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Everything You Need to Start Kayaking, According to Instructors

Photo: Courtesy of TriCoast Worldwide

Kayaking is having a moment: Across the country, kayak-rental services have seen a surge in interest, and, according to Eric Stiller, the managing owner of Manhattan Kayak, some kayak suppliers are currently in short supply, or are out entirely. “By mid-season this year, we could not get more from our suppliers, they were sold out,” he says. But if you’re interested in taking up kayaking, fear not: There are still plenty of boats and various supplies available online. To find out what gear you’ll need to get started, we talked to Stiller, along with two other kayaking experts, about their go-to kayaks, life vests, paddles, and more.

Before we get into the gear, a few things to consider: When choosing a kayak, you first need to decide where you’ll be using it. “About 90 percent of the paddling that occurs across the world is on lakes or small river areas, which is considered ‘protected paddling,’” says Brian Van Drie, president of “For a beginner paddler, those protected areas are where you’re going to be safest.” (In other words, avoid paddling in the choppy New York Harbor until you’re a bit more advanced.) If you’re looking for a beginner-safe place to get started, check out the paddling-locations map on, where you’ll find a map with more than 35,000 spots added by real-life paddlers. And one thing to do before you hit the water: “Before you go out, and especially before you go out alone, always tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back,” says Carrie Schlemmer, education and grant coordinator of the American Canoe Association. “We call that a float plan.”

Life jackets

“The first thing you need is a nice-fitting, quality life jacket,” says Eric Stiller, managing owner of Manhattan Kayak. “Comfort matters so that you’ll actually wear it.” Stiller and Van Drie note that you should buy a life jacket that’s specifically made for paddling. “A paddling jacket should stop short of your navel and fit fairly high on your body so that, when you’re sitting in a boat, it won’t rub on your legs and hips,” says Van Drie. “One jacket manufacturer you can really trust these days is NRS, Northwest River Supplies,” says Stiller. Van Drie seconded the NRS recommendation, and says that it’s important to look for a life jacket that “fits snugly without being too tight, and won’t slide off when you’re in water.” To get the right fit, it’s a good idea to look for a life jacket with adjustability in the mid-torso and shoulder areas so that you’ll have a comfortable fit even if you’re between sizes. “The NRS Vapor is reasonably priced, has a nice bit of torso adjustment on the sides, shoulder adjustability, and room under the arms.” And when it comes to choosing a color, Stiller says that “brighter is better” so that you can easily be spotted by fellow paddlers or in case of an emergency.

From $130
From $130

“The Ninja is a very popular jacket,” says Stiller. “The design allows for a lot of space around the neck, shoulder, and arms, which makes it more comfortable to wear.”

For women’s life jackets, Van Drie suggests the brand MTI Life Jackets. “They make something called the PFDiva, which is a fully adjustable life jacket that really contours to a woman’s body and actually has removable pieces so you can find what fits your body best.”

“These days, we see a lot of dogs going out with their owners, and it’s important that the dog wears a jacket too,” says Stiller. “This is a good one that’ll keep your dog safe.”


“A good paddle can sometimes be quite expensive, but it can go a long way toward making the kayak experience enjoyable,” says Stiller. “Some cheap, heavy aluminum paddle is going to be uncomfortable to handle.” Stiller told us that the paddles he uses with Manhattan Kayak’s fleet are from Werner. “I’d have to say, almost without a doubt, they’re the most venerable paddle manufacturer — I dare say the best in the world, or among the top three.” They have plastic blades and fiberglass shafts, which Stiller says help to keep the weight of the paddle “reasonable.” He also notes that the paddles have “well-designed blades.” For your typical recreational kayak, Stiller suggests getting a paddle that’s a minimum of 10 cm and says that 20 cm is a “good-size paddle” for most people.

For something less expensive, Stiller suggests looking to Carlisle, a brand which he says is “well known for their recreational paddles,” which also have comparatively light fiberglass shafts.


There are two kinds of kayaks: sit-inside and sit-on-top. Sit-inside kayaks are the more traditional style, where your knees and legs fit inside the boat. Sit-inside kayaks sometimes have a “skirt,” which seals your lower body into the boat, and is especially useful for those paddling in colder waters. Sit-on-top kayaks do not enclose your body at all and are a good option for warmer climates because they make it easier for the user to move between the kayak and the water.