Spending time on the water already requires versatile clothing choices, but deciding what to wear kayaking can be challenging when you throw in the possibility of fickle weather.
We’ll discuss everything you need to know about layering and all the different pieces of clothing you should consider for paddling in various seasons and weather conditions.
Layering & Safety Considerations
Layering for paddlesports is a personal decision based on your comfort levels and the conditions around you. However, there are some overarching principles that you can use to guide your decision-making.
- Layers, layers, layers. As with any outdoor pursuit, always dress in layers while kayaking. Doing so makes your outfit more versatile and adaptable to the ever-changing weather conditions around you.
- Assess your paddling style. We can often classify paddling outings as either casual and fun or intense and adventurous. The type of outing significantly impacts your clothing choices. If you’re planning a relaxing paddle around your local lake, your energy expenditure will be lower than someone planning a major open-water crossing. So, you might feel colder on the water than someone who’s paddling hard for hours on end, which means you’ll need more insulating layers.
- Comfort over fashion. There’s nothing wrong with looking good while paddling, but fashion and style should always take a backseat to comfort. Being comfortable can make paddling easier, which is vital if the weather turns sour.
- Sit-in vs. sit-on-top. The type of kayak you use can affect your clothing choices. For example, in similar conditions, paddlers in sit-in kayaks often find that they’re slightly warmer than a paddler on a sit-on-top kayak. Sit-in kayaks provide more shelter from the environment, particularly for your lower body.
- PFDs are your friend. We should all wear PFDs at all times on the water. Some people prefer to paddle without a PFD in hot water in sheltered areas. However, a PFD is a crucial piece of safety equipment and an integral part of your layering system. In fact, PFDs provide much-needed insulation in cold temperatures.
- Cotton is a no-go. Cotton is a wonder fabric on dry land, but it’s dangerous in wet conditions. In addition, it actually makes you colder when it gets wet, which isn’t ideal when paddling in cold environments. So, opt for synthetic fabrics or merino wool when kayaking.
- Consider the water temperature. In the world of kayaking, the water temperature is more important than the air temperature. For example, it might be 80ºF outside, but if the water is 50ºF, you’ll be at significant risk of hypothermia if you capsize. So, when dressing for kayaking, the expected water temperature is your top concern.
- Check the weather forecast. Even though the water temperature is your most significant concern, you can’t overlook the importance of dressing for the weather. If wind and rain are in the forecast, you’ll need to plan accordingly. Of course, weather forecasts aren’t always accurate, so you should always have extra layers on hand.
What to Wear Kayaking in Mild to Warm Conditions
We define mild to warm conditions where the water temperature is above 60ºF. Generally, these sorts of water conditions also correlate with hot air temperatures.
In these situations, you have three main concerns:
- Sun protection – Although it can be hot and cloudy, sun protection should be at the front of your mind when paddling in hot weather. This means donning sunglasses, a sun hat, and perhaps even a sun shirt.
- Avoiding Chafing – Kayaking involves repetitive motions, which is a surefire way to develop chafing in the long term. Therefore, rash guards and other similar clothing items can be helpful.
- Wicking moisture – We are designed to sweat. Doing so cools us off in hot climates, but only if our sweat can evaporate from our skin. Therefore you should opt for moisture-wicking fabrics whenever possible to help you stay cool on the water.
With that in mind, here’s what you should wear while paddling in mild to warm conditions.
- Footwear: Your footwear can run the gamut from sandals to dedicated water shoes. In warmer air and water conditions, sandals may be more comfortable. However, water shoes are preferable if you’re expecting colder conditions. This is particularly true if you will spend a lot of time getting in and out of your kayak.
But be sure that your footwear is secured to your foot. Flip-flops are great for strolling along the beach, but they’re likely to fall off if you go for a swim. Instead, opt for sandals with adjustable straps or even lightweight mesh water shoes whenever possible.
- Bottoms: Depending on the air temperature, you may be more comfortable paddling in shorts. However, warm weather kayakers often find that pants are more comfortable.
That being said, relatively few companies out there make paddling pants that aren’t made of neoprene. So you can often just use quick-drying hiking pants (remember, no cotton!) if you’d prefer not to wear neoprene.
Purpose-built paddling shorts are usually made from neoprene or quick-dry fabrics, which hold up well to years of use. Quick-dry shorts are generally the best option for humid climates because they’re very breathable. They’re also usually fashionable enough for you to wear around town, just like any other pair of board shorts.
- Base layer: Moving to your upper body, the first layer to consider is your base layer. As with hiking or any other outdoor pursuit, your base layer should be a lightweight, breathable, and moisture-wicking shirt.
Many paddlers wear synthetic or merino wool hiking shirts. However, if the air temperature is very high, you may want to consider a sun shirt or a rash guard instead.
- Mid-layer: If you’re expecting slightly chilly air temperatures during your paddle, you’ll need to pack a mid-layer. Mid-layers are designed to insulate you from the cold, so they should be worn on top of your base layer.
There are many kinds of mid-layers, from fleece jackets to puffy vests. But, as a general rule, kayakers should stick to materials that still insulate when wet, like fleece and wool.
Synthetic puffy jackets are okay, too, but they aren’t as great at insulating when wet. Meanwhile, down, like cotton, makes you colder when wet, so it should be avoided at all costs.
Depending on the air temperature, you may need to wear multiple mid-layers. So, be sure to try on all of your jackets to ensure that they fit comfortably over each other. Also, remember that your PFD is a part of this system, too, so don’t forget to try on your PFD over your mid-layers to ensure that everything fits comfortably.
- Outer layer: The final upper body garment to consider is your outer layer. This is generally a waterproof and windproof jacket. If it’s not currently raining outside, you may not need to wear your outer layer, but you should always have one at the ready.
A standard hiking rain jacket might be suitable for short paddling adventures on inland waterways and sheltered coastal areas. However, a spray jacket or storm cag is likely the better option if you’re venturing into more remote waters.
- Hat: A sun hat and a warm hat could be appropriate, depending on the weather. For example, a sun hat might be best if you’re expecting very sunny and warm conditions. Alternatively, opt for a warm hat if cold temperatures and wind are in the forecast.
- Sunglasses: Even in moderate temperatures, sunglasses are essential to any paddler’s gear list. The sun will still reflect off of the water and into your eyes, even when it’s cloudy overhead.
There’s no such thing as one kind of sunglasses that’s best for paddling, though whatever you choose should be comfortable enough to wear all day. Models that wrap around your face and provide some side protection are beneficial. Also, consider wearing sunglasses retainers, just in case they fall off while you paddle.
- Buff: The last piece of gear that you might consider while paddling in warm weather is a buff. Although not required, a lightweight, breathable buff can be a versatile accessory for your adventures. Buffs can double as headbands, or they can provide some sun protection for your neck and face, so it’s great to always have one with you.
What to Wear Kayaking in Cold Water
Cold weather paddling is all about dressing for the temperature of the water. In these situations, falling into the water could lead to cold water shock, which decreases your ability to move and can lead to drowning within minutes.
While we don’t want to scare you into thinking that cold water paddling is extremely dangerous, it’s essential to recognize the risks of these conditions. But with the right equipment and clothing, you can kayak in cold weather and manage those risks.
The American Canoe Association says you should wear a drysuit or wetsuit when the water temperature is below 60ºF due to the risks of cold water shock. In addition, you can check the sea surface temperatures on the websites of most major governmental meteorological bureaus, so be sure to do so before you head outside.
|Water Temperature||Hypothermia Risk||Appropriate Clothing|
|60ºF and up||Low||Clothing for the weather|
|55-59ºF||Moderate||Wetsuit or dry suit|
|45-54ºF||High||Dry suit recommended|
|Below 45ºF||Extreme||Dry suit strongly recommended|
Wetsuit Layering System
Wetsuits are all-neoprene and designed to be worn in cold water environments. The idea with a wetsuit is that water gets trapped between your skin and the fabric. Then, your body heat works to warm up the water between the wetsuit and your skin. As a result, you can stay warm.
Since wetsuits are designed to trap water next to your skin, they should only be used when you’re okay with being wet for an extended period.
For example, a short whitewater paddling session in cold water or a half-day sea kayaking trip in a coastal environment might be appropriate times to wear a wetsuit. Otherwise, a dry suit might be more appropriate.
If you decide that a wetsuit is right for your paddling needs, you’ll still need a solid layering system. Consider wearing the following on the water:
- Footwear: Although there’s no single type of footwear you should wear while paddling in a wetsuit, neoprene booties or purpose-built water shoes are often popular choices. Neoprene is excellent if you want to keep your feet warm when wet, while water shoes are helpful if you plan on carrying your kayak over long distances.
- Tops: Technically, you don’t need to wear anything other than your wetsuit. However, you may find that wearing a spray jacket can provide additional warmth on the water.
- Hat: If your wetsuit doesn’t come with a neoprene hood, consider wearing a warm wool hat to help keep your head toasty as you paddle.
- Sunglasses: As always, sunglasses are vital for protecting your eyes on the water.
- Gloves: If the water is cold enough to warrant a wetsuit, you may also need to wear gloves as you paddle. Neoprene paddling gloves or even a pair of neoprene pogies can work well in this situation.
Dry Suit Layering System
A drysuit is effectively a full-body suit made out of a waterproof-breathable membrane, like Gore-Tex. When used properly, a dry suit can keep you dry, even if you end up swimming during your paddles. However, dry suits provide minimal insulation from the cold. So you must layer appropriately.
- Footwear: Like wetsuits, anyone paddling with a dry suit should consider wearing a set of neoprene booties or water shoes. But note that water shoes may be more comfortable than neoprene booties because they fit better over the built-in socks that come on most dry suits.
- Base layer: Whenever you wear a dry suit, you’ll almost certainly need to wear a set of base layers. You can opt for pants and a shirt like you might wear while hiking. Choose a base layer thickness most appropriate for the temperatures you expect to face on the water.
- Mid-Layer: You may need to wear a mid-insulating layer under your dry suit in very cold conditions. A fleece usually works best as down as synthetic insulation can be too bulky for use with a dry suit.
- Hat: Even though you can buy a dry suit with a hood, most don’t provide much insulation. So, consider packing a warm hat.
- Sunglasses: As always, make sunglasses a part of your paddling clothing system.
- Gloves: Gloves are a must when paddling with a dry suit in cold weather. Pogies or neoprene paddling gloves are both suitable options.