knife should always be secured to a lash tab on your PFD in order to free yourself from rope, fishing line or from any other "garbage" you may encounter in the river. It is a good idea to have a fixed blade knife with a blunt tip to avoid accidental punctures. If you are using throw bags / tow lines, bring a knife! They also are great for in camp when you need to make a fire.

Throw Bags: Are an excellent tool for all whitewater kayakers. They are a must have for many rescues and come in handy around camp. Make sure that you receive proper training before using throw bags. 

Dry Bags / dry cases: Are a must have to keep the gear you bring with you dry. It is a good idea to secure the bag or case to your kayak. Many folks bring cell phones which are a great tool if you need a hand on the river. There are many dry cases available for cell phones. Make sure you secure your phone and case to your person in case you become separated from your kayak.

Well, I hope this sheds some light on the what to bring for a day of whitewater kayaking. If you have any questions please reach out, we are always happy to help!