When you think of whitewater kayaking, what pops into your head? A lot of people jump to the conclusion that whitewater kayaking is a dangerous, adrenaline-filled sport, consisting of scary rapids, big waterfalls and intimidating rocks. This is far from the case . . . whitewater kayaking is so much more! When I think of this sport, I begin to daydream of all the beautiful, scenic places that I get to experience in my kayak (which otherwise wouldn’t be accessible); I think of each and every one of the amazing people I have met who share this same passion; and, I think of the positive and fun aspects that kayaking gives me to improve my health and fitness . . . these are some of the main reasons I paddle.
The next question is usually, “How do I start?”
There are many avenues that people will go to learn how to kayak: they will teach themselves; they will have their friends teach them; or, they will get professional instruction. There are good and ‘not so good’ reasons for each:
Good – Low cost
‘Not so Good’ – Slow progression; potentially dangerous
Taught by friends:
Good – Low cost, fun
‘Not so Good’ – Slow progression, friends push too hard, potentially dangerous if friend isn’t safety conscious
Good – Fast progression; work at your own pace by being pushed just enough, fun, safe, immediate feedback
‘Not so Good’ – Cost
Once you have ‘fallen in love’ with the sport of kayaking (which isn’t hard), the next step is finding the correct gear. Here is a list of essential pieces of gear:
Boat: Look for a used boat for your first purchase either online or at your local paddle shop. I suggest a kayak in the category of a ‘River Runner’, like the Jackson ‘Hero’.
Paddle: Look for a used paddle as well . . . most beginners lose their first paddle on a swim. I recommend the AT4 paddle from Adventure Technology. Make sure to get the appropriate length for your height and a 30 or 45 degree offset (blade angle).
PFD: Personal Flotation Device (life jacket). I recommend buying your PFD brand new. When buying a used PFD, you never know the history behind it or how ‘used’ it’s been. Stohlquist has both men’s and women’s specific vests – ‘Drifter’ and the ‘Kitty’.
Helmet: Your head is one of the most important spots on your body to protect. I recommend buying a brand new helmet like a Sweet Protection Strutter. It’s a pretty expensive purchase, but they last a long time and are one of your most important pieces of gear.
Sprayskirt: Your sprayskirt keeps water out of your kayak, so you’ll want one that seals pretty well. Again, a used sprayskirt can be purchased online or at your local paddle shop. I recommend the Level Six ‘Juice Lite’ sprayskirt. It’s simple, easy to put on and take off of your boat and inexpensive for its high quality.
Outerwear: Depending on where you live, you will want the gear to keep you warm, dry and protected. One of my best purchases was a drysuit, which you can find used or at your local shop. In all my outerwear for paddling, I turn to Level Six. Level Six can hook you up with drytops, drypants, drysuits, neoprene, gloves, skull caps, etc. Or, the wetsuit from Girls4Sport rocks for warmer climates and looks pretty, too. Just remember that you want to stay comfortable on the river . . . always dress for a swim!!!!
Layering: Layering is just as important as your outerwear. I enjoy fleece layering in the winter and lighter layering like rashguards during the summer. I recommend the thermaguard long sleeve top for cooler temps and the short or long-sleeved top rashguard for the warmer temps . . . all from Girls4Sport.
Footwear: Last but not least . . . shoes!!!! Footwear is so important when it comes to boating, for a few reasons – You need to get the appropriate footwear to fit into your kayak; you need to get a pair of shoes that are comfortable to walk to the river in or portage around a rapid; you need footwear that will hold up to being wet all the time; you need footwear that will stay on your feet when it comes your time for a swim. The only footwear I find myself wearing are KEEN shoes, or if I need more of a bootie type sock I wear NRS booties.
So, here are the first steps in becoming a whitewater kayaker . . . first, you need to learn the basics (I recommend instruction) in a safe and comfortable setting; second, you need to get the gear that will allow you to paddle in the conditions around you; and third, you need to just go kayaking. Time on the water is essential to improving your skill! Most importantly, only paddle the level of whitewater that you have fun on . . . if kayaking gets scary for you, back off and step (or paddle) back to where you remember it being fun!
Heather Herbeck is a whitewater kayaker with Girls4Sport who lives in BZ Corner, Washington, in the Columbia River Gorge. She teaches whitewater kayaking on the White Salmon River. She’s also a personal trainer and aerobics instructor.