People often ask us what gear we recommend. As with all aspects of kayaking, your needs will vary, depending on the type of paddling you are doing. Living in Tacoma, Washington, we primarily sea kayak in the Puget Sound. Over the years, we have adjusted our kit requirements. The exact list varies depending on the type of trip (we wrote a bit more about that here). These are the items that we take with us every time we hit the water.
PFD (Personal Floatation Device)
AKA “life jacket” my entire childhood. Your key considerations need to be fit and buoyancy. My wife and I both use the NRS C-Vest, and our paddling partner really likes her Stohlquist Betsea. Of all the gear on our list, this is probably the most important to try in person. You need to know how your vest fits your torso and if the strap placement makes sense for you. You need to feel whether there’s any rub in the shoulder area or if your stroke feels impeded at any point. While you can get great recommendations from friends, there’s really nothing that beats trying it for yourself. When you’re trying it on, don’t forget to move around like you’re paddling. If you feel like a fool, just look around and notice that everyone else is doing the same thing.
The first spray skirts we used were all-nylon and suited our needs for a few years. As we got more adventurous on the size of waves we were willing to tackle and the number of hours we were staying out on the Sound, we traded up to the Seals Extreme Touring spray skirt. It offers a nylon tunnel with a neoprene deck, which makes it a little cooler than a full neoprene skirt. They say the 1.4 is the right size for NC Kayaks, but it is a tight fit. We’ve added a pull handle to some of our spray skirts to give a little more leverage in the event we need to bail. Depending on your reach and arm-strength, that may be a good option for you. I wouldn’t use the suspenders that come with it in case you roll and can’t get it unhooked. Without suspenders, you can push out of the skirt to exit the kayak
In our Hands
We love our RPC3 paddles. I use the large wing and my wife and paddling partner each use the mid-wing. You can adjust length and feather on both, so they’re adaptable as you find your preferences. We also have the Performance Tour Paddle as one of our spare paddles. Another of our spare paddles is the Werner Camano. We use the wing paddles almost exclusively but have the European style paddles as a back-up.
In our Pockets
- Standard Horizon HX 300 VHF radio – we use ours to make snarky comments at each other on a regular basis. It is also essential safety equipment if you need to reach Vessel Traffic Control or in an emergency situation. This model can be charged from a USB port so there is no need to have multiple power stations for your phone and radio.
- Black Diamond Storm series headlamp – a waterproof headlamp with a red light feature is essential if you’ll be launching or landing after dark.
- Knives – between the three of us, we carry a combination of two Spyderco Salt Knives and two NRS Pilot Knives.
- Waterproof flashlight – in our area, a simple waterproof flashlight meets the visual signaling device requirement. Is it redundant to have a waterproof flashlight and a headlamp? For purposes of meeting the regulations, yes. But when you’re signaling a powerboat to ensure they see you, seconds count. Our flashlights are clipped to our PFDs and can be out of the pocket and switched on in fractions of a second.
On our Decks
We have a variety of equipment that needs to be strapped to the kayak instead of stowed in hatches. Whether we’re carrying an item for safety, navigation, or comfort, these items need to be accessible or visible while underway. We keep everything attached using locking marine-grade S-Biners.
We keep our paddle float and pump handy under our deck bungees. We got the NRS safety kit for all our kayaks, and we keep the sponge in a hatch. On the back deck, we keep a solar-powered Luci Light with a USB charging port. If you’re paddling with anyone else, the frosted finish is a lot easier on the eyes and less disruptive for your paddling partners’ night vision.
The exact compass that we use has been discontinued, but Silva is now making what looks to be the same one. We hook the bungee cords into our deck lines. This is a nice item to keep out of reach on your deck since you never need to do anything but see it.
We each have a Seal Line map case, and at least one of us keeps that on their deck even if we’re paddling an area we know well. On a long or complex trip, we’ll have our planned itinerary printed out on water-proof paper along with the relevant current and tide print pages from Tidal Currents of Puget Sound.
Our paddling partner carries a Garmin similar to this one. Often, we use it more for fun than safety (How fast can we get that speed tracker reporting? What was our actual distance paddled today?). We occasionally use it to confirm a landmark that we are all paddling toward. A few times, it has proved very handy. We were once a few miles from land north of Foul Weather Bluff when a thick fog rolled in. Because of the Garmin, we were able to hold our course and not worry too much about the fact that we could not see land for hours. On another occasion (also in thick fog), we relied on the Garmin to cross a bay rather than hugging the shore to stay in sight of land.
While it’s controversial for some, we keep our phones attached to our decks in Seal Line e-cases, we have our radios in our PFD’s in case of emergencies. I have a tracking app that I use, and having it on the deck helps me remember to pause on breaks. My wife runs an app that chimes on the quarter-hour, so we can easily know what time it is. We also text our safety contacts when we launch or land (easier to remember when your phone is handy).
The final item on our front decks is a dry bag or two. We keep some non-perishable snacks on hand (1L Sea to Summit) in case we need to fuel on the water. Some of us keep a “costume change” bag (7L Ortlieb) – alternate options for gloves, hats, and buffs for when conditions change. Adding the costume change bag to the deck has allowed us to pause on an open-water crossing to swap to thicker or thinner layers and has added a lot to our comfort.
In our Hatches
Everything that goes in our hatches also goes in a dry bag or dry box. Even on our most water-tight hatches, we tend to open the hatch without wiping existing water off and reach in with wet hands. You may have heard that it’s better to use many small dry bags as opposed to fewer large ones. That’s true for a few reasons. It may be obvious that smaller dry bags are easier to fit through the hatches on your kayak. Once you have cleared the hatch, it is easier to organize your gear when you have a variety of sizes and colors at your fingertips. You can also fill nooks and crannies with small bags, but can only fit a few large dry bags before you run out of room. We have a collection we’ve gathered over the years that is primarily Seal Line Blocker or Discovery lines, some Ortleib, and a few Sea to Summit bags in the mix. We put nearly everything into 5-to-10L bags.
The few exceptions:
- 15L for our kitchen set-up. The extra space makes it easier to fit the insulated mugs and thermos we tend to bring with us.
- 20L cooler bag – we have an insulated dry bag for items that need to stay cold. We bought this a few years back, and we will likely get a smaller version when it’s time to replace that.
- 30L bag for the tent. We haven’t upgraded from the free tent we got a decade ago, so it’s not terribly compact. The 30L bag is large enough that the tent can be flat against the bottom of the hull with room to pack more on top of it.
We use a hard box for things that really can’t get wet: spare lithium-ion power stations and key fobs. Modern car entry systems generally dislike saltwater. We have a friend with a Toyota who went swimming unexpectedly and fried their key fob. For longer trips, we make sure to bring spare batteries for everything in our Pelican box.
But don’t take our word for it…
No matter which equipment you end up getting, your local, independently owned kayaking supply shop is a great place to gain knowledge and gear up. In the Puget Sound area, check out one of the great outfitters below.