What to Wear Kayaking and Canoeing
What to wear kayaking and canoeing is important. What you should wear depends on the paddling environment and the likelihood of taking an unexpected swim.
When the air and water are warm, simply dress for a day at the beach. Keeping in mind to wear things that protect you from the sun and keep you cool. When the air is warm and the water is cold, you have to assess the conditions and your capabilities more carefully. If you’ll be paddling a placid stream, dress for the air. If taking a dip is at all probable, dress for the water. Remember, whitewater means cold water, and whitewater means you should plan for a swim. Many prudent paddlers prepare for every trip assuming someone is going to get wet. It is sensible to pack an extra change of clothes.
The key concept to bear in mind is layering. Several thin garments will keep you just as warm as a single thicker one, and are much more versatile. Remember you’ll need to think about staying cool as much as staying warm, and you can always add or subtract layers. The base layer provides insulation and picks up perspiration and either absorbs it (like cotton or wool) or wicks it outward (like synthetic fibers). You want moisture to be wicked away. The insulating layer can be wool, fleece, or a similar material. Look for garments that are cut to allow complete freedom of movement. The outer layer protects you, the base layer, and the insulating layer from the elements. Make sure it is both windproof and waterproof. Gaskets seal out water from getting in around the neck and wrists, and can be helpful.
Footwear can range from old sneakers with wool socks, to river sandals, to neoprene wet suit booties, to “wellies”, to dedicated paddling shoes. Kayakers, whether touring or whitewater, need to consider seated comfort, how well their shoes brace against bulk heads and foot pegs, and how their heels will rest. Canoeists need to consider kneeling comfort and make sure that the shoe they choose has plenty of flex.
In cold air/cold water conditions, hypothermia is a serious threat. A wet suit or dry suit is a good investment. The choice here is made by personal preference and the desired level of protection. Lightweight gloves protect against both abrasion and exposure. Polypropylene keeps hands warm when wet and dries in no time. Wool gloves also work well when wet. Pogies, mittens that fit over hand and paddle shaft, keep both hands and paddle warmer and drier. Neoprene gloves serve as another alternative in cold weather paddling conditions. Remember the 100 degree rule: If the combined air and water temperature is 100 degrees or less, use caution and wear a wet or dry suit; and if the water temperature is less than 50 degrees, consider the river one class more difficult than usual.
Wearing the right stuff will keep you warm and dry, providing a safer and more enjoyable paddling experience.
— Watch more tips in action from our Safer Paddling series.
— And get acquainted with all the basic skills for your first kayak tour in our Need to Know series.