Essential Gear for the Beginning Kayaker
Deciding to become a kayaker is a simple decision until you are confronted with the mind boggling myriad of kayak accessories from the large number of kayak outfitters in the market today and the need to choose the right gear for you. With such a wide variety of kayak accessories to choose from such as different types of paddles, personal flotation devices, spray skirts, dry tops, dry pants, dry suits, and footwear, it can seem like there is an endless number of accessories you need to purchase.
However, despite the fact that most of the available kayak accessories are useful items to have, it’s not necessary to have all of them. Consequently, the beginning kayaker can often get by with just the bare essentials until they can afford to purchase the additional gear that is part of what makes the sport of kayaking so fascinating.
Therefore, below you will find a short guide to essential kayak accessories for the beginning paddler as well as some additional safety items that you may never actually use but will be extremely glad to have along if you ever find yourself in an emergency situation while paddling.
Essential Kayak Gear
- Paddle – Obviously, in order to become a kayaker, you must first have a kayak. However, once you have do have a kayak, you will also need the means to propel it, and thus, you will also need to purchase a kayak paddle. Therefore, you should be aware that the two most common types of kayak paddles are European style paddles and Greenland styles paddles.
In addition, you should also be aware that while some advanced paddlers do prefer Greenland style paddles due to their versatility, most novice paddles prefer European style paddles.
In addition, it is very important to choose the correct length of paddle for your height and the width of your kayak because choosing a paddle that is too short or too long will make your paddling adventures less enjoyable. Read more about it in our guide to choosing the right paddle.
In addition, it is also important that you choose the right type of construction material for your intended type of paddling, the right type of paddle shaft for your wrists, and the right size and shape of paddle blades for the type of paddling you will be doing.
- Spray Skirt – Another kayak accessory that you will find useful is a spray skirt. However, unless you are planning on paddling in the surf zone, rock gardens, or tidal races, a spray skirt is not absolutely necessary. But, because spray skirts are specifically designed to keep water out of the cockpit, they are a good accessory to have because they can prevent water from dripping off of your paddle and into your lap.
In addition, they can also serve to keep both spray and waves as well as sun and wind out of your cockpit in addition to retaining heat inside of it. Thus, spray skirts can be used to keep your waist and legs dry as well as to regulate your temperature while paddling.
Furthermore, you should be aware that spray skirts are available in both nylon and neoprene or, in some cases, a combination of both. Also, while nylon spray skirts are cooler because they retain less body heat, neoprene spray skirts will keep you both warmer and drier.
In fact, because nylon spray skirts are made from a woven fabric, they fit more loosely around the cockpit rim. Also, because they are made from woven fabric, they are not waterproof and thus, water will slowly seep through them if it’s allowed to puddle on the skirt.
Neoprene spray skirts on the other hand fit far more tightly around the cockpit rim and, because they are made from a waterproof, insulating, rubber, they are far drier and warmer than nylon spray skirts. Thus, while neoprene spray skirts will retain more heat inside of your cockpit, they will also exclude far more water from it if you capsize.
- PFD – In addition to a kayak paddle and a spray skirt, you will also need a Personal Floatation Device (aka PFD or life jacket). Thus, while the classic, inexpensive, orange life vest will serve the purpose, they are uncomfortable to wear when paddling since they are made from stiff foam blocks held in place by simple nylon straps. Thus, it’s wise to bear the added expense and purchase a vest type PFD that will wrap around your entire upper torso and then adjust so that it will fit snuggly against your body and won’t ride up when you are floating in the water.
However, it should also be noted that while this type of PFD is comfortable to wear in the cooler months of the year, they are excessively hot to wear in the summer months. Thus, a viable alternative can be an inflatable PFD instead.
The MoveMent Dynamic Paddle Vest is one example of a lower profile, inflatable vest. The Eyson is another worth considering.
Although inflatable PFD’s generally cost a bit more than a vest type foam PFD’s, they are available in two different types. One features a horseshoe-shaped nylon tube with an inflatable bladder inside that wraps around either side of your neck and extends down your chest to your belly where it is secured with a nylon harness and plastic, quick-detach, buckles.
The other type features a small rectangular bag that you secure to the front your waist via a nylon strap and carabiner. Thus, due to their minimalist design, inflatable PFD’s are significantly cooler to wear than vest type foam PFD’s.
- Paddle Float – In addition to having a paddle to propel your kayak, a spray skirt to keep your cockpit dry, and a PFD to keep you afloat if you capsize, you will also need a means to reenter your kayak if you do accidentally capsize and are unable to roll back upright again. Thus, it’s wise to purchase and carry a self-rescue device called a “paddle float” which, as the name implies, is designed to attach to one of your paddle blades in order to create an outrigger that will enable you to reenter your kayak after a wet exit.
Thus, with a paddle float on board and placed in a convenient location, you can retrieve it while floating in the water beside your kayak and then slip it over one of your paddle’s blades. Then, you can slip the other paddle blade underneath your rear deck bungees behind your cockpit to form an outrigger that you can use to support yourself and prevent you kayak from rolling over while you climb back into the cockpit.
- Bilge Pump – Of course, if you do happen to accidentally capsize and are forced to exit your kayak, then your kayak’s cockpit will inevitably fill with water when you surface and turn your kayak over again. Therefore, in addition to a paddle float to aid you in re-entering your kayak, you will also need the means to pump the water out of your kayak’s cockpit once you have reentered it
So, while kayakers who paddle sit-on-top kayaks do not have this problem due to the self-draining scupper holes that are usually molded into the bilge of sit-on-top kayaks, kayakers who paddle sit-inside kayaks do have this problem. Thus, all paddlers of sit-inside kayaks should install either a bulkhead-mounted foot pump or a hand operated deck pump. Or, you can purchase a separate, hand-operated, bilge pump and then carry it either on top of your forward or aft deck and secure it with your deck bungees or you can mount it inside of your cockpit between your knees on the underside of the deck.
Related Safety Gear
In addition to the essential kayak accessories listed above, there are several additional safety items that, while not absolutely necessary, are nonetheless wise to bring along on all of your paddling adventures because you never know when you will unexpectedly find yourself in an emergency situation.
- GPS Receiver – When paddling on unfamiliar waters or, especially so when exploring waters such as swamps, salt marshes, and mangrove forests, many paddlers find it difficult to find their way back to their original launch point. Fortunately, the Earth is orbited by a series of Global Positioning Satellites that, when combined with a GPS receiver, can pinpoint and display a paddler’s position nearly anywhere on Earth.
In addition, GPS receivers can also trace and display a paddler’s route and store that route in their memory. Thus, many paddlers choose to purchase a handheld, marine, GPS receiver to aid them in finding their way to their intended destination and then back again because it leaves them free to relax and enjoy their adventure without the need to worry about becoming lost or finding their way back to their launch point again.
- CB/VHS Radio – However, in the event that you do become lost or experience some other type of emergency, then it can be extremely helpful to have the means to contact and converse with other boaters and/or rescue personnel in your area. A mobile phone won’t always have any bars on the water or in the wilderness of some waterways.Consequently, many kayakers choose to carry either a handheld Citizens Band radio (aka CB) or Very High Frequency radio (aka VHF) with them while paddling.
Although neither of these types of radios requires a license to legally operate them, paddlers should be aware that many countries consider it illegal to use a VHS radio while paddling on inland waters. Thus, as a general rule of thumb, when paddling on freshwater you should choose a CB radio and, when paddling on saltwater, you should choose a VHS radio.
- PLB Transmitter – While using a CB or VHS radio to contact other boaters in your area in the event of an emergency should be your first resort, sometimes there is simply no one within range of your radio signal to reply and provide aid. Thus, it is also wise to carry another electronic device called a Personal Locator Beacon with you when paddling. However, unlike CB and VHS radios which are designed for two-way communication, PLB’s are specially designed to enable rescue personnel to find you in the event of a dire emergency by transmitting an emergency locator signal.
Therefore, simply by deploying the transmitter’s antenna and then pressing two buttons simultaneously, PLB’s are designed to emit an electronic emergency beacon which is then transmitted to a series of search and rescue satellites that orbit the earth which then relay that beacon to the nearest emergency rescue personnel office.
Last, while some PLB’s only transmit an emergency beacon along with a general location, others are designed to transmit the user’s longitude and latitude to within a couple of feet in order to make it easier for rescue personnel to find you.
- Marine Flares – However, both CB and VHS radios, as well as Personal Locator Beacons, are electronic devices that operate on batteries and thus, they are prone to failure. Consequently, all paddlers should carry one or more marine flares with them as a backup means of signaling other boaters or rescue personnel because flares can be seen over a range of several miles.
Thus, they can aid rescue personnel in pinpointing your location. Plus, they are convenient to carry, simple to use, and are universally recognized as a distress signal.
- Strobe Light – Although marine flares can be seen from several miles away even in the daytime, it can often be difficult for other boaters or rescue personnel to locate your exact position when viewing a flare. Therefore, paddlers should also carry some sort of strobe light with them as an additional emergency signal because, by also employing a strobe light, your exact location can be easily pinpointed once other boaters or rescue personnel are close enough to see it.
So, although you will undoubtedly be dazzled by all of the fascinating kayak and paddling accessories available on the market today and you may even be tempted to purchase many of them, it is important to remember that the only accessories you absolutely must have are a paddle, a spray skirt, and a PFD.
There is obviously a difference between calm, coastal waters and whitewater kayaking. There’s also much in between. In the end, common sense and awareness will inform you the best.
However, in the event that you accidentally capsize and are unable to roll upright, then having the means to reenter your kayak and then remove the water from your cockpit is also absolutely essential. In addition, having the means to contact other boaters or rescue personnel in the event of an emergency can be invaluable because doing cold very well means the difference between life and death.
Thus, while a paddle, a spray skirt, and a PFD may be the only kayak accessories you absolutely must have, having and carrying the other essential kayak accessories mentioned above will make your paddling adventures both safer and more enjoyable.