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The 5 Essentials of Whitewater Kayaking

The 5 Essentials for Whitewater Kayaking

By Amanda Major

We’ve all been there. Cramming into your pal’s vehicle with all of your paddling gear before you head to the river. You look over at your friend, and they are gently whispering words while counting to 5 on one hand. You smirk in recognition at the practice–you’ve already done this silent ritual several times on your way to meet them. 

What in the world are they doing? Making sure they have their five essentials, of course!

In whitewater kayaking, the Five Essentials are the baseline pieces of gear that will get you on the water. The bare necessities to forget about your worries and your strife, if you will. The Five Essentials for kayakers include: a boat, paddle, helmet, personal floatation device (PFD), and sprayskirt. (Of course there are other important additions to your kit that are quite enjoyable. Shoes, float bags, a throw rope and rescue gear, and appropriate layers will add to your overall experience.) Bringing along your five essentials when you are headed to the river is key to a successful and rad river day. 

Here are some necessities to consider when gearing up for the spring and getting yourself and your 5 Essentials together.


A paddling specific personal flotation device, or PFD, is the first piece of gear you should scout out. An adult sized Type III “Flotation Aid” PFD has 15.5 lbs of flotation to aid in swimming. Whitewater specific PFDs are ergonomically designed and give you a full range of motion in your arms and torso–perfect for paddling in whitewater. These lower profile PFDs accommodate for boat design and place flotation in the front and back of the PFD. Most PFDs will have easy to access pockets where you can store your gear, sunscreen, and snacks.

A rescue vest, classified as a Type V “Special Use Device,” gives more options for rescue tools built into the vest. With proper training, intermediate to advanced paddlers can invest in these Rescue PFDs to ensure they are rescue ready.

Add Ons Once You’ve Got Your PFD: Whistle, Knife, snacks, tow tether, SPF.


A helmet is crucial to safety on the river, especially in these shallow, manky New England runs we all know and love. Helmets, like melons, come with many different shapes, sizes, and budgets in mind. Materials range from plastic to fully carbon fiber. Styles can range from a half cut plastic shell to a baseball cap to a full face helmet with full coverage of the head and jaw. There are also nifty add ons available, like ear flaps to keep the ears warm.

Add Ons Once You’ve Got Your Helmet: Nose Plugs, Ear Plugs, Stickers, Skull cap/ turtle fur hat, neck gaiter, sunglasses, croakies.


Just like people, boats come in all shapes and sizes. There are creek boats and play boats and half slices, oh my! You want to find a boat that fits you well, when you are first learning how to kayak and as you continue to progress. 

River runners are great for beginner to advanced kayakers, and they are solid all-around boat choices for developing skills and confidence on the water. Creek boats are a good match for intermediate or advanced boaters with more volume and length to increase speed and stability in varying river conditions. Playboats are a great choice for everyone who loves to play (and doesn’t mind spending some time upside down or out of their boat, too). Playboats are designed for surfing and aerial, trick-style maneuvers. If you are looking for a bit of everything, a half slice is an awesome choice with business in the front (good volume and rocker) and a slicey party stern in the back for ample down river play options at your paddling disposal.

Boats should fit comfortably like a hiking boot: not so tight that you are miserable and getting cramps, but you should feel snug and secure in the boat. The boat is an extension of your body on the water so outfitting hip pads, thigh braces, bulkheads, and backbands to best suit your body is a smart way to ensure success in your paddling adventures.

Add Ons Once You’ve Got Your Boat: Float Bags, Water Bottle, Throw Rope, Pin Kit, Med Kit.


A paddle is your main tool to propel yourself downstream. Aspects of a paddle that you want to think about are: a length that works best for you, the construction/material of the blade and shaft, and what type of paddling you are doing with it. The length of your paddle is based on your height. A 188cm paddle works if you are under 4’8”; 4’8”-5’2” 191cm, 5’2”-5’8” 194, 5’8”-6’ 197, and over 6’ use 200cm. If you think your style of paddling will have more forays into the playboating world, tending toward a shorter paddle will be beneficial. Likewise, if you are looking to do lots of river running, a longer paddle might better suit your needs. Materials range from plastic to fiberglass to carbon with a foam core. Paddle shafts come in straight or bent (for ergonomic and grip finding advantages), and smaller sized circumference.

Based on your preferences and budget, there are many options to choose from. The more money you are willing to invest, the lighter, stiffer, and more durable the paddle can be. Think about how many paddle strokes you take in a day. Then multiply that by how many times you paddle in a week/ month/ year. Purchasing a paddle is a long term investment.

Add Ons Once You’ve Got Your Paddle: Pogies, gloves, mitts, wax, shoes.


In whitewater kayaking, most people feel the need to keep water out of the boat. In our opinion, combat rolls are way less fun when a boat is filled with water. There are two main types of sprayskirt systems designed specifically for the purpose of keeping you in your boat and the water out. Rand and bungee skirts. Bungee skirts tend to feel easier to put on and off your cockpit on the boat. Bungee skirts are great for people just starting to paddle. On the other end is the rubber randed skirt. A rand skirt creates a rubber tight seal that won’t come on and off as easily. This can definitely come in handy as you progress to running waterfalls, although it can be much harder to put on, especially in the winter.

Add Ons Once You’ve Got Your Sprayskirt: Layers (dry suit, dry top, shorty, semi dry) (fleece, hydrosilk), SPF.


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