Choosing the right clothing for kayaking – whether for kayak fishing or just recreational paddling – is similar to the requirements of other outdoor activities like hiking = You’re looking for versatility, durability and comfort while you’re on the water in different conditions and types of waters. You’re also looking for protection for wet conditions (really wet conditions), as well as potentially cold water, depending on where you are paddling and what time of year you're paddling.
When deciding what to wear kayaking, follow these general guidelines:
- Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) and never take it off while on the water. If you need to adjust your top layers, find a place to take out instead. You can also “raft up” with a kayak buddy holding your boat firmly while you change, although changing on shore is the better option.
- Dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature; this may mean wearing a wetsuit or dry suit when temps get colder, but for most places in late summer to fall a good performance shirt will work perfectly.
- Dress in layers, especially on top. Again, a good quality performance shirt is always a good choice somewhere in your choice of layers, no matter what the weather or season.
- A good pair of fishing-caliber polarized sunglasses is super important to not only protect your eyes, but also to cut down on sun glare so you can spot fish or on-water hazards.
- Dress for sun protection, such as using a Vibe Sun Jammer. Regardless of cloud cover, a day on the water is a day of sun exposure. So wearing clothing with UPF-rated fabrics is a wise choice (plus sunscreen for reflected UV radiation).
- A good comfy hat with a brim not only keeps the sun glare down, and the sun and rain off your head, but every head needs a fave hat. Vibe has some awesome ones to fit any weather, style and mood.
- Water shoes of high quality – like Astrals – protect feet from hazards below and above the water line.
- Avoid cotton in all layers, because it absorbs water and stays wet; seek quick-drying fabrics instead. For any clothing layer that touches your skin, go with wicking, quick-drying nylon or polyester (or another synthetic fabric). Wool dries less quickly, but insulates when wet, so is also a fine choice.
- Wear clothes that let you move comfortably and will be comfortable for long periods of sitting.
- Look for abrasion-resistant fabrics that are more rugged and can stand up to the wear and tear of sand, water and any rough materials of your kayak.
- Avoid “rustable” zippers, fasteners and hardware: Water, particularly salt water, corrodes many metals, so rugged plastics are a good alternative. You can probably trust that metal components in paddling-specific gear are corrosion resistant.
How to Dress for Kayaking in General Conditions
PFDs: There’s a reason kayak rental shops require you to wear a personal flotation device (PFD), even if you only plan to paddle close to shore. Those close-in waters are where most drowning accidents happen, but they rarely happen to a paddler wearing a PFD. Even cool water feels shocking when one capsizes—a PFD provides core body warmth and keeps you afloat without having to rely solely on swimming prowess. So don’t step into the boat until you put on a properly secured PFD.
Underwear: If paddling in warm conditions for shorter outings, many people choose to wear a swimsuit as a first layer. Just keep in mind the general guidelines above to make sure you’ll be comfortable for the duration of your trip. Otherwise, choose non-cotton sports bras and underwear suitable for outdoor pursuits.
Tops: Performance shirts as mentioned above, are well-suited to paddling and other water sports because they’re quick drying, stretch well and have high UPF ratings to protect against damage from UV rays. If you don't plan to swim in them, they're a good option, otherwise perhaps choose a swim shirt or rash guard. Your favorite synthetic or wool base layer can work fine as well if you need more warmth.
Bottoms: You can wear whatever is comfortable and quick-to-dry on your bottom half; board shorts or comfortable quick-dry pants are good options. Avoid things that bind or chafe. Super thin fabrics, like in some synthetic yoga pants, are not a great idea because they aren’t made to stand up to constantly shifting in your seat as you paddle.
Mid-layer: If conditions don’t require either a wetsuit or a dry suit, then bringing along a fleece jacket or other warm, synthetic mid layer makes sense.
Outer layer: If you expect any exposure to significant rain or wind, choose a quality waterproof/breathable jacket and rain pants. Paddling jackets are nice because they have gaskets at the wrists and neck to ensure the water stays out; they’re especially nice for keeping out the drips that run down your paddle shaft. If you’re going on a short outing and don’t expect significant rain, a breathable/water-resistant jacket can work just fine.
Footwear: Water shoes are designed to shed water, dry quicker than standard shoes, and help keep rocks and sharp objects underwater from hurting your feet while kayaking or kayak fishing. Avoid anything without a back strap, like flip-flops, because they come off your feet too easily.
For colder conditions and where rain or wave splash are likely, you can also get waterproof socks or waterproof paddling booties. Another option is to wear thick non-cotton socks inside waterproof booties for added warmth.
Hats: Look for hats with good brims, either ball cap style or all-round. Consider a cap leash, too, if you don’t have a chin strap or other reliable way to secure your hat. In cold conditions, you also need a beanie for warmth—it should fit snugly under or over your other hat.
Gloves: Paddling gloves are nice because they protect against both blisters and blustery days. “Pogies” are another cool-day option: They fasten to the paddle and you slip your hands inside them to grip the shaft. Some people prefer them because pogies let their hands directly grip the paddle while also being shielded from the elements.
Sunglasses: Polarized sunglasses might be the most crucial piece of gear after safety wear for kayaking. Not only do they protect your eyes from harsh sun and damaging UV rays, but they allow you to see what's ahead and around you – as well as spot fish if you are out kayak fishing. Also keep in mind, few sights are sadder than a pricey pair of shades sinking to the bottom of the sea, so make sure your have "glasses retainers". Your retainer needs to float (check it at home) and always be attached. (It’s a good idea to bring a spare retainer, too.)
What To Wear for Kayaking in Cold Conditions
Putting on a wetsuit after you capsize doesn't work. It’s what you put on before you get in the kayak that counts. And the strategy is the same whether it’s your first or your millionth voyage: Dress for submersion, not success.
Risks of capsizing in cold water range from immediate lung and heart shocks to drowning, as well as eventual hypothermia. And don’t plan on putting on a wetsuit after you capsize because it’s too late and pretty much impossible to do.
Unless you’re paddling in protected, close-in waters, then a wetsuit or dry suit is recommended for all but the mildest conditions – you’d be wise to wear one any time the water temps are 60 degrees Fahrenheit or cooler. If the water temperature is above 60, you need to consider the air temperature as well. You should still wear your wetsuit or dry suit if the combined air and water temp is less than 120°F - according to the “Cold Water Survival Guide” published by the ACA (American Canoe Association), which certifies canoe, kayak, SUP and raft instructors nationwide.
A wetsuit is the minimum protection needed for those conditions. Typically made of a thick neoprene, it insulates you by holding a thin layer of water (heated by your body) next to your skin.
A dry suit is for colder water (and air). Made of a waterproof material, it also has watertight gaskets at the openings to keep you completely dry. You adjust warmth by wearing long underwear or another insulating layer under it.
For hot air, but cold water, consider a sleeveless wetsuit, or you can look at wetsuits with shorts and short-sleeve tops.
Coastal water temperatures are found in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) water temperature map.
For inland waters or areas NOAA does not cover, search online, ask your guide or contact a local paddling club or shop. Shop staff can also advise you about wetsuits and dry suits.
The key to fun and safety while on the water is to dress appropriately for where and when you'll be paddling.