Running whitewater is a blast. It also can be very dangerous. Strong currents, cold water and large boulders present an array of challenges that whitewater paddlers must deal with on the river. That is why it’s essential to be prepared with the right gear that will not only make your river experience more enjoyable, but could even save you from a precarious situation. To find the best head-to-toe whitewater setup, we put the following 10 items through the wringer. They did not disappoint.
1 – Shaggy LE Helmet by Shred Ready
MSRP: $189.95 – BUY NOW
Next to a PFD, a good helmet is probably the most important piece of safety gear for whitewater paddling. Unlike some other helmet brands, Shred Ready has been in the whitewater game since the very beginning. It shows too, like most of their models, the Shaggy is super-adjustable with padded inserts and a BOA tightening system. Shred Ready even designed it to be worn backwards with no change in function, just style points.
The helmet is lightweight, made out of Armid and carbon fibers, but also super tough and doesn't retain any water. After a couple gnarly swims, we noticed there wasn't any slippage in the fit. We dig the Limited Edition Camo design – though we did notice the paint job scratches easily and our test model has a few battle scars. While paddlers living in colder climates might desire a more insulated design, we love the Shaggy for almost all other river paddling conditions.
2 – Front-Entry Drysuit by Kokatat
MSRP: $1010 – BUY NOW
A quality drysuit can extend your paddling season into the coldest of conditions, but most designs are geared towards kayakers. But after testing the Front-Entry by Kokatat, we think we've found a winning solution for SUP. During our initial inspection, we were impressed by the thick GORE-TEX material and burly Optiseal zippers. Even the knees and seat were reinforced with a tough layer of Cordura fabric.
Having worn drysuits before while standup paddling, we were expecting a billowing fit – with the bulkiness hampering our strokes and mobility. However, the Kokatat fit very neatly, especially after a quick neck-deep dip in the water to squeeze all the air out. The wrist and neck gaskets were tight, as to be expected, but not overly constricting. And after multiple swims during our last river outing – not a single drop of water squeezed in. The Front-Entry gets extra-points for the relief zipper up front, as well as the bungee draw-cord at the waist to tighten the fit.
Drysuits are expensive, it's true, so it's important to take care of yours. The feet are the most vulnerable, small rocks and sticks can puncture the fabric as you change into the suit, so we recommend using a plastic tub to change in. The tub then doubles as a receptacle for all your wet gear. And if that's not good enough, Kokatat's drysuits also come with a limited lifetime warranty.
3 – GreenJacket PFD by Astral
MSRP: $270 – BUY NOW
River safety begins with a solid PFD and many consider the GreenJacket to be the premier choice for discerning paddlers. The GreenJacket comes equipped with a standard quick-release and metal O-ring, a must for paddlers looking for a leash-attachment point. Remember, no ankle leashes on the river. With its over-the-head design, GreenJacket might be a little more cumbersome to take on and off, but once it's on and adjusted to your body, it fits like a glove with none of the floppiness inherent with other PFDs.
Most of the floatation is low-slung, leaving the upper arms and shoulders free to paddle without any hindrance. We liked the large storage pocket on the front, big enough to hold all your goodies for a day on the river, not to mention safety essentials like a whistle. Two smaller pockets lie on either side. The jacket might be a bit heavier than others out there, not to mention costing a bit more, but that's some of the price you pay for an outstanding quality product.
4 – Neko River Knife by NRS
MSRP: $49.95 – BUY NOW
Whether you’re trying to carve a marshmallow stick, open a can of tuna or help your river-partner in an emergency – we feel that a good rescue knife is an essential piece of gear. With its rubberized handle and solid 2.5-inch blade, we found the Neko knife from NRS to be a solid choice. The Neko has a pointed tip, which isn't super common for rescue knives, but is a nice feature.
The blade is also double-edged, with one serrated and one smooth. The clip is super sticky and it takes a good deal of effort to pull the blade out. The handle also has a squared hole that works as a valve wrench for O2 tanks, as well as an integrated bottle opener. Get a good river knife, attach it to your PFD and leave it there.
5 – Releasable SUP Leash by Hala
MSRP: $79.95 – BUY NOW
There are different camps when it comes to leash theory for river SUP, but we stand by the notion that if you want to go leashed on the rio, attach it to your PFD. Too many drownings have happened when paddlers get held underwater after their ankle leashes get caught on rocks or logs up-stream. Unlike ocean waves, river currents don't let go. So we tested the best leash that the whitewater gurus at Hala had to offer.
We immediately liked the robust build to this leash. The coiled cord is thick and tough, perfect for keeping the leash from dragging behind you. Using a sailing shackle quick-release, it solves some of the problems if you decide to hit the river without a PFD that’s equipped with a release-buckle. And given that Hala wanted to make it extra versatile, they include a detachable ankle strap for flatwater and ocean days. This leash comes in 7' and 9' options.
6 – Wedge Rescue Throw Bag by NRS
MSRP: $49.95 – BUY NOW
A good throw bag is a piece of safety gear that many might overlook at first, but we encourage everyone to get a good rope before going out on the river. Clip it to the back of your PFD or on the front of your board. We tested the Wedge by NRS. With a 55' 1/4" polypropelyne rope packed in a compact bag it was definitely a good design, compared to other bulkier bags we've used in the past.
The bag uses foam panels to keep it afloat, while the mesh panels ensure quick drainage. We think it's a good idea to pair your throw bag with a locking carabiner and practice packing and throwing it. It also doubles as a clothesline strung up at camp to hang your soggy paddling gear. Get some throw bag skills here.
7 – Bearsuit Knee Guards by Sweet Protection
MSRP: 69.95 Euros – BUY NOW
Let's face it, your knees are going to take a beating when you get into river SUP. Whether falling into shallow rock fields or getting pitched forward every time your fin hits a rock, you'll be thankful you sprung for a good set of knee pads. We tested the Bearsuit Knee Guard from Sweet Protection and found them to be super flexible and durable (they are actually designed for mountain biking).
The guards were comfortable worn right over the knee, or wriggled on top of wetsuits and drysuits. Once on, they stayed put and we nearly forgot they were there, until we took that next spill onto the boulders. Get a pair and save your knees (not to mention your expensive drysuit). Our only issue is that they take a bit longer to dry out than some of the other options out there. For the next level paddlers out there, Sweet also makes matching elbow pads.
8 – ‘Eleu Trainer Water Shoe by Olukai
MSRP: $110 – BUY NOW
Rivers can be beautiful and fun, but they are also treacherous. Combat the unseen by equipping yourself with a good pair of water shoes. For this review we tested the 'Eleu Trainer by Olukai. We found the shoes dried very quickly with their synthetic build and mesh uppers. The sticky rubber outsoles provide solid traction on wet and slippery surfaces. The footbed is also perforated and hydrophobic, so water flows both in and out very quickly. A single pull-cord lacing system allows for quick adjustments to the fit, a cool feature when pairing with a neoprene sock, drysuit bootie or just going barefoot.
We did find that the seam above the heel caused some chafing on the Achilles, but we think this is just a fit issue. As with all shoes, it pays to try some different styles on before purchasing. These shoes are also tested by the Hawaian Lifeguard Association and Olukai gives a portion of all proceeds to the Ama OluKai Foundation, honoring those who preserve and celebrate the cultural heritage and Aloha spirit of Hawaii.
9 – Session Performance Adjustable Paddle by Werner
MSRP: $269 – BUY NOW
This paddle is a battleaxe – and we don't mean that in a negative way. It's the appropriate tool for repeated rock hits and slapping brace strokes. We tested Werner’s Performance Adjustable model (it also comes in a custom length or a 3-piece travel version). Paddlers used to lightweight carbon race and surf designs might be initially put off by the weight of the paddle, but we feel that the added weight is well compensated by the paddle's overall durability.
The shaft is a bit wider than other flatwater and surf paddles. In a move away from the tear-drop design, the Session employs a dihedral fiberglass blade, crafted into a long and rectangular shape that is easy to paddle with its gentle catch. The paddle can also be ordered in a 'small-fit', which Werner claims is a good option for lighter paddlers or children. We also dig the yellow blade lay-up which will inevitably make it easier to find downriver if you lose your grip on it during a swim.
10 – BP 12-14.5 Psi SUP Pump by Bravo
MSRP: AU $185 – BUY NOW
While not an essential tool, we have found that an electric pump sure is handy. This volume pump is designed for inflatable SUPs and hooks up to your car's battery with two small alligator clips. The pump is super easy to use, simply set your desired Psi and press go! While there is no Psi gauge on the pump itself, it automatically stops when the desired Psi target is achieved. It’ll take no more than 10 minutes to have your SUP ready to rock. That said, expect some noise, these types of pumps are not quiet.
The pump package comes in a small case with three compartments, holding the pump chassis, power cables and hose. It also comes with some small adapters for attaching the main line to a variety of intakes. Chances are your iSUP will have a standard ¼ turn inflator valve (aka Halkey Roberts). We did encounter some loose fit issues with RED boards, not to mention that NRS uses a proprietary screw-in style, which took some jury rigging to inflate. The pump does get hot and requires a 20 minute cool down between boards, so it's maybe not the best package for outfitters and big groups. In any case, this pump is a smart investment if you're a regular user of your iSUP. Check out what contributor Zach Mahone has to say about it in our Word on the Water installment.