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What to Wear When Kayaking

Jun 27, 2023

Choosing the right clothing and gear is essential to staying safe and comfortable when kayaking. Here are some tips on what to wear

By Dac Collins | Published Jul 31, 2023 7:39 PM EDT

What to wear when kayaking depends on two major considerations: the weather and the kind of water you’ll be paddling in. The right clothing and gear will keep you safe and comfortable while maximizing your time fishing, hunting, or just enjoying your time on the water.

The “right” choice for one kayaking adventure might not be the best choice for another, however, and a kayak fisherman crossing the bay in one of the best ocean kayaks will be dressed very differently than a kayaker paddling down rapids on a glacial river. These choices can vary even on the same waterbody, as that bass pond you fished all summer will be a different place to paddle come duck season. Once you understand the risks of being on the water and make some smart decisions to prepare, it’s easy enough to figure out what to wear when kayaking.

Before we dive into shoes, layers, and other wearables, it’s important to note the one piece of gear that you should always wear when kayaking: a life vest. These are officially known as personal flotation devices, or PFDs, but they’ve earned that nickname over the years because they literally save lives.

Drowning deaths occur every year, and sadly, many of them are preventable. In 2022, roughly 85 percent of the people who drowned in U.S. waters were not wearing a life a jacket at the time, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The weather and the water you’re paddling in are the two most important considerations when deciding what to wear when kayaking. If you’re paddling in cold conditions, think about how you’ll stay warm on the water and keep from getting hypothermic if you fall in. If you’re paddling in warm conditions, prioritize staying cool and shaded from the sun. In either situation, choose clothing items that dry quickly, allow for freedom of movement, and are comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time. Avoid cotton at all costs.

Regardless of what the weather feels like, the number one rule when deciding what to wear when kayaking is this: Dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature. In other words, dress like you’ll be swimming at some point…even if you don’t plan to.

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Beyond just the temperature, the type of water is also key. If you’re kayaking in whitewater, where swims are common and potentially life-threatening, you’ll want to wear a helmet and other safety gear in addition to the items below.

A typical kayaking outfit will include the following in addition to a life jacket:

Optional clothing items include:

The sun and heat are your biggest concerns when kayaking in warm conditions. And while it can be tempting to just wear a bathing suit, this is a great recipe for a blistering sunburn. It also exposes you to scrapes, rashes, bug bites, and other maladies that are easily prevented if you keep your skin covered.

Sunscreen can help prevent sunburn, but most lotions tend to wash off when wet, and it can be hard to re-apply these often enough when kayaking. So, if you’re on the water for an extended period of time, and especially if you’re kayak fishing, leave the swimsuit for the pool. A good outfit for kayak fishing in warm conditions would include:

The risks associated with a swim go up drastically when kayaking in cold conditions. Hypothermia becomes your biggest concern, since we lose body heat four times faster in cold water than we do in cold air. This is where cold water immersion gear comes into play. (Remember to dress for the water temp and not the air, since the coldest rivers and bays can be as deadly in July as they are in January.)

Cold water immersion gear comes in two main categories: wetsuits and dry suits. Wetsuits are typically made of neoprene, and they work by trapping a thin layer of water close to your skin where it can be heated by your body. Dry suits are made of waterproof material, and they feature watertight gaskets around the wrists and neck that keep you dry while paddling, except for your face and hands.

One good rule of thumb for whether you need cold water gear is known as the 120 Rule. The rule states that hypothermia is a real concern when the water temperature plus the air temperature equals less than 120 degrees. For example: It could be a pleasant 65 degrees outside while the water you’re paddling—say, one of the Great Lakes—averages around 48 degrees. That means you should consider wearing cold water gear, because 65 + 48 = 113, which is less than 120.

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If the 120 rule is a factor, first consider the likelihood that you’ll end up taking a swim. If the chances are high, get a dry suit. If the chances are low, consider wearing either a full-body wetsuit or donning some neoprene layers in addition to the clothing items recommended below.

If the 120 rule isn’t a factor, but you’re still kayaking in relatively cold weather, here are some tips on what to wear:

Not necessarily. But if you’re paddling in cold conditions, waterproof pants are highly recommended for keeping your legs warm. It’s important to note that most rain pants and those advertised as “waterproof” will allow water to seep in while kayaking. If you want your legs to stay completely dry, you’ll have to invest in a pair of paddling-specific pants that feature ankle closures or booties.

Yes. It’s tempting to ditch the shirt in hot weather but paddling without a shirt is a good way to get a bad sunburn. The best kayaking shirts have long sleeves and are made of lightweight, quick-dry materials that provide high protection from the sun’s rays.

No. In fact, if there was a list of the worst things to wear when kayaking, jeans would be somewhere near the top. Jeans absorb water easily, they get itchy when wet, and take forever to dry. Jeans can also weigh you down in the water, which makes a swim even more dangerous.

When deciding what to wear when kayaking, the most important considerations are the weather and the type of water you’ll be paddling in. Remember to dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature, as you’ll want to be prepared for an unplanned swim. If you’re paddling in cold conditions, refer to the 120 Rule to determine whether or not you need cold water gear. Most importantly, always wear a life jacket.

Dac Collins is the News Editor at Outdoor Life. He covers conservation issues affecting North America’s fish and wildlife, and helps tell the latest stories about the hunters and anglers that pursue these important species.



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The USCG classifies life vests into five different types.Buy a life jacket that you’ll actually want to wear. Keep it snug.Keep it on.A sharp knife. A whistle. A mirror, flare, or other signaling device. Dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature.Read Next: Shoes. Shorts and/or pants and a shirt. Hat. Sunglasses.Gloves. Neck gaiter. Extra layers and/or change of clothes. Sandals, lightweight sneakers, or other tight-fitting shoes.Quick-dry lightweight pants. Quick-dry lightweight shirt with long sleeves. Hat with a brim and sunglasses.Read Next:Neoprene booties. Base layers. Fleece layers.Durable pants. Durable shell or rain jacket. Warm hat and sunglasses.