How to select a PFD
The MOST important piece of equipment you need when paddling is a PFD (ie life vest). There are many PFDs on the market, so finding one that fits comfortably is doable, but takes a little research. The main things for look for are where is the foam distributed and if you are female, should you consider a woman specific design. There are basically three styles when it comes to foam distribution:
Mesh Back: The bulk of the foam is in a big block near the back of your neck. Designed for kayaks that have a high seat back and since the back is mesh, it’s cooler in hot weather.
Thin Back: As the name implies the back is a thin piece of foam, while the front has the majority of it. Again, it’s designed for high back seats, but you may feel the extra bulk in front interferes with your paddle stroke.
Standard Back: The foam is pretty much evenly distributed, front and back. If you have a high back seat, the thicker back may feel too bulky. If you are in a canoe this type might be best since it doesn’t feel bulky.
Which ever type you are interested, it’s important to try on as many as you can. If an Online store offers free returns, order a bunch of different styles, just make sure you leave on the tags and only test them in the house. Put them on, then make paddling motions (or if you are in a store with boats/paddles ask if you can sit in a boat while testing it via ‘air paddling’).
Lastly, for women, there are specifically designed PFDs that have extra room in the chest area. Many may find these more comfortable than unisex versions, since there is more room in the chest area.
Remember, the PFD you choose should be so comfortable that you forget you have it on.
The article below has a lot more detail on PFDs.
U.S. Coast Guard Brochure - How to choose a Lifejacket
How to select a boat
Kayak or Canoe? Unless you plan on paddling in the Boundary Waters or doing tons of river camping, the kayak is usually the preferred choice for most beginner paddlers. But each has their pros and cons. Kayaks do better in windy conditions and more comfortable to sit in, but most have limited storage capacity, so that’s where a canoe can be helpful in those overnight river trips.
Selecting a Kayak
Main question to answer is what type of water to plan on paddling the most often? If small winding rivers are your favorite, then a sea kayak will be a hinderance to maneuverability. If you plan on doing Lake Michigan, then a 9’ rec boat would be a dangerous choice.
What about the weight of a boat? You have to consider how are you going to get the kayak onto your car. If you end up getting a big/heavy kayak, you may find you don’t go out much since it is such a pain to put it on the car. There are racks (ie Thule’s Hullivator) which makes it easier to load up a kayak, but you still may have to carry/drag it down to the river.
Finally, while you may spend a lot for a nice boat, don’t go cheap on the paddle. In fact many people advise that you give priority to the paddle, after all you are going to be using it a lot and if too heavy, you’ll be too tired to paddle that nice boat.
Selecting a Canoe
Like a kayak, when choosing a canoe, you'll want to consider what type of water you'll be paddling on the most. The Rocker or curvature of the hull from end to end, is an important design aspect to consider. It affects the the ability of the canoe to turn and track. If you want to paddle lakes, you want minimal rocker (0 to 1.5 inches). If you want to paddle rivers, a moderate rocker (1.5 to 4 inches). Whitewater would require a highly rockered canoe (more than 6 inches). Material that the canoe is made of is also important. Lighter the canoe, the less durable. And you won't want to take that lightweight Fiberglass canoe out on a rock garden.
Whether a Kayak or Canoeist (or both), once you really become enamored with the sport, you'll probably end up with more than one boat.
Additional Paddling Resources