Although this buyers guide is directed at students in reality it will apply to anyone thinking about taking up the sport. Over the next few weeks many students will be starting Uni and will be looking at joining a club.
In most cases the Kayak/Canoe club in a university will be the best club to join. That can pretty much be guaranteed.
The quality of outdoor gear is getting better year on year and paddling gear is no exception. It’s important that if you are starting out paddling that you realise that a certain amount of time will be spent in the water and that it’s probably going to be cold. Getting gear that will help you stay warm and comfortable will increase the chance of you sticking with this great sport. As with most sports you can start off really cheap and work your way up as you get more into it. Clubs tend to have a good supply of safety kit, wetsuits, paddles and boats. However having some of your own personal kit is a great idea. In most cases all you need is some footwear you don’t mind getting wet (e.g. trainers), a long sleeved thermal top (or two) and a swimming costume. Primark, M&S or an outdoor shop are the best places to look for thermals. Alternatively go online.
Go for synthetic or wool, cotton is pretty much useless when wet. A good set of thermals will make a world of difference when starting out. If it’s really cold layering up a couple of thermal tops is a much better/efficient way to stay warm than using one thicker layer. I own thermals from a range of brands and all have been well used over a number of years and proved to be a sound investment. These include synthetic thermals from Helly Hansen and Sub Zero and wool (merino) thermals from Howies, Icebreaker, and Smartwool.
If I was sorted with thermals and footwear the next bit of kit I would be looking at is a cag (waterproof top). Something like the very basic Palm Vector, is tough and relatively cheap. Any cag will help keep the wind off and keep you that little bit warmer. At the lower end of the market the cag won’t keep you really dry but will offer a little bit of protection from the elements. At the middle and upper end of the market cags become better cut allowing for better freedom of movement and are much drier.
If I had a bit of cash and I knew that kayaking was for me I’d look at getting a semi dry or dry cag. A semi dry cag/top has latex seals at the wrist but non latex seals at the neck. Dry cags/tops have latex seals at both the wrists and neck. Semi dry cags/tops are pretty good now and perform almost as well as a dry cag.
Wetsuits are normally available from clubs and are great for people starting out who are going to spend time in the water or enjoy peeing themselves. If you are lucky the wetsuits available will include one that actually fits you. Wetsuits only really keep you warm when they are wet. When wet, a small layer of water is held between your body and the neoprene. This is warmed by your body and acts like your own hot water bottle. Although it will actually never be hot. As you start to add better cags into the equation or the fact you may begin to stay in your kayak a wetsuit becomes less effective. This is because the wetsuit will not always get wet and as a result will not have the opportunity to warm up. Therefore an alternative system is required.
The key here is layering:
Inner (insulation) – Thermals top/bottom or even a fleece onesie (the tigger ones seem quite popular)
Middle (insulation)- Fleece top/bottom or additional thermals if really cold
Outer (protection from the elements)- Cag and trousers or even a drysuit
As with cags, trousers come in dry and semi dry varieties. If you are loaded or have a good bank manager you may want to splash out on a dry suit. By this stage it’s going to really cost, approx £400+ for something that won’t fall apart in a season. Many cag/trousers combinations are good and come very close to the performance of semi dry/dry suits.
All of the above is about keeping you warm and/or dry. Beyond this you are getting into the realms of purchasing better fitting helmets, buoyancy aids and water tight spraydecks. All of these are only worth worrying about when you know that kayaking is something you plan to do throughout Uni or beyond.
As a very general rule the more you spend on kit the drier, warmer and more comfortable you will be. Of course you will get to a point where you will hit the law of diminishing returns.
The members of the club will be a great resource for cheap personal kit. As paddlers rise through the experience ranks old but good kit often comes available and is sold within clubs. Ebay and kayak forums are also a good source for kit. Please be aware that prices can be inflated and it is always a good idea to have someone check out your potential purchase before hitting the button. If in the UK check out the sales @ places like North Shore Watersports, North East Kayaks and Paddles and Escape Watersports.
Basic Kit List:
Thermals of some sort, a number of thin layers are best so you can layer things up if it gets cold.
A towel big enough to spare every one the trauma of seeing your backside or bits. The Booicore gear is great for this.
Some form of footwear – trainers will do. They will get wet and may get lost!
Money for the pub and petrol.
A piece of thin foam, part of an old camping roll mat would do the job, a square of carpet or even an old car mat will do the job. All of these are great for standing on when you get changed in the car park or muddy lay-by.
A bag to put it all in. Make sure that it will handle wet kit. A blue Ikea bag works pretty well. A large roll top dry bag also works well and help keep the stink inside the bag.
Your club may also have some additional items that they might want added to this list.
As you get more into kayaking you may also want your own safety kit. The first thing(s) to think about is a PFD and a helmet. Both PFDs and helmets (if sold within the EU) must be fully tested and certificated. This means that they all have been through the same test and passed the same criteria.
With PFDs and helmets it is important that they fit you well. However there are a number of popular choices that seem to fit most people really well.
The Palm series of PFDs are always a good choice. The Palm FX for example is one of the best all-round PFDs out there. I have one myself and find it to be superb. If you want one with all the bells and whistles Palm Extrem range is also a good choice. I have used a Palm Extrem RV for over a year and have no complaints.
Although the Sweet range of helmets (Rocker, Wanderer and Strutter) are superb they don’t fit all head shapes and are expensive. Shred Ready produce what they call the standard helmet in a range of guises and they tend to fit a wide range of head shapes pretty well. The WRSI range of helmets are also well worth checking out.
You also need to consider that any activity with a club will include a certain amount of faff and wasted time. Keeping dry and warm when you are off the river is also really important.