Deciding that you want to get into whitewater kayaking is the easy part.
But then you start thinking about the equipment you’ll need for running rapids – and that’s where things tend to get tricky.
Just look at the extensive range of kayaking gear available on the market today. It’s not always easy to determine which items are absolute must-have whitewater kayaking gear – and which count as “non-essential equipment“ you may consider in the future.
So, I put together this essential whitewater kayaking gear list.
It covers everything from whitewater-specific equipment and safety gear to optional accessories!
I’ve also thrown in a few top tips, tricks, some general bits of advice and responses to commonly asked questions, all to help you get the best from your whitewater experience – enjoy!
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Essential Whitewater Kayaking Gear List
Whitewater or not, certain pieces of equipment are considered “bare necessities” – as in, there’s no way you’re going kayaking without them. This first chunk of my list is all about the must-have whitewater kayaking gear – things you’ll need to get out on the water – or to start off as a whitewater beginners.
Okay, yes, this one’s pretty obvious – you’re going to need a whitewater kayak if you intend to run rapids. It’s the single most crucial piece of gear for whitewater kayaking.
But here’s why I’m pointing out the obvious:
There are several different styles of whitewater kayaks available on the market. So, while it’s apparent that you need a specialized kayak to get into whitewater kayaking, which one to get might not be as obvious.
You generally have two options – hard-shell and inflatable kayaks – and a wide range of models within each of those two categories.
Hard-shell whitewater kayaks come in several different styles, from the 6-foot-long playboats to creek boats and river runner. They’re all characterized by a short and wide hull and ample rocker. For this years top picks, check out my review of the best whitewater kayaks.
Inflatable whitewater kayaks are commonly referred to as “duckies” because of their short, stubby hulls and enhanced rocker that makes them appear duck-like. You can check out my round-up of best ducky kayaks for more info.
When buying any type of kayak the same basic rules apply; buy the best you can afford, buy from a well established kayak brand which has a good selection of whitewater products, and purchase it from a reputable dealer with proven customer service.
2. Whitewater Paddle
You’re also going to need a whitewater paddle – which, again, seems obvious given that you’re not going anywhere without one. But as with kayaks, choosing a whitewater-specific paddle can be a daunting task.
The trick is in balancing value and performance.
When you start your search for your first whitewater paddle, there are several things you want to consider:
- Paddle Length – Whitewater kayak paddles are shorter than recreational paddles and range from 191 centimeters to just over 200 centimeters, depending on your height.
- Shaft Design – Whitewater-specific paddles generally have a single-piece design; they aren’t collapsible like their recreational counterparts. You can choose between straight and bent shafts, which will mostly be a matter of preference.
- Blade Offset – Feather angle is essentially the angle of offset between the two blades. The most common feather angle on standard paddles is the 30-degree offset, but I’ve found that many freestyle and playboaters prefer the zero-offset version.
- Blade Shape – Whitewater paddling calls for a more aggressive style of stroke, often called high-angle paddling. High-angle paddle blades are shorter and broader than the low angle equivalent, which are longer and narrow and more suited to long distance kayaking
Many people will opt for Fiberglass paddles as they feel they are more durable – my personal preference is a carbon hybrid, as they offer a better bang-for-your-buck.
Werner Desperado, with Carbon-reinforced nylon blades, a Carbon-blend shaft, and a tried-and-true design, provides unrivaled performance and durability at a hard-to-beat price.
But you can always check out my best kayak paddle guide for more suggestions!
3. Spray Skirt
If this were recreational kayaking we were talking about, then sure, you could get away with not using a spray skirt – but in whitewater kayaking?
It’s a must-have. Otherwise, you’re only a few splashes away from getting swamped and losing control of your kayak.
The spray skirt essentially acts as a waterproof barrier between you and the kayak cockpit’s rim, sealing the cockpit and keeping the water out of the kayak.
When choosing a spray skirt for whitewater applications, make sure it’s made of thick neoprene, preferably reinforced with Kevlar, to ensure durability and implosion-resistance. You want to be sure your spray skirt can handle the pressure of high-volume water.
Also, watch out for the sizing. Spray skirts are only helpful if they fit both your waist size and your kayak’s cockpit dimensions.
SEALS Pro Rand Sprayskirt was designed with extreme paddling conditions in mind – be sure to check it out!
Whether you have a spray skirt or not, it’s always recommended to carry a bilge pump with you on the water. A kayak bilge pump is a must-have for anyone paddling in whitewater or surf, as well as anyone who wants to be prepared for the unexpected – and will help you remove excess water from your kayak, regardless of the situation.
Whitewater Kayaking Safety Equipment List
Now, let’s talk about whitewater kayaking gear that’s in charge of keeping you alive and well as you’re conquering one rapid after another.
Some of the items listed here will be essential from the get-go – such as a PFD and a kayaking helmet. Others may become more “relevant” as you progress and venture into more challenging whitewater rapids.
A personal flotation device, or PFD, is an essential piece of safety gear for anyone participating in any type of on-the-water activities. And I don’t mean that in an “it’s a good idea to have one” kind of way, either:
In most places, wearing a life jacket is required by law.
If you’re just getting into whitewater kayaking, it’s okay if you’re not ready to shell out on a high-end PFD.
As long as it’s a Coast-Guard-approved Type III PFD – preferably a whitewater-specific model with a low-profile cut – and it fits you right, you’ll be good to go. Stohlquist Edge Life Jacket is a solid choice, and you can find more options in my best kayak life vest round-up.
It’s worth looking into specialized Type V rescue PFDs that feature an additional quick-release rescue harness, like NRS Rapid Rescuer – but only if you’ve received proper swift water rescue training.
5. Kayak Helmet
Your brain bucket is the second crucial piece of whitewater kayaking safety gear – and while it’s not required by law like PFDs are, it should be a no-brainer.
If you end up capsizing in any type of whitewater, the chances are you’ll encounter some hidden stones and logs, especially in shallow waters. Landing face-first onto a bunch of rocks hurts like heck – and your brain is kind of an essential piece of “thinking equipment” you want to protect if something like that happens.
That’s where a kayaking helmet comes in:
As with life jackets, I recommend something whitewater-specific, like the Dagger Sweet Rocker kayaking helmet. It’s made from ABS-laminated Carbon fiber, has an EVA shock-absorbing liner paired with anti-allergenic, moisture-wicking fabric and a shatter-resistant visor.
You may be tempted to go with a hand-me-down, but a helmet is generally a piece of gear that you should purchase new. Don’t take any chances in terms of protecting your noggin.
Make sure to read my review of the best helmets for kayaking for other great alternatives and helpful buyers guide.
6. Float Bags
Float bags are essentially big air-filled sacks that are placed in the stern area of a sit-inside kayak – which, I know, doesn’t sound like something you’d ever consider buying.
I mean, we’re talking about bags of air here. How does that even count as safety gear?
Well, the concept is simple:
Float bags take up space in your kayak’s stern compartment – leaving less room for the water that would otherwise fill up the cockpit in the event of a swim. The less your ‘yak fills with water, the easier it is to retrieve it and pull it up onto the shore.
Since they’re filled with nothing but air, they also improve your kayak’s buoyancy and make both assisted and self-rescue a lot easier.
Again, these are air-filled bags, so there’s not much to look at – but you can check out Harmony Gear Long Bow Flotation Bag to better understand what to expect.
7. Emergency Whistle
It seems like the furthest thing possible from kayaking gear – but the idea is that the whistle can be used as a noisemaker in emergency scenarios. It attracts attention and “calls” for help.
A regular whistle won’t cut it, though, as it would likely be hard to hear with all the gushing water surrounding you.
A pealess whistle is a much better choice for a whitewater kayaking safety kit. Considering how compact and unobtrusive an emergency whistle is, there’s no excuse for not wearing one.
It’s as simple as tying it to the PFD, and yet it makes a big difference between being heard and – well, not being heard in an emergency. Just make sure it’s easily accessible.
Again, it would be best if you had a loud, powerful noisemaker designed to be heard from a mile away – something like the LuxoGear Emergency Whistle.
8. Throw Bag
A throw bag is essentially rope stuffed inside a bag; nothing to call home about, really. And yet, safety-wise, it’s a must-have piece of whitewater kayaking gear.
The name tells you a lot about what throw bags do and how they work. They are, quite literally, designed to be thrown to another person if they capsize and end up in the water or get stuck somewhere, allowing you to pull them back to safety.
Plus, the rope can come in handy for other things – such as towing another kayak.
Scotty #793 Throw Bag features 50 feet of braided MFP polypropylene floating rope stuffed in a bright orange, self-draining bag. If your kayaking safety kit still doesn’t include a throw bag, this one’s worth considering.
Keep in mind that the throw bags only work in the hands of experienced users – so, be sure to practice your throws regularly.
A river knife is one of those items you’ll probably never use. Nine times out of 10, you’ll use the knife to cut up snacks, twigs, and whatnot – but it’s that one time when you really need it to get out of a sticky situation that counts.
Entrapment – such as getting tangled in a rope or a fishing line, for example – can turn your day into a real horror show in a matter of seconds. Keeping your river knife attached to the PFD’s lash tab, where it’s easily accessible, will make a real difference in such scenarios.
Again, this rarely happens – but when it does, you’ll be glad you have one on hand.
GEAR AID Akua Paddle Knife is an excellent choice. It features a blunt tip that won’t lead to any unintentional gear punctures, has both a serrated and straight edge, a line cutter – and doubles as a screwdriver, too!
Whitewater Kayaking Clothing List
Time of year, the rivers you’ll kayak in, and weather and water temperature; all that plays a role in deciding what to wear kayaking. That becomes even more important for whitewater kayakers:
Rivers that feature sections of whitewater rapids are usually fed by heavy rain, snowmelt, and dams, meaning the water temperatures are relatively low year-round.
So, paddlers could still be at risk of hypothermia – regardless of the weather. Keep that in mind when choosing your kayaking clothing and apparel.
If you want a specialized full-body paddling suit, a wetsuit would be a great starting point – as long as you don’t mind getting wet, that is.
Wetsuits for kayaking are made of neoprene and trap a layer of water, warm it up to your body’s temperature, and then use it to create a thermal barrier. So, it will prevent heat loss – but you’re bound to get wet in the process.
I highly recommend the Hevto Guardian (I) Warrior wetsuit. The stretchy blend of neoprene and nylon, and the 3-millimeter thickness, make it a comfortable choice for water temperatures of 50 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.
Some whitewater kayakers might find a full-body wetsuit a bit restricting, though.
If that’s the case, check out my round-up of best wetsuits for kayaking; you’ll find some fantastic long-John-style wetsuits there!
11. Dry Suit Insulation
You need to keep in mind that drysuits for kayaking are not designed to maintain your core body temperature on their own. What they do is keep you dry – and it’s the layers underneath that are in charge of thermal insulation.
That means you have to think twice about what you’ll wear underneath – starting with your base layer – and go from there, depending on how extreme the temperatures get.
You generally want a base layer made from moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics. Think something along the lines of non-cotton long underwear and a form-fitting synthetic T-shirt. Or you could go with a drysuit liner, instead.
Some kayak drysuits come with built-in liners, making things a lot more convenient – but others don’t.
If your drysuit falls into the latter category, you may want to consider getting the SEAC Unifleece Insulating Undergarment to wear as your base layer.
12. Dry Top
If you’re not ready to invest in a drysuit for kayaking – they can get pretty expensive – then a dry top would be the next best thing for keeping you dry, warm, and non-hypothermic.
Dry tops are designed in a similar way as full-body drysuits and have water-tight rubber gaskets around the neck and wrists. The main difference is that the dry top isn’t completely sealed off at the waist, meaning it won’t be able to keep you dry for long if you end up taking a swim.
That said, there’s one piece of essential whitewater kayaking gear that will improve your chance of remaining dry as long as you stay in your kayak. That’s right; I’m talking about the spray skirt.
Check out the Kokatat OM Gore-Tex Pro Dry Top while you’re at it. It’s made of three-layer Gore-Tex fabric, known for being waterproof but breathable, features reinforcements in high-wear areas, and ensures a water-tight seal when paired with a spray skirt.
13. Dry Suit
At some point – when the water temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit – you have to consider ditching the wetsuit because it won’t be enough in extreme conditions. That’s when a drysuit for kayaking becomes your best – and only – option for staying warm.
Now, a drysuit is designed to keep you completely dry, hence the name. It’s usually made of waterproof materials and will feature water-tight zippers and gaskets to ensure dryness – but as I said earlier, it doesn’t provide much thermal protection on its own.
It’s essentially a waterproof outer layer that’s loose-fitting enough to accommodate one or more insulating layers underneath.
If you decide to go with a drysuit – and most whitewater kayakers would agree that you should – be sure to check out the reasonably priced Kokatat Hydrus Swift Entry Drysuit.
It’s a front-zip drysuit made from Kokatat’s proprietary three-layer waterproof material, with latex gaskets, a convenient relief zipper, and knee and seat reinforcement patches.
For more great kayaking drysuit recommendations check out my roundup review!
14. Paddling Pants
Recreational kayakers have a lot more freedom in the pants department – as long as it’s quick-drying and doesn’t cause chafing, it’s usually a good enough choice.
You, as a whitewater kayaker, have to be a bit pickier than that because, again, the rivers you’ll kayak in are known to be relatively cold year-round. So, when choosing a pair of paddling pants, you have to find the right balance of thermal protection and moisture-wicking properties.
Most paddling pants available on the market are designed to be waterproof and roomy enough to allow for easy layering. That’s even more essential since you won’t be wearing a specialized paddling suit.
Take these NRS Endurance Paddling Pants, for example. They’re made from a waterproof and breathable HypoTex 2.5 fabric, paired with a wide neoprene waistband that keeps the water out and reinforcements in high-wear areas.
15. Dry Socks
Okay, it’s time to discuss socks – because surprise, surprise, your feet are the part of your body that is most likely to get wet. And before you even get a chance to ask, no, you can’t wear your “regular,” everyday socks for whitewater kayaking:
Wearing regular – let alone cotton – socks on the water is a horrible idea on so many levels.
Dry socks work as you’d expect:
They create a comfortable seal that prevents water from seeping in – which often occurs at put-in and take-out spots – and provide an additional layer of thermal protection against cold water.
They’ll be one of the most expensive pairs of socks you ever bought – but they’re worth every penny.
NRS Neoprene Boundary Socks, made of HydroCuff neoprene with titanium laminate adhesive that prevents the water from seeping in, are a fantastic choice for keeping your feet dry in water temperatures of 65 degrees Fahrenheit and up.
16. Kayak Shoes
Wearing regular sneakers, flip-flops, or open-toe sandals – let alone going barefoot – is out of the question; I hope that much is clear.
When it comes to footwear, you need something comfortable that protects your feet from sharp rocks, logs, and other garbage, such as fish hooks, and has good traction on slippery surfaces.
Having a pair of properly-fitted, quick-drying, and, above all, grippy and protective kayak shoes becomes even more critical when you’re portaging a kayak along a rocky riverbank.
Neoprene booties and water shoes are the two generally recommended types of footwear for whitewater kayakers. I’d say it mostly comes down to preference and the paddling environment.
NRS ATB, for instance, is an excellent choice – made from 5-millimeter neoprene and featuring heavy-duty soles, it’s as rugged as a workboot. You’ll find more suggestions in my round-up of best kayak shoes, though!
17. Paddling Gloves
You might not be aware of this – not yet, anyway – but your hands can take quite a beating on the water. Frostbite, nasty blisters, scrapes, and gashes; things can get rough out there.
So, while I get that paddling-specific gloves are a matter of preference, I wholeheartedly believe that a good pair of kayaking gloves go a long way – especially in colder weather.
Some might prefer the so-called pogies – oversized thermal mittens that attach to the paddle’s shaft – over regular kayaking gloves. Due to the unique design, pogies offer warmth without obstructing your grip and control of the paddle.
For a whitewater kayaker, that’s a win-win.
The NRS Half-Finger Guide Gloves are a great choice for slightly warmer weather or if you hope to avoid blisters and improve your grip on the paddle. If you want more protection and warmth – without the bulk – then the NRS HydroSkin Gloves would be a much better fit.
Oh, and check out my round-up of best gloves for kayaking for more suggestions!
Luxuries, Extras & Non-Essential Whitewater Kayaking Gear List
And now we get to the last portion of my whitewater kayaking gear list.
This section will include items that you could technically go without when you first get into the sport – but might want to pick up as you get more serious about whitewater kayaking.
18. Dry Bag
Dry bags aren’t essential kayaking gear – not in the way that a PFD or a paddle is, anyway. But that doesn’t make these water-tight bags any less important – especially when you want to bring some additional items and valuables on board and need a way to keep them dry.
As the name implies, a dry bag works by creating an air- and water-tight seal that keeps the inside of the bag – and everything you keep in it – dry and safe.
What you choose to keep in your dry bags is entirely up to you. But I suggest packing essentials for a day of kayaking, including snacks, spare clothes, personal belongings, a first aid kit – and electronic devices, such as a kayak GPS or a camera.
Remember to keep your dry bag secured in the back of your kayak so that it doesn’t get in the way.
Earth Pak’s Dry Bag is made of 500D PVC, waterproof, available in several sizes – and includes an IPX8 Certified waterproof phone case, too.
19. Pin Kit
A pin kit – also known as an un-pin or rescue kit – is a collection of equipment and tools for setting up a Z-Drag system. It’s used for aiding in a whitewater rescue that usually involves a pinned or wrapped kayak.
The kit should include a throw bag with rope, tubular webbing, Prusik cord, standard and locking D carabiners, and pulleys.
It’s not something you’ll need to get straight away, but as you advance into the more challenging whitewater and things start to get serious, you should consider adding a pin kit to your safety kit. Ideally, every person in your paddling group should have a variation of this kit – along with basic training in how to use it – so that you’re always prepared for an unplanned rescue.
If you want to include a pin kit in your whitewater kayaking gear, go with this NRS Kayak Un-Pin Kit.
20. First Aid Kit
A first aid kit is something I’d recommend all paddlers have onboard – and no, that’s not just me being overly cautious.
Whitewater, sharp rocks, obstacles, and strong currents sound like a recipe for everything from minor bumps and scrapes to more severe injuries.
Accidents happen – more often than you think – and given that you’ll often be miles away from civilization, you must have basic medical supplies on hand. Having a well-stocked first-aid kit – and basic training on how to use it – could save someone’s life one day.
You could store it in your dry bag – I’ve done it many times before – but then you have to make sure it’s easily accessible. Otherwise, you might find yourself in an emergency, only to realize it ended up somewhere at the bottom of the bag.
If you were hoping for a more organized storage solution that is still completely waterproof and impact-resistant, check out the NANUK 904 Waterproof First Aid Case instead.
Essential Whitewater Gear List – A Quick Overview
There are five essential pieces of whitewater gear you can’t go without:
A whitewater-specific kayak and matching paddle, a spray skirt, Coast-Guard-approved Type III PFD, and a kayaking helmet are absolute must-haves.
From there, you can include the following in your list of whitewater kayaking equipment:
- Additional safety gear, like float bags, throw bags, a whistle, and a river knife
- Kayak clothing based on the water and weather conditions, including a wetsuit or a dry suit, base layers, dry tops, and paddling pants, kayak shoes, and paddling gloves
- Non-essential equipment and accessories, such as dry bags, a first aid kit, and a pin kit