Ultimate Whitewater Gift Guide

Paddling Buyer’s Guide

Whitewater enthusiasts are notoriously difficult to shop for. We don’t tend to appreciate material things as much as others, and the few material things we do appreciate enough to own, we need to fit in one vehicle. Literally, everything a whitewater boater owns must fit in a car—with extra room for the paddler, and perhaps a dog, to sleep. This makes shopping tricky.

The upside of shopping for a whitewater enthusiast? We tend to be on the poorer side, thus making us appreciate gifts more than most. Need suggestions for gifts to buy for the whitewater enthusiast in your life? This is your guide.

[ Also Read: Get A Grip: How To Decide Between Kayak Gloves, Mitts & Pogies ]

PHOTO: Confluence Watersports
PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports

1 Drytop

For anyone who doesn’t know much about whitewater gear, think of a drytop like a fancy raincoat, but without the hood, and with added latex gaskets on the neck and wrists to keep water out. A drytop is 100 percent necessary for any whitewater enthusiast, both for comfort and for safety in colder waters.

If you are shopping for a whitewater enthusiast, the chances are they already own a drytop. But don’t let this deter you. Even if they already own one, they would likely appreciate another. Eventually, drytops do show their age, especially if used frequently. Sometimes the gaskets get crusty and cracked from laying in the sun too long, and gnarly portages sometimes put tear material. After more than 13 years of whitewater paddling, I’ve never heard someone say, “Wow, I am so excited to put on my drytop that is still wet from yesterday!” Having a spare is always a bonus.


[ See drytops in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ] 


PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports
PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports

2 Helmet

The best helmet is the one on your head. When parents are buying helmets for their little rippers, I always tell them to get the most stylish helmet. I know it sounds silly, but if a teenager doesn’t think their helmet looks cool, they’re less likely to wear it. Put in the extra research, spend the extra cash and get a helmet that is stylish and functional.

Whitewater helmets come in all different shapes and sizes. Each brand fits a little different, making it difficult to buy the right one for someone without having them try it on first. But if you know which brand and size work for their head, here are some options you’ll want to consider.

Full face vs. regular helmet:

The vast majority of boaters are paddling class II or III and a regular cut helmet will suffice. But if the paddler is running really hard whitewater with lots of rocky hazards—and you’ll know this because you’ve seen their compilation videos on YouTube—a full face is a good option.

Ear protection vs. no ear protection:

Aimed at paddlers running big water, ear protection attaches to the helmet with snaps. Personally, I like my ears to be protected when I am running harder whitewater. Hits to the ears can cause hearing issues, concussions, or balance issues. However, some paddlers prefer open ears to maintain good hearing while on the river with a group.

Sun brim vs no sun brim:

Everyone likes to keep the sun out of their eyes, but some paddlers prefer to keep their vision unobstructed. There are fabric visors that can be added to brimless helmet, but their coolness factor is suspect.


[ See helmets in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]


3 Hoods and Skull Caps

Paddling in the winter is incredible. There is stunning scenery and the blissful feeling of being completely alone in a winter wonderland. The downside? The most painful and horrible ice cream headaches imaginable. The best way to prevent one is by wearing a neoprene skull cap.

This is an easy way to extend someone’s boating season. There are several types of skull caps on the market. The thicker the fabric and the more coverage it provides, the warmer it will be. There are full hoods that provide coverage down to the neck, half-coverage hoods that connect under the chin, and hat-like caps that just cover the top of the head and ears. Depending on how cold the water is and what type of helmet the paddler is using, skull cap choice can vary.


[See technical apparel in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide]

Photo: Courtesy Pyranha
PHOTO: Courtesy Pyranha

4 Roof Racks and Accessories

This item is a little harder to buy as a gift for someone, as you need to know what kind of car the paddler is driving and what their current rack situation is. However, with the difficulty of this extra sleuthing comes the glory of buying the world’s perfect gift. Especially if the gift receiver is one of those dirtbags who has been stuffing a kayak inside their car or using 2×4’s strapped to the roof, and getting ribbed 24/7 by friends for it.

The most basic roof rack a paddler needs is two parallel crossbars running horizontally across the roof, which attach to either the vehicle’s factory rails or aftermarket feet. This bare-bones style of roof rack can be used to transport pretty much any kayak or canoe, and it’s generally agreed this is the minimum of what all paddlers need.

If the paddler you’re buying for already has this set-up, then you can get into accessories. Vertical stackers are helpful for stacking multiple creekboats on a roof, and J-style racks cradle the boat—they’re easy to load and gentler on composite kayaks. If you want to go for a simple gift, pick up a few 20-foot cam straps. They’re useful and always appreciated—mainly because they’re often borrowed but rarely returned.


[ See all transportation accessories in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]


PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports
PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports

5 Sprayskirt

Let me tell you a secret. The whitewater kayaker in your life needs a new sprayskirt. Sort of like drytops, having a couple of spare sprayskirts is always a plus. The two things you need to know before gifting someone a sprayskirt are the size of the cockpit of the kayak, and the size of the tube they use. Correct sprayskirt sizing ensures both the safety and comfort of the paddler.

The strongest sprayskirts are made with a rubber rand that fits around the cockpit. Those tend to be more expensive, but last longer and are safer in big whitewater. Sprayskirts made by trusted paddling-focused brands are likely to stand up to the rigors of river life better as well, including over the deck rescues and heavy use.


[ See sprayskirts in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]



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6 Hard Cases

Hard, waterproof cases are great for fancy camera equipment, important electronics, and anything else that needs to be kept in a waterproof and shatterproof case. Hard cases come in all sizes. Smaller cases are ideal for fitting phones, while medium-sized ones are ideal for cameras. Even bigger cases can protect laptops, guns, lighting equipment and more. The most important thing to keep in mind when buying a hard case for a kayaker is to make sure it will fit inside the boat comfortably. It wouldn’t make sense to buy a massive hard case for someone who only paddles a whitewater kayak, but it might make sense for someone with a 16-foot raft. As a general rule, stick to hard cases no bigger than a lunchbox when gifting to someone who will paddle with the case in the cockpit of their creeker or crossover kayak.


[ See bags and cases in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]



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A close second to the après ski is the après paddle. I’m sure there is some scientific explanation for it why it is so satisfying to have a cold beer after a long day on the river, but I don’t know it. What I do know is that having an après paddle beer or LaCroix (top shelf bubbly water, for those of you who aren’t bubbly water connoisseurs like me) is a must-do activity. The most important gear item to make this happen? A cooler.

Coolers come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and materials—there are even coolers small enough to pack in a kayak. Personally, I prefer the hard-cased coolers with enough space for 12 cans. Hard-cased coolers tend to be indestructible, which suits me, but for many people, soft-sided cooler bags are a good choice. They don’t take up as much space in a vehicle—remember, it all has to fit—and they can be squished down even smaller when empty.


[ See coolers in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]


8 Pin Kit

A pin kit is necessary safety equipment for every whitewater paddler. Used for un-pinning boats from logs, rocks or other entrapments, a pin kit is something a whitewater enthusiast will hopefully never need to use but should always be prepared for.

Many outfitters and manufacturers sell pin kits as a single unit. But they’re easy to put together at home if you would rather purchase all the items separately.


  • Three six- to 15- foot slings of tubular webbing. Size varies depending on if rafting or kayaking
  • Two prussik cords
  • Three locking carabiners
  • Two mini pulleys
  • One 70-foot throw bag

Other important safety items for a whitewater enthusiast you might consider gifting include a river knife, first aid kit, whistle and a switfwater rescue course. A course is a potentially lifesaving gift and will teach the enthusiast how to actually use all their gear correctly, including the pin kit.

[ See safety and rescue gear in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]


PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports
PHOTO: Courtesy Confluence Watersports

9 Throwbag

“Always carry a throwbag” is advice ingrained into the minds of most kayakers from their very first day on the river. Useful not only for safety and rescue situations, a throwbag is also helpful for creating a line for hanging up gear at camp at the end of the day, lining boats to avoid portaging, and tying boats onto cars in a pinch if friends have “borrowed” all those 20-foot cam straps.

Most throwbag on the market aimed at recreational whitewater kayakers measure in around the 60-foot mark, and rope diameter typically varies between 8 and 11 millimeters.

Throwbag are manufactured to float and to be bright and therefore easy to see. They should always be made of static rope. There’s no use in throwing a dynamic rope to someone and watching it stretch even farther toward a hazard as you are trying to pull the boater in. The best practice is always to carry a knife when working with rope near moving water, and the pairing makes an ideal gift.


[ See safety and rescue gear in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]



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10 Headlamp

Always a necessity with any outdoor enthusiast, and always appreciated. When purchasing a headlamp for a paddler, make sure you get one with a high waterproof rating, just in case a day on the river ends up turning into an accidental night on the river.


[ See electronics in the Paddling Buyer’s Guide ]


11Paddling Magazine Subscription

Now for a bit of self-promotion. Paddling Magazine is filled with inspiring adventure stories, insightful boat and gear reviews, and gorgeous photos that will make you want to grab your paddle and get on the water right now. Give the whitewater enthusiasts in your life a gift that they can enjoy even in the off-season.

  • Award-winning editorial features
  • 4 print issues delivered to your doorstep
  • Every page of every issue since 2012 in our digital archive
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