What to carry on a river trip (day trip)
We get a lot of people asking us what sort of gear they should carry in their life jackets, on their bodies and in their kayaks for a day out on the river. Day trips can run the gamut from an hour-long outing on your backyard run to a full-day, full-on expedition; but the fact is, you never know what might happen, even on a run you’ve done hundreds of time. So my theory is be prepared! We’ll leave over-nighters for another blog post, but here’s the low down on what we think is good to carry for a day out kayaking.
Disclaimer: we are guides for Small World Adventures and so probably error on the side of carrying too much gear. You’ll need to read our list and evaluate for yourself how much you want to carry. There is a fine line between being prepared for what might go wrong versus weighing your boat, or
yourself, down to the point of ridiculous!
What to carry in your life jacket
Don and I are pretty similar in what we carry in our PFD and here’s the list:
- We both carry throw bags on our PFDs. We stick them in the hydration pouch on the back of our PFDs. This way, we always have a rope on our bodies (we both also carry a rope in our boats) for scouts, portages, emergencies.
- River knife. Carry it in an easily accessible place.
- Whistle, I carry mine in a place I can get to it with the use of one or no hands.
- Carabiners, preferable locking. I carry 3. Many people say, “well, I have lots of carabiners in my kayak holding in my dry bags,” but remember, in a rescue you may not always be with your kayak. Maybe you were the swimmer, or maybe you had to let your boat go to rescue someone else. I think having 3 carabiners in your PFD is important. Carry your carabiners inside your PFD pocket, not clipped onto the outside where they might inadvertently clip onto something. Note: check your biners on a regular basis—especially locking biners—to make sure the mechanisms are still working. Being in your PFD and wet all the time can make them lock up.
- Chapstick and sun screen stick (Don often carries a small stick of bug repellant if he’s kayaking somewhere with lots of mosquitos i.e California in the spring!).
- Ear plugs, none of us want to go through the ear drilling that is necessary once you’ve developed “surfer’s ear.”
- I carry a sling that is long enough to make a harness out of (in case I need to rappel). This is also handy for anchor-building or a short toss to a swimmer. Don carries a sling that is 5 meters long. His acts as a mini throw rope, an anchor, or harness. The reason I don’t like the longer sling is that it feels too bulky in my PFD.
- I carry a belay/rappel device. This is probably overkill unless you often do runs with difficult access or with known rappels.
- Good luck charm which for me is an old piece of amber I got in Nepal in 1998.
- Tow tether. There are a lot of debates right now around the safety of tow tethers. I think that mostpeople do not need one on their PFD; however, if you are an instructor or a serious expedition Class V kayaker, you should probably have one. The uses for tow tether could be 1.) towing an empty boat to shore. 2.) Live bait rescue 3.) Towing an unconscious person to shore. 4.) Clipping onto your kayak when you need to climb out in a tricky place and don’t want to let your boat go. The debate is that tow tethers are a risky entrapment issue that could cause harm or death to the paddler. A few ways to help mitigate this risk are 1.) Use a tether than can be tucked in a side pocket of your PFD (of course the pocket could open on accident so follow the below steps as well). 2.) Test that the release function works on your tow tether at least once every few outings. 3.) NEVER clip the carabiner end of your tow tether to a sewn, non-releasable part of your PFD. All tow tether-ready life jackets come with a quick release loop to clip your biner into, use this. And remember that your safety is #1, don’t clip onto something in a dangerous situation (i.e. don’t clip a swimmer’s boat in the middle of a Class IV rapid, better to wait until the calm water). And if there is any question in your mind if you can paddle in the conditions clipped onto a boat, don’t do it! It’s just a boat, and you are way more important.
Make sure you test the floatability of your PFD on a regular basis (preferably by jumping in on purpose, not swimming out of your kayak). Two things you are checking for:
- That you have not overloaded your PFD to the point it sinks. Things like throw ropes, chapstick and slings float or are neutrally buoyant so these things are okay, it’s the carabiners and other hardware that will make you sink.
- The foam in PFDs breaks down over time and loses its buoyancy. Depending on how you care for your life jacket and how much you use it, you should replace this piece of equipment every 2-6 years. Factors such as these will affect the lifespan of your life jacket: Do you wash your PFD? Is it moldy? Do you allow it to dry, or do you stuff it into your kayak between rivers? How much sun damage does it have? Do you sit on it (this compresses the foam)?
There is more gear you could load yourself down with—for example, I know paddlers who carry a menagerie of stoppers in their PFD in case they need to set protection either to scale a wall or set an anchor—but the above items should be sufficient for most river trips.
WHAT TO CARRY IN YOUR BOAT
Again, this is for a day trip.
In my kayak, I bring the following:
- Float bags. I don’t swim often, but when I do, I sure as hell want to make it as easy as possible on my friends to rescue my kayak. I’ve already put them in a dangerous situation by making them rescue me and my kayak, and I know they will have a much easier time of it if I have INFLATED float bags in my boat. Even if you “never” swim, carry float bags! You never know when some jerk might bump your boat into the river on a scout.
- Breakdown Paddle. My preference is a 4-piece Werner, but anything that will fit in your kayak will do. It can be a real trip ruiner if someone breaks or loses a paddle in the middle of a remote run.
- First Aid kit. You can decide how serious or lax you want your kit to be, but I try to be prepared to deal with a serious allergic reaction, cuts from minor to major, and shoulder dislocations. I carry Benadryl, aspirin, ibuprofen, bandaids, gauze, tegaderm (opsite bandages), tincture of benzoin, iodine wipes, alcohol prep pads, steri strips, tweezers, and triangular bandages. I also carry rubber gloves and a foldable CPR mask. You should take some kind of wilderness medicine training—Wilderness First Responder or Wilderness First Aid—so you feel more prepared when injuries on the river happen, and they will happen.
- Emergency gear—this category runs the gamut for me from kayak repair, to gear for an unplanned camp out. Here’s a few examples of what I carry: a multi-tool for all kinds of kayak adjustments to
repair, big needle and dental floss for skirt repair, wine cork for a lost drain plug, Gorilla Tape and tear aid tape for kayak repair (I used to carry bitchathane, but I’m not a fan anymore—too messy and not effective enough). In case of an unplanned night out, I carry a space blanket (2 actually, one for me and one for a friend), a lighter and fire starter, water purification tablets, a mini headlamp, a hat and usually an extra layer.
- Rescue gear. I always carry 2 pulleys, 2 prussiks, 2 slings, 2 throw ropes (one in my boat and one in my PFD) and the knowledge to use them! I have my 3 carabiners in my PFD and I usually have between 2-4 more in my kayak with me. You should take a river rescue course and be comfortable using all these things. This will make you an even more valuable and sought after paddling partner!
- Water bottle with purification system, don’t want to get dehydrated out there!
- Food! I’m a big fan of calories (energy) and keeping it up. I always carry some Clif Bars, Shot Bloks, energy treats from Scratch Labs and any other vegan snacks to get me through the day (or night if I happen to have an unplanned night out). Even if you don’t like to eat when you boat, you never know when a kayaking buddy might bonk.
- Cell phone, InReach, SPOT or some equivalent. I could write a whole separate blog on when it’s appropriate to use emergency beacons and when it’s not, but I think we can all agree that we should never press the “S.O.S” button if we are able to rescue ourselves. Having said that, these devices are nice to have if you find yourself in a life-threatening situation. If you are on a river with cell coverage, bring your phone! You can drastically speed up a rescue with good communication with the outside world and its resources.
- Money! If you need a ride out of some remote area, or just need a cold beer at the end of the day, it can be nice to have some cash on hand. I carry this in my first aid kit and truly try to save it for emergencies (not running out of beer emergencies, but real ones).
- I also often carry an extra layer of clothing in my dry bag. I get cold easily so want to have this back up for myself, and/or to share with others if someone is having a bad, cold day.
- Camera! Because we love awesome river shots.
What to carry on your body
We’ll start with the obvious—always wear your PFD and helmet! No excuses here!
Appropriate river attire can make or break your day—you don’t want to be wearing shorts and a shorty top if it’s snowing and you going on a 20-mile run. Dress accordingly for the river, the weather and your skill level; and keep in mind, if you are involved in a rescue, you may have to stand (or swim) in the river for an extended period of time. Your drysuit sure can be nice for that! And wear a good pair of shoes. Whether you are scrambling on rocks for a scout or portage or have an unplanned hike out, sturdy footwear is super important. These days I’m wearing Astral shoes.
If I’m on a very remote and very hard run in the USA I will sometimes strap an emergency kit to my ankle underneath my dry suit. I use an iPhone arm band and that fits my SPOT device, a lighter, fire starter, and some money. It’s not much, but if I’ve swam and lost my group and can’t hike out, I can at least build a fire to stay warm. Then, if things get really dire, I also have a way to get contact with the outside world.
If I’m paddling in another country I sometimes put my passport and extra money in this pouch. But this obviously works best if you are wearing a dry suit. If you are in shorts and a dry top you could put the band on your arm.
Taking it all?
This is a lot of stuff to carry, and some of it is over the top, but it does fit pretty nicely into my Nirvana. I try to convince myself to change the gear in my boat based on the river I’m doing, but I usually end up carrying it all anyways—it’s what I’m comfortable with (plus lugging around the heavy boat keeps me strong)! You should figure out what you and your paddling partners are comfortable bringing and leaving behind. And keep in mind, if you have a regular paddling crew, every person doesn’t have to bring a first aid kit every time and often 1 spare paddle for the group is enough. It’s always good to discuss this kind of stuff with your crew before heading the river.
I once had a friend paddle the Box Canyon of the Ashlu River (Class V) with nothing but a pair of Crocs in his kayak. This was before the dam existed and when you rarely saw another person out there on the river (i.e. no 2nd crew was going to come along to save me if I got stuck in some pocket and my friend couldn’t save me because he didn’t even have a rope)! Luckily this situation didn’t arise. I didn’t discover his lack of gear until the take out, but it made me very uncomfortable—not even a throw rope!??? We should have had that pre-trip gear conversation. Know your paddling partners and make sure that everyone is carrying the appropriate amount of gear; whatever this means for your group.
There are plenty of examples when bringing less is fine: If you are going to run the roadside North Fork Payette where getting out virtually anywhere is a fairly easy affair, you could skip a few emergency items.
For example, spare paddle. If someone loses a paddle and you didn’t bring a spare, well, their day is over, but they can hike to the road and it’s no big deal. If you bring a spare, they can keep going and that’s more fun! You probably still want all the rescue gear in case someone gets pinned, but you could ditch the first aid kit and have the injured person walk to the road and seek medical attention there.
But, if you are heading out on a day trip down Bald Rock Canyon on the Middle Feather where access is difficult to impossible, you’d better bring it all!
Again, this is just my opinion and my list of gear. No doubt every paddler will have a slightly different list, and I’ll be the first to admit that what I carry is probably overkill.
If there is other gear you like to carry in either your PFD, on your body, or on your boat, we’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below.
Thanks for reading, and if you know someone who might benefit from this info, we’d be honored if you shared our blog.