Kayak campers typically spend more time in their boats, paddle longer distances and experience rougher water conditions than recreational day paddlers. Be sure to find a kayak that fits you comfortably.
When evaluating a kayak for comfort, focus on three basic areas:
You should feel connected to your kayak without feeling too constrained inside of it. You should be able to control the tilt of the boat using your hips and thighs, but you should also be able to get in and out of it easily. Make sure (when seated inside) that you can reach the water easily with your paddle blades.
To carry paddling, camping and safety gear with you, you'll need a kayak with lots of storage space. The most useful space is inside the boat's hull, where gear is protected from rain and waves. Look for boats with large, easy to open deck hatches (they'll make packing and unpacking easier) and tight-fitting hatch covers to keep your equipment safe from leaks.
Since paddle campers tend to cover longer distances and carry heavier weight loads than regular day paddlers, paddling efficiency is also important. Here's a list of the main design factors that will affect a kayak's efficiency:
Contrary to what you might expect, longer boats are generally faster and easier to paddle over long distances than shorter ones (once you get them up to speed). They sacrifice some maneuverability as a result. But tight turns and quick stops are seldom as important to kayak campers as good forward efficiency.
Narrow boats are faster and easier to paddle forward than wide boats, since they cut through the water better and displace less water. The downside? Narrow kayaks are usually less stable and provide less storage space inside.
High volume boats (boats with lots of inside hull space) make great gear carriers, so they're often popular on long expeditions. But keep in mind that high volume hulls usually take more effort to paddle, and they tend to get pushed around more easily by wind and waves.
Rocker is the upward curve of the ends of a kayak when viewed from the side. Kayaks with lots of rocker are easy to turn, but harder to keep on a straight course. Kayaks with little or no rocker stay on course more effectively, which is usually more important for long-distance kayak campers.
A kayak rudder will help you compensate for wind and/or currents, and help you stay on course without a lot of extra paddle strokes. It can be a great effort-saver, especially on longer trips and trips involving lots of open-water paddling.
Two person kayaks are longer, wider, and more spacious than single-seat craft, and they're extremely efficient when both paddlers are paddling. However, they are quite difficult to paddle on your own. Make sure you have a reliable partner (and that you want to paddle with someone else every time you hit the water) before you buy a double!
You should have access to two paddles whenever you're on the water; a primary paddle and an emergency spare. Both paddles should be tough enough to handle boat re-entries and lots of bracing, but light enough for long paddling days. Consider the following factors when choosing your paddles:
Long, thin touring blades allow you to paddle longer distances (and for longer periods of time) with less effort and muscle strain. They require a quicker paddle "cadence" (stroke rhythm) than larger blades, and they produce less power per stroke. But they slide through the water more easily, resulting in a more easily sustainable stroke.
Many modern kayak paddles have shafts that are oval-shaped in cross-section. This style provides a more natural grip, reducing muscle strain in your wrists and forearms. An oval shaft can also help you keep track of the angle of your blades without having to check them visually (see feathered vs. non-feathered below).
Most primary kayak paddles are made out of strong, lightweight, affordable materials like fiberglass or wood. Paddles made of heavier, less expensive materials such as plastic and aluminum are also available. But remember—you'll be dealing with your paddle more than any other piece of gear throughout your trip. Choose the lightest, toughest model you can afford.
Touring kayak paddles are available in either one-piece or two-piece designs. One-piece models are popular because they're sturdy, tough and less expensive than most two-piece designs. But two-piece paddles can be broken down into smaller sections for easier storage and transportation. Make sure your spare paddle is a two-piece design so you can store it easily on your boat deck.
Feathered paddles have blades that are mounted at angles to one another on the paddle shaft (anywhere from 40 to 90 degrees). The advantage of such blades is that, as you swing them upward and forward during the recovery portion of a normal paddle stroke, they present less surface area to the oncoming air. This means less wind resistance and easier paddling in certain circumstances (like when paddling into a headwind).
Feathered paddles require a slightly different paddling motion than regular paddles, which can cause more strain on your wrists over time. Feathered blades can also make bracing more difficult for some paddlers, though learning how to correct for a feathered paddle is not exceedingly difficult.
NOTE: Many modern take-apart paddles can be switched from feathered to non-feathered and back again. Others allow you to set blades at a number of different angles. These adjustable designs allow you to react to changing paddling conditions for maximum paddling efficiency.
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) are an essential part of any kayaker's paddling gear. They provide buoyancy to keep your head above water if you fall out of your kayak. They can also make bracing, rolling and rescues easier by adding extra upward force when your upper body is in the water. In cold conditions, PFDs can also provide an extra layer of insulation.
The United States Coast Guard requires that every kayaker carry an approved PFD with them whenever they're on the water. Make sure you wear yours at all times while paddling. They can be extremely difficult to put on after you capsize, especially if conditions are rough and you're already busy trying to hold on to your boat and paddle.
After the Coast Guard seal of approval, the most important thing to look for in a personal flotation device is proper fit. Your PFD should be snug but not binding, and should allow for a full range of torso, arm and head movements.
To check the fit of your PFD, put the jacket on and tighten it up (most PFDs have adjustment straps on their sides or around the bottom). Stand with your arms held straight out to your sides. Have a friend push up on the bottom edges of the PFD. It should not slip or rise up significantly on your torso. If the PFD rises enough to interfere with your vision when you turn your head from side to side, then it's too large. Try a smaller size or different style.
NOTE: If you plan on paddling in a variety of weather and water conditions, test for proper PFD fit with a variety of clothing combinations on. Look for designs with cinch straps to make size adjustments easier.
There are 5 basic types of US Coast Guard-approved PFDs. Each provides a different level of flotation for different water conditions and different end uses.
Almost all kayakers use Type 3 PFDs, which are designed for recreational uses that occur not too far from land and/or rescue. Type III PFDs are popular because they offer an acceptable level of flotation (enough to keep a conscious adult's head above water in all but the roughest water conditions) without being too bulky to paddle in comfortably. When it comes to specific styles of Type III PFDs, there are also options. Most kayakers prefer "shorties"—high-cut jackets designed not to bunch up and cause problems when worn with a spray skirt in a seated position.
When choosing a PFD, keep your eyes open for useful features like chest pockets, emergency flare holders and carabiner clips, all of which can be used to store important safety and navigation gear within easy reach as you paddle.
Spray skirts are waterproof barriers that keep waves, rain and spray from entering your boat. They cover the area between your waist and the raised edge, or "coaming," of your kayak cockpit.
In all but the calmest, warmest conditions, you should wear a spray skirt whenever you paddle. Remember—water that makes its way inside your kayak (whether it be from rain, waves or drips from your paddle) can soak your clothing, ruin your lunch and possibly even make your boat unstable.
Most spray skirts are made out of either nylon or neoprene. Nylon skirts are less expensive, easier to get on and off your cockpit coaming, and cooler on warm paddle days. Neoprene skirts are more effective at keeping water out, since they form a tighter barrier across the cockpit opening, but they cost more. Combination models with tight neoprene decks and comfortable nylon body "tubes" are extremely popular, since they combine the best qualities of each material.
NOTE: All spray skirts have grab loops attached to the front of their spray decks. These loops provide a quick way to release the spray skirt from the cockpit coaming so you can get out of the cockpit in an emergency. Make sure your grab loop is clearly visible and easy to reach whenever your spray skirt is in place.
To make sure a spray skirt fits your cockpit well, first see if it forms a taut surface across the cockpit when installed. Next, make sure it doesn't inhibit your natural paddling motion. Finally, with you in the seat and the skirt installed, attempt to bend your knees and rise up out of the boat with the spray skirt in place. A good-fitting skirt will resist at first, then slowly give way and let you exit the cockpit.
Spray skirts come in a variety of sizes. Nylon models are often adjustable to fit a range of cockpit shapes. Neoprene models tend to be less adjustable, and must be carefully matched to your cockpit shape and size.
Bailers and bilge pumps are devices that remove water from the inside of your kayak. Bailers are most useful when your kayak is on shore or when the water is calm enough for you to remove your spray skirt safely. The most popular type of bailer is the simple sponge. Sponges are easy to use, cheap, and they can be stored just about anywhere. Plus, they're great for sopping up small pools of water that other bailing devices cannot collect. Other popular bailers include cups, pots, and plastic jugs with their tops cut off.
Bilge pumps are designed to remove water from your boat while you're still paddling (like right after a capsize). The most popular type of bilge pump is the inexpensive hand pump. These tall, tubular pumps can be inserted into the bottom of your cockpit to pull water up and over the coaming. Electric and foot-operated bilge pumps can also be installed in most kayaks, though they are far more expensive than simple hand pumps.
Self-rescue devices are essential for safe kayaking. They help you get back into your kayak (after a capsize) by holding the kayak steady and keeping it from rolling over as you climb back on board. Self-rescue devices should always be stored on the deck of your kayak, so you can reach them easily from the water.
The most common type of kayak self-rescue device is the paddle float, an inflatable bladder that you secure to one end of your kayak paddle and use as an out-rigger to steady your boat. Some paddle floats on the market today are foam-filled instead of inflatable. These models are reliable (no leaks!) and easy to use, but they are bulkier than inflatable versions.
The other commonly used type of kayak rescue device is the sponson, an inflatable balloon similar to a paddle float that attaches directly to your kayak's side. Sponsons are usually used in pairs, one on each side of the kayak, and are often left in place (un-inflated) during paddling.
Sea socks are large, waterproof cockpit liners that attach to the inside of your cockpit coaming and limit the amount of water that can enter your kayak during a capsize. They are not actual self-rescue devices, since they do not assist you in re-entering your boat. But they limit the negative effects of the capsize and help you recover more quickly once you've re-entered your boat (instead of having to pump out your entire cockpit, you only have to empty your sea sock). Keep in mind, however, that sea socks can get uncomfortably warm in warm-weather paddling conditions.
Safety lines can perform a number of important functions during kayak camping trips. They can be used to secure kayaks on shore to tow incapacitated paddlers/empty kayaks, or to reach kayakers in trouble.
Every kayaker in a paddle group should have a sturdy line of at least 60 feet of water-resistant, abrasion-resistant, floating rope in their kayak at all times while paddling. Most paddlers choose to secure one end of this line to their boats, then coil the rope and store it somewhere above decks within easy reach. Others prefer self-contained emergency throw bags, which can be stored behind the seat and then tossed to other paddlers when necessary.
The specific navigation tools you'll need during a trip will depend upon the route you're following. If you're paddling on an inland lake or river, carry a detailed topographic map or nautical chart of your entire route and a quality compass (either hand-held or deck-mounted). During coastal trips, also carry up to date tide charts and current guides, so you can accurately predict water level changes, current strengths and directions, and times of slack (or slowly moving) water.
Everyone in your paddling group should carry (and know how to use) these water and land navigation tools on every trip. All maps and charts should be stored in water-tight cases to protect them from splashes, waves and drips.
By T.D. Wood
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Last updated: 08/16/2012
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