The right clothes can make the difference between a miserable day and a happy day on the water. In some cases, the right paddle wear is a matter of survival.
How do you know what's right for you? Start with when and where you are paddling. If it's warm weather and warm water, you'll want light clothes that dry quickly and protect you from the sun. Check out Kokatat's Destination Wear line, which is designed specifically for warm-weather paddlers who still want protection from the sun, wind, spray, and bugs.
NRS and Immersion Research also have great rashguards, shorts, and quick-dry pants for paddlers. Several companies are now doing capri-length pants for women, which provide extra protection from sun and scrapes.
Our models at left show some casual paddling options. Blair Corson (left) is wearing a BodyGlove rashguard and Immersion Research board shorts along with neoprene booties, while Jessica Corson (center) pairs a neoprene vest with board shorts and sandals. Erika Corson has added an extra layer for warmth under her Kavu board shorts—Immersion Research Thickskins, which are soft and warm.
When you're facing more serious conditions and colder temperatures, the key is to dress so that you'll be comfortable while paddling and protected from the cold water. Even if you never flip, you can get chilled and hypothermic from being exposed to splash and spray.
Start with a moisture-management layer, a base layer that wicks perspiration away from your body. Kokatat makes an Inner Core line; NRS has HydroSilk and MicroLite; Immersion Research offers a Thin Skin material. Look for wicking, quick-drying material.
An insulation layer adds warmth when it gets colder. SmartWool and several other companies have a new generation of wool garments that don't itch and can be washed—they're good under waterproof layers. Polartec also has some new fleece products that are better for paddlers—Polartec Thermal Pro PowerStretch and Polartec AquaShell, which has body-hugging four-way stretch and a windproof membrane. Check out Kokatat's Outer Core, Immersion Research's Thick Skin, and NRS's Mystery shirt, to mention just a few.
The outer layer keeps you dry. It can range from jackets and pants designed to protect you from splash and spray, wind and rain, to completely sealed dry suits, with gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankles to keep out the water.
The standard material has been Gore-Tex, for waterproof breathable protection. Now other companies are introducing their own new waterproof breathable materials. NRS's Motion top is made of a fleece-lined, stretchy, waterproof breathable softshell material. Kokatat is offering drysuits, paddle shirts, and dry tops in its new Tropos material. Stohlquist offers dry tops and dry suits in its Eclipse fabric. Other manufacturers are introducing their own proprietary waterproof breathable fabrics.
Many kayakers prefer a dry top along with paddling pants or thermal bottoms, and those also come in a wide range of prices.
Other options for canoeists and kayakers are the wetsuit and its substitutes, known generically as Fuzzy Rubber. They offer insulation but not protection from the wet. I paddle a lot in NRS's version, called Hydroskin, with a splash top or a dry top over it. It's not too warm in warm weather, but keeps me warm when I take an unexpected swim. Also check out Rapidstyle's Metalite Neoprene and Sticky Buns pants, or Mountain Surf's Aquashell line.
Shoes are important, both to protect your feet, both from rubbing on the interior of the boat and for scouting and portaging. You want a bootie that keeps out rocks and sand and keeps your feet warm. See the water shoe review in this issue for details about several brands, and what to look for.
A kayaker needs a spray skirt. It keeps the sun off your knees, keeps the water from dribbling down your paddle into your lap, and keeps errant waves from splashing into the cockpit and swamping your kayak. It should fit snugly on the cockpit coaming, but be easy to release in the event of a capsize.
And paddlers who tackle whitewater, whether in a kayak, a canoe, or a raft, will want a helmet to protect their brains against hard knocks that may come their way. Sea kayakers who plan to paddle in rock gardens or the surf will want a helmet as well.