Choosing a Kayak and other Paddling Gear

Looking to get into the fun and rewarding activity of kayaking? Here’s a primer for choosing a kayak and all of the other gear necessary to enjoying a day out on the water. At the end of the primer is a list of resources for where to paddle plus links to some paddling groups located in the Madison, WI, area.

When choosing gear, I always remind people of the following saying:

You get what you pay for.

That is not always true! However, the following is almost always true:

You don’t get what you don’t pay for.

Generally speaking, the pricier a kayak or related gear is, the more features and benefits it will have. If you are watching your budget, prioritize your paddle and your kayak. You will be thankful for it.

Selecting a Kayak

General Kayak Categories

  • Recreational – available in both sit-in and sit-on-top (SOT) models. Features include a wider beam (width) for stability, larger cockpit area for easy entry and exit, and typically run from 8 to 12 feet in length for easy handling.
  • Fishing – available in both sit-in and SOT models. Similar to some recreational kayaks but include rod holders and other features that make fishing easier.
  • Whitewater – available in both sit-in and SOT models (seriously). Features include a rounder hull for easy rolling, shorter length and increased rocker (curvature at bow and stern) to make turning easier in whitewater, and durable hull materials to resist damage from rocks and other hard surfaces.
  • Sea – Features include a long and narrow hull (typically between 12 and 24 feet) to improve tracking (moving in a straight line), speed, and storage space, and rudder systems to improve the ability to turn the long hull more easily.
  • Inflatable – available in both sit-in and SOT models. Features include portability for easier transport and storage, stability, and forgiving materials to allow the boat to bounce off rocks and other obstructions easily.

After determining which category of kayak is right for the type of paddling you plan to do, you next need to determine if a Sit-In or Sit-on-Top model will best meet your needs.

Sit-In Kayaks

Sit-in kayak pros:

  • Lower center of gravity (improves stability and ability to brace)
  • Enhance your body’s ability to help control the boat (using foot pegs, thigh pads and seat backrest)
  • Generally track better and have a higher top speed
  • More “dry” gear storage
  • Paddler remains dryer

Sit-in kayak cons:

  • Legs are restricted (pinning is more of a risk)
  • More difficult entry, launching, and exit from the boat
  • More difficult draining and recovery after flipping the boat

SOT Kayaks

SOT kayak pros:

  • Easy entry, launching, and exit from the boat
  • Scupper holes allow the boat to drain quickly after flipping or hitting standing waves

SOT kayak cons:

  • Higher center of gravity typically reduces stability
  • Less ability to use your body to control the boat
  • Some track poorly and/or have a lower top speed
  • Limited “dry” gear storage
  • Paddler is more likely to get wet while paddling

Selecting a Kayak Paddle

Kayak paddles consist of a shaft connecting a blade at each end. Shafts can be composed of between 1 and 4 sections connected by ferrules. Most paddles have drip rings near the ends of the shaft to help prevent water from running down onto your hands. The shafts of most paddles shift from a circular to elliptical cross section near normal hand positions to prevent the paddle from rotating in your hand. Shafts can vary in diameter to accommodate different size hands. Bent shafts can help reduce wrist fatigue. Some paddles allow the blades to be set at an offset angle at the center ferrule known as a feather. Some one piece paddles have a set feather. This helps reduce wind resistance on the blade that is out of the water.

Kayak paddle shafts and blades can be constructed from various materials. Shafts can be constructed from (in ascending order of weight but descending order of cost) carbon fiber, fiberglass, aluminum, or nylon. Blades can be constructed from carbon fiber, fiberglass, nylon, or polypropylene. Prices of paddles vary based on length, blade and shaft material, number of sections, shaft style, and blade style. The best advice is to spend the greatest portion of your budget on the lightest paddle possible. The weight of the paddle makes a huge difference in how fatigued you will be during a long day of paddling.

When selecting a kayak paddle, you should also consider the following:

  • Your paddling style (high angle vs. low angle)
  • The type of paddling you will be doing (distance, whitewater, for fishing)
  • The comfort of the paddle in your hands (hand size vs. shaft diameter)
  • Your height and/or torso length, shoulder width, and width (beam) of your boat (paddle length)
  • Physical condition (bigger blades require more strength and endurance)
  • The price range that fits your budget

Once you narrow down the style of paddle based on the first three criteria above, length of the paddle must be determined. Beam of the boat, type of boat (sit in vs. SOT), paddler height (torso length is actually more precise), and shoulder width can be used to choose a paddle of proper length. The beam of most SOT kayaks is wider than most sit-in models. Therefore, some ballpark recommended paddle lengths are:

Paddles for Sit-In Kayaks

Paddler Height Recommended Paddle Length
Under 5′ 5″ 220 cm or less
5′ 5″ to 5′ 11″ 220 – 230 cm
6′ + 230 cm or more

Paddles for SOT Kayaks

Paddler Height Recommended Paddle Length
Under 5′ 5″ 230 cm or less
5′ 5″ to 5′ 11″ 230 – 240 cm
6′ + 240 cm or more

Selecting a Personal Flotation Device

A properly fitted Personal Flotation Device (PFD) is required to be immediately available for each person on every type of kayak in Wisconsin.

It is important to select the most comfortable PFD possible which will encourage you to wear it at all times while on the water. Look for a PFD that provides ease of motion for paddling and does not interfere with the back rest of your kayak. Try to sit in a kayak similar to your own when trying on PFDs at the store to ensure your PFD will be comfortable in your kayak.

PFDs fall into the following categories:

  • Canoe & Kayak Vest
  • Full Motion Vest
  • All Water Sports Vest
  • Inflatable Vest

If you select an inflatable vest, it is recommended that you select a “Manual” version. The manual version will eliminate the potential for the inflatable PFD to deploy unexpectedly during normal kayaking activities.

Selecting Other Equipment

Using the appropriate equipment will increase your enjoyment while on the water.

Recommended Equipment

  • Personal Flotation Device (required by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
  • Hat (preferably with a wide brim)
  • Appropriate footwear (paddling boots, water shoes, sport sandals)
  • Sunscreen/sunblock
  • Sunglasses (polarized) and lanyard
  • Whistle (required by some paddling clubs for insurability of trips)
  • Signal mirror
  • Water bottle/water
  • Proper nutrition (snacks, bag lunch)

Optional Equipment

  • Key Float
  • Dry Bag
  • Cooler
  • Waterproof case
  • Tether ropes
  • Throw rope
  • Rescue knife
  • Folding anchor or anchor chain
  • Rod holder
  • Action camera (attached to hull or selfie stick)

Transporting and Storing Your Kayak

Whether you are going a mile or several hundred miles, you are going to need a safe and convenient way to transport your kayak.

Typically, there are three basic approaches to transporting your kayak when traveling a distance:

  • Put it on the roof of your vehicle
  • Put it in the bed of a truck or inside a car with seats folded down
  • Carry it on a trailer behind your vehicle

There are several options for carrying your kayak on your vehicle depending on the configuration of your roof. Typical roof configurations include:

  • Bare roof – no factory racks, side rails, or crossbars
  • Factory installed side rails with 3rd party crossbars
  • Factory installed side rails and crossbars

Some of the options for carrying your kayak on the roof of your vehicle are:

  • Foam Blocks – work well for short trips, not recommended for long distances traveling at highway speeds.
  • Crossbars with or without foam blocks – Fairly stable and secure for highway speeds.
  • Crossbars with Cradles or Saddles – options available to carry one or two kayaks. Most stable and secure for highway speeds.

When transporting your kayak, the primary concern is the security of attaching the kayak to your vehicle.  Each kayak should be secured individually with two cam straps (ratchet straps are not recommended) crossing over the top and separate lines connecting the bow and stern to points on the front and rear of your vehicle.  Avoid using one strap for multiple kayaks.

In situations where you need to carry your kayak a short distance, such as across your yard or from your campsite to the water, you can purchase kayak/canoe carts. These are durable metal carts with rugged flat-free tires to roll with ease. Some carts fold or break down for convenient storage.

When it is time to store your kayak in your garage or other building, purchase an even-pulling, two rope hoist system. The hoist can easily be operated by a single person and includes a safety release mechanism.

Paddling Strokes

Understanding paddling strokes will allow you to better control your boat and reduce fatigue, making your time on the water more enjoyable.

Your basic paddle stroke needs several things to be efficient:  a fast clean entry, smooth power while the blade is in the water, followed by a quick clean exit.  Developing a regular cadence will help you keep the kayak moving in a straight line (track).

Practice the various strokes below and see how they help you control your boat. Boat control is especially important when approaching features above the water such as docks or shoals and when paddling in close proximity to other boats.

  • Forward Stroke – basic stroke to move the kayak forward. Insert the paddle blade into the water near the bow of your kayak. Rotate your body as you pull the blade along the kayak through the water. Keep your elbows close to your body as you complete this stroke. Lift the blade out of the water and repeat this same sequence with the opposite end of the paddle on the other side of your kayak.
  • Reverse Stroke – this stroke is used to make a quick maneuver to back up your kayak (known as back ferrying). Place the blade of the paddle toward the stern and close to the kayak and pull the blade forward. Keeping the paddle in a more upright position will maximize the power of this stroke.
  • Draw Stroke – this stroke will help you move your kayak in a more sideways motion. Rotate your body in the direction you want to draw your kayak towards. Place the blade parallel to the kayak and pull on the paddle to move in that direction.  As your kayak nears the paddle, move the blade up put of the water and repeat these paddle motions if needed. Be careful to remove the paddle from the water before your hull nears it or you will likely flip over.
  • Forward Sweep Stroke – this stroke is used to move the kayak’s bow in a forward sideways direction. Stretch the paddle out horizontally toward the bow and use a sweeping motion to move the kayak in the forward sideways direction. For example, using the forward sweep stroke on the starboard (right) side of the kayak to move the bow towards the port (left) direction.
  • Reverse Sweep Stroke – this stroke is used to move the kayak’s stern in a reverse sideways direction. Stretch the paddle out horizontally towards the stern and use a sweeping motion to move the kayak in the reverse sideways direction.

Other Resources

Paddling and Outdoor Groups

Publications and Websites

  • Paddling Southern Wisconsin by Mike Svob
  • Paddling Northern Wisconsin by Mike Svob
    The Svob books are considered the starting point for planning any paddling trip on Wisconsin rivers.
  • Miles Paddled
    The contributors to this site give even better information on their trips than can be found in the Svob books. Their Google maps, videos, and extensive trip descriptions are invaluable tools to planning trips.
Posted in 2ndMost: Outdoors, 2ndMost: Paddling
2 comments on “Choosing a Kayak and other Paddling Gear
  1. Daniel says:

    During my engagement to my wife, we bought our first set of recreational kayaks and it made for some of the best dates we’ve ever had. We have enjoyed everything from lake kayaking to low-level rapids. I like what you said about how important it is to ensure you have high-quality gear and how sometimes investing in nicer gear can help you have more features and benefits. A kayak is something that will last a long time and where safety is important, so I think anyone looking into buying a kayak would be smart to find a professional supplier that would know the ins and outs.

  2. Jeff Willcox says:

    Hey Jared,
    good to re-read your blog, getting into the kayaking frame of mind again and look forward to seeing you at Canoecopia. Gotta get my paddle back in the water!!!

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