What to Wear Kayaking – The Ultimate Guide

post author profile

Ethan Thompson

what to wear kayaking

Kayaking, a thrilling water sport, lets you connect with nature uniquely while exploring diverse waterways. Whether you’re gliding over a tranquil lake or tackling wild rapids, dressing properly is key to your comfort, safety, and enjoyment.

Unlike Stand-Up Paddleboarding (SUP), where standard sportswear may suffice, kayaking calls for specialized attire designed to keep you warm and dry across various water conditions. Knowing what to wear kayaking is crucial for an enjoyable experience.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll delve into the essentials of what to wear kayaking, from clothing for warm weather to gear for cold water, layering methods, and indispensable accessories.

We’ll address common concerns like avoiding chafing and picking the right kayaking footwear. By the end, you’ll have the knowledge to dress appropriately for any kayaking adventure, ensuring you’re comfortable and safe on the water, no matter what to wear kayaking.

Why Dressing for the Water Temperature Matters

A critical aspect of what to wear kayaking is dressing according to the water temperature rather than just the air temperature. Unlike other water sports, where you can quickly get out of the water when cold, kayaking involves prolonged water exposure, from splashing to accidental capsizing.

Failing to dress for the water temperature can result in hypothermia, a dangerous condition where your body loses heat faster than it produces it. Knowing what to wear kayaking based on the water temperature is essential.

Even on a sunny, warm day, water can be much colder than the air, particularly in early spring or late fall when it hasn’t warmed up or cooled down. This is why kayakers often wear wetsuits or drysuits, even when the air is comfortably warm.

Preventing Chafing: Picking the Right Fabrics

Chafing is a frequent issue for kayakers due to the repetitive paddling motions and friction from sitting in a kayak for extended periods, which can lead to painful skin irritation. To prevent chafing, it’s vital to choose the correct fabrics for kayaking attire.

Avoid cotton, which absorbs water and dries slowly, increasing the risk of chafing and hypothermia. Opt instead for quick-drying synthetic materials like nylon or polyester that wick moisture away and dry quickly.

Neoprene, the fabric used in wetsuits, is also an excellent choice for a base layer, forming a protective barrier against chafing.

The Art of Layering for Kayaking

Layering is crucial for maintaining warmth and comfort while kayaking, especially in cold weather or when water temperatures are low. Using multiple layers allows you to easily adjust your insulation as conditions change by adding or removing layers.

Base Layers

A base layer is the foundation of your kayaking attire and should consist of moisture-wicking material like polyester or merino wool. This layer keeps you dry by pulling sweat away from your skin while providing insulation, even when wet.

Mid Layers

Mid layers, such as fleece or lightweight insulated jackets, offer additional warmth and can be easily added or removed. They trap air between their fibers, creating an insulating barrier that retains body heat.

Outer Layers

Outer layers are designed to shield you from elements like wind, rain, and water spray. Waterproof jackets, pants, and drysuits are common outer layers that offer breathable water protection while allowing you to move freely.

General Kayaking Wardrobe Items

kayaker standing upright together with his kayak

While specific gear needs vary based on season and water conditions, some essential pieces are universally useful for any kayaker:

  • Rashguards: Long and short-sleeved rashguards provide excellent sun protection and can be worn as a base layer or on their own in warm weather.
  • Board Shorts/Swimsuits: For warm-weather kayaking, lightweight board shorts or swimsuits are a comfortable and practical choice.
  • Waterproof Pants/Jackets: These outer layers are essential for cold weather or whitewater kayaking, offering protection from wind, rain, and spray.
  • Kayak Shoes/Booties: Designed with drainage and traction in mind, kayak shoes or neoprene booties help to keep your feet warm and provide grip when entering and exiting the kayak.
  • Sun Protection: A wide-brimmed hat or cap, sunglasses, and water-resistant sunscreen are must-haves for any kayaking adventure to protect you from harmful UV rays.
  • Gloves: Paddling gloves can provide a better grip on your paddle and protect your hands from blisters and chafing.
  • Life Jacket (PFD): A properly fitted life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) is an absolute necessity for kayaking, regardless of your swimming ability or the water conditions.

Seasonal Kayaking Attire

As the seasons change, so too must what you wear kayaking. Here’s a breakdown of what to wear kayaking for each season:

Spring Kayaking Attire

Spring can be a tricky season for kayaking, as the air temperature may be mild, but the water temperature can still be dangerously cold from melting snow and ice. For what to wear kayaking in spring, consider the following:

  • Thick wetsuit (at least 5mm)
  • Neoprene boots
  • Additional layers (fleece, insulated jackets)
  • Kayak life vest
  • Sunscreen
  • Sun hat

Summer Kayaking Attire

Summer is the prime season for recreational kayaking, with warmer air and water temperatures. For what to wear kayaking in summer, you can dress more lightly:

  • Swim shorts/swimsuits/bikinis
  • Rash guards
  • Water shoes or sandals with secure straps
  • Sunscreen
  • Sun hat
  • Kayak life vest (if required)

Fall Kayaking Attire

As the temperature begins to drop in the fall, it’s important to layer up to stay warm on the water. Consider the following for what to wear kayaking in fall:

  • Thin, moisture-wicking base layers
  • Fleece or insulated mid layers
  • Kayak shoes
  • Kayak life vest

Winter Kayaking Attire

Winter kayaking requires the warmest attire to combat the cold water temperatures. Here’s what to wear kayaking in winter:

  • Drysuit (for water temperatures below 45°F/7°C)
  • Fleece or thermal base layers
  • Insulated mid layers (sweaters, jackets)
  • Waterproof outer layers
  • Gloves and kayak boots
  • Kayak life vest

Night Kayaking Attire

Kayaking at night can be a magical experience, but it requires some additional considerations when it comes to what to wear kayaking at night. In addition to dressing for the water and air temperatures, you’ll want to wear reflective or bright clothing for visibility, and carry a headlamp or other lighting source for navigating in the dark.

Wetsuits vs. Drysuits: What’s the Difference?

When it comes to what to wear kayaking in cold water, the choice between a wetsuit and a drysuit can be a crucial one. Here’s a breakdown of the differences:


Wetsuits, made from neoprene, function by allowing a thin layer of water to sit between your skin and the suit.

This water layer is warmed by your body heat, creating a thermal barrier that insulates you from cold water. They’re ideal for what to wear kayaking when the activity involves physical exertion, as movement helps generate and retain warmth within the suit.

Wetsuits vary in thickness from 1mm to 7mm, with thicker suits offering more insulation for colder waters. They provide flexibility and mobility, and even with minor tears or holes, they still offer some insulation for what to wear kayaking.


Drysuits, as the name suggests, are designed to keep you completely dry while kayaking. They require layers of insulation, like fleece or thermal base layers, to be worn underneath to keep you warm in cold conditions when deciding what to wear kayaking.

Drysuits are typically recommended for what to wear kayaking in water temperatures below 45°F (7°C) or for activities that involve extended time in the water.

They offer excellent insulation and protection from the elements, but they can be bulkier and more restrictive than wetsuits. Any damage to the suit can make it ineffective at keeping you dry for what to wear kayaking.

Choosing Between Wetsuits and Drysuits

Consider the water temperature, duration of your kayaking trip, and level of physical activity when choosing what to wear kayaking – a wetsuit or a drysuit.

Wetsuits are generally preferred for warmer waters or shorter trips where you’ll generate heat through paddling. Drysuits are better suited for prolonged exposure to cold water, where maintaining body temperature is crucial for safety and comfort in deciding what to wear kayaking.

Layering with Wetsuits and Drysuits

Proper layering is essential for maximizing the insulating properties of wetsuits and drysuits, and for allowing you to adjust your temperature as conditions change when deciding what to wear kayaking.

Clothing to Avoid for Kayaking

While we’ve covered what to wear for kayaking, it’s also important to understand what to avoid. Here are some clothing items that are best left out of your kayaking wardrobe:

  • Cotton: As mentioned earlier, cotton absorbs water and takes a long time to dry, increasing the risk of chafing and hypothermia.
  • Clothing with Rust-Prone Hardware: Zippers, buckles, and other hardware on your clothing can rust when exposed to saltwater or harsh weather conditions, shortening the lifespan of your gear.
  • Certain Yoga Pants: While comfortable, many yoga pants aren’t designed for water sports and can lead to chafing or excessive wear on the seat area.
  • Footwear without Secure Straps: Flip-flops or sandals without backstraps can easily slip off your feet while kayaking, posing a safety risk and causing frustration.

By avoiding these types of clothing, you’ll be better equipped to stay comfortable and safe on the water.


Appropriate clothing for kayaking is going to be absolutely vital to ensure comfort, safety, and water joy. Follow what is explained in this guide and, taking water temperature, weather conditions, and the type of kayaking you will be doing into consideration, you will be best prepared for your kayaking adventure.

Layer yourself up with all the right kayaking clothes—wicking, insulating, and waterproofing material—so as to stay dry and warm. Do not put on anything that may cause chafing or some other irritation to the skin. Finally, one needs to accessorize it with life jackets, spray skirts, and appropriate shoes. One needs to put safety first above everything when out there on water.

With appropriate clothes and planning, kayaking can really be an experience of a lifetime. Well, grab those gear and paddles, and with appropriate clothes and planning, you are off to another kayaking adventure—all well-prepared for what the water could throw your way.


Can I wear regular activewear for kayaking?

While regular activewear may be suitable for warm-weather, recreational kayaking on calm waters, it’s generally not recommended for extended trips or colder water temperatures. Activewear is often made from cotton or other materials that absorb water and can cause chafing or hypothermia when wet. For more challenging kayaking conditions, it’s best to invest in specialized kayaking attire designed for moisture-wicking, insulation, and water resistance.

Do I need to wear a life jacket even if I’m a strong swimmer?

Yes, it’s essential to wear a properly fitted life jacket (PFD) while kayaking, regardless of your swimming ability. Kayaking can present unexpected challenges, such as strong currents, cold water, or obstacles in the water, and a life jacket can be a lifesaver in an emergency situation. Additionally, many areas have regulations requiring the use of life jackets while kayaking.

How do I know if I should wear a wetsuit or a drysuit?

The choice between a wetsuit and a drysuit primarily depends on the water temperature. As a general rule, wetsuits are suitable for water temperatures above 60°F (15°C), while drysuits are recommended for water temperatures below 45°F (7°C). However, factors like the duration of your trip, the level of physical activity, and your personal comfort preferences should also be considered.

Can I wear the same kayaking attire for warm and cold weather?

While some kayaking attire, such as life jackets and certain base layers, can be worn in both warm and cold weather, it’s generally recommended to have separate clothing systems for different temperature ranges. Warm weather kayaking calls for lightweight, breathable fabrics, while cold weather kayaking requires insulating layers and waterproof outer layers. Having the appropriate attire for the conditions will ensure your comfort and safety on the water.

Leave a Comment