As you may already know there are an array of different skirts out there that range greatly in price form and function. This article will give you some basic information that will hopefully aid you as you consider what is best for you and your needs.
Please practice putting the skirt on and especially practice taking the skirt off before you head out onto the water. Also practice your wet exit close to shore with a partner to ensure that if you end up in the drink you can get the skirt off without issue.
The spray skirt is basically broken into three parts:
Deck: The Deck is the portion of the skirt that joins paddlers and kayak. It is designed to fit around the combing (lip around the cockpit) of the kayak. The skirt mates to the combing with either a bungee rim or a randed rim. The thickness of the bungee will depend on the skirt. Skirts designed for paddling in conditions will have a thicker bungee. A randed skirt does not use bungee to mate with the combing, instead it is constructed of a ribbed rubber that grips the combing. The Deck will be constructed of a laminated or coated fabric or Neoprene. Again the thickness of the neoprene can vary depending on what type of conditions the skirt is designed for. Deck sizing will depend on the make and model of the kayak and the material used.
Tube: The Tube or more properly referred to as the body tube is the section of the skirt that joins the paddler to the deck. The Tube size is a function of paddler stature. The body tube is constructed of similar materials used in Deck construction, A neoprene Body Tube will be best for paddlers in Dynamic environments like the surf, tidal rapids, or other forms of “rough” water. The neoprene body tube will be a tighter fit allowing less water to make its way down the tube and into the paddlers boat.
Third is the Grab Loop: The grab loop is just like it sounds. The loop is positioned at the front of the skirt when pulled towards to bow of the boat and lifted up off the coaming will free the paddler from the boat. The loops are commonly nylon webbing and will vary in color. Bright colors are good for visibility. Some grab loops have a plastic sleeve component added to essentially hold the loop open making it easier for a paddler to grab and release.
Cockpit Coaming, is the lip around your kayak cockpit that will hold the bungee or the rand around the base of the deck of your spray skirt. The coaming depth will vary from boat to boat and will effect performance fit of the skirt.
Whitewater skirts will either be equipped with a bungee cord to secure the skirt around the coaming or a rand. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
A Bungee Skirt is easier to get on and off the coaming of your kayak. We recommend bungee skirts for beginners for this reason. A Bungee skirt will also be a bit drier than a randed skirt but it also more prone to implosion,
A randed skirt with have a larger piece of vulcanized rubber that increases the surface area in contact with the coaming, Randed skirts are resistant to implosion so are generally used in big water scenarios found in the surf zone or in Class III or higher whitewater. The Randed skirts are not quite as dry as their bungee cousins and the rand isn't as stretchy as bungee so they are a bit tougher to get on and off the combing. We don't recommend randed skirts for beginners
*We also only recommend randed skirts for use on plastic (rotomolded) kayaks.
We are all of course shaped and proportioned differently. Some of us carry our height in our legs and have shorter torsos. Some of carry our height in our torso's and have shorter legs. The reason for the tangent here being, folks with shorter torsos don't need as much height in the body tube as those with longer torsos. Manufacturers address this issue by offering tubes in a couple of height options. From Example: A standard Snap Dragon skirt will come with a 9" high body tube while the Flirt versions are built with a 7" high body tube for paddlers with shorter torsos. Other manufactures like Seals will have women's specific skirt with shorter body tube or custom options available for a short body tube.
Identifying the environment you will be paddling in will help hone in what you need and what you don't. Sections of Rivers are broken into classes to help paddlers make informed and appropriate decisions regard where and when to paddle Classifications as it pertains to this article will help us define the environment and allow us to make recommendations based on those classifications.
Class I (easy): Fast moving water with riffles and small waves. The river has few obstructions which are all obvious and easily missed with little training. The risk to swimmers is slight and self-rescue is easy.
Class II (novice): Straightforward rapids with wide, clear channels which are evident without scouting. Occasional maneuvering may be required, but rocks and medium sized waves are easily missed by trained paddlers. Swimmers are seldom injured and group assistance, while helpful, is seldom needed. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated "Class II+."
Class III (intermediate): Rapids with moderate, irregular waves which may be difficult to avoid and which can swamp an open canoe. Complex maneuvers in fast current and good boat control in tight passages or around ledges are often required. Large waves or strainers may be present but are easily avoided. strong eddies and powerful current effects can be found, particularly on larger volume rivers. Scouting is advisable for inexperienced parties. Injuries while swimming are rare and self-rescue is usually easy but group assistance may be required to avoid long swims. Rapids that are at the lower or upper end of this difficulty range are designated "Class III-" or "Class III+" respectively.
Class IV (advanced): Intense and powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water. The rapids may feature large, unavoidable waves and holes or constricted passages demanding fast maneuvers under pressure. A fast and reliable eddy turn may be needed to initiate maneuvers, scout rapids, or rest. Rapids may require mandatory moves above dangerous hazards. Scouting is usually necessary the first time down. The risk of injury to swimmers is moderate to high and water conditions may make self-rescue difficult. Group assistance for rescue is often essential and requires practiced skills. A strong eskimo roll is highly recommended for kayakers. Rapids that are at the upper end of this difficulty range are designated as "Class IV-" or "Class IV+" respectively.
Class V (expert): Extremely long, obstructed, or very violent rapids which expose a paddler to added risk. Rapids may contain large, unavoidable waves and holes or steep, congested chutes with complex, demanding routes. Rapids may continue for long distances between pools, demanding a high level of fitness. The eddies that exist may be small, turbulent, or difficult to reach. More difficult Class V rapids may combine several of these factors. Scouting is recommended and may be difficult. Swims are dangerous and rescue is often difficult even for teams of experts. Proper equipment, extensive experience, and practiced rescue skills are essential. There is a large range of difficulty that exists beyond Class IV which makes the difficulty of Class V rapids very diverse.
Material: Spray skirt durability is primarily a function of the material(s) used in construction. There are "add-ons" to some skirts like cockpit rim reinforcement that help protect the skirt around the cockpit rim from excessive wear that make occur from over the deck rescues, paddle hits and general heavy use. The skirt is the most exposed on the cockpit rim, or coaming, so it makes sense to reinforce that area with additional materials like additional neoprene or Kevlar.
Construction: The seems of your skirt should be glued, sewn and taped. The redundancy of all three of these techniques will reduce the potential for failure.
Olympic Outdoor Center