Gear Up: Spring Whitewater
by Adam Riser
SpringÖ Temperatures start to rise, the snowpack starts to melt, and you habitually check the water levels of your local rivers. You sit at work and daydream about weekend river trips: the early morning put-in, pulling on your PFD for the first time of the season, water splashing your face, surfing holes, and well-earned grub at the take-out. Finally, the water levels hit just the right markóthe rivers are crankiní and you canít wait to get out there. You call a few friends and take a sick day (youíre feeling a cold coming on anyway).
But disaster strikes at the waterís edge: holes in your dry bag, a faded and well-worn PFD, and busted straps on your sandals.
It seems every season starts this way: you need to replace some essential gear that was either worn out last summer or loaned to a friend who then moved three states away. Make sure you have the right gear to get out there at peak runoff this spring. Check out these necessities:
Life Jackets (PFDís)
This is definitely the most important piece of gear for rafting or kayaking. Whether you want to float a chill class II river or battle a burly class V, you need a quality PFD to keep you above the water if you take an unexpected swim. A few things to consider when choosing a life jacket:
Flotation: A life jacket with lots of flotation like the Extrasport Universal HiFloat keeps your head well above the water and makes swimming a big rapid much less scary. However, the added bulk can make paddling harder. Low-profile life jackets like the Stohlquist Wedge-E offer less flotation but much more maneuverability. The choice depends on your strengths as a swimmer and comfort level in the water.
Womenís: A womenís-specific PFD like the Stohlquist BetSEA or the Kokatat MsFIT Tour includes shaped padding, narrow shoulder straps, and large arm holes to keep you more comfortable on the river. Donít even consider getting a poorly fitted menís model when you can hook up one of these tailored PFDís.
Kids: Never put a kid in an adult life jacket. A poorly fitted life jacket can lead to a child slipping right out the bottom and into the water. The Extrasport Volks Jr. and Extrasport Mystique Jr. are just two examples of the multitude of childrenís life jackets available, and they are worth their weight in gold if your kid ends up taking an unexpected swim.
Few things feel more cold and miserable than paddling miles in strong wind after being soaked by a large wave. A splash jacket helps you stay dry as your boat busts through giant breaking waves or you paddle through pouring rain on a spring trip. A simple waterproof top like the NRS Endurance Jacket keeps you protected as long as you stay in the boat.
River knifes are used for slicing cheese at lunch far more often then they are used for rescues, but you definitely donít want to be without one when the one-in-a-hundred emergency situation occurs. The Gerber River Shorty mounts directly to your life jacket for easy access and includes a blunt tip, so you donít accidentally puncture your raft while frantically cutting a tangled line. The main drawback is that they can be accidentally popped free from your life jacket if you bump it too hard. I know boaters who order three or four of these at the beginning of each season in anticipation of losing them all. The Gerber E-Z Out Skeleton folds closed to fit in your PFDís pocket and can be opened with one hand. Itís also has a much more aggressive edge, so you can cut rope quicker when the clock is ticking.
You basically have three choices for river footwear: sandals, water shoes, and neoprene booties. The decision depends on the river youíre running, the terrain youíll be hiking on, and your personal preferences.
Sandals: This is the most-popular choice for both rafting and kayaking. Flip-flops arenít the best idea because they tend to be sacrificed to the river gods when you take a swim. The Chaco Z/1 Sandals use a one-piece strap and ladderlock buckle that wonít clog with sand like a hook-and-loop closure. Closed-toe sandals like the Keen Venice H2 and the Mion Current Sandals save you from bashing your toes on riverside rocks.
Water Shoes: The extra protection of water shoes like the Salomon Techamphibian and The North Face Philter make them a great choice for river trips that include hikes into side canyons. They drain water quickly and protect your feet from hazards both in and out of the boat.
Neoprene Booties: The extra insulation of neoprene booties goes a long way on cold early-season trips and glacial-fed rivers. The NRS Kickers Wetshoe and the higher-topped NRS Cross 4 Wet Shoes keep your feet from freezing and provide excellent traction with sticky rubber soles. Switch to the NRS Boundary Shoe for winter trips or rivers that require long portages over rough terrain.
A throw bag is basically a long rope packed inside a bag which can be tossed to a friend in the water. It allows you to reel in a swimmer from a distance and save them from a horrendously long and incredibly unpleasant experience. Your pal will thank you later for your great toss and owe you at least a six pack. You can get a boat-mounted bag like the NRS Kayak Polypro Rescue Bag or a waist-mounted model like the NRS Pro Guardian Throw Bag. The waist-mounted bag stays with you all the time but has a shorter rope, so itís a better choice for narrow rivers than wide ones. Many boaters use both.
You can never have too many cam straps. Everything that you rig into a boat needs one or two, and you always seem to need one more than have available. If you think you need five, get seven. If you think you need ten, get at least 15. NRS Straps are the gold standard of boat-rigging equipment. Donít forget to mark them with your initials, so your friends will be less tempted to ďaccidentallyĒ throw them in their gear pile at the take-out.
Any gear not inside a dry bag gets soaked. A small dry bag like the SealLine Baja holds your personal gear like extra layers and snacks for a day trip and stretches of river between camps. Get a big bag like the SealLine Boundary Pack to hold your sleeping bag, pad, and other camping gear for multi-day trips. Well-padded shoulder straps make long portages much easier.
So, youíve been on a bunch of trips, and now itís time to get yourself a boat. Itís a big investment, so make sure you get one with the features you need. The self-bailing floor and diminishing-tube design of the 13-foot Tributary Raft gives you an agile feel and easy maneuvering on technical rivers. It has plenty of space for a seven-person crew but can be managed by three paddlers who know what theyíre doing. The larger Tributary 14.0 SB Raft includes more storage space and makes a great pick for a gear boat on multi-day trips and for running rivers with really big rapids.
Inflatable Kayaks (a.k.a. Duckies) provide a ridiculous amount of fun for a day on the river. They let you paddle around freely and play in holes without the need for kayaking-specific skills like the ability to roll. The NRS Bandit makes a solid choice for beginning to intermediate paddlers, and you wonít be able to wipe the smiles off your kidsí faces when they paddle alongside the rafts in this stable boat. The thigh-brace equipped Aire Force lets more-experienced paddlers surf holes and run rapids with more control. You can also go with a two person model like the Tributary Tomcat Tandem if you prefer to have a friend in the boat with you.