Choosing the Right Kayaking Equipment for Women
By Anna Levesque
Photos by Paul Villecourt
Investing in good quality equipment helps to make your kayaking experience more comfortable and enjoyable. How well your gear fits determines how easily and freely you'll be able to move your body and your boat. And, the fit of some equipment, such as personal flotation devices, is crucial for your safety. Most gear manufacturers make a line of high quality women's specific gear. Not only are the designs and colors more feminine, but more importantly, it works for and fits women! Let's go over the most important pieces of gear you'll need to get started in kayaking and what you need to know to make the right choices.
Personal Flotation Device
Your personal flotation device (PFD aka lifejacket) is your most important piece of safety gear. A good PFD will provide adequate flotation, fit properly and be comfortable enough that you will never be tempted to take it off when you're on the water. Look for a PFD that is approved by the Coast Guard to ensure that it meets high safety standards.
You want a lifejacket that is designed specifically for paddling, which means it will have less bulk around the shoulders, bigger arm holes to allow a full range of motion, and a shorter torso for comfort when sitting in a kayak. Paddling-specific PFDs also have useful features like pockets to store sunscreen, snacks and lip balm, and some even have a place for a water bladder to make it easier to drink frequently on longer outings.
PFD designs for women usually have split paneling on the front of the jacket so that it wraps around the front of the body and keeps the bust securely in place. (You don't want a lifejacket that lifts and separates!) Some manufacturers make PFDs for women that are low profile, meaning they have less foam on the front of the jacket, especially in the chest area. Because we already have natural 'flotation devices' on our chest, PFDs that are bulky in the front can feel very restrictive and uncomfortable. Some won't sit properly on the shoulders and will rise up toward the ears and chin. If the PFD you're looking at is low-pofile, coast guard approved and fits you well, then you can feel confident that it has enough flotation to float you even though it may look smaller than other designs.
A good women's PFD will also be a little shorter in the torso. This is important not only for a woman's body, but also if the backrest of your kayak seat comes up higher on your back. Some PFDs are too long to be comfortable when sitting in high-backed kayak seats. Another option is to get a lifejacket that is designed with the lower half of the back as thin mesh so there's no bulk between your back and the back of the seat.
When you're shopping, be sure to ask to try many PFDs, both regular and designs for women so that you feel the difference for yourself. When you find one that you like sit in a kayak that is either the same model as your own kayak or very similar. By doing this you'll ensure that the PFD will feel comfortable when you're in your boat.
To make sure you've found the right fit, cinch down all the straps so that it feels snug but not tight. Pull up on the shoulder straps to make sure that the life jacket doesn't move up past your ribs. You want to make sure it fits securely around your body.
When you're on the water, keep your PFD done up at all times, even on calm flat water. If you don't wear your PFD and have it sitting in the boat at your feet, it won't do you any good if you end up in the water. A poorly worn life jacket can hinder your ability to swim to shore. If you want to be safe wear and use your PFD properly.
From a female paddler's perspective not all paddles are made equal. Weight, grip circumference, shaft length, as well as blade size and shape all vary from paddle to paddle. Because there are so many different paddle models to choose from buying one can seem like a daunting task. Luckily good paddle companies offer lots of guidance and some even have an easy-to-follow fit guide on their website. Here are some tips for choosing and using a paddle.
Traditionally there was only one shaft or grip size for paddles so if you had small hands you just had to figure out how to hold the paddle if you wanted to paddle. Now, most manufacturers make quality small shaft paddles so that you have a choice according to your hand size. A lot of women prefer to use paddles with a narrower grip because, in general, we have smaller hands than men. It's different for every person so be sure to check out both regular and small shaft paddles before you buy. You want to make sure that the paddle feels comfortable in your hands and that you'll be able to hold it comfortably for a few hours at a time while you're on the water.
In addition to considering a narrow shaft, you may also want to try a bent shaft paddle. Bent shaft paddles, as you might guess, have a bend in the shaft where the hands hold the paddle. The bends keep the wrists at a natural angle and help prevent the occurrence of tendonitis. Some people swear by bent shaft paddles; others can't stand them. Try one and decide for yourself. Notice the difference in the angle and feel of your wrists when you're holding a straight shaft compared to when you're holding a bent shaft. That will help you make your decision.
Most recreational paddles come in lengths ranging from 205 cm to 260 cm. Most women, unless they are very short or very tall use 210 or 220 cm paddles. When considering length you want to be sure that your paddle isn't so short that your hands hit the deck of your boat with every stroke, and on the other hand, if you're paddle is too long it can feel cumbersome and feel like it gets 'caught' in the water. Considerations such as the width of your boat, your height and if you paddle with high angle or low angle strokes can affect the length you choose. Again, some companies have great fit guides on their websites. And knowledgeable sales staff and instructors can help you determine the best length for you, but in general, for recreational kayaking, a 210 or 220 cm paddle will work fine.
If you're taking mostly day trips in your kayak, the weight of the paddle won't really matter much. However, once you start paddling for longer distances or do multi-day trips, you'll want a lighter paddle that is easier on your shoulders. Lightweight paddles are usually more expensive due to higher quality materials, and require more careful handling. If you think you'll mostly be taking short day trips and you don't want to fuss about taking extra care of your paddle, consider saving yourself some money and get a cheaper, more durable paddle.
The last important feature to consider when buying a paddle is the offset or feather of the blades, which ranges from zero to 90 degrees, but is also commonly set at 45 degrees. A bigger offset allows the top blade to slice through the air on windy days, but no offset can feel more natural when you're first learning to kayak. My observation is that the majority of paddlers, from beginner to expert, prefer a paddle with little or no offset, but there is no "right way." It is all comes down to personal preference so trust yourself and how the paddle feels for you. One option is to get a two-piece paddle with an adjustable offset so you can try out different configurations and determine what you like best.
In the end, what makes a "good paddle" is whether you like it and it feels comfortable. Be sure to 'try' a few different paddles in the store to help ensure that whichever one you choose fits your needs. Better yet, paddling stores that offer boat-trial nights will usually let you try out a range of paddles too. If you can, head out at least once and test-drive a few!
Spray skirts (also known as spray decks) are designed to keep water out of a sit-inside kayak but also offer sun and wind protection for your legs. They can also help retain your body heat in the cockpit and keep your bottom half a little warmer. Worn under the PFD, they slip on like a skirt-the hem of which attaches to the rim of the cockpit. All spray skirts have a grab loop or rip cord at the front which, when pulled toward you, releases the skirt from the cockpit and lets you exit the boat.
Most spray skirts are made of nylon or neoprene. If you're just using the skirt for sun and wind protection on flat water, a nylon skirt is perfectly adequate because it will offer more ventilation while being less waterproof than neoprene. If you want a more heavy-duty skirt to keep you drier in bigger waves or warmer in colder weather, then you'll be wise to get one made from neoprene. Of course, if you can afford it and it's suitable for the seasons you want to paddle, you can get one of each. There are also hybrid skirts made with neoprene on the bottom (for warmth and better protection from the elements) and nylon on the top (for ventilation). These hybrids will not provide sufficient protection in big waves or colder weather, but they are excellent for in-between conditions.
You might already have a pair of water shoes or sandals that will be suitable for kayaking. The best footwear dries quickly and provides protection for your feet when walking along the shoreline and carrying your boat to and from the water. I recommend something with a thick sole with good tread to protect your feet and keep you from slipping on wet rocks. If you do opt for a sandal, it should strap onto your feet at the heel so they won't come off in the water if you end up swimming.
If you'd rather be barefoot in your kayak, pack your sandals with you so that you have them ready to slip on when you hit shore. If you're paddling in cold weather, a pair of fleece, wool or neoprene socks worn with your water shoes will help keep your feet warm. Neoprene socks are best at insulating when wet, followed by wool and then fleece.
For any kind of paddling, it's a good idea to invest in layers that are made of materials that won't absorb water, will wick moisture away from your skin, and won't weigh you down if you happen to fall in the water. Paddling clothing for women has come a very long way and there are wonderful designs, colors and materials to choose from so take advantage of the good stuff! It's worth investing in good quality clothing that fits well, is comfortable and lasts a long time.
For your own safety, you must always dress for the temperature of the water as well as the outside temperature. It's about being prepared for the worst-case scenario. If you end up in the water, it can take some time to climb back into your boat, so you want to be dressed to spend some time immersed even if it's hot out.
It's imperative - especially in colder conditions - that you never wear any cotton when you're paddling. Wet cotton draws heat away from your body and can accelerate the onset of hypothermia, even in fairly mild conditions.
Warm weather, warm water
If you live in a warm part of the world or plan on doing the majority of your paddling during the hot summer months when the water is warm, then dressing for kayaking is quite easy. You can simply kayak in a bathing suit, bikini or "tankini" with a good pair of water shorts to protect your legs from chafing and maybe a quick-dry t-shirt for comfort. For sun protection, you can wear a lightweight, long-sleeved, quick-dry shirt that will also keep you cool. Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are also always a good idea for sun protection.
Cold weather, cold water
Cold weather paddling requires more layers. Remember that your layers should be made of materials that wick moisture away from the skin -- no cotton! Different manufacturers have different signature materials and all good manufacturers' base layers are made from proper material including wool, polypro or fleece.
I recommend that you invest in a good pair of long underwear that can be worn under outer layers. You can also get thicker fleece layers and fleece-lined windproof layers. All of these layer options will help keep you warm, even if they get wet. A wetsuit vest or neoprene 'farmer jane' can be worn in combination with layers for extra warmth and allow you to maintain a good range of motion in the arms.
For an outer layer, wear something that will protect you from the wind. Your choices range from simply wearing your raincoat to purchasing a paddling jacket and paddling pants. These are made out of material that cuts the wind and seal in the warmth from your base layers. There are a wide variety of outer layer pieces that range from simple to high performance. Some even have latex wrist, neck and ankle gaskets to keep out the water for extensive cold water/weather paddling. I imagine, and hope, that most of you won't start kayaking in the middle of winter in really cold conditions! Make it easy on yourself and get a taste of what warm weather paddling feels like, then you can move on from there. Once you gain experience in kayaking you'll become more aware of the higher performance gear and if it's necessary for the type of paddling you're doing.
Always check the weather forecast before heading out on a trip so that you're prepared for what the day will likely bring. It's much better to be too warm and have to take layers off than to be cold and not have extra layers to put on.
That wraps up my tips on what to look for in the basic gear needed for kayaking (besides the kayak!) - PFD, paddle, sprayskirt, footwear and clothing. The more experienced you become the more gear you may decide you need. I encourage all of you to buy high quality women's specific products that fit your needs. When you invest your money in women's specific gear you're sending a message to the manufacturers that there is a strong women's market. They, in turn, will invest more money into research and development creating better products that will help us have more fun on the water! If you feel that you prefer the regular gear instead of the women's gear then go with that because the bottom line is that you want to feel comfortable, stay safe and enjoy yourself. Happy paddling!
Anna Levesque is a world-class kayaker who has a passion for inspiring and teaching women. Her experience as an accomplished international competitor, author, instructor and business owner has placed her as the leading expert in her field. Her top accomplishments as a whitewater athlete include a bronze medal at the 2001 World Freestyle Kayak Championships, a spot on the Canadian National Freestyle Team five years in a row, and many top 3 finishes in both Freestyle and Extreme Racing. Anna combines her international expertise in kayaking with her experience as a yoga instructor and student of meditation, to inspire women in confidently creating success and happiness in all aspects of their lives. She offers women's paddling retreats, clinics and trips in Mexico through her company, Girls at Play, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. For more information please visit www.watergirlsatplay.com
Anna's DVDs Available from Paddling.net
- Recreational Kayaking for Women
- Whitewater Kayaking with Anna Levesque
- Yoga for Kayaking