Tips & Tricks

Buying a New Kayak – Length

A couple of basic pointers if you are new to this… For starters, longer is better as a general rule. The longer kayak will track straighter, has a better top speed and requires much less effort to paddle. The top speed of a kayak is determined mathematically to be 1.34 * the square root of the length of the kayak (waterline length in feet). On the downside longer kayaks can weigh more and be much more dificult to turn (especially for small rivers and streams). To generalize, avoid kayaks under 10ft (too much padding effort)…use 10-16 ft kayaks for bigger rivers lakes and use 16 ft+ kayaks for open water paddling (like Lake Superior).

Buying a New Kayak – Tandom Kayaks

Avoid tandom kayaks. Sound great on paper but they are very difficult to control, are heavy to deal with and require tedious cordination to use effectively. In kayak circles they even have the nickname divorce boats.

Buying a New Kayak – Type

Avoid inflatable kayaks (too much effort) and avoid sit-on-top kayaks (short blunted bow requires more effort…plus your feet will get sunburnt. Unless, the kayak looks like a good prospect avoid recreational kayaks, and shoot for light-touring or touring. Sea kayak and whitewater kayaks (if you’re a beginner) can come later once you’ve mastered the basics.

Buying a New Kayak – Dimensions

Try to make sure the kayak weighs less than 50 pounds.

Tracking is very important… Squarish bottom kayaks will track much better than rounded bottom kayaks and this is especially pronounced in shorter kayaks (say < 11ft).

Width is also important…wider = less tippy, easier to get in and more comfy…but is slower.

If you plan on doing the smaller rivers and creeks (which I recommend) you should consider the draft. Obviously you want a light kayak, but what helps most is the bottom. V’s are the worst, rounded a little better, flat bottoms and concave bottoms are the best. Wider kayaks are also better. So ironically, longer recreational kayaks or shorter touring kayaks actually work quite well for smaller rivers…especially when you have a decent current to alleviate some of the paddling effort. If you are serious about kayaking, you may consider getting multiple ones depending on the types of water you’ll be paddling on.

REI actually has a nice writeup on the various types of kayaks.

Buying a Kayak Paddle

If you’re a beginner, generally speaking you’ll probably want to avoid the fancier paddles. Many open water kayakers use one piece paddles, that are durable (although heavy) and have offset blades/smaller blades to cut down on wind resistance. You’ll be much better served getting a two piece, adjustable paddle that is light weight and does not have offset blades (with exceptions).  The sizes of the ‘scoop’ is also very important.  Bigger shapes will give more thrust to navigate in tricky waters but are more inefficient when it comes to longer range paddles.

Buying a Kayak – Price

Kayak prices have really come down recently… You can get cheapy kayaks at major department stores for 200-400 dollars. Most of these are recreational/sit-on-tops (avoid these for the most part). I purchased a 10.5 foot Equinox 124 from Costco for only 320 dollars that I like…came with foam pad rough rack system, straps, and decent paddle. Has a nice concave bottom that tracks well and has a shallow draft. Obviously not a touring kayak at 10.5 feet (it takes more effort to pilot this thing) but all in all a good example of the value you can get now. Generally speaking the shorter the kayak…the cheaper. You’ll probably have a lot of difficult finding kayaks 12-13 ft for under 500 dollars (they do exist and will probably have to settle for something close to 1000. Many of the touring kayaks and sea kayaks go in the 1000-2000 range. Try not to get a kayak that it too cheap/too short as this will sour your experience with kayaking. Internet has a lots of great deals too, but shipping can get pricey. For pricier kayaks try to take them for a test spin first…Rutabega in Madison actually lets you test drive their kayaks which is really cool (although on average they are kind of pricey).

You can get some great deals off of craigslist, but be carefull as there may be a reason they are selling that kayak (like it doesn’t track, bad seat, etc…).

When to Paddle

In Wisconsin for the most part water levels are at their lowest in the winter, peak in the spring, gradually decline the summer and decline more in the (with exceptions of course…but generally speaking you can say August levels for River X will be lower than July but not as low as September). Spring is a great time to marginal creeks that are too difficult to paddle otherwise. Other than for that reason, you probably want to avoid spring for paddling your best river prospects. The water will be the highest, dirtiest, most dangerous and most boring to paddle (the waters will flood over the character of the river to obscure its riffles and quirky turns). Many of the best sandbars will be submerged as well. For the same reason, you’ll probably want to avoid rivers after heavy rains during the summer. Many Wisconsin river guides exaggerate somewhat how impassible some creeks and rivers are when it comes to draft…as long as you have the right boat, you can actually navigate a lot of these so-called marginal prospects. I’m a bit of a contrarian on this, but I do think shallower is better in almost all cases for kayakers.

Certain water bodies suffer from congestion…I would suggest kayaking these during the fall, early morning or on weekdays. Examples being Lake Redstone, the Wisconsin River by Wisconsin Dells, and the Kickapoo River (I’ll make a note of these problem areas in the River reviews).

Water and Bank Quality

Some generalizations for Wisconsin… The further north you go, the better. The bigger the river, the worse off the banks/water quality tends to be… Same deal with river length and how far downstream you are…usually small and near the head waters are best. Sandy/rocky areas will have much cleaner banks/water than silty soil. Farmland surrounding a river is usually a bad sign…very bad sign if cows graze right up to the edge or if there are drainage ditches which exaggerate water levels and hurt bank quality. Spring fed rivers tend to be the cleanest (a number of these are in the Fox River drainage in Northeast Wisconsin).

Picking a Roof Rack

Some things to keep in mind, if you’re new to this. First you don’t even need to get a rack in some cases. Simply getting foam pads and tie-down straps that go through the door can serve you well. Secondly, you don’t have to get a screw-in roofrack or get professional installation. Sure screw-ins are nice, but clampon’s (that latch the edge of the door to the rain gutter are quite common and can serve just as well. Thirdly, you don’t have to get a name brand roofrack like Thule or Yakima that will cost you 3-400 dollars. There exist generic name-brand varieties like the CB-602 which I got (telescopable, removable, universal fit and only 40 dollars).

Roof Rack Accessories

Lot’s of cool things to get…first if you have a roof rack (rain-gutter clamp variety or screw-in variety), you should consider getting mounts as it will make tieing down your kayak safer and easier. The most common ones are j-racks (most use a bottom clamp so they are removable) or the horizontal saddles. Again, you can save a lot of money by avoiding Thule and Yakima…which can run you 100-200 dollars for these. Here is a 60 dollar j-rack I got from Amazon. Nice thing about j-racks is that you can frequently fit multiple kayaks on your roofrack which makes doing trips with  2 or more boats feasible. They are also easier when it comes to putting the kayak on your car.

Consider straps carefully… Many will vibrate fiercely in the wind which can be super annoying. Common advice for this is to twist the straps but in many cases this doesn’t work. As an alternative you can use bungee straps which can be risky as the kayak will bounce around at high speeds. They actually have rope ratchets now that are a nice compromise. For more information, just do a google search for rope ratchets.

For very long or heavier kayaks you can get load assist systems.

Kayak Accessories

Lot’s of cool toys you can get for kayaks as well. One of the most important will be a paddle holder strap (many of the good kayaks come with these). Consider a dry bag to put by your feet if your kayak didn’t come with a nice stern hatch. You can even get cool packs that you drag in the water (basically keeps your food cold) but I don’t know if that is a good idea. If you see yourself doing serious portages, you can get collapsible wheels to ferry your kayak around on. Rope is very handy when it comes to kayaking…not only can you ferry sick/tired companions (make sure to trace the rope though your stern strap, through their bow strap then to something in their cockpit), but it can make doing rough portages and put-ins easier. Having a nice water-pump is a good idea, but you can usually get by with a cheapy grocery store sponge instead. You probably won’t need a full skirt unless you do one of the larger lakes. A nice compromise (that keeps sun burn down) is a half skirt that protects most of the cockpit but doesn’t entail a cumbersome suit-up process like full skirts do.  For taking pictures you can use suction ‘tripods’ that you attack to your kayak which helps to stablize your pictures.  Lot’s of variety out there.

For smaller rivers and streams, log jams can be a problem. Some can be cut through with the right tools and this can be funner than doing a portage (and helps out your kayak companions). A decent foldable camp saw can be a good idea (of good quality) as well as a handchainsaw. Here is a 11 dollar one I purchased for my trips. If you’ve never seen a handchain saw in action they are pretty cool…

Lastly, you might want to consider kayak sails. Here is one I got for 99 dollars: Advanced Elements. Actually works…obviously not as fast as a sailboat and without a keel, these can’t tack, but is cool. First one broke, but replacement was sent out with no shipping charges.

Avoid Dammed Water

Obviously avoid the dam itself which goes without saying…but a further consideration when choosing routes would be to consider skipping the areas directly above the dam for multiple reasons. The function of a dam is to ‘steal’ upstream current by concentrating all current into one specific location. Dams = super slow current which can be no fun as a paddler. Also dammed areas tend to encourage power boaters which can be very noisy and create a lot problemsome wake. Lastly, dammed areas will flood a lot of character a river has…twists, bends, riffles, coves…can all disappear under flood water making for a boring trip. I’ll try to note dams in my reviews but in general they’re easy to spot on a map…where-ever a mysterious lake appears on a river…you’ve probably found a dam. Unfortunately there are a lot of these in Wisconsin… There are still many good river sections minimally effected by dams that will be explored in the reviews.

Navigating Put-ins and Take-outs

Goes without saying that it is a good idea to bring a map in a waterpoof container or gps navigator. Without these, the most common way to navigate is by bridge and landmarks. It is very helpful to scout take-outs ahead of time. Google Streetview is a VERY handy tool when it comes to scoping out take-outs and put-ins (so you don’t get lost, can check at a chosen bridge the water quality/depth/obstructions/parking/etc). What most people don’t realize is that they perhaps checked their favorite location in streetview a couple of years ago…didn’t see any photos and assume it’s not in the database. The google team has significantly expanded its rural coverage recently and many new locations show up now and in hd. The streetview team winters in the south but does migrate north in the summer and there is a good chance Wisconsin will get even more expanded coverage in 2012.

You can also use satellite view to figure out where probably log jams are (thing sections that go through heavy woods = log james…usually).

Lastly terrain view can give you a great idea of where the scenic bluffs are. If there is a sharp rise right next to the river…chances are a cool bluff is there.

How long will/should a trip take?

You can usually make some generalizations here… Unless you are cruising, figure 2 miles an hour (includes snack and leisure time). Five miles is a good trip and ten miles can be a longer trip for those not physically fit. Anything over 12-13 miles is a very long trip. Do not trust mile distances in google maps. Depends on the river, but you roughly speaking, you will probably have to double a distance you measure in google maps because of all the hidden twists and zags. Shuttle and Rental places will have the best figures for time and distance.

Life Jackets

Wisconsin Law doesn’t require you wear one, but you do have to have one on board (of type 1, 2 or 3). Most kayakers will strap them to the bow or stern for safer waters and for trickier sections don them as needed. Type threes are the most common and kayakers usually choose one with open armpit areas and high backs (sitting back on part of a life jacket against the kayak seat isn’t fun). Type fives are also popular and can be very comfy (most serious kayakers use these) but Wisconsin law says that if you use one of these it has to be worn at all times…not just stowed on board…which can be a drag.

Navigating Rough Water

Many things to keep in mind…Obviously do your research ahead of time and portage any sections you have questions about. You should only do class one riffles with calm-water experience…class 2 with some class one experience…and class 3 only if you know what you are doing. The biggest problem are strainers…Mostly trees in the channel that block kayaks from going through them…but not under them. Key it to first avoid strainers. Secondly always keep you kayak pointing downstream in swift current. As you kayak turns, it will easily rotate it sideways and will dam the current. If you are sideways and hit a tree or rock, there is a good chance you are going under as the current will push the bottom part of the kayak while the rock/tree stops the top end which creates the capsize motion. If this happens, angle the bottom of your kayak upstream so the current flows under the kayak instead of over it. Using this technique you can stabilize a bad situation. You never want to dip a side of your kayak into oncoming current…but rather on top of it. Avoid pillers/rocks/dams or if you do have to go through them, go over them pretty fast and hard to avoid getting stuck in the suction they create. When rafting, you want to pick sections where the current runs pretty straight through. Pick sections that look like a V (down-stream point arrow) and shoot the middle. Avoid sections that have upside down V’s…as you can get caught in conflicting currents. A cheesy, but useful guide to whitewater kayaking is “Kayak: The New Frontier” which has lots of helpful diagrams.

When navigating shallow spots, a trick is to keep an eye on the shore gradient. If it enters the water at a 45% angle…chances are it keeps going at the same angle. So if you are trying to find the deepest part of the channel, you merely go where the banks are the steepest.

Portaging can be a pain, but there are tricks. In some areas the banks are steep, high and muddy so without backtracking, you are in a difficult spot. One option is to cut your way through with a portable saw. Another option is to go under or over the log…the latter being more feasible. Rope is handy here if you aren’t traveling in a group. Basically gently guide your kayak to being horizontal to the log. Keeping your weight in the middle of your kayak and low, get out and sit on the log. With your hands steep your kayak vertically upstream…then slowly pull it over the low and then grab the stern handle at the end. Twist the kayak to be horizontal to the log and carefully climb back in. Grubby clothes, nice life jacket, paddle holders, and rope to keep your kayak from escaping are all very hany using this portaging technique. Don’t attempt where the current is swift.

Shuttle Options

If traveling alone, you’ll have to either purchase a shuttle (I’ve seen rates from 5 dollars to 60 dollars), drop your bike off at the pickup or hire a taxi (or even hitchhike). Many shuttle services will prefer to do car drops…where they basically leave the car at the landing. I like this as you don’t have to arrange a meeting time or call them when you get out (bringing an extra set of keys might be a good idea). If you travel in groups, you can save some travel if your some vehicles are equipped to carry more than one kayak…if you see this being a frequent occurrence, you may consider buying a pair of j-rack mounts or other creative multi-kayak solutions.

Taking Pictures

No doubt, you will want to take a lot of pictures on your trip.  Things can get messy so you do want to protect your camera.  A popular solution is to put your camera in a water-proof container for protection when you’re not using it.  Many outdoor stores (like Rutabega) sell the “Pelican” which does a good job of this.

Something to keep in mind is that lighting can be very difficult to work with on the river.  You will get very shady areas, very sunny spots, high contrast areas and the water will reflect a lot of light.  Photography 101 says…that your best lighting will be early in the day or at the the end…but this isn’t always practical.  Consider getting a polarizing filter for your camera…which can work miracles in sunny conditions and to allow you to see through the water.  Great examples at google.  Often shots with say cliffs and sky won’t turn out because of the lighting difference.  A lot of cameras come with HDR now that can combine that best of the dark and light images into a super image.

Obviously keeping your camera stable is huge.  Most modern cameras come with built in stabilization for pictures and movies which helps but often isn’t enough.  You can use 2 second delays or burst mode to reduce hand shake.  Even better is to brace the camera against the kayak…easier said then done when you need to paddle.   A cool option is to use a mount.  I tried a suction mount (thinking it would work like the car navigators), but I was wrong.  Oh well…it was pretty cheap.  The next thing I will try for the 2013 season is a guerrilla pod (hybrid version) for my kayak.  Basically it has flexible arms that can fit under your bow straps…and allow you take stable pictures and movies hands free while you paddle.  Really looking forward to this…but hopefully it doesn’t get in the way of low scrapers.

You might also consider a wide-angle fish lens.  Quite often…what makes what you see on the river so cool is the entire vista…but the camera small view can really restrict this and takeaway the magic.   A fisheye lens is a good solution…but it does of course distort your pictures/video unless you can restore them with software.

Most important of all…is to consider the type of camera you want to use.  You can of course use any point & shoot…as long as your protect it (easier said then done…my old camera got a lot of drops on it and suffered minor LCD issues as a result).  What is popular now-days are “rugged cameras”. This all started with go-pro…which create under-water/cold resistant/shock resistant cameras that really focused on video.  Competition has come in and there are a lot of alternatives to the go-pro now.   I personally do not recommend the go-pro (even though it is the most popular rugged camera and many people enjoy it).  For starters it is very pricey, it doesn’t have an LCD screen without buying an addon and there are serious quality and customer service issues (do NOT buy without reading the amazon reviews…they are a must read).  Lastly…the photo quality (and even the video quality) is not top-notch.

There are plenty of other rugged cameras to consider.  Some of the most popular are the Olympus Tough series, Lumix, AW100, Cybershot and Pentax Optio.  If you google “rugged cameras”, you’ll find reviews galore.  I narrowed it down to the Olympus and the Nikon AW100 and went with the latter.  The former probably took better pictures…but the AW100’s ability to map pictures using GPS, take full video quality and it’s low-noise ratio (relative to other rugged) won me over.  None of the rugged’s are perfect…ironically even though you can take underwater pictures with them…Amazon is filled with people saying this doesn’t work…which is fine with me as I don’t plan on taking underwater pictures…but I want protection in case the kayak goes under.  Again…read the reviews on amazon.  On the downside the AW100 doesn’t have terrific low-light handling.  It can also can suffer from lens flare (which can be fixed by covering the camera with your hand, by keeping the lens clean and/or by changing the position of your shot relative to the sun).  The protective lens unfortunately increases the amount of glass…so this is tough to avoid.  Also with some shots the AW100 can be a tad washed out and desaturated…I’m still playing with my settings though to see how I can optimize that.

Lastly, you’ll want to consider photo-editing.  You can download gimp for free which will allow you to crop/resize and retouch the colors.  Lot of tricks you can do that you can find with googling….some of the nicer ones are.

  • Auto levels or auto white balancing is THE most effective tool you can do to your pictures…will make the look better 90% of the time.  Auto-levels can be batch run on all your pictures as well.
  • Noise can be reduces with despeckling or selective guasian blur 
  • Sharpening an image usually makes it look nice…especially after resizing
  • When framing/cropping the image use the rule of thirds
  • Lot of color correction options…you can use levels if you’re feeling adventures.  Things like saturation, hue and contrast are easy to change.
  • You can use special layer filters to make your pictures pop
  • The newest gimp (2.9) has a MUCH better down-scaling algorhtyhm if you want to scale down your pictures for optimum quality
  • Note…I’m just learning about a lot of this, so many of my current photos aren’t that great…so hopefully these will be better in the future.

5 Comments to “Tips & Tricks”

  1. I am new to kayaking and am looking for a used kayak. I saw a 14′ Seacret Ocean Kayak on Craigslist and am wondering if you are able to tell me anything about it. Its an old one, so I am having trouble finding any information on it. Thanks!

  2. I’m originally from Hancock Wisconsin and now live in Plano, Texas. My favorite summertime activity was taking a canoe trip from Ding’s Dock on the Crystal River. I am most interested in Tomorrow River, as my mom wrote and published the book Tomorrow River based on Tomorrow River Country. I am in the process of finishing the sequel to Tomorrow is a River and am working on maps of Tomorrow River country. Taking trip on Tomorrow River area week in June 2016. I would love to know who wrote the documentation on their tip of Tomorrow River and the photographs as it would be great to reference this information in my book. Thanks. Kim Pence

    1. Thanks Kim for the comments! Concerning some of the technical details about the Tomorrow, I’ll contact you by email in a bit here…

  3. We’ve kayaked on the Wisconsin River where we put in at Prarie Du Sac and take out at Arena or Spring Green. We pay a guy at a canoe outfitter to drive out truck down to the take out landing, so it’s there when we arrive 6 or 8 hours later. Easy to understand.
    I can’t figure out on a small remote river, like many you go on where there is no help around, how to handle the logistics of getting the cars figured out. If you are 6 hours downriver from the put in point (and your car), how do you get back? Do you park a 2nd car at the takeout before you put in? Needing some guidance, thanks.

    1. Yeah, it is tricky for rivers that don’t have liveries.

      For short sections (like on the Kickapoo), you can actually hike shuttle.

      My preferred method is to bike shuttle. I just leave my bike at the take-out (locked with a cable-lock), and when I am done with the trip, I lock my boat and bike back to my car…then drive back to the take-out to get my bike. You can do this in reverse too. Doing 10 mph on a bike is normal, so this doesn’t take too much time. Smaller rivers are easier to bike shuttle than big rivers, because the small rivers squiggle more meaning a shorter bike shuttle.

      If you have a friend with a car, that works well. You leave one car at the put-in and one at the take-out. If both cars don’t have roof-racks you can lock the boats while you wait to get the other vehicle.

      Some creative paddlers will actually bring a small motorbike with that they can pack with their main vehicle and use to shuttle when needed.

      Another popular option is to go into groups and they take care of the shuttling for you. is very popular in southern Wisconsin and they hit most the major creeks and river.

How did your trip turn out? Questions? Comments? Or just say hi.

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