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May
17

Alpine Paddling

Kayaking in the Alps What to Take…

Its getting to that time of year when many of us are planning our annual trip to the Alps.  France, Austria and Italy are all popular destinations and if youre going on one of these trips youre in for some of the best paddling of your life.  If youre fairly new to foreign trips like this, one of the big questions youll be asking yourself is what gear do I need?  We can break this down into two parts:  Your paddling gear, and everything else.

Paddling gear  

Youre obviously going to need a boat.  Your destination will probably decide which boat you take.  The French Alps tend to be rocky, technical, and medium volume.  Youll be river-running rather than playing so a reasonable river running boat is ideal. 

 More experienced paddlers going to France will manage with one of the river orientated playboats but youre going to be doing much more river running than playing so if in doubt, take a river boat.  Austrian rivers tend to be bigger volume and can favour one of the bigger volume playboats.  You certainly wont be out of place in a river runner, but if you dont want to miss the chance to throw those huge wave-wheels, then think about taking your playboat unless youre going to run the super-hard stuff. 

If in doubt, take a bigger boat.  If youre going to Italy then youre certainly looking for a creek boat for those steeper runs.  Your usual set of paddles and perhaps a spare set between each car, along with at least one set of splits per group on the water should be fine.  A few spare parts and tools for adjusting your boat could come in very handy too, and dont forget the duct tape.

As for the rest of your kayaking kit, hopefully the weather will be sunny and warm so youll get away with paddling in shorts and a shortie-cag at least some of the time.  Often a rash vest or a thin thermal is all youll need under your cag and you can usually get them dry within half an hour of getting off the river by laying them in the sun while you have a post-paddle ice cream. 

The water, being snow or glacier melt, is cold though, and the sun doesnt warm up some of the deeper gorges so a long sleeved cag and an extra thermal or two should definitely be in your kit bag, youll use your long sleeved cag more than you might think.  Its also worth remembering that a swim in a rocky river can be hard on your legs if youre only wearing shorts so think about wearing your dry trousers, wet suit, or a pair of three-quarter length neoprene shorts like Nookie Aliens.  The weather can turn cold though, especially on the higher runs, so its worth having those extra thermals.

The rest of your kit needs to be up to the job too, youre going to be doing more paddling than youve ever done in a week before and with luck, by the end of the week youll be pushing yourself to run harder stuff than youve ever done before.  Youll obviously need a good neoprene spraydeck that fits both you and your boat, and a decent PFD.  Your river shoes are important, a lot of the portages and inspections will be gnarlier than youre used to so have a look at your usual river shoes and decide if they are up to it.  Check your helmet fits well and is in good condition, the straps should be adjusted properly so it cant roll forwards or backwards on your head and your forehead and the base of your skull at the back should both be well protected, if in doubt get a new one.  You only get one head and even a minor injury can spoil your holiday, if not worse.  The steeper creeking in some parts of the Alps might call for a helmet that offers fuller protection, along with some elbow pads.

Dont forget some waterproof sun block, there are a few around but most arent nearly as waterproof as they claim to be, and some can run off into your eyes when you sweat or get wet, which isnt good at all.  A sun-block that advises you to re-apply after swimming isnt really any use.  One of the best around is P20 all-day sun filter, which applied once in the morning gives you full protection from the sun all day, no matter how many times you submerge yourself, its non-greasy too so you wont risk losing your paddles after applying it. 

If your helmet doesnt have a peak then you can either buy one to Velcro onto your helmet, or some paddlers wear a baseball cap under their helmet.  Its not essential but it can keep the sun out of your eyes.  Sunglasses on the river dont really work.  A water bottle for your boat is essential and lots of people use paddle wax for a better grip on their blades, get some for warm weather use or youll find it melting off your paddles in the sun.

Everything Else

The rest of your gear is almost as important.  Youre more than likely to be camping so youll need a decent tent.  Dont make the mistake of thinking its summer so Ill get away with a 12.99 job from a petrol station.  The rain can come down hard in the mountains and youll want a good nights sleep.  Youll need a sleeping bag, thermarest or air-bed, and a pillow.  If youre living in a tent for a week then make it as comfortable as space will allow.

The cooking part depends on whether you fall into the Im on holiday so Im not doing any cooking camp, or you want to fend for yourself.  Either way youll probably want at least a small gas stove and a kettle or small pan to make a brew in the morning.  You can share as stove with someone if thats all its for.  Were not usually far from civilisation and eating out is all part of a holiday, so you can decide for yourself.  A portable fridge that runs off your car can be helpful, but they take up a bootload of space and kick out hot air into your car while theyre running.  They do keep your beer cool though so theyre not quite a complete waste of space.

The clothes you take should be obvious, hopefully it will be sunny and warm off the water but a warm top or coat will be welcome when youre sat outside until midnight drinking cheap wine and discussing the days paddling.  Take a hat and sunnies to keep the sun off during the day.

All of this gear has to go in, or on a car so youll have to choose carefully what you take and be creative with your packing.  Having four boats on the roof though is like having a massive roof-box on your car.  All your paddling gear can go in a dry bag in your boat, along with your tent and anything else you can cram inside.  Take care not to overload the roof-bars though, you dont want to lose the lot on the autoroute in the middle of the night. 

Packing the rest in the boot of the car might seem obvious, but try and do that because if youre going to spend 16 hours in a car with three other people youll want it as un-cluttered as possible.  Estate cars are preferable because of the flexibility they offer, most people try to get four in a car to share the cost out further.  Something the size of a Focus Estate is easily big enough.

Take a good European road atlas and a spare set of roof-rack straps.  Take time to check out the motoring regulations for the countries youll be visiting. 

Usually a warning triangle, GB sticker and headlamp deflectors are a minimum, although theyre usually available on the ferry if you forget.  Get your mobile phone enabled for use abroad and make sure you have European breakdown cover for your car. 

A spare set of car keys is a great idea, along with the set you take on the river.  The AA and RAC websites have good advice for driving abroad if you need it.  It is now mandatory in Austria to drive with your headlights on.

Sandwiches, snacks, drinks and enough Red Bull to make your eyes fall out should be on the list of provisions for the journey.  Youve got almost 900 miles to do so wandering round the countryside in search of food wastes too much time. 

The service stations in France, GermanyAustria are often much better than the UK, and usually much more frequent.  Any route that involves driving through France will usually make for a swift journey.  Dont listen to anyone who advises altering your route to avoid the tolls, the French autoroutes are fast, quiet, smooth, have loads of service stations and are well worth the tolls youll pay.  If you are going to drive on the motorways in Austria and Switzerland then youll need to stop and buy the relevant permit to display in your windscreen.

The only area I havent covered in this article is safety gear, and its very important, both that you take the right kit and that you know how to use it.  Thats probably an article in its self.  If you know how to use the correct safety kit then youll know what to take, and if you dont, then go on a course.

So take some time to make sure youve got all the kit youll need, talk to experienced paddlers and find out what they take.  Its really worth starting to assemble your kit a couple of weeks beforehand, so you can work out what youre missing and give yourself chance to find anything you need.  Make a list, it sounds simple but as you drive off down the A1 youll be reassured to know that youve ticked everything off as it went in your kit bag.  A weeks paddling in the Alps will be one of the best holidays youll ever have, it really is worth a little preparation before you go to make sure you get the most out of it.

Enjoy.

Driller