When you first start out what gear do you need?
The kayak – what fit for us was to buy a solid recreational kayak (~1200) that was long enough and had a rudder to go where we wanted it to and had areas to store gear for camping, without breaking the bank while we were both in grad school. We assumed we would hold onto the kayak for years but also upgrade to something fancier later when we knew more about kayaks and what features would fit us best. If all you can afford is the $300 cheap recreational kayak go for it! because you can use it on a smaller lake and have a great time. But if you want to do a little more save up for a bit longer. If you can afford the touring kayak with the bulkheads (walls between the area you sit and the storage areas so there’s less water that fills the cockpit when you flip) and know this is a hobby worth investing in (it is!!) then you might want to skip straight to the more expensive kayaks, but be sure to try them out (in the water!) with someone who knows their stuff to get the fit right.
Paddles – again, there’s a huge price range. Just through online research we found the Bending Branches Sunrise Glass seemed to be the best value recreational paddle, and Werner Paddles seemed to be the best for high end paddles (we’re biased though because they’re made in Washington). Your sizing (the length) will depend on your height and the width of your boat, the weight will depend on your price range (and the distance you want to go), the shaft (straight or bent) will depend on your preference (try them out), Also remember you’ll want a spare paddle (the Bending Branches Whisper Snap is what we got) in case yours goes overboard and you still want to get back to land (you can also look into paddle leashes, which we’ve successfully used in an unplanned flip in windy Maui but we also were swept to shore on the same trip while trying to untangle ourselves).
Personal Flotation Device (PFD): Coming from Alaska I was raised to love and explore nature while using basic protective gear to stay safer while doing not so safe activities. This includes kayaking. Stretch your comfort zone safely with protective gear and solid research. Get a paddle specific life vest for comfort so the padding doesn’t rub your back (pushed in by the backrest) and doesn’t ride up. You can get pockets and there are variations to how you put them on (overhead, off center, centered zippers) and men’s/women’s/neutral. I don’t know much about them and am happy with my center zipper, two pocket, women’s Stohlquist, in powder blue (to match my NRS wetshoe :D).
Bilge Pump: When you flip, push yourself up to the surface (called a “wet exit”), and flip your boat over, it’s going to be filled with water. You might be able to get to land if you’re close but it’s hard to get back in without flipping out again with the water sloshing around. Ideally you’ll have learned rescue techniques and be with someone who can dump your boat out using their own kayak. If you’re alone or even with the rescue techniques you’ll want a hand pump to draw the water up and squirt the water back where it belongs. The first pump we got, the Thirsty-Mate, takes forever to pump the cockpit out. The Aqua-Bound BilgeMaster we bought next and that works much faster. You can get a big sponge to sop up what’s left.
Spray skirt: I don’t know what goes into choosing a spray skirt but they’re handy! In rainy Seattle it keeps you from sitting in water, in waves it keeps you afloat, and in cold it keeps you warmer.
Wet suit: We’re in the north, after all. Plus, to attend kayak meet up groups (which are free!) they usually require a wet suit (or dry suit, but we’re not there yet). You might be tempted to use your other sporting equipment (jet skip wet suit or scuba diving dry suit) but they’re flexible in different spots (you want to sit comfortably and move your shoulders), may have a zipper in the back (that you’d be leaning/rubbing against), and you’ll need another zipper to do your business (go commando once you own it). You’ll want to look at thickness (for warmth) and try it on (it should be tight! and take effort to get on and pull up) seated and at least fake paddling.
Roof rack / kayak carrier: We got a Thule carrier, an older version of this one, which holds our kayak up at an angle (to leave room for bikes). The vertical piece folds down when we’re not using it. It came with the straps but we had to buy the attachment pieces to place them on the roof rack (a load bar and “feet” based on our car…on the Thule website they walk you through the steps of choosing here). If you have the money and don’t have the ability to get your kayak on top of your car you can get one that does the lifting for you. My limitation is my height but I get by by bringing a basic kitchen stool. I think a car carrier is a necessity (if you don’t have an inflatable) because why invest in all this if you’re not going to explore?
Something to keep your phone dry: I got the Aquapac, where you slip the phone in and put it around your neck. It worked great on being waterproof and letting me use the touch pad but I couldn’t get a clear photo without taking my phone out. The neck string broke after about a year but I replaced it with an Avengers lanyard that’s more comfortable anyway. Then, because I’m a clutz I got the Lifeproof Case that I have on all the time and I love it. It’s a little bulkier but I can use the touch screen easily on my iphone. My phone is for safety and music but it’s mainly for taking pictures so I want it on me at all times.
Something to keep your snacks dry: I use snapware all the time (packing our work lunches to save money for more kayaking!) and except for a few mishaps as the rubber seal ages it keeps my lunch bag dry, despite whatever liquids or solids I put in it (meaning the reverse should work too I assume, keeping it water proof). As you use them on the trip they can be stacked together to take up less space or of course used to hold food debris (leave no trace!). Ziplock bags also work of course, but I don’t like how scratched they look after a couple washes and hate to waste. Then your snapware or ziplock bags can be put in a dry bag. We have Sea to Summit bags, a smaller one, two medium bags, and a large bag. We also use garbage sacks and duct tape.
Light: Maybe it’s the Alaskan in me that still doesn’t understand why the sun doesn’t set until the end of summer, or it’s the girlscout in me, but I think you should always have light if there’s a remote possibility darkness could catch up on you. We each have a headlamp and have one Lifegear flashlight that’s waterproof, bright, and you can either turn the handle on to glow (for a little visibility from other boats and to find the flashlight in the dark) or the main flashlight or both. My only complaint is when it’s raining or waves slosh over the deck the flashlight automatically turns on/blinks. It’s a feature I think would work great if you need to find it after flipping, but it’s a little annoying to keep turning off in those conditions or run the battery down (which I haven’t replaced yet in the year I’ve owned it, with light use…er, small amount of use).