Written by Woody Osborne.
Trying to get into a new sport or pastime can be overwhelming, especially one with the variety of available — and oh, so cool! — gear that paddlesport offers. Knowing where to invest your money can be a daunting proposition. For those just getting into paddling, or those looking to expand their equipment selection, let me offer a few tips. Note: these are just my opinions. Others may have different, perfectly valid strategies to consider.
Let’s start with a basic one: your paddle. Yes, the boat is very important, but that discussion is far too broad to have here. A beginning paddler doesn’t have to splurge, but I advise them not to scrimp, either. I tell customers, “Your paddle is your interface with the water.” It is the tool that gives you power and control. A good paddle fits you and your boat. If you don’t like your paddle, you will not be a happy paddler. Spend some time checking out different models. Does the shaft fit your hands comfortably? Is it light enough to swing all day? Is it strong enough to take some abuse? Make sure it is suitable to your paddling needs. On a canoe trip, I carry two paddles: my Sawyer Dual Manta Bend, for making time and general use; and a Bending Branches Expedition Plus, which I call my “bear beater,”* for pushing off rocky shores and shallows. The Sawyer is light and springy and helps prevent my tendonitis from getting out of control. The Bending Branches is stout; I can’t imagine breaking it under any conditions. I love them both for different reasons.
Try on different life jackets (PFDs). If possible, sit in the boat you’re interested in while wearing the PFD. If not, squat down and make paddle strokes. Pay attention to any rubbing or chafing as you’re doing that. Does it ride up? Bump your jaw? Check the fit, but also consider a different jacket. See if an inflatable PFD might work for you.
A lot of beginning paddlers don’t give a lot of thought to clothing. Unless you plan on only paddling on warm, sunny days, you will need to be ready for almost anything. (Note: you need to be ready. See next paragraph.) Make sure your clothing can help you with thermal regulation. Getting too hot or too cold is stressful on the body and can lead to heat exhaustion or hypothermia. In the summer, I like fabrics that wick sweat away from the body and breathe well. I also wear a lot of quick-drying clothing: paddlers can get quite close to water. Patagonia, Outdoor Research (OR), NRS, and others offer a wide range of effective clothing. In the cooler months, look for insulation and wicking. When you’re clammy and cold, you’re going to be miserable. I prefer merino wool or polypropylene. Icebreaker, Ibex, Patagonia, and SuperNatural all offer excellent options in this area. As with any active endeavor, layering is an effective way of regulating your temperature.
Paddling involves exposure to the elements. Good rain gear is worth the investment. I often recommend buying a rain jacket. I like them long, like the Patagonia Torrentshell. I buy mine large enough to pull on over my PFD. The first time a squall comes up on you quickly, you will understand why.
Lastly, transportation. I used foam blocks and ropes to carry my canoes for years. They work just fine. A few years ago, though, I picked up some Yakima Gunwale Brackets. What a difference! No longer was I flying down the highway, watching my boat shimmy and shake. With a good bow and stern line — in addition to the usual cam straps — my boats are rock solid. Suddenly, my stress while driving was almost eliminated. Having the proper rack components can be worth every cent. Don’t be that person with their boats in the ditch!
It all adds up, no doubt, so proceed in a way that makes sense for your needs and your wallet. Start where you are, and make strategic decisions that suit the style of paddling you want to do. Investing in good gear is something you are unlikely to regret. Struggling with your paddle, being cold and miserable, or seeing your boats do an impression of a hang glider off of El Capitan... well, those you might regret.
* And, no, I have never actually beaten a bear with a paddle.
Woody Osborne has been an assistant manager at Rutabaga for four years. He spoke at Canoecopia this year about his favorite local paddling spots. He likes piña coladas, and is philosophical about getting caught in the rain.