What Gear Do I Need?
You will need five pieces of gear to paddle safely. A paddle, a personal flotation device, a spray skirt, a paddle float and a bailer. There are many other items you will want, but the above list is the bare minimum.
Kayak paddles are never called oars. They come in a wide range of shapes and styles. The standard kayak paddle has two flat elliptical blades. The blades maybe 'feathered' -- set at right angles to each other -- however, this is more common among white water paddlers and seagoing kayakers. The angled blades are intended to decrease wind resistance when they are in the air. Many paddles convert easily from feathered to unfeathered. These types of paddles may be made of any of the materials that kayaks themselves are made of, with the exact set of concerns that are listed in What Boat Should I Buy?. On the East coast, Greenland style paddling is becoming popular. A Greenland paddle is a wooden shaft with a very long, narrow blade. The Greenland paddle requires a paddling style that may be subtly different from the standard strokes, and many people believe that it is easier to achieve a roll using a Greenland paddle.
Paddles come in sizes, and if yours doesn't fit you will find yourself working harder with less results than other paddlers. Most people determine whether a paddle will fit by standing next to the paddle and curling their fingers over the tip of the blade. The first knuckle of the fingers should just be able to curl over the bladetip. However, the best way to determine if a paddle is the right size is to paddle with it. You have to be comfortable. The paddle should be easy for you to handle and it shouldn't bang on the deck of your boat.
With a Greenland paddle the width of the blade is also measured, determined by the size of the paddler's hands. The blade should barely fit in your hand between the first knuckle of your fingers to the first knuckle of your thumb. For instance, a Greenland paddle built to fit me, a 5'5" woman, would be about 7 feet long but only 5 inches wide at its broadest section.
There are only two manufacturers of Greenland style paddles that I know of, and each offers a limited range of sizes; therefore, many of the Greenland paddles that you see will have been made by the paddlers themselves, probably during the winter when it's too cold to paddle! Commercially bought Greenland paddles run between US$150-300, so if you can make your own, you will have a custom-built paddle for the cost of a hardwood two-by-six.
Make sure you're comfortable with the weight of the paddle. Of course, lighter is better, but once again, the less it weighs, the more it costs. Graphite paddles can be in the range of US$300. The least expensive paddle I have seen is US$35, but that was a paddle intended to be used as a spare. Since a paddle must fit your particular body and paddling style, buying used paddles is only viable if you are a very standard size. Women will most likely have to buy their paddles new or make their own.
Personal Flotation Devices
A personal flotation device (PFD) could be the most important purchase you make. You might not think so until you've capsized and your boat has floated away or swamped, but if you find yourself in that unfortunate situation a good PFD could make the difference between living to paddle another day or becoming fish food.
PFDs for paddling are often called paddling vests. They are worn like jackets, with armholes and a front closure. The closures are usually zippers, but can be D-buckles. Don't bother trying to save money by using a PFD that's not designed for paddlers. A paddling vest has wider armholes than standard PFDs to allow for free arm movement, and is less bulky than a lifevest or boating vest.
When purchasing a PFD, check the United States Coast Guard rating. This only applies to US purchasers; there are some high-quality Canadian PFDs being produced that are not rated by the USCG. PFDs are rated as Type I through V. Most paddling vests are either Type III or Type III/V. You want maximum bouyancy with minimum bulk. A good PFD can be purchased for around US$75.
A good fit is important. A too-large PFD will rise up around your ears when you sit in your boat, and in the water it will not support you comfortably. Most PFDs are adjustable; make sure yours fits! Women will find that standard PFDs may not fit them at all. Fortunately, several manufacturers are now producing PFDs specifically for women. Not all of the PFDs categorized as womens' vests are actually designed for women, though -- make sure you tighten all the straps and try to lift it at the shoulder. It should not come up around your ears. Don't forget that you'll be wearing clothes underneath it, so take that into account when purchasing your PFD, unless you plan to paddle naked.
If you're paddling in salty or brackish water, rinse your PFD after use. Salt is very corrosive. Don't leave your PFD under anything heavy. The material that provides bouyancy becomes less effective when compressed. Also, store it out of the light; light will fade its color and eventually ruin the fabric.
One last note -- as a kayaker, you are sitting low in the water and are very hard to see. A brightly colored PFD is a safety asset.
A spray skirt is a waterproof piece of cloth worn around the paddler's waist that attaches to the kayak itself. It's a tube that you step into, and in some cases has suspenders that cross the shoulders. At the waist, a skirt flares out. When the paddler is in his craft, the skirt fits snugly over the lip of the cockpit (the coaming).
When the paddler is secure in his craft with the spray skirt in place, the kayak itself becomes a bouyancy device. The spray skirt keeps the craft relatively waterproof and also warm.
Some people feel a little trapped the first few times they were a spray skirt, but a few practice wet exits quickly dispel any feelings of claustrophobia. After you've been paddling for a morning with your spray skirt in place, you will find that removing it leaves you feeling exposed and chilly.
The spray skirt is made of neoprene or vinyl-covered cloth. The vinyl type has drawstring casings to provide a good fit. The neoprene type must be purchased for fit; an too-tight neoprene spray skirt is more than a little uncomfortable. In addition to fitting the paddler, the spray skirt must fit the kayak. Therefore you will frequently find spray skirts that have two sizes on them -- one for the tube that goes around the paddler's waist, and one for the kayak coaming.
Some spray skirts have pockets on the outside, which is convenient because once the spray skirt is in place there's no way to access the interior of the boat. They also have a loop on the edge of the skirt; this loop must always be on the outside of the skirt when the coaming is in place. It's what you will use to pull the skirt free of the boat if you tip over.
Expect to spend US$50-125 for a new spray skirt. However, if you buy a used kayak you may get the spray skirt thrown in with the boat.
A paddle float is an inflatable device that fits over your paddle blade. Imagine two inflatable pillows attached along three edges, creating a space to accomodate the paddle blade in between. It's carried deflated behind the seat or under the lines on the deck, and you will only use it if you tip over.
The paddle float is inflated and placed over the paddle blade, creating additional bouyancy. When in place on the paddle, the paddle float becomes an outrigger, offering extra stability and bouyancy as you try to climb back into your craft. It's also sometimes used as a training aid when learning to roll.
Paddle floats are around US$25.
Bailer or Bailing Sponge
A bailing sponge is just a big brick-shaped sponge. A bailer is a handheld pump. You'll need them to get extra water out of the boat after you tip over or if your spray skirt leaks.
There are two more 'classes' of kayak gear; that which you really should have but might not, and that which you don't really need unless you're paddling offshore or on expeditions. All of these items are available at kayak outfitters, but you can probably get them less expensively if you shop around at outdoor stores, discount boat supply stores, and even large discount stores such as Walmart. You can also find many of these items in scuba shops, but they will be even more costly there than at a kayak store.
First, the little stuff.
A safety whistle. Get a good loud one, and make sure it has a plastic pea. Any other kind will deteriorate.
A safety kit. This will be a collection of items that you feel will be necessary in an emergency. Typical items are flares (make sure you have unexpired ones and check the dates regularly), a flare gun, a mylar blanket, a water-resistant flashight, a strobe light, a signal mirror, a multipurpose tool (like a Leatherman), a tow line, and of course, a first aid kit. Other items you may want to include would be dried fruit or granola bars, a dry pair of socks, maybe your favorite paperback... whatever you think will come in handy in an emergency.
Dry bags. These will be where you keep all the other stuff. A dry bag is usually a cylindrical bag that folds repeatedly and snaps down to make it waterproof. They come in many sizes and colors, and even patterns.
A throw bag. This is a bag that contains a long rope. You won't really need this unless you're a skilled enough paddler to be capable of towing another boat, but if you see one on sale and you think you're going to be paddling a lot, get it.
If you plan to go on expeditions or paddle offshore, you will definitely want a compass. You can use a handheld compass or purchase a larger compass that straps onto the deck of your boat. Some kayaks come with compass recesses so that you can permanently attach your compass.
If you plan to paddle out of sight of land or through the twisting paths in marshes, a GPS is a very useful item to have. GPS stands for Global Positioning System. This is device that sends and receives signals to a series of satellites. It can tell tell you the longitude and latitude of your position, and it can also keep track of where you've been. That comes in handy especially in marshes and swamps, where it's easy to become confused among the tall grasses. The GPS is available in a handheld version that starts at about US$150.
You may become involved enough in paddling to require the use of nauticual charts, in which case you will not only need charts (available at boat stores and kayak outfitters) but chart cases. A chart case is a transparent ziploc case that holds your nice dry chart onto your deck. You slide it under the lines on the deck to hold it (the lines are called deck riggings). One note: nautical charts are not usually detailed enough in areas of interest to paddlers to be of great use, unless you are using GPS and are travelling offshore or across large bodies of water.