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What To Wear Kayaking – Dress For Success

Are you trying to figure out what to wear kayaking?  In this article, we will discuss some things to keep in mind and guidelines to follow for your day on the water. You want to be prepared for water conditions and whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

Clothing for kayaking should be comfortable, durable, not to mention versatile.  Like clothing, you would wear for hiking or other outdoor activities.

What to wear kayaking

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 – Some places 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 walk around on wet rocks.
  • Avoid clothes that will chafe – Wearing wet clothes is no fun, especially when wet clothes 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 have an impact on what to wear kayaking. If you are using a sit-in kayak, you will be better protected from wind and water versus a sit-on-top kayak. You can also equip your sit-inside kayak with a spray skirt, which can help keep you warmer.

In theory, a sit-inside kayak can help keep you warmer since you are less exposed.  A sit on top kayak is much easier to get back into if you fall out, so you will spend less time in the water.

Check the conditions before you kayak

It’s a good idea to know the water temperature so you can be prepared. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have up to date coast water temperatures posted. For local inland waters, check with your local paddle shop, or online.


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

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.

Steve Morrow Founder of Paddle About
Steve is an avid kayaker and founder of Paddle About. When he is not on the water, Steve enjoys outdoor activities, including fishing, camping, and hiking with his family. Read more.