Exploration Junkie is reader-supported. If you buy through links on this page we may earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
Like any other outdoor sport, it’s important to wear the right clothing when kayaking. Your clothing will determine whether you’ll have a nice time on the water…or a miserable one. But the burning question is “What to wear kayaking?” There are so many different types of kayak clothing and choosing the right ones can be overwhelming especially for a beginner.
In this article, I’ll help you choose what to wear kayaking from headgear to footwear, cold weather jackets, and warm-weather shirts. But before we go into different types of clothing, I’ll be taking you through an overview of safety and dressing principles you need to take in consideration before going kayaking.
Safety First: Get Yourself a PFD
Safety is paramount when kayaking. You should always take a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) with you and ensure you wear it before getting on the water. A PFD is arguably the most important piece of safety gear for a kayaker. Note that life jackets are a type of PFD.
If there is ever a need for you to adjust the top layers of your PFD, find a place paddle back to shore and adjust the PFD there. You shouldn’t attempt to adjust your PFD while on the water except there is someone else on the yak with you to hold the vessel firmly as you change.
Basic Dressing Principles For Kayaking
It’s common to see people trying to dress for both water and air (weather temperature). However, to make things simple, dress only for the water temperature. And what this means is that you’ll have to make a choice between a wetsuit or a drysuit.
Paddling on the waters essentially exposes you to the elements. This means that you’ll always be exposed to some amount of sunlight (and consequently UV radiation) regardless of cloud cover. As a result, it’s important you wear clothing that offers protection from the sun. UPF-rated fabrics are a popular choice among kayakers.
Dressing in layers : The key to dressing correctly for kayaking, particularly in cold weather, is to dress in layers. The base layer will allow your skin to breathe while the mid layer will keep you warm. The outer layer is your first line of protection against the elements and should be designed to repel rain, wind, or snow.
Dressing for sit-inside vs. for sit-on-top kayaks : Sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks don’t have an enclosed cockpit resulting in you being exposed to the elements. As a result, SOTs are usually used in summer time or hot climates. A swimsuit will be more ideal for a SOT kayak as you’ll be protected from water splashes and can get in the water if you so desire.
Sit-inside kayaks are commonly used in cold waters and as such will require you to dress for cold water conditions. A dry suit should be sufficient when paddling on a sit-inside kayak.
What To Wear Kayaking in Warm Weather
It’s common to see people opting to go with a swimsuit as a first layer when kayaking in warm weather especially on shorter trips. And this is totally fine. The only guideline for what to wear as a first layer is something that will keep you comfortable throughout your time on the water. Swimsuits work fine for shorter trips but you should also take a look at other underwear suitable for outdoor pursuits.
It’s possible you’ve seen kayakers, surfers, or swimmers wearing shirts instead of suit tops. That shirt is a rashguard and is made of nylon or polyester combined with Lycra® spandex. This results in a flexible and quick-drying material with high UPF ratings.
All these attributes make rashguards ideal for kayaking and other water sports. Rashguards also have formfitting design as well as flat-seam construction that keeps the wear comfy and cozy. Therefore, rashguards are excellent choice for a top when going kayaking. You can also use a synthetic or wool base layer as well.
Watershirts are another good choice for a top. They have good UPF ratings and have a looser fit when compared to rashguards. However, watershirts are not designed for swimming so they are a good option if you don’t intend to get into the water during your kayaking expedition,
The aim here is for you to wear something that dries quickly while also keeping you comfortable. And this makes quick-dry pants and board shots excellent choices for bottoms. Stay away from any material that chafes or binds. I’ve also seen people talking about using super-thin fabrics as bottoms. This isn’t going to work as super-thin fabrics, like synthetics yoga pants, aren’t built to withstand movements on a kayak as you paddle.
A fleece jacket or any other synthetic mid layer will work fine if the weather doesn’t require you to wear a dry suit or wet suit.
Your outer layer is your first line of defense against the elements. You’ll choose your outer layer based on the anticipated weather conditions, If you are anticipating exposure to significant wind or rain, it’ll make sense for you to wear a quality waterproof and breathable jackets as well as rain pants.
Paddling jackets also work fine as they keep you dry and nice. A water-resistant/breathable jacket is a good option especially when you don’t expect there to be a significant rain.
The ideal paddling footwear is one that’s lightweight, protects the toes/bottom of the feet and water-ready. For this reason, neoprene paddling boots are great for kayaking. Water sandals also work fine especially if the shore is free from gravel. Water shoes are another good option for kayaking footwear. Whatever type of footwear you decide to wear, make sure it has a backstrap.
Waterproof socks, thick non-cotton socks or waterproof paddling boots should be worn by paddlers in colder climates.
Hats: Wide-brimmed hats or hats with capes offer good protection from the sun. You should consider a cap leash in very windy areas to avoid losing your hat.
Gloves: Gone are the days when gloves are only worn during winter or cold conditions. There are now UV protected gloves that prevent your hands from getting weathered. A good pair of paddling gloves will help keep blisters away from your hands and also prevent them from being burnt.
Sunglasses: While the need to wear sunglasses is obvious on a sunny day, there is a secondary reason to wearing shades while kayaking. You see, sunlight often reflects off the surface of the water and this can turn out to be very irritating for your eyes. A pair of polarized sunglasses will protect your eyes when paddling
What To Wear Kayaking in Cold Weather
Dressing for cold weather is different from that of warm weather. There is the risk of hypothermia in cold weather and you need to wear clothing that will keep you warm even when they are wet. Let’s take a look at the requirements of dressing up for kayaking in colder climates.
Materials like fleece, neoprene, and polypropylene great for cold conditions. Cotton is one material you should never wear in cold conditions as it draws heat from your body when it is wet which is the opposite of what you want. Any paddling top made of fleece, neoprene, and polypropylene will work well in cold weather as it’ll keep the wind off your body.
You’ll need a thermal base when kayaking to hold in your body heat and remove any moisture from your skin. This prevents you from becoming overly sweaty when paddling.
Here, you need something that dries quickly while also keeping you comfortable. Rain parts work great if you are expecting significant wind or rain.
A wet suit is the minimum protection you need in cold weather. On the other hand, a dry suit is more suited for colder water and air and such provides a waterproof covering for your entire body. You don’t need any further layers for a wet suit although it’s normal for kayakers to wear a swimsuit underneath. A non-cotton long underwear can be worn with a dry suit. You can also add a fleece over the top of your underwear for particularly cold condition.
If you are expecting significant rain or wind, you’ll need to wear a quality waterproof/breathable jacket – or ideally a dry suit. Paddling jackets are also great as they keep water out through their neck and wrist fastenings.
Neoprene booties work well in cold weather. You will also need to wear waterproof socks for added warmth and comfort.
Hats: You’ll need to wear a beanie underneath your hat in cold weather. The beanie should fit snugly over your hat.
Gloves: Paddling gloves provide protection from blisters and the elements. There are paddlers that prefer to wear pogies. Pogies can be fastened to the paddle thereby allowing you to grip your paddles directly while being protected from the elements.
Spray skirts: This is actually not a type of clothing. Nevertheless, it’s an essential gear in a sit-inside kayak as it helps keep cold water out while allowing hot air in.
Wearing the right kind of clothes is essential for a safe and enjoyable kayaking expedition. After reading this article, you should have a good idea of what to wear kayaking in warm or cold weather, but more importantly on warm or cold water.