Sea Kayaking Gear Checklist
The following list is extensive. Not every person will bring every item. When you head out on a trip, you are responsible for assessing the weather, current conditions, your abilities and those of your group, and what items you should have with you to survive if you encounter a mishap or sustain an injury.
For more detailed information on sea kayaking trip planning and preparation, as well as tips for safe travel, refer to AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England or AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in the Mid-Atlantic.
Sea Kayaking gear checklist
Note: No checklist is infallible. Before you head out on an adventure, it is important to check the weather, prepare for the worse possible conditions and make a plan based upon your personal and/or your group’s abilities in mind. Plan an alternate route in case of bad weather, injury, illness or slower than expected travel time. Before departing, make sure someone at home knows your plan: where you are going, with whom, and when you plan to return. And make sure you know how to use the gear you carry.
The following checklist is excerpted from AMC’s Best Sea Kayaking in New England by ACA-certified sea kayaking instructor Michael Daugherty.
Every paddler should be equipped with this gear, even when paddling with a group.
For most sea kayaking trips in New England, a touring sea kayak would be most appropriate, but there are other options that would also work. There is no perfect boat for all conditions and pursuits, but some boats do well in most circumstances. If you have not yet purchased your kayak, the variety of boats can be overwhelming, but the field could be narrowed by what you hope to do in your boat. Try a few kayaks and see what you like. Take classes from an instructor who has a few different demo boats for you to try. Some shops will offer demo days or the opportunity to try boats before you buy them. Consider every potential kayak’s flotation, dimensions, and shape, all of which affect the way it handles and the ways you can use it. None of these design and performance factors are cut and dry equations; there’s still a bit of art and mystery about how design affects the handling of kayaks, and some just seem to have a near-magical ability to respond to the paddler’s desires.
Ask a handful of sea kayakers about what paddle to use and you’re likely to get a handful of different opinions, each one confident that his choice is the best. No matter what paddle you use, it’s only as good as your stroke, which has more to do with finesse and good form than it does the type of paddle or your strength. If possible, take a lesson with a good coach before a poor forward stroke is so engrained in your muscle memory that it’s difficult to change. Choose an instructor with lightweight paddles you can try. As with boats, it’s helpful to try a few different paddles before you buy. Good paddles are not cheap, but it is money well spent. The lighter the paddle, the easier the paddling. At the end of a long day, you’ll either be glad you have a lightweight paddle or be cursing a heavy one with each stroke. Here are a few things to consider if you’re in the market for a new paddle:
Greenland paddles are more traditional, simple tools with great capabilities. Their use has risen sharply, and the efficacy of these “skinny sticks” has been proven on long expeditions. Many people build or carve their own Greenland paddles, but they are commercially available, including extremely lightweight and buoyant two-piece carbon fiber versions.
European-style paddles, or Euro blades are most common, usually in a two-piece shaft that connects with an adjustable ferrule. Most Euro blades are designed for either a low-angle stroke (the hand upper hand traces near chest height) or a high-angle stroke (the shaft is nearly vertical as it passes the cockpit). There are strong advocates of each style. Some believe the low-angle stroke to be more forgiving and sustainable for long periods than the high-angle stroke, which may be more powerful and efficient, resulting in less side to side motion of the boat.
Euro blades are usually made from wood, plastic, fiberglass, or carbon fiber. Plastic is often the cheapest, heaviest, and most durable, while carbon fiber is more expensive, lighter, and easier to break. If you use a carbon fiber paddle, it’s a good idea to have a fiberglass spare to use around rocks or while practicing rescues that put stress on a paddle.
Bent or crank shaft paddles were developed to prevent wrist injury, but the best defense against wrist injury is to learn good loose-gripped technique that keeps your wrists aligned with your forearms and your knuckles aligned with the top of the blade. A beginning paddler is better served by a straight-shaft paddle and some guidance to learn good technique.
Wing paddles have more scoop to their blades. Built for racing or fitness paddling, wing paddles can increase efficiency (3 percent to 5 percent, say wing paddle enthusiasts) and speed in the hands of a skilled paddler, but are less versatile than flatter blades when it comes to non-forward strokes.
Some people like to set their blades at an angle from each other, called feathering, so that while one blade is in the water, the opposite blade is slicing through the air or wind sideways, with the least resistance. Some believe this to be effective while paddling into the wind, but there is no evidence to support this notion. Others prefer to avoid the wrist-twisting motion this causes by leaving the blades on an even plane, which also simplifies bracing from one side to the other. The simplest advice is to simply go with unfeathered blades, but since most paddles are now two-piece with adjustable ferrules, you can experiment with both.
Optimum paddle length is dependent on the width and height of your boat, the type of paddling you do, and the shape of the blade. If your paddle is too long or too short it will be difficult to fully immerse the blade or rotate the torso. In addition, a longer paddle will feel clumsy when attempting various strokes, and may be more difficult to quickly get into the position you need. Paddlers of tandem kayaks usually require longer paddles to reach over the wider beam and are more apt to use a low-angle stroke. The status quo changes, but for a general purpose paddle, touring sea kayakers in boats with 21- to 24-inch beams are well served by paddles in the 205- to 225-centimeter range. Ideally, try different lengths while observed by an instructor, or get fitted by a knowledgeable shop.
Paddles sometimes break or float away, so at least one person in a group should have a spare paddle stored within reach on deck.
Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
A life jacket is an extremely important piece of equipment, and like the paddle, is one that people tend to skimp on. Invest in a Coast Guard-approved type III or V life jacket with several adjustment points that fits you so well you love wearing it. When you sit in your cockpit, the jacket should feel snug. In the water it should stay put with no upward migration. The most important thing about a life jacket is that you wear it. They’re not much good tucked under the deck bungies. Each year the Coast Guard compiles statistics showing that fewer than 10 percent of those who drowned in boating accidents were wearing life jackets.
Short, quick tows are needed to get someone out of danger, while longer tows may be necessary to help an incapacitated paddler. A tow line needs to be quickly accessed and deployed, simple to detach from, and easy to stash out of the way when no longer needed. The most common among touring paddlers are tow belts: a pouch worn around the waist with a quick-release buckle. Inside the pouch is an attached floating tow line, usually around 55 feet, with a clip on one end. Some have both a short length and a longer length line, but most paddlers setting up a quick tow “daisy chain” the line into a shorter length, which may be unclipped to allow the line to unfurl to its full length.
From paddle drips to breaking waves, there is ample opportunity for water to get into the cockpit. Depending on the boat and how it’s loaded, merely edging it may drop the cockpit rim below the surface. Even if you capsize and roll, a spray skirt should keep most of the water out. If you hope to use the boat in the capacity for which it was designed, you’ll wear a spray skirt. The grab loop at the front of the skirt, however, must be within easy reach to allow you to exit the boat easily. A looser-fitting nylon skirt is easier to remove than those made of neoprene, which tend to be tighter fitting and more water resistant.
If there’s any chance you might be out after dark (and there is always that chance) have lights and flares on board, both so you can see and be seen. The Coast Guard requires kayakers to have a light and three flares after dark. Waterproof headlamps and bright LED lights that mount to the deck with a suction cup (the higher the better) are good solutions. The emergency strobe that clips to your life jacket may have a non-strobe setting, but conserve those batteries for an emergency. It is illegal to use a flashing light on the water if not for an emergency. Reflective tape and deck rigging can also improve other boaters’ ability to see you.
Water and Food
For a day trip, bring more food or snacks than you think you’ll need, in case you’re out longer than expected or if you need to share with someone. Paddlers burn through a lot of calories. Keep high energy snacks like energy bars or trail mix where you can reach them from the cockpit. Take a short break at least every hour to eat and drink well before the lack of food or water becomes an issue. For water, the rule of thumb is one gallon per person per day, but this varies according to heat, exertion, and whether or not you’ll do any cooking.
Other Personal Gear
A pump and a sponge are useful for emptying water from your cockpit. A paddle float can transform your paddle into an outrigger, making the boat stable enough to climb aboard without tipping-a back-up when other rescues techniques fail.
Dress for the water temperature of your trip, bearing in mind that full immersion in 60-degree Fahrenheit water saps us of heat 25 times faster than 60-degree Fahrenheit air. Still, you want to be comfortable and avoid overheating. There’s no one-size-fits-all clothing solution, but there are plenty of options. So? what to wear? If risk of immersion is higher (tide races, limited landings, surf) dress warmer and more waterproof. It’s better to be a little hot than not warm enough. If consequences of a capsize are minimal (hot sunny day, good rescue skills, easy landing nearby) you could go with less. If in doubt about the clothing you’re going to wear kayaking, go for a swim with it and see how it feels. Every paddler should be wearing clothing to protect against the elements present at launch and have appropriate layers for varying conditions and emergencies packed in their own boats and within easy reach.
This is clothing that insulates in the water but doesn’t keep you dry. Neoprene pants and tops come in varying thicknesses, usually from 0.5 to 1.5 millimeters, and fits tightly without restricting movement. Some have fleece lining, and it is possible to wear a thin base layer or rash guard beneath.
Paddlesport-specific wetsuits are generally a bit thinner than diving wetsuits, but at 3 millimeters, thicker than other Neoprene layers. The “farmer John” (or Jane) covers legs and torso, leaving the arms bare, and may be combined with a wetsuit top (or other type of top).
Once they are soaked with salt water, Neoprene tends to stay damp, and can turn a bit rank after a few days. While less expensive than drysuits and other waterproof clothing, lightweight wet gear is generally more appropriate for air and water temperatures in the fifties or above, and are less comfortable, especially when worn damp for long periods.
A wetsuit might be perfect for short surf sessions, or while swimming among rocks that might damage a drysuit, but most paddlers prefer the convenience and comfort of waterproof outerwear.
These are nylon shells with a few variations, including jackets, pants, and full one-piece suits, all with different levels protection against water. Splash wear helps keep you dry until you take a swim, since it lacks wrist or neck gaskets. Semi-dry wear has gaskets to prevent water getting in, but may use Neoprene instead of latex, therefore letting some water in. Dry wear, including drysuits, is intended to keep you completely dry.
There is a broad price range, and a broad range of effectiveness and comfort, in outerwear. Although you might not use it in July and August in New England, there’s nothing like a good drysuit to keep you dry, comfortable, and-with the proper layers beneath it-warm. There are many variables to drysuit design and construction, but most would agree that a relief zipper is well worth the extra cost.
Keep in mind that a drysuit is merely a shell, and part of its advantage is that you can vary the layers underneath according to need. In 55-degree Fahrenheit water and warmer air, you might wear very little, but in 45-degree Fahrenheit water and air, you’ll wear more. Layering thin to medium layers gives you flexibility, and may also be worn on land. Merino wool and synthetics work well. Never wear cotton. Even though a suit should keep you dry, there is always a chance of leakage and sweating, both of which will render cotton a hypothermia hazard, even in the summer.
In a New England summer, you may be able to get by with shorts and t-shirt as long as you avoid cotton, have some warmer layers and an outer wind- and rain-layer. A dry change of clothes in case of capsize is a must. If you’re going far enough offshore that changing into dry clothes would be difficult, dress in paddling-specific gear instead.
In addition to the use of sunscreen, harmful exposure to sun can be lessened with long sleeve, high-UPF clothing that blocks ultraviolet rays.
A hat with a visor can help block overhead rays from your eyes.
Sunglasses (preferably polarized to help you see into the water) diminish glare from the water’s surface.
Beyond Personal Gear
If you’re in a group, this class of gear may not need to be duplicated in every boat, but it is still essential to ensure a solo paddler carries these items and that group members know who is carrying what.
A chart and compass and the skills to use them are essential before setting out on the water. Even if you know an area well, if the fog rolls in, you’ll need a chart to find a bearing and a compass to stay on a straight line (See Fog). A baseplate compass is versatile enough to help find bearings on your chart and to reference while following a bearing. A deck compass makes it easier to follow a bearing. GPS units are no replacement for non-electronic navigation tools and skills. They may be nice to have, but batteries can run out and electronics can fail. If you carry a GPS unit, do so in addition to a chart and compass.
A cell phone
VHF (Very High Frequency) radio
Invest in a waterproof container or case to protect your cell phone on the water.
(Optional) Personal locator beacon (PLB). With the flick of a switch, a PLB will transmit a powerful (5 watt) personalized distress signal at 406 MHz, an internationally recognized distress signal, to a network of satellites monitored in the US by NOAA and the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC). Most PLBs also transmit GPS coordinates to rescuers within five minutes, guiding rescuers to within 100 meters of the beacon. Unlike a VHF, cell phone, or satellite messenger, a PLB’s batteries remain dormant until activated, and should transmit for up to 24 hours. Most models are waterproof, have a built-in strobe, and may be carried on the shoulder in place of a strobe. Some models have texting capability as well. There are no subscription fees for use of PLBs.
Other tools to direct rescuers to your location include:
smoke signaling mirrors
sea dye, strobes, and reflective tape
A fog horn is useful to help call attention to yourself in the fog and legally required, but using it does not ensure that someone will locate you or avoid you.
Gear to Fix People
A first aid kit in your day hatch should have, at a minimum, adhesive bandages, gauze and tape, sunscreen, nonprescription pain relievers, moleskin, and personal prescription medications. Since hypothermia is easily the most common form of care we might need, remedies including warm clothes should be quickly accessible. A storm cag (a poncho-like outer layer that fits over life jackets) is a quick way to stop the loss of heat.
Snacks, water, and warm liquids are also a good first step for treating hypothermia.
Bring a stove and fuel to ensure that, when off the water, you can make hot beverages and food and boil water as necessary. Keep several lighters stored in separate dry bags, in case one gets wet.
There are several emergency shelters and exposure bags available that can quickly warm a chilled person and also work as a temporary respite from the elements for a small group. A tent and a sleeping bag could be simple options. A few items of spare clothing (in addition to the minimum you need for the elements) can warm someone with wet or inadequate clothing of their own.
Items to Fix Boats
A simple repair kit can save you a lot of trouble if your boat gets damaged. In groups, more than one repair kit may be helpful. Bring at least the following:
duct tape (make sure it’s a type formulated to adhere while wet)
flexible window flashing or epoxy putty to quickly cover a hole, even while you’re on the water.
for longer trips and significant holes, a fiberglass repair kit, complete with 2-part epoxy and fiberglass cloth (or a similar epoxy repair kit for plastic boats).
a large flotation bag to keep a boat buoyant when the compartments have been compromised. For those playing in rocks, inflate in advance.
tools and parts to fix a skeg or rudder.