When most people think about all of the things they could do during the winter, kayaking would not be high on their list.
But for the more adventurous kayakers among us, winter kayaking in 60° F, 50° F or even 40° F is definitely a thing. A brand new winter wonderland awaits to be explored on icy waters, but you need to be prepared.
Did you know that your body heat decreases 4x faster in cold water than in cold air at equal temperatures? Getting drenched without being prepared will lead to rapid heat loss, which can result in a cold shock, hypothermia, or even worse…
But if you use the correct winter kayaking clothes and gear (as you are about to learn), paddling in cold weather is a blast.
Fundamentals of winter kayaking Clothes and Gear
Learning how to dress for winter kayaking is important for keeping yourself safe during paddling in freezing water. When it comes to deciding on what to wear, there are a few fundamental things you need to keep in mind.
Dress appropriately for the water temperature
When you pack your clothes, you need to consider the temperature of the water you will paddle in, not the temperature of the air.
Air temperature can be deceiving, beginners often under-dress when the air temperature is mild. Just because you get a nice, mild, sunny winter day, the temperature of the water can still be near freezing.
When you dress for winter kayaking, you need to prepare for the possibility of entering the water. It will happen sooner or later.
You can see the present water temperatures here.
On any winter day, the air temperature will swing up and down. Your body’s temperature will also increase as you paddle and exert yourself, but it will drop sharply as you rest, or worse, go overboard and get wet.
Having several layers of clothing ready to take off or put on is the only way to keep yourself comfortable during your winter journey.
There is an easy to remember rule when it comes to layering clothes:
Wick, warmth, and weather
- Wear water wicking fabric on your skin.
- Insulate with warm fabrics.
- Weather-proof yourself with outer garments suitable for the weather conditions you will be dealing with.
I will talk about this subject more extensively later in the article.
No cotton at all
Cotton clothing is not to be worn during water activities, especially during the winter.
- Cotton soaks up water like a sponge, which is the last thing you want if you get wet on a freezing day.
- When you wear cold, wet clothes, your body loses a tremendous amount of body heat trying to warm it up to body temperature.
- It takes a long time for wet cotton to dry, even if you put it next to a campfire.
In summary, the clothes you wear kayaking should retain very little water.
Have dry clothes ready
Always have extra clothes ready in a dry bag when you go kayaking in cold weather. If you get wet, the dry clothes could be a lifesaver.
And even if you stay dry, a change of clothes after a day of paddling will feel great.
Preparing for a swim will save your life
When you are out on the water, there is always a chance that you will go overboard. Even if you are an experienced paddler.
You need to prepare for the worst case scenario, since you may not be close to shore or dry clothes right after getting wet.
Dress in a way that will keep you comfortable, even if you have to paddle for a while after getting soaked.
Should you wear a Drysuit or a wetsuit for winter kayaking?
When you go kayaking during the off-season, you need to wear either a wetsuit or a drysuit to keep you warm in case you fall overboard.
Wetsuits for kayaking
Wetsuits are made of neoprene. They trap a thin layer of water between the neoprene layer and your skin. This layer of water acts like insulation. It is warmed by your body, and it keeps you warm. The water is not released through the suit, it does not circulate.
Wetsuits are used by scuba divers and boaters alike.
You can get wetsuits in all kinds of thicknesses. Naturally the thicker it is, the warmer it keeps you, but the more restrictive it will be to move around in.
It is important to get a wetsuit that fits you exactly, and that you can paddle in without restrictions. If you buy one online, make sure you try it on when you get it, and change sizes in case it is not perfect fit.
Many kayakers, including myself, choose a wetsuit which has full legs but no sleeves. This is called a Farmer John wetsuit. This style is more comfortable when paddling, but as you would expect, it does not provide the protection a sleeved wetsuit does. Wearing a dry-top over a wetsuit is a great combo. I’ll talk about dry-tops in the drysuit section.
Pros of wetsuits
Cons of wetsuits
Drysuits for kayaking
In contrast with wetsuits, drysuits are 100% waterproof. They do not allow any water to enter the suit, by closing all ankle, wrist and neck opening with latex gaskets.
These gaskets last for years, but will wear out and tear at some point. They can be replaced though, so you don’t need to buy a new suit every few years.
Drysuits are more expensive than wetsuits, and needed for kayaking in extreme cold conditions.
Pros of drysuits
Cons of drysuits
When do you wear a wetsuit vs drysuit during winter kayaking?
The decision on what to wear for winter kayaking should be based on the temperature of the water you will be paddling in.
Here is a helpful guide to help you decide on whether to wear a wetsuit or a drysuit on your trip.
|Water Temp||Risk of Hypothermia||Clothing|
|70 °F <||Low||3 mm wetsuit or shorty|
|60-70 °F||Moderate||5 mm wetsuit|
|50-60 °F||High||Drysuit or 7 mm wetsuit, or wetsuit with dry-top|
|> 50 °F||Extreme||Drysuit|
Cold Weather Paddling Apparel Layering Guide
As I mentioned before, you need to get used to layering your garments if you go winter kayaking. You need to be able to adjust to differing conditions throughout the day, as the temperatures of the air and your body change.
There are 3 layers you wear when kayaking in cool weather.
Base layer/inner layer
The base layer of your clothes needs to wick moisture away from your body, so it should consist of synthetic fabrics.
If you wear a wetsuit, that will be your base layer. Nothing should be worn under a wetsuit, other than your non-cotton underwear.
Second insulation layer
The second layer of your winter paddling attire is meant for insulation. You can wear 1 or 2 layers here, so you can adjust and stay comfortable.
This layer should also consist of materials that do not retain water yet insulate well, such as wool or fleece if it’s cold.
Outer layer to protect against the elements
The outer layer of your clothing should consist of garments that shield you from whatever nature throws at you: rain, sun, wind, water spray, etc.
If you get a drysuit, that will be your outer layer. Underneath your drysuit, you would wear non-cotton long underwear as the base layer and fleece middle layers.
Specially made paddling jackets are a good option for your outer layer. They have closed necks and wrist cuffs to keep out rain or spray, so they are ideal in “warmer” weather.
Dry-tops are the next step up before a drysuit. Dry-tops are basically waterproof paddling jackets, which have gaskets at the neck, wrist and waist. They are great for experienced paddlers who do eskimo rolls and have a sit-inside spray skirt, but will let water in if you fall into the water. Wearing a Farmer John wetsuit under a dry-top is a great option.
Hats for kayaking in the cold
You loose a lot of heat through your head, so make sure you get head protection suitable for the temperatures you will be kayaking in. Whole-body temperature regulation starts by keeping your head warm.
If you need a helmet, make sure you wear a skullcap underneath it. If your route does not warrant a helmet, a thick synthetic ski hat will do.
Your best option is to get a neoprene full coverage hood, which keeps your head warm and keeps water out in case you fall in.
You should also have a face mask ready for paddling in the cold.
Gloves to keep your hands warm
Protecting your hands against water and cold is imperative. Remember, frostbite can set in quickly in freezing weather.
Regular gloves are not suitable for waterlogged winter kayaking.
You need either waterproof gloves or pogies to keep your hands warm and dry.
Pogies are neoprene mittens wrapped around the paddle shaft. You put your hands into them, and you can grab the plastic with your bare hands. This extra contact provides more control of the paddle. This becomes important in whitewater environments, if that is your thing.
Waterproof wetsuit gloves are made of neopreme, just like wetsuits. They are warmer, but their thickness leaves less control of the paddle.
Footwear for winter kayaking
Keeping your feet warm is important not just for comfort, but for your blood circulation as well.
You should get specialized wetsuit paddling booties (neopreme) to go kayaking in the winter, as the insulating layer of water will keep your feet warm even if you enter the water. These booties have thick rubber soles, which provides grip when walking across rocks in our out of the water.
They come in different styles based on ankle coverage. The taller booties are better at keeping your feet warm, as they generally don’t let water get in.