5 Things You MUST HAVE to Start Kayaking Safely

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Regardless of what led you to this article or what piqued your interest in kayaking, one of the first questions you’re going to ask yourself is:

“What do I need to start kayaking?”

  1. a kayak (well, duh)
  2. kayak paddles (trust me, they help)
  3. personal safety flotation device (not optional)
  4. a safety whistle (who doesn’t love a good whistle?)
  5. a dry bag (keeps all your swag…well, dry)

Let’s discuss each and their purposes after which we can discuss additional potential accessories.

The Kayak

kayak-must-haves-for-beginnersA good resource is to review my previous article titled: Kayaking Boats for Beginners: What Type is Best? In this article, I share the major categories and caveats to both in relation to environment and skill level. The correct selection here can make or break your ability to enjoy kayaking.

You are under no obligation to run out and purchase a kayak in the beginning. I encourage you to rent or borrow one from a local resource. Search your local area for kayak rentals and see what is available. You can also ask friends if you can borrow them for a weekend. Kayaks are pretty durable and I have loaned mine out several times without concern. There are also used kayaks available at pawn shops and various other locations. A little research can save you a lot of headaches later.

Kayak Paddles

Paddles come in a plethora of sizes, colors, and shapes. Having the right size paddle can make all the difference in the world when it comes to how much effort you have to spend moving your kayak around on the water. I quickly learned the hard way that if you buy paddles that are too short for your body size, two things will happen:

  1. you will have to spend much more effort than necessary to move around on the water
  2. you will constantly be banging your paddles on the sides of your kayak

The safest method when you are first starting out is to just ask the store employee where you are buying your gear. There are calculations based on kayak width and length combined with which type of kayak you are buying to best determine paddle length. For now, just ask for help. The employee should also be able to steer you (pun intended) to the proper blade shape. Maybe for a future post, I will discuss all the specifics of a kayak paddle? For now, just go with the store recommendation.

Flotation Device

These are also called “life vests” or “safety vests” and are made from a material that floats. They are worn securely on the upper body and serve as a means to keep you on top of the water should you suddenly find yourself outside of your kayak. Several hook and clasps should be adjustable to fit your body so that the vest is snug but not overly so. Remember, this is in place to potentially save your life. Use it appropriately.

Kayakers have a specialty vest that I particularly like more than the general boating vests. These only run about half the distance down your torso much like an old school “crop top” or tube top shirt used to do. It starts at the shoulders and ends above the navel. The major benefit of this is for comfort. In traditional vests, the bottom of the vest tends to overlap the top of your kayak seat and be a tad uncomfortable. It’s like leaning back in a chair when there’s a rolled-up towel behind you. These kayak vests are short enough that they clear the seat and don’t touch at all, allowing full comfort when sitting back in your seat.

Safety Whistle

The common referee whistle is used as an emergency notification device if needed during kayaking. Whether you go metal or plastic, the main point here is to have a device at your disposal in times of distress that is accessible. Wear it around your neck and move on.

Dry Bag

freebie-dry-bagAny personal belongings you take should be secured in this fashion. I got lucky and snatched a few as free prizes during a local event in town a few years ago. I didn’t know what I was going to do with them until I started kayaking. They come in very handy now.

We keep our camera, phones, spare clothes and food in these bags. Once we get to our destination, we set up camp and unload our bags. They are very generous in size and depth and can hold a lot of gear. Start with one and see if you need more. I have found that Wifey and I only need one each. I don’t think we have ever filled one completely up.

Additional Items

Extra Clothes

You may find a need for an extra set of clothing to be helpful. Whether you end up getting wet or just want to change into different clothes for your kayaking experience, you can store these in your dry bag or car. I tend to wear water-friendly shoes when I kayak. Slip-on type that goes on and off easily. I also don’t mind walking in the water with them. I take an extra pair of sandals in case I want to take off the wet shoes at the end of the trip. Most times my shoes don’t even get wet.


By all means, protect your skin from the sun. Sun rays intensify reflecting off of the water and you can find yourself pink in a hurry. Now that I think about it, this should probably be in the original list of necessary things but not everyone uses it. You can also wear long sleeve shirts if you are concerned. Waterproof works best just in case you go for a swim… either on purpose or on accident.


It can be breezy on the water and dry, chapped lips can be an unpleasant after-effect of kayaking. A tube of chapstick is a small price to pay to keep your puckers happy.

Flashlights and headlamps are super helpful if you are going to be out after dark. Speaking from experience, paddling in the dark can throw off your equilibrium. Be prepared with a light source in your dry bag. Light Source

Water and Snacks

It’s nice to take a break while floating and snack on your favorite treats. A water bottle is easy to throw in the kayak and add some of your favorite snackables to the dry bag. My personal favorite is beef jerky. It stays fresh for a long time and can be very flavorful. Add some of your favorite nuts in a ziplock baggy for a crunchable treat.


I keep a small amount of paracord in my kayak. I tie it to the back handle and just let it lay in the back of the cockpit. I use it most frequently to tie onto our fourth grader’s kayak when she gets too tired to paddle. Towing her around makes for a great…unwanted, but a great workout for me. It can also be used for keeping kayaks together while floating or anchoring in place. Like when we want to watch parachute jumpers off the Perrine bridge. We can toss an anchor off the front and stabilize ourselves right in the middle of the river. The paracord helps keep us grouped as we watch the crazy base jumpers leap from the bridge.


It might be a good idea when you are first starting out to buy some short bungee cords. These are specific accessories that help you attach things to your kayak. A common one attaches your paddle to the kayak in case you lose grip of it or capsize. You don’t want your paddle and kayak floating off in separate directions. Attaching your dry bag is also a good idea.

These are some of the basic things we usually take. Do you have a favorite every day carry items for kayaking that I haven’t listed here? Add them to the comment section below.

Keep paddling!