Kayaking of all types should be about having fun on the water. In order to maximize your smiles per stroke you should be comfortable and safe in your kayak. The first step is to dress with the appropriate kayak clothing.
If you’re just out for a lazy paddle on the lake in your rec boat you’re unlikely to end up taking a swim, but it can happen. On the other end of the spectrum is playboating in a whitewater kayak where you are sure to be splashed, knocked around, and more likely to be tossed out of your kayak.
Be sure to factor in the type of kayaking, activity level, air temperature and water temperature when determining your apparel choices for a day on the water. With those factors in mind, let’s look at the kayak clothing that is going to keep you comfortable on the water.
Paddling Tops & Bottoms
Layers are your friend during outdoor adventures, and paddling is no different. You’re first going to want to consider an outer layer, which blocks the wind, water and sun, and a next to skin insulating/wicking layer to keep you warm and comfortable.
Outer Layer: There a wide range of paddling specific outer layers you can wear to protect yourself from the elements. Paddling style, environment and budget will all effect your outerwear choices.
The most basic and least expensive option would be a paddling jacket and splash pant combo, which is basically a glorified rain suit. Splash gear usually offers wrist and ankle closures to keep water from running down your sleeves and up your pant legs while paddling, but offers little protection if you take a swim.
A kayak drytop and drypant combo, which offers latex gaskets at the wrist and neck and a double-tunnel system at the waist, is a major step up, both in terms of protection and cost. Keeping your skin and under layers dry allows this system to be used in a wide range of weather. This system also keeps most of the water from splashes, rain and/or rolling out of your kayak, when combined with a quality spray skirt.
The ultimate in kayaking outwear is a kayak drysuit, which is very similar to the drytop and drypant combo, but integrated into one unit which allows it to be VERY dry even when fully submerged. Paddling drysuits aren’t inexpensive, but they are a lifesaver in rough weather and during cold water kayaking trips.
Insulating/Wicking Layers: A major key to comfort while kayaking is choosing the right next-to-skin shirt and pants to wear. Again, activity level, water temperature and style of kayaking will help direct these choices.
Many times it’s okay to just wear a next-to-skin layer, and skip the outer layers. If it’s a hot day you might choose to just wear a thin NRS hydroskin shirt and paddling shorts, which will protect you from the sun and help keep you cool through evaporative cooling. On a colder day you might wear a thicker neoprene top and pants, which offers great warmth retention, but can restrict freedom of movement. You may also consider a kayaking wetsuit.
In nasty weather or cold water environments you’re going to want to wear an appropriate outer layer to protect you from the elements, but kayaking outerwear offers little to no insulation and can feel clammy against the skin. It is usually best to wear an insulating layer next-to-skin that helps with heat retention, insulates from cold water, wicks moister away from your skin and is a barrier between your skin and the clammy outerwear. Synthetic and wool are good material options here, and the air and water temp determines thickness. You can also add more insulating layers when it gets really cold. Stohlquist is a great brand offering layering options.
Proper kayaking footwear is vital to safety and comfort. You’re sure to encounter slick wet surfaces while getting in and out of your boat, and the key to a good day on the water is getting to, from and around the edges of the water safely.
It is important to select kayak shoes that will stay on your feet if you take a swim, as your shoes are no good to you if they float away. All day comfort is also key, which means choosing footwear that both fits inside your kayak and doesn’t have bad pressure points when in the seated kayak position.
There are kayaking shoes, neoprene booties, river sandals and even tall boots that are all designed for specific kayaking applications and weather conditions. Choosing the right one for your style of kayaking will depend on your foot size, kayaking environment and weather conditions.
Neoprene booties can offer good warmth, comfort in the kayak and grip on wet rocks, but many times don’t offer a very good sole for walking any distance over rough terrain. River shoes offer great comfort when walking around and protection for your feet from sharp rocks, but offer little warmth and can be bulky to fit inside some kayaks. River sandals are great on sunny warm days, offering great traction on wet rocks and impact protection, but can be uncomfortable to wear while seated in your kayak and no warmth.
Extremities are of course the first body parts to get cold, and your hands are also more exposed to the water during all types of kayaking than any other body part. Bare hands give you great control and feel of your paddle, but can also cause blisters and leave your hands exposed to wind and water. There are three types of hand wear that most kayakers consider.
The most minimal is a basic paddling glove, many times only ½ finger, which gives you a little padding on the palm, sun protection and helps prevent blisters and provide grip on the paddle. These gloves provide little to no warmth however. Our favorite brand for these gloves is NRS.
The next step up is a full neoprene glove. These come in a wide variety of thicknesses and styles. The thinner it is the more paddle feel you’ll have, but the least warm they’ll be. Thicker is warmer, but makes it very hard to control your paddle and requires a lot of extra grip strength, adding to paddler fatigue.
The third hand wear option is pogies. Pogies are a pocket of material that Velcros onto your paddle shaft. The idea is that they protect your hands from splashes and wind, while retaining heat. The HUGE benefit of pogies is that you have direct contact with the paddle shaft, which provides the best feel and control of the paddle.
Your head is a major temp regulator for the body. If you’re unlikely to end up in the water a simple wool or synthetic beanie will keep the wind and water off your head and make a remarkable difference in your heat retention. Broader rim hats do a great job of keeping the sun off your neck and face. If you are going to be upside down, or likely to take a swim, a neoprene balaclava or helmet liner is more appropriate. Kokatat makes some really nice options in paddling headwear.
With the proper kayak gear and perhaps some essential kayak accessories, you can enjoy paddling year round. Sometimes you don’t need much gear at all. If it’s a hot summer day on a warm water river go “skin to the wind” and enjoy the freedom.
Life is better from the seat of a kayak. Get out and paddle!