Does it matter what you wear while kayaking? Do wetsuits and spray skirts make that much of a difference?
YES, absolutely! I’ve found that the right kayak clothing can make or break your trip. It can turn an unpleasant experience in godawful conditions into a daring adventure that you’re ready to take head on.
It’s not just a case of manning up and embracing the uncomfortable. Being wet and cold can completely ruin your trip and also puts you at risk of hypothermia. Wearing a wetsuit when kayaking saves you from the risks associated with cold water and can transform discomfort into enjoyment.
And it’s not just cold weather you need to be wary of either. How you dress for paddling in warm conditions is just as important. Wearing a sun hat and sunscreen during the scorching Kiwi summers has saved me from sunstroke numerous times (trust me, you’ll want to avoid that). Looking like a freshly cooked lobster is funny for your friends, but I assure you, it’s no laughing matter!
So, with the word of warning out of the way, let’s have a look at what to wear kayaking as well as some handy tips for dressing for both cold and hot weather.
First and Foremost: Dress for the Conditions!
“What should I wear kayaking?”
It’s a simple enough question, but one that completely stumped me as a newbie.
Before my first trip, I literally had no idea, and I sought the advice from my experienced friend who invited me on the trip. He advised that first and foremost, you have to dress for the conditions of the area you’ll be paddling.
We would be spending the day at Lake Coleridge, which is roughly two hours away from my hometown of Christchurch. And although it’s only two hours away, it’s an alpine environment that is subject to quick and dramatic changes in weather.
He went on to explain that you need to consider both the temperature of the air and the water where you’ll be paddling. When you’re paddling the ocean or deep lakes, the surrounding air can be warm, but the water can remain as cold as an ice block.
You also need to take into account your skill level. Knowing your competency, is there any likelihood of you going for a swim?
And what about the yak you’ll be paddling? Sit-on-top kayaks mean your legs will be wet and cooler and are easier to re-enter if you flip it. Sit-in kayaks shield you from the elements but are harder to re-enter if you capsize, which means you’ll be spending longer in the water.
So, before heading off, I advise that you ask yourself a few basic questions:
“What type of paddling am I doing?”
“What’s the weather forecast for the duration of the trip?”
“What are the likely water conditions? Smooth or Choppy? Any chance of high winds or waves?”
“Am I using a sit-in or sit-on-top kayak?”
These simple questions will uncover your expected paddling conditions and allow you to prepare clothing, food supplies, and safety equipment to remain comfortable and safe.
How to Dress for Kayaking in Cold Weather
It’s cold enough to freeze the balls of a brass monkey, but that ain’t gonna stop a hardened paddler like yourself.
And while adding another blanket of warmth can certainly provide the motivation to hit the water on winter days, dressing appropriately in cold weather may even save your life. You never know when disaster may strike, especially when you’re exploring new areas.
If you become stranded or have an accident, wearing an extra insulating layer or wetsuit could just save your bacon.
Survivors of camping expeditions went wrong will tell you how important having the right outdoor clothing is when you’re exhausted and your body temperature has fallen dangerously low.
So, with the safety prep talk over, what should you wear for kayaking in cold environments?
Kayak Clothing for Cold Weather
- Wetsuit / Drysuit – depending on severity of weather and water temperature
- Waterproof Jackets – choose one made from high-quality, synthetic fabrics that will keep you warm without absorbing water or being overly bulky and restricting paddle movements
- Thermal Clothing – Again, go with high-quality, insulating layers that hug the body. Avoid loose-fitting, heavy garments (such as cotton) that retain moisture.
- Gloves – You may want a set of polypropylene paddling gloves that are good for wet use and dry fast, and another thermal pair for when you’re not in your yak
- Thermal Headgear – Got to keep the ol’ noggin warm.
- Waterproof Socks – Because cold and damp feet ain’t no fun.
- Booties – light-duty hiking boots or sneakers are suitable in most cases, but if there’s the chance your feet will be wet, you may want to consider neoprene booties.
- Waterproof Waist Pack – These are great for storing your keys and phone, however, a PFD with pockets does the same thing.
Some of the items on this list are fairly self-explanatory, and if you’ve ever been hiking or camping outside of the summer months, you’ll be pretty well versed in what to wear.
On the other hand, items such as PFD’s, wetsuits, and drysuits are specific to water activities, so we’ve got the info to clue you up below.
PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices)
PFDs or life jackets are essential for kayaking and canoeing, and you should be wearing them whenever you’re on the water.
There are PFDs designed for whatever activity you’re doing in your yak from whitewater to fishing, and for all ages and sizes.
For kayaking in cold conditions, it’s important that your PFD can fit over wetsuits/drysuits and whatever clothing you have on. You’re PFD should be a snug fit, and not too loose or too tight even with several layers of bulky clothing.
Wetsuits keep you warm in cold weather, protect against abrasions, and help with buoyancy if you capsize.
There are two main types of wetsuits used depending on the temperature: winter and summer wetsuits.
Both types work by trapping a thin layer of water between your skin and the wetsuit that your body heats, which then acts as insulation keeping you warm. The difference between the two is thickness; summer wetsuits feature a neoprene layer that is 2-3 millimetres thick, whereas winter wetsuits will be 3-6mm.
The thicker the wetsuit, the warmer you'll be, but also the more restrictive it is. To save yourself from flexibility issues, try the wetsuit on before purchasing to ensure you have full range of motion.
Drysuits are a step above a winter wetsuit. If you paddle in icy-cold conditions, water touching your skin is going to be an uncomfortable (some would say painful) experience.
Unlike its counterpart, a drysuit is designed to keep the water out. Once sealed, a waterproof membrane stops water from entering the suit, providing better insulation in colder climates.
Some drysuits (known as hybrids) have a combination of an outer waterproofing (the shell) and an inner protective synthetic rubber layer.
Hybrid suits are extremely effective in extreme cold conditions and are often used by deep sea divers and other water sports enthusiasts who frequent chilly waters.
What’s the Difference Between a Wetsuit and Drysuit?
- For everyday watersports, such as surfing, paddleboarding, and kayaking
- Ideal for an additional protective layer against the cold and scrapes and bumps
- Easy to take on and off
- Better range of motion (especially with shorty or summer wetsuits)
- Made for extreme cold conditions and/or extended periods in the water
- Perfect for deep sea divers and water activities in icy conditions
- Difficult to use due to complex layers and zips
- Advanced design for specific uses such as diving or working in arctic conditions
What to Wear Kayaking in Warm Weather
Okay, so now we’ve covered paddling in colder weather, it’s time to flip the coin. You’ll be pleased to know that kayaking in warm conditions is much less complicated.
You can get by wearing whatever is comfortable, and if you’re renting a kayak for half an hour while visiting the lake, shorts and a t-shirt is just fine and dandy.
However, if you’re going to be baking under the sun’s rays for a prolonged period, then there are a few precautions you should be taking. Sun exposure can lead to painful sunburn and sunstroke, and it’s best to shield your skin from harmful UV rays.
Out on the water, you have zero shade. Sunlight bounces off the water, coming in from every angle, and there is no escaping it.
Here’s the clothing I recommend to remain protected on hot and sunny days.
Kayak Clothing for Warm Weather
- Sun Hat – Your head, face, and shoulders are most exposed to the sun, and you can protect them all by wearing a wide-brimmed hat
- Long Sleeves – Although you may be cooler in a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt will provide complete protection from the sun. If you opt for a light, breathable fabric, you’ll hardly notice the difference
- Sunglasses - Sunglasses will protect your eyes from Photokeratitis. I have a pair of polarized lenses which help me see through the water which are handy for kayak fishing
This is the bare minimum I take with me if I’m going out paddling in the sun for 30 minutes or more. I also pack sunscreen and take along a flask of water. I probably don’t need to explain how important it is to remain hydrated when you’re paddling.
Although it’s best to cover up from the sun completely, factor 50 sunscreen will block the sun’s rays for around three hours on fleshy parts that remain exposed. Be sure to stick with a reputable brand and one which also offers a waterproof solution.
Now you know how to dress for kayaking, it’s time to look at some extras you can pack that will make your trip much more comfortable.
Tips and Extra Equipment for an Enjoyable Trip
Having the right kayaking clothing will ready you for whatever conditions you face on the water. But there are still a couple of things you can do that will prepare you for all eventualities:
Layering is Key – Wearing several thinner layers instead of one or two thick layers will give you more adaptability while also not restricting paddle movements. If you heat up when paddling, you can always remove one or two layers and still remain comfortable. Consider the material of each layer. Your base layers should be insulating to keep in as much heat as possible, while your outer layer should be wind and water proof.
Bring an Extra Pair of Clothes - It’s a no brainer really! Taking a spare pair of clothes wrapped in a waterproof bag will allow you to fully embrace the fun of kayaking and get wet without worrying about the consequences. A quick change once your back on dry land, and you’re out of your soggies and ready to continue the adventure.
Spray Skirts Keep Your Bum Dry – If you’re using a sit-in kayak, a spray skirt will stop water entering the cockpit and save your lower half from getting soaked. They’re highly recommended if you’re paddling choppy sea waters, whitewater, or anywhere else you’re going to get wet and wild.
Waterproof Bags Save Catastrophe - Keep your valuables safe and dry by storing them in a dry bag. The bags have airtight seals making them an ideal buoyancy aid in times of emergency.
Protect Your Head – Helmets are essential if you intend on paddling rapids. A concussion is the last thing you want in the water.
To quickly summarise on the basics we’ve covered: Always check the weather before you go, and dress for the conditions. Always wear your PFD, and make sure it fits over your kayaking clothes.
For cold days, bring along a spare set of clothes in a dry bag. If you know it’s going to be unbearably cold, then it’s time to suit up. Wetsuits will keep you warm even when you’re wet.
For hot days, remember it’s all about protection from too much sun. Cover up with a hat, long-sleeved top, sunscreen, and sunglasses. Leave the tanning to glam girls and bodybuilders.
Paddling should be an enjoyable experience. However, it can be hard to keep smiling when you’re drenched to the bone or your skins hot enough to boil a kettle. Dressing for the weather will ensure you remain safe and enjoy every minute out on the water.
If you’ve got any tips on dressing for paddling, please share them in the comments below. Where in the world are you and what do you wear kayaking?