What To Wear Kayaking: Cold Weather vs Warm Weather

The right kayaking outfit isn’t only about looking stylish, although looking good is always important!

But what do you wear to go kayaking?

Kayaking clothes have a job to do, especially if you are heading out over cold water.

So if you’re feeling like Priscella…

Don’t worry this kayaking clothing guide has got your back!

What To Wear Canoeing Or Kayaking

The best clothes for kayaking depends heavily on the season and weather conditions.

Obviously, the goal is to keep you warm and safe at all times.

If you check out any kayaking apparel store the gear usually falls into the following categories:

What to wear kayaking:

  • A kayaking personal floatation device PFD (this is not optional)
  • Kayaking Activewear (kayaking attire)
  • Kayaking Dry Suits for very cold conditions
  • Kayaking Wetsuits for getting wet while staying warm
  • Kayaking Pants for under drysuits
  • Kayaking Shirts for under drysuits
  • Baselayers for warmth
  • Paddling Gloves to avoid blisters
  • Kayaking Helmets for whitewater paddling
  • Hats for shade or for warmth
  • Sunglasses to protect your eyes from glare
  • Jackets when the air is cool but the water is warm
  • Shoes & Footwear to protect your feet

Don’t worry. You won’t need everything on that list!

Kayaking outfits depend on both the water and air temperature.

The sun may be shining and the air may be pleasant, but if the water is cold you’ll need to dress accordingly.

That’s why Mike knew it was time to wear his dry suit again when Lake Ontario was cooling down:

Likewise, the water may be warm but if it’s a cold day then it’s going to be chilly only wearing your speedos!

Check this chart from REI about when to wear a wetsuit or dry suit vs when to wear quick drying fabrics with sun protection.

Water temperature is more important than air temperature. If the water temperature is below 60°F then you should always look to wear a wetsuit or drysuit when kayaking.

If the water temperature is greater than 60°F then you can start thinking about ditching the wetsuit but only if the air temperature is also high enough.

First, we’re going to look at what to always wear when kayaking whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter.

Then we’ll take a look at kayak clothing for cold weather.

After that, we’ll consider what to wear while paddling in the summer.

What To Always Wear When Kayaking

There are some things that you should always wear when paddling.

It goes without saying, always wear a life jacket or PFD.

Take it from Kimbo, a life vest is essential before you step into a boat even if you are a strong swimmer:

And always wear footwear that will protect your feet

Special thanks to Charlotte for showing us exactly what not to wear:

Your white sneakers will protect your feet but they’re not coming home white!

Definitely don’t wear flip flops since they can be lost easily in flowing water. Sandals with straps would be a better choice.

It’s much better is to wear proper water shoes to keep your feet safe like these:

Wear a helmet if you plan to go whitewater kayaking and there is any chance you could hit your head.

These are the essential things to wear when kayaking, everything else is dependent on weather and water conditions.

Kayak Clothing For Cold Weather

What to wear kayaking in cool weather needs a little planning and research.

Firstly there is nice gentle paddling:

And there is extreme paddling:

But in a lot of ways it doesn’t really change what you need to wear for cold water paddling. 

Even if you think you are only going for a gentle paddle on calm waters there is always a chance that you are going to get fall in the water and you should be prepared for that for your own protection.

Cold water shock can be very dangerous if you are not dressed correctly and the risk of hypothermia is real.

So cold water conditions mean that you should wear a drysuit or a wetsuit.

Dry Suit Vs Wetsuit For Kayaking In Cold Weather

So what’s the difference between a dry suit and a wetsuit?

The clue is in the name.

A wetsuit is a tight fitting neoprene suit that won’t stop you getting wet but does help to keep you warm.

The wetsuit uses a layer of water between your skin and the suit to insulate you.

You don’t wear any base layer underneath the wetsuit.

Here’s Naimh rocking the classic kayaking wetsuit look:

Wetsuits come with different arm and leg lengths. 

A Farmer John or Jane wetsuit doesn’t have any sleeves and it is good for milder weather.

Some people will wear a wetsuit all year round. Especially if their style of kayaking means getting wet is almost certain.

Wetsuits also come in varying thicknesses. For colder conditions, you can look at thicker wetsuits.

With a thick wetsuit the layer of warm water insulating you will be thicker. It will also restrict your freedom of movement more.

Check this site for a guide to what wetsuit thickness is required depending on the water temperature.

For very cold conditions a dry suit is usually a better choice.

The goal of a dry suit is to keep you dry.

A drysuit is waterproof but alone it doesn’t have great insulating properties.

With a dry suit approach it’s the clothing layers that you wear underneath that will keep you warm.

Here is Nick modelling his new dry suit that he got for christmas:

One of the good things about dry suits is that you can adjust the clothing layers depending on how cold conditions are.

The best fabrics are those that are breathable.

Avoid cotton because it absorbs water (or sweat) and dries slowly. So jeans are a bad idea!

Long underwear can be worn underneath a drysuit as a base layer.

Fleece makes a good mid-layer.

A spray skirt attached to a sit-in kayak will help keep the cold water out.

A beanie can be a good option when it’s cold but if it gets wet it will lose its insulating properties. A neoprene hat might be a good option if you know you’re going to get wet.

When planning your kayaking, always dress according to the coastal water temperature map.

Whether you end up choosing a wetsuit or a dry suit will probably come down to personal preference.

But when the water is cold don’t ever think you can skip the protection that a dry suit or wetsuit gives you. It’s just not worth it.

It’s a lot easier to dress for kayaking in the summer months when the water is warm.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other dangers.

When you are out on the water you are exposed to the sun, so make sure you wear sunscreen and light clothing that provides sun protection.

But don’t take my word for it… take it from Bry:

Ouch! Looks nasty! You can see where the line where her shorts were.

A wide-brimmed hat can keep the sun off your face and sunglasses help protect your eyes from UV rays and help deal with glare from the water.

It’s better if your hat has an adjustable strap to stop it from falling off or you might end up wearing your wife’s hat to cover your bald head!

Mitchell also got burnt badly from paddling in the sun. 

While kayaking might well be worth enduring the pain of sunburn sun damage can lead to skin cancer and that’s no laughing matter.

Quick drying clothes will be good. Usually this means synthetic fabrics like polyester or nylon.

Layering is smart too when the water is warm. If the water is a safe temperature but the air is cool then bring something heavier like a fleece.

But you’ll want to be able to lose layers if the sun comes out and it’s too hot.

The Verdict

When deciding what to wear when kayaking it’s all about the outdoor weather conditions you’ll be paddling in.

Pay special attention to the water temperature.

The job of cold weather kayaking clothes and gear is to keep you warm.

Wearing a wetsuit is a good choice when the water is cold and your planning active paddling.

If it’s very cold then you should consider  wearing a dry suit over a base layer of  long underwear and middle layers of fleece.

Warm weather is easier. It’s more about protecting yourself from the sun.

A brimmed hat and sunscreen are the way to go. Also make sure you are wearing clothing with a UPF rating that actually blocks the sun .

Quick drying clothes are a good idea or pack a change of clothes and a towel and keep them in a dry bag. You can quickly change once you are out of the water.

Lastly, if you are a new kayaker going out on the water for the first time you should be accompanied by an experienced guide.

That guide will know exactly what to wear so it won’t do any harm to pick up the phone and ask them what you should wear for your upcoming trip!

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