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Essential gear for paddlers

We’ve all invested a goodly amount into our gear, our boats, paddles, PFDs, Helmets, and for some of us, a significant amount of other stuff- but by and large, it appears that many people come to the river unprepared for some of the situations they might face.  I’ll assume, since you’re reading this, that you paddle and that you’ve already got a boat, skirt, helmet, PFD, paddle, and the like… but if you find yourself unprepared for anything on the river, you may find this checklist interesting, especially if you’re building a wish-list for your birthday or the like.

A fully geared kayak adventure begins by gathering all your esstinal stuff


Appropriate garments–  Your garments should be appropriate to the environment you’ll be in- that means if you’re in bathwater in tropical environments, something to protect you from the sun would be all you need- but if you’re in cold water and/or cold air conditions, that means some combination of neoprene and/or dry garments.  A rule of thumb I use is to dress for a 10-minute immersion in the water, followed by a worst-case evacuation scenario (meaning that you should be prepared not only for that 10-minute immersion, but also to be out in the elements for as long as it takes to get you to shelter)- sometimes when conducting a rescue you’ll need all of that and more.

You should also consider head and hand coverage- when your hands get cold, functioning with them is difficult, and when your head gets cold, so does your body.

Appropriate boat, PFD, Helmet, Paddle– I won’t say much about this except that if you’re doing more aggressive technical boating, a suitable creeker, rescue PFD, a helmet with decent coverage, and a durable paddle will serve you better than regular playboating gear.

Shoes– If you will end up out of your boat, whether scouting, walking in or out, or swimming, good footwear is essential.  Although it’s not always feasible when playboating, you should carry footwear in your boat at all times, and when creeking, you should have enough room in your boat to wear shoes.

Rope/Knife–  I will mention these two as one, because if you ever need to deploy a rope in moving water, you should also have the means to cut it.  By the same token, if you ever become entangled in a rope in moving water, you should have the means to cut it.  In short, if you ever anticipate being on either end of a rescue scenario involving ropes, you should have a knife, preferably one with the following features:

  • A serrated edge- a smooth cutting edge is generally not as effective for cutting rope in a hurry.
  • A blunt or rounded tip- when using your knife in a rescue situation, you’ll rarely want a pointed tip- especially if you’re cutting snagged gear or a sprayskirt off of someone.
  • A reliable means of deploying it under duress- I prefer a fixed-blade knife because I don’t need to open it, and because I can affix a sheath to the cleat of my PFD.  I do not attach the knife to a lanyard to prevent its loss- if it comes out of its sheath, I do not want it swinging around and/or attached to me.

The rope itself should have some features:

  • It should be thick enough to grab easily-  Thin ropes, although convenient for carrying purposes, are difficult to grab and hold on to.
  • It should be strong enough to bear significant weight if you intend to use it for heavy load applications, such as unpinning boats.
  • It should be durable- I recommend a ‘kernmantle’ type rope, one with a load-bearing core with a braided sheath for extra durability and floatiness.  Spectra core is excellent for load-bearing capabilities- all other things being equal, a spectra core line is roughly twice as strong as a poly rope.  Spectra is heavy, however, and has poor thermal characteristics- that is, a pure spectra rope will sink in water and if used too much with belaying devices that get hot, it can melt.
  • It should float and be highly visible- Poly ropes are used for river purposes largely because they float so well, and virtually all river ropes come in high-visibility yellow.
  • It should be long enough to be useful.  I use a 75′ rope even though it’s marginally bulkier than some of the smaller bags available because I’ve had a throw come up short before due to lack of rope.  If you can throw a bag 75′, I encourage you to carry that much.

It should go without saying that using either ropes or knives in rescues situations without having adequate training is a bad idea- if you are untrained, get trained- if you are inexperienced, practice- and if you’re experienced, practice.  Remember, you don’t carry a rope for your own good- you carry a rope so you can save your buddy.  I recommend that everyone carry a rope and become familiar with how to use it.

Pin Kit– Every party should ideally carry at least two of these on water where pinning is remotely possible.  The components of a pin kit include a minimum of: 2 carabiners, 1 prussic, and a rope.  A more complete pin kit includes 3 carabiners, 2 prussics, 2 pulleys, a rope, and an anchor.  If you ever need to perform heavy lifting, (such as un-pinning a boat) this gear is essential and it weighs very little.  It should go without saying, however, that unless you know how to use this gear, don’t use it- and if this is the case, you should become familiar with doing so.

A complete pin kit

I prefer to carry my pin kit gear on my person, because if it’s in my boat and my boat is the one pinned… well, you get the picture.  I wear my prussic/anchor system as a belt, secured with a carabiner on my waist, with zero slack in it to reduce the potential for snagging- (and if I don’t have my knife handy, I won’t wear it).  I also carry an ATC belay device on the belt.  I keep my carabiners with pulleys on them attached to the quick-release harness out of the way on the back of my PFD- that way, if they snag on anything, I can release them.  My total pin kit, not including rope, weighs in at under a half of a pound.

Whistle– In a high-noise environment where it may be necessary to communicate either out of line of sight, or to get someone’s attention, a whistle is a must.  I secure mine near the shoulder of my PFD on a very short attachment line- short enough that it can’t swing up into my face, but long enough that I can reach it quickly.  I would suggest that you not attach your whistle to your zipper- paddlers who have done so have related that violent water has unzipped their PFD by pulling on the whistle.

basic ‘universal’ whistle codes:

  • One long blast- ‘everything’s okay’
  • Two long blasts- ‘stop’ or ‘get to a safe place’
  • Three or more short blasts- ‘trouble’ or ‘something’s wrong’.

First aid bag

First Aid– It’s a good idea for every party to carry at least one first aid kit, and it’s also a

good idea for at least two people in each party to have at least basic first aid skills. Also, if you suffer from medical conditions like asthma, for example, you should carry emergency medication on your person and let others in your party know about it.

Hydration– Staying hydrated is a must- if you become dehydrated, your body will suffer, and although our sport takes place on water, actually drinking that water can be inadvisable.  Not only will staying hydrated help keep your muscles working well (dehydration can lead to cramping and increase your risk of muscle injury) and help prevent heat strokes (in hot conditions, being hydrated decreases your risk of overheating), and in cold conditions staying hydrated will also help to keep you from becoming hypothermic.  To this end, a water bottle can be a lifesaver, as can a water-purifying system such as a filter.

Breakdown paddle/backup paddle– If you’re paddling anywhere that walking out isn’t an option or where it’s a highly undesirable option, a broken paddle can ruin your day unless you’ve got some means of a backup.  There are 2, 3, and 4-piece breakdown paddles available that will fit in just about any boat, and it’s a good practice to carry at least one of these in every group.  Hand-paddles can also be used for this purpose, provided you’re familiar with their usage.

Elbow Pads– I’d list these as optional gear, to be used only when you’re in water where bashing your elbows against rocks is a possibility… and for this sort of situation, they’re an excellent thing.

Carrying some or all of this gear will probably add between 2 and 4 pounds to your outfitting- an amount that might be significant if you’re competing, but which will not get in your way unless you’re incapable of carrying an extra 2-4 lbs… in which case it’s questionable whether you should be paddling at all.  From a safety perspective, I highly recommend that you carry a minimum of a rope, knife, whistle, appropriate clothes, and hydration whenever you head downriver.  For more challenging water, adding pin kits and breakdown paddles to the group’s arsenal is also strongly advised.  Remember, we’re here to have fun, and when things go wrong it’s way more fun to be prepared.