So you've got your kayak and you're ready to drop into the rushing rapids. Not so fast. There are quite a few other things you're going to need first. The most vital piece of gear aside from your boat is your paddle. Without a paddle, you might as well buy an inner tube and float downstream. As far as paddles are concerned, there are variations in the blade's length and shape, the shaft's length and shape and what it's made from. To decide which combination of features is right for you, consider what kind of paddling you'll be doing, how big your kayak is and how big you are. If you're short and not so strong, you'll want a shorter and lighter paddle. Wider and taller kayaks might require longer paddles.
As for the blade, there are several options. Wider blades touch more water, giving you greater acceleration. They also have more resistance, which means more effort on your end. A narrower blade will require more strokes, but less effort per stroke. Some blades are parallel to each other -- these are unfeathered. Blades offset at an angle between 70 and 90 degrees are called feathered. The angle cuts down on wind resistance as the blade not in the water is flat against the breeze. Blades also come curved or flat. The curved blade will increase the power of the stroke, while the flat ones help direct water around them. Paddles can be made from aluminum, fiberglass, graphite, plastic, carbon Kevlar and wood. To decide what paddle is right for you, it's best to try one out. If you can't, ask someone at your local outfitter store -- they'll steer you in the right direction.
Another important piece of equipment is the life vest, known to kayakers as the fancier-sounding personal flotation device (PFD). You should always wear a PFD, whether you're in the rapids or floating on a calm lake. PFDs for kayakers feature larger necks, narrow shoulder straps and wide arm holes for maximum range of motion.
Spray skirts are another thing you'll need. This is what keeps you in the boat and keeps the water out. They basically look like minikayaks made from nylon or neoprene. The paddler puts on the skirt, which fits tightly around the waist, and then slips into the boat. Then the skirt connects to the cockpit to form a watertight seal. One thing to look for in a spray skirt is how easy you can get out of it. You'll want something easy to remove in case you find yourself accidentally capsized. Skirts are typically used in surf and white-water kayaking.
White-water kayakers will also want a good helmet. This will protect your noggin from the river rocks you'll be sure to encounter. Additionally, there are all kinds of extra goodies you can get for your kayaking adventures. Water bags seal in your valuables. Dry tops and pants help to keep you warm and dry. Neoprene booties give you great traction on slippery rocks. Gloves aren't a bad idea to prevent blisters during long days on the water. Grab a small anchor for your touring kayak if you want to stay in one place. For transport, roof rack systems for your car are the way to go.
On the next page, we'll look at some common kayaking techniques.