Whitewater Kayaking Gear Guide

December 07, 2022

Man Whitewater Kayaking

If you’re just getting into whitewater kayaking, starting your river adventures with the proper selection of quality kayak accessories is essential. Of course, you need a kayak, or at least need to borrow one from a friend, but a bit more is required for a fun day on the water.

The following is a list of kayak gear that will make your river adventures safe and enjoyable. Most of these items are best if adequately fitted to you, which usually means purchasing them for yourself early in your life as a whitewater kayaker.

6 Essential Pieces of Whitewater Kayaking Gear

1. Paddle

Regarding kayak accessories, your paddle is the most important, especially whitewater paddles. They take so much abuse and are needed to navigate the river successfully. While durability is paramount, it is also essential to consider paddler fatigue, as you’ll be holding it up and swinging around all day.

There are several types of whitewater paddles, all of which vary in functionality, preference, and cost. Fiberglass paddles are more durable than carbon fiber paddles but slightly heavier. Straight shaft paddles are more substantial than bent shaft paddles but aren’t as easy on your elbow and shoulder joints. It comes down to use, preference, and budget when choosing the right paddle.

The Werner Desperado Whitewater Paddle is a quality entry-level paddle that will last so long that you’ll probably eventually hand it down to your friends. At a little over $200, this straight-shaft paddle is incredibly durable and has a time-tested blade design. Another excellent option for your money is the Werner Strike, a fiberglass straight shaft paddle, as it’s relatively lightweight and offers a mid-sized performance blade design for around $300. If you’d prefer a bent-shaft paddle with more giant blades, consider the Werner Powerhouse (shown below). At about $415, it isn’t inexpensive, but it does offer balanced power strokes in a quality bent shaft whitewater creeking and river running design. Regarding brands, we find that Werner and Aqua-Bound paddles are the most durable whitewater blades, and they stand behind their products!

Werner Powerhouse Kayak Paddle

2. Lifejacket or PFD

A kayaking life jacket (PFD) is a must-have accessory for safety & legal reasons. A properly fitting Coast Guard-approved PFD will keep you afloat when you swim out of your kayak. Swimming is part of whitewater kayaking at all levels, so don’t stress over it. Be prepared by wearing the right kayaking life jacket for you on the river, most importantly, one that fits properly and will keep your head above the water. The Stohlquist Edge kayak Life Jacket (shown below) features a harmonized US Coast Guard/Transport Canada Certification to make it legal in both countries.

Stohlquist Edge Lifejacket (PFD)

When starting, there is no reason to get a top-of-the-line rescue life jacket since all Coast Guard-approved PFDs maintain a minimum amount of floatation, at least 16 pounds, to keep you afloat. A quality essential life jacket like the NRS Ion, for just over $100, is an excellent option for all types of whitewater kayaking. If you want something with a little more comfort, durability, and a few more features, the Stohlquist Rocker is an excellent option at under $200.

3. Spray Skirt

One of the best ways to stay in control of your kayak on the river is by keeping the water out of it. A quality spray skirt will be appropriately sized for your specific kayak and body. The better the fit on both, the less water will get in your kayak.

Generally, the higher the cost, the more durable and watertight the skirt will be. Some lower-cost skirts are best for beginner kayakers, as they are usually easier to get on and off the boat. For more information, check out our Guide to Spray Skirts

The Level 6 Jack Skirt or the Seals Shocker Skirt (shown below) are great options for your first spray skirt under $150. Both neoprene skirts offer a stretchy bungee rand to ease the skirt on or off your cockpit rim yet snug enough to keep water and splash out of your kayak when rolling.

Seals Shocker Kayak Skirt

4. Helmet

Your head is significant, and rocks hurt. Because whitewater is created by water flowing over rocks, you should always protect your noggin with a proper whitewater-kayaking helmet. The most important thing is to ensure the helmet fits you properly and stays in place, even in turbulent waters.

A tremendous all-around helmet, packed with scientifically proven safety features, is the WRSI Current (shown below), which will run you less than $140.


WRSI Current Kayak Helmet

5. Footwear

Good traction on wet, slippery rocks is critical to having a good day on the river, as you will need to get to, from, and around the riverbanks during your whitewater adventures. Comfort and protection from sharp rocks, which are felt even more when carrying a kayak on your portages, are also important factors when picking the proper kayaking shoes

Properly fitted kayaking booties are your best option, but quality river shoes or sandals will also work. The Men’s Paddle Wetshoes (shown below) and the Women’s Paddle Wetshoes are zippered neoprene booties for under $65. The Men’s Brewers and the Women’s Brewess water shoes are perfect on your favorite river and looking stylist for the after-paddle dinner get-together. And if you prefer sandals, check out the new Astral PFD sandals for Men and Women.


NRS Men's Paddle Wetshoes

6. Float Bags

Float Bags are air-filled bladders that you place inside the back of your hardshell kayak. Their purpose is to displace water when you flip the kayak over and take a swim, helping you get in & out of the kayak safely while in the water. Float bags keep your kayak from filling up with water, making it difficult to drag into an eddy, and they are essential for easy self-rescue or assisted recovery on the river if you get separated from your kayak and gear during a “yard sale.”

You’ll want to get a set of float bags for each side of the rear pillar in the back of most whitewater inflatable kayaks, like the NRS Split Bags (shown below).

NRS Infinity Split Kayak Float Bags

7. Outerwear

Especially in less-than-ideal weather conditions, whether it be snowy skies or cold water, the right outwear can make all the difference in your safety & whitewater kayaking experience. You have two options: wetsuits or drysuits. Wetsuits provide insulation by trapping water close to the body, warming it to maintain body temperature. On the other hand, Drysuits keep water out entirely, relying on undergarments for warmth. Both options are designed for specific conditions and preferences, emphasizing the importance of fit, mobility, and protection against the elements. 

Now that you’ve got the essential kayak accessories, it’s time to get out on the river, have fun, and keep learning. You’ll be impressed with the fantastic places whitewater kayaking will take you. To expand your kayak gear, check out our great selection of Kayak Outerwear from top brands like NRS, Level 6, and Kokatat.

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Stacey JohnsonCustomer Experience ManagerStacey has been with Outdoorplay for over 17 years, sharing wisdom from her years of experience and passion for all kinds of kayaking (whitewater, recreational, and touring), stand-up paddle boarding, and rafting. When she's not out on the water, Stacey also enjoys camping with her family and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the Cascade mountains.