Decent whitewater shoes are crucial for rescue work. Your feet are your foundation, if you slip and turn an ankle - you are now another victim that needs to be managed. Rescue work often involves quick rock scrambling, wading, evacuation, lifting, and sometimes swimming in rapids. A good rescue shoe needs to provide great support, great sole protection, and a reasonably grabby surface. Many boaters paddle in bare feet or use sandals. Neither of these are suitable for rescue work. Sandals can easily get snagged on underwater objects and provide no protection for your ankles. Play boaters have far more limited options for footwear. One option is to stow more sturdy footwear in the back of the boat.
Whitewater shoes are the ideal choice and there are many brands and models to choose from: NRS Whitewater Shoes. Whitewater shoes provides excellent foot protection and many have soles that are somewhat resistant to slipping on wet rocks. Prices range from $40 - $175. Another good choice is the 5.10 Canyoneer II shoe: 5.10 Canyoneer Review which costs around $134. Here is a link to 5.10 Amphibious shoes: 5.10 Water Shoes. Based on my personal experience, the Water Tennies are quite good. The Savant handles well but is very poorly stiched unfortunately. I haven't tried out their new SAR shoe - looks interesting.
The following video from Zoar Outdoors provides an excellent advice on selecting rescue shoes: Selecting Rescue Shoes.
Helmets (AKA: The Brain Bucket)
The helmet is probably your most critical piece of safety gear. Unfortunately, many paddlers either choose not to wear one or favor fashion over a sound piece of gear. Another disturbing trend is the "one size fits all" approach many vendors have chosen. Most do provide extra shims to let you customize fit but many paddlers skip this crucial step. This is one piece of gear I highly recommend purchasing locally at a specialty boating shop. Make certain that they help you custom fit the helmet before leaving the store. Each helmet brand has their own unique method for adjusting fit and you really want a comfortable but snug fit. A simple check is to try and rock the front of your helmet exposing your forehead with a finger or two. If the helmet rocks back more than a 1/2", continue your shim work. Another pet peeve is the trend towards brick hard inner linings. Yes they will not compress a great deal but that means all of the impact energy is transferred to your skull (and neck as well) and that may cause serious neck injury (not to mention a splitting headache). When it comes to helmet linings, thicker foam that doesn't fully compress is always better. I also prefer a full coverage helmet over the baseball cap style. An even better approach is multiple density foam systems - graduated from soft to firm.
The shell on the outside must be really strong so it doesn't crack - whitewater is no place for bike helmets. Two good approaches are the somewhat flexible shell used by WRSI and more expensive fiberglass shell helmets (no give). The flexible shell absorbs energy much like car crumple zones. The hard shell disperses energy over a wide surface area.
Make certain you understand any strap and buckle adjustments. The helmet needs to be snug but comfortable. Pretend you are about to cascade off a 25' waterfall but you have time get your helmet ready. This is the way you should always set-up your helmet.
Here is a great study by Johns Hopkins on Whitewater Helmets that will help you understand good helmet design: Good Helmet Design. Tom from Shred Ready Helmets provided an interesting Boater Talk Forum post on various helmet foams: Shred Ready Helmet Foam Post. This is a nice video on selecting a kayak helmet: Selecting a Kayak Helmet.
A new trend for creek boating is full face helmets. For most boaters, this isn't necessary as the rolling tuck position protects the face. It does make a great deal of sense for serious creek boaters that run really long shallow slide rapids though. One drawback to a full face is communication, others will find it difficult to hear you speaking. For this reason, I use a standard full coverage when teaching classes.
There are many vendors of whitewater helmets:
- WRSI: WRSI Helmets
Note: Well designed and economical helmet
- Head Trip (also Rock Hedz): Head Trip Helmets
Note: Well designed helmet with Ensolite padding that handles hard and soft hits.
- Pro-Tec: Pro-Tec Helmets
Note: Well designed full coverage helmets although I would stick with the newer ones.
- Sweet Helmets: Sweet Helmets
Note: Generally the most expensive brand but has reasonable protection. Some models don't do as well on easier impacts - test for yourself.
- Shred Ready Helmets: Shred Ready Helmets
Note: Very fashionable and reasonably priced. Uses a brick hard foam liner or a very thin liner. This one smarts when you bang your head.
Expect to pay $90 - $400 for a new kayak helmet. Used helmets are substantially less expensive. If you can find a used Seda helmet - buy it! These are the old motorcycle full coverage whitewater helmets with really thick foam.
Life Jackets (AKA: PFD)
Once you get past the beginner stage, you will be encountering very turbulent water. In addition, many rapids are formed in shallow spots and it is no fun getting banged up by rocks. Whitewater vests help keep you on the river surface and provide some limited protection when banging into rocks. At the same time, good vests shouldn't restrict your mobility. Most paddlers go with some form of Type III PFD specifically designed for whitewater boating.
One of the most important considerations is the right fit. This can be a significant problem for children and small adults. If the PFD is too large, it will ride up on the body and block your vision. In some cases, it may slip off the body during a rescue. Many PFDs come with adjustment straps to ensure a more snug fit - learn how to properly secure your model.
All PFDs must have very sturdy shoulder straps as a common rescue technique is pulling on the shoulder strap. They should be strong enough to lift a couple of hundred pounds in dead weight.
A PFD should be bright in color and ideally have reflective material. Pocket/s are very valuable on a PFD as well. I also recommend tie-downs and small loops for securing items like your safety whistle and river knife. I highly recommend ensuring your PFD is Coast Guard approved - some parks out West require this (like the Grand Canyon for instance).
It doesn't hurt to verify that it still has adequate flotation each year by jumping in the water. If it fails to float you properly (like it did when it was brand new), replace it immediately.
Later on in your paddling hobby, you may wish to upgrade to a rescue vest (after taking the Swift Water Rescue class).
If you have a choice, I highly recommend getting a PFD that has a strong front zipper. These usually have extra fasteners as well. Zippered PFDs are far easier to get in and out of and will not wreck zippers on your dry suit (spoken from personal experience). Here is a nice video on selecting a Life Vest: Selecting a PFD.
There are a number excellent brands of PFDs available such as Astral, Extrasport, Stohlquist, Kokatat, NRS, and Patagonia (Lotus Designs). Prices range from $50 - $210 new.