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Essential Gear for Whitewater Kayaking

There are few sports that are as fun and exciting as whitewater kayaking. There’s so much to love! Whitewater kayaking is so unique in that you are able to travel down rivers in remote and beautiful places all over the world, while challenging yourself in big whitewater, or simply enjoying the scenery in more tamed waves. You get to choose your own adventure! Whatever type of whitewater kayaking you’re interested in getting into, there are some essential gear for whitewater kayaking you’re going to need before you hit the water.

Essential Gear for Whitewater Kayaking

#1: Whitewater Kayak (kinda essential…)

The first piece of Essential Gear for Whitewater Kayaking you’re going to need may seem obvious – you’re going to need a kayak! There are a ton of different shapes and sizes of whitewater kayaks on the market though, so while it’s obvious you’ll need kayak to start whitewater kayaking, it may not be obvious which one is right for you to start with.

I like to think about kayaks in two different groups – there are those that you’re going to learn to go downstream with (river runners) and those you would learn to play in features with (playboats). These are not mutually exclusive and many paddlers progress to take playboats down river, but most beginner kayakers that are looking to paddle downstream, will want to start with a river running kayak. Jackson makes a couple of great river running kayaks to choose from. These designs include the Z3 or Zen series, the Nirvana and the Antix You can learn more about Jackson Kayak’s Whitewater Kayaks HERE.

Essential Gear for Whitewater Kayaking

It will also be important that this kayak properly fits you. Luckily Jackson Kayaks has boat specifications right on their website to help you decide what size boat is right for you. Most designs come in a small, medium and large size (some designs are just medium and large). Based on your height and weight, you will be able to decide which boat size is proper for you. If you are between sizes on the size chart, talking to a customer service representative or trying boat sizes at a local retailer may help pinpoint which size may be best for you.

Essential Gear for Whitewater Kayaking

#2: Paddles for Whitewater Kayaking

You’re also going to need a paddle. Choosing the proper paddle may seem like a daunting task, but it’s not if you know what to look for. There are three specifications that you will see when you start looking at paddles: paddle length, blade offset, and straight or bent shaft design. The proper length of a paddle is largely based on how tall you are (see size chart below). Most whitewater paddles will range from 191cm to just over 200cm (much shorter than a recreational kayak paddles). These paddles are commonly a single piece design (meaning they do not break down into two pieces like a recreational kayak paddle) and are made of fiberglasses, carbon fiber and/or plastic.

There is also going to be a feather angle or offset that the blades are from one another (this is usually 0-45 degrees but you can find paddles with custom offsets between 0-90 degrees). Most paddles being sold on the market are a 30 degree offset, which is a popular offset choice. Whichever feather angle you start paddling with, you’ll become accustom to and there really isn’t a wrong answer regarding feather. The same can be said about a bent shaft paddle versus a straight shaft paddle. Many paddlers prefer one over the other, but either a straight shaft or bent shaft will work well until you develop a preference.

Common whitewater paddle manufacturers include:

Werner paddles:

Aquabound paddles:

Hardcore paddles:

#3: Skirts

When starting to paddle whitewater, you will need a skirt to keep water out of the cockpit of your kayak. These skirts are made of neoprene and should have a snug fit to both your waist and the kayak cockpit. To achieve this tight fit to both you and your kayak, you will need to know two measurements – the size of your waist, and the size of your kayak’s cockpit. First you will measure your waist and record this in inches, then use the Jackson website to determine the cockpit or deck size for the kayak that you have. These measurements will be used when you look for a neoprene skirt. There is also a website that helps to determine your skirt’s cockpit size, called This will allow you to plug in your boat design and size, and come out with the proper cockpit size you’ll need for that specific boat.

Common whitewater skirt manufacturers include:


Immersion Research:


#4: Personal floatation device (PFD)

A PFD is essential and is always worn when whitewater kayaking. There are unisex designs as well as women-specific PFDs. When looking to purchase a PFD for whitewater kayaking, it will be important that you buy a whitewater PFD. These are specifically designed for the type of kayaking that you will be doing and meant to be used in the turbulent waters that you will be paddling (and possibly swimming). I would recommend buying this piece of gear new to ensure that it has the proper amount of floatation and that it is safe for you to use. PFDs lose floatation as they age, and a used PFD does not guarantee the same protection that a new one will. Do not skimp on a good PFD – your life could depend on it.

Size this like you would most clothing to ensure a proper fit. When you receive your first PFD, you’ll be able to use the straps to adjust it so that it is snug to you.

Common PFD manufacturers include:

Astral designs:



#5: Helmet

Last, but not least, you’re going to need something to protect your head out there. This is another piece of gear that should be purchased new when starting out. It’s important to have a helmet that is going to withstand a possible bump or two and still keep your head safe. Purchasing a helmet will require you to measure your head and select the proper size. Most helmets on the market are able to be adjusted to ensure a safe fit with additional padding and adjustable straps.

Common manufacturers include:

Sweet Protection:

Shred Ready:


Essential Gear for Whitewater Kayaking

Though these are the essentials that you’ll need to break into the sport, there are other pieces of equipment that will offer you comfort and lengthen your season by allowing you to paddle when the weather or water is cold. These include a dry top, drysuit, wetsuit or paddling jacket. You can learn more about Drysuits HERE. Having a good piece of gear that can keep you comfortable on the water will help to keep you warm as you start getting splashed.