Kayaking is one of the most popular water sports in the US and it’s easy to see why. Anyone can kayak, from small kids learning on still lakes to adrenaline junkies taking on river rapids.
But no matter where you are planning on kayaking or how experienced you are, it’s crucial to dress correctly to stay safe and warm when out on the water.
Heatstroke in the summer and hypothermia in the winter are real concerns for anyone taking a kayak out, and so it’s important to have the right clothing and equipment to stay safe.
In this post, we’ll cover what to wear when kayaking if you’re a beginner to the sport, and share our tips for keeping warm and safe whatever time of year you plan on going.
Kayaking Clothes Essentials
In warm weather, many kayakers choose to wear a swimsuit as their first layer. This is usually the comfiest and dries out quickly so won’t chafe.
If you’d prefer to wear underwear, choose a non-cotton sports bra and underwear. These are usually a lycra material that will dry quickly since they’re built for outdoor activities.
Your next layer should be a rashguard which is a polyester blend with lycra. These are incredibly comfortable and form-fitting to keep you warm in colder weather, plus they have high UPF rating so will protect against UV rays if you’re out for a prolonged period.
If you don’t have a rashguard, a synthetic fabric or wool-based vest or t-shirt also works well as this secondary layer.
A water shirt is another good option instead of a rashguard. These offer the best sun protection against UV rays and are not form-fitting, so a better choice if you prefer looser clothes.If you don’t plan on going swimming or getting submerged in water, these are a good alternative
Board shorts or quick-dry pants designed for kayaking are both a good option for your bottom half since they are quick-drying and don’t chafe. Yoga pants are usually too thin and so don’t do well with the constant friction of sitting in a kayak.
If the weather is warm and you don’t need a wetsuit or drysuit, you should take a fleece jacket or warm, synthetic mid-layer. It’s surprising how quickly you get cold when water is spraying up at you,even if the temperature outside is warm.
If the weather is poor or you expect rain, take a breathable, waterproof jacket and waterproof pants to keep yourself as dry as possible. The best ones have gaskets at the wrists and neck to keep water out completely. However, if it’s a relatively short trip, any type of lightweight waterproof jacket will suffice.
Paddling booties made from neoprene are the gold standard for kayaking. They are extremely lightweight, dry quickly, and protect the toes and bottom of the feet. Avoid open paddling shoes, even water sandals, because these will allow dirt, sand, and gravel to get under the feet and cause irritation. Also, make sure whatever shoes for kayaking you wear have a secure strap to fasten them. The last thing you want is for your shoes to come off during a put-in or takeout.
Pair your neoprene booties with thick, non-cotton sports socks to avoid getting blisters on your feet from chafing.
If the sun is shining, a hat will protect your face from UV rays and help you avoid squinting through the water glare. Aim for one with a wide brim or cape for maximum protection and consider a cap leash or strap to stop it falling off mid way through your kayak trip.
If it’s very cold, a beanie will be much warmer and should fit snugly under your other hat if needed.
Blisters are easy to get when paddling, especially on windy, harsh days. Specialist paddling gloves will keep your hands warm and stop them getting sore and blistered, making the day more enjoyable.
Pogies are another option if you don’t like gloves. These fasten directly on the paddle and your hands slip in. Some prefer these because they offer added protection from the elements and give a good grip.
Get a retainer that floats and attaches to you for your glasses. It’s all too easy for a pair of sunglasses to fall overboard and there’s nothing worse than watching your favorite glasses sink to the bottom of a river or the sea.
Check your retainer floats before you set off and attach it to you securely so you don’t lose your glasses on your trip.
A personal flotation device (PFD) is a must-have when kayaking. No matter how strong a swimmer you are, cold water is a shock to the system when you’re not expecting to fall in, and drowning accidents happen much too often.
You can pick up a specialist PFD in any local sportswear store and the clerks will be able to help you make sure it fits properly and show you how to fasten it correctly.
What Should I Wear In Warm Summer Conditions?
Although the onset of hypothermia is less of a concern in summer conditions, heatstroke is a serious issue you need to be aware of when kayaking in warm summer conditions. Don’t think you can get away with a t-shirt and shorts – this will leave you too exposed to harmful UV rays.
When dressing for a summer kayaking session, aim to stay dry, protected, and hydrated. This is easy to accomplish with just a few extra essentials:
Invest in a lightweight, brimmed hat that goes right the way around and shades as much of you as possible. This is important to keep the sun off your face, neck, head, and ears.
The sun is bright on land, but the glare that comes off the water can be exceptionally hard on the eyes. To stop yourself squinting all day and to avoid water spray getting in your eyes, a good pair of polarized lenses will help. Don’t forget to attach them to a float if you don’t want them sinking!
Buff or Sun Mask
If it’s a particularly bright day or you’re very susceptible to sunburn, a sun mask is a much more sensible option. They are breathable, comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and are 95% UV resistant. You should still apply sunscreen regularly, but these are a great extra barrier in hot conditions.
Long Sleeves and Trousers
It might seem uncomfortable to wear long sleeves and trousers in hot weather, but you are significantly more likely to burn if you’re in shorts and a t-shirt. Sportswear is moisture-wicking, lightweight, breathable, and will protect your skin from harmful UV rays.
What Should I Wear In Cold Winter Conditions?
In the cold months, sunstroke is less of a concern, but you do have to worry about hypothermia and shock from the cold water temperature. In these conditions, your aim is to stay warm and as dry as possible.
To do this, think about layering your clothes with some of the extra layers we talked about earlier. There are also a couple of specialist essentials you can add to your basic kayak outfit to keep your body heat constant:
A drysuit will keep water away from your skin entirely. This does sound great for cold weather paddling, but they are usually quite inflexible so not the most comfortable piece of gear to wear.
Even so, if you’re planning on kayaking in cold conditions like the underground kayaking trip in Red River Gorge, a drysuit is the best choice for staying warm when paired with other layered clothing.
When shopping for a drysuit, make sure to get one specifically designed for kayaking and sailing. There are drysuits for diving, but these tend to be bulkier with extra valves that are unnecessary for kayaking.
Thermal Base and Mid Layers
Thermal base layers are incredibly important when the temperature drops. These additional layers are designed to keep your core body temperature constant and need to be worn underneath a drysuit in cold conditions.
The best thermals are made of a lightweight, high-wicking material (meaning water beads up and runs straight off), and breathable.
The drysuit will keep water out, while the thermals will keep your body warm by insulating the air around your body during your kayaking adventures.
Proper thermal clothing and a quality drysuit can extend the time you spend out on your kayak by up to an hour, which is great if you plan on being out on a long trip.
Your hands are one of the first body parts to get cold in harsh weather conditions. Your body will draw the blood into your core to preserve your core temperature for as long as possible, leaving your extremities vulnerable to the cold.
Mittens are an alternative to kayak gloves that will keep your fingers warmer in winter conditions. They do give you less grip and dexterity when kayaking, but if you’re on a gentle ride or a short trip, you’ll be thankful your hands aren’t numb from the spray.
Thermal Hat or Face Mask
Thermally-insulated beanies are great to wear under a helmet in cold weather to preserve body heat. We lose a lot of our heat through our heads so keeping them warm will make the entire trip more comfortable.
What’s more, just as a buff or face mask protects your skin from damaging UV rays in the sun, they can also protect you from the cold in the winter.
How to Decide What to Wear Kayaking
If you’re unsure what you should wear on your kayaking trip, there are a couple of factors that will help you decide:
Check the weather forecast
The most important thing is to know what the weather will be like for your trip. Regularly check the forecast to see what the temperature will be, if it’s going to rain, if there are going to be storms, or if it’s going to be uncharacteristically warm.
If the weather is unreliable, pack clothing for both cold and ambient conditions to make sure you’re covered for both scenarios.
Consider the type of paddling you’ll be doing
Are you planning a gentle kayak down a relatively tame river? Or are you going to be whitewater paddling?
The more aggressive the water, the wetter you’ll get. In this case, you’ll need extra layers of clothing to stay as dry as possible.
If you’re going on a more gentle trip, you won’t need to worry about getting as wet, so fewer layers will suffice.
What type of kayak will you be using?
Are you using a sit-in or sit-on kayak? Sit-inside kayaks is hollow with most of your body inside the kayak. A sit-on kayak is sealed and you sit on top.
You’ll be warmer and more protected from the elements in a sit-in kayak, so you can get away with fewer layers. On the other hand, you’re more exposed on a sit-on one, and so might want extra layers to keep warm, especially in colder conditions.
The Difference Between a Wetsuit And a Dry Suit
If you plan on getting very wet, you might be considering a drysuit for your kayak trip. But what’s the difference between a drysuit and a wetsuit, and which one should you get?
The main differences between them is the material and functionality, though they do look similar to the untrained eye.
A wetsuit is made out of neoprene and is designed to keep your body warm when wet. They are not waterproof and you will get wet in a wetsuit. But because they are fitted, they help keep your core temperature constant when submerged in water.
On the other hand, drysuits are waterproof but don’t keep you warm. They aren’t as tight-fitting as a wetsuit so can be worn over thermal layers, but are designed to keep water out entirely.
Kayakers use drysuits since they usually want to stay as dry and warm as possible and don’t usually plan on being submerged in water.
Although drysuits are bulkier and more restrictive than wetsuits, they are the best option for kayakers looking to stay warm in cold weather.
Do I Need A Life Jacket?
Life vests or a personal flotation device (PFD) are essential when kayaking, no matter your skill level. If in warm weather, cool water can cause shock and even strong swimmers can quickly succumb to the current once in shock.
Many kayakers think they can simply swim to shore or hold onto their kayak if they fall in, but there is always a very real risk of drowning when in water, even if it’s just a still lake.
Always wear a lifejacket on top of your thermal gear and other equipment to make your kayak trip as safe and enjoyable as possible.
Stay safe and warm when kayaking
Whether you’re planning a quick kayak in a nearby lake or you’re taking on some hardcore river rapids, knowing how to dress for kayaking is crucial to staying safe and warm when out on the water.
Just like having the right equipment when rock climbing can save your life, dressing for the weather when kayaking can be the difference between a fun day of kayaking and hypothermia.
Planning a kayaking trip in Michigan? Read our complete guide to the best places to kayak in Michigan to plan the trip of a lifetime.