What to Wear Kayaking (Layer Guide)

If you’re heading out on the water and wondering what to wear kayaking, you’re not alone! This is a common question and one we aim to answer in this comprehensive article.

The right clothing can make a significant difference in your comfort and safety. 

Understanding the Impact of Water Temperature

The first thing you need to keep in mind is water temperature, which dictates what you should wear. Water conducts heat more efficiently than air, meaning that even if the air temperature feels warm, the water can still be quite cold.

In warmer weather, it may be tempting to wear minimal clothing or a swimsuit while kayaking. But this can be dangerous–before you do so, please consider the potential risks of prolonged exposure to sun and water.

Even in warm conditions, unexpected immersion can lead to rapid heat loss and increase the risk of hypothermia. It’s advisable to wear a thin base layer made of moisture-wicking fabric to help regulate body temperature and keep you dry.

For warm water kayaking, lightweight and breathable materials are ideal. Look for clothing that will keep you cool and protected from the sun’s rays.

Even in warm weather, sudden changes in water and air temperatures can occur, and being unprepared can put you at risk. Pack extra layers of clothing, such as a lightweight waterproof jacket or a windbreaker, to protect yourself in case of unexpected rain or wind. 

Dressing for Cold Weather Paddling

When the water is cold, it becomes even more important to dress appropriately for kayaking. Cold weather and water can pose significant challenges, and the right attire will keep you warm, comfortable, and safe during your kayaking adventures.

Layering is key for cold water kayaking. Start with a moisture-wicking base layer that helps to keep you dry by wicking away sweat from your skin. This base layer should be made of synthetic materials like polyester or merino wool, as they offer excellent insulation and moisture management properties.

Over the base layer, you’ll want to add insulating layers. Fleece jackets or wool sweaters are excellent options for providing warmth while still allowing breathability.

To protect yourself from wind and water, a suitable outer layer is essential. A waterproof and windproof paddling jacket or drytop will keep you dry and shield you from the elements.

For the lower body, consider wearing splash pants or long thermal underwear to provide insulation and keep your legs warm. These options are water-resistant and can protect you from splashes and spray. 

Footwear is equally important when kayaking in colder conditions. Booties or water shoes provide insulation and protect your feet from the cold water. These types of footwear prevent water from seeping in and keep your feet warm and dry. 

Consider wearing neoprene socks or booties. These will provide an additional layer of warmth and prevent heat loss through your feet. Cotton socks should be avoided, as they absorb water and can leave your feet feeling cold and uncomfortable.

In addition to layering and appropriate outerwear, there are a few more considerations when dressing for cold water kayaking. Neoprene gloves or paddle-specific gloves, known as pogies, are excellent choices for keeping your hands warm while still allowing you to maintain a secure grip on the paddle.

A warm hat or beanie that covers your ears will help retain body heat, as a significant amount of heat can be lost through the head. Opt for hats made of moisture-wicking materials that can effectively manage sweat and keep you comfortable during your paddling sessions.

When preparing for a kayaking trip in cold conditions, check the weather and water conditions in advance. Pay attention to weather forecasts, wind speed, and any warnings or advisories.

Dressing appropriately based on the expected conditions will help ensure your safety.

It’s worth mentioning that kayaking in cold water conditions may require a drysuit.

Drysuits keep you completely dry and provide insulation even if you end up in the water. They are particularly suitable for longer kayaking expeditions or activities where there’s a higher risk of immersion.

What to Wear Kayaking for Various Activities

Whether you’re navigating whitewater rapids, kayaking in the summer, winter kayaking, enjoying a leisurely paddle, or exploring the open sea, it’s essential to wear appropriate clothing for your chosen kayaking adventure. Let’s explore the recommended attire for different types of kayaking activities.

Whitewater Kayaking

What to wear kayaking

Whitewater kayaking involves tackling fast-moving rivers and challenging rapids. Given the unpredictable nature of whitewater, make sure to wear the right gear to stay safe and comfortable. A drysuit is highly recommended for whitewater kayaking. 

Kayak Surfing

Kayak surfing is an exhilarating activity that requires specialized attire for the dynamic and demanding ocean conditions.

Depending on the water temperature and duration of your session, you can choose between a wetsuit or a dry/semi-dry suit. In warmer conditions, a wetsuit made of neoprene provides insulation and protection against the cold water. 

Kayak Fishing

Fishing from a kayak offers a unique angling experience, requiring both comfort and functionality in your attire. Layered clothing is essential, as weather conditions can change throughout the day.

Opt for moisture-wicking base layers and lightweight, breathable shirts. Consider wearing convertible pants that can be transformed into shorts for versatility. Sun protection is vital, so choose clothing with UPF ratings and wear a wide-brimmed hat. 

Recreational Kayaking

Recreational kayaking is all about enjoying a leisurely paddle, exploring calm lakes, or meandering down gentle rivers and having a lazy day on the water.

For this activity, comfort and flexibility are key; if paddling in hot weather, be sure to stay cool, and in any season try to stay dry and warm.

Clothing that allows freedom of movement is perfect for kayaking (like quick-drying shorts or lightweight pants). Pair them with moisture-wicking shirts or rashguards for sun protection and sweat management.

When dressing for recreational kayaking, consider water temperature rather than air temperature. Remember to bring a lightweight, waterproof jacket or windbreaker in case weather conditions change unexpectedly.

Essential Clothing and Gear for Kayaking

To have a safe and enjoyable kayaking experience, make sure you bring along the right clothing and gear.

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Wearing a personal flotation device, commonly known as a PFD or life vest, is non-negotiable when kayaking. PFDs will keep you afloat in case of an accidental capsize or immersion.

They come in various styles, including traditional foam-filled vests and inflatable options.

Choose a PFD that is approved by relevant safety authorities and properly fits your body.

We can’t stress this enough: wear a PFD whenever you go kayaking, even if it’s just for a few minutes. 

Upper Body Clothing


Rashguards are a popular choice for kayakers, especially in warm weather or when engaging in activities like kayak surfing. These lightweight, quick-drying shirts provide protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays and also offer moisture management, keeping you comfortable throughout your paddling sessions.

Waterproof Jackets

When kayaking in wet conditions or during colder weather, bring along a waterproof jacket. These jackets keep you dry and protect you from rain, wind, and splashes. 


Hats are essential for sun protection during kayaking. Choose a wide-brimmed hat that shields your face, neck, and ears from the sun’s harmful UV rays. 

Kayak Gloves 

Kayak gloves provide grip, protection, and warmth for your hands while paddling. These gloves are typically made of neoprene or other water-resistant materials. They offer insulation against cold water and help prevent blisters and calluses.

Lower Body Clothing

Quick-Drying Synthetic Bottoms

Opt for quick-drying synthetic materials like nylon or polyester for your lower body. These fabrics wick away moisture and dry quickly, preventing discomfort from prolonged contact with water. 

Waterproof Pants 

In colder or wetter conditions, waterproof pants provide an additional layer of protection against water exposure. These pants are typically made of waterproof materials like nylon with sealed seams to prevent wear and tear. 


Proper footwear is essential for a secure grip, protection, and comfort while kayaking. Kayak shoes, also known as water shoes, are made for water sports. Some people swear by water sandals, but we recommend a good pair of water shoes. 

Miscellaneous Gear

Dry Bag

A dry bag is a waterproof bag used to store and protect your valuables. These bags ensure the water stays away from your belongings even if they are exposed to the elements. 

Specialized Clothing Options for Kayaking

In certain kayaking conditions, specialized clothing options are recommended. Let’s explore two popular choices: wetsuits and drysuits.


These suits provide insulation and protect against the cold water. Made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber, wetsuits are excellent at trapping a thin layer of water between your body and the suit.

This water layer gets warmed by your body heat and acts as an insulating barrier, keeping you warm even in colder conditions.

Wetsuits come in different thicknesses, ranging from thin “shorties” suitable for when the water is warm to thicker full suits for cold weather kayaking. The thickness you choose should depend on the water temperature and the duration of your kayaking sessions.

Thicker wetsuits offer better insulation but may restrict movement to some extent. Try to find the right balance between warmth and flexibility.

For more information on the difference between wetsuits and drysuits, see our article “Wetsuits Vs. Drysuits (Which Is Better?)”


Drysuits are the ultimate choice for kayakers who want to stay completely dry and protected, even when exposed to cold water. They keep you dry by preventing any water from entering the suit.

Drysuits are made of waterproof and breathable materials and feature latex gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankles to create a watertight seal.

Drysuits are particularly beneficial for kayakers who paddle in cold weather or engage in activities like whitewater kayaking or sea kayaking in rough conditions. They provide excellent insulation and protection against both cold water and air.

Wearing a drysuit requires proper training and understanding of self-rescue techniques. These suits can be more restrictive and less breathable compared to wetsuits, so it’s necessary to have the proper skills and experience to handle the risks and challenges while wearing a drysuit.

Water Safety

Safety should always be your top priority when kayaking. Always check weather and water conditions before heading out, file a float plan, and try to avoid kayaking alone if possible.

Remember: stay safe, stay comfortable, and take lots of pictures!


What should I wear kayaking?

Take water temperature, weather conditions, and the type of kayaking you’ll be doing into account. This may include wearing a wetsuit or drysuit, layering your clothing, wearing proper footwear, and ensuring sun protection with a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

Do I need to wear a wetsuit or drysuit while kayaking?

The need for a wetsuit or drysuit depends on the water temperature and the type of kayaking. In colder water conditions, a wetsuit or drysuit can provide insulation and protection. For milder temperatures, layering with appropriate clothing should suffice.

What is the difference between a wetsuit and a drysuit?

A wetsuit is made of neoprene and traps a thin layer of water against the body, providing insulation. On the other hand, a drysuit is waterproof and keeps you completely dry by preventing water from entering. 

How does air and water temperature affect what you should wear?

In colder temperatures, you need to dress in layers and consider wearing a wetsuit or drysuit to provide insulation and protect against hypothermia. In warmer temperatures, lighter and breathable clothing is suitable, allowing for better heat dissipation and comfort. 

What type of footwear should I wear for kayaking?

It is recommended to wear water shoes or kayak shoes that provide traction, protection, and quick-drying capabilities. 

Can I wear a swimsuit when kayaking?

While wearing a swimsuit is an option, it does not provide sufficient insulation or protection, especially in colder conditions or for activities that involve prolonged immersion in the water. Instead, wear proper kayaking attire that takes into account the water temperature and potential risks.

How do I keep water out of my backpack? 

Kayaking is a lot less stressful when your belongings stay dry. To accomplish this, use a dry bag. 

How do I choose the right clothing for kayaking?

To choose the right clothing for kayaking, consider factors like water temperature, weather conditions, and the type of kayaking activity. Dress in layers, prioritize moisture-wicking and quick-drying materials, and make sure you have adequate protection from the sun’s rays.

Image Credits

Image 1: Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash
Image 2: Photo by Lute on Unsplash
Image 3: Photo by Brett Sayles
Image 4: Photo by Iain Robinson
Image 5: Photo by Stephen Edward on Unsplash
Image 6: Photo by Brandon McDonald on Unsplash
Image 7: Photo by Miguel A Amutio on Unsplash
Image 8: Photo by Martin071982
Image 9: Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

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