Kayak essentials

What you need to know to get started kayaking

The kayak (A). This intimate watercraft should fit you physically and psychologically. Its shape and dimensions make dramatic differences in speed, handling, and comfort, so the only way to know what suits you is to rent or borrow many kayaks before deciding to purchase one. Beginners often buy too soon, investing in a wide, stable kayak that will seem bargelike as they gain skills. Newbies also crave a rudder, which later may become a nuisance. The most popular sea kayaks are fiberglass, which start at about $2,500. Rotomolded plastic kayaks are heavier but less expensive (from $1,000), while ultralight Kevlar ones cost more (about $3,000). Build-it-yourself wood/fiberglass kits are a viable alternative (around $700).

The paddle (B). This is not the place to economize― it's your engine and your most important control, and you're holding it up all day. It should be as light and as strong as possible, and its size should match your body and strength. Good fiberglass paddles cost $200 and up, and the best carbon-fiber paddles are $300 to $400. You'll also want to purchase a spare (C), which you'll bungee to the deck.

Safety accessories. Neoprene spray skirt (D) to keep lower body and kayak interior dry; PFD, a personal flotation device or life jacket (E); bilge pump (F); and signaling device (flares, whistle, mirror, and/or lights) are essential. The need for other equipment, such as a wet or dry suit and VHF radio, will depend on the conditions you plan to paddle in.

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