Unlike canoes and rowboats, which are open shells, most kayaks are closed boats that sit low to the water, hold one or two people and have a hole, or cockpit, on top where you slide into the seat. (The exception: the new “sit-on-top” kayaks, which resemble the bottom half of a traditional kayak. They’re generally used only on warm water.)
The kind of kayak you want depends on whether you’re going out on white water, quiet water or ocean; what size you are; and how long your trips will be. On white water, for instance, you need a kayak with a small cockpit (to keep water out). Some kayaks have a rudder controlled by foot pedals to help you steer.
Unless it’s love at first sight, you don’t need to purchase your own kayak; tour groups and outfitters usually rent them.
Spray skirt: If you’re in particularly choppy water, a waterproof spray skirt may come in handy. It fastens around your waist and covers the cockpit opening, preventing water from splashing into and swamping your boat.
Paddle: Unlike oars and canoe paddles, a kayaking paddle has blades on both ends. You can rent a paddle along with the kayak.
Helmet: For white-water or surf kayaking, a helmet is a must, not only for first-timers, but for seasoned kayakers as well. It could save you from serious injury.
Clothing: What you should wear depends on the season. In cooler weather (air temperatures under 70 degrees and water temperatures around 45 degrees), don’t wear cotton, which soaks up water quickly and clings to your skin, chilling your body. Instead, stick with synthetic fabrics that wick the water away from your skin. You should also wear layers of clothes so you can peel off wet garments or shed layers as you warm up. A coated nylon or Gore-Tex paddling jacket will help protect you from wind and water. On hot days, breathable cotton tops are OK. For shorts and pants, the best materials are water-resistant, breathable synthetics (such as Polartec) that keep you warm and wick away water and sweat. In white water, wear neoprene: It’s waterproof and buoyant.
Shoes: Old sneakers and insulated socks are fine, but water sandals and “aqua socks” (slipperlike shoes with thick rubber soles) are better, because they provide just as much traction but don’t get waterlogged.
Life jacket: An absolute essential. If you’re renting a kayak or going on a tour, the outfitter will provide one.