Gear & Clothing Strategies for Cold Weather Kayaking

One of the greatest things about kayaking is the fact that it is a watersport that can be done in a wide variety of weather conditions. Leading kayak trips for Sea Kayak Adventures on the northern coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, we certainly see everything from hot and sunny to cold, rainy and windy weather. One of the most common questions I get as a guide is, “what should I wear sea kayaking?” As it turns out this is a particularly tricky question to answer for other people, since everyone has a different personal temperature, and will be comfortable in different things. What I might wear happily on the water may be very different from what somebody else would need to stay comfortable. In this post I will attempt to outline a variety of tips, strategies and options in order to plan your kayaking outfit for paddling in a colder climate. If you missed my last post, I talked about how to dress for warm weather kayaking, and explained in detail the essentials of a PFD and sprayskirt. Now without further ado let’s dive into cold weather strategies!


Clothing for Cold Weather Sea Kayaking

When paddling in cold weather there are a few strategies that can help make sure you stay comfortable throughout your trip. I’ll outline a few of the key points here, and then jump into specific options for what to wear.


In the outdoors, one of the key concepts you’ll hear talked about is layering your clothes. The idea behind this is to wear multiple layers of clothing so that all together they add up to keep you warm enough for the coldest points of the day. This way once you start moving, or as the sun gets higher and the day warms up, you can peel off the top layer effectively adjusting your clothing to the specific conditions at any point. The typical strategy for this involves three main types of layers, described as wicking, warming and weathering layers.

  • Wicking: The wicking layer is your base layer worn right next to your skin. Depending on the conditions this can be a long underwear top, a rash guard or even just a t-shirt. The intention here is that this layer will “wick” or pull the sweat away from your skin, keeping you mostly dry underneath and preventing you from getting too cold when you stop.
  • Warming: The warming layer is your insulative layer, generally meaning a warm fleece, or insulated jacket,worn to keep your heat in. For extra precise control, I like to break this into two layers of lighter fleece so that I can remove one of them without losing all of my insulation.
  • Weathering: The weathering layer is the external layer, worn directly under your PFD. This generally means a raincoat or windbreaker, something to protect you from the elements. The combination of a wicking, warming and weathering layer and the ability to mix and match to suit the conditions will allow you to stay comfortable throughout the day.

Material Options:

Another common questions is, what type of clothes should be worn in the outdoors? Of course you can always find an outdoor store where you can blow tons of money on fancy fabrics, but it doesn’t need to be that complicated. The most important rule is to avoid cotton at all costs! Cotton might be a comfortable, fashionable material in the city, but in the outdoors it is the worst of all options for one simple reason. When cotton gets wet, it loses all of its insulating properties. Since getting at least a little bit wet is pretty standard for kayaking, we try to avoid cotton wherever we can. Wool is my favorite option whenever possible, but there are lots of other fabrics that do a great job. Polyester/polypropylene, fleece, really anything other than cotton is a good bet. You don't need to get extremely technical here, as long as you avoid cotton you’re good.


What Should I Actually Wear When Cold Weather Kayaking?

Now that we’ve covered all the background, how do we actually decide what to put on? Let’s say you’re standing at the beach with all our gear and we need to decide what to wear. Let's start from the top and work our way down.


I almost always paddle in a ball cap for sun protection, even on a cloudy day. If it’s really cold though, I’ll trade that in for what we Canadians call a toque, also known as a beanie or wool hat for extra warmth. Even on cold cloudy days I usually recommend sunglasses since the reflection off the water means that even cloudy days can be hard on your eyes. It’s always a good idea to protect your glasses with some kind of a strap, chums or croakies, since nobody likes to watch their expensive sunnies sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Upper Body:

The layering technique described above is going to be your best bet when it comes to dressing your upper body for a day of cold weather kayaking. I usually start with a (non-cotton) t-shirt on the bottom to ensure that I’ll be comfortable if the day warms up, and then layer some fleece for the cold, and a raincoat to protect from both precipitation and wind. Your upper layers are the easiest to change while on the water so you don’t have to get this perfect before you leave. It’s good to remember though that you'll be adding a PDF on top of it all and this provides some extra insulation.  Add to this the fact that you’ll be physically working as you’re out paddling, and most people find they’re a little warmer once they get going than they are while standing on the beach. One of my favourite expressions here is “be bold, start cold,” since most often people are looking to shed a layer, rather than add one, once they’re out on the water. That being said if you follow that advice, and find you’re not warming up, it’s good to have an extra fleece in your lap bag so that you can throw it on quickly. Neoprene gloves can be a good option as well on cold days. I rarely wear them, but almost always have a pair with me, and they can make a huge difference in my comfort on a cold windy day.

Lower Body:

This one is always tricky to advise for others since people’s preferences vary dramatically. Even on quite chilly days you’ll catch me paddling with nothing more than board shorts on my legs. My logic here is two fold. First my legs are very rarely cold in a kayak. I find the sprayskirt does a remarkable job of keeping my legs warm, so while I might be wearing lots of layers on top, my bottom half stays fairly comfortable without as much insulation. Second, I hate stepping in the water and getting the bottom of my pants wet, so I forego the pants entirely. I would say however that my strategy is not the norm and that there are several options for people who find their legs are likely to get cold out there. On really cold days, I’ll wear long johns underneath my board shorts, which, in addition to being quite the fashion statement, keep me more comfortable than wet pants, and warmer than bare legs. If you don’t mind the idea of your pants getting wet that can be a good option too. Alternatively if you know your legs tend to get cold, you hate the idea of wet pants, and you’d rather keep your feet dry entirely, you can invest in a pair of dry pants. Dry pants are waterproof pants with a built in sock, meant to keep your feet and legs dry, even when walking through the water. These are very popular with the guides in the Pacific Northwest, since the water around there is never warm, and we spend a lot of time standing in it.


Be Aware of Water Temperature

Speaking of the water temperature in the Pacific Northwest, this brings me to an important caveat to everything I’ve discussed. The majority of the strategies that I’ve discussed are intended to keep you comfortable in your kayak. While most kayaking excursions have every intention of staying in the kayak, this isn’t necessarily a guarantee. It’s important to recognize the possibility of ending up in the water when kayaking, and always having a plan for that in place. Generally when participating in a guided kayaking trip, having trained guides with you is the contingency plan, but not every kayak trip involves trained guides. If you’re going paddling by yourself, or even with friends, and any of you are pushing the limits of your comfort zone in terms of rougher conditions, it’s recommended that you dress for the water temperature, rather than the air temperature. This is why in areas where the water is cold it’s not uncommon to see independent paddlers wearing wetsuits or even drysuits. This provides an extra layer of safety in the event of a capsize, and it’s something to consider especially when kayaking without professionally trained guides. 

Hopefully this article has covered all of the information needed to help you plan your clothing options for your next kayaking excursion. Clothing options, especially in colder conditions are always a very personal decision, and everyone will develop different strategies for what keeps them comfortable (and of course, stylish!) As long as you follow the layering techniques and avoid cotton, you should be able to set yourself up for success, and make adjustments on the fly to ensure that you’re always well dressed on the water. Now the next step is to get out there and go kayaking!

See you out there!


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