What To Wear While Kayaking (Whether It’s Summer Or Winter)

What To Wear While Kayaking

Kayaking is an activity that can be traced back thousands of years. The Inuit and Aleut tribes of the Arctic North America region are credited with being the first people that built and used kayaks. The materials they were created with ranged from lightweight driftwood to various types of animal skins.

Used primarily as a transportation source for hunting, Kayaks are known as “hunter boats.” Their covertness and silence made them a great source for approaching unsuspecting animals in the water or on land.  

Noatak, Alaska

Eventually kayaks spread to other parts of the world and they began using them for sports, eventually making their way to the Olympics in 1936. Today, the Olympic Games feature the kayak in over ten different sports. Also, people over the United States enjoy kayaking as a recreational and active sport in all different seasons.

Whether you are casually paddling around your local lake or heading down a fast-paced rapid, kayaking is an activity that is both versatile and all seasonal. In addition to the weather, there are additional factors to take into consideration including hydration, sun protection, and the level of activity involved.

Remember to keep in mind that staying within your budget and understanding your specific skillset and activity level is crucial towards optimizing conditions.

People in modern dry suitsThe difficulty in kayaking lies in knowing what type of gear and clothing to wear depending upon a variety of factors. The type of weather, the climate, and the external wildlife can all affect what type of clothing you should wear. Read through the following guide and get a better understanding of what types of clothing you should be wearing.

What to Wear in the Winter

Most people do not think of kayaking as a winter sport or hobby, but with the right clothing choices, you can enjoy the sport regardless of external conditions. Now I’m not necessarily recommending that kayaking should be enjoyed in below freezing temperatures. Kayaking in the cold can put you at risk for hypothermia or other potentially life-threatening illnesses. However, the right gear can be of tremendous assistance when dealing with subpar weather.

For many people, the mere thought of cold weather would deter people from kayaking in large bodies of water in subpar freezing temperatures. However, for hardcore recreational enthusiasts, they will be determined to kayak regardless of surrounding conditions.

There are a few rules to follow when it comes to kayaking in the winter time. They include:

  • Avoid cotton clothing.  Cotton acts like a sponge soaking up moisture and holding it against the skin. As a result, cold water can become insulated against the body causing hypothermia to set in during below freezing temperatures.
  • Layer clothing properly by choosing the right clothing in the appropriate order.  First, start with lighter fabrics. Move onto insulating heavier clothing and then finally use waterproof clothing for the final layers to protect from water and snow.

The commonly held misconception is that a wetsuit is an absolute necessity when dealing with colder temperatures. Although a wetsuit can help ensure the body stays warm and dry in large bodies of water, there are additional clothing options as well.  A wetsuit can help insulate body heat while not limiting the range of motion in the body.

The way a wetsuit works is that it allows a certain amount of water into the suit while trapping it against the body. The water penetrates the suit and body heat keeps that small layer of water at a warm temperature preventing hypothermia from occurring. This doesn’t work as well when the water is exceptionally cold, however, because the cold water rapidly conducts away the warms trapped in the neoprene wetsuit, and thereby cools you down. For colder waters, I recommend getting a dry suit.

There are various types of clothing that should be worn while kayaking in the winter. Each part of the body should be well equipped to be weatherproofed.

The Feet

The feet may not seem like a part of the body that needs protected from the elements, but nowadays many people choose to wear neoprene booties on their feet while in the water. They keep the feet warm and allow for extra traction in the boat so that you do not easily fall out if you encounter hazardous conditions.

These booties act in the same manner as the wetsuit themselves as they keep a thin layer of water between the wetsuit and the skin. Natural body heat is trapped within the booties protecting from the cold weather conditions.

A dry suit usually comes with integral boots, often latex or neoprene. You can wear neoprene diving boots with a rubberised sole over these to protect them (and you) and to keep you warmer.

The Hands

When the weather is extremely cold, the first instinct may be to grab a pair of knitted gloves. However, the knitted gloves are similar to cotton in that they absorb water. However, there are neoprene gloves available that allow the hands to stay warm, dry, and able to grip the paddles with ease.

black gloves
By Peter Southwood [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Head

When paddling through cold weather conditions, it becomes imperative to always wear a hat. First, it is always recommended to wear a helmet when conditions require it. When speeding down fast moving wild rapids or potentially dangerous conditions, a helmet can be the difference between life and death.  

As far as remaining warm and protected from outside colder climates, a hat is recommended to stay warm. The hat does not have to be thick but can simply be thin and waterproof. A ski cap will provide ample protection in all types of weather conditions.

Additional Clothing Options

Another helpful clothing item that will be of use during all weather conditions is a waterproof waist pack. The waterproof waist pack is helpful for keeping items such as phones, keys, tablets, and other devices protected from potential water damage. A life vest with pockets that offer protection will serve the same purpose as well.

Waterproof socks that keep feet dry and warm will be handy as well because having wet feet will put the body at a higher risk of hypothermia. Waterproof jackets should be made of high-quality synthetic fiber will keep the body dry while not restricting paddling movements.

Naturally, waterproof clothing is always a recommended option for protection. For times in which a wetsuit is not a feasible clothing choice, thermal clothing is optional for layering. Whatever option is chosen it should not be made from cotton as it will simply keep in moisture.

If it’s cold out, you should be dressing warm. That means a thermal base layer, woollen fleece, etc. If you wear a thermal onesie under your drysuit, just be aware that toilet breaks are going to require some forethought! It can be difficult enough to wiggle out of your drysuit to pee, but having another all-in-one layer makes it double hard.

And NO, a dry suit is not like a wetsuit in this regard!! I repeat, do NOT pee in your dry suit! I know someone who did this on a training course with the fire service and he will never hear the end of it.

Kayaking does not have to be simply a summertime activity. Layering and wearing waterproof clothing will keep you warm and safe while still allowing activity in all different climate types.

What to Wear in the Summer

Summertime allows for more flexibility regarding what types of clothing are best suitable. When the weather is warm and dry, you can be less selective in what you wear. If you are casually strolling on a warm summer day, a simple t-shirt, shorts, and closed toed shoes should be perfectly reasonable. 
However, some of the same rules apply whether in the winter or the summer. Once again, cotton should be avoided as the material will soak up water and not dry quickly. You should still aim to wear clothing that dries quickly made of fabrics that are synthetic or made of merino wool.  Cotton is always a second best choice regarding water activities.

The Feet

For footwear, you want to choose options that are both comfortable and safe at the same time. Generally being barefoot or wearing flip-flops are not a good option. Running shoes or athletic shoes will allow for better traction so that you do not fly out of the kayak.  Also, if there are rocks or sharp objects in the nearby area, your feet will be protected.

Hiking sandals are another option that can work as well. They dry quickly but also protect the feet from rocks and other external environmental factors. Having proper footwear is important especially when dealing with rapids and more intense kayaking.

The Hands

When paddling over calm water on a lake or through a harbor, gloves are not necessary. Bare hands will be sufficient in these types of weather conditions. However, if racing down mountains and over waterfalls are more your speed, a pair of gloves should be considered simply for protection purposes.

Neoprene gloves are once again a popular option regardless of weather conditions. The grip and protection will be needed for precautionary reasons in more dangerous environments.

The Head

A sun hat will shield the face and eyes from potentially harmful sunrays and ultraviolet damage. Sunglasses will provide protection from glaring sunlight that is hitting the water and protect from vision damage.

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All-Weather Protection

Regardless of weather types, safety should always be at the forefront of any concerns. Casually strolling along your local lake with your significant other does not call for much in terms of protection.  However, as with any extreme or high speed sport it is vital to take into account safety gear for precautionary reasons.

Personal Floatation Devices (PFD’s)

When being a passenger on any type of boat or watercraft, it is always recommended to wear the appropriate floatation device. Regardless of how well you can swim, Mother Nature can always throw a person a curveball.

PFD on display

The United States Coast Guard requires that all boaters carry an approved life jacket on board at all times. They can be difficult to put on after an accident so be sure to wear them at all times while occupying any type of boat.  

Not only can floatation devices potentially save a life in case of emergency, but they can also give an extra layer of protection and insulation as well.  


Although they are not necessary for calm water environments, helmets will help protect your head in case of an accident or emergency. Whitewater kayakers and surf kayakers can suddenly be thrown from their boats and end up landing in rocky regions.

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The way to comfortably wear a helmet is to make sure it is fastened securely underneath the chin. It should not be loose but should not also be too tight to constrict blood flow. Some types of helmets also cover the face and provide additional protection which is an option depending upon how dangerous the environment may be.

First Aid Kits

When traveling in a group, it is helpful if at least one member has an adequate first aid kit available at all times. Not only is it handy for if the kayak crashes, but if you are in a secluded or rural area that does not have much in the way of safety surrounding the area.

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Make sure that the kit is stored in a waterproof bag or container so that the contents are not damaged in case of submersion. The kit should be easily accessible and contain all the proper necessities in case of emergency.


When exposed to the sun for prolonged durations, it is vital to have sunscreen handy. Whether it is warm or cold weather conditions, ultraviolet rays can cause sun damage and even skin cancer in some circumstances.  Sunlight bounces off the water and in turn, reflects directly onto your body at a much higher percentage. Apply more sunscreen than you would in other conditions.

Spare Clothing

In case of emergency if the kayak tips over or clothing simply become soaked, having a spare change of clothing is never a bad idea. Especially during colder weather, you should be prepared for any weather conditions that may arise and cause potentially damaging issues.  


No matter what types of weather conditions you encounter and what the environment is, it is vital that you have the proper clothing in all-weather types. Whether you are kayaking along a mellow lake in the middle of summer or paddling through the fast-moving rapid in the depths of winter, you will be prepared for all types of challenges that arise.