When I got on the water in Maine, I had one thing going for me: equipment. Every environment is going to have different challenges, as we learned in our previous safety post. Rivers, ocean, weather and location all will bring with it different challenges and the different challenges will require different skills and different equipment. Today we’ll explore the equipment that will be common for most environments and some specialty items I bring for those special environments.
When I push out onto the water, the first layer of defense against the elements (in terms of equipment) is the clothing I choose. Since I live in the south, I can easily paddle 12 months out of the year. Obviously, I keep a variety of clothing for the different times of year and the different circumstances. So what does one wear in the different seasons? First, it’s important to remember to dress not for the air temperature, but for the water and air temperature combined. For example, it’s a nice warm March day in the south, temperatures hitting the high 70s. It can be real tempting to put on the swim trunks and cotton t-shirt, but as it’s March, the water temperature could possibly be in the low 50s. With the water being at 50 degrees, it won’t take long for hypothermia to set in. In the winter and shoulder seasons, I’ll typically wear a polypropylene top as a base layer and a pair of shorts. Winter time will find me adding a fleece top and bottom. What happens if I were to hit a strainer and go into the water during winter? I always carry a dry bag with spare clothing, just in case I or someone else goes in the water. It’s important to keep my fellow paddlers in mind when I plan out my trip gear, especially if I’m leading the trip. Along with the polypropylene and fleece, I carry an outer shell—rain jacket and pants. When paddling during the cooler months, it’s often a game of putting the layers on and stripping them off as the body heats up. I may bring rain gear in case it does rain or if the wind kicks up, but it also serves in another capacity: if someone goes in the water, the rain gear does as an excellent job at holding in body heat. What other clothing do I use? In winter and should seasons, I’ll use neoprene booties and sometimes a wetsuit (normally, I’ll only wear the wet suit when sea kayaking or doing whitewater during the summer). Wool socks will line my booties and I’ll keep a couple pair of warm gloves and hats in my dry bag with my extra clothing. Summertime is not quite as challenging and you can usually find me in shorts with a polypro top. I like the way the polypro feels, so I wear it all year long. For footwear, my chacos are always with me, though, I would recommend a closed-toe shoe with good traction.
While it sounds like a no-brainer, the next essential piece of gear is my PFD—personal floatation device. If someone just starting off in paddling were to ask what to get first, I wouldn’t hesitate: get the best PFD you can afford. For me, my PFD not only keeps my head out of water if I take the plunge, during winter, it serves as another layer. Without question, I always have it on no matter where I paddle. The PFD that I choose has pockets to store things like a spare knife, a whistle and a loop to lock my keys on. It also has a place to latch my strobe on and a special pocket for my VHF radio, a couple of the ‘extras’ that I’ll carry on certain trips. Other gear that I’ll carry includes a throw bag, if I’m on a river and a tow rope if I’m on the sea or large body of water. Again, carrying these items can serve a dual purpose. We can always use rope on a trip, right? Along with the rope, I’ll carry with me an ‘Oops’ bag, which I keep a first aid kit and some tools with me, like my leatherman, some prussiks (rope tied in a loop), and carabiners. It sounds like a lot of stuff, but even on day trips, I’ve had to use a lot of these items for others or for myself.
I’ve already alluded to some of the extra equipment that I bring on the water. Having items like a VHF Marine radio is actually an essential, based on whether you’re paddling on a river or the ocean. Since the radio works as a line of sight device, it’s not really effective on rivers, but still not a bad item to have ‘just in case’. When paddling with a group, having a couple radios along would allow different boats to communicate between each other on a non-broadcast channel. Another ‘extra’ that I’ll carry on the river specifically during winter is a propane stove. Sometimes it’s nice to take a little longer of a lunch and warm up some hot soup when you’re paddling on a cool winter day, but it can also be an important item to have to warm up some tea if someone goes for an unintentional swim.
What’s Your Favorite?
Putting together a list of equipment can take on a personal slant and a lot depends on the type of water being paddled and the time of year. What’s your favorite piece of gear? What would you add? I love to work with checklists to make sure I’ve got the things I’ll need, so let me know what your experience is with your most important piece of gear.