What to Wear When Kayaking in Cold or Hot Weather

What to Wear When Kayaking

What you wear when kayaking can make or break a fun trip out on the water. Dressing too cold or too hot for the weather will make an otherwise great kayaking trip less comfortable. That’s why it’s important to make sure you’re wearing the right clothes before going out kayaking.

Just what should you wear when kayaking? When kayaking, you should wear:

  • A PFD (Life Jacket) – Safety first. And wear it, don’t just bring it.
  • Layered clothing – Dress in layers so you can add or remove clothing as the temperature changes.
  • Dress to protect yourself from the sun – Even if it’s cloudy out, UV-rated clothing that covers most of your skin is best.
  • Sunscreen – Use sunscreen on exposed areas.
  • Wear clothing for the water temperature – Dress for the water not the weather.
  • Choose comfortable, moisture-wicking materials – A Dry-fit or polyester shirt will protect you from the elements and dry quickly.
  • Shorts or pants that are appropriate for the water temperature and the outside weather.
  • Shoes that will dry quickly, stay on your feet, and are comfortable to walk in and carry your kayak and gear.
  • Don’t wear any cotton materials – Cotton retains water, dries slowly and robs your body of heat when it gets wet.
  • Avoid sharp or abrasive materials – Zippers, buttons, or protruding fasteners on any gear will scratch you and/or your kayak.
  • A hat – Don’t forget to cover your head. In warm weather a ball cap will keep the sun off your head and out of your eyes. In cold weather a wool beanie cap will prevent heat loss and keep you warm.
  • Sunglasses with Retaining Strap – The sunlight is amplified bouncing off of the water and up into your eyes.

Those are just the basic items you’ll need for kayaking. The following information will help you find the best kayak-friendly clothes for cold and hot weather.

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Choosing What to Wear Kayaking

When choosing kayak apparel, safety and comfort should be your primary consideration. 

That being said, you’ll want to be ready in case the weather conditions change during your trip. Colder weather requires an entirely different set of clothing than a warm, sunny day on the water. 

Along with the outdoor climate, it’s the water temperature that should ultimately dictate what you wear when kayaking. While the air may be cold or warm, it’s always the water temperature that matters most. Additionally, the temperatures out on the water tend to be a little cooler than inland even a few miles, so it’s essential to prepare for the weather on the water and not just how it feels onshore.

For this reason, before you go out, check the water temperature where you plan on kayaking. Check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) water temperature map.

If you’re going to kayak in a local, state, or national park, some of their websites often have information about the current water temperature.

What to Wear When Kayaking in Cool/Cold Weather

In colder months, the clothes you choose for kayaking should focus on keeping you as warm and as waterproof as possible.  

When dressing for cold-weather kayaking, be sure to layer up. Layering your clothing has many advantages. First, layers will keep you warm and protected from the adverse effects of the cold temperature. Along with this, layers also give you adaptability, so if you become too warm, you can take a layer off to cool down. 

For colder water (generally under 60 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s a good idea to wear a wetsuit. These are made of quick-drying, water-resistant materials that will keep body heat in and water out. Once you have that on, you can start to layer over it with non-cotton material clothing.

If you don’t wear a wetsuit, you can still take precautions against the cold.

Without a wetsuit, the first layer you should wear is a base layer, like long johns. However, be sure the material isn’t cotton; cotton absorbs water. If your base layer absorbs cold water when out in your kayak, you’ll have a long, uncomfortable ride ahead of you. And you may increase your risk of getting hypothermia.

Moisture-wicking, quick-dry nylon or polyester fabric is your best bet as a base layer. It acts as the last line of defense against colder water reaching your skin and staying there. If you can, wear Merino wool base layers. They hold in heat, wick moisture, and dry quickly.

Once you have a good base layer, add more layers until you feel comfortable and warm, but make sure to maintain mobility. Going kayaking with a t-shirt under a sweatshirt (as long as they aren’t made of cotton) is a basic and easy layering option.

For second layers, a zip-up Polartec or microfiber sweatshirt/jacket is a great option.

Rainy or Windy Kayaking Wear

If you plan on being out on the water when there’s a chance of rain or wind, bring along a waterproof jacket and pants.

Make sure the jacket is big enough to go over all your layers, including your lifejacket. Even if the weather doesn’t turn rainy while you’re on the water, a lightweight, windbreaker jacket that has some UV light protection is an excellent backup in case it gets chilly. 

What to Wear When Kayaking in Hot/Warm Weather

Even if the weather’s warm or the sun’s out, it’s still essential to check the water temperature. Although the air temp may seem hot enough to skip out on layering, if you happen to fall in the water, you’ll want to be as warm and protected as you can against potential hypothermia.

So, how do you strike the perfect balance between comfortable clothing and protection from the elements? 

Wear a Swimsuit

For the base layer, a simple swimsuit is usually the best option for most people. For women, make sure your sports bra is cotton-free. Again, cotton absorbs water exceptionally well and doesn’t dry out quickly, so if you end up in the water, a non-cotton sports bra will keep you feeling comfortable rather than soaked.

Wear Board Shorts and a Water Shirt

If you wear something other than a swimsuit, comfortable athletic shorts, board shorts, or any clothing made from quick-drying materials are all great alternatives. 

For your shirt, there are a few good options to choose from. A simple wet shirt or water shirt, will do. They’ll wick water like a wetsuit, but aren’t as tight fitting. 

Wear Clothing with Sun/UV Protection

Being out on the water all day, especially in the summer, you’ll be exposed to lots of UV rays from the sun. Having UV protective clothing as your top layer is your best bet against the sun’s rays. 

Rashguards are an excellent UV option. They’re great for kayaking because they’re made of stretchable polyester material, protect against UV light and dry out quickly. They are great for layering on top or underneath a wetsuit. 

What safety equipment is required on a kayak?

While kayaking, there are also a few things that you can wear and attach to your kayak that will make your day paddling much safer.

  • Personal Floatation Device (PFD)

The first and the most critical piece of safety gear you should wear while kayaking is a Personal Flotation Device (PFD), also known as a lifejacket. 

PFDs are designed to be worn over your clothing to keep you afloat if you happen to fall in the water. There are different life jacket laws for kayakers in every state, and the United States Coast Guard even requires every paddler out on the water have one. Be sure to find one that fits properly, provides ample room to move about, and can keep you afloat.

  • Waterproof Bags

For additional essential items that you might bring with you (phone, keys, wallet, etc.), waterproof bags are a great way to make sure you don’t lose your belongings. These bags are usually smaller in size and can be attached to your life jacket, clothing, or the boat itself for safekeeping.

  • Helmet

If you’re out in a kayak on rougher waters or in white water rapids, wearing a helmet is an excellent idea. You never know what might happen in those kinds of waters, and wearing a helmet can keep your head safe from injury.

  • Gloves

Depending on how cold it is, you may want some wool, microfiber or even wetsuit-material gloves to keep your hands dry and warm.

What clothing should you avoid when kayaking?

Your choice of clothing is all about how comfortable and warm you can be on the water. You’ll be sitting and paddling for an extended period, so your clothing should fit you well and provide freedom of movement.

Below are a few kayak clothing options you should avoid:

  • Cotton – As we mentioned earlier, Avoid any clothing made from cotton as it will rob you of body heat if it gets wet.
  • Abrasive items – Avoid any clothing with zippers, fasteners, or harnesses that have the potential to rust or get caught/snagged on parts of the kayak.
  • Thin and easily-ripped clothing – Clothes made from super-thin materials, like yoga pants, are probably not a good option. The constant movement you will be doing in the kayak while sitting can wear down the thinner fabric.
  • Binding or chafing clothing – Along with avoiding yoga pants, avoid any shorts or pants that bind or chafe, like denim jeans.

What Shoes to Wear When Kayaking

Don’t forget your feet!

Once again, what shoes you should wear for kayaking will be dependent on the water temperature and the weather. But there are some other considerations as well.

In general, the best shoes for kayaking are:

  • Sandals, flip flops or Crocs for warm summer weather
  • Closed-toed tennis shoes or stiff water shoes if you plan on kayaking and hiking
  • And wetsuit boots or high top neoprene water socks for chilly to cold weather.

We wrote an article on the best shoes for kayaking if you’d like to read more details.

Kayak Clothing Wrap Up

Getting out on the water in a kayak can be a great adventure. The clothing you wear will play a big part in your enjoyment and safety while you are kayaking. What that clothing is will depend on water temperature and the weather, so be prepared for the conditions you’ll be kayaking.

Take precautions before heading out, like checking the water temperature and the weather. Of course, it’s always vital to be cautious out on the water as well. Wear PFDs, and make sure your personal belongings stay safe while paddling by putting them in a waterproof drybag.


I'm Steve, the research and technology workhorse behind Paddle Camp. I do tons of research on all our family's paddling gear before I buy or recommend anything. I grew up canoeing with my dad and brother. A few years ago I bought paddle boards for my daughters, myself, and my wife. Ever since then, we plan most of our vacations around kayaking, canoeing, or paddle boarding.

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