The helmet is one of the most important pieces of safety gear for whitewater paddling. All kayakers should wear theirs whenever boating - period! In some ways, today's helmets are nowhere as safe as our older style helmets and that is truly unfortunate. Decades ago when I started boating, most manufacturers stocked multiple sizes instead of what many do today, one size fits all. They typically expect each boater to add lots of carefully placed shims to customize the fit. Unfortunately, most outfitters fail to tell their customers and the helmet rocks back and forth on their head usually exposing the forehead - pretty dangerous. Many manufacturers also use a brick hard inner liner that hardly compresses on impact. The stiff liner does a great job of transferring all of the energy from a hit directly to your neck - just what you don't need. Fortunately, there are a few vendors that still produce decent helmets that lack these significant safety issues.
The helmet is one piece of gear you really should purchase locally at a full service boat shop. You can determine if they are full service by asking if they will help you properly adjust the helmet - before you leave the store. I like to test helmets via 2 tests:
- The rock back test - Take two fingers and gently lift at the brow. If the helmet rocks back more than 1/2" - you need further adjustment.
- The smack test - Smack the top of your helmet with a moderate slap. If you feel the full impact, you need more soft padding.
I also recommend trying to wobble side to side but this is less critical than the first two tests.
Many manufacturers have various fancy knobs and other adjustments that come with their helmets to limit rock back. You will need to consult your helmet owner's manual to find the instructions. To get a snug fit, you typically need to add adhesive backed shims in strategic locations. Some manufacturers provide replaceable shells of different sizes (thicknesses actually). You typically find the next size smaller and then shave/sand out foam until it fits snug and comfortable. Shimming on the sides will also prevent wobbling. You also need to be careful not to make it too tight or you will get a splitting headache and be inclined to paddle without the helmet - bad move. Helmet fitting takes time unfortunately and must be done before you head out to the river.
Another useful helmet addition is a brow if one already isn't incorporated. These not only help shade your eyes but they can divert water from your face if trapped in a falls so you can more easily breath. Some brands also have add-on ear pads but I would rather wear a full coverage helmet rather than the common baseball cap style prevalent these days.
To recap the most important helmet attribute is a proper fit and that is why we need to customize as one size really doesn't fit all.
Optional Equipment and Outfitting
Optional equipment that may be quite useful are repair kits, river knife, rescue gear, tube tent for shelter, or a space blanket bivy sack. I would weigh the benefits against the extra weight though. Heavy boats can be more challenging to paddle and certainly are a pain carrying. A cell phone in a Pelican box is a really bright idea though as it doesn't weigh much and may help save someones life.
Outfitting your boat and helmet are generally essential in this sport. A loose fitting helmet often exposes the forehead to impact and concussions. A loose boat is much more difficult to control. Here are some useful articles on outfitting:
Kayak trim is all about having the boat rest in a neutral balanced position in flat water. If the stern is heavy, smaller holes and ledges will be more grabby and often cause back enders when you least expect it. If the bow is too heavy, you will be pushing water all the time or need to lean back a bit to lift the bow placing you in a more unstable boating position. Side to side balance is also important. Although you can guess whether you are bow or stern heavy, it is far easier to have someone else observe your trim when you are in the water. Most kayaks start with their seats in a reasonably balanced position. We then add gear like heavy throw ropes, pin kits, first-aid & repair, lunch, water, etc. Since behind the seat is easier to reach, we typically stuff all that gear in the back of the boat. At least try to balance the load spreading the weight evenly on each side. If the stern of the boat is sinking, one approach is to move the seat up one notch at a time (the foot bulkhead will also need to be moved up as well). Another neat approach is placing seldom used gear in a float bag in front of the foot bulkhead - perhaps the first-aid and repair kit is a good choice. Consider spreading the load of group gear, one person carries the 70' heavy duty line, another carries the big first-aid kit, etc. Many boats have ways to carry water bottles in front of the seat and water does weigh a fair amount. Your goal is to be able to sit upright in flat water with a reasonably balanced boat.
Spray skirts: types & material, grab loop!
A spray skirt is used to keep water out of your boat. These used to be made in nylon or neoprene. Neoprene is the only way to go for whitewater. The first order of business is to get one that fits your cockpit. Make certain the skirt is well constructed as it needs to stretch significantly to make a tight fit. Beware of skirts that are really difficult to stretch since we sometimes need to attach our skirts in less than stable areas on the river. The front grab loop must also be sturdy making it very easy to rip off so you can quickly escape your kayak. An even better system is a strap that crosses over the middle of the skirt. A common safety hazard is accidentally tucking the front grab loop under the skirt - always look before you launch. The tunnel is worn around your waist and needs to be quite snug to prevent water from seeping in.
There are a number of custom and mass produced skirt companies to choose from:
- Skirtworks Note: Excellent quality and customer service. They also make custom skirts.
- Immersion Research Note: Decent products and excellent custiomer service.
- NRS: Note: Great mail order company with reasonable prices.
Prices range $75 - $180 for new skirts. You can pick up use skirts for considerably less but may need to make repairs. AquaSeal makes decent products for repairing neoprene although I always prefer neprene cement (not stiff and is strong as new). Avoid the Harmony brand of spray skirts which perpetually leak and are impossible to seal. Also avoid nylon spray skirts as well.
Loading and unloading, racks, tie down
You will need some way to transport your boat on or in your vehicle. This is easy if you have a pickup truck or cargo van as you can simply toss in the back of the vehicle. Most paddlers use cars and these typically require a roof rack system of some type. Although some paddlers can fit their boat inside their vehicle, I strongly advise against this practice. I have seen too many accidents with this mode of transport. If you take this chance, tie down very securely on both ends of the boat. With any boat carrying system, imagine the consequences of slamming on the brakes at 70 MPH - those boats better be 100% secure.
Roof racks of some type are the best means of transporting your boat and your paddling partners on a shuttle. If your vehicle has rain gutters - you are really in luck. Quick-N-Easy rack systems can support several tons of weight and last forever: Quick-N-Easy Racks. They are also the least expensive system - between $70 - $90. Unfortunately, most cars these days don't have rain gutters and need more sophisticated systems. The two major brands are Yakima: Yakima Racks which uses a round bar or Thule: Thule Racks which uses a square bar. Each system has their fans and either will do the job. One issue with both Yakima and Thule racks is carrying capacity, both top out at 200 pounds - 4 - 5 empty boats. I strongly advise against loading wet gear in boats and carrying a bunch of them as this places a great strain on the rack systems they were not designed for. Expect to shell out roughly $300 (or more) for either brand.
Another alternative for carrying a single boat is a foam system. These systems are simple and quite cheap - between $5 - $50. The foam protects your car roof. Here are some examples: Alternatives. In a pinch, you can improvise your own system using a blanket as well. The trouble with this approach is you really can't carry more than one boat safely.
Whatever system you use, you need to secure the boat/s. This is typically done with cam straps: NRS Cam Straps or rope. Secure across the side of the boats with 2 straps or two ropes. In addition, tie the front and back to your bumpers. If the rack system fails (and they do from time to time), the front and rear painters will keep the boats from falling off the car long enough for you to stop safely. Never use bungee cords for securing boats. Bungee cords stretch over time and can come loose on bumpy roads.
Straps need to be tested every trip and cam buckle springs fail over time. Always pull tight and straight down, never on an angle. You also need to add an overhand not to prevent the strap from backing out if the cam becomes loose while driving. Straps provide more friction than ropes which is beneficial. 15' is a good strap length. Here is a good diagram that shows how to use your straps for securing a kayak: Kayak Strap Threading.
Personally, I am old school and like ropes. Ropes are cheap and very versatile. You will still need ropes to secure the front and back of the boats to your bumper. Many boaters skip this extra precaution and many have lost boats when stopping suddenly - learn from their mistakes. Rope systems also allow you to quickly add extra tie downs for more security. When using rope, I really like 1/4" nylon over any other material (sisal, cotton, poly, etc.). Get two 50' rolls, cut in half, singe each end with a cigarette lighter. Add a Figure 8 Loop on one end. Loop through your boat grab loop. That takes care of one end. For the other end, I start with a Truckers Hitch. This knot allows you to really crank down on the rope and still untie the knot quickly. After cranking down, you tie off with a Two Half Hitches knot. I also like to tuck a cheap wash rag between the rope and hood to protect the car finish.
If you follow the above steps, you can drive like a mad man on jeep trails in heavy storm conditions and take comfort that your boats will stay on your car. Trust me, that is a good feeling.