How to Pick Out Kayaking Gear: Dirtbagging 101

Now that it’s summertime in the northern hemisphere, you’re probably thinking about all the stuff you need/want in order to take full advantage of the great outdoors this season. If a kayak is on your mind (which, if you watched this video, it’s likely that it is), then this article is for you. Johnie Gall of Dirtbag Darling pulled together a quick breakdown of the three types of kayaks and various accessories that you really should have fully dialed before heading out into an ocean, river or lake. At the bottom, she explains that it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune, either. 

Dirtbagging 101: How To Pick Out Kayaking Gear

Johnie Gall of Dirtbag Darling

If surfing is meditation for those of us who gravitate toward the sea, kayaking is our yoga—it’s a new trick for muscles to learn, a new way to explore the water. But, like all great water sports, it comes with a laundry list of gear requirements. Here’s how to get what you need the first time around:

The Kayak

When it boils down to it, there are three types of kayaks: touring, recreational and white water. Which one you need depends on what type of water you’ll use your boat in.


Also known as sea kayaks, these boats are long and thin, made for going over long distances and open water on lakes or the ocean. They often come with dry storage and a skeg or rudder, so they track well. Pick this kayak if you’ll mainly cruise around a lake, the ocean or a calm river.


These are similar to touring yaks but are meant for shorter trips and smaller bodies of water. They are often more affordable and easy to transport, but they don’t track as well over long distances and have less storage. Choose this kayak if you will be exploring rivers, lakes and ocean.

White Water

These are short, wide kayaks built for stability—something you’ll need when you’re booking it down a fast-moving river. Pick this boat if you’ll be navigating rapids.

The Paddle

A kayak won’t do you any good without the paddle to propel it. Your paddle should complement your boat: A touring kayak needs long, thin blades that will reduce strain on your muscles over long distances. A recreational kayak can pair up with a larger blade, which produces more power per stroke but has more drag in the water. Some things to consider:

• “Feathered” paddles have blades that are attached to the neck at slight angles. It’s all about stroke here—the tilt of the top blade meets the wind with less surface area, meaning an easier paddle. Some people don’t like the feeling of having to manually tilt the paddle. The motion takes some getting used to.

• When you dip the blade into the water, make sure the shorter side of the blade is at the bottom.

• Paddles come in both one and two-piece models. One-piece paddles are sturdy and strong, but take up a lot of storage and transport space. Another advantage of two-piece paddles? You can often choose to feather them or not.

The Personal Flotation Device

Not necessary? Even the stronger swimmers need PFDs (you can face fines if you don’t carry one with you). If you don’t have a vest already, pick up a Type 3 US Coast Guard-approved PFD. It’s made for recreational use and activities that take place closer to shore. If you can, get one with a light beacon and whistle.

The Skirt

Spray skirts attach to the cockpit of your kayak and keep you dry from water that drips off your paddle or splashes up from your blades. Made from nylon or neoprene, they aren’t necessary, but they do make life a little better (and drier). When you choose a kayak, make sure it can be fitted with a skirt. Many cheaper boats don’t allow for this option.

Additional Gear

Those are the basics, but if you want to get fancy with it, here are a few more things I suggest investing in:

• foam blocks for top-of-car transport

• tie-downs and bungie cords if you don’t have a truck with a bed or a van

• a dry bag

• water shoes

• a wetsuit or a wind and waterproof jacket

Hey, they write books about this stuff, but these are the things I wish someone had told me before I spent hours on Craigslist and at REI. For the record, I have a recreational 11-footer, a two-piece paddle that I keep feathered, and a $20 life jacket. My poor man’s skirt? A pair of waterproof pants from Good Will. If you make more moola than me, do as I say, not as I do.

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