Acquiring whitewater equipment can be a somewhat daunting task these days. The sport has evolved to the point where there are many sub-specialties like park & play, river running, creeking, etc. I swear that many equipment hounds treat kayaks like they were golf clubs. Unfortunately, boats and other gear can be a bit pricy so we don’t want to make a major purchasing mistake. I strongly recommend demoing boats and paddles before purchasing. They should be demoed on the types of runs you expect to paddle the most. Beginning kayakers probably should stick with used gear. This will save a great deal of money and make it less costly to trade up if you find something more suitable to your paddling style.
The first piece of gear most of us concentrate on is the boat. Make certain the boat is of the right type and fits you well. Boat manufacturers are really getting good with outfitting these days where you can quickly customize the fit and comfort. The old saying, “you wear your boat” still has a great deal of merit. Try to avoid boats that are too large or too small for you as this will frustrate your paddling progression. Here is a great link that describes the basic whitewater boat types: Whitewater Boat Types.
Make sure the boat fits
Most manufactures are overly optimistic on their weight range metrics – they are in the boat selling business. A much better method on choosing boat size is to look at paddlers that have a similar build to yours and see what size boat they are paddling. Most paddlers will even let you try their boats out by swapping for a rapid or two.
When purchasing a river runner or creek boat, look for very sturdy construction. Check the grab handles (or straps) to make certain they are easy to grab when swimming. Verify that you can adjust the seat forward and backward. Sit in the boat and adjust the back band, knee blocks, and bulk head (at your feet). These are all the first steps at custom fitting the boat and making sure everything is in good working order. Check out how your feet fit, are they really squished? Not only is this uncomfortable – it may hinder you getting out of the boat quickly.
Most boats these days are made from plastic. Yes – you can custom order fiberglass boats which are really light and fast but that isn’t too common. In my opinion, HTP plastic from Prijon and Eskimo are the strongest and their boats don’t require internal walls to support the deck. Most of the other boat manufactures (Wavesport, Blistic, Dagger, Fluid, Necky, etc.) use a form of linear polyethylene that is repairable via welding. These boats require a center pillar for support in the event of a pin. Jackson Boats use cross-linked polyethylene and are by far the lightest boats in their class. They make great play boats but most paddlers shy away from them for creek boats partly due to design and overall sturdiness. If you are small in size, you really should consider the weight of the boat as well. Most of us portage rapids from time to time and several fun runs have long put-in / take-out walks. What good is a boat you can’t carry safely?
Water is heavy. A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds. An average kayak weighs 50 pounds and holds about 70 gallons of water. If you end up swimming and the boat fills with water, you will need to manage about 600 pounds of dead weight - better eat your Wheaties. Since we are running rapids, forces on that boat will be significantly higher for someone trying to rescue your boat and get it to shore somehow. A much better approach is displacing that heavy water with really light air. This is done with flotation. On my trips, I insist all participants have air bags at least in the rear of their boat and many other trip leaders do the same. Some boats like Sea Kayaks have built-in floatation in the form of bulkheads that accomplish the same purpose. Most whitewater kayaks do not. Air bags will also prevent extensive damage to your boat in the event it becomes pinned; they are really cheap insurance and cost between $30 - $50 new.
Kayaks look pretty simple but there is more to them than meets the eye. Most of us see the outer shell. The shell has a top and bottom called the deck and hull respectively. The hull is more critical since this is the portion of boat in the water and greatly affects how your boat will move through the water. We talked about boat types in a section above. Play boats have a flat or planning hull. They are typically wider than most kayaks and have very sharp well-defined edges. These design features make it easier to carve turns, surf waves, and initiate aerial moves. They can be more difficult to roll back up once flipped and tend to flip easier in whitewater. Creek boats are just the opposite. They usually have very rounded hulls without those pesky edges (AKA: chine's). If you compare a creek boat to a play boat and look at them from end to end, you will notice creek boats have a lot of curve from front to back - this is called rocker. A large amount of rocker enables the boat to surface quickly after becoming submerged. Many novices find creek boats and river runners easier to paddle.
Now let's take a closer look at the deck. In the middle you have the cockpit. The cockpit is where you get in the boat and is a very important safety feature. In the old days, we had small standard cockpits. Over the years, many discovered that small cockpits are hard to get out of if the boat gets pinned - OUCH! These days, cockpits are quite generous in size and most paddlers can easily move their knees to the center open area for easy escape. Most (but not all unfortunately) also have some sort of grab loop at the end of the boats. This makes it easy to secure on a car and more important, easier to safely grab while swimming with your hand. Most river runners and creek boats also have pin bars that are close to the cockpit, often in front and behind. These pin bars are very sturdy in construction and the ideal place to attach a carabineer for freeing the boat if it becomes entrapped. It is a really good idea to check these attachments periodically to ensure they stay tight. At the very back of the boat there is typically a drain plug - another really important feature. The drain plug makes it much easier to empty your boat when full of water. I suggest carrying a spare plug or a cork in your dry bag in case you lose the plug. Always check yours and your paddling buddies boats to see if their drain plug is attached after each break.
Now let's look inside the boat. The first thing you will notice is the seat. The seat should be comfortable to sit in for long periods. Behind the seat is the back strap. The back strap should be easy to adjust and needs to rest in the small of your back for adequate support. Don't skimp on the back strap as it is really important for comfort and control of your boat. Back straps can be tightened with ratcheting mechanisms or simple draw strings. On the sides of your seat are hip pads. You will need to add/subtract foam to get a snug fit. Don't make these too tight or you will cut-off circulation to your feet. Most kayaks have a way to move the seat forward of backward. You need to adjust your trim to make certain the boat sits in the water balanced from front to back. Each boat manufacturer has different ways to make that adjustment, consult your owner's manual, web sites, or boat seller.
Now lets venture a bit further into the boat. Your knees need to exert pressure on the underside of the deck. This area needs some padding to make that comfortable. Next to your knees, there should be knee blocks or thigh braces to hold your legs in the optimal position. Between your legs there should be stiff pillars made of some type of foam. This foam wall supports the deck and prevents it from caving in under pressure. Nearly all boats require this safety feature except for Prijon and Eskimo boats which have very rigid plastic. Walls are typically in both the front and back of the boat. Looking a bit further inside the boat you will notice a bulk head or foot braces. I strongly prefer a full size bulk head that is impossible to get my feet around. Most play boats skip this feature and you need to add mini-cell foam blocks to accomplish the same task. Take time in adjusting the bulk head so you are snug in the boat. This makes controlling the boat much easier.
Far less critical but useful are water bottle holders. These can be attached on the floor, center pillar, or hung off the deck inside. Some boats have an attachment for a throw bag which is real handy. Larger whitewater boats like the Fluid Solo have a watertight bulkhead which adds flotation and makes it easier to store gear.
For more information, check out the following article on outfitting boats: Outfitting Boats.
Here is a nice video covering the kayak parts for a touring or sea kayak: Parts of a Touring Kayak.
How much is this going to cost?
Prices range from roughly $300 (used of course) to $1200. Most new boats are priced around $1000. This is a serious investment that should be protected with flotation (air bags). Air bags cost $30 - $50, cheap insurance in case you swim. Air bags allow your boat to float on the surface enabling much faster recoveries and less damage to your boat.