Quite a few kayakers have been asking about the gear I took with me on my monthlong kayak tour around Vancouver Island’s West Coast, and I can remember how important it was for me to do the research and put together the master list. My gear became everything I owned in the world for a month, and it kept me A) from becoming the guy that creates that horrible-death-in-the-ocean statistic, and B) sane and comfortable on an ocean coast that has no particular sentimentality for me!

The photo on the left here encapsulates much of the really important safety gear. I tried hard to make sure as much of my absolutely vital gear was strapped to my body, thus inside my PFD or in my waist pouch. Of course the most important piece of gear of all is the one between my ears and keeping it turned on was the difference between life and my untimely death.

The most important gear is the stuff attached to my body.

Personal Flotation Device (The piece of gear formerly known as a life-jacket)

Of all the gear I appreciate, I really love, believe it or not, my PFD. Yes, I know many of us don’t like to don life vests when out paddling, particularly in ‘safe’ conditions or out on a day paddle, but the PFD not only makes it possible to survive if you’ve gone for a swim, but it’s pretty much essential to staying alive once the seas get rough, and of course, that’s when you’ve probably bailed out of your boat to begin with! Mine is the Kokatat Outfit Tour, because it has lots of pockets and feels good on me. Did you notice I’ve also got extra clip on attachment pockets?

Kiliii's battle-hardened skin-on-frame kayak expedition gear setup
Kiliii’s battle-hardened skin-on-frame kayak expedition gear setup

Also, the second and much overlooked aspect of an expedition PFD is pockets! I love pockets! Why? Because when you bail and have to go for a swim, you land on a beach, possibly without your kayak. Night approaches, and you’re wet and cold. Thus, my pocket contents, other than damp lint, in order of priority:

1. Waterproof matches in a waterproof case, along with firestarting tinder (cottonballs soaked in paraffin wax). I also recommend a magnesium starter. *Gear, no matter how high-tech, is useless unless you really understand and have practiced how to start a fire under prolonged rainy conditions.

2. My corrosion-proof PFD knife. I use the Spyderco H1, which is worth every penny because it will not rust. Really! That makes a huge difference and a knife is possibly the most important thing a person can ever need in the wilderness after emergency firestarters.

3. Water in a 2L Platypus bag inside the Kokatat attachment pouch for my PFD. Not only is it convenient to drink out of while paddling, but it can be absolutely essential if you have to swim to a beach and can’t find fresh water to drink. Thirst will drive you mad and kill you by making you make bad decisions.

4. Waterproof VHF radio. Most of us will be paddling in places where powerboats may be able to save our drowning selves, and also, I like to catch weather reports on the water if I see and then suspect bad weather approaching or changing. Why? Because sometimes you have to turn around rather than paddle on into doom.

5. Mini Rocket Flares. I have at least one on me to signal should I get in real trouble and get separated from my main body of flares attached to my boat.

6. My SPOT messenger. No, it’s not as good as an EPIRB, but it’s close, and it can save your butt when paddling coastlines in North America especially. I also use the SPOT to text home to let others know where I am each day, and that helps with rescue operations– if you miss a day, people start to worry, which is good.

7. Duct Tape. To bandage yourself, your hands, and repair your boat. I always use Gorilla tape because the adhesive actually stays on even when submerged, but you must put it on when fairly dry.

8. Seasickness Medicine. I carry both candied ginger and Bonine, just in case the sea starts to get rough, as I am somewhat prone to seasickness. This ailment can debilitate a kayaker so fast and often catches people unawares. Once the sea starts to pitch the right amount, you may suddenly find yourself sick as a drowning puppy (which you will be). Take it as soon as you suspect bad conditions coming on.

9. Sunscreen. Despite being somewhat dark-skinned and not prone to burning, I often notice I’m the only one who’s aware that being in a kayak often means being exposed for very long periods of time. A bad sunburn on a wilderness trip can be a really big deal, because it dehydrates you.

10. Ibuprofen. When paddling, ibuprofen can mean the difference between the pain in my body keeping me from making it to my landing when I have to really push or not. Beware, it will also mask your fatigue. I put some in a tiny waterproof Nalgene screwtop container from REI, which BTW, are amazing and I have about 40 of them in various sizes for everything from spices to insect repellent.

11. Fishing Pliers. Okay, this isn’t exactly safety gear but it’s awfully handy for things other than fishing as well and I have nice pocket in my PFD that works well. Note that I tether all my gear like my knife and pliers that get used often by a cord to my PFD.

Waist Pouch and Towline

Okay, so you may be wondering why you would ever need a towline if you’re doing a solo paddle. Who do you tow, exactly, other than seals you’ve harpooned? (kidding, kayak joke. Makes more sense to Canadians…) A towline is a multipurpose piece of kit. It is a long rope you can use to tie your boat up to keep it from floating away with the tide. You can use it to rig up a tarp. On top of that, you may encounter other kayakers who may or may not get into trouble, or you might be in trouble and another kayaker or even a powerboater can use it to rescue/tow you around. As better-than-average kayakers (which I assume you are if you’re thinking about a major kayak expedition), I think it’s our joint responsibility to make sure that others who get into trouble live to paddle another day, and there are few better qualified to help than experienced paddlers like ourselves.

Now for the waist pouch. I don’t even recall who makes mine, I think it’s by Sea to Summit, but Gaia makes one too. These folding-type pouches are not actually waterproof, they are water resistant, so I only keep things inside that don’t absolutely need to be dry (though I prefer them to be). Inside my pouch is usually:

1. A GPS and compass. Yes, it’s both, because sure enough when the fog hits for the eight day straight the GPS has died from saltwater corrosion of the exposed battery terminals (from changing the batteries, naturally). I keep the GPS primarily as a backup system, for fishing depths, and to watch my paddling speed against wind and current. Noting and observing this makes my own dead reckoning much more accurate in the long haul.

2. Sunglasses. I don’t like to burn my retinas in with glare from the water. My sunglasses are always the cheapest ones that fit that are polarized. Unpolarized ones for paddling seem like going on a kayaking trip with a canoe!

3. My paddling gloves. I like Glacier Gloves well enough, but lately I’ve been preferring snowboarding gloves made with Goretex over neoprene (wet and disgusting and no good for paddling ten hours in a day). Even Glacier gloves always get some water in them from a slight drip back down my sleeve, or even sweat, and gloves can make a big difference for keeping blisters under control.

4. Noseplugs. Okay, these are gratuitous but they live in my waist pouch so I can practice my rolls and braces whenever.

Kayak Clothing: the Drysuit

There are many, many discussions about the relative merits of a drysuit versus a wetsuit. You can read about them on any online kayak forum, say the Greenland Kayaking Forum. I won’t get into it here that deeply, but I will talk about my usual long-term expedition setup, which is a drysuit for immersion. Alternatives include:

1. A farmer john/jane wetsuit with a drytop over it. The key to this is the drytop, as it actually keeps a lot more warm water near your torso where the farmer john doesn’t. A farmer john by itself is barely protection in cold water.

After rolling repeatedly, with my drysuit I am just as warm as before
After rolling repeatedly, with my drysuit I am just as warm as before

2. A set of drypants and a drytop, separate. This is for you if you’re an expert kayaker and are very unlikely to capsize. But we all make mistakes from time to time and weather happens. So this offers some decent protection if you’ve got lots of fluffy clothes on underneath.

The drysuit. Well, frankly, after paddling in all kinds of low-budget, then medium-budget gear, I finally got my Kokatat drysuit and must say that it’s phenomenal and worth the money in every way. And note that drysuits made of Gore-tex are covered by Gore-tex’s fabric warranty, so you get the suit covered for worksmanship as well as fabric issues like delamination. A bad drysuit really is a waste of money, as it will choke you to death, make you sweat like a sea-pig, and possibly fail when you need it the most. Goretex is tough, and you need tough when it comes to surviving in a big cold ocean.

A drysuit is only as good as the insulation you have under it, and so I typically wear quick-dry fleece underneath it, and a fair bit of that as well. When it’s really hot, I keep my drysuit top open and my fleece zippers open as well. Isn’t that just asking for trouble? Well, it’s somewhat risky, but as soon as I encounter difficult sea conditions I start to get cold (in the Pacific Northwest), as the weather is almost always not nice. Then I zip up everything and prepare for battle. Now, if you chose to paddle but kept your drysuit/wetsuit off because the weather was so nice/hot, when the weather suddenly changes on you, the rough seas will pretty much make it impossible for you to change. I prefer to wear my drysuit, stay warm, and then even do a roll on occasion to cool off (or you can simply pour cold water all over you on a regular basis.)

The hat

A hat probably doesn’t deserve its own subsection, but hey, they’re underappreciated! In the photos above I’m sorting my homemade rawhide and linseed oil Aleut paddling hat replica. It works amazingly well, reducing my resistance to the wind considerably (really!) However, I’m guessing that most paddlers out there don’t have the time/inclination to make one. Another good option is the wide-brimmed floppy kayak hat they sell at kayak stores for too much money. OR makes good ones with brims that clip out of the way when not needed. Lots of folks paddle with baseball caps, but I warn you against that on an expedition. You will often find yourself paddling sideways to the sun for many many hours and a full brimmed hat makes a big difference to your eyes and skin. I also usually pack a wool cap (toque for you Canadians) in my waist pouch for cold days and easy access.

Well, that’s it for now! Hopefully this helps get your brain-juices flowing about the possible dangers involved in kayak-expeditioning, or long-distance kayak-touring, and helps you develop a system that works for you. Remember, you should always prepare, when kayaking off a wilderness coast (and that’s pretty much what all long-distance kayak tours are), to possibly spend a night having lost the gear in your kayak. You may only have the things firmly strapped to your body. Comments and suggestions? Leave them here!

More kayak-touring gear posts coming soon, stay tuned.

12 responses to “Kayak Expedition Gear #1: Safety Gear on My Body

    1. It's actually a super early 16' F1 prototype (a backup boat), which Brian tells me bears no resemblance to the 14' F1 (and I agree).

  1. I'm confused about the statement " the dry top keeps a lot more water near the torso compared to the farmer jane/john" I use my Kokotat Rogue dry top to keep water off my torso.

    1. Hi Lee, yes it's true that the dry top keeps water away from your torso while kayaking. But when you capsize, that drytop is no longer really all that dry (but it depends on the top!). It traps some air and stays dry for a while, and then leaks slowly but the water it lets in also warms up and stays near your body, working on the same principle as a wetsuit. A farmer john doesn't have much neoprene up near your core in order to allow for paddler flexibility and so the water your core warms up easily escapes through nearby exits in the sleeves and neck. Hope that helps!

  2. Great article to get the neurons activated. I don't agree w/ everything but we all need to consider our paddle environment and adjust our gear to it.

  3. I've also used my throw bag to tow myself back to shore. It's a lot better than having your kayak hit you in the head in the surf. Just remember never to tie yourself to anything! Great article for safety gear.

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