Your Kayaking Checklist

Always paddle prepared with the right gear essentials and most useful accessories for your next on-water excursion.

Enter the world of paddling and water whisks you away into a magical space separate from ordinary terrestrial life. It’s a pastime anyone can enjoy and that you can pursue forever with family and friends. And while it’s easy to get started kayaking, there are a few fundamentals to factor before pushing off from shore, foremost of which is the equipment needed. Don’t be intimidated, though. Be methodical and refer to the following essentials so that you can always launch prepared—paddling assured with everything needed for a fun, safe day on the water.

The Basics

Lifejacket: A personal floatation device (PFD) is the one mandatory gear item that you can never leave behind. Wear a properly fitting, U.S. Coast Guard-approved lifejacket every time you’re out on the water, and keep it fastened snugly at all times. Don’t go out on the water without one.   

Boat: Whether it’s a kayak, canoe or standup paddleboard (SUP), make sure your chosen paddlecraft is in well-maintained working order and is appropriate for the paddling conditions ahead (factoring forecasted weather that you should check prior to your launch). Double check that you have enough seating for everyone in your party. If you’re paddling solo, a kayak cart might be helpful for transporting your craft to your launch.

Paddle: Don’t be up a creek without a proverbial paddle to get you where you’re going. And if you have multiple paddlecraft, make sure you have the correct ones for the appropriate craft. SUP paddles are longer than canoe paddles, and rec kayak and touring paddles are longer than whitewater paddles. Consider a spare for extended trips, as well.  


Clothing: Base your choices on the paddling conditions and the weather, factoring the temperature of the water, not the air, in the event you could end up in it. Keep rainwear and splashwear handy if you’re expecting a storm or waves. If it’s hotter, summer paddling: For bottoms, think about elastic-waist, synthetic, quick-dry shorts or stretchy pants; and for tops, use a quick-dry, wicking and/or sun-protective shirt. Additional apparel can include a windbreaker, paddling gloves, and swimsuit. As water temps drop, add insulation with fleece and neoprene wetsuit layers.

Water Shoes/Sandals: Unless you’re paddling in frigid water, the best footwear is some sort of water shoe, sandal or bootie made to get wet and made to stay fixed on your heel (hint: avoid flip-flops). There’s also a reason (slick, rocky shorelines) that paddlers look for a protected toe box. 

Sun protection: Bring sunglasses to reduce on-water glare and eyestrain. And use some sort of retainer to keep them in place (some brands even offer retainers that float). Keep the sun off your face and neck with a sun hat offering a 360-degree brim. Tip: Use a drawstring so it doesn’t fly away in high wind. And apply sunscreen (15 SPF or higher) liberally to any skin exposed to the sun and keep it handy for subsequent applications.

Safety Gear

Bilge pump: Heading out in a sit-inside kayak? Bring a bilge pump for safety gear, which lets you pump water out from inside your vessel (in case of waves or a capsize). Keep it handy (it stores well in deck rigging). 

Paddle float: Heading away from shore? Bring a paddle float (and know how to use it). Simply slip it over your paddle blade to create an impromptu outrigger, and use the extra support to help you climb back inside your kayak on that same side.  

Whistle: While you hopefully won’t need it, a whistle is a simple device to help alert others nearby in case of an emergency. Use it if you capsize, become injured or need emergency help. Note: Experts advise using pealess whistles for reliability when soaked. Keep it handy by attaching it to your PFD. 

Paddle leash: To prevent your paddle from floating away while you take a break to fish, enjoy the scenery, or otherwise pause your paddling, rig a paddle leash to keep it close at hand.  

Added Comfort Accessories

Sponge: This easy extra is great for removing small amounts of water from your boat, both during your trip and before/after launches.

Water bottle/bladder: You’ll be exposed in the elements; make sure you stay hydrated. Bring a water bottle (or two) and keep it within easy reach. To aid hydration, many paddlers use water bladders that either affix over PFDs or stow in cockpits.  

Communication device: Though committed paddlers rely on marine VHF two-way radios, most paddlers can maintain a safety connection by stowing their mobile phone. The added benefit of a smartphone is access to weather and navigation apps to help you stay on route, find launch or landing points, and monitor the weather (especially wind).  

Waterproof phone case: To use that phone’s utilities, you’ll need to keep it protected with a waterproof case, either hardshell or soft, so you can keep it handy for navigation, emergencies, photos and more. Hint: Clip it to your deck rigging or PFD.

Dry bag: Keep day-paddling items, especially electronics, dry in a well-built bag (roll-top or zipper closure). Keep it handy on either your deck rigging or inside your cockpit to access items when needed. Clip it in with a strap or carabiner for added protection.  

Next Level

As skills improve and you increase the difficulty of water paddled, the total mileage, or the distance from shore, you’ll want to add other accessories, including: a packable first-aid kit, nautical charts and compass (or GPS device), rope towlines and/or throw bags, and safety lights/strobes. For those paddling dynamic waters, navigating surf zones or heading into more technical whitewater, the next most important pieces of safety gear include spray skirts, helmets, floatation bags for the inside of sea and whitewater kayaks, plus a small blunt-nosed marine knife, the sheath of which clips to your PFD (grab it one-handed for emergencies that might tangle you in ropes or lines in the water).

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.