Does wearing the right clothing when kayaking make that much of a difference? Should I be dressing to suit the weather conditions?
Yes, it does make a real difference, and yes, you absolutely you should. Dressing appropriately can make or break your kayaking experience, either allowing you to have a great time out on your ‘yak (even if you do take a spill into the water) or put yourself in harm's way.
To help you out, we've put together a helpful guide on what to wear while you're out on the water. We'll cover what you need for all weather conditions, so you can stay safe and comfy and concentrate on enjoying your paddling adventure.
Table of Contents
When planning your kayaking trip, the first thing you should take into consideration is the weather. Having a solid idea of what the weather conditions will be and how they are likely to change allows you to dress properly and stay safe.
To make planning easier, the American Canoe Association (ACA) has produced the PaddleReady app, which allows you to check weather conditions and forecast the surf, tide, and river levels. This useful app also allows you to build float plans, assemble a gear list, and even report accidents.
Just as important as monitoring the weather is checking the water temperatures along your route. You should always dress for the average water temperature on your journey, as cold water immersion carries the most significant risk to kayakers. Taking the occasional unplanned swim is just part of the kayaking experience, so it’s best to be prepared for it.
Once you've checked the weather patterns and water temperatures for the area in which you're planning to kayak, you'll have a better idea of the conditions you'll be facing. You can then plan what you are going to wear.
Some kayaking pieces are so essential that you’ll want to have them with you on any journey, regardless of the weather. These kayaking staples form the basis of every kayaking outfit.
- Personal Floatation Device (PFD) - The US Coast Guard requires all kayakers to have their personal flotation device with them when they are out on the water. While it can be stowed on your ‘yak, most kayakers choose to wear it at all times. As it's something you'll always have with you, it's important to select the right one. A good PFD will fit snugly but not tightly, even over bulky layers like a drysuit. It will also allow your arms full range of motion. If you're struggling to choose a PFD that's right for you, check out our review of the best life vests for kayaking.
- Gloves - A good pair of gloves can go a long way to keeping you comfortable when out on the water. They reduce paddle abrasion, helping your hands stay blister-free and warm. Gloves also help you maintain your grip on a wet paddle and keep your hands safe when entering and exiting your ‘yak. When choosing a pair of gloves, you should make sure they provide enough space for your fingers, don't cut off circulation, and are flexible enough that you can retain control of your movements.
- Helmet - A helmet is an essential safety precaution for anyone attempting whitewater kayaking. It's also a sensible thing to bring along on any journey. Even on the most placid waters, a helmet can save you from getting hurt during a collision with other water traffic, underwater rocks during a capsize, or even an accidental paddle to the head from another ‘yaker.
- Footwear - Wearing the right footwear when kayaking is often something that is overlooked. Flip-flops are never appropriate paddle-wear, regardless of how hot the day is. Proper kayaking shoes are durable, breathable, have excellent grip on wet surfaces, and keep your feet warm and dry. The sun might be hot, but having wet feet for an entire six-hour journey is a miserable experience.
- Spray Skirt - A properly fitted spray skirt prevents water from getting into your cockpit and keeps your lower body nice and dry. In the summer they also keep the sun off your legs. Finding the ideal spray skirt for your kayak takes a little research, but once it’s fitted the benefits of dry, non-sunburnt legs are quickly apparent. Of course, if you’re rocking a sit-on kayak, this is a step you don't have to worry about.
- Moisture-wicking Clothing - The last thing you want on any float is to get wet in the first few minutes, and then stay wet and cold for the entire journey. Moisture-wicking clothing uses capillary action to allow the sun and your body heat to dry any water quickly. You can get this clothing specifically made for kayaking, but moisture-wicking clothing made for hiking and sportswear is also an appropriate choice. Avoid cotton as it stays wet and does not insulate.
- Wetsuit or Dry Top - A wetsuit keeps you warm by trapping a thin layer of water next to the skin which you body then heats, providing you with a layer of insulation. For hotter days you can get sleeveless wetsuits, known as a "Farmer John." Dry tops are waterproof cagoules with neoprene seals at the waist, neck, and wrists. They are lighter, cooler and more flexible than a wetsuit, but need to be combined with a spray skirt if you want to stay completely dry.
Warm Weather Kayaking
It's easy to assume that shorts and a t-shirt are all you need for kayaking in hot weather, only to fall prey to sunstroke halfway through your journey.
Kayaking in hot conditions is all about staying hydrated, dry, and protected from the sun. By adding a few extra pieces to your kayaking essentials, you can enjoy the summer heat without taking any risks.
- Wide-brimmed Hat - Investing in a good, lightweight hat is always a good idea. Look for something with a wide brim that goes all the way around the hat. This will protect not only your head and face, but also your neck and ears.
- Sunglasses - The sun’s glare reflecting off of the water can be hard on the eyes, and water spray can irritate your eye's protective membrane, especially in salty water. A good pair of polarized sunglasses will protect your eyes and prevent any irritation. Just remember to attach a float to them, especially if they are expensive.
- Buff or Sun Mask - In very bright conditions, a Buff or sun mask can protect you from the sun’s glare off the water. They are breathable, comfortable, and 95% UV resistant. This is a sensible choice for those susceptible to sunburn.
- Long Sleeves and Trousers - While long-sleeved tops and trousers seem counterintuitive in hot weather, they are the best way to protect yourself from UVA and UVB exposure. Look for sportswear and hiking clothing that is moisture-wicking, light, and breathable. You won't overheat in it and it will keep you from burning.
Cold Weather Kayaking
The main dangers of cold weather kayaking are cold shock, swim failure, and hypothermia. Proper planning and appropriate clothing can help to mitigate those risks and keep you safe, even in the most frigid waters.
The key to cold weather kayaking is keeping warm, even after you’ve been immersed. You need to keep your core body temperature stable and protect your hands and feet. You can do this by layering your clothing and adding a few specialty items to your basic kayaking outfit.
- Drysuit - Unlike a wetsuit, a drysuit keeps the water away from your skin entirely. They do have a few downsides. They tend to be inflexible and any rips in the fabric can render them useless. But when combined with thermal base layers, they are the best way to stay warm in cold water. When buying a drysuit, it's important to purchase one that is specifically for sailing or kayaking. These are sometimes known as "surface immersion suits." Drysuits designed for diving tend to be bulkier, heavier, less breathable, and have chunky air valves mounted in the front. Another feature to look for in a drysuit is the "relief zip," so you don't have to strip all your gear off when nature calls.
- Thermal Base and Mid Layers - Designed to keep you warm and dry, thermal base and mid layers should be worn under a drysuit in cold conditions. The drysuit itself only keeps the water out, so it's down to the clothing you wear underneath to keep you warm. The best thermal base layers are lightweight, moisture-wicking, and breathable. Combined with a thermal mid layer, such as a light fleece, they trap insulating layers of air around your body to keep you warm. When combined with a drysuit, properly layered thermal clothing can extend the time you can stay functional in cold water by up to an hour.
- Mittens - An alternative to gloves, mittens keep your fingers warmer in cold conditions. They do, however, have the drawback of significantly lessening your dexterity, especially if you plan to be regularly stowing and removing gear, changing your clothing, or tossing any lines.
- Pogies - An alternative to mittens, pogies are a type of paddling mitt that attaches to the paddle shaft using velcro straps. You slide your hands into them to grip the paddle shaft. While they are arguably the most thermally-insulating hand gear available, you do have to remove them every time you let go of the paddle. This lessens their usefulness when doing any task other than paddling or in the event of a capsize. This downside can be mitigated by wearing a thinner pair of mittens that can fit inside the pogies.
- Thermal Hat, Buff, or Face Mask - Keeping your head warm is another step to staying comfy during a cold weather paddle. Beanies made of thermally-insulating material can be worn under a helmet while ventilated Buffs or face masks can be worn over the nose and mouth.
Dressing appropriately when you're out on the water is all about being prepared. You need to plan and understand what the weather and water conditions will be. Once you've done that, you can start to plan what you’ll need to wear on the water.
Some items, like your wetsuit, gloves, shoes, and helmet, are the essentials you'll want along for every paddle. If the weather gets too hot or too cold, you can supplement this basic gear with more specialty items to keep you safe and happy, regardless of the temperature.
If the sun is out and the mercury is rising, then you need to take care that you are shielding your eyes and skin from the sun. You coming home lobster red is funny for your friends, not for you. If the temperature is dropping, then it's vital you keep your core warm and protect your extremities. Sudden immersion in cold water can be very dangerous, but the prepared and properly dressed ‘yaker can take an unplanned dunking and not have it ruin their day.
Let us know if you have any questions about what to wear kayaking by commenting below.