As a first time kayak buyer, you probably didn’t know or don’t know what kayaking accessories to get with your first kayak, and unless you bought from a knowledgeable salesperson, who also kayaks, he probably didn’t get you everything that you needed. The problem is two-fold: 1. Many salespeople don’t understand kayaking. 2. When you first start, the kayaking accessories just don’t seem necessary. A third problem occurs when you run into a salesperson that believes the second point. Although the first problem is easy to fix — just go to a different store — the second is much harder.
To fix that second, you can take a sea kayaking class, or you can take it on faith that you need these items and then learn how to use them. Because kayaks are so expensive, spending more money on kayaking accessories is a hard pill to swallow, but you need the items so budget for it. See, kayaking is inherently dangerous. Humans aren’t water creatures. We’re not designed to live in the water, and we have a hard time learning to survive in the water. Anytime the water drops below 60 degree Fahrenheit (15.5 Celsius), you run into the risks of cold water paddling and need a wetsuit or a drysuit. And anytime you paddle beyond swimming distance from shore, you risk not making it back if you make a mistake. When you add wind, waves, weather conditions, currents and the area where the water meets the shore, you end up with a lot of situations that are dangerous, and you might not understand or even realize the danger until it’s too late. It’s best to prepare for these situation by having the proper equipment and knowing how to use it.
On Twitter, I recently asked the question, “What kayaking accessories would you recommend to a beginner who just bought a new kayak?” I got responses from many seasoned kayakers ranging from whitewater paddlers, adventurers and guides. All their suggestions centered on the basic items required for survival in dangers, or items for comfort that beginners might not think of. Many had used these items to survive. What struck me was how similar the answers were. On that note, I put together a basic kayaking accessories list. In the list, I’ll link to the item and also briefly explain how you use it or why you’d want to buy it.
Basic Kayaking Accessories
- Kayaking-specific lifevest: Kayaking-specific lifevests differ from others in several ways. The main differences are a higher back that doesn’t interfere with the kayak’s seat, a snug fit so you don’t get rubbed wrong when paddling and comfort designed for the movements in kayaking. Some models include multiple pockets that you can stuff with snacks, a camera, VHF radio, etc. Kayaking vests also include tabs that allow you to lash on a knife, a strobe light. Some include tow belt attachments. I like Kokatat and Stohlquist.
- Nice paddle: Buy something better than the cheapest that you can find. The nicer the paddle, the more enjoyable your outings become, because they’re lighter, they swing back and forth easier. Just try a high-end carbon fiber paddle once and you’ll understand. Don’t skimp and don’t buy a paddle that’s too long for you. Many salespeople that fall into the first problem tend to size the paddle too large. It’s the right size when you place the paddle vertically and can reach up and wrap your fingers comfortably around the paddles end. Don’t stretch when doing this.
- Bilge Pump: When you get water in your kayak, you need to get it out. This might be after a capsize. It might be from splashes or boat wake or waves (see spray skirt). In a canoe, you usually use a bucket, but buckets don’t work well in a kayak, because it’s hard to get them to fill in the small area, plus it’s hard to get shallow water out of the boat. That little bit of the water sloshes around in the kayak and splashes against the back of your legs, which feels annoying. It also makes the boat less stable. The Beckson Bilge Pump is one of the best and the one brand I use. It takes a beating and pumps quickly. You’ll need to buy a foam float for it too.
- Paddle float: A paddle float is an inflatable bag that you use during a self rescue, i.e. you fell out of your kayak (wet exit) and need to get back in. One way to get back into a kayak is to inflate a paddle float around one blade on your paddle and then use the paddle as an outrigger to help you get back in. NRS Sea Kayak Paddle Float features a dual chamber, which means if one side fails, you have another. It also has a large mouth that’s easy to slip a paddle into.
- Sponge (optional): Water accumulates in the cockpit and a sponge helps get it out. It also helps get water out of a leaky bulkhead or hatch.
- Whistle: Whistles can help other boat traffic hear and see you. You can use them to communicate to other paddlers, and they’re required by the Coast Guard in some waters. You can also use them to get attention during an emergency. I suggest ACR Hot Shot Signal Mirror and Whistle Combo, because it uses a whistle that doesn’t require a floating ball (if the ball gets wet and sticks, it doesn’t work). The Combo also includes a signaling mirror and foam float for just a few more bucks than a whistle alone. Attach the whistle to your lifevest.
- Spray Skirt: You wear a spray skirt around your waist. When you sit in the kayak, the skirt seals the cockpit opening and keeps water out of the boat. If you’re going to paddle anything larger than a backyard pond or in any weather other than warm and sunny, you need to buy a skirt. I suggest buying a neoprene skirt for ocean travel. You can get by with a nylon skirt if you plan on paddling in flat water.
- Flotation (if you kayak doesn’t have bulkheads): The shocking news is that kayaks don’t float very well when filled with water. Some manufacturers address the problem by adding bulkheads and hatches to create air and watertight storage areas. If you come out of the boat and the cockpit fills with water, the bulkheads keep the ends dry. Without bulkheads, the boat fills with water and makes rescue and recovery difficult even for experienced paddlers. To help prevent the problem in boats, often recreational kayaks, buy and use float bags. NRS Standard Kayak Flotation Bags come in multiple sizes to fit most kayaks. Buy one for the front and the back of the kayak. You want a bag that fills all the free area in each part of your kayak.
- Dry Bags: To keep your gear dry while on the water, you need a waterproof container. I suggest bringing at least two bags on every trip. One bag carries spare clothing and the other contains your wallet, cell phone and other items that you might normally carry. When packing a kayak, it’s much easier to find space for smaller dry bags than large ones. For your wallet and other small items, consider a five liter bag. For the rest, buy 10 liter bags. Both Sea-to-Summit and SealLine make great dry bags.
- Rescue sling (stirrup): When you get tired from trying to get back into the boat and failing multiple times, you need help. A rescue sling such as North Water Sea Tec Rescue Stirrup can help you get in by giving you something to step on. You wrap the sling around your cockpit coaming, step on the sling, and then get into the boat. It can work in conjunction with a paddle float rescue or when you’re rescuing someone else.
- Compass and map: Some waterways are confusing. You need a map and compass to figure them out. I mount one on my kayak and put another simple baseplate compass in my lifevest. Learn how to use them in these Navigation articles.
These are just a few of the many kayaking accessories that you can buy, but for calm waters that you’ll learn on, they’ll get you by. You need to master the rescue items and that requires practice and probably a lesson. In More Kayaking Accessories for Beginners, I cover even more items that you’ll want to buy. Many I consider mandatory for paddling on large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes, oceans and big rivers like the Mississippi.