Paddlewear, Safety Gear

Safety Gear – The Basics

PPA Safety - NRS Clearwater_PFD 79x100
NRS Clearwater. Photo: NRS
Extrasport Endeavor, courtesy of Johnson Outdoors
Extrasport Endeavor, courtesy of Johnson Outdoors
PPA Safety - NRS Vapor_PFD 78x101
NRS Vapor. Photo: NRS

Personal Flotation Device (PFD) – Also referred to as ‘life vest’, ‘safety vest’, or ‘swim vest’. This is  the most important piece of gear to wear, period.  PFDs are approved by a rigorous testing procedure, and are suited to keep you on the surface of the water.  Models include those specifically for women, kids, and anglers, and Stand Up Paddling.

Extrasport PFD for children, courtesy of Johnson Outdoors.
Extrasport PFD for children, courtesy of Johnson Outdoors.

It is very important that your PFD fit properly. It should be secure enough to that you will not slip out of it if you find yourself in the water. While its generally a good idea for everyone to wear a PFD while boating, it is required for children by state and federal laws. To learn more about wearing PFD’s and the various types of PFD categories, visit the U.S. Coast Guard website.

Chaco river sandal.  Photo: NRS
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Kicker Remix wetshoe, courtesy of and photo by NRS

Paddling Footwear Many experts firmly believe that paddling footwear is the second most important element of safety gear. Choose water shoes, or sandals that will stay on your feet if you are swimming, and won’t slip on slick surfaces if you have to scramble out of the water. Shoes that lace and drain easily are great choices.

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NRS Havoc, rear and side views. Photos: NRS

PPA Safety - NRS Havoc_yellow back 55x65 Helmet If you are paddling whitewater in a whitewater kayak, you’ll need a helmet.  Some raft trips on rocky rivers also require the use of a helmet.   If you are going on a guided trip, the outfitter usually provides a helmet if they are required.  If you are having trouble finding one that fits, ask your guide for assistance.

Throw rope - rope is tucked into the bag which features reflective tape for visibility, courtesy of NRS.
Throw rope – rope is tucked into the bag which features reflective tape for visibility, courtesy of NRS.

Additions:  A ‘throwbag’ is a safety rope connected to and stuffed in a mesh or nylon bag that you throw to assist a swimmer while holding  the loose rope end.

Wearing sunscreen is always a good idea, and insect repellent may be called for in some areas. Take a map case, flares, compass, whistle, first aid kit and a flashlight if you expect to be out late. Be prepared for wind, rain and other inclement conditions, and bring  your common sense.  Don’t let a little rain deter you: however, if the water is at flood level or seems too high for your level of experience, take  a break and return during normal conditions.

Paddling Clothing.  Your outfitters will tell you what to wear if youPPA Garments - NRS Rio_Pant 50x117 PPA Garments - NRS Rio_Top 50x55 are going on a guided trip or just renting a boat.  In most cases, you do not need to purchase specialized paddling clothing until you start to paddle often or for long periods of time in inclement weather. Many outfitters offer paddling jackets or wet suits available for whitewater trips in cooler weather.

Ultra Wetsuit. Photos: NRS
Ultra Wetsuit. Photos: NRS
Women's Radiant Wetsuit, courtesy of NRS
Women’s Radiant Wetsuit

Check your outfitter’s website to see what they provide,and contact them if you have any questions.   Plan to be in the weather for extended periods: if it’s sunny, wear a large-brimmed hat and keep your extremities covered (or slathered with sunscreen). If you will be paddling an inflatable or other open top and plan to be splashed, prepare with a rain jacket and pants.

PPA Garments - NRS Men HydroSkin Top 50x62
Men’s HydroSkin Top. Photos: NRS
PPA Garments - NRS Women HydroSkin Top Turquoise 50x66
Women’s HydroSkin Top

If the water and air temperatures are anything but warm, bring a  wool or synthetic thermal top and bottom (like those you wear skiing) undergarment which will transport moisture away from your skin. Cotton provides good sun protection when it’s blistering hot, but not what you want to wear when it’s cold and wet.

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Women’s HydroSkin Pants. Photos courtesy of NRS
PPA Garments - NRS KokatatSwift Entry 50x111
Kokatat Swift Entry Drysuit.

Many people paddle for the first time  under the supervision of an outfitter or livery.  Some move on to buy their own boat.  At that point, when you plan to be spending time on or in your boat rain or shine, you may want to invest in neoprene tops, pants, booties and ‘dry’ gear such as a dry top or dry suit, which keep most all water out with stretchy gaskets at your neck, wrists and ankles.



AOAThis site is sponsored by America Outdoors Association.  AOA and PPA unified in 2012.  Outfitter and vendor memberships are available through AOA.

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