No matter if you are an experienced kayaker, or you are heading out for the very first time, dressing appropriately is the difference between a great day on the water and a cold and miserable one. When choosing clothing to wear for kayaking, you will follow similar rules as for other outdoor activities such as hiking or biking. First and foremost, you want to be comfortable while you are paddling.
Of course one of the biggest things you need to consider when deciding what to wear when getting ready for a day kayaking is the weather – and the time of year. The clothing you choose needs to be versatile, durable, quick-drying, and offer protection from weather conditions. You can be out on the water for a long time, so it is important that you dress for every possible eventuality; the last thing you want is to be too warm or too cold, or not be fully protected from the elements (and that includes being sunburned!)
To help you get ready for an action-packed and fun day of kayaking, we have created the ultimate guide to what you should wear in both the winter months and the summer months…
- Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) at all times while on the water.
- Dress for the water temperature. You may need to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit in cool or colder weather.
- Pay special attention to layers on your upper body.
- Wear quick-drying synthetics such as polyester or nylon.
- Avoid cotton. It absorbs water and dries very slowly.
- Wool doesn’t dry quickly but insulates when wet. Wool can be a good choice in some weather conditions.
- Wear non-restrictive clothing and look for abrasion-resistant fabrics. Kayaking can be rough on clothes.
- Sunny or cloudy, a day on the water exposes you to the sun’s harmful UV rays. On cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can pass through clouds. Always wear sunscreen and choose clothing with UPF-rated fabrics.
Kayaking Clothing For Hot, Warm, or Mild Weather
When the sun is shining and the weather and water are inviting and warm, there are not many things better than spending a day on the lake or river kayaking. It is also a lot easier to dress for the summer months than it is for the winter.
In warm conditions, many people opt to wear their bathing suit as a base layer. For shorter outings, that’s usually fine, but you may want to wear something more comfortable for longer paddles. If you don’t wear your swimsuit, choose non-cotton sports bras and non-chaffing, moisture-wicking underwear.
Rash guards are specifically designed shirts for paddlers. Their form-fitting design and flat-seam construction make them comfortable, particularly when layered under other clothing or a wetsuit. Rash guards and any synthetic, polyester, or nylon-blend shirts are a good choice for kayakers because they are quick-drying.
If you are heading out for an entire day, you will have to be very aware of the sun and the risk of sunburn. Although regularly applying sunscreen will protect you, consider wearing a light, thin, loose top and bottom – these will further protect your skin from the UV rays but still allow your body to sweat and remove heat. You may also want to consider specific clothes designed for sun protection. Many watersport-friendly shirts have high UPF ratings to help protect against the sun.
The essential considerations for the shorts or pants you choose to wear is to ensure that they are comfortable, don’t restrict your movement, and are quick-to-dry. You may want to avoid really thin fabrics because they aren’t made to stand up to the friction of getting in and out of your kayak or the shifting in your seat as you paddle.
You never know what the day will bring, so just because the forecast looks good you should make sure that you are prepared for rain and cooler conditions. Taking a waterproof and breathable jacket or windbreaker will help to keep you warm and they can also be packed down very small making them easy to stow.
Weather conditions can change quickly on the water. Even in warm weather, it’s a good idea to pack a fleece jacket or other warm, synthetic mid-layer.
It is less of an issue in warm weather however if the forecast calls for rain or wind, choose a waterproof and breathable jacket. You can also wear rain paints if you really don’t want to get wet. There are purpose-designed paddler’s jackets that are nice because gaskets at the wrists (and often times the neck too) ensure that you stay dry. The tapered wrist also helps keep the drips that run down your paddle shaft from traveling up your arms.
Choose footwear that will dry quickly and protect your feet from sharp objects (like rocks). There are Neoprene booties designed especially for paddlers that are worth considering because they’re lightweight, water-friendly, and protect your feet. Keep in mind that sandals will be less protective than booties and can collect gravel underfoot during put-ins and takeouts. One top tip is to make sure your sandals have a back strap so they stay on your feet — and don’t float away!
To protect your head and face from the sun, a wide-brimmed hat should be part of your summer kayaking outfit, a sunburned nose can be very painful and distracting so wearing a hat as an extra layer of defense against the sun. Equally, the glare from the sun’s rays off the water can be particularly distracting, so wearing a pair of high-quality sunglasses will ensure your vision is not impaired – just remember to add a retainer or leash, the last thing you want is them falling into the water and sinking.
A long day of paddling can be hard on your hands. Paddling gloves are nice because they protect against both blisters and the elements. Using lightweight paddling gloves is advised as it protects your hands and also ensures that you have plenty of grip on the paddle as well as the kayak when moving it around.
Personal Floatation Device (PFD):
Always make sure you are wearing your personal floatation device when on the water. Some people are tempted to take it off when the weather is warmer, but you never know what could happen and quite often the sudden shock of cold water can prevent you from reacting as quickly as you would like.
Even if you only plan to paddle close to shore, close-in waters are where most drowning accidents happen. Drownings rarely occur to paddlers wearing a PFD. So don’t head out in your boat until you put on a properly secured PFD. For sizing and fitting advice (snugger is better), in addition to buying tips, read How to Choose a PFD.
Kayaking Clothing For Cool or Cold Conditions:
Have you ever attempted to put on a wetsuit while in the water? If not, you will have to trust me … it’s pretty much impossible. If the weather is cool or cold and you know you should be wearing a wetsuit or a drysuit, it is essential that you put it on before you get in your kayak. Always dress for submersion.
When to Wear a Wetsuit or a Drysuit:
When the outside air temperature and the water temperature is cold, it is important that you are aware of the very real threat that hypothermia poses. This is why you need to ensure that your body is fully protected. If you are heading out in rougher water where the risk of you entering the water is high, then wearing a wetsuit or a dry suit is necessary as they can help to keep your overall body temperature warm and potentially save your life. As a rule of thumb, if the water temperature is less than 60F, you must wear a wetsuit or a drysuit. If the air temperature is less than 60F you should also wear a wetsuit or a dry suit. You should also wear a wetsuit or drysuit if the combined air and water temperature is less than 120F.
- A wetsuit is typically made of thick neoprene, it insulates you by holding a thin layer of water next to your skin and heated by your body. The thicker the neoprene, the warmer the wetsuit.
- A drysuit is for colder water and air conditions. As the name implies, it keeps you dry. It is made of waterproof material with watertight gaskets at the openings to keep all water out. You regulate your temperature by wearing layers under it.
Layers for Warmth:
Base layers, thermals and liners are perfect for a day out on the water when it is cold as they help to ensure that your body temperature is regulated, trapping warm air against your skin and wicking away sweat. They are lightweight and won’t restrict your movement. Nylon, polyester, and other synthetics are quick-drying, which is a vital necessity when kayaking. By layering, you can easily add or remove clothing as required.
Windchill is another major factor to remember when you are out kayaking during the colder winter months, so you will want to ensure that you have some form of waterproof wind-breaker over your base layers. Using nylon or Gore-Tex jackets and pants is a popular choice amongst seasoned kayakers as it protects them from the elements while remaining very quick to dry.
Another popular accessory that many kayakers like to add during the winter months is a spray skirt. Although not a layer of clothing as such, it is a great accessory that helps to ensure the cold air and water are not able to reach your legs; helping to trap warm air in and keep you comfortable.
With your legs and torso now protected, it is time to protect your extremities. If you have ever had to live with cold and wet feet for more than a few moments you will know exactly how uncomfortable it is and you certainly will not want to have to spend a full day experiencing it. That is why footwear is arguably one of the most important items of clothing to consider.
A good option is to wear a pair of neoprene boots. These fully waterproof shoes are designed to be comfortable and come in a range of different thicknesses so you should be able to find a pair suited to your needs. Some kayakers do like to include a thin pair of thermal socks under their shoes too – however it is very important that you do not make it too tight on your feet, this can restrict blood flow and actually make you colder!
Although the myth that you lose more heat through your head has been dispelled, adding a hat to your winter kayaking outfit can really help to keep you warm. While a normal toque or beanie hat will work, when the temperature really drops your cheeks and neck can get very cold so options such as a balaclava that covers your entire face may be a good idea.
Gloves and Mitts:
Your grip on the paddle is important to efficiently kayak, therefore, your hands are one of the most important parts of the body to keep warm. Neoprene gloves are a good option as normal gloves can end up being quite wet and slippery – but if your fingers really feel the cold, try adding a pair of thermal layer gloves underneath for that extra boost of warmth. In really cold weather, you can also opt for paddle mitts or ‘Pogies’ to shield your hands from the elements.
Though you might be feeling very snug with your winter outfit on, do not forget to always wear your life jacket when heading out on the water. The PFD that you wear in the summer months might not fit as well over all of your layers Try loosening the straps or consider having a separate life jacket for the colder months. It’s also much harder to open and close zippers with your winter gloves on, so keep that in mind!
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