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1. BOAT: Current Designs Vision 135 R
For your first boat, choose plastic (not fiberglass), since it’s tough and affordable. Plastic pushes the Vision to 50 pounds, but the tradeoff is worth it. On the water, the 13’6” Vision feels nimble and fast, thanks to a narrow bow that aids in wave-punching and boosts responsiveness and tracking. A smooth edge between the bottom of the hull and its side- walls (tech speak: soft chine) aids in turning. The wide cockpit and two hatches store 140 liters of gear (that’s 8,545 cubic inches, or about 1.5 times the typical expedition-size backpack), which proved enough for a multiday outing on the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park. $1,119; 50 lbs.; cdkayak.com
2. PFD: MTI Journey
Get comfort and, of course, flotation without pricey bells and whistles. Contoured front foam panels— combined with four adjustment points and a waist belt—conformed to all testers’ torsos, while open sides kept us cool in Utah’s Ruby-Horsethief Canyon.
The soft polyester lining on the inside of the shoul- ders prevents chafing, and reflective trim kept us visible when we were a tad late getting back to camp. $54; 15 oz.; mtiadventurewear.com
3. PADDLE: Harmony Sea Passage Fiberglass
You can find a cheaper paddle, but not one that per- forms this well or lasts this long. The Sea Passage has a two-piece fiberglass shaft (take it apart for easy storage) and asymmetrical fiberglass/ polypropylene blades that reduce weight (and therefore arm fatigue). But it also offers power for flats and punching waves, as we discovered while touring Colorado’s Steamboat Lake in stiff breezes. Adjustments let you feather the blades to slice through wind or keep them straight to reduce wrist stress. $110; 2 lbs. 3 oz.; harmonygear.com
4. DRYBAG: SealLine Kodiak Taper
Use every square inch of the storage space at the tapered ends of your kayak with these conical drybags. Made from tough, waterproof, 210-denier nylon with welded seams, the smooth fabric slides freely into tight bow and stern compartments. “I watched some friends wrestling with pudgy, sticky drybags, but mine were stowed in a flash,” said one tester after a trip in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Bonus: A one-way purge valve makes compression a breeze. Available in three sizes. $50-60; seallinegear.com
5. SPRAY SKIRT: Seals Sprayskirts Coastal Tour
Made of tough nylon packcloth (as opposed to the traditional neoprene, which is heavy, hot, and hard to get on), the Coastal Tour stays secure thanks to a grippy edge guard, while a tensioned deck stay keeps the surface super-taut so it can shed water. We like the chest band with adjustable/removable suspend- ers, which kept the skirt snug and high during a long paddle on Colorado’s Hahns Peak Lake. Bonus: The zippered mesh pocket kept our binocs and sunscreen handy. $90; 1 lb. 5 oz.; sealsskirts.com
Stay safe: Always pack an on-water rescue kit. Get the scoop at backpacker.com/kayaksafe.