By Conor Mihell
After nearly 20 years of venturing in canoes and kayaks down wild rivers and along all three of North America’s seacoasts, plus guiding multiday tours on the Great Lakes, I have distilled my expectations for paddle-sports gear into three nonnegotiables: simplicity, versatility and durability. Based on those criteria, here are some favorites.
The first time any novice kayaker faces a relentless headwind, they’ll appreciate the adage, “Buy the best paddle you can afford.” WERNER‘s midsize Cyprus paddle is astoundingly light. Its buoyant blades are smooth in the water and have enough oomph for all-day paddling. Choose a bent shaft, for optimal efficiency, or a four-piece model, which breaks down easily for travel. $385 to $475, wernerpaddles.com
The NRS High Tide Splash Jacket makes for one versatile piece of paddling apparel. Wear it kayaking in the rain, or pull it on to ward off the misty-morning chill. Thanks to its easy on/off rubberized wrists, zippered neck, and hood, the High Tide doubles as a shell for wearing around camp. The HyproTex fabric keeps precipitation out and does an admirable job of keeping you dry when you work up a sweat. $150, nrs.com
Many of the best paddling destinations boast great hiking nearby. Instead of packing another pair of shoes for when you’re off the river or lake, simply don a pair of ASTRAL TR1 Meshes—amphibious kicks that are equal parts water shoe and light hiker. Astral has dialed in the formula for a sole that sticks to wet rock. The quick-draining, low-profile design is also burly enough for portaging. $125, astraldesigns.com
In 2012, the entrepreneurs behind ORU KAYAK turned heads with their crowdfunded “origami folding boat”—a 12-footer made of corrugated plastic that folded down to the size of a sofa cushion. Suddenly, kayaking became accessible to condo dwellers and public-transit users. Oru’s updated Bay ST model has a contoured cockpit for greater comfort and stability and a zipper system that locks the deck together. Assembling the 28-pound kayak takes five minutes, and it should last for 20,000 builds and takedowns. And it’s not just portable—the Bay ST outperforms other recreational kayaks, with a fast and lively feel on the water. $1,600, orukayak.com
There’s no excuse not to wear your personal flotation device when it’s as comfortable as a new Proteus or Naiad life vest from KOKATAT. Credit the flexible, body-conforming foam and stretchy soft-shell outer fabric. With their mesh backs—which afford excellent mobility in the higher-profile seats of recreational kayaks—the Proteus (unisex) and the Naiad (for women) are geared toward entry-level paddlers. However, long-haul kayakers and canoeists will also appreciate these soft, stylish vests. $119 to $139, kokatat.com
SEALLINE‘s Discovery Deck dry bag is constructed with durable, PVC-free material and has a purge valve to minimize bulk. The 10- and 20-liter sizes have room for food, towels and a change of clothes. The 30- and 50-liter models are suited for multiday use, either strapped to a paddleboard or stowed in a raft or canoe. While not 100 percent waterproof, the bag keeps stuff dry through short periods of immersion. $50 to $82, seallinegear.com
The unassuming Ensenada Sun Hoody from OUTDOOR RESEARCH is my go-to shirt for wearing under a life vest in the peak of summer—cool and breezy on the hottest days. The stretchy synthetic and cotton blend fabric also provides serious UV protection. The hood is no gimmick either, providing solid coverage for the ears and back of neck. $79, outdoorresearch.com
The Canadian minds behind the innovative, expedition-worthy TRAK KAYAK looked to the ancient sealskin and driftwood designs of the Inuit to inspire a high-performance kayak—one that offers the modern-day benefit of collapsing into a wheeled duffel for air travel. The first-generation Trak Kayak was launched in 2006 after 10 years of research and development. The 16-foot hull features an aluminum and carbon-fiber frame covered with a durable polyurethane skin. With some practice, the boat assembles in less than 15 minutes. Performance-wise, a unique tensioning system allows the paddler to adjust the shape of the hull for speed and maneuverability in various conditions; like an Inuit kayak, the TRAK flexes for a dryer ride in waves. The design has been updated for 2018—TRAK Kayak 2.0, available for order in September, boasts a notably tougher build that’s 10 pounds lighter. $3,599-$4,500, trakkayaks.com
“Bombproof” is a fleeting description in this age of built-in obsolescence. But YETI‘s Panga dry duffel, available in three sizes, is truly built to last. With a molded bottom, puncture-resistant fabric, and a fully submersible zipper closure, it will keep your gear dry and protected. $300, $350, or $400, yeti.com
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA magazine.