Paddling in style: safe, smart gear to wear in a kayak

It's part exercise, part meditation and part sightseeing, so what the heck do you wear on a kayaking jaunt? The answer: it depends. Safety and comfort should be your two primary concerns when choosing a kayaking outfit. Check the forecast and do a little research to find out the water temperature before committing to any clothing.

Just because your plans may not involve taking a dip, that doesn't mean you'll stay dry in a kayak. Always plan for the possibility that you'll end up in the water. So if you're paddling in the Caribbean off the shore of Aruba in July, shorts and a tank top should suffice. Kayaking at sunrise on a spring day in Chicago, however, will require warmer clothing.

Wear: synthetic layers

What's warm enough on land might not be warm enough out on the water, or you might find yourself getting too hot from the exertion of paddling a kayak on a sunny day. Wear thin layers of synthetic fabrics. They'll keep you warm and dry. For your bottom layer, wear an insulating, moisture-wicking item. Think long underwear or thin fleece on a cold day. You'll also want at least one more layer of insulating fabric, like wool or more fleece, and a warm, thin top layer, such as pants and a jacket made of windbreaker material. You may also want to invest in paddling pants and jackets made specifically for this purpose.

If you're kayaking in tropical conditions, you may be more comfortable in a bathing suit topped with lightweight summer clothes. Bring a warm top layer in case conditions change while you're out on the water.

Don't wear: cotton pants

Cotton sucks up water and dries slowly. If you wear jeans or other cotton pants, getting wet means you'll stay wet for a long time. On a warm day, you may decide to wear a cotton T-shirt or tank top without issue. But if you do end up in the water, you don't want your legs to be weighed down by heavy, waterlogged pants.

Wear: sunglasses, a hat and gloves

Even on cold days, the glare of the sun on the open water can cause sunburn and diminish visibility. No matter the weather, bring sunglasses and a brimmed hat when you head out on a kayak. On cool days, bring wool or synthetic gloves too.

Don't wear: bulky tops

You won't get far from the shore if you can't move your arms freely. Kayaking is a lot of work, and it becomes even harder when you're restricted by a bulky sweatshirt or coat. Furthermore, you should wear a life jacket over your clothing (your kayaking tour company may require you to do so), and that will make you bulky enough as it is.

Wear: a wetsuit or drysuit

It may not feel quite as comfortable as shorts and a T-shirt, but in cold conditions, wearing a wetsuit or drysuit is a smart safety move. Not sure whether it's warranted? Consider the 120-degree rule. If the combined air and water temperature is 120 degrees F or less, opt for a wet or drysuit to prevent hypothermia.

Either a wetsuit or a drysuit is a safe choice for kayaking. Both are designed to keep you warm in the water. Wear a drysuit over a base layer of long underwear and a middle layer of fleece. A wetsuit should be worn directly against the skin, and you can top it with a warm jacket. Bring extra warm tops in case one gets wet.


When you're kayaking on vacation, use the the kayak rental or tour company as a resource. They're the experts on the local weather and water temperatures, so if you're unsure how to dress on any given day, ask them for guidance. You may also be able to rent a wetsuit or drysuit from the company, saving you room in your suitcase.