River Kayaking - What Gear Do I Need?
For whitewater kayaking, you need a boat, paddle, spraydeck, buoyancy aid, and a helmet. Absolute beginners on flat or slow moving water may prefer to dispense with a spraydeck until they have paddled for a while and done capsize drill to be sure they can exit the boat. A boat should have internal buoyancy in the form of airbags behind the seat, and beyond the footrest, as this makes it much easier (and safer) to rescue and empty in the event of a capsize and wet exit, whether accidental or deliberate. Choice of clothing depends on conditions, but does need to be adequate to cope with a swim at the prevailing temperatures. There's a lot more that becomes useful as you gain experience, and yet more things that a group as a whole will want to be carrying...
Boats come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, intended to suit varying skill levels and different objectives. Kayaks intended for more advanced paddlers will often perform much better in testing conditions but will require greater skill to get the most from, even in easy water, so a boat suited to the sort of skill level you can expect to attain in the short term will be more rewarding and result in fewer swims than getting a top-of-the-range boat hoping you will "grow into it". Kayaks aimed at beginners and intermediate paddlers are usually quite a bit cheaper, and second hand boats are likely to have seen less heavy use and last longer, so can be sold on as you move up without too much loss. Whatever type of boat you are thinking of, aim to paddle it (or one like it) before buying it - the more boats you can try, the better idea you will have of what suits you. There are a few boats in the section's equipment for hire, so that's a good place to start. Nowadays all kayaks (except really specialist boats) are rotomoulded from brightly-coloured plastic - avoid really ancient fibreglass boats. Different manufacturers use different grades (and thicknesses) of plastic, and a range of levels of outfitting to make the boat fit - it's well worth reading reviews and comments in UKRGB or the like to get an idea of which boats last well, cope with abuse and/or retain their second-hand value. There's more on this is our what boat for whitewater page. More important than exactly which boat you get, is making it fit - you can't do anything with a boat if you slip about inside, so get a boat that's the right size for you, then concentrate on outfitting it so can control the boat with your bum, knees and feet.
To stop spray from filling the boat, a spraydeck (or sprayskirt) fits tightly round the paddler's waist, and then tightly over the rim of the cockpit, with a loose strap at the front to enable it to be pulled off quickly for a rapid exit. It's a bit of a misnomer, since in whitewater a lot more than just spray will try to fill the boat, and the cockpit rim will often be submerged when edging the boat to turn or surf. It's important to keep the boat dry inside, not so much for comfort, but because water sloshing about inside makes the boat heavy, unstable and much harder to paddle. Cockpits come in different sizes, so it's important to get a deck the right size. Too small and it will be very hard to get on, especially when dry at the start of a trip, and may be hard to get off in a hurry, too. A deck that has to be stretched too much every time will wear out quickly. Too loose, however, and it will leak, or even come off unexpectedly, which can result in an embarrassing swim. Decks also come in different waist sizes - don't get one so tight that you have difficulty breathing, or so loose that the boat fills up when you go through big waves ! Most decks are made of neoprene, which has an excellent balance of stretch, durability and waterproofness. Older decks were of nylon with elasticated rims, often adjustable. These are fine in easy water, but they do leak, and water tends to pool in the middle - they're also usually colder to use. A few decks are made of Chillcheater, which is lightweight, durable, stretchy and usually very waterproof, but these seem less favoured for whitewater than for the sea.
Kayaks need a paddle with a blade at each end, and are gripped with the hands a little over shoulder-width apart. The blades are usually set at an angle to each other, commonly 45° for whitewater paddles, although some paddlers prefer a lower "feather" and older paddles may have much more - up to 80 or 90°. The paddle twists between each stroke so that the blade enters the water at the correct angle, and this rotation is controlled by the paddler's dominant hand, whose grip is often enhanced by having an oval cross-section to the shaft, making it easy to feel when you have the right grip. Feathered paddles may thus be left- or right-handed. Many left-handed paddlers have been brought up paddling with right-handed paddles, but it is really hard to change once paddling has become reflexive. Paddles are among the most easily lost equipment on a river, so bright easy-to-spot colours are useful. The paddler in the photo has added yellow/orange reflective strips to his all-carbon paddle. A lost (or broken) paddle will put an end to your trip, so many paddlers will carry a split paddle (one that breaks down into two or more pieces which will fit inside the boat). Not everyone needs splits, but you should be sure that there are some on every trip - and the best way to be sure is to have your own!
Helmets vary from simple and functional to serious (and expensive) fashion statements, but all must fulfil the function of protecting your head from rocks in a capsize or swim or occasionally from branches and other people's paddles when upright! To this end they must fit well enough to stay on, and be comfortable enough that there is never a temptation to remove or forget it. Some helmets make it difficult to hear, others don't provide as much protection as you'd like to the sides of the head. Loose-fitting helmets don't provide much protection at all, and can fall forwards and impede your vision, making it all the more likely that you will need that protection. Some helmets have a wide peak which gives better protection to the face (and keeps the sun out of your eyes) but the peak can be caught by water and cause the helmet to be pushed back, rendering the protection moot, so a good fit is even more critical here. The club has helmets among its equipment for hire, but note that these are older plastic models not up to modern standards and should only be used on relatively easy water
... or Personal Flotation Device (PFD). The PFD is intended to be exactly what it says - an aid to buoyancy for a conscious paddler or swimmer. It won't keep your head above water if unconscious, so choose a good helmet. The buoyancy must also be a good fit, so it doesn't ride up, letting you sink and blocking your view ahead. It needs to provide enough buoyancy whilst not restricting movement. It shouldn't have any loose straps dangling to get caught (trim these once it's adjusted to fit). Some PFDs have a waist belt with a Cowstail to anchor yourself when carrying out rescues. This is just one more thing to get caught, so don't keep the cowstail on the PFD unless you are in a position to need it. Most PFDs include at least one pocket and/or a place to attach a whistle and a knife.
As a beginner, this is probably unnecessary (you are more likely to be on the receiving end than need to rescue someone else), but still potentially useful. Once you are an experienced paddler you'll want to have one available at all times, preferably on your person or very handy in your boat. If you are out of your boat, you should always take the throwline with you, even if no-one is paddling, as people have been known to fall in during inspections. You might not want to walk back to your boat before someone paddles, and it's not unknown to find someone from another party swimming past. Length versus thickness is an issue - a throwline that is too thin can cut deeply into your hand, whilst one that is thick takes up more space, so it can't be too long. 8mm thick and 20m long is a good compromise. One or two longer lines in a party can be good, and line that flattens out means that a thinner rope is less likely to cut (but it's weaker and knots are harder to undo). All throwlines should be made of floating rope (typically polypropylene) so that it doesn't tangle on underwater obstacles where you can't free it. Make sure you understand how to use a line safely and know when not to use it. "Clean rope" (no knots to snag) !
Knife, yes, this is a contentious point, as carrying knives is frowned upon and can get you into trouble. It's important to be aware that rescues may involve rope. Rope and moving water can be a dangerous combination. Anyone using a rope needs to carry a knife which can be opened one-handed and used to cut the rope (or anything else entangling a paddler) very quickly. But those being rescued, too, can find themselves tangled and there is a strong case for everyone to carry a knife at all times on moving water, even if they don't have a throwline. As paddlers can start very young, this may be very unappealing to some parents or authorities. The decision on whether to carry a river knife is a personal (or parental) one, but do ensure that you understand the risks of either decision. It's important to be able to explain why you are carrying a knife if challenged, so a bit of rescue training is important quite early in a paddling career. A number of paddlers now carry enclosed-bladed rope-cutters (which have very little use as a weapon). These are not quite as versatile as a knife, but are a reasonable compromise for those who would prefer to avoid the risk.
A whistle is a far less contentious bit of safety gear and everyone should certainly carry a whistle that will work when wet, as it carries far better than a shout in a noisy whitewater environment and is far more likely to attract attention.
Paddling jacket: Clothing is a matter of taste and varies with the intended paddling conditions. Trunks and a long-sleeved shirt to protect from the sun might be enough for a summer descent of an easy river in a warm country, like the Ardêche in France, but even here you might like to think about something that will provide a bit more protection against rocks and moving water. Don't forget that even on a hot sunny day, water in the river or lake may be cold, especially if the river is being released from the bottom of a dam, or if you are paddling in the alps where the hottest days can mean more snowmelt in the rivers ! Pogies or gloves are useful in cold water or if it's windy as cold hands rapidly reduce your ability to control the paddle.
Whatever you choose to wear, one consideration is visibility - hands and arms are used to give clear signals to others on the river, and wearing clothes the colour of the background is not conducive to these signals being seen and understood quickly. The paddler in the photo above is wearing a paddling jacket - a waterproof jacket with latex wrist and neck seals. Blue isn't the most visible colour, but is better than black. Many paddlers prefer yellow or red. A paddling jacket typically has two layers at the waist, one to go inside the spraydeck, and one to go over the top, making an overlap which provides a good seal. Often the jacket is combined with trousers which similarly fit between the two layers, and may have seals round the ankles. The paddler above is actually wearing thin wetsuit trousers, which provide warmth and some padding. For more serious water, colder weather, or a higher likelihood of swimming, a full drysuit is favoured by some, but it helps to have strong bladder or friends who don't mind waiting around. Under the waterproof outer layers, fleece or layers of thin thermals which retain their insulating properties even when wet are the best bet - nothing is ever totally waterproof!
Every paddler needs footwear with a little support, adequate grip in slippery conditions, and probably enough insulation to cope with standing in water for a while. It's important that footwear should not have dangly laces or anything else which might get caught when you are trying to get out of a boat in a hurry. Some paddlers use beefed up wetsuit socks with a ridged sole, others prefer a water shoe which is more like a trainer, whilst those with roomy creek boats who may be getting out and doing a lot of inspection, rescuing, safety cover or portaging tend to go for a tough canyonning boot. A few, with very tight-fitting playboats, paddle with very little at all on their feet, and keep a pair of shoes tucked in elsewhere in case they need to get out of the boat - but this is a risky strategy if you are at all likely to wet exit !
Other equipment: there's a whole lot of other stuff that can be useful - pin kit, long sling, a folding saw, spare airbag, spare clothing, drybags, split paddles, repair kit, first aid kit, nose clip, food, hot drinks, group shelter, bivvi bag, camera (still and/or video) ... Often for some of these, a group will only need one or two between them, but it's always a good idea to check at the put-on to see what is available and who is carrying it. There's more detail on our Safety kit page, and for some hints on what it is for, see the Z-rig.