What to Wear When Kayaking

Getting on the water in a kayak is great fun, whatever the weather. But dressing correctly for the conditions will enhance the enjoyment, and I started to wonder if there was a guide on what to wear when kayaking.

It turns out that there is a wealth of information available, both online and through outdoor sports shops. In the main, the advice is to use a layering system. Using this system provides several benefits, which we will discuss in the article. Regardless of what you wear when kayaking, always wear a Personal FLoataion Device (PFD) when out on the water.

What is Layering?

The idea behind layering is to give you multiple thin layers that you can add to or remove to keep comfortable. This may mean a thin wicking layer next to your skin, a warm fleece middle layer, and a thick coat outer layer in cold conditions. However, kayaking is an active sport, and a thick outer layer will probably be too warm, so it’s a balance.

On Top

A wicking material that takes sweat away from your body and allows it to evaporate is a good option. These materials also dry quickly, so once out of the water, you’ll soon be dry. 

The next choice is whether to wear short or long sleeves. Short sleeves are acceptable in most situations, but packing a long-sleeve top in a dry bag is recommended. On the other hand, if you are kayaking on cold water but in warm weather, long sleeves may be preferred. Look for long-sleeve tops that allow you to roll the sleeves up.

Look for breathable tops that offer some UV protection and are durable. 

Bottoms

Just as you wear a short-sleeved top in hot weather, shorts are fine if it’s warm, but if the water is cold, then consider wearing pants. Consider packing a pair of shorts or pants in your dry bag. On cold days, wear wicking long johns under a pair of breathable pants for warmth and comfort.

Even though you are sitting in a kayak, don’t forget to check the UV protection offered by your shorts. Being out on the water with the sun’s rays reflecting off the water, and you could burn very quickly.

Outer Shell

On a clear, warm day, your outer shell layer can probably be stowed in the dry bag. However, if you are tackling whitewater, or the weather is just inclement, then an excellent waterproof and breathable outer layer is a good idea.

In most cases, your outer layer for kayaking will be thin and lightweight. A heavy, warm outer layer will quickly cause you to overheat and restrict your movement in the kayak.

On Your Feet

Sandals are fine if you are just paddling gently in warm water, in fine weather, but they offer little protection and quickly fill with mud and gravel. Lightweight, breathable sneakers are a good option, keeping the dirt and gravel out while providing a bit more protection. Paddling boots are an extremely light option, offering some protection to your feet and drying out very quickly. If you prefer to keep your feet dry, you could try wearing some waterproof socks, and the boots allow you to wear thick socks in colder weather.

On Your Hands

Your hands are one of the most exposed parts of your body while out kayaking. In hot weather, they can quickly burn, so apply waterproof suncream or wear thin UV protecting gloves. Thin gloves also offer protection from blisters. 

Pogies are an alternative you may not have come across. These fit onto the paddle, and you slip your hands inside, holding the shaft directly. They give you a better feeling on the paddle while protecting your hands from the elements but offer no protection for blisters.

On Your Head

For those of us that are challenged in the hair department, a hat is essential, but even with a full head of hair, the sun will burn your scalp. Something with a wide brim is perfect in warm sunny weather, but don’t forget the back of your neck. 

In colder climes, take a beanie to keep the heat in and protect yourself against the intense UV rays. Even though you may feel cold, the sun will burn even in temperatures below freezing.

UV Protection

The level of UV protection offered by your clothing will vary depending on the thickness and type of material. However, don’t forget your exposed skin, particularly if you are wearing a short-sleeved top. Pack a good quality, waterproof sunblock, and make sure you reapply it regularly.

Dry Suit or Wet Suit

In cold or white water conditions, a wet suit or dry suit may be essential. True, most paddlers won’t be out in freezing conditions, so this is really for the die-hard kayak enthusiasts. However, falling into the water that is close to freezing not only shocks your system but also doesn’t give you long to get out before the cold starts taking hold.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

While considering what you will be wearing while kayaking, remember that your PFD will have to go over the top of it all. Using the layering system with multiple thin layers should mean that your PFD will fit correctly in most cases. 

Never take your PFD off while on the water, except when rafted with friends that are holding your kayak very tightly. If you need to adjust your clothing, get onshore before removing your PFD.

Conclusion

The simple question, what to wear when kayaking, can have many answers depending on when and where you are paddling. You need to dress for the conditions, whether hot or cold, but using the layer system and wearing wicking and breathable clothing will help keep you comfortable.

One item you must never forget is PFD, and this is an essential piece of clothing while on the water.

This article was last updated on May 20, 2021 .

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