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.

Irene
 

Paul - October 29, 2011

If you are thinking about trying out WW kayaking or you’re a beginner, don’t waste hundreds of dollars on a dry suit. It will keep you DRY , but not WARM

Instead, buy a two piece diving wet suit ( 6.5-7mm ). You can wear it all year round. If it’s too warm , just wear Farmer John part with a splash jacket

Dry suits go for $300-700 ( used/new ), while you can find a nice diving wet suit on Craigslist under $100…Splash jacket ( even Kokatat or NRS ) can be found on Craigslist for $30-50

Don’t even get me started about dry suit maintenance…

For a beginner a dry suit is just not a good investment…Rather spend that money on classes

Irene - October 30, 2011

Holy shnikes, Paul, I have to go on record as totally not agreeing with your take on drysuits.

First of all, drysuits really do keep you warm, as long as you buy one that gives you enough room to layer up beneath it. I’ve boated on a 27 degree, windy day in PA with icicles from my helmet growing into my field of vision, and even rolled a few times – not cold. And as I mentioned in the article, I swam a LONG way through The Wall on that miserable, snow/rain day in March and was not cold – so seriously, if that doesn’t answer the question of whether or not drysuits keep you warm, what does?

(By the way, I’m not one of these people who’s always warm – I actually get cold pretty easily.)

In my opinion, if you plan on year-round boating in this area a drysuit is a MUST – I would think twice about even boating December through March with someone who wasn’t wearing one, except for maybe Rob McKibbin. And they’re not hard to take care of.

I’ve never used a wetsuit so can’t comment on how well one works for kayaking, but I can definitely tell you what to expect from a drysuit – to stay DRY and WARM. Yes, they can be pricey, but it’s a long-term investment, like a boat or paddle. The Tropos drysuit I bought nearly 3 years ago was my ticket to year-round paddling and a world of fun. The trick is to not underestimate how much to wear – I find if I’m a little too hot by the time I get dressed I’m good on the river, even if I roll a bunch of times.

Johann - November 1, 2011

I agree with Paul on starting out with a wet suit

But, if you are thinking about buying a drysuit, I can highly recommend the LOMO Renegade from Scotland. Zipper on the back, relief zipper on the front and latex socks. All this for 299 GBP, which is about 480 USD. Bought one myself and I love it.

http://www.ewetsuits.com/acatalog/kayaking-drysuits.html

Irene - November 1, 2011

OK, again, I can’t say anything about wetsuits because I haven’t tried one, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone using one in dead of winter around here.

Johann, it’s good to get your personal experience end of it on that drysuit, the one thing I would wonder though is the ease of getting in and out of it? It is just so nice to be able to get in and out of your drysuit on your own, which is why I love the front zip on the Kokatat drysuits.

Paul - November 1, 2011

Sorry, I thought the post was aimed at beginners or somebody who’s just thinking about getting started…

Your keywords : long term commitment & year-round boating…

Mine : cheap alternative & super warm ( without layering up )

Just trying to get people interested in outdoors and may be save some money…

Irene - November 2, 2011

Hi Paul,

You are right, the post is aimed at people starting out because they’re faced with a bunch of choices that they have to make with very little experience to go on.

Like I said in both comments, I can’t post an opinion on how well wetsuits work because I’ve never tried one. However, I can post an opinion on whether or not drysuits keep you warm, and that was the point of my whole first comment. I know for sure that they keep you warm. So, not that there were any actual keywords in there, but if you were going to choose one, it would be “warm”. ;)

For anyone reading who would like some various takes on this, here’s a Professor Paddle thread with some input:

http://www.professorpaddle.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=8024&PID=38911

and this really nice Beginner Kayaking sticky thread on Professor Paddle, started by Arn and Deb Schaeffer:

http://www.professorpaddle.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=4882&PID=61242

Kelly - November 2, 2011

I have been giving this some thought and as a newbie with just 2 years of paddling under my skirt, I have a different perspective about drysuits or even cold weather paddling. Being new to such a sport where there are inherent dangers even without adding hypothermia into the picture, I would venture to say one should paddle a couple seasons before even deciding whether you will be someone who wants to cold weather paddle that much. One of the things I think one needs to really figure out is what kind of paddler you want to be and that takes some time. Here’s a suggestion while one is figuring out those questions: If possible, rent a wetsuit from an outfitter for a day of paddling when it is colder water and temps. We have an outfitter near me who rents a wetsuit for under $20 for the day. Get in the water and don’t just paddle but get wet and see what it feels like to you to be in water when there is ice or snow around, wind with no sun. I’m sure a drysuit with the right layering probably does keep one somewhat warm and dry but let’s face it…cold weather paddling is a whole different game and before you commit to the expensive cost of a drysuit it might be a good idea to figure out just how much winter boating you want to do.

As for me, I’m not sure how much winter boating I will do. This Sunday we’ll be kayaking in fairly decent weather with air temps around 56 and water temps around low 50’s, in a Class II creek that we know pretty well. I’m looking forward to it but still have to resolve if I will enjoy it as much when the real cold sets in. Just another part of the journey on the river so it’s all good.

Irene - November 2, 2011

Hey Kelly, thanks for your comment, I agree that it’s a good idea to get in the water under safe conditions and see how your gear protects you when it’s really cold out. That day I boated on the Lehigh in PA when it was 27 degrees out what I really noticed was that because I didn’t have my regular Glacier Gloves with me and I used pogies instead (which again, amazingly, did keep my hands warm even though I rolled a few times), as soon as I got out of the water and had to take my hands off the paddle my hands went numb in the wind in about a minute – so swimming would have been miserable, not to mention dangerous…. I was really impressed with the pogies (Snapdragon) on the water, but realized the great thing about gloves is they keep your hands warm while you’re hiking to and from the river too.

Kelly - November 7, 2011

Yesterday was my first real fall paddling day. It wasn’t wetsuit or drysuit weather yet but the one thing I did notice being cold were my hands. I have been thinking about getting some pogies but my options to find them in stores near me isn’t the best selection. If I am going to order them online, how do I gauge what size to get? I see you recommend the Snapdragon brand.

Irene - November 9, 2011

Hey Kelly, I think Snapdragon pogies are just one size? I think the kind we use are the HyperHands, not the HotHands – http://www.coloradokayak.com/Snapdragon-Hyper-Hands-Pogies.html. Your other option would be gloves, which are only worth getting if you can really feel the paddle with them on, which is why I like Glacier Gloves, these ones: http://www.kayakacademy.com/Store/GLAFLEECEGLOVE.html. However, I will say, multiple pairs of mine have not held up well – they do keep your hands warm and I don’t feel like they inhibit my “feel” of the paddle, but they get holes in them quickly, especially around the inner thumb part where you tend to get calluses. But I still wear them and they still keep my hands warm. Most people I boat with use pogies though.

George B - November 25, 2011

Irene did a nice job of describing issues with a dry suit purchase especially for women.

Here is my take- as someone who has only been boating a couple of years, most all of it up in the PNW- one important perspective is simply survival. If a noob takes a bad or long swim and gets separated from their boat, and has to hoof it out, or gets injured and has to be out of their boat and inactive, it is essential that they can stay warm. In my view a wet suit alone won’t do this. I started out with a farmer john wet suit and a dry-top (with tunnel) over that. That worked pretty well. Even after medium length swims my top and core stayed pretty dry and the dry-top, even if I was damp, acted as a wind layer and provided a lot of protection. I knew I could use both garments for other activities I do, so I wasn’t out money in that sense.

When I decided to stick with boating, I bought a used (but like new) dry suit with sewn-in socks. What a great purchase, as it added tremendously to my comfort and also confidence that even in winter if I have to spend time in the water, I will be okay.

Bottom line is that in the PNW people wear dry-suits at least seven months of the year and almost year round.

One thing that didn’t get mentioned is the necessity for proper footwear- for warmth, portages and rescues.

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