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What To Wear When Kayaking And Canoeing – Summer & Winter Clothing Tips

Choosing what to wear kayaking or canoeing will vary depending on various factors and could determine whether you have a fantastic time or not. So how do you know what to wear? Will you need overnight gear or a change of clothing?

To give you a better idea of what you might need to take with you and what you should wear on your next kayaking trip, we have put together this quick guide.

We’ll guide you through what you should wear in different weather and water conditions and help you pack for your multi-day kayaking adventure.

First Up: What Are The Conditions Like?

The main factor in determining what you should wear kayaking will be the conditions of where you plan to paddle.

While the weather conditions can play a significant role in choosing your clothing, the temperature of the water will likely be more important in the event that you capsize.

Before you leave home, ask yourself:

- What type of water will you be paddling in?

- Will the water be relatively warm or cool?

- Will there be waves, current or whitewater?

Keep in mind the climate where you plan on paddling and the weather forecast for the days that you’re going to be on the water.

Video: Get Dressed Up For Kayaking

Oceans And Lakes

Depending on where you are in the world, and particularly the time of year, oceans and lakes can be pretty cold, even when the weather is warm. So, dressing appropriately for the water temperature is usually a good idea when deciding what to wear kayaking - even in warm weather.

If you’re in a sit-on-top and you’re paddling on the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico in the warm weather in the height of summer, you will probably have more issue with being too warm from the sun than too cold from the water.

If you’re not sure of the temperature of the lake or ocean before you head out it might be a good idea to wear clothing that would be suitable if the water was cold.

Even if you don’t plan on getting wet, it’s always better to be prepared for a capsize with a good kayaking outfit, even if you're kayaking in the summer. Plus, you can always remove your extra layers if you find the water is warm when you get there. It's better than being cold and wet the entire day on the water.

Whitewater Rapids

It’s a good thing to keep in mind that whitewater will almost always be cold, so no matter what the weather might be like you should prepare accordingly, wearing suitable clothing for taking a dip in cold water.

Whitewater kayaking will likely mean that you will get wet, regardless of the type of vessel that you’re in.

Calm Rivers And Shallow Bays

Before you head out, you’ll need to consider the likelihood that you may end up in the water. If you’re paddling on a calm river or shallow inland bay, the chances of you flipping your kayak or canoe will most likely be a lot lower than if you’re paddling where there are waves or strong current.

Study The Conditions

It might be helpful to learn how to figure out what to wear kayaking based on the conditions. You will probably need a wetsuit or a drysuit if the combined air temperature and water temperature is below 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and if the water is below 60 degrees you will likely need one regardless of the air temperature.

If you’re planning ocean paddling, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have real time data on the temperature of the coastal waters around the US, so you can check the water temperature before you head out to the water.

Remember, even in warm weather you should still consider both the weather and water temperatures together.

What Should I Wear In Warm Summer Conditions?

If you’ve worked out that both the water and air temperature will be warm while you’re paddling then you should be looking for clothing that will fit comfortably and is lightweight for warm water.

There are a few things to consider...

Clothing

If it’s particularly hot, you might find that swimwear can be a good choice and can work well if you’re on a sit-on-top, as you can easily jump off for a swim to cool down from the hot air.

For added protection against sun exposure you could also wear a long sleeve shirt, lightweight shirt or rash guard. Fabrics that wick moisture away from you are usually the best choice and they also tend to be more quick drying when they get wet.

Yoga pants can also sometimes be a good idea as they tend to be quick dry pants that are comfortable and lightweight, and can give you added warmth in the cooler conditions of early fall.

What you wear on your feet is also important when you’re paddling. You should look for shoes that are waterproof and comfortable. Waterproof sandals can be fine, as long as they have straps that can be fastened to keep them on.

There’s nothing worse than losing a shoe when you tip out your kayak, so flip flops are generally not a good idea but river shoes and paddling shoes can be a great choice of footwear, as they are often sturdy, fast drying and stay comfortable when wet.

Choosing footwear for canoeing may not be quite as important, as there is probably less chance of you tipping out or getting wet when paddling, yet opting for a pair of shoes that will stay comfortably on your feet, such as water sandals, is still a good rule to follow.

Sun Protection

Using sunscreen is a must when you’re out in the hot sun, so if you’re wearing swimwear or a bathing suit, be particularly liberal when applying it. This should also apply if you're wearing a long sleeved t-shirt or if there's cloud cover, as these will only give a little protection.

Wearing a good pair of polarized sunglasses can also be a great idea, as the sun can reflect pretty strongly off the water and the sun’s UV rays can damage your eyes from the reflected UV radiation, including causing snow blindness. Having a retainer strap attached to them should give you peace of mind that they won’t fall overboard and be lost

You might find that a wide brimmed hat is another accessory that may come in useful when you’re on the water, particularly on a sunny day. But make sure it’s attached securely to your head, such as with a cap leash or chin strap, to prevent it from blowing away on a windy day. A hat can be important for staying cool and providing shade.

Remember to stay hydrated too, and bring enough water with you.

What Should I Wear In Cold Winter Conditions?

When paddling in colder conditions you will need to take extra precautions, as there are more risks to your safety if you fall in, such as heart shocks, problems breathing and hypothermia. Sea kayaking will often call for cold weather paddling.

It is vital that you are wearing the correct apparel in order to stay safe in cold weather...

Wetsuits And Drysuits

Wearing either a wetsuit or a drysuit is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from the cold water temperature and extreme cold weather. The difference between them is that a wetsuit will allow a small amount of water inside that creates an insulating layer between your skin and the wetsuit, providing insulation from your body heat, so you will feel the cold water initially if you wade out or fall in.

You may want to wear a bathing suit underneath or rash guards, but some thicker wetsuits have a fleece lining for additional warmth if you want to avoid thinner layers.

A dry suit, just like its name would suggest, keeps you completely dry and prevents water from penetrating through the suit. A dry suit can be a better option to keep you warm in very cold conditions, such as icy water, as it will keep you protected from the cold water temperature if you were to fall in. A drysuit can be worn directly over a wetsuit if necessary. Waterproof socks or neoprene boots can be paired with these suits.

If you’re paddling in a sit-inside kayak then consider using a spray skirt, as this can be a good option to keep any splashes and rain out of your cockpit, helping to keep your lower half dry and warm in cold weather and make sure the water stays out of your boat. You could also wear a wetsuit-style paddling jacket to stay warm, giving you extra protection for your upper half if it's a bit chilly.

Thermal Layering

If you’re wearing a full wetsuit (one with long sleeves and legs) then you should be fine without adding layers, as the suit is designed to let water in; providing insulation to keep you warm.

However, with a short sleeved wetsuit you might want to add a quick drying base layer, but choose a thin layer t-shirt that wicks moisture away and is quick to dry. Stay away from cotton fabrics, as these can absorb water, meaning you won’t be as warm and dry on cold days.

You can always add on additional layers of thermal clothing as a mid layer to give you added warmth and for wearing a dry suit you might also need some thermal base layers for underneath (including long underwear) - just make sure they’re moisture wicking.

Thick neoprene booties and socks can be ideal for keeping your feet warm if you get wet. Merino wool or other wool socks can also be good for keeping you warm, although these won’t be as quick drying fabrics as some synthetic materials or dedicated kayak clothing.

Waterproof Outerwear

Whether you’re canoeing or kayaking, wearing a waterproof jacket can be a good idea, even on a warm day. For extra cold conditions you can always add a fleece layer underneath for additional warmth.

Waterproof footwear can be essential on outdoor adventures, especially if you’re out in the rain or on a sit-on-top, as you are highly likely to get wet. Paddling shoes can be a good choice, or rubber rain boots.

If you’re in a kayak you might find it’s a good idea to choose footwear that has enough grip on the bottom to allow you to keep your feet in place to aid balance. If you’re in a canoe and choose to kneel, you might want to go for footwear that will be flexible enough to give your toes comfort while kneeling.

To keep your hands warm and dry you may want to invest in some kayaking gloves, if you’re planning on paddling regularly, as these can help to prevent blisters as well as keep your hands protected from the elements.

I’m Going On A Kayak Camping Trip. What Clothes Should I Bring?

Layer Up

The weather can be unpredictable, especially on a camping trip, so it’s better to be prepared for any eventuality when you head out on the water. One of the best things you can do is to wear light layers, as this means you’ll be able to take off and put on clothes depending on the conditions. You'll be glad you have them when temperatures fall.

A wicking base layer and a mid layer can be ideal for under an outer layer (such as a rain jacket), particularly in colder weather, helping to regulate your body temperature.

It can be best to avoid cotton fabrics as this absorbs water and takes forever to dry, even on a warm day, which would be a bad idea if you're sitting in it cold and wet for several hours. You may also want to consider long underwear if it's a cold day.

Spare Clothing

When you’re going camping, having a dry bag filled with spare clothes will make sure your clean clothes stay dry, even if you do end up in the water. Packing moisture wicking, synthetic fabrics are ideal, as they should be quick drying and can be layered.

Having waterproof clothing with you, such as a long pair of paddling pants, might be a good idea, as these can be worn as an outer layer both while you’re paddling and on land. A waterproof jacket will also come in handy, even in warmer weather.

You should also consider taking along a spare waterproof dry bag for you to store your dirty kayaking clothing in to prevent any of your clean, dry clothes from getting wet.

Footwear

Remember that when you’re on the land you may need a different pair of shoes, especially if you’re going to be hiking any distance or doing other outdoor activities. It’s always a good idea to pack a second pair of shoes just in case your feet end up wet and you need to change.

Don’t forget some extra socks, including some for wearing while you’re in your kayak and some for when you’re on land.

Do I Need A Life Jacket?

The short answer is yes! You should always wear a life jacket whether you’re in a sit-on-top, a sit-inside or a canoe. 

But they come in various styles for various activities, with there being styles designed specifically for paddling. You can also get life jackets designed for kayak fishing too...

Styles: Types Of PFDs

There are a few different designs of life jackets that can be ideal to wear kayaking. A standard Personal Flotation Device (PFD) can be the most versatile and easy to maintain, as they contain a buoyant foam that will automatically float. PFDs should be US Coast Guard approved to meet requirements.

It’s also possible to get inflatable PFDs, including ones that can be worn around the waist, usually with polyester webbing. There are two types of inflatables; automatic and manual, with the automatic one inflating on contact with water and the manual one requiring a cord to be pulled to inflate it. These may not always be the best to wear kayaking as they can inflate when you don't need them to.

Video: Choosing The Right PFD

Make Sure It Fits

Having a PFD that fits you well is important when you’re paddling, as you will need to be able to have full movement of your arms and upper body in order to paddle. You may be wearing this over dry suits or other clothing, so adjustability can be important.

Life jackets that are designed for paddlers will often have larger openings at the arms and will tend to have less flotation at the shoulders.

The PFD should fit you snugly but should still be comfortable and it’s important that it’s not able to slip up above your shoulders. When you’re in a canoe or kayak, you will also need to consider the comfort of the life jacket while you’re seated, as this can push the PFD up towards your ears if it doesn’t fit correctly.

It’s a good idea to test it out before you head to the water. Sit down and practice your paddling motions on dry land to make sure you’ll be comfortable and safe when you get onto the water.

It can be beneficial to have someone else pull up on the shoulder straps of your life jacket to see if it moves. If it rides up too high and is at the tightest fit, then you may need a smaller size. The back strap and other straps should also prevent movement.

Zippers & Pockets Are Handy

Paddling PFDs will often come with extra storage options, which can be handy when you’re on the water.

Zippered pockets can be useful for storing smaller items that you want to keep with you at all times, such as your sun protection. Sometimes this will come at an extra cost compared to basic PFDs.

Conclusion

The next time you head out on the water you should have a better idea of what to wear kayaking to keep you comfortable. Try to look for breathable fabrics that are lightweight to allow you to move and paddle comfortably, and keep in mind the conditions! You don't always need special clothing, just good clothing choices and a little research.

Now you know the general guidelines for how to stay safer and drier in your canoe or kayak, why not share this with your fellow paddlers so they can learn how to dress for kayaking? And if you have any comments or questions, just let us know.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 8 comments
Travis Bauman

Thanks for this informative article!!

Reply
Burt Silver

I really like how you talk about what to properly wear and how to gear up for a canoeing trip. That is something that I have been preparing to do for a while now. It would be great if I could find some awesome whitewater rapids or a lake nearby that works well for canoes so that my wife and I can rent a canoe and take it out this summer.

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Hi Burt,

    Our pleasure! Hopefully you find the perfect rapids soon 🙂

    Reply
Lisa

Travelling to the seashore you need to have special shoes for kayaking not to hurt your feet. But when you are in a hurry you don’t have time for browsing it in different shops. Use the privileges of living in the 21st century and buy online here and you will save your time and forces!

Reply
Tom

I have been kayak fishing for 8 years now and can’t seem to find a sandal that won’t give me a rash were they contact my feet. I have had a few brands like Teva and Keen. Not cheap sandals but all give me the same result. I have never has a rash wearing any other shoes. Any suggestions?

Reply
David

I’m planning to go kayaking this weekend. Thank you very much this was useful.

Reply
    Kayak Guru

    Hi David. Our pleasure!

    Reply

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