What to Wear Kayaking – Tips for Proper Layering

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If you don’t know what to wear kayaking, then you can find yourself on the water freezing in chilly water temperatures or overheated when the sun seems to appear out of nowhere. Fortunately, the clothing requirements for kayaking are pretty similar to other types of outdoor activities such as canoeing and hiking. When you’re choosing your wardrobe, you’re going to look for comfort, durability, and versatility. You will also need to look for clothes that can protect you from heat, cold, and wet conditions.

Why Wearing the Right Kayaking Clothing Matters

Even if you have a good whitewater kayak, you can expect to get soaked at some point in your trip, whether from a rogue wave, choppy water conditions, or in the event the kayak capsizes. Regardless of where you kayak, it’s always important to be prepared. In dangerous conditions, such as whitewater rapids, you may even find yourself and the water. Because of this, it’s always important to use a life jacket or another type of personal flotation device. You must always keep it on while you’re in your kayak. If you need to make some adjustments to the top layers of your clothing you can briefly remove the life jacket to take off a layer or two of clothing, then put the jacket back on after you change.

Always dress for the water temperature not the temperature of the air. This can involve wearing a wetsuit or drysuit.

Kayaking is such an adventurous and fun activity, however, what you wear can make a huge difference between a frustrating trip and one that you’ll remember fondly for years. Making the right choice when it comes to the clothing you wear isn’t so much about fashion as it is about comfort and keeping you protected from the elements and freezing water temperatures. Obviously, cold water and kayaking during the winter months will be much more dangerous than kayaking in the summer. In fact, it can be more dangerous than most paddlers realize. Because wearing the wrong clothing can lead to frostbite, shock, and hypothermia, you’ll need to choose clothing that doesn’t leave you wet for hours. You also need to choose clothing that’s comfortable. You don’t want to wear clothing that’s restrictive or binding as you’re sitting trying to paddle. Doing so can have a negative impact on your range of motion and you’re paddling technique.

Man wearing a life jacket

Taking a Dip

There are many things that can have an impact on what you decide to wear on your next kayaking adventure. The biggest thing is an unexpected dip in the water that you should be prepared for.

It’s important that you take into account your experience level. Based on your skill set, what’s the likelihood that you may end up unexpectedly taking a swim?

The type of kayak you use can also have an impact on what you should wear. Models that feature the classic sit-in design can protect you from harsh air temperatures and prevent you from getting wet. However, a sit-on-top style kayak will expose your lower body to the cold, yet, re-entering this type of kayak after it has capsized is much easier than trying to re-enter a sit-in style kayak once it’s capsized. If there’s a chance you may end up in the water, then a wetsuit or dry suit is a must.

If you’re new to the sport and want to learn more, click here to read my guide on kayak tips for beginners.

Sun Protection

Regardless of whether or not there’s cloud coverage, dress for sun protection. I recommend wearing clothing that is made out of UPF rated fabrics, in addition to sunscreen.


Cotton is a type of material that should be avoided at all costs since it absorbs water and moisture and will take forever to dry. Instead of using cotton, be on the lookout for any type of quick-drying fabric. For any layer of clothing that touches your skin, you’ll need to use quick-drying, moisture-wicking polyester or nylon fabric. Wool can be a good choice in some cases since it insulates when wet, however, it doesn’t dry nearly as fast as polyester or nylon.


The goal is to stay comfortable when you’re in your kayak so make sure that you choose clothes that allow you to move around freely without feeling restrictive.

Find fabrics that are abrasion-resistant and more durable and designed to stand wear and tear. Zippers that are prone to rust, as well as fasteners and other types of hardware should also be avoided, especially if you’re planning on kayaking in saltwater.

Mild Weather Wear

If you’re planning on a day kayaking in mild weather conditions or a shorter outing, many people recommend wearing a swimsuit as the first layer of clothing.

Rash guards are also a great choice since they’re usually made out of nylon or polyester, are very stretchy, and are the perfect choice for paddling since the material is flexible and quick-drying. Most rash guards also have a high UPF rating which will protect your skin from the harmful rays of the sun. Rashguards also have a form-fitting design complete with a flat seam construction that makes them comfortable for all-day use.

For your bottom half, you can choose any type of clothing that’s quick-drying and comfortable, whether you’re wearing pants or shorts. Try to avoid wearing your old workout wardrobe. While yoga pants may feel comfortable at home, they’re not a good idea for paddling since they’re not designed to withstand constantly shifting as you paddle.

Wearing a mid-layer will be important. If the water conditions do not require the use of a dry suit or wetsuit, then I recommend using a fleece jacket or another type of synthetic player that’s warm and easy to remove.

For an outer layer, wear something that will prepare you for exposure to wind and rain. In this case, a breathable waterproof jacket will be a great choice. Wearing a breathable, waterproof jacket as you paddle can be a great choice since they have gaskets located at the necks and wrist to prevent water from entering.

Kayaking shoes will be a great choice because they’re designed to protect the feet and are water-ready and lightweight. Any type of footwear will work fine, however, avoid sandals that can collect rocks and sand during a launch or when you pull your kayak onshore.

For colder conditions and when high winds and waves or rain are likely, I recommend using waterproof paddling boots and socks. You can also use non-cotton socks inside of kayaking booties for additional warmth.

If you usually prefer to wear a hat when you’re out on the water, then look for one that comes with a strap. If the hat you wear doesn’t have a chin strap or another way to secure the hat, then be prepared to lose it. In colder conditions, you’ll also need to use a beanie for high winds. The beanie should fit snugly over or under your other hat.

Wearing some good kayaking gloves can be a great choice because they can protect your hands from the weather and from blisters. These kayaking gloves can help to improve your grip on the paddle as well.

Winter Water Conditions

If you decide to brave the water during the winter months, then you’ll need to be extra prepared to stay warm and safe in freezing water temperatures. There are too many risks associated with capsizing and cold water, including drowning, shock, and frostbite, in addition to hypothermia.

Drysuits or wetsuits are both recommended for all types of weather except mild conditions. I recommend wearing a dry suit or a wetsuit in water temperatures 60 degrees and below. If the water temperature is higher than 60 degrees, then you’ll need to consider the air temperature as well.

For freezing water conditions, a wetsuit will be the minimum protection needed. These suits are usually made out of neoprene which is designed to insulate the body by holding a thin layer of water against this skin, allowing your body heat to keep the water heated.

Drysuits are designed for colder air and water temperatures. These suits are made out of waterproof materials and they feature watertight gaskets located at each opening which is designed to keep you totally dry. For more protection, you can also add another insulation layer under the suit, such as long underwear.

Wetsuit and Dry Suit Style Options

If you’re going to wear a dry suit or a wetsuit, in addition to a life jacket, then you’ll need to choose your extra layers of clothing wisely.

The warm water inside the wetsuit will negate the need for a wicking base layer such as a rash guard. If you have a swimsuit on underneath, then you will be able to remove your wetsuit later at some point without needing a private area to change in.

The warm water inside of the suit, in addition to the thickness of the materials that the suit is made out of, will keep you nice and warm. But for freezing temperatures, you’ll need to look for a thicker suit.

For an outer layer, the wetsuit is both windproof and watertight, so you don’t need to worry about wearing an outer layer as long as you’re wearing a wetsuit with long sleeves.

Sleeveless Wetsuit Use

If you decided to purchase this style of wetsuit then you should consider wearing a quick-dry top underneath the wetsuit in order to cover any exposed areas of the arms. Using a long sleeve rash guard or another type of base layer will work for sun protection and warmth. If the air is cool, then I recommend going for something heavier. Make sure you bring along a rain jacket, light fleece jacket, or a paddling specific jacket in order to cover your arms if the temperature drops.

Dry Suit Layering

If you’re going to wear a drysuit then you’re basically wearing rainwear that comes equipped with watertight seals. Because of this, you’ll definitely want to wear underwear that’s not made out of cotton. You can also purchase drysuit liners or find a dry suit that comes equipped with a fleece lining.

For colder weather conditions you can add a thick layer of fleece over a rash guard or long underwear. For the outer layer, a dry suit will be waterproof and breathable, so you don’t need to use an additional outer layer if you don’t want to.

Caring for Your Dry Suit or Wetsuit

Learning how to clean and maintain your wetsuit or drysuit will be important.

Once you’re done paddling for the day, be sure to take proper care of your drysuit or wetsuit before storing it. Failing to do so can result in mold growth or corrosion of the suit itself. Cleaning the salt off will be especially important if you’re kayaking in saltwater. Before storing your suit, take it outdoors and hose it down well, ensuring that you get every crack and crevice. The suit should be laid out flat and allowed to thoroughly dry before storing it. If it’s not fully dry before you tuck it away it can make the suit susceptible to mold growth.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know what to wear kayaking, you can protect your skin from sun damage, frostbite, and serious conditions such as hypothermia. Remember, wearing the right clothing when you’re kayaking is about so much more than just looking good. The goal is to protect yourself from both extreme water temperatures and air temperatures. Always dress based on the water temperature, and make sure you always wear layers. Layering your clothes will allow you to add or remove a layer depending on the changes in the weather as the day progresses. Before you set out for your next kayaking trip, make sure you purchase all the proper kayak gear in order to stay safe warm, and comfortable on your next adventure.