How do I get started Whitewater kayaking?
Well, that’s a good question! Let me tell you about the 5 essential pieces of gear you will need, and some quick safety advice, so you can start exploring those easier rivers and learning the ropes. Before you leave the house for that long drive to the river, make sure you count to five. Ensure that you have these 5 essential pieces of gear: 1. kayak 2. Paddle 3. Spray Skirt 4. PFD (Personal Flotation Device, AKA Life Jacket) 5. Helmet.
If you don’t have all this stuff, maybe go hiking instead! So let’s look at each piece of gear:
1. Kayak – Which kayak is right for me? That’s really hard to say, as it’s a very personal choice. Most new boaters go conservative with a full size river running kayak or creek boat. Though, ultimately your age, athleticism, paddling goals, and other factors will influence this choice. Many people opt to buy a used boat to get their first experiences, as most people will often change boats within the first year of paddling. Make sure you take time to get to know your kayak and it’s outfitting. You should have spent some time sitting in it before you get to the river bank. Make sure you are snug, but not too tight. Many new paddlers over tighten the backband. I always recommend starting in the most controlled environment possible, like a lake or pool. And of course, make sure you are not alone.
2. Paddle – Many new paddlers get sticker shock when they see the price of a new whitewater paddle. But, trust me when I say, a good paddle is worth it. You don’t have to buy a $400 carbon blade, start out with maybe a a fiberglass or plastic blade in the $150 to $250 range. A proper paddle will be both lighter and stronger at the same time. If that’s not possible, it’s okay to start out with a less expensive paddle. Some cheaper paddles, not designed for whitewater, may break easily when they come into contact with rocks. If you are buying a cheap 2 piece paddle, put it together and shake it and see how much it wiggles at the joint. If you have a cheaper paddle, this one thing to consider for an upgrade as soon as you can!
3. Sprayskirt – Make sure your sprayskirt is the right size. It will take some practice to get this thing on your kayak’s cockpit rim even if it fits. So just be patient, it takes practice. A wet skirt is easier to put on than a drier skirt! ALWAYS make sure you grab loop is visible when you put your skirt on the boat.
4. PFD – Your PFD needs to be of the correct coast guard approved type. It should fit comfortably and not restrict your range of motion. It is VERY IMPORTANT to adjust your pfd to a secure (but not overly tight) fit. If it is worn too loose, it will not be effective and will be a safety hazard! Rescue PFDs with a towing harness require proper training for safe use, so don’t get one until you are prepared to take a swift water rescue class.
5. Helmet- Ditch the bicycle helmet and make sure you get a helmet designed for water sports as soon as you can. As with the PFD, it is VERY IMPORTANT to adjust you helmet for proper fit, if not it will be a serious safety hazard. When you put it on and wiggle it around, it should not move excessively. If you wiggle it up and down, make sure it won’t expose your forehead, unless you like getting hit there by rocks!
What else should I bring? Friends! Don’t kayak alone! (or at least not till you have a certain level of experience) Flotation! Get some float bags to go in the stern of your boat, your friends will thank you! Shoes! Don’t kayak barefoot, there are too many opportunities to cut or otherwise injure your foot. Sandals can get hung up in rocks, so a good water shoe or neoprene boot is suggested. Water. Bring some drinking water, you don’t notice sweat when you are already getting wet, but dehydration can still be an issue. A whistle, designed for use in the water. Some food and sunscreen is not a bad idea as well. A throw rope, and of course, learn how to properly use it! If you have a rope, then a good knife designed for water rescue (I recommend a blunt tip) is a solid choice. If you have started working on your roll then maybe some nose plugs.
What not to bring or do? Don’t use a paddle leash! In rapids, the swirling water will tangle that rope all over you and represents a serious safety hazard. Don’t strap, tie, or carabiner things to the outside of your kayak! Don’t carabiner your throw rope to one of the grab loops, for example.
Okay, you have all your gear, now what?
Well, again, make sure you have sat in your kayak and adjusted the outfitting, and adjusted the fit of both your pfd and helmet before you get to the water.
Now listen………I won’t go down the river with you until you have done a wet exit. You need to understand how to get the sprayskirt off and free yourself from the boat in case you flip. You need to do that before you are going down the river. Make sure you have someone around to help you if something goes wrong. There are many articles, videos, books, and classes that will teach you how to do this, so I won’t go into the details. I do recommend that you know some “plan b” ways to get the skirt off just in case you accidentally tuck in the grab loop or otherwise can’t reach it.
So, of course, you will have to wet exit, and swim at some point (probably many times)! Do you know the defensive swimmer’s posture? Do you know when to swim actively and self rescue? Do you know not to stand up in current so you can avoid a foot entrapment? Can you identify a strainer and other common river hazards? Do you have a competent paddling group around you that can effectively render assistance?
Of course, you can learn many of these basics from books, videos, etc….. But nothing will beat face to face instruction to really round out your understanding. Fortunately our club provides such instruction!
If you can’t take time for instruction, then paddling with knowledgeable, competent, and safe paddlers is the next best thing. They will give you informal instruction and advice. Fortunately our club is filled with such boaters!
Good luck! Remember 2 things: 1. Have fun! 2. Be safe! And one final warning: Whitewater is addictive!