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What to Wear Kayaking: Summer, Winter, and In-Between

Kayaking is an exciting outdoor activity that challenges your physical strength and simultaneously offers serene engagement with nature. However, dressing appropriately is critical to ensure safety, comfort, and enjoyment. The clothing you need for kayaking can significantly differ based on the weather, and in this guide, we will discuss how to dress for kayaking in both warm and cold conditions.

Below are a few recommendations that are by no means a ”must wear” list. It all depends on where you’re going kayaking, for how long, what the weather conditions are, and what your personal tolerance is to weather, sun, and water.

I personally judge based on the conditions and make the decision. If you’re going on a guided trip or an expedition, you may want to consult your trip guide in advance to make sure that you have the right gear. Sea kayaking, large lakes, and whitewater kayaking can have very specific requirements, the list below is a general guide that is not specific to any certain type of kayaking style.

New to kayaking? For more in-depth information on kayaking, check out ultimate kayaking guide.

Considerations for what to wear kayaking

When planning for a kayaking trip, there are several factors to take into consideration when deciding what to wear. Understanding these factors can help ensure a safer, more comfortable experience on the water. Here are the primary considerations:

Air Temperature

The ambient air temperature significantly affects how you should dress for kayaking. In summer or warmer climates, lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying clothing is ideal. On the other hand, colder weather demands layers to retain body heat. It’s essential to check the weather forecast before your trip.

Water Temperature

The temperature of the water is as crucial, if not more so, as the air temperature. Cold water can quickly lead to hypothermia if you capsize and are not appropriately dressed. If the water temperature is below 60°F (15°C), consider wearing a dry suit or a wetsuit. This is important even if the air temperature feels warm.

Wind Speed and Chill

Wind can lower the perceived temperature, and it can be much colder on the water than on land due to wind chill. If there is a chance of strong winds, it’s advisable to wear a windproof outer layer. Check the wind forecast alongside the temperature before you head out.

Sun Exposure

When kayaking, you’re likely to be exposed to the sun for extended periods. In addition to sun-protective clothing, wearing a wide-brimmed hat or cap, sunglasses, and sunscreen is essential to prevent sunburn. Light-colored clothing can also help reflect sunlight and keep you cool.

Duration and Intensity of the trip

The length and intensity of your trip are other factors to consider. If you’ll be paddling for a few hours, you might need more substantial clothing, even in warm weather, to protect against wind and sun. For more intense trips or those lasting several days, you’ll need a variety of clothing to adapt to changing conditions.

Risk of Capsize

If you’re going on a calm lake or slow river, the risk of capsizing might be minimal. But if you’re planning to navigate rougher waters or rapids, the risk of capsizing is higher. The latter situation might necessitate the use of a drysuit or wetsuit, especially in colder conditions.

Personal Comfort and Preference

Finally, your comfort and personal preference play a role in deciding what to wear. Some people feel the cold more than others, so while one person may be comfortable in shorts and a T-shirt, another might need a light jacket.

What to Wear Kayaking in the Summer / Warm Weather

Top

Opt for a light, breathable, and quick-drying shirt. It should ideally be made from moisture-wicking material, like synthetic or merino wool, which can keep you cool and comfortable. Avoid cotton as it retains water and can make you feel clammy. I personally prefer a quick-drying long sleeve sun shirt with a hoodie because I would rather be a bit hotter than wear sunscreen.

Bottoms

Choose lightweight, quick-drying shorts or pants. For kayaking trips that require longer hours, consider padded shorts for added comfort. I also prefer to wear lightweight longer pants instead of shorts if I’m going to be in the direct sun for an extended period of time and especially if I’m using a sit-on-top kayak where I’m more exposed to the sun.

Footwear

Amphibious shoes or sandals with grip soles work best. They protect your feet when walking on rocky surfaces or in shallow water and dry quickly. I love my Chacos.

Headwear

A wide-brimmed hat or a cap is ideal to protect your face and neck from the sun. Look for hats with chin straps so they don’t fly away with a gust of wind.

hat to wear kayaking

PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

Always wear a US Coast Guard-approved PFD when you’re out on the water, regardless of the weather.

Sun Protection

Don’t forget sunscreen, sunglasses (with a strap), and lip balm with SPF. Protecting your skin and eyes from the harsh sun rays is essential.

What to Wear Kayaking in Colder Water and Colder Temperatures

what to wear kayaking in colder weather

Base Layer

Your base layer should be composed of moisture-wicking material to keep sweat away from your skin. Consider a thermal long-sleeved top and bottoms made from merino wool or synthetic materials.

Insulating Layer

Fleece or wool clothing works well as an insulating layer. This is crucial to retain body heat and keep you warm during cold temperatures.

Outer Layer

Opt for a waterproof or water-resistant jacket and pants to protect from the wind, water splashes, and rain. Make sure it is breathable to allow moisture to escape.

Neoprene gloves and boots

These provide additional warmth and are suitable for very cold conditions. They also offer protection against sharp rocks and debris in the water.

Dry Suit or Wetsuit

Depending on the water temperature, a dry suit or wetsuit might be necessary. They provide insulation and prevent hypothermia in extremely cold water.

Headwear

A thermal hat or cap can help keep you warm as a significant amount of body heat is lost through the head. If it’s extremely cold, consider a neoprene hood.

PFD (Personal Flotation Device)

Just like in warmer conditions, a PFD is mandatory in cold weather too. It can provide additional insulation as well as ensuring safety.

Essential Accessories to Bring Kayaking

While clothing is critical for a comfortable kayaking experience, don’t overlook the importance of carrying the right accessories. They not only contribute to your comfort but can also play a pivotal role in your safety on the water. Here are some of the key accessories to consider:

Dry Bag

A dry bag is essential to keep your belongings (phone, camera, snacks, etc.) safe and dry. They come in various sizes to accommodate different needs.

Hydration and Nutrition

Always bring enough water to stay hydrated, especially on hot days. Energy bars or other snacks can help maintain your energy levels during a long paddle.

Navigation Tools

Depending on where you’re kayaking, you might want to bring a compass, map, or GPS device. Even if you’re familiar with the area, unexpected conditions could disorient you.

Headlamp or Flashlight

Depending on the time of day that you’re starting your adventure. If you get caught out after dark or plan to be out at dawn or dusk, a waterproof headlamp or flashlight can be a lifesaver.

Whistle

A whistle can be used for signaling and getting attention in case of emergencies. It’s a simple tool that can be attached to your PFD.

Insect Repellent

If you’re in an area with lots of bugs or mosquitoes, a good insect repellent can make your trip more enjoyable.

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