The first piece of gear most ofk 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 kayak types: Whitewater Kayak Types. Other great whitewater craft are canoes (open & decked) and rafts (the best rescue platform).
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 roto-molded 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?
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.
From a rescue perspective larger volume boats are far more stable, carry more gear, and make boat based rescues a great deal easier. Creekers or river runners are typically the best designs for rescue work. Full on play boats make rescue efforts very challenging.
Choosing a paddle these days is a whole lot more complicated than when I started paddling. First off, I need to limit this discussion to whitewater paddles. Sea Kayaking / touring paddles have much different requirements. Paddle lengths are much shorter these days which make sense since boats are a great deal shorter as well. The best resource I have found for determining the best length paddle is on the Werner web site: Werner Paddles Fit Guide.
I tried out the interactive custom fit questionnaire and the results were dead on. I highly recommend using this resource – even if you have been paddling for a number of years. The quiz takes into account many factors such as blade area, shaft diameter, style of boating, and paddler height.
The next consideration is choosing a right hand or left hand control paddle. Nearly everyone goes with the right hand control and I suggest you do the same. Besides making it easier to stack, you can easily borrow other paddles if you break yours.
The next decision is straight shaft or bent shaft. Straight shaft paddles are generally less expensive and give you flexibility in hand placement. Bent shaft paddles force you to position your hands is the perfectly balanced correct position. Many also find bent shaft paddles easier to roll with as well. Some find bent shaft paddles are easier on their wrists as well.
The next decision is feather angle. In the old days, all of our paddles had 90° offsets. Back then we also had long paddles (212 cm was pretty common) and long boats (roughly 14'). Boats are roughly half as long and most paddles are under 200 cm. The preferred feather angle has dropped as well. In general, feather angles are in 15° increments. Generally, river runners with straight shaft paddles tend towards 45° or 30°. When switching to a bent shaft paddle, you will probably want to drop 15° on your feather angle. Play boaters use much shorter paddles and prefer even smaller feather angles. It isn't unusual to see play boaters with a zero degree offset. These are some rough guidelines. I really suggest trying several different feather angles and run some attainment exercises. You will very quickly figure out what is comfortable for you. For more detail on feather angle from a true expert, check out the following article from Jim Snyder: Feather Angle.
The next area to look into is shaft diameter. Women and small-framed men should definitely look into the smaller shaft sizes. This will make a huge difference in avoiding hand fatigue and the very common "Death Grip".
Slasher Design Now we take a look at the blade shape, there are many. Most of the time our paddles enter the water at an angle (instead of perfectly perpendicular). Paddle blades that are cut straight across used to be for slalom (and some down-river) racers. Their paddle entry angle was almost 90° and they wanted maximum power out of each stroke. Typical whitewater forward strokes are more angled so paddle shapes changed to compensate by being longer on the outside than the inside edge. A very common shape is called the Slasher design like this one from Mitchell paddles:
Tear Drop Design Tear drop blade shapes are also very common like this one from Jim Snyder:
There are other shapes as well like Esoteric but most whitewater paddlers choose a blade shape like the ones shown above.
You can also go with a flat blade or a cupped blade. Cupped blades provide a great deal more power than flat blades and I highly recommend them.
Finally, a smaller blade area is easier on the shoulder with the downside of less power per stroke.
The next factor to consider is how heavy and durable is the paddle. This has a lot to do with materials used to construct the paddle and quality of construction. The best paddles are made from wood. Wood is warm, extremely durable, easily customized, reasonably light weight, and can be repaired. Good wood paddles are also the most expensive choice but not as much as you would expect. The next choice is fiberglass or carbon fiber paddles. Many of these are very light and quite strong as well. You get what you pay for, good glass paddles should last between 5 - 10 years - cheap ones a year or two. Plastic paddles are also available. Plastic blades are quite cheap but have an awful amount of blade flex which means serious loss of power. Avoid plastic blades and metal shafts.
There are several great wood paddle makers:
RainboWave starts at $450. RivrStyx start at $578. Both are excellent.
Used paddles are often available starting at $100 (sometimes less).
When you purchase a paddle, definitely put your name and contact information on it. I also recommend wrapping bright colored duct tape in the middle of the shaft on dark colored paddles. Both these practices will help others in reuniting you with your paddle if you swim and lose it.
From a rescue perspective, any good sturdy paddle you are comfortable with will be perfectly adequate for paddle assisted wading.
When choosing a safety whistle, you want LOUD and foolproof. If it hurts your ears when blowing it, it sounds just about right. They don't cost much so go with the best. Prices range from $4 - $8. The NRS Storm Whistle is a good choice as is the Fox 40: NRS Whistles.
Every intermediate boater should carry a throw rope of some sort. In addition, they should take a Swift Water Rescue (SWR) class and learn how to use the rope. The throw rope is a very critical piece of rescue gear. Ropes come in many materials, thickness, and lengths - there is something for everyone. A minimum length should 50'. A real handy length is around 75'. Thickness ranges from 1/4" to 3/8". The smaller diameter ropes are used for waist bag and pocket systems - ropes you wear at all times. Larger diameter ropes are typically stowed securely in your boat. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Rope systems you wear are always available and you can never predict when one may be needed. Larger ropes are easier to grab by swimmers and can be used for boat extraction. Large ropes weigh more and might not fit in play boats where space is quite tight. It is a good idea to re-tie the knot on both ends to make the loop too small for a hand to fit through. All SWR classes will teach you various methods for throwing the rope at moving targets. This is a skill you need to practice on a regular basis. Rope material may be Nylon, Polypropylene, or Spectra. Nylon is very strong but doesn't float. Polypropylene floats but isn't as strong as the other two fibers. Spectra (Dyneema) is incredibly strong, expensive, and slippery. Spectra ropes have an outer sheath of Polypropolene to help them float and make them easier to handle and hold knots. Treat your rope well and it will last many years. Keep rope clean and try not to step on your ropes as this drives grit inside the rope causing premature wear. Learn how to stuff a bag properly so it flows freely out of the bag when you toss it.
Several vendors sell this piece of gear:
- NRS: NRS Throw Bags
Note: Excellent selection of top quality gear. Many local outfitters resell NRS gear.
- Salamander: Salamander Throw Bags
Note: Probably the best waist bag in the market.
- Astral: Astral Throw Bags
Note: Made to fit inside the pocket of an Astral PFD.
Prices run $50 - $100 for new ropes.
Rope construction and selection is covered in the Throw Rope section of our course: Throw Ropes.
When working with ropes, it is always a good idea to carry a rescue knife on your PFD within easy reach. Most PFD's provide a lash mounting tab just for this purpose. If you become entangled in rope, the only quick way to escape is to cut the line. Most of us will want a knife with a blunt tip so we don't accidentally impale ourselves (or others). The knife needs to be sharp and have serrated teeth like a saw. If it is a folding knife, make certain it has a locking feature. I also like a hole in the handle to make it easier to hold. There are several good choices out there from Columbia River Knife & Tool, Gerber, and NRS. Most are around $40 in price. The NRS web site sells all of the major brands: Rescue Knives. The following Zoar Outdoor video also discusses how to select and store a river rescue knife: How to select a Rescue Knife.
A nice compact folding saw is worth its weight in gold. I have used mine (or my Leatherman saw blade numerous times over the years. A folding saw often makes fast work of removing smaller strainers on the river. It will really save your bacon on a shuttle return via dirt roads after a storm - trust me I know.
Here is an excellent example: Gerber Folding Saw Cost: $12
First Aid Kit
Most paddlers do not carry a first aid kit. If someone is injured, their ability to render first aid is severely limited. On any significant trip, as least one person (preferably more than one so you have some diversity in contents) should have one. Rick Aiken has written two excellent articles on constructing custom first aid kits:
Here is an example of a really minimalist first aid kit by Swimmer: Minimalist First Aid Kit
Here is another version of a First Aid Kit: Alternate First Aid Kit
There are also excellent commercial kits as well. Make certain any kit is stored in a well sealed container or the contents will be ruined by water. I also advise reviewing the contents once a year since drugs do indeed expire. It is also a good idea to take a first aid course and CPR training. Many companies sponsor CPR training for their employees for free. CPR certification via the Red Cross is good for 2 years.
Commercial kits run $35 - $110 and homemade kits are far less expensive. Here is a nice video on kayak first aid kits: Creeking First Aid Kits.
Rescue PFD's are a great investment in both personal safety as well as a necessary tool for a number of rescue methods. You should always have a quick release system whenever tied to a line. All rescue vests have a sturdy quick release belt just for this purpose. Rescue vests also provide more flotation than your typical PFD which comes in real handy when swimming in big water like the New River Gorge or the Gauley. Most come with generous pockets where you can store items like a camera, knife, and some will even hold a small throw rope. All have lots of convenient lash straps handy for holding carabineers. Some have a zipper, a real asset when trying to put on over a dry suit. Others do not like Astral. All are very sturdy in construction. When you get one, I highly recommend learning how to thread the quick release buckle so it runs freely when released. Prices have come down a great deal and you can typically pick one up for around $200. NRS carries their own brand, The Astral Green, and Extrasport models: NRS Rescue Vest Brands. Stohlquist also makes an excellent rescue vest for around $200: Stohlquist Rescue Vest. I also like the Kokotat Ronin Pro rescue vest: Kokotat Ronin Pro. If purchasing the Ronin Pro, I highly recommend purchasing the extra back pocket accessory.