Many people have heard of the ten essentials of hiking, but many haven’t seen a list of sea kayaking essentials. I and the other guides here at the Olympic Outdoor Center have twelve things we ALWAYS have within easy reach (as in within seconds at any moment), regardless of the type or length of trip.
Even on the shortest of trips, my motto is “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”
I’ll discuss our twelve essentials in detail below. There are other essentials we have with us on all trips, but we don’t have them on this list as sometimes we don’t have them within immediate reach as we do the twelve essentials. I’ll touch on these in a later blog post.
The twelve essentials are the ones you could die without. I know, that sounds harsh, but these items really can save your life or the life of others. Even in areas that don’t have 45-50 degree Fahrenheit waters year-round as the Puget Sound does, these essentials can make the difference between life and death.
I’ll list our top twelve, then explain them in detail.
Top Twelve Sea Kayak Essentials:
- Personal flotation device (aka: lifejacket or pfd), on your body, properly secured at all times
- Drybag with a complete change of extra clothes
- Extra food (energy-rich) and extra water
- Headlamp or flashlight (in a drybag with extra batteries)
- Paddle float
- Bilge Pump
- Spare paddle (of the same caliber as your regular paddle)
- First aid kit in drybag
- Emergency Signal Devices: whistles, flares, mirror.
- Compass, Chart: carry them with you and know how to use them.
Yes, there can be some argument as to what should be on this list, and we want to hear your comments!
Here is an explanation of why we chose these 12 essentials…
One overarching explanation is this: we prepare not only for ourselves, but for emergencies we may happen upon while out paddling ~ there are many stories out there of people who have helped other paddlers in distress that they just happened upon unexpectedly.
1. Personal flotation device (aka pfd or lifjacket) on your body, properly secured at all times. There was a young man from our area who recently disappeared while paddling with his friend near Bainbridge Island. The friend had his lifejacket on, the one who disappeared had his lifejacket strapped to the top of his kayak. We hope to high heaven that the one without his pfd on paddled on to Hawaii and just forgot to tell anyone, but if he had his lifejacket on we’d feel much better about it.
The way we feel about this is: if you’re on the water, no matter what the water temperature is, there is absolutely no excuse for not wearing a lifejacket. Period. No excuses. If your friend won’t put on their lifejacket, reconsider paddling with them.
If you don’t have a lifejacket yet, see the section at the end about Kokatat Karl before choosing the right one for you. You can peruse what we offer here, but we recommend trying on a lifejacket before buying (since you’ll be wearing it EVERY time you paddle!).
2. Drybag with a complete change of extra clothes. This one needs to be explained they should be a particular kind of clothes. These are the clothes you’ll be wearing in case your paddling clothes get wet ~ the proper clothing will prevent hypothermia and allow you to think about things other than how to get warm and dry. They can mean the difference between being cold or comfortable, but they can also mean the difference between being dead or alive in an extended emergency situation.
Anything cotton and not quick drying can be left at home. Clothes should be lightweight but able to wick moisture away from your body, hold heat when wet and be something you’d wear if you needed to take all your clothes off and put on a new layer.
Here’s what I personally have in my spare clothing drybag:
- thick fleece hat
- light weight, hooded gore-tex jacket
- thick fleece shirt
- lightweight capiline, long sleeved shirt
- silkweight tanktop
- silkweight long underwear
- fleece pants
- thick hiking socks
- ski gloves
- light polypropylene gloves
I’ll touch on drybags in another post, but for now just note that the drybag for these clothes needs to really be a drybag, not a ziplock or an almost-dry bag. I’ve tried all the drybags we carry, but my favorite for carrying my spare clothes and some of these other essentials is a bright #10 SealLine Baja Bag. It’s within my immediate reach at all times and I’ve used it often. You can peruse the kinds we use and carry here.
Here are some base layers we carry in our on-line store.
3. Extra, energy-rich food and extra water. The water explains itself, though the one note I have to make is: make sure it’s enough water to keep you hydrated for a few hours. One of those little Costco one liter waterbottles doesn’t cut it.
My favorite emergency food is a Snicker’s bar, honestly. I have at least two within reach on every outdoor trip of any kind. However, I don’t depend on this as a main form of emergency food, it’s just a good quick energy source. Some people love Clif Bars or other bars and these are great, but you can also just bring a bag of nuts or a mix of nuts and dried fruit. The idea is that you have food that will provide the biggest bang for the buck, meaning a little food will keep your body running for a long time. Sugar is great for a quick pick-me-up, but it’s burned very quickly.
4. Knife. This can be your swiss army knife or a leatherman, but while we often pack these deeper in our bags, we prefer one of those bomber knives that have a little doohicky for attaching to your pfd so it can be grabbed if you get tangled in line while in the water, like the Gerber and McNett rescue knives. I carry a leatherman, but it’s tucked in a drybag in one of my hatches so it’s not immediately accessible.
5. Firestarter. I actually carry three ways to start a fire:
- wooden “strike anywhere” matches in an old spice container with the lid on tight, WITH the striker piece from the box. Yes, they’re strike anywhere, but have you tried to light one of these in the rain recently?
- flint with a container full of a flammable material
- lighter (which I test regularly)
I’ve also heard of paddlers carrying firestarting gel ~ has anyone tried this? I’d love to know your favorite brands.
6. Headlamp or flashlight (in a drybag with extra batteries). A light is very important for two reasons: in case you get caught paddling at night (to let others know you’re there if you have to paddle for help or are lost), and if you need to do something on land at night. The extra batteries are very important, as is checking to make sure your light works before every paddle.
Most people I know prefer headlamps, but I also carry small colored lights that can be attached to the bow and stern of my boat to alert other water craft of my presence.
I have a confession to make…I recently killed my headlamp while paddling in Malaysia. I had a little water in my boat, but the weather was hot and so it felt good. However, I didn’t have my drybag sealed properly. Water got into the bag and sat on/in my headlamp for two days before I realized what had happened. By then the water had rusted the batteries and connections, and the headlamp was so mad at me it hasn’t worked well since.
A co-worker let me borrow his headlamp for the night, and that night a centipede crawled into his hammock and bit him. He jumped out of the hammock, but the centipede stayed in. He found his way through the dark in the middle of the night so he could ask for his headlamp back so he could find the bugger. Trust me, I felt pretty bad for not having my own light! Let it be a lesson for you as well as me.
ALWAYS have a light on you somewhere when paddling at night ~ I almost had a friend run over when a speed boat seemed to come out of nowhere one night, lights off and the driver yelling over his shoulder backwards. Not that a light likely would have helped in this case, I suppose, but you get the point.
7. Paddle float. This is a hotly contested little item, but we still say it’s an essential. We recommend knowing how to do the cowboy rescue and how to roll, BUT what do you do if those fail, if you’re too cold to move your fingers or if you don’t have your full capacities? Another good reason to have a paddle float is to make an outrigger to support you while doing something like helping another paddler.
There are paddle floats that fold up into a very small space and so we consider it a no-brainer to carry one along. We not only take it along, we have it under the bungees behind our seat so we can grab it quickly if needed.
If you don’t yet know how to do a paddle float rescue, we highly recommend you learn asap. There are other self-rescues, and we’ll have a discussion and videos on this topic another time, but this tried and true rescue can be a lifesaver when all else fails. It’s not enough to just watch videos or read about it, all self rescues MUST be practiced regularly.
You can see the range of paddle floats we carry here. Most of our guides carry the Seattle Sports Dual Chamber float for it’s compactness.
8. Bilge Pump. This goes with the paddle float, but it’s also important for getting water out of your boat if you ever find yourself back in your boat after a capsize, or helping someone after they have righted their boat. We carry the Harmony Bilge Pump and a Seattle Sports pump as part of a good safety kit.
9. Spare paddle (of the same caliber as your regular paddle). Many people respond to this by saying “I can’t afford two of the same paddles!” We respond to this by saying, “do what you need to do to get a very good spare paddle!”
If you’re in a situation where you have to use a spare paddle, you don’t want to be using a clunker. In a serious situation, you need to have a good paddle that can handle whatever nature will throw at you.
Carbon fiber is our favorite paddle material due to it’s light weight and durability, but there are excellent fiberglass and blended material paddles out there. We carry the whole range of paddles, but most of our guides save up and get two carbon fiber paddles. Soon we’ll do a blog post on how to choose a paddle.
In short, never head out on even a short paddle trip without your spare paddle secured to the deck of your kayak, no matter what material you choose.
10. First aid kit in drybag. This is another hotly contested item. Some people take a fully equipped first aid kit with all the bells and whistles (I do!), while some people just take the bare essentials. Our owner, John Kuntz, recommends this “compact first aid kit” to have at your disposal at all times:
- safety pins
- mini tweezers
- antiseptic cleansing wipes
- insect sting relief
- 1 roll of 2 inch elastic bandage
- 2 2×2 sterile gauze pads
- butterfly wound closure strips
A couple items I add are
- waterproof tape (indispensable for blisters)
- 3 pairs of latex gloves in a ziplock bag
- 4 larger sterile pads in a ziplock bag
- 2 red “bio bags” for gross/bloody materials no one should ever touch again
- small, plastic micro-shield in case I have to do CPR
- lip balm with sunscreen (NOT Carmex as that dries lips rather than protects)
11. Emergency Signal Devices. I carry a whistle, flares and a mirror at all times. I have a very loud whistle attached to my lifejacket so I can grab it quickly with my mouth. Before choosing a whistle, make sure it’s loud enough to hear over wind, waves and a long distance. Remember, this isn’t going to be used to carry a tune, it’s going to be used to get across potentially life saving information.
I carry two flares in my first aid bag. This is another thing to know how to use ~ you don’t want to be learning how to use them in an emergency! A mirror is another very good thing to carry as it can bounce light to a passing boat, plane or paddler to get their attention. I have a mirror on the inside of my compass.
12. Compass and chart: carry them with you and know how to use them. I carry my local chart folded on the front of my kayak even when paddling in areas I know well, as I like to use it not only for safety purposes but to note interesting/important details along the way (submerged pilings, steep cliffs where I’d be unable to land, etc.).
If you don’t have a compass and chart of your area and/or don’t know how to use them, I highly recommend taking a class or getting the excellent book Sea Kayak Navigation Simplified, by Lee Moyer. If you live in the northwest, you can take our weekend class Sea Kayaking 101 to learn these skills and many others.
The book Deep Trouble
is fantastic for not only knocking some reality into our blissed out paddling minds, but also for well written, entertaining true stories.
The most important thing to remember regarding the twelve essentials is to have them easily accessible at all times.
The northwest Kokatat rep, Karl Kohagen, has an ingenious system where most of these items are attached to him at all times. He has them attached by strings and tucked tightly in the pockets of his personal flotation device. This is a good thing to keep in mind when choosing a lifejacket!
There are many other items we carry on trips as well, such as marine radios, spray skirts, cell phones, emergency money and our contact information, but the items above are the absolute essentials that we have readily available at all times, no matter how long our paddling trip is.
Our next blog post will be How to Pack Your Yak. If you have suggestions, please share!
Here is a complete list of items we carry that were recommended in this blog post:
For some great photos of one of my heroes, Freya Hoffmeister, and her incredible boat packing abilities, click here. (Freya set the world record for paddling solo around Australia).
As always, we hope you’ll share your comments, personal tips and tricks and other thoughts with us. You can also reach us through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at (US) 360-297-4659 / (International) 1-800-592-5983 or on our facebook pages: Olympic Outdoor Center and KayakProShop.com.
Spring and the Olympic Outdoor Center/KayakProShop.com Crew