Kayaking Accessories for Beginners

Kayaking accessories on the beach

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.

 


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4 Comments

  1. deborahde
    Posted August 18, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Astral deserves a place on the list where pfds (aka life vests) are concerned for high quality and innovative design.

    Footwear: we tend to neglect our feet, until we get cuts or bruises on them… we need footwear sturdy enough to walk ashore on, comfortable and flexy enough to pump on the footpegs. No strippy straps to get caught on those footpegs. Some people do paddle barefoot, but cuts & scrapes can take a long time to heal and are easily infected. So to the list add a good water shoe or water bootie. I like NSR Desparados for a fully enclosed bootie, but there is a style for everyone.

    Fox whistles, used by the referees in American pro football and basketball, are also the pealess type, and can be heard if blown under water. Made in Canada!

    Polarized sunglasses- not only for safety reasons, to see what’s in the water with us, but to protect the eyes from sun damage. On a comfortable strap of course so they don’t become an offering to Neptune.

    As for bilge pumps, I threw out my beginner’s choice because the soft plastic shaft got rutted w. the slightest amount of sand and dissolved grit. Gradually more sand and dirt collected there and though I took very good care of it, it jammed one time too often. Try bilge pumps w. aluminum shafts. Much tougher, no ruts. One is from Seattle Sports and is called “Outfitter Grade”. It’s got a plain yellow float, not the blue and yellow one more commonly found. There are others out there, I believe Beckman makes one, perhaps the same one in your list.

    Actually, pumping is not always the best first recourse. Turn the the boat partially over once ashore to empty it, or in deep water flip it. Pumping is a rare thing. As Ben Lawry so succinctly puts it “dump it, don’t pump it -waste of time”

    A little unsure of your guide for sizing a paddle. What is described is one of the ways to size a greenland or traditional paddle and, while it does work out for some, has not proven accurate given the wide diversity of body types and wingspans in these modern times. If I used that sizing rubric, my paddle would have been 74″ long :)

    Aside from that, many new paddlers are using Euro paddles….

    As I learned it, the ideal Euro paddle sits nicely in the nexus of (1) the beam of the boat where the paddle is planted in the water (the catch) (2) the degree of angle the paddler paddles at(from highest high angle to lowest low angle, and everywhere in between) and (3) the wingspan and height of the paddler while seated in their boat. Werner Paddles has an excellent interactive fit guide on their site.

    This was a very useful starter list. Keep it coming.

    • Posted August 19, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Deborah.

      Just two points in reply.

      1. In my experience teaching kayaking to beginners, I’ve found that they rarely are able to get all the water out of a kayak in a flip, so pumping isn’t a rare thing despite what Ben Lawry says in his kayaking video. In an ideal world, you would never pump, but in a rescue you always face the real not the ideal.

      2. The way I size paddles works for Euro paddles. For Greenland paddles, I’d use a different method. Most beginners will buy a Euro paddle and this sizing method makes sure they don’t end up with a paddle that’s too long. I’ve found that my guide aligns with Werner’s guide pretty closely. For recreational kayaks, you could add 5 to 10 cm depending on the beam.

      I’m a little surprised that you can only reach up 74 inches. How tall are you?

  2. deborahde
    Posted August 23, 2011 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    back again Bryan:

    let’s back up a bit.

    I didn’t say that a beginner (or anyone) does not need a pump. In fact I recommended one with an aluminum shaft that has a more robust and smoother action than plastic shafts. Having used both, I thought the comparison well taken.

    I know from experience (not bec. Ben Lawry said so lol) that a pump is indeed poor recourse when emptying the boat when at or very near shore, where the paddler can get out and stand up. Just cradle the bow, turn it on it’s side and let the water drain out. I don’t lift it high, just rest it on my thighs. Done in seconds, not minutes. Pumping *is* a waste of time.

    As for being in water over one’s head- knowing how to flip a boat is an *essential skill* for everyone at whatever skill level who wants to paddle safely in open water. It’s the start of practically all self and assisted rescues (the roll being an obvious exception).

    If done properly little water remains inside, and what there is can be dealt w. later (see onshore emptying method). Of course a pump is needed on occasion as a tool for oneself or to assist someone else. So by all means carry one. But better and faster ways exist for us to learn.

    Since you asked:

    I am 5’3″ or 63″ . By the metrics you suggest my fingers’ first joints would curl over at a height of 78″ (the typo of 74″ is my error).

    78″ is way short for me for greenland paddles. Way too short to be effective in terms of length or paddle surface area engaged, esp. as traditional paddling usually occurs at a low angle. I paddle w. sticks of 84″, 85″, and 86″ and I am nowhere near being able to curl my fingers over any of them! But that does not matter. I can do what *really* counts w. them: paddle, turn, brace and roll.

    As to Euro blades, 78″ isn’t even made in a touring paddle by the major makers. Werner’s Cyprus series (I am a moderately high angle paddler) goes as low as 205 cm, which is 80.7 inches. Pretty much the shortest Euro touring blade offered by any of the mfgrs. except for children’s touring paddles.

    So there again using fingers-over-the-blade sizing fails for me. The difference of 2.7″ is huge in Euro sizing. And if I happened to paddle low angle style, I would need a much *longer* blade, further distorting the accuracy of that metric.

    Body height taken *alone* is not enough. Body dimensions like torso height and wingspan matter just as much.

    Angle of paddling matters also, and it isn’t as neat as just high or low, Euro or traditional. Many people, like me, don’t paddle in those nicely defined boxes. I am not inferring you were saying this, only pointing it out as something people should consider when choosing a paddle.

    I simply suggest that the old rule of thumb of fitting paddles to body height isn’t the best way for everyone. And in fact may not be the best way for nearly anyone.

    Everyone can of course test this out for themselves, and should -test it by getting to a demo day with a few boats, (or their own), trying a bunch of demo paddles, and putting in some butt time….

    The old rule of thumb perhaps worked better in the days when the typical seakayaker was a male with the proportionate male torso height, arm span, etc. of a six footer (plus or minus a couple inches) who had a boat 22″ or wider. Ain’t like that anymore, and that’s a good thing!

    • Posted August 23, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Deborah.

      I appreciate what you’re saying on paddle length. Like any rule-of-thumb, there are exceptions. You may be that exception. This sizing method is a good way for most beginners to get a properly-sized paddle. I’ve used it to fit well over 1,000 paddlers on guided tours and many hundreds of paddlers who bought their paddle from me. And I’ve observed those paddlers on guided tours and varied my sizing down through the years based on the performance I was seeing from them. For example, in the past it was a stretched grasp. I now start using this rule-of-thumb because it works. Also, it’s a well-known and good rule-of-thumb that many paddle company reps teach to salepeople during clinics. I’ve sat through many of these when I was in retail. Additionally, it’s the method most often cited in paddling books such as Derek C. Hutchinson’s The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking, the oldest and longest continuously published sea kayaking how-to book that has received five revisions. Obviously, there are variations, and a good saleperson will know those variations, which is why I suggest in the opening to go to a store with knowledgeable paddlers. If you can’t find one, then a rule-of-thumb is your next best bet.

      For example, a friend of mine recently bought a sea kayak paddle to go with her new kayak — she’s one of the reasons that I wrote this article. She’s 5’4″. She didn’t ask my opinion on length, went into a local store and walked out with a paddle that’s much too long for her. It’s 215cm. The other day during a club paddle, I was working with her on her forward stroke and when I lent her my 210cm paddle (I’m 5’10”), her stroke immediately improved to the average speed of the club. Had she used my suggestion for sizing, she would never have walked out of the store with a 215cm paddle. She would have bought the 205cm, because it’s the shortest available in the model that she wanted. BTW, just because a company doesn’t make a shorter touring paddle doesn’t mean you or someone else wouldn’t be better off with one. During the next club paddle, I’m going to lend her my 201cm whitewater paddle to see how she does. I imagine that her forward stroke will improve again. Unfortunately, she plunked down $200 on the wrong size. BTW, I just ran her through the Werner fit guide, and I disagree with the 220cm suggestion that she got for a low angle paddle. That’s just too long for someone of that height. Epics fit guide puts her at 211cm. I’d get her a 205cm. If the beginner has the money, it’s not a bad idea to get an adjustable paddle such as Epic’s Relaxed Touring to learn what size she likes the best.

      Also, I just want to make this clear: I don’t use this method for sizing Greenland paddles. Here’s what Chuck Holst, the person who researched Greenland paddles for the most well-known and used guide for building Greenland paddles, says:

      The overall length of the paddle should equal an arm span and the distance from the elbow to the wrist. For a slightly longer paddle, which was preferred by some Greenlanders for cruising, measure an arm span and a cubit (which is the distance from the elbow to the fingertips), or as high as the paddler can reach with the fingers hooked over the end of the paddle.

      Personally, I like the arm span and a cubit measurement for beginners using a Greenland paddle, because it gets approximately the same surface area into the water as a Euro paddle with a low angle stroke.

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