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While not as thrilling as choosing a kayak or a paddle, choosing the right kayak clothing is important for a fun and safe day on the water. Nothing cramps your style worse than chafing, hypothermia, or heat stroke. Fortunately, a wide range of ergonomic, breathable kayak apparel has been designed specifically to keep you comfortable whether you’re running waterfalls in cold whitewater or sea kayaking on a hot summer day.
When shopping for kayak clothing, the first key to success is to dress for the water. For example, if you’re paddling frigid whitewater in balmy weather, you still need to wear a dry suit, regardless of air temp. But don’t fret, you won’t get too hot. Many kayak apparel manufacturers have begun incorporating heat-reflecting materials into their layering, shirts, pants, and outerwear to help keep your body temperature regulated in varying weather conditions.
The second key to protecting yourself from the elements both on and off the water is layering. A combination of thin and thick layers can provide more heat retention than one thick layer while allowing you to remove one if you begin to overheat.
We know picking the right kayaking apparel can be confusing so we’ve put together a quick guide below, along with a gear glossary.
Note: regardless of all weather and water variables, however, the absolute most important piece of kayak clothing is the PFD, Personal Floatation Device. Seriously, NEVER leave shore without it. Call us if you have any questions. We’re happy to help.
Kayak Clothing for Cold Water
Since water sucks heat away from your body 25 times faster than air, going into the drink unprotected can be fatal. Fortunately, with the right clothing, you can stay warm and even completely dry.
The safest and most comfortable choice in cold water is to wear a drysuit, because, as the name suggests, you’ll stay completely dry. With latex neck and wrist gaskets, these full coverage paddling suits block all water entry, but you’ll need insulating layers beneath to stay warm.
Start with a thin base layer-- a long sleeve top and pant combo, or a full-length dry suit liner-- to wick sweat away from your skin. These can be made out of natural fiber like merino wool or silk, or synthetics like nylon, polyester, or polypropylene. Next, choose a thicker thermal layer, again covering the whole body, with perhaps fleece or pile. Keep layering as needed to accommodate air temps and reach your preferred “toasty” level.
While not as waterproof as a full dry suit, if you’re not comfortable in a one-piece you can still stay mostly dry with a separate drytop and drypant combo. In the event of swimming, however, water could leak in through the bottom of the jacket and top of kayak pants. Again, layer accordingly beneath.
Whatever you do, don’t wear your favorite cotton Outdoorplay t-shirt even if it is your magic paddling weapon. It may be cozy when dry, but cotton absorbs water, dries slowly, and chills you when wet.
Extremities: Since your extremities lose heat the fastest, you will also need neoprene booties, gloves and a hood.
Kayak Clothing for Cool Water
- Drysuit with Light-Weight Base Layers
- Paddling Wetsuit with Paddling Jacket
- Paddling Jacket or Drytop and Pant Combo with Base Layers and Pants
- Kayak Shoes and Gloves
In cool water, you also have the choice to wear a full kayak wetsuit or a layered combination of neoprene tops and bottoms.
A paddling wetsuit is a neoprene garment that traps a thin layer of water between itself and your skin. Your body then heats up this layer which keeps you warm. A wetsuit is not outerwear, it is a base layer, so wearing anything under it besides a rash guard compromises its ability to keep you warm. Also, since mobility is key for paddling performance, most kayakers choose not to exceed neoprene thickness of 2-3mm.
If one piece suits are not your favorite, good news, a wide variety of neoprene garments have been introduced that offer more flexibility than a wetsuit. For example, the NRS Hydroskin line of kayak clothing is available in mix-and-match tops, both long- and short-sleeved, and pants, full-length and shorts. Paddlers can more easily adjust to the current weather conditions by selecting the appropriate combination of garments with the flexibility to be worn alone, or with an outer shell.
Lastly, if kayaking on calm but cool flatwater with warmer air temps, you can also choose to wear a paddling jacket and paddling pants with base layers beneath. Again, start with a thin base layer to wick moisture from your skin and then continue with thicker layers to desired level of warmth. While paddling jackets and paddling pants are both wind and waterproof, they are not designed to completely bar water entry if you swim.
Note: Sudden immersion into cold water can cause “cold shock drowning” by making you gasp and hyperventilate, quickly sucking in water. It also causes loss of muscle mobility and brain function, making it harder to self-rescue. Even if you don’t gasp and you manage to make it to shore, long-term immersion can still lead to hypothermia, a potentially fatal drop in body temperature. So, if there is even a question of whether the water is cool or cold, or if you chill easily and prefer to stay dry, wear a dry suit.
Extremities: For all cool water options, you still must protect your hands and feet with neoprene booties and gloves.
Kayak Clothing for Warm Water
- Shorty or Farmer John Wetsuit, or Neoprene Layers (with Paddling Jacket)
- Light-Weight Base Layers with Paddling Jacket and Paddling Pant or Kayak Shorts Combo
- Rash-Guard and Shorts (with Short-Sleeve Paddling Jacket)
- Kayaking Footwear or Neoprene Socks
It’s harder to go wrong when the weather is right. Warm water means less clothing but more options, and less ways to make a serious mistake. Here are some ideas:
If the air temperature is a little cool, you might want to wear either a short-sleeved, knee-length 2mm wetsuit called a Shorty, or a sleeveless 2mm wetsuit called a Farmer John. Or, if one-piece suits aren’t your style, you could wear a thin neoprene top and neoprene bottom, or a mix-and-match combo of neoprene layers in varying thickness to adjust to fluctuating air temps. If using a spray skirt, you’ll need to wear a paddling jacket on top of your neoprene garments, as well.
Likewise, you can wear a paddling jacket and paddling pants or shorts for splash coverage, with lightweight base layers beneath to wick moisture away and provide a touch of optional warmth.
Lastly, if air temps are warm as well, you could just rock a rash-guard and paddling shorts, with a short-sleeve paddling jacket on top if using a spray skirt.
Extremities: While you don’t have to worry about losing heat through your extremities in warm water, you still need to protect your feet with neoprene booties. Rocks are real. Don’t find out the hard way.
Glossary of Kayak Clothing
Kayak clothing can be divided into two main categories: layering garments and outer wear.
You guessed it. All the garments that go under your kayak outerwear is what we call kayak layers. This includes:
- Base layers- Base layers are the first layer of clothing that go up against your skin. Designed to manage moisture, they are breathable, quick-drying, and wick sweat away from your body. They can be made of natural fibers like silk and merino wool, or synthetic fibers like nylon, polyester, or polypropylene. They come in three different weights: light-, mid-, and expedition.
- Thermal layers- Thermal layers is just another name for base layers designed for colder adventures.
- Dry suit liners- Dry Suit Liners are one-piece base layers designed to wear under a dry suit.
- Insulating layers- Insulating layers are your middle layers. They go between your base layers and your outer shell, and their purpose is to keep you warm. They, too, can be made of natural fibers like wool and down, or of synthetic fibers like fleece. They come in light-, mid-, and expedition-weight.
- Neoprene layers- In recent years, kayak clothing manufacturers have designed mix-and-match systems of neoprene tops and bottoms of varying thickness, like NRS Hydroskin. These garments function like a wetsuit by trapping a layer of water between you and the neoprene, and then warming it up with your own body heat. The advantage of these neoprene “skins” rather than a one-piece is the ability to put on or take off a layer in response to fluctuating weather conditions.
- Kayak socks- Kayak socks are designed to block water entry while allowing sweat to pass through, keeping your skin warm and dry. They range from ankle-length to knee-length and can be made of varying materials, including neoprene, nylon, GORE-TEX, and merino wool.
Kayak OuterwearKayak Outerwear is your last layer of clothing, and your first offense against the elements. This includes:
- Paddling Jackets- Paddling jackets are made of waterproof materials and are designed to protect you from water splash, sun exposure, and wind. They’re highly breathable and ergonomically cut to allow for maximum comfort. Some jackets have adjustable Velcro straps at wrist, waste and neck, while others feature neoprene or even latex gaskets and waistband. Unlike a dry top, however, they are not designed to keep you completely dry in the event of a swim.
- Paddling Pants- Paddling pants are made of waterproof, breathable fabrics allowing excess heat and moisture to escape while protecting you from the elements. They often come with ankle cuffs and adjustable neoprene waistbands to prevent water entry and keep you dry. Another option is a full-length neoprene pant like the NRS Hydroskin.
- Paddling Shorts- Paddling shorts can range from a loose-fitting nylon-spandex blend like a board short or swim trunk to a snug-fitting neoprene skin.
- Paddling dry suits- A dry suit provides neck-to-toe coverage. It is made of highly durable and breathable fabric, such as GORE-TEX, with latex neck and wrist gaskets, preventing all water entry. It is designed to keep you completely dry if you swim.
- Paddling dry tops- A dry top is like the top half of a dry suit, with latex wrist and neck gaskets. Unlike a dry suit, however, a dry top is only completely dry if you’re sealed into a closed cockpit with a spray skirt. If you swim, water can leak in through the neoprene waistband.
- Paddling dry pants- Paddling dry pants are like the bottom half of a dry suit except, again, water can leak in through the waistband.
- Kayak wetsuits- Kayak wetsuits are offered in full-length, short-sleeve and knee-length (Shorties), and sleeveless (Farmer John style) of varying neoprene thickness.
- Kayak booties- Kayak booties are made of neoprene and range from thin to thick soled. They are designed to retain heat and protect your feet.
- Kayak gloves- Kayak gloves are made of neoprene and are designed to keep your hands warm and mobile in cold water.
- Kayak hoods- Made of neoprene, a kayak hood is designed to retain heat so you don’t lose brain function in the event you swim in cold water.
Some of our favorite brands who build top knotch kayak clothing include Kokatat, Stohlquist, Level 6, Astral, Immersion Research, and Sweet Protection. Need help picking out your cool kayak digs? Give us a call at 800-994-4327, Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm PST. We’re here to help! That includes help in choosing your kayak paddle, spray skirt, lifejacket pfd, paddling helmet, kayak storage solution, kayak trailer, or other kayak gear.