Ever try to change clothes while floating in a kayak? After you capsize? It’s what you put on before you get in the boat that counts. And the strategy is the same whether it’s your maiden or your millionth voyage: Dress for submersion, not success. When deciding what to wear kayaking, start with these tips:
  • Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.
  • Dress in layers, especially on top.
  • Dress for sun protection.
  • Avoid cotton (retains water); seek quick-drying fabrics instead.
  • Wear clothes that will be comfortable for long periods of sitting.
  • Wear clothes that let you move comfortably


Prepare for the Water Temperature

Prepare for capsizing in cold water, even when air temps are mild. Risks range from immediate lung and heart shocks to drowning, as well as eventual hypothermia. And don’t plan on putting on a wetsuit after you capsize because it’s too late and pretty much impossible to do.
What to wear paddling temperature chart
A wetsuit or dry suit is essential for all but the mildest conditions—wear one when water temps are 60 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. If the water temperature is above 60, you need to consider the air temperature as well. You should still wear your wetsuit or dry suit if the combined air and water temp is less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.*
  • A wetsuit is the minimum protection needed for those conditions. Typically made of a thick neoprene, it insulates you by holding a thin layer of water (heated by your body) next to your skin.
  • A dry suit is for colder water (and air). Made of a waterproof material, it also has watertight gaskets at the openings to keep you completely dry. You adjust warmth by wearing long underwear or another insulating layer under it.  
  • For hot air, but cold water, consider a sleeveless wetsuit—Farmer John or Jane styles—or you can look at wetsuits with shorts and short-sleeve tops.

Coastal water temperatures are found in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) water temperature map. For inland waters or areas NOAA does not cover, search online, ask your guide or contact a local paddling club or shop. Shop staff can also advise you about wetsuits and dry suits.

*According to the Cold Water Survival Guide published by the ACA (American Canoe Association), which certifies canoe, kayak, SUP and raft instructors nationwide.


Clothing Strategies

quick-drying shorts
Clothing for kayaking has similar requirements to other outdoor activities like hiking: You’re looking for versatility, durability, comfort while you move and protection for cold and wet conditions (really wet conditions).

Quick-drying fabrics: For any clothing layer that touches your skin, go with wicking, quick-drying nylon or polyester (or another synthetic fabric). Wool dries less quickly, but insulates when wet, so is also a fine choice. Avoid cotton in all layers, because it absorbs water and stays wet.

Abrasion-resistant fabrics: You’ll want more rugged fabrics that can stand up to the wear and tear of your gritty, watery world.

Sun protection: Regardless of cloud cover, a day on the water is a day of sun exposure. So wearing clothing with UPF rated fabrics is a wise choice (plus sunscreen for reflected UV radiation).


Layering with a Wetsuit or Dry Suit 

a kayaker in dry suit, bringing the kayak out of the water
The outdoor strategy of layering also makes sense for paddling. Dressing in layers allows you to add or remove clothing items as temperatures change. Factor in the warmth of your wetsuit or dry suit, as well as your PFD, as you choose your layers.

Note that advice below is for your in-boat wear. If you’re also camping, then you’ll want to add a dry set of base layers and mid layers for camp, as well as rainwear and things like camp shoes.


Layering with a Wetsuit

  • Base layer: The water inside negates the need for a wicking base layer. Having swimwear underneath it, though, is nice so that you can remove your wetsuit later without needing to find a private changing area.
  • Mid layer: The warm water inside and the thickness of the suit itself insulates you. For colder conditions, you can look at thicker wetsuits.
  • Outer layer: Your wetsuit is both watertight and windproof, so no outer layer is usually needed if you’re wearing a long-sleeved wetsuit.


Layering with a Sleeveless or Short-Sleeve/Shorts Wetsuit

  • Consider a quick-dry top underneath your wetsuit to cover exposed areas of your arms. A long-sleeve base layer or rashguard top works for both warmth and sun protection. Go with something heavier if the air is cool.
  • Take along a light fleece jacket and a rain jacket or a paddling jacket so you can cover your arms if conditions become colder and wetter.


Layering with a Dry Suit

  • Base layer: A dry suit is essentially rainwear with watertight seals, so you’ll definitely need wicking long underwear. You can also buy dry suit liners, and a few dry suits come with a fleece lining.
  • Mid layer: For colder conditions, you can add a thick fleece layer.
  • Outer layer: Your dry suit will be windproof and waterproof/breathable, so no additional outer layer is needed.


Layering Without either a Wet or Dry Suit

If conditions don’t require either a wetsuit or a dry suit, then bringing along a fleece jacket and rainwear makes sense. You can also wear whatever is comfortable and quick-to-dry on your bottom half. Avoid things that bind or chafe. Superthin fabrics, like in yoga pants, are also not a great idea because they aren’t made to stand up to constantly shifting in your seat as you paddle.


Clothing Accessories

a kayaker wearing gloves and neoprene booties for cold weather paddling
Footwear: Neoprene paddling booties are ideal because they’re lightweight, water-ready and protect toes and the bottoms of feet. Any footwear that does the same will work fine. Water sandals, though, will be less protective than booties and can collect gravel, sand and muck underfoot during put-ins and take-outs. Avoid anything without a back strap, like flip flops, because they come off your feet too easily.

For colder conditions and where rain or wave splash are likely, you can also get waterproof socks or waterproof paddling booties. Another option is to wear thick noncotton socks inside your booties for added warmth.

Hats: Look for hats with wide brims or capes. Consider a cap leash, too, if you don’t have a chin strap or other reliable way to secure your hat. In cold conditions, you also need a beanie for warmth—it should fit snugly under or over your other hat.

Gloves: Paddling gloves are nice because they protect against both blisters and blustery days. “Pogies” are another cool-day option: They fasten to the paddle and you slip your hands inside them to grip the shaft. Some people prefer them because pogies let their hands directly grip the paddle while also being shielded from the elements.


Additional Clothing Tips

a kayaker putting on their pfd
  • Never take off your PFD while on the water. If you need to adjust your top layers, find a place to take out instead. A far less desirable alternative is to “raft up” with a kayak buddy holding your boat firmly while you change.
  • Avoid “rustable” fasteners and hardware: Water, particularly salt water, corrodes many metals, so rugged plastics are a good alternative. But hard and fast rules for metal corrosion are oversimplified: You can probably trust that metal components in paddling-specific gear are corrosion resistant.
  • Don’t forget the glasses retainers. Few sights are sadder than a pricey pair of shades sinking to the bottom of the sea. Your retainer needs to float (check it at home) and always be attached (and always accompanied by a spare retainer.)

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