If you are completely new to kayaking or are gaining experience and skill in kayaking you will need to eventually invest in your own kit to ensure that you are properly equipped to head out on the water. Having the correct kayaking gear means that you will be prepared for any and all eventualities and having the essential equipment to hand will also allow you to get the most out of your water-based excursions. So what kayak equipment and gear does a kayaker need?
The essential kayaking kit
With all boating activities space is limited and weighing-up what you want to bring against what you need to bring can be a headache. This is even more so when it comes to kayaking. Even large kayaks have very limited storage space, compared to say a similar length Jon boat for example. So, you need to prioritize your kayaking gear so you have with you exactly what you need.
The kayaking kit you will personally need will depend on the kayak-based activity to plan to engage in. For instance, the gear needed for fast-moving whitewater kayaking is different from the equipment you will need for racing kayaking which is different again from the gear you need for relaxed weekend exploration on placid bodies of water.
Your kayak gear is not only dependent on the activity you engage in but will also change according to the length of your excursion.
Over time you will gather up a large amount of kayaking equipment but the sad truth is that you cannot carry everything with you. So, we have broken down what you need into lists based on the type of kayaking you will be doing.
However, there are some essential items that every kayaker will need to have on hand at all times.
Your priority should always be safety first. So, ensure that as a minimum you carry and stow gear that will assist in your personal safety, that will help you with navigation and improve your visibility to other water users.
7 Essential pieces of equipment every kayaker should carry
Aside from the two pieces of equipment which are utterly essential, namely the kayak and paddle, there are some pieces of gear that you should not be without while on the water.
Below are the 7 absolute minimum items you need for safe kayaking. I have split these into 2 separate lists as not all these items are required by law but some of them are.
Gear required by law
- A sound producing device. A good quality whistle is useful for alerting attention to yourself in the event of an emergency. Plastic whistles perform better than metal ones which can corrode in marine conditions. Also, peas within the whistle may become stuck and cause a metal whistle to stop working. Whistles should attach readily to a PFD with a suitable length of lanyard to reach your mouth easily. As mentioned above a good PDF should come with a whistle attached but make sure you don’t need to buy one separately before you venture out onto the water.
- An electronic white light or lantern. Obviously a lantern is not ideal on a kayak and although you can get kayak navigational lights this is an added expense and added weight on your boat. Luckily there are 2 simple workarounds that not only keeps you legally compliment but that also offers you better safety on the water. The first is a strobe light that has a simple suction method for attaching it to your kayak. The second is a small plastic covered LED light that attaches to the rope of your kayak.
- A Personal Flotation Device (PFD). You are required by law to wear a PFD when kayaking. When choosing a suitable PFD look for ones that not only offer safety but that also offer you greater freedom of movement so you can still paddle effectively. The most common type of PFD is a life jacket. A high quality Personal Flotation Device will not only have storage compartments but it will also ensure you are fully legally compliment by having handy safety extras inbuilt such as lights, compass and whistle attachments. So you could save yourself money by getting several safety requirements met in one purchase.
Gear not required by law but that you should carry
- Search light. With bigger boats, even small Jon boats, a search light will be either handheld or deck mounted (or both). Obviously neither option is ideal for a kayak. However, there is a workaround. This comes in the form of a headlight. A high quality waterproof headlight is a must for kayaking both in the day and at night as weather conditions can rapidly change where you will need all the visibility you can get. Look for a high quality waterproof light, like this one, which not only help you be seen but that also affords great visibility of your surroundings without glare.
- Spray skirts. Spray skirts keep water out of your cockpit, help retain heat for warmth and offer some sun protection. Depending on the design some spray skirts give you the added benefit of additional storage compartments that are sewn into the skirt.
- Map and Compass. Despite this advanced age of digital information, kayakers should always carry a hard-copy map and physical compass in case their electronic devices fail. These should be stored in waterproof packaging (see dry bags mentioned further down in this article).
- Waterproof backpack. A waterproof backpack will keep your gear safe, dry and organized while you are out on the water. Many designs feature a roll-down and clipable top that keeps water out. You will need at least 30 liters if you intend to go out for long periods or plan to enjoy some boat camping (be sure to follow the advice we give on boat camping here). With a 30 liter backpack you will be able to pack key items such as food, water, dry clothing as well as additional items. Good backpack designs should sit low on the back for comfort while you are sitting in your kayak for a prolonged period and should also offer superior freedom of movement.
In addition, you should always leave hard copies of your trip itinerary at a marina, or with a friend, or in your home or your vehicle, so people know where to start looking for you if rescue is necessary.
Additional gear you should consider carrying
- Navigation lights. A 360 degree white navigational light will also ensure you remain visible to other water users no matter what weather and water conditions you find yourself in. Although a full set of colored navigational lights are not required by law, as they are with a large Jon boat for example (though as outlined above you do need at least 1 light), attaching a nav light to your kayak if you intend to venture out in the dark or in large crowed waters is a great additional safety step to take.
- A spare paddle. A spare lightweight foldable kayak paddle in case you lose yours in challenging conditions. A foldable paddle can be easily stored in a kayak compartment or even in your backpack.
- Protection for electronics and documents. Having sufficient water proof packaging for protecting electronic equipment, such as your phone, and hard copy maps is a really good idea. A simple waterproof phone pouch is all you need to keep your phone safe though you may want larger bags for other water-sensitive equipment.
- A kayak bilge pump. A bilge pump is not absolutely essential for getting water out of your kayak but it is a fast and efficient way of doing it should your boat capsize or get swamped. Look for a well designed pump that will remove water on both the pushing and pulling action of the pump handle for fast evacuation of water. It should also have a point where it can be secured to your kayak so it is always within immediate and easy reach. Compact lightweight kayak bilge pumps are readily available. No doubt some experienced kayakers would argue that this piece of equipment should be placed under the “essentials” category though it would really only be essential under sever conditions. So, if you intend to kayak in challenging waters or for long periods it is probably advisable to pack one of these cheap, but potentially life-saving devices on your kayak.
12 pieces of essential kayak camping gear
If your kayaking will include extended trips or overnight camping there are some additional pieces of kit that no kayaker should be without.
Firstly, before you start buying equipment you should ensure that your kayak is up to the job and has adequate storage to allow you to stow the additional items you need. Boat camping requires a kayak with adequate storage.
Add these 12 key kayak camping items to your boat before you set off on a camping excursion:
- A waterproof watch. Why a watch? Well there are so many options for a reliable waterproof watch that will be up to the rigors of an extended kayaking trip. With additional features such as GPS and cardiovascular monitoring you will be able to use features and functions beyond just telling the time, meaning you have less tech to carry. Knowing dawn and dusk times before you set out means a watch can help you get off the water well before the darkness hits.
- A VHF radio. This piece of kit is a great reassurance on extended journeys and comes with key benefits that mobile phones just don’t have. Advantages include, it’s reliable performance in wet environments and access to vital marine frequencies as well giving you the capability of speaking to more than one user at a time.
- Dry bags. Dry bags will keep clothing, sleeping bags, electronics and other essentials dry while out on the water. They come in 2 types small military grade pouches for electronics and documents and Roll top lightweight dry storage types that come in sizes 5L/ 10L/ 20L/ 30L . Look for dry bags with a generous fold down and attachment points for securing the bags to your kayak.
- A knife. A good quality camping knife is an essential camping, safety and rescue item. A knife can be used in a myriad of ways and can even be used to cut yourself free from your kayak in dangerous situations. It can also be used to help you when undertaking equipment repairs. In addition, a good knife can be used to kill and gut fish on your trip. Look for an ergonomic handle and corrosion resistant blade.
- GPS device. GPS is a key navigational aid and will assist you in planning and accomplishing your journey. Alongside handsets, many sports watches are now GPS integrated for convenient directions on the move.
- Flares. Strobes or flares for sending a sustained distress signal if needed. If you have the available storage space on your kayak consider investing in a boating safety kit which is very lightweight and comes with all the safety equipment you need from a first aid kit to a whistle and even a flare.
- Correct clothing. Clothing for your trip should be chosen so it keeps you dry and at a comfortable temperature. Dress for the water temperature rather than the surrounding air. Look for dry fit layers that wick away moisture and dry quickly. Don’t forger a hat, bandanna and sunglasses for protection from sun exposure.
- Personal care items. Personal care items to include in your kayak camping kit include suncream, lip balm, wet wipes, insect repellent and a first aid kit.
- Sleeping bag. Your sleeping bag should be lightweight and warm and fold down easily for stowing in your kayak. Look for sleeping bags made from waterproof materials such as water resistant nylon. If you opt for a warm down stuffing there are bags with feather filling that have been treated for moisture resistance.
- Camping mat. An inflatable camping mat offers additional comfort and may include an integrated pillow though be aware that this is a luxury that will take up much needed space on your kayak.
- Water purification tablets. Water treatment/purification tablets and filters will keep you safe on the go and reduces your need to carry freshwater in large volumes.
- A lightweight tent. A lightweight tent is the ideal kayak camping shelter. Look for pop-up tents or those with folding poles that can be packed down very small. Use it not only for overnight camping but also as a temporary shelter from the sun or if bad weather forces you to take shelter on shore.
If you more detailed information about boat camping, with a handy boat camping checklist, be sure to read our article The Ultimate Guide to Boat Camping.
Fishing kayak essentials
If angling is your thing, ensure that you are set with the very best accessories for a successful kayak fishing trip.
These 6 key items will get you on your way to the ideal catch.
- Kayak-friendly fishing rod. Any fishing rod used on a kayak should be lightweight and foldable, like this one from High Altitude, or should come in sections for easy stowing while you are traveling. If you are intent on landing big fish, invest in a length over 5 feet as this will give you much more control over your hooked fish. Carrying a rod holder as well makes things much easier when on the water – there are a number of good quality kayak rod holders available.
- Lightweight reel. A reel for your rod should be corrosion resistant and either fixed spool for lightweight angling or multiplier for heavy duty hauls.
- Landing net. A lightweight foldable landing net is also a valuable piece of gear to have with you.
- Wearable tackle box. A fully stocked tackle bag is easier to carry and access if it is wearable. Wearable tackle boxes come in a variety of sizes and are perfect for fishing off a kayak.
- Paddle leash. For less than 15 bucks you should invest in a high quality paddle leash. A paddle leash is essential for preventing you from losing your paddle while landing that big fish (of course you should always have a spare tucked away somewhere just in case).
- Catch bags. Fish bags should be collapsible for easy stowing when heading out and will help you get your catch home fresh and in one piece.
While by no means exhaustive, the above lists should have you well prepared with the essential kayaking gear needed to make the most of any type of kayaking activity.
Do you have any great kayaking gear and accessories you can’t live without? Let me know in the comments below. Happy kayaking!