Whitewater Kayaking Gear: What to Buy – Drysuits and Paddles

As soon as you start shopping for whitewater kayaking gear you realize there are quite a few choices to make about each item, and it can be hard to know what to buy when you don’t have a ton of experience.  The stuff’s expensive too, so you really want to buy gear that you won’t want to replace six months down the road. 


The great thing about whitewater kayaking, though, is that once you get the gear it’s basically a free sport except for the gas to get to the river.

Here are some whitewater kayaking gear buying tips based on my experience so far.  Keep in mind that a lot of it boils down to personal preference (except for the parts where I’m just completely right ;)) so ultimately, choose what you think will work best for the way you paddle.  Buying boats is such a huge topic that I’m not going to talk about it here – I did do some reviews on the Jackson 2Fun and the Wavesport Fuse 48 a while ago though.

Whitewater Kayaking Drysuit:

I recommend getting a drysuit that has the booties built into the suit, not a suit with ankle gaskets (you’ll see the booties listed as “dry socks”).  You’ll also want one that has a sprayskirt tunnel.  Some people wear bib style drypants with a drytop, but after reading a big Professor Paddle thread about the relative safety of that style versus a drysuit I’d say it’s better to go with the drysuit.

I like the Kokatat Goretex drysuits, and they make a Tropos line that is significantly lower in price than the regular.  My first drysuit was a Tropos, I got it for like $480-something at Kayak Academy and it worked great to get me out on the water in the middle of winter.

I’m not a big fan of drysuits that zip across the back shoulders – unless you’re a regular performer at Cirque du Soleil you pretty much always need someone else to help you with those.  That being said, a lot of good boaters use those.

Women’s Drysuits:

A lot of women like the drysuits with the drop bottom that opens with a zipper in the back.  I’d say definitely sit in a boat with one of those on before getting one, they’re really popular but when I wore one in a boat the zipper was getting crushed into my hips – it was actually painful enough I would not have been able to paddle with it.  My drysuit has a front zipper which I’ve never used and hope I never have to, but at least it’s there and I’m not sitting on it.

When In Doubt, Go Big:

Whether it’s a drysuit or a drytop, remember that at some times during the year you might be piling on seven layers of clothing underneath it (especially if it’s a drysuit – you probably wouldn’t use just a drytop if it were that cold out), so I recommend going up rather than down a size when in doubt.  I am regular size but use a large women’s Kokatat drytop and a medium women’s Kokatat drysuit (both with small neck gaskets) – it’s just no fun having to fight your way in and out of gear, and I’ve never felt like they were too bulky.  It also gives me the freedom to boat on really cold days, when I seriously do put on seven layers.  (Shortly after the photo above was taken I felt compelled to test my seven-layer theory by swimming most of The Wall on Tumwater.  Happy to report I stayed warm. :))

Whitewater Kayaking Paddle:

Two big things to consider when buying a paddle are length and degree of feather.  You can get charts online that tell you about how long your paddle should be for your height.  For example, I’m 5’4″ and I think my paddle is around 189 cm, which is on the short side – but again, a lot of that boils down to personal preference.  Here’s the Werner paddle sizing chart for reference (on the left side of the linked-to page).

Paddle feather is something I see a lot of people give themselves trouble with, in my opinion.  Just to be clear, paddle feather is the degree to which the individual blades are angled away from each other.  A paddle with zero degrees of feather has blades that are exactly parallel to each other, whereas one with 45 degrees of feather has the blades offset by 45 degrees.  (I know, it’s not rocket science. :))  Feathered paddles are supposed to relieve stress on the wrists while paddling.  The paddle below has 90 degrees of feather, to give you an idea.

A moment of quiet contemplation in Boulder Drop. Photo courtesy of Jeff Dwyer and Renee Paradis.

Beginner kayakers often end up with paddles that have 45 degree feather, but I recommend getting one that has 30 degrees of feather or less – my paddle right now has 15 degrees of feather and I love it.  Not having much feather makes it easier to do moves on both sides, for example, with my paddle I’m able to do an offside back deck roll, which a lot of boaters who are way better than I am can’t do.

I should mention that “beginner” kayaker Charlie Matlock, who I paddled with at Wet Planet’s creekboating clinic this weekend, does an offside back deck roll with a 30 degree paddle, I guess just because he doesn’t know it’s supposed to be virtually impossible.  (When we had to list our “Three most difficult runs” for Wet Planet’s skills evaluation sheet he was like, “Well, I’ve only ever done three runs.”  And they were all Class III’s with IV sections – too funny.)

Anyway, there are some world-class playboaters, like Ken Whiting, who use a paddle with almost no feather, and some of my friends have switched to zero or very low feather in order to be able to do moves on both sides more easily, so while I’m sure some people will disagree with me, I’m a huge fan of the 15 degree paddle feather.  My first paddle had 30 degree feather, which was fine too.  I really think 45 degree would have made offside stuff more complicated for me though.  However, for the record, there are some incredibly good boaters using paddles with a high degree of feather too.


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