What to Wear Kayaking: Complete Guide + Layering Tips

When you go on a kayaking trip, the last thing you want to worry about is what you’re wearing. To be comfortable and safe, you should keep a few things in mind, and one of those things is wearing the right clothing. When deciding what to wear kayaking, you want to be prepared for water conditions and whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

Tip: Always dress for the water temperature.

Clothing for kayaking should be comfortable, durable, and versatile, like clothing you would wear for hiking or other outdoor activities.

What to Wear Kayaking?

This article will discuss general guidelines for clothing you can wear kayaking. You also need to consider the type of kayak you are paddling, the weather forecast, and water conditions. 

We will get into kayaking in cool and warm weather.

As a general rule:

  • Wear layers so you can adjust as the weather changes
  • Protect yourself from the sun with long sleeves, a hat, and sunblock
  • ALWAYS wear a life jacket (PFD)
  • Be sure to dress for the water temperature. That might mean you need a wet suit or a dry suit.
  • Shoes that won’t slip or hold water

Kayak Clothing Guidelines

Here are some basic guidelines to remember while preparing for your next kayaking adventure.

Wear Quick-Drying Materials

Avoid materials like cotton that will absorb moisture. On a hot day, you want clothing that will let you breathe and wick away sweat, such as quick-dry pants and waterproof socks. 

Conversely, if the weather is cold and you get wet, you need to dry out.

It’s essential to wear quick-drying fabrics that will not weigh you down and will help keep your body dry and warm. 

Materials like nylon or polyester are good options.

Dress in Layers

Keep in mind the weather can change quickly. 

I have lived in areas where they say, “if you don’t like the weather, wait 20 minutes”

So even in spring and summer, if the weather changes, you want to be prepared. 

Dressing in layers allows you to shed as the weather warms up, and you can add those layers as the weather cools.

If the weather is cold, thermal base layers are a great option, and you can layer up from there.

Always Wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

If you are going to be on the water, you need to wear a life jacket

Make sure that your layers will work with your life vest. You don’t want so many layers of clothing that you can’t move. You want adequate layers of clothing and a nice snug fit with your PFD.

Sun Protection

Even if there is a lot of cloud cover, you still need to be protected from the sun. There are a lot of clothing options that offer protection from the sun (SPF)

I found a lightweight, long sleeve swim shirt that includes a hood. Since I live in an area with constant sun, this shirt is perfect for me. Also, think about a wide-brimmed hat, like a bucket hat. 

If you tend to burn easily like me, make sure you have sunblock onboard.

Comfortable Clothing

You need to be able to move your body freely when you are kayaking, so you need comfortable clothing. Plus you will sit for long periods, so comfy clothes are a good choice.

Good Shoes

Having the right shoes for kayaking is essential. You must ensure your feet stay warm in cold weather, and you want a shoe with an excellent grip. 

You never know when you may have to get out of the kayak and portage your way around obstacles; slipping isn’t an option.

Avoid Clothes That Will Chafe

Wearing wet clothes is no fun, especially when they start rubbing and irritating your skin. This point goes back to wearing clothes that wick away moisture and dry quickly.

What Type of Weather Conditions Will You Be Paddling In?

Kayaking in Warmer Temperatures

If it’s going to be warm water when you are kayaking, dressing is straightforward and should be in thin layers. First, make sure you are covered and protected from the sun. Sunscreen is a must, even when there is cloud cover.

Many people prefer to wear lightweight long-sleeve shirts or water shirts, which help protect you from the sun’s UV rays. Wearing a hat and sunglasses is also a good idea. 

A hat will protect your head from the sun and provide shade for your upper body.


Quick-dry clothing is excellent for sunny days, as it will help keep you cool and dry fast if you get wet. Board shorts and some good kayak shoes are essential as well. On sunny days, sandals or other water shoes are solid options.

Kayaking in Colder Temperatures

Cold weather kayaking can be tricky. Warmth is the most important thing.

You need to make sure you are warm enough, but you also need freedom of movement to be able to paddle your boat. Too much bulky clothing cuts down your range of motion.

A couple of thin functional layers are a great way to go versus one bulky layer. Materials like fleece or neoprene are great options when the weather is cold. 

Neoprene booties are an excellent product insulating shoes and for keeping your feet warm. 

An outer shell that keeps wind and water off your body is great for tops and bottoms. You can find many of these clothing items at your local paddle shop. 

If the conditions dictate it, a dry suit provides excellent protection against cold, but these are expensive.

But, no matter what the weather is like, be prepared. Dress in layers, protect yourself from the sun and ensure your clothing layers work with your life jacket. 

Your PFD should fit snugly over the top of your clothing.

What Type of Water Will You Be Paddling In?

If you paddle a recreational kayak on a calm lake on a warm day, you can get away with shorts, a t-shirt, sunglasses, and a hat. 

However, you can get pretty cold on rougher water, like whitewater, the ocean, or other open water. So you need to watch out for the air and water temperature.

Also, remember that you are less likely to fall out of your kayak on calm water. But even if you don’t plan on getting wet, you need to be prepared.

Water Temperature

You don’t plan on going overboard, but you must be ready. If the conditions call for it, a wetsuit or drysuit is the best way to protect yourself if you end up in the water.

When water temperatures are less than 60°F, you must consider wearing one. If the air temperature and water temperature combined are less than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s still a good idea [1].

A wetsuit protects you by holding a thin layer of water next to your skin. Your body heats the water and helps keep you warm. 

As the name indicates, a dry suit keeps you dry. In addition, consider noncotton long as a base layer underneath to help keep you warm.

If the water is cold, but the air is warm, you can look into options like a sleeveless or short sleeve wetsuit. Remember, it’s too late to put your suit on if you fall in the water!

Type of Kayak

The type of kayak you are using can impact what to wear kayaking. For example, if you paddle a sit-in kayak, you will be more protected (sitting in a cockpit) from wind and water than a sit-on-top kayak

A sit-inside kayak can help keep you warmer since you are less exposed.

Using a spray skirt on a sit-inside kayak can help protect you from cold water and weather, helping to keep you warmer and drier.

With a sit-on-top kayak, the paddler is more exposed to water and weather. You can’t attach a spray skirt to a SOT kayak, so you must be prepared for total exposure to the elements. 

Depending on the water and weather conditions, be sure you have a long sleeve shirt and pants to keep your legs covered.

On the positive side, if you end up overboard, re-entry is much easier on a sit-on-top kayak vs. a sit-inside kayak.

Check the Conditions Before Your Kayaking Adventure

Prepare for your outing by knowing the water temperature and conditions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has posted up-to-date coast water temperatures. 

Check with your local paddle shop, use an app, or check online for water levels and other factors.

What to Wear Kayaking in Cool Weather

There are benefits to kayaking in cool weather conditions. For some people, cool/cold conditions mean it’s the offseason, and there are fewer people to contend with on the water. 

In some climates, it’s cool year-round. If you are paddling in colder climates, you must dress accordingly.

Even though it might seem warm on land, your clothing may not be warm enough when you hit the water. In addition, the cool wind blowing off the water can make you cold in a hurry.

It’s a good idea to dress in layers (top and bottom), so you are prepared for whatever comes your way. A thermal base layer is a good option.

Start with a good breathable base layer with moisture-wicking material, something like long underwear that will keep you warm and not absorb water. 

Tip: Avoid cotton clothing when you are kayaking.

Next, add a warm insulating top layer like a fleece jacket or merino wool.

Finish off with an outer shell that will protect you from the wind and shed water, like paddling pants or a paddling jacket. 

Proper footwear is extremely important when kayaking in cold weather. Neoprene paddling booties keep your feet warm and dry. In addition, neoprene kayaking gloves can help keep your hands nice and toasty.

Many people will opt for a wetsuit or drysuit if kayaking in icy conditions. 

Dressing in layers will give you the freedom to shed clothing as needed. If you get hot while you paddle, you can take off unnecessary layers and store them in a waterproof bag such as a dry bag.

What To Wear Kayaking In Warm Weather

It is tempting to let your guard down regarding how you dress when the weather is warm. 

Sure, you can wear shorts or a bathing suit, but it’s also a good idea to have a pair of lightweight pants and long sleeve shirt with you just in case.

If the weather changes while you are on the water, you will be glad you packed extra clothes. Also, with the sun beating down, you might be more comfortable in a lightweight, long sleeve shirt and pants. These can help keep you from getting sunburned too.

Also, remember to pack a wide brim hat and sunglasses to protect your head and face. Finally, a good pair of kayaking shoes will serve you well on the water.

What Not to Wear Kayaking

Try to stay away from cotton materials that will absorb water. If you get wet, intentionally or otherwise, you will be wet for a long time. 

Even in warm weather, if you end up in the water, materials such as a cotton t-shirt will soak up water and weigh you down. In addition, all that water can make it more challenging to paddle and lead to chafing.


When you are trying to figure out what to wear kayaking, there are a lot of factors. Weather and water temperatures play a role, and so does the type of kayak you own. Be prepared for a quick change in weather which is common in some places (especially tropical regions). 

Dressing in extra layers is a great way to preserve body heat and stay dry, especially if you are wearing a wet or dry suit. It’s a good idea to ensure everything will layer together correctly, including your clothes, life jacket, etc.

Let me know if you have any questions about what to wear on your next kayak trip. 

Featured Image Credit: ©[Maridav] via Canva.com

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About the author
Steve Morrow
Steve Morrow owns Paddle About, an outdoor recreation and travel blog. Steve loves to travel, kayak, paddle board, camp, hike, and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.