Buying Right

Outside magazine, June 1996

Buying Right

Outfitting the Paddler
By Gordon Grant

Kayakers are amphibians, floating in a cold balance between water and air. So calculate your insulation needs by simply adding water and air temperature. If the sum is between 60 and 100 degrees, you need a full drysuit (or a drytop if your eskimo roll is bombproof), neoprene booties, and a neoprene or pile skullcap under your helmet. The drysuit should be loose enough that you can layer underwear and/or pile under it. The latex gaskets that create watertight seals at the neck and limbs should be fitted tight, because they'll loosen. Better drysuits have neoprene cuffs to protect and back up the gaskets.

From 100 to 120 degrees, wear wetsuit pants and a dry-top over insulating layers. Avoid the restrictive, long-sleeved wetsuits designed for scuba diving. Pants that stop at the hips aren't as warm as a full, sleeveless "farmer john" wetsuit, but you'll appreciate the convenience of easy removal when you need to make a quick pit stop.

Above 120 degrees, wear a neoprene farmer john and a paddling jacket with hook-and-loop-closing neoprene seals at neck, arms, and waist. Shed layers if you overheat: When the water's warm, lose the farmer john; if it's the air that's hot, take off the jacket.
Look for clothing by Kokatat (707-822-7621), Patagonia (800-638-6464), Rapidstyle (301-564-0459), Stohlquist Water Wear (800-535-3565), and Bare Sportswear (604-533-7848).

Personal floatation device
The preferred style for kayaking is the panel type, made with flat sheets of foam that conform to the body better and restrict movement less than traditional vertical columns of foam. Make sure that the jacket has been certified as a Type III flotation device by the Coast Guard. Try a PFD on with all the insulating layers you'll be wearing, including your spray skirt. Then go through paddling motions to see if it restricts motion. A waist tie and side straps are necessities; with them tightened, a friend should be able give a good tug on the jacket without it riding up.

Try to find a PFD by Extrasport (800-633-0837), Lotus Designs (704-645-7616), Perception (803-859-7518), and Stohlquist Water Wear (800-535-3565).

Spray skirt
Your skirt fits over your insulating layers and dry top but under your paddle jacket, so size it accordingly. It should be snug without restricting breathing-neoprene will stretch a bit when wet, but not as much as you may think. The same goes for fitting the skirt on the cockpit rim: It needs to be tight enough to make a seal but not to require an extra set of hands. Give dibs to the model recommended by the manufacturer of your kayak; yesterday's "one size fits all" skirts often don't work on the wide range of cockpit shapes available today. Skirts with bungee-cord seals are cheaper than those with rubber rands, yet keep water out of the boat almost as well.

Reliable spray skirts are made by Perception (803-859-7518), Rapidstyle (301-564-0459), and WildSpray (303-444-2336).

Your helmet should sit low on your temples and stay there-without the chin strap on-when you bend your head forward. The most secure helmets have foam linings. Don't worry about face coverage-good rolling technique will protect you there. Beginners should get a helmet that provides coverage over the ears. Higher-cut helmets are designed for advanced paddlers who won't be spending as much time underwater.

You won't go wrong with helmets from Prijon and ProTec (303-444-2336), Seda (619-336-2444), and Wild-Water (301-229-4304).

If you're going to splurge on one accessory, this is the one. The price range is wide between entry-level paddles and top-end models, and although you don't need to start out with a $300 carbon-fiber shaft, steer clear of paddles costing much less than $100. What you're paying for is lightness, strength, and an easy-to-grip oval shaft shape. To find the right length, hold the paddle above your head with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. There should be about a hand's width between where you grip the shaft and the blade.
Good paddles are made by Perception (803-859-7518), Schlegel (423-882-0404), Savage Designs (704-251-9875), Silver Creek (704-488-9542), Mitchell Paddles (603-523-7004), Werner Paddles by Northwest Design Works (800-275-3311), and Lightning (503-824-2938).

More Adventure