What to Wear While Kayaking

Looking around kayaking shops, it can be daunting to decide what to wear, and websites offer conflicting and often overly expensive advice. What you choose to wear depends on a number of issues; weather, discipline, trip length, budget and personal preference. 

Weather is always going to be at the forefront of our minds when we dress for anything, whether kayaking or just going out to the shops. In kayaking terms, however, weather and environment refer to more than what’s happening above us. 

General Tips

Dress to Get Wet

Cold water shock happens when the body withdraws blood back toward the vital organs, limiting the supply to the outer reaches. This makes it very difficult to swim and can result in us being in the water for longer than we want to be, potentially leading to hypothermia. 

This can happen even on the warmest days; water temperature and air temperature are not the same thing. Just because it’s gloriously sunny, doesn’t mean that the water is warm. Always be ready for the worst, and this may mean wearing a drysuit or wetsuit on a warm day.

Avoid Cotton

The old adage goes; cotton kills. Cotton soaks up and retains water, while providing little insulation when wet. It often does more harm than good, and we should seek to wear synthetic (nylon or polyester), quick drying layers which wick away moisture and retain heat. Wool is also a great option, as it insulates effectively even when wet. 

Don’t Forget UV Protection

UV can affect you even on cold and overcast days, so always be prepared with sun block and UV protective clothing, and sunglasses.

Bring Spare Layers

Dress to get wet, but be prepared to warm up. Maximising movement and being ready for all eventualities may be a difficult balance, but carry spare warm layers to help warm up in the event of an unexpected capsize. 

Know the Weather

Make sure you know what the weather is likely to throw at you that day, and if you’re paddling coastally, check water temperatures too, on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site. (https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/data/coastal-water-temperature-guide/all_tmap.html)
Be prepared that weather changes suddenly on the water and around the coast and have clothing with you for all eventualities.

What to Wear for Warm Weather Kayaking

Warm weather kayaking is generally considered when both the water and the air temperature are above 60°F. This is a general rule. Individuals have different tolerances to temperature, and vast contrasts in air/water temperature may also affect this, but it’s a safe place to start. 

When you’re kayaking in warm weather, you need to be aware of the risk of overheating, but also still the potential of hypothermia and cold water immersion. 60°F is still around 20°F cooler than your average swimming pool, and the swift drop in temperature from an unexpected immersion can cause shock.

Underwear

Remember how cotton kills? Well, this is our closest layer to our body and we need to make sure our layering starts off right. 

Often people will choose a swimsuit, which is perfect but perhaps not the most comfortable. Outdoor-specific underwear, made from wicking materials, or merino wool, will keep us comfortable and safe on the water. 

Sports bras are designed to wick sweat and are also a good choice.

Top

Sticking with the no cotton rule, polyester or nylon tops are the best option here, drying quickly. Rash vests are a great option, their close fit allows you to swim more easily and they dry very quickly. Rash vests are form-fitting and stretchy, designed to fit snugly and comfortably under a wetsuit, but also have the added bonus of UPF protection. These come in long sleeve and short sleeve options. 

Looser fitting tops can be more freeing and comfortable, but you should still seek our polyester and nylon tops. Many water-specific tops come with UV protection and these should be our go-to kayaking tops.

Bottoms

Again, quick drying material is our main aim here, and options such as board shorts or polyester trousers which block the sun, are a great choice. Avoid any thin or delicate items of clothing, as constant movement around on the kayak can tear them and lead to an embarrassing end to your trip.

Footwear

Neoprene booties or shoes are a good choice here. Comfortable, warm and protective, these are an ideal choice, just make sure you wash them every now and then with a wetsuit cleaner. 

Sandals can be worn, but offer no protection over your toes. There are many other types of kayaking shoe which are quicker to dry than neoprene boots, and may have thicker, grippier soles, but they are often considerably more expensive.

Any outdoor style shoe can be worn, but neoprene boots tend to last longer and withstand the elements well.

Layers

We really cannot emphasize this enough. Layers are the way to keep warm and safe. 

Mid layers, such as micro-fleece, can either be worn or carried with us, and will give us an option to throw on if the weather turns, or we start to cool down. 

Waterproof outer layers are great not only in rain, but wind. Even on warm days, if you’re soaked through, a breeze can cool you quickly. Paddle-specific waterproof layers, with neoprene or latex wrist gaskets, stop that irritating drip from your paddle from going up your sleeve, and prevent any waves from doing the same. These jackets also tend to be harder wearing and cut for kayaking. 

That said, any waterproof jacket/trousers are better than none, and if you don’t intend/expect to wear them often, a cheaper pair thrown in a bag might be all you need.

Hats, glasses etc…

Staying shaded on the water is incredibly important, but it’s also worth noting that water reflects sunlight back up, leaving us double exposed to UV. 

Wide brim hats can give us the most protection, but a cap or buff style hat is far better than nothing at shading our heads and keeping us cool. Look for the UV protective style when picking your kayaking hat.

Good quality sunglasses are almost an essential on sunny days, as the glare from the water can be highly damaging to your eyes. It’s worth finding a floating pair and buying a glasses strap so you don’t lose them, even if you take a swim. 

Sun cream. It’s not an item of clothing, but you should wear sun protection every time you go on the water. UV is a danger, even on cloudy days, and you rarely get a break in the shade while you’re out kayaking. 

What to Wear When Kayaking in Cold Weather

For most of us, kayaking is a summer sport and we pick our days when the weather looks good. When we get hooked on the sport, though, we might find ourselves longing to get out paddling in the cooler months and it’s important that we do so safely. 

While it’s much colder, the same basic rules apply; dress to get wet, no cotton. Also remember that UV can be equally dangerous in the winter months.  

Starting with similar layers to warm weather kayaking, we build on that with other warm items, still non-cotton and fast drying. Fleece mid-layers insulate us, dry quickly, and aren’t intrusive to our swimming ability. 

When we start to layer up, remember to make sure you can still move freely.

Wetsuit

These are a mid-layer, and on some cool, but not cold days, may be all you need. These work by trapping a thin layer of water between the neoprene and your skin, which warms up and helps trap your body heat. Neoprene itself insulates relatively well, so these suits work whether wet or dry. 

Underneath a wetsuit, you only need to wear a swimsuit or appropriate outdoor underwear. Even this isn’t strictly necessary, but it makes getting changed much easier. The water the wetsuit traps works more efficiently if you can keep it close against your skin, and any layers you wear may impede this. 


Thin rash vests may be worn, and can prevent chafing from a long sleeve wetsuit.

Drysuit

Waterproof suits with latex neck and wrist gaskets, these suits keep you dry (apart from your head and hands) even if you swim. However, they’re not generally a warm piece of kit, like a wetsuit, and many people make the mistake of layering inappropriately under a drysuit. 

Start with non-cotton long underwear and socks, and build your layering appropriate to the weather and water temperatures. While the clothing under your drysuit shouldn’t get wet, it still needs to wick sweat away, so cotton is still a no-no. 

Onesie style drysuit liners made from close fitting fleece are perfect, but you may still require other layers over/under them .

Cags, Trousers, Shorts and Tops

These wetsuits and drysuits can come in separate pieces. 

Wetsuit shorts, trousers and tops (both long and short sleeve) provide options for mild, but not necessarily cold, days, where you may want to keep your legs or bum protected from the puddle in your boat, or wear a thin neoprene top to keep your upper body warm.

Dry trousers and cags are often worn separately, or together, and may give more freedom than a drysuit. As with separate wetsuit items, these give you options for days where it’s perhaps not quite as cold, but you want to keep your upper body dry outside your cockpit, or the cold water splashing on your legs may be chilly, but you want your upper body to be able to wick sweat as you paddle hard. 

The more time you spend kayaking, the more you’ll gain a personal flair for clothing.

What to Wear for Warm Air, Cold Water

Deep lakes or fast flowing rivers, especially those fed by melting snow, often remain bitterly cold even when the air around them is reaching 70°F+ and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. 

Long John style wetsuits, (also known as Farmer John) can keep your body warm without overheating. 

The combinations of wetsuit and drysuit split pieces are also great on days like this, and short sleeve cag tops can be worn to stop spray from cooling you too rapidly. 

On these days, it’s very important to remember that you should be dressed to get wet. Cold water shock can kill and you should be prepared to get wet and have spare layers to put on to warm back up effectively if you do swim. 

Don’t Forget Your PFD

It was covered in Essential Gear, but PFDs are super-important so we’ll repeat. Always wear your PFD when on and around the water, regardless of what else you have on that day. 

What to wear while kayaking

Looking around kayaking shops, it can be daunting to decide what to wear, and websites offer conflicting and often overly expensive advice. What you choose to wear depends on a number of issues; weather, discipline, trip length, budget and personal preference. 

Weather is always going to be at the forefront of our minds when we dress for anything, whether kayaking or just going out to the shops. In kayaking terms, however, weather and environment refer to more than what’s happening above us. 

General Tips

Dress to Get Wet

Cold water shock happens when the body withdraws blood back toward the vital organs, limiting the supply to the outer reaches. This makes it very difficult to swim and can result in us being in the water for longer than we want to be, potentially leading to hypothermia. 

This can happen even on the warmest days; water temperature and air temperature are not the same thing. Just because it’s gloriously sunny, doesn’t mean that the water is warm. Always be ready for the worst, and this may mean wearing a drysuit or wetsuit on a warm day.

Avoid Cotton

The old adage goes; cotton kills. Cotton soaks up and retains water, while providing little insulation when wet. It often does more harm than good, and we should seek to wear synthetic (nylon or polyester), quick drying layers which wick away moisture and retain heat. Wool is also a great option, as it insulates effectively even when wet. 

Don’t Forget UV Protection

UV can affect you even on cold and overcast days, so always be prepared with sun block and UV protective clothing, and sunglasses.

Bring Spare Layers

Dress to get wet, but be prepared to warm up. Maximising movement and being ready for all eventualities may be a difficult balance, but carry spare warm layers to help warm up in the event of an unexpected capsize. 

Know the Weather

Make sure you know what the weather is likely to throw at you that day, and if you’re paddling coastally, check water temperatures too, on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration site. (https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/data/coastal-water-temperature-guide/all_tmap.html)
Be prepared that weather changes suddenly on the water and around the coast and have clothing with you for all eventualities.

What to Wear for Warm Weather Kayaking

Warm weather kayaking is generally considered when both the water and the air temperature are above 60°F. This is a general rule. Individuals have different tolerances to temperature, and vast contrasts in air/water temperature may also affect this, but it’s a safe place to start. 

When you’re kayaking in warm weather, you need to be aware of the risk of overheating, but also still the potential of hypothermia and cold water immersion. 60°F is still around 20°F cooler than your average swimming pool, and the swift drop in temperature from an unexpected immersion can cause shock.

Underwear

Remember how cotton kills? Well, this is our closest layer to our body and we need to make sure our layering starts off right. 

Often people will choose a swimsuit, which is perfect but perhaps not the most comfortable. Outdoor-specific underwear, made from wicking materials, or merino wool, will keep us comfortable and safe on the water. 

Sports bras are designed to wick sweat and are also a good choice.

Top

Sticking with the no cotton rule, polyester or nylon tops are the best option here, drying quickly. Rash vests are a great option, their close fit allows you to swim more easily and they dry very quickly. Rash vests are form-fitting and stretchy, designed to fit snugly and comfortably under a wetsuit, but also have the added bonus of UPF protection. These come in long sleeve and short sleeve options. 

Looser fitting tops can be more freeing and comfortable, but you should still seek our polyester and nylon tops. Many water-specific tops come with UV protection and these should be our go-to kayaking tops.

Bottoms

Again, quick drying material is our main aim here, and options such as board shorts or polyester trousers which block the sun, are a great choice. Avoid any thin or delicate items of clothing, as constant movement around on the kayak can tear them and lead to an embarrassing end to your trip.

Footwear

Neoprene booties or shoes are a good choice here. Comfortable, warm and protective, these are an ideal choice, just make sure you wash them every now and then with a wetsuit cleaner. 

Sandals can be worn, but offer no protection over your toes. There are many other types of kayaking shoe which are quicker to dry than neoprene boots, and may have thicker, grippier soles, but they are often considerably more expensive.

Any outdoor style shoe can be worn, but neoprene boots tend to last longer and withstand the elements well.

Layers

We really cannot emphasize this enough. Layers are the way to keep warm and safe. 

Mid layers, such as micro-fleece, can either be worn or carried with us, and will give us an option to throw on if the weather turns, or we start to cool down. 

Waterproof outer layers are great not only in rain, but wind. Even on warm days, if you’re soaked through, a breeze can cool you quickly. Paddle-specific waterproof layers, with neoprene or latex wrist gaskets, stop that irritating drip from your paddle from going up your sleeve, and prevent any waves from doing the same. These jackets also tend to be harder wearing and cut for kayaking. 

That said, any waterproof jacket/trousers are better than none, and if you don’t intend/expect to wear them often, a cheaper pair thrown in a bag might be all you need.

Hats, glasses etc…

Staying shaded on the water is incredibly important, but it’s also worth noting that water reflects sunlight back up, leaving us double exposed to UV. 

Wide brim hats can give us the most protection, but a cap or buff style hat is far better than nothing at shading our heads and keeping us cool. Look for the UV protective style when picking your kayaking hat.

Good quality sunglasses are almost an essential on sunny days, as the glare from the water can be highly damaging to your eyes. It’s worth finding a floating pair and buying a glasses strap so you don’t lose them, even if you take a swim. 

Sun cream. It’s not an item of clothing, but you should wear sun protection every time you go on the water. UV is a danger, even on cloudy days, and you rarely get a break in the shade while you’re out kayaking. 

What to Wear When Kayaking in Cold Weather

For most of us, kayaking is a summer sport and we pick our days when the weather looks good. When we get hooked on the sport, though, we might find ourselves longing to get out paddling in the cooler months and it’s important that we do so safely. 

While it’s much colder, the same basic rules apply; dress to get wet, no cotton. Also remember that UV can be equally dangerous in the winter months.  

Starting with similar layers to warm weather kayaking, we build on that with other warm items, still non-cotton and fast drying. Fleece mid-layers insulate us, dry quickly, and aren’t intrusive to our swimming ability. 

When we start to layer up, remember to make sure you can still move freely.

Wetsuit

These are a mid-layer, and on some cool, but not cold days, may be all you need. These work by trapping a thin layer of water between the neoprene and your skin, which warms up and helps trap your body heat. Neoprene itself insulates relatively well, so these suits work whether wet or dry. 

Underneath a wetsuit, you only need to wear a swimsuit or appropriate outdoor underwear. Even this isn’t strictly necessary, but it makes getting changed much easier. The water the wetsuit traps works more efficiently if you can keep it close against your skin, and any layers you wear may impede this. 


Thin rash vests may be worn, and can prevent chafing from a long sleeve wetsuit.

Drysuit

Waterproof suits with latex neck and wrist gaskets, these suits keep you dry (apart from your head and hands) even if you swim. However, they’re not generally a warm piece of kit, like a wetsuit, and many people make the mistake of layering inappropriately under a drysuit. 

Start with non-cotton long underwear and socks, and build your layering appropriate to the weather and water temperatures. While the clothing under your drysuit shouldn’t get wet, it still needs to wick sweat away, so cotton is still a no-no. 

Onesie style drysuit liners made from close fitting fleece are perfect, but you may still require other layers over/under them .

Cags, Trousers, Shorts and Tops

These wetsuits and drysuits can come in separate pieces. 

Wetsuit shorts, trousers and tops (both long and short sleeve) provide options for mild, but not necessarily cold, days, where you may want to keep your legs or bum protected from the puddle in your boat, or wear a thin neoprene top to keep your upper body warm.

Dry trousers and cags are often worn separately, or together, and may give more freedom than a drysuit. As with separate wetsuit items, these give you options for days where it’s perhaps not quite as cold, but you want to keep your upper body dry outside your cockpit, or the cold water splashing on your legs may be chilly, but you want your upper body to be able to wick sweat as you paddle hard. 

The more time you spend kayaking, the more you’ll gain a personal flair for clothing.

What to Wear for Warm Air, Cold Water

Deep lakes or fast flowing rivers, especially those fed by melting snow, often remain bitterly cold even when the air around them is reaching 70°F+ and it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. 

Long John style wetsuits, (also known as Farmer John) can keep your body warm without overheating. 

The combinations of wetsuit and drysuit split pieces are also great on days like this, and short sleeve cag tops can be worn to stop spray from cooling you too rapidly. 

On these days, it’s very important to remember that you should be dressed to get wet. Cold water shock can kill and you should be prepared to get wet and have spare layers to put on to warm back up effectively if you do swim. 

Don’t Forget Your PFD

It was covered in Essential Gear, but PFDs are super-important so we’ll repeat. Always wear your PFD when on and around the water, regardless of what else you have on that day. 

Moose started his paddling life on the ponds and rivers in the south east of England. He has slowly worked his way north and has spent the last few years working his way through all things Scottish. As well as being a very experienced and knowledgeable coach and guide across Scotland and the rest of the UK, he spent a summer in Norway and a month in Nepal; apparently they weren’t bad.

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