Tips & Tricks

Kayak Buying Guide – Concepts:

  • Try Before Buying:  Good retailers let you try the boat before purchasing it.  Seat comfort, tracking and speed are major considerations you won’t know until trying the boat.
  • Used Boats:  Getting used kayaks can be a good value.   But…maybe 95% of used boats are priced way too high (most owners are in denial of how much their boat has depreciated).  If you sift carefully through used listings you can find good deals though.
  • What I use:
    • Equinox 110 (aka Future Beach Patriot 126/Trophy 126):  A 10.5′ boat I got from Costco for about $320.  This has been a great boat…super tough, tracks straight and is EXTREMELY stable.  On the downside, like most shorter boats it takes more effort to paddle so isn’t as suitable for longer trips.  Also the concave bottom can get hung up on rapids.
    • Wilderness Tsnunami 125:  A 12.5′ kayak which is my favorite boat and has good tracking/speed.  Wilderness is the most popular kayak manufacturer in the world and their Tsunami series is their most popular line.  Unfortunately Tsunami’s are narrow and tippy.  The exception is the Tsunami 125 which is much wider and significantly more stable than its siblings.  MSRP $1099.
  • Poor Selection:  Most retailers have a poor selection.  Either the boats are too small or too big.  The latter is a big problem as the “mainstream kayak media” is dominated by East/West Coast influences who prefer Sea Kayaking.  But for Wisconsin paddling these are awful boats unless you do a lot of great lakes paddling.

Kayak Buying Guide – Types:

  • Tandom Kayaks:  Avoid these as they are difficult to control and are only effective if both paddlers are perfectly in sync (very stressful).  In paddling circles they are known as “divorce boats”.  If you prefer a shared paddling experience, get a canoe instead.
  • Inflatable Kayaks:  Lightweight, easy to transport and good for rapids.  These can be good options, but tend to be a bit slow and some can puncture.
  • Sit-on-Tops:  An option for those that don’t like enclosed cockpits.  The problem is these are very slow, they don’t track straight, they let a lot of water in, and your lower body can get sunburnt.
  • Whitewater Boats:  These are short, extremely maneuverable, and work great for heavy whitewater.  But for longer trips (say over 5 miles) they are difficult to paddle because they don’t track straight.  Also they draft very deep, so they aren’t suitable for shallow waters.
  • Canoes:  An excellent option for families, pets, and fishermen.  These are super stable and great for storing camping gear.  But they lack the speed and maneuverability of a kayak.
  • Sea Kayaks:  These tend to be very long (over 15′), narrow (to allow for eskimo rolling) and expensive.  Unless you do a lot of Great Lakes paddling, these are not suitable for Wisconsin’s best water trails because they are so tippy and difficult to turn.   These tend to have higher markups so salesmen may try to sell you one even if they don’t suit your best interests.
  • Walmart Boats:  Many discount retailers now sell cheap kayaks.  These are often too small, don’t track straight, lack waterproof bulkheads, and have uncomfortable seats. 
  • Ideal Kayaks: For paddling Wisconsin’s creeks and small rivers, I recommend a comfortable “Sit-in” between 9.5 and 12.5 feet.  Pick a boat that is stable, easy to get in, fast, tracks straight, light and affordable.

Kayak Buying Guide – Dimensions:

  • Length:  Longer kayaks are faster, track straighter, and take less effort to paddle.  …But are also more expensive, tougher to turn, tippier, and heavier.
    • 8-9.5′:  ($200-$300)  Suitable for 2-5 mile trips.  An extremely short boat.  While affordable these are likely slow, track poorly, and lack buoyancy bulkheads.
    • 10-11.5′: ($300-$500)  Suitable for 4-7 mile trips.  Great for creeks, smaller rivers, light rapids, and getting around obstructions.  These tend to have large cockpits which make getting in and out easy.  An excellent entry level boat.
    • 12-13′:  ($800-1200)  Suitable for 5-10 mile trips.  Well suited for larger sized creeks,small rivers, and longer trips. 
    • 14-15′:  ($900-$1400)  Suitable for 8-14 mile trips.  Fast, but tippy and tough to turn.  Only suitable for lakes and decent sized rivers with good landings.
    • 16’+: ($1000+)  Suitable for long 15’+ mile trips.  Largely unsuitable for most good Wisconsin water trails.  Strangely enough many paddlers end up buying these anyways.  Only consider if want to do extensive open water paddling such as on the Great Lakes.
  • Width:  Narrow kayaks are faster and can be “Eskimo Rolled”.  But wider kayaks are significantly more stable and easier to get in and out of because of the larger cockpits. 
  • Weight:
    • 30-40 lbs:  An exceptional weight typical for very small boats or those made of composite materials.  Be wary of composite materials as some are brittle and don’t handle rocks well.
    • 40-50 lbs:  A good weight common with smaller boats.
    • 50-60 lb:  An average kayak weight.  Can be difficult for smaller individuals to hoist onto a car by themselves (unless you get rollers).
    • 60-70 lbs: A very heavy boat.  Think carefully before getting a boat this heavy.
  • Hull Shape:
    • Flat bottom:  These have shallow drafts (handy so you don’t get hung up) and tend to be very stable.
    • V-Bottom:  Fast, but tippy and can drag on the bottom in shallows.

Paddle Buying Guide – Concepts:

  • Whitewater Paddles:  Single piece units that are very strong, but heavy and expensive.  Not recommended for casual paddlers.
  • Greenland Paddles:  Extremely narrow paddles modeled on what eskimos use.  They lack power but have a very comfortable and efficient stroke.
  • Stroke Types: Are you a high or low angle paddler?  High angle strokes are more efficient and powerful.  Low angle strokes offer better maneuvering and are more beginner friendly.  Low angle paddlers should use longer paddlers and vice-versa.  Whitewater paddlers prefer relatively short paddles.
  • What I Use:
    • Manta Ray Hybrid:
      • Length: 210 cm
      • Weight: 31.5 ounces 
      • Cost: $119
      • While considered “short” for a 5’11” paddler this is relatively light and offers good power.
    • Bending Branches Splash:
      • Length:  200 cm
      • Weight: 32 ounces
      • Cost: $60
      • Because of its small size, most would consider this a “kid’s paddle”, but I like it for its small handle, low weight, and ability to do high angle strokes. 

Paddle Buying Guide – Dimensions:

  • Paddle Shape:  Narrow blades tend to be more efficient and better suited for long trips.  While wider blades provide power and are better suited for shorter trips with tighter turns and stronger current.
  • Weight: 
    • 28-29 ounces:  A very light paddle.  Likely carbon and expensive.
    • 30-32 ounces:  A good weight.
    • 33-36 ounces:  Considered a heavier paddle and likely fiberglass.  These tend to be cheap and are common entry level paddles.
    • 37-40 ounces:  A very heavy paddle and likely aluminum.  These are often super cheap and what most department stores sell by default.
  • Length: There are official sizing charts, but I don’t trust these 100%.  I often think these push kayakers into buying paddlers that are too long.
    • 200 cm:  A short paddle commonly used by kids.  I’m 5’11” and still like this paddle length as it provides good leverage and power.  Short paddles work great for shallow creeks and whitewater.  They also tend to be lighter.
    • 210 cm:   This is my preferred length though as it allows for high angle strokes.
    • 220 cm:  A common length.  Suitable for paddlers who prefer shallow angle paddling.
    • 230 cm:   Suitable for sea kayaking and/or taller paddlers.  Can be difficult to use on smaller creeks, although the longer length can make sharp turns easier to do.
    • 240 cm:   Suitable for extremely tall paddlers or those on solo canoes.

Life Jackets:

  • Law:  Wisconsin doesn’t require you wear one, but must have one on board (type 1,2,3 or 5).
  • Best Types:  Don’t get the generic life jacket you find at common department stores.   Their backs are too low and rub against the seat, while the armpit area will rub against your shoulders when paddling.  Instead, get a proper paddling life jacket that has high backs and open shoulders.  These are very comfortable.
  • Buoyancy:  Most life jackets will have a buoyancy of 15-20 pounds.  If you will be paddling in strong current on in rapids with air bubbles you may want a higher buoyancy such as 25 pounds.
  • My Preference:  I use a Stohlquist which is affordable ($65) and well suited for paddling.  Women’s sizes are available.

Roof Racks:

  • Crossbars: Most kayak carriers will only be compatible with one of three types of bars.
    • Round Bars: These bars are perfectly round.  Yakima is the most common manufacturer of these bars. 
    • Square Bars: These bars are square shaped.  Thule is the most common manufacturer of these.
    • Factory Bars:  Typically these come with a car and are shaped like an airplane wing.  The problem with these is they usually don’t extend beyond the supports, so there is little room for multiple boats on one roof.
  • Permanent vs Non-Permanent Racks:  Permanent racks are bolted or welded to your roof, while non-permanent simply attach to the side of the roof under the window.  The former is more durable and tougher and while the latter is cheaper and more convenient.
  • Budget Racks: While roof rack systems can be pricey, Proline Racks specializes in a number of budget solutions.  These can be good options, but typically lack the quality of a name-brand system like Yakima or Thule.
  • Foam Pads:  A common low budget trick is not to purchase a roofrack…but rather to use two horizontal roof pads on your roof, which are then cinched onto the roof by wrapping a strap through the window.
  • Pool Noodles:  One of the latest trends in uber-budget paddling is to use “pool noodles” as a roof rack.  A quick guide.
  • Rope Ratchets:  These are a great way to secure the front and back of the boat to your car.  What I use.
  • J-Bars:  These are vertical bars you mount to a roof rack.  The advantage of these is they prop up the kayak vertically which frees up space to store other boats on your roof.  The disadvantage is they are much more unstable than alternatives.  J-bars should almost always be accompanied by bow and stern straps for extra stability.
  • Saddles:  Here the boat rest upright on a flexible seating system.   These are very secure and work well for boats with odds shapes.
  • Load Assist Systems:  For some, hoisting a boat on top of their roof is difficult.  You can use a load assist system or perhaps even consider a trailer.
  • Safety:
    • Stress Test:  Before starting a trip, violently rock the very end of the kayak back and forth while on the roof with your hands to make sure it is secure.
    • Highways:  Wind, highway speeds, and trucks are your biggest problems.  Secure your boat extra tightly for longer trips and those on interstates.
    • Bungee Cords:  Do not use these.  Only use quality straps designed for roof rack use.
    • Bow and Stern Straps:  In most cases bow and stern straps should be used to keep your kayak from escaping.  This is especially true for boats on j-bars and longer boats.
    • Bar Spacing:  Bars that are spaced too close together (which you see on smaller cars) will not be as stable.  If you must use such an arrangement, then make sure to secure your boat extra well.
  • Kayak Loading:  The trick is to go up the side!  Here’s a video explaining how to load heavy boats on tall vehicles by yourself.

Trip Planning:

  • Trip Speed  Figure 2 MPH for typical water trails (this includes leisure time).   Wide rivers, tail-wind, good current and being athletic can all make your trip go 1-2 mph faster.   Do not trust distances in Google Maps as these tend to understate the length of a trip.  Often nearby shuttles and liveries can give you good estimates of how long a trip will take.
  • Trip Length:  4-5 miles is a good trip length well suited for rec boats and beginner paddlers.  8-10 miles is a long trip well suited for faster boats and more experienced paddlers.  14-16 miles is an extremely long trip and should only be attempted by experienced paddlers who have planned their route in advance.   Camping can be a good way to break up longer trips.
  • Trip Types:
    • Lakes:  Generally not as interesting for paddling and wind can be an issue.  A good way to experience them is to do a loop around the shoreline.  This way if you tip over, it is easy to reach the shore.
    • Small Creeks:  My favorite types of paddles.  These tend to be fast, clean, have smaller mud banks, and more diverse scenery.  Only suitable for smaller and more maneuverable boats.
    • Large Creeks/Small Rivers:  These make for great paddles.
    • Large Rivers:  Mostly uninteresting as the scenery stays the same, wind can be an issue, and powerboats can be a problem.  If there are sandbars or attractive bluffs though, this can be worth it.
    • Great Lakes/Sea Kayaking:  Can be very dangerous, but rewarding.  Generally speaking I find river and creek paddling to be significantly more interesting.
  • Seasonal Paddling: 
    • Winter:  Can offer a unique experience, especially when snow is on the trees.  But…can be very dangerous.  Only attempt with proper protective clothing.
    • Spring: Typically when streams and rivers are highest.  Can be a good time to do small streams or those with logjams as the died back grass makes portaging much easier.  Also a great time to see and hear birds.  Spring is a very popular time for serious whitewater paddlers.  One of the biggest perks of spring is the lack of mosquitoes.
    • Summer:  The most popular time for paddles.  Water levels start somewhat high but typically trend down as summer progresses.
    • Fall:  My personal favorite time for paddling, as water levels are low and clear.  Fall color paddles can be fantastic (usually 2-3rd week of October).  Be careful not be trapped on the water after dark, as the sun does set earlier at this time of year
  • Flow Rate:
    • River levels are usually measured in feet of CFS (cubic feet per second).
    • The USGS has a very nice depth map at https://waterwatch.usgs.gov/?m=real&r=wi
    • The National Weather Service has a competing depth map that is also very good:  https://water.weather.gov/ahps/region.php?state=wi
    • Warning, CFS reading are often inaccurate.  Be especially wary of gauges that are significantly up or downstream from your target.  Dams can also complicate matters. 
    • Generally speaking, smaller creeks quickly rise and fall in reaction rain (usually 6-20 hours).   Large Rivers like the Wisconsin however can lag rainfalls by up to a week.
    • There is a correlation between high flow rates and how dangerous a river is.  Higher rivers are pushier and much more dangerous.
  • Wind:
    • If there is cover such as woods or hills, this likely won’t be an issue.  But if you are doing an open paddle such as a big river or a marsh, this can be a serious concern.
    • Canoes are more vulnerable to wind than kayaks.
    • Avoid paddling big water when there is a headwind of 10+mph.

Shuttling:

  • Car Shuttles: This is often the easiest option.  You simple take more than one car.  If you just have two people, you will need to hide your boats at the put-in/take-out or lock them up with cable locks.  Otherwise the third person can remain behind to guard the gear.
  • Bike Shuttles:   An excellent option for solo trips.  You will need to lock your boat and bike to the put-in (either before or after your trip).  Be mindful of gravel roads and steep hills as both are can be difficult.  Figure 10 mph for flat routes.  Smaller rivers and creeks tend to have shorter shuttles.
  • Commercial Shuttles:  The more popular water trails will be serviced by commercial liveries.  Click here for a list.  The cheaper shuttles will be in the $10-20 range, while the more expensive in the $40-50 dollar range.  Often you get a discount if you bring your own boat or can be shuttled as part of a bigger group.  The best shuttle services do “car drops” where you leave the car at the take-out and simply go home when you are done.  Keep in mind that shuttle drivers prefer to stick close to their base even when this may not include the best parts of the river. 
  • Cable Locks:  These are highly recommended for shuttles that require leaving your gear behind.  The best types are combination (in case you lose your keys on your trip) and will be very long so they can wrap around large trees.   Here is a 7′ one from Amazon.com that costs just $14.
  • Backpack: Highly recommended…makes it very easy to keep your most valuable possessions on you during the bike shuttle.

Wisconsin’s Unique Paddling Regions:

  • The Driftless Area: Untouched by glaciers, the southwest corner of the state is incredibly hilly and rugged.  Known for great scenery, rock outcrops, and light rapids…there are many fine rivers in this area.  Notables include the Kickapoo River, Grant River, Platte River, Blue River and plenty more.
  • Black River Falls Watershed: It can be argued that the best cluster of paddling creeks and rivers in the state are located along this watershed.  Highlights include boulder gardens, rapids, pine trees, clear red water, and at times amazing outcrops.   Notables include the Upper Black River, Robinson Creek, Wedges Creek, Halls Creek, Popple River, Perry Creek,  Morrison Creek, the East Fork, and more.
  • Ice Age Paddles:  Water trails located near historic glacial terminal moraines tend to be exceptional.  Often glaciers left behind large mounds of rocks and pebbles which result in springs, morraines, clear water, little mud and attractive substrates.   Notables include the Bark, Mecan, Waupaca, Oconomowoc, Crystal, Upper Sugar, and plenty more.
  • Glacial Lake Wisconsin:  Draw a triangle between Wisconsin Dells, Black River Falls, and Wisconsin Rapids.  This “Bermuda Triangle” area is among the worst paddling area in the state.  Historic Glacial Lake Wisconsin used to reside here and left behind a lot of sand.  But trees roots can’t grip sand well, so they easily fall over and into nearby creeks and rivers.   Logjams are a major problem in this part of the state.  Notable paddles include the Upper Lemonweir River and Lower Yellow River.
  • Mississippi:  Wind, waves, boat traffic, and dams can all be problems.  But in the right conditions and the right sheltered areas, there are some good water trails.
  • Great Lakes Paddling: There are many regions along the Great Lakes well suited for paddling (like the Apostle Islands).  But this can be among the most dangerous types of paddles in the state and are only suitable for well prepared paddlers.
  • Marsh Country: Draw a triangle between Oshkosh, Madison, and Waukesha.  This flat region of the state has poor drainage which results in a large concentration of marshes.  This can be a good or bad thing depending on your preferences.  Notables include Horicon Marsh, Grand Marsh, Mud Lake, White River Marsh, and countless more.
  • Northern vs Southern Wisconsin: Simply put, northern rivers and creeks are better (cleaner, faster, more rugged, less developed, way less mud).  But southern water trails are still good and generally more because of superior roads and being closer to large concentrations of people.

Whitewater:

  • Class Ratings:  Whitewater rapids are rated by difficulty, with 1 being the lowest.  Be warned that these ratings are subjective.  Also in recent years it’s considered a macho thing to understate class difficulty.  This has resulted in “rating deflation” so be mindful of this.
    • Class 1:  Light riffles and small waves.  You likely don’t have to maneuver much.
    • Class 2:  Some maneuvering is likely required but it is not too difficult.  Waves are bigger and your cockpit will likely get wet if unprotected.  These can likely be run in rec boats.
    • Class 3:  These usually require very tight maneuvers or have large wave that can swamp open boats.  These should be scouted by properly equipped paddlers with appropriate boats.
    • Class 4:  These are difficult rapids that should only be attempted by professionals.  Sticky holes can develop and constrictions can pin boats.  These can be dangerous even if you swim.
    • Class 5:  The most dangerous and violent rapids.  Youtube has plenty of examples such as Senders and Dane Jackson.
  • Scouting: If in doubt get out and scout.  You should never run unknown rapids as they may contain hazards like strainer or holes.
  • Strainers: When fast water flows under an obstacle like a tree or rock it can create a strainer which could pin and kill a paddler.  Avoid at all costs.
  • Holes: These typically follow large boulders or large waves.  Basically it’s a pocket in the river where the current flows in reverse.  These can be deadly.  Experienced paddlers will “boof” holes, avoid them altogether, or run them at high speed to maintain escape velocity.
  • Kayak Positioning: Generally speaking you want to keep your nose up to maintain control.  On non-whitewater boats it is imperative to never turn sideways in rapids as the boat will easily be pinned and swamped.
  • Learning Upwards: When pinned sideways against fast current always lean downstream so the current doesn’t flip your boat.
  • Eskimo Rolls: In serious rapids you need a boat that can eskimo roll and the experience to this.  In heavy water you need a “bomb proof” roll in which you can get upright even in the roughest of conditions.
  • High Water vs Low Water: Uber serious whitewater paddlers like high water because it pads the drops.  But in most cases high water is significantly more dangerous as it moves with much more force.  Waves and holes can be huge during high levels and be very dangerous.  Strainers are also much more problematic.  High water white paddles should only be attempted by experts.
  • Helmets: For rapids that are very rough and/or will require eskimo rolling you should absolutely have a helmet.
  • Navigation:
    • Never move at the same speed as the current…you need to be faster to have control and to have escape velocity to get out of holes and eddies.
    • Research your river so you know where the tough spots are.
    • You can usually hear strong rapids coming up from far away.  But the most dangerous rapids are those following other rapids which make them tough to assess. 
    • Duck when entering big waves.
  • AmericanWhitewater.org:  This is a great resource for paddlers…but many class ratings are not consistent and many paddlers understate the danger of the water trails they review.
  • Boofing: When going over ledges, you need good technique to clear the dangerous recirculating current at the bottom.  Here is an excellent video on boofing.
  • Other Resources:  I highly recommend the Youtube Channel Paddle Education if you want to learn more about whitewater paddling.

Safety:

  • Solo vs Group Paddles: If you will be doing a riskier trip, it is safer to paddle with others.  This is especially important for Great Lakes Paddling and serious Whitewater.
  • Wind: For open water paddlers be careful of the forecast as paddling into a decent headwind (10+ mph is strong) can be difficult.  Wind can also kick up a lot of waves.
  • Waves: For big lake paddling you need to be very mindful of the forecasted wave height.  MagicSeaWeed.com has some great forecasts for the Great Lakes.
    • Less than 0.5′ is ideal. 
    • 1′ is pretty bouncy.
    • 2′ can be very strong for paddlers. 
    • 3’+ waves can swamp a kayak.
  • Wake:  Strong wake can be annoying and even dangerous.  Culprits can include large tour boats, barges, and even ships on the great lakes.  Stay away from these trouble makers.  Also some areas with rocks walls can cause the wake to rebound (eg the Narrows in Wisconsin Dells).
  • Lake Paddling: Assume you will rollover and will have to swim to shore.  Often the best lake paddle will be a circuitous route around the edge for safety.  If you do paddle in the middle make sure you have a good re-entry move or can eskimo roll.
  • Temperature: Be mindful of the water temperature.  It can be deceptively cold (big water tends to be colder than smaller creeks).  Make sure to wear protective clothing if necessary.
  • Time of the Day:
    • Do not start long trips late in the day.  Something could delay your trip which could cause you to be stuck on the river after dark (super bad).
    • In late fall it gets dark incredibly soon.  Sooner if it is overcast.  Make sure you know when sunset is.
  • Water Levels: The higher the water the greater the danger.  Be VERY careful about paddling a creek or river when high.
    • Waves: Big waves can result.  These swamp a boat and create sticky holes that can drown a paddler that even has life jacket on.
    • Strainers:  Low logs can stop a kayak while a strong current prevents it from escaping.  These are EXTREMELY dangerous especially during high water.
    • Current:  The current will move significantly faster during high water.
    • Water Quality: The water quality will be much worst in high water conditions.  Debris, mud and logs will be in the water.  There is also a great chance of biological and chemical contaminants.
    • Power: Water is very heavy and powerful.  The more of it there is the “pushier” the river will become and it will become more difficult to maneuver.  There also far fewer eddies in high water events.
  • Low-head Dams and Holes: Low-head dams are extremely dangerous because recirculating current can form at the bottom which can trap a paddler.  Avoid at all cost.  Note, recirculating current can also form in rapids…always scout and avoid holes with recirculating current.

Kayak Accessories:

  • Dry Bag:  These are HIGHLY recommended.  You want to store your keys, wallet, phone and other valuables here.   Ideally the dry bag will be secure to you or the boat so it doesn’t float away in an accident.  Two dry bags are not a bad idea (you might want a second for more accessible items like cameras/phones).
  • Sponge: If you flip or go over rough rapids, chances are you’ll need to remove water from your boat.  Sponges are cheap, weigh little and work great for making your boats seaworthy again.  I like stick a foam sponge directly under my seat for convenient access.
  • Deet Free Mosquito Repellent: Deet is a common insect repellent but can be bad for the environment and give you cancer.
  • Rope:  I like to attach the bow of my boat to 15′ stretch of rope.  This way if I have a tricky portage or put-in, it is much easier move my boat around.
  • Full Skirts: These are kayak covers that attach to the kayak and wrap around your body.  They keep water out of the cockpit and are recommend for sea kayaking and serious whitewater.  If you use one, make sure you can eskimo roll or have a good wet exit.  Be warned, they can be quite toasty in the summer.
  • Half-Skirts: These are cheaper and smaller than full skirts and don’t seal the full cockpit.  They help keep out some splashes as well as the sun.  Cockpit sizes vary so choose carefully.
  • Multiple Water Bottles:  On a warm day I can go through three bottles of water.  Note, be careful of plastic bottles that have BPA…this can cause cancer.  Many outdoor stores now sell BPA free bottles.  Avoid glass as this is prohibited on many rivers.
  • Suntan Lotion:  Obviously…
  • Car Doorstep Foot Pegs: It can be difficult to reach your boat on some bigger cars  like SUVs.  Foot pegs like this one can help a lot.

Clothing:

  • Aquatic Footwear: 
    • Aquatic Boots: These are ideal for cold conditions or those that will require difficult portages with mud and stinging plants.  When I need serious protection I wear my NRS Men’s Paddle Wetshoes.
    • Finger Feet:  These wrap very tightly around your feet including your toes.  Some might find these uncomfortable or difficult to get on, but they do drain very fast. I use Vibrams.
    • Aquatic Shoes:  These vary widely.  A key consideration is coverage…more means better sun/plant/temperature protection.  While open shoes drain faster and are cooler in the summer.  Heavier shoes are more durable and have better treads for rocks, but will track more mud and water into your boat.  I like “Merrell Water Shoes” in the summer which to me are the most comfortable aquatic shoes on the planet.
  • Pants: In many cases shorts will do just fine.  For cooler weather you may want to wear neoprene or neoprene-like layers…like this.   For serious cold weather paddling you should contact an experienced outdoor retailer for your best options.
  • Long Sleeve Shirts:  If you’re not a fan of suntan lotion, they actually make long sleeve shirts meant to be worn in hot weather.  These tend to be slightly baggy and made of a very fine material.  I wear this brand all the time.
  • Hydroskin:  This is similar to what surfers wear.   This will keep you warm in cool conditions even if you get wet.  Here is mine.  Note, this is designed for cooler weather, but not full blown winter paddling.  For that you’ll want something like neoprene that provides additional protection.
  • Gloves:  These are great for early spring/late fall paddles.  Bigger gloves will provide more warmth, but smaller ones will let your finger move which is great for working phones or cameras.
  • Helmet: If you do serious whitewater this is a must.  Example brand.
  • Hat: A broad brimmed hat is recommend for sun protection and to keep some sun out of your eyes.

Kayak Photography:

  • Waterproof Cameras vs Action Cams: Action cams like (GoPro and DJI Osmo) specialize in taking video in super rough conditions.  They can take pictures, but they aren’t top notch.  Waterproof Cameras (like the Nikon W300 and Olympus TG-6), first and foremost are still cameras..but can also take decent video.   Action cams are recommended for rough whitewater and when you want to use a helmet mount.  Otherwise a waterproof camera you can hang around your neck with a strap is a much better option.  If you have a regular camera or phone there are protective cases you can use, but I don’t find these as convenient.  An example of protection you can buy for a phone includes the “Lifeproof Case“.
  • What I Use:
    • From 2017 to early 2019, I used the Nikon W300.  This is Nikon’s lead waterproof camera and is solid.  Strengths include good stabilization and good color science in bright conditions.
    • From July 2019 to present, I use the Olympus TG-6.  This is considered the lead waterproof camera in the entire market.  Strengths include a clear lens, good low light capability, and excellent macro.  If you get the TG-6, I highly recommend the ring flash for macro.
  • Tripods: A conventional tripod or gimbal won’t be practical in a kayak.  But in most boats, you can mount a gorillapod the deck which works well.  For action cams, there are mounts for the chest and head area you can use.
  • Composition:
    • Sun vs Clouds: Sunny conditions are important to get bright saturated colors and vibrant blues.  On the downside sunny skies can produce harsh shadows and dynamic range.  Overcast conditions have consistent lighting but tend to have flat and uninteresting colors.  As a general rule…big water paddles with few trees (like marshes) are best done when it is sunny out.  Overcast conditions are good if you will be doing kayak closeups or will be paddling in dense woods where shadows are tough to deal with.
    • Sun Angle: Very important!  If the sun is out, it is either behind you (front-lighting), to your side (side-lighting), or in front of you (back-lighting).   90% of the time…your best shots with the best color will be when the sun is behind you.  When I’m paddling I will often turn around if need to get front-lit shots…it’s that important.   Backlit shots are difficult and can result in washed out pictures with flare.  However a photographer with skill can make backlit shots look artistic if carefully composed.
    • Camera Height: Generally speaking, higher is better.  For important shots it can be important to get out and onto higher ground for better composition of a key river feature (such as rapids).  There exceptions though…when next to something really tall it can be dramatic to get close to it and look straight up from a low vantage point.
    • Photographing Rock Walls:  The angle at which you shoot the rock wall is important.  Perpendicular shots (or 90 degrees) are ok, but often lack depth.  Usually your best bet is position your boat at a 45 degree angle to the wall and to ideally have another kayaker in the frame for scale.
    • Foreground Composition: Foreground elements or framing adds a lot to a photo.  This could be a low hanging branch, a culvert tunnel, or just a simple bend in the river.
    • Establishing Shots:  A good kayak photo gallery tells a story.  Part of this includes “establishing shots” that set the “big picture” before you shoot the details.  For example, shooting the put-in before paddling.  Or shooting a zoomed out view of rapids before photographing somebody close-up actually running them.
    • Scale:  Having another person in a shot improves it dramatically because it provides scale and relatability.  If you kayak solo,  you could always get out and use your own boat.  This is a fun photo trick to use on rivers with sandbars like the Wisconsin.
    • Fill the Shot: The framing should contain interesting elements…and nothing more. 
    • Wide Angle vs Zoom:  Some action cams have fisheye lens which provide a much wider field of view.  These are popular with whitewater paddlers…but they do distort the picture which can be an odd look.  Zoom is a good artistic tool to use on the water as it will create “background compression”.  This will make things like rocks and rapids much more interesting (but at the expense of a narrower field of view).  Here is a fascinating video on the subject.
    • Avoid repetitive downriver shots: These are the easiest to take so it’s one can often take too many.  For variation try side shots, shooting behind you, zooming, finding foreground elements, or changing the height of the camera.
    • Clear Water:  To get good clear water shots, you need to get the camera up as high was possible.  I often position my camera high over my head like I’m about to do a two-handed dunk.
    • Macro:  Rivers and creeks have many interesting plants and insects that are fun to macro.  The best times for macro photography are in the summer.
    • Time of the Year:
      • Winter:  An underrated time for kayak photography.  The combination of blue skies and white snow is an awesome look.  The best time is just after a big snowfall when there is still snow on the trees and it hasn’t been blown off by the wind yet.
      • Spring: A good time for photography.  Flattened grasses and leafless trees really open up the scene and reveal hidden features like rocks.  Often the skies have a sharp blue hue that is striking.
      • Summer: A very challenging time for photography.  Skies are often overcast and when the sun is out is is very harsh.   Blue skies will be washed out because of the direct angle of the sun.  However, when overcast this can be a good time to shoot classic paddles through the woods.
      • Fall: My favorite time for photography.  Being far away from solstice, the skies will have a vibrant blue color.  In October leaves will be changing on the trees and some of the obnoxious weedy grasses will have died back somewhat opening up the landscape.
    • Time of the Day:
      • Early Morning/Late Afternoon:  There is often insufficient light for most river shots.  The exception is if you are in the open or are doing a very artsy shot.
      • Late Morning/Early Afternoon:  Often the most ideal time to shoot river shots.
      • Midday: In summer this can be an almost impossible time to shoot unless overcast as the light will be to harsh.  In fall and spring, midday is a good time for shooting.

17 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. Madcitypaddlers.org is very popular in southern Wisconsin and they hit most the major creeks and river.

  4. Hi. thanks for the great website. We have one of the high quality sea eagles. Looking for an easy, safe paddle with some fishing opportunity with my 9 year old son. Do you have recommendations? thanks. Scott

    1. Hi Scott…a lot of ideas. Something really easy and attractive is Mirror Lake in Wisconsin Dells. Doing a short trip on the Kickapoo would be a great way to get your kid hooked (but wait for lower water). When your son is more experienced, you could try some more interesting local prospects with light riffles (Black Earth Creek, Badfish Creek and the Upper Yahara by Deforest). All are great prospects.

  5. What model wilderness kayak (red) do you have? I am currently looking for a new, more touring style rig and it looks versatile.

    1. The red model is the Wilderness Tsunami 125. It’s a great boat and very different from the 140 because it is a wider boat meant for larger paddlers. I’m not that, but I appreciate the extra stability. I got this at Rutabega in Madison…had to ask for it as a special request as they don’t display it in the main store.

  6. Thank you very much for this excellent website. You should receive some sort of special recognition for this.

    I did my first-ever solo stream paddle at Gordon Creek, just a few miles from my home in rural Blue Mounds. Threw my bike in the back of my car, put the kayak on the rack ( with the rack and J-hooks you recommend) and did the 2 mile stretch between Sand Rock and Brue Road. Had a lovely, meditative paddle. Had to navigate a couple of downed trees, but only one required a portage towards the end of the trip. Hit two patches of shallow water where I had to get out and walk the kayak 50 feet. All in all, just very fun.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Christopher! Gordon Creek is an amazing little creek…and hopefully somebody will clean out the jams between Brue Road to Hwy A, which would be a great extension to the trip you did.

    1. I personally don’t really kayak in the winter. But I know others do and enjoy it. Generally speaking you need rivers/creeks that have good current or springs that will keep the river from freezing. Lakes and big rivers are generally no go.

      One option might be the Kickapoo because of its springs. You might call the local liveries to inquire as to conditions.

  7. I gotta thank you for this site. I reference it all the time while planning trips, the water gage reference is very valuable. Very well put together with photos and vid. You should put this into a book.
    Thanks
    Gary

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