Top tips for choosing the correct clothing when going kayaking


Posted October 3, 2016 by

Kayak clothing – top tips for clothing choices when going kayaking

Many novice kayakers are astonished when they first discover how cold many rivers are, or if they are ocean kayaking, just how cold the ocean can really be. Many rivers can be fuelled by snowmelt, rainfall, or dam releases, and the water temperature in many popular rivers is cold enough to require some form of outerwear, even on the warmest days. It is important to ensure that when you are selecting your riverwear or kayak clothing, you need to select clothing that provides comfort, flexibility, and sufficient insulation to ward off the onset of hypothermia. But its not only the extremes of hypothermia that you should be concerned about, simply being comfortable when kayaking will ensure that you enjoy your kayaking trip, and will be able to stay out longer as well.

Some people are really ill-prepared for kayaking and do not wear appropriate clothing for the conditions. Whilst shorts or a swimming suit may be sufficient when the river is forgiving and the air is warm, these conditions are few and far between and you won’t often find these conditions all of the time.

These are some of the aspects to consider BEFORE you go out onto the river, as they may have a direct influence on your clothing requirements:

  • Consider the river and air temperature and take note of the average temperatures throughout the expected duration of your trip
  • Research the type of river that you will be kayaking
  • What is the expected level of activity – will it be a leisurely trip or a frenetic trip

Based on all of these factors, you will be able to choose the appropriate clothing requirements and enjoy a pleasant kayaking experience.


Remember the 3 Ws

Wick, warmth, and weather.

Remembering the 3 Ws can provide an easy way to remember how to dress for your next kayaking trip


When determining the most effective clothing to wear, paddlers have a plethora of clothing options to choose from, and by layering, have an even greater set of options to choose from:



Polypropylene underwear and sweaters work in conjunction with other items like drysuits, wetsuits and paddle jackets to provide warmth. Use a thin inner layer of polypro near your skin to wick sweat away; add a second, thicker layer outside of that to trap heat; and cover it all up with a paddle jacket, dry top or drysuit to ensure a full day of warm paddling.


Wetsuits made of bodyhugging neoprene have been a favored form of insulation for many years, and are a firm favourite especially when kayaking in more chillier climates. However, a full body wetsuit often can restrict movement and paddling ability, so opt for the so-called “farmer john” style wetsuit. This type of wetsuit is distinctive in that it leaves the arms and shoulders uncovered, and thereby allows freer movement of your arms for paddling. The wetsuit will provide the first layer of insulation, with pile sweaters and paddle jackets or dry tops for the outer layers. Wetsuits can also provide form some extra grip when sitting in your kayak.

Wetsuits work by trapping in some water between the wetsuit and the skin, so you would need to jump into the river to ensure that water can be filled in this space. Once the water has filled the wetsuit, it is then warmed up by your ambient body temperature and will be insulated from the outside air temperature by the wetsuit material itself. Wetsuits also provide some extra flotation and padding—nice things to have if you happen to fall out of the kayak within rivers that are notoriously rocky.

Wetsuits for kayaking purposes are slightly different to those as worn by scuba divers, and kayakers should on the whole steer clear of the type as worn by scuba divers. As kayakers have a distinctly higher activity level, and since the paddling motions demand an increased range of motion, especially in the upper torso area, wetsuits for kayaking should be of the thinner variety, with a thickness level of around 2 to 3 mm. This is the optimal level of thickness that will still provide both warmth and flexibility. Make sure the wetsuit fits properly, as an ill fitting wetsuit will not provide much in the way of insulation. However, the wetsuit should also not be too tight on the body such that it restricts movement.

Paddling Jackets and Dry tops

Advances in the materials used for kayak clothing have resulted in the creation of these high tech rain jackets that are fairly similar to the upper half of a dry suit. A paddling jacket or dry top provides an outer waterproofing layer over a wetsuit and also provide extra protection against those blasts of cold water that may spray up against the front of the wetsuit.

For warmer days and warmer climates, kayakers may get away with just having a paddle jacket to keep them dry, rather than having a wetsuit and a paddle jacket combo. The main difference between paddling jackets and dry tops is in their ability to shed water. The more affordable paddling jackets combine loose layers of waterproof cloth with water resistant neoprene or Lycra closures at the neck and wrists. A dry top, on the other hand, incorporates waterproof latex closures at the neck and wrists. While the paddle jacket lets some water in, the dry top does not.

Though both paddle jackets and dry tops are effective when you’re sitting up in the kayak, either one can let water in through the waist when you’re swimming.


Drysuits differ dramatically from wetsuits in both appearance and function. Instead of trapping water next to the skin, the drysuit keeps water off your body by enclosing you in a loose fitting layer of waterproof fabric. The suit has a large waterproof zipper or flap closure that allows you easy entry and exit, and it is made totally waterproof with tight-fitting latex gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankle openings. Though drysuits lack the insulating qualities of wetsuits, they are baggy enough to fit over inner layers of clothing.

Since the drysuit will seal in body moisture, it is important to choose synthetic materials like nylon or polypropylene fleece for inner layers.


It always amazes me when I see kayakers out on the river without a life jacket. Life jackets or personal flotation devices (PFDs) MUST be worn whenever you are out on the river or ocean. The life jacket provides for increased buoyancy if you were to fall out of the kayak, and can also provide some extra insulation on colder days. Life jackets also serve as extra padding when you are suddenly thrown out of the kayak on those faster rapids and can provide some extra body armor when rivers are filled with rocks and boulders.

The main purpose of a life jacket is to keep your mouth and chin above water long enough to let you breathe. Life jackets do this on some fairly basic principles. An average person is surprisingly buoyant (weighing only 10 to 12 pounds when immersed in water—less if you’re thin; more if you’re heavy), and anything that attaches to your body and provides more upward lift than your body’s sinking weight will increase your buoyancy.

When choosing or purchasing life jackets, you must consider two important factors: flotation and fit. Most paddle shops can help you figure out how much flotation you’ll need by evaluating your body type, paddling abilities, river selection, and even the clothing you intend to wear underneath the life jacket (a wetsuit can add 6 to 8 pounds of buoyancy; an air—filled drysuit can add more).

A properly fitted life jacket is comfortable enough to wear all day and doesn’t interfere with paddling or swimming. It should fit snugly around your torso and won’t ride up over your face or head in rapids.

Many life jackets are available in different sizes (from extra—small child sizes to extra—large adult sizes) and allow you to achieve a customized fit through the use of flexible, contoured—foam panels and cinch straps.

To make sure you’re getting the best fit possible, try on a few life jackets. Put on a jacket that has ties or straps that tighten at the waist, and cinch them down until they’re comfortably tight. Now, have a friend yank on the jacket’s shoulders: It should only budge slightly while remaining comfortable. Next, wear the life jacket while sitting in your boat. Does it allow you a full range of motion? (You’ll need flexibility on the river!) Also, keep in mind that you may be adding bulky layers of riverwear under the jacket, so make sure there’s enough space left to accommodate your clothing.


Nowadays, helmets have become more accepted amongst the kayaking community, especially for whitewater kayakers but also just for the weekedn kayak warrior. Helmets consist of a sturdy outer shell, a shock absorbing liner, and a chin harness designed to keep the helmet on your head. A correctly shaped and well fitted helmet covers your entire head—including the top, temples, and ears—but remains unobtrusive to the wearer. Some helmets even have face guards to protect against facial injuries caused by rocks, flailing paddles, or collisions with other paddlers.

When selecting a helmet, check out the liner. You may prefer foam padding over a suspension-type shock absorbing system, but either system works well.

Finally, make sure the helmet fits your head comfortably: The chin strap should hold the helmet securely in place so the helmet won’t ride up and expose your forehead or slide down and block your vision.

Clothing Accessories

Wetsuits, drysuits, jackets – you would think that would be sufficient, but there is still a plethora of clothing accessories that any budding kayaker can use to really make the experience as pleasant as can be.

Booties, gloves, pogies, and insulating caps vastly improve the quality of your kayaking experience on cold rivers. Thick neoprene booties with semirigid soles keep your feet warm and provide decent traction during slippery portages. In warmer climates, specially designed river sandals (with extra straps to hold them securely on your feet) can work great as long as you don’t mind having exposed feet when walking or portaging. Waterproof caps help you retain an enormous amount of body heat by providing an extra layer of insulation over your head.

Your hands can be kept comfortably warm with neoprene kayak gloves or pogies. Pogies attach directly to the paddle shaft, forming a water-resistant cocoon. Your bare hand slips into the pogie and grabs the paddle shaft without any barrier to affect your “feel” for the shaft. Kayak gloves, on the other hand, cover your entire hand and palm. Though you lose some feel this way, gloves also provide some protection from injuries.

Finally, ear plugs and nose plugs are great ideas for every paddler—they help preserve your sinuses and hearing while preventing vertigo and icecream headaches (that feeling you get when you eat something cold too fast)

You may feel overwhelmed with the amount of clothing and accessories that you may need, but it is not necessary to obtain all of the gear at the same time. Buying in stages and buying when in the off-season will allow you to get much more value for your money.

We will also be running some posts on the best kayak clothing and best kayak gloves that you can get – so keep an eye out for those.


I have been kayaking since I was 10 years old and am now the Editor-in-Chief of ModernKayaking magazine. My role allows me to spend time out on the water whilst requiring me to review the latest kayaks and kayaking gear, and when I'm not working you will usually find me doing some fishing from my kayak out on some lake somewhere!


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