Whitewater Kayaking Basics

This article covers the basic equipment required for whitewater kayaking.

Whitewater kayaking is a sport that will take you to places you can never reach by foot,  canyons, chasms and gorges that will make you appreciate the work it took to get there.  Before you go and get in over your head exploring it is important to get instruction on how to roll and escape from the boat.  Roll clinics are offered at many campuses and pools.  I will outline the basics of the equipment required to successfully whitewater kayak. 

First, you need a boat.  There are many types of whitewater kayaks and choosing one is a task in itself.  You will want to decide where you think you will be kayaking the most often and choose the boat design based off of that.  If you live in an town that has a play wave maybe you will decide to buy a play boat,  my suggestion is to get a creek boat though.  I feel they are easier to learn how to roll and feel more stable in the water.  You will also be able to use a creek boat for many applications. They also general have the most room in the cockpit and are designed to be easier to get in and out of.   A river runner is a good choice for a lot of beginners as it is designed to do a little bit of everything and it will tend to be a little faster on flat water.   So do your research on the models offered on the companies websites.  Some mainstream whitewater brands are Wave Sport, Dagger, Liquid Logic, Jackson, Pyranna, Fluid, Riot, and there are others.  All of the companies make good boats, more important than the brand is the boat design.  Do not buy a small slicey boat if you want to feel stable on the water.  Craigslist is a good place to find used boats.

A spray skirt is another essential piece of equipment.  There are two sizes on a skirt that you will want to pay attention to. One is for your waist size and the other for the size of the cockpit on your boat.  Make sure you try on the skirt and test it on your boat.  You want the skirt to fit snug but not so tight that you can't breath freely.  It will stretch a little but also keep in mind that certain times of the year you may wear more layers.  You want to make sure that you get a spray skirt that is intended for whitewater.  A skirt for a recreational or flatwater kayak is designed more for keeping splashing water out of your boat than rolling. Whitewater skirts generally are made of neoprene with a rubber rand that seals around the lip of the cockpit.  One crucial thing to remember when putting the skirt onto the boat is to always keep the grab loop on the outside.  This is very important for safety as it is how you will "wet exit" the boat should you flip over before learning how roll the kayak. It is extremely hard to get out of the boat if you do not have the loop acessable. 

The paddle is the third essential item.  You want to choose a whitewater specific paddle.  There are different blade designs for types of paddling. Play boat paddles tend to have a slightly smaller blade and creek boating paddles have a larger blade.  Paddles can be very expensive and when learning to kayak the likelihood of loosing a paddle is greater so you might want to go with a plastic bladed paddle to start off with.  Aquabound makes a good whitewater paddle that is more economical.  Warner and AT make great paddles out of carbon fiber and fiberglass but they are not cheap.  Don't be surprised to see $400+ dollar price tags on some carbon fiber whitewater paddles.   Paddles can have straight or bent shafts.  I prefer a bent shaft paddle but general paddle with a straight blade paddle because they are cheaper and tend to be a little stronger as well.

Helmet  A good helmet is an essential piece of safety gear for whitewater paddling.  Many paddlers use an open face helmet, similar to a freestyle bike helmet or rock climbing helmet.  They can be made of plastic, carbon fiber or fiberglass.  I highly recommend using a full face helmet.  It may seem like overkill but one good knock to the face and you will appreciate the extra material.  Your face is vulnerable when you are upside down in the current of the river.  Shred Ready makes a good full face helmet that has little drawback. 

PFD- A PFD or personal flotation device is next piece of equipment.  There are ratings on the jackets for their use. Make sure you purchase a whitewater specific PFD. Not only will it fit better it will also have the right amount of floatation and maneuverability to keep you safe.  Rescue vests are designed with anchorage points so that ropes can be attached to the vest for rescue attempts.  Lotus and Astral are two major whitewater PFD manufactors. 

Throw rope.  A rope that is designed for the purpose of rescuing a swimming paddler is a piece of equipment you should always take with you.  The rope is coiled into its bag and the rescuer throws the bag at the swimmer while holding the end of the rope. 

River Knife- basically a blunt tipped fixed blade knife that attaches to your pfd for cutting rope or entanglements. A good safety tool as well as convenient. 

Clothing for the season- If you are kayaking in warm water in the summer there is very little clothing you need beyond some swim shorts.  When the water is cold or the air outside a dry top is a nice piece to have.  For extreme temperatures drysuits or wetsuits are required.  Like most aerobic sports you do not want to wear cotton. Wicking fabrics are ideal to wear under drytops. 


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