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What To Wear Kayaking – Dress For Success

When you go kayaking, the last thing you want to worry about is what you’re wearing. But if you want to be comfortable and safe, there are a few things you should keep in mind.

When you are trying to figure out 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 should I wear when I go kayaking?

In this article, we will discuss general guidelines for clothing you can wear kayaking. You also need to take into account the type of kayak you are paddling, as well weather 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 you are dressed for the water temperature. That might mean you need a wet suit or dry suit.
  • Shoes that won’t slip or hold water

Kayak clothing guidelines

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you are preparing for your trip.

  • Quick-drying materials – avoid materials like cotton that will absorb moisture. If it’s a hot day, you want clothing that will let you breathe, not sweat. If it’s cold and you get wet, you will want to be able to dry out.  It’s essential to wear clothes that will dry quickly as this will not weigh you down and 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”. Even in spring and summer, if the weather changes, you want to be prepared.  Dressing in layers allows you to shed layers as the weather warms up, and you can add those layers as the weather cools.
  • Always wear a personal flotation device – It goes without saying, if you are going to be on the water, you need to wear a lifejacket. Make sure that your layers will work with your life preserver. Read more about life jackets here.
  • Protection from the sun – 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 brim hat, like a bucket hat. If you tend to burn relatively easily, like me, make sure you have sunblock onboard as well.
  • Comfortable clothing – You need to be able to move when you are kayaking, so you need comfortable clothing. Plus you will be sitting for long periods, so you need comfy clothes.
  • Good shoes – Having the right shoes for kayaking is essential. You want to make sure your feet stay warm in cold weather, and you want a shoe with excellent grip. You never know when you may have to get out of the kayak and portage your way around obstacles.
  • 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?

If it’s going to be warm when you are kayaking, dressing is pretty straightforward.  You will want to 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 a lightweight long-sleeve shirt when the weather is warm.  This helps protect you from the sun. Wearing a hat and sunglasses is always a good idea too.

A hat will keep your head protected from the sun and provide some shade for your upper body.

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

Cold weather kayaking can be tricky.  You need to make sure you are warm enough, but also need to be able to move your body freely.  Too much bulky clothing is no good.

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. An outer shell that keeps wind and water off your body is great for tops and bottoms.

You can find a lot of these types of clothing items at your local paddle shop. Neoprene is an excellent material for shoes also, to keep your feet warm. A dry suit provides fantastic protection against cold, but these are pretty expensive.

No matter what the weather is going to be like, make sure you are prepared. Dress in layers, make sure you are protected from the sun, and be sure your clothing layers work with your lifejacket.

What type of water will you be paddling on?

If you are kayaking on a calm lake on a warm day, you can get away with shorts, a t-shirt, sunglasses, and a hat.  If you are on rougher water, like whitewater, or the ocean, you can get pretty cold.  You need to watch out for the air and water temperature.

Also, keep in mind that you are probably 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

Of course, you don’t plan on going overboard, but you have to be ready for it.  If the conditions call for it, a wetsuit or drysuit is the way to protect yourself.

If the water temperature is less than 60°F, you need to consider wearing one.  If and the air temperature and water temperature combined is less than 120° F, 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. A dry suit is suitable for cold air and water. 

As the name indicates, a dry suit is designed to keep you dry. You can layer long underwear 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, if you fall in the water, it’s too late to put your suit on!

Type of kayak

The type of kayak (read more) you are using can impact what to wear kayaking. If you paddle a sit-in kayak, you will be more protected from wind and water versus a sit-on-top kayak.

In theory, 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 need to be prepared for total exposure to the elements. Depending on the water and weather conditions, be sure you have a long sleeve shirt, and potentially pants to keep your legs covered as well.

On the positive side, a sit-on-top kayak is much easier to re-enter if you end up overboard. For more information on sit-inside vs. sit-on-top kayaks, click here.

Check the conditions before you kayak

It’s a good idea to know the water temperature and conditions, so you are prepared for your outing. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have up-to-date coast water temperatures posted.

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

What to wear kayaking in cool weather

There are benefits to kayaking in cool weather. For some people, cooler weather means it’s the offseason, and there are fewer people to contend with on the water. In some climates, it’s cool year-round. No matter if you are paddling in cold weather, you need to dress accordingly.

Even though it might seem warm on land, your clothing may not be warm enough when you hit the water.  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.

Start with a good base layer with moisture-wicking material, something like long underwear that will keep you warm and not absorb water. Next, add a warm insulating layer like fleece or wool.

Finish off with an outer shell that will protect you from the wind and shed water, like paddling pants or a paddling jacket. Neoprene boots and kayaking gloves will keep your hands and feet warm and dry.

If you are kayaking in really cold conditions, many people will opt for a wetsuit or drysuit.

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

What to wear kayaking in warm weather

When the weather is warm, you might be tempted to let your guard down regarding how you dress. Sure, you can wear shorts or a swimsuit, 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 clothing. 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 keep your head and face protected. A good pair of kayaking shoes will serve you well when you are 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 we for a long time.  Even in warm weather, if you end up in the water, cotton will soak up the water, and you can be weighed down.

This makes it more challenging to paddle and can lead to chaffing. What to wear kayaking in cool weather


Clothes to wear kayaking - A man wearing a jacket and a hat on a kayak Pin

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.  Weather can change quickly in some places, so it’s good to be prepared.

Dressing in layers is a great idea, especially if you are wearing a wet or drysuit.  It’s a good idea to make sure everything will layer together correctly, including your clothes, lifejacket, etc.

Let me know if you have any questions.

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About the author
Steve is the owner of Paddle About, a blog that's all about helping people get out and enjoy nature. He loves to kayak, camp, hike and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not out 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.