How to Layer Clothing for Canoeing and Kayaking

September 23, 2015
How to Layer Clothing for Canoeing and Kayaking

We all remember Mum shouting "have you got a jacket?" at us as we ran out the door to go play. And while you might not need reminding these days, it is important to practice Mum’s caution, especially when you are running out the door to go canoeing or kayaking.

The river, the ocean, the lake; all places that are temperamental: the conditions can change all too quickly out on the water. Before you head out on your paddling adventure, it’s important to make sure you are dressed for the conditions, but also prepared for the conditions to change.

We’ve pulled together a helpful guide to dressing for a range of conditions that kayakers and canoers experience out on the water. The great thing about clothing suited to paddle sports is that items can be combined and configured in an almost infinite number of ways. Once you are prepared for the extremes then you can handle everything in between.

Immediate Concerns

Whether you need a new dry suit to handle arctic cold waters, or a wide brimmed hat to combat the beating sun, there is one consideration that you need to take into account first: fit. Every garment needs to fit well. It needs to fit close enough that you are not carrying extra baggage around, but loose enough that you are still able to perform activities like paddling and fishing. When choosing new garments, make sure that you can move comfortably and fully extend your limbs. Try simulating the actions you will perform out on the water to ensure they fit correctly.

See also: Freycinet Kayaking Adventures takes care of everything so you needn't worry about the finer details

Outfits for Specific Conditions

It would be impossible to list here all the potential weather conditions and environments in which people paddle. However, what we can do is provide a rough guide to some of the combinations of water and air temperature that you are likely to experience, and suggest some clothing options suited to those environs.

The type of paddling you are doing will largely determine what you will wear as well. If you are kayaking down rapids, you are going to want to wear a wetsuit to keep you warm even when you are wet. If you are touring and not planning on getting wet, a lightweight suit can work well as a base layer that you can then layer with synthetic clothing.

In each case we will work from head to toe.

Warm or Hot Weather + Warm Water

Your main concern in this condition is going to be protecting yourself from the sun. You can do this in two ways, either by covering up your limbs with long garments, or by wearing sun screen. In either case, wearing sun screen is important, as UV rays can even get through clothing.

  • Hat. Your hat should provide protection from the sun for both your nose and neck. Either a wide-brimmed or a hat with a neck flap should do the trick.

  • Sunglasses. If you are riding rivers, probably not a good idea, but for kayak touring and cruising they are essential protecting your eyes from the harsh reflection of the sun on the water’s surface.

  • Wetsuit / rash vest board shorts. If you plan on getting wet riding waves or rapids, you are better off wearing clothing that either traps water close to your skin, keeping you warm when you are out of it, or that dries quickly.

  • Short / long-sleeved shirt. Alternatively you can wear regular clothing if you aren’t planning on getting wet. Sometimes however, that’s unavoidable. Make sure whatever you are wearing is lightweight, and ideally made from quick-drying synthetic material. Even better, find something made from UV resistant material.

  • Gloves. Paddling gloves are available in different weights suited to different water and atmospheric temperatures. Grab a light weight pair and avoid nasty blisters.

  • Synthetic pants / shorts. Synthetic quick-dry materials are good at repelling some water helping to keep your legs dry even when water splashes into the boat.

  • Boat shoes / booties. Your feet are probably going to get wet one way or another, so you may as well be comfortable. Booties hold warm water close to your skin helping to keep your feet warm even when they are wet.

See also: The Murray River attracts keen paddlers from all over the world

Warm Weather / Cold Water

The above rules still apply, but now it becomes important to limit the amount of water getting to your skin as much as possible. Tourers and kayak fishermen/women might go for the wetsuit undergarment option to provide extra warmth. Otherwise, synthetic thermal under garments are great for wicking moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry and warm for longer. Remember, the sun is still – to a degree – your enemy! Make sure to use the same level of sun protection, even if you are being continuously splashed with cold water.

Cool Weather / Cold Water

In this scenario, the wind might have picked up, there might even be some light rain. You really want to try and stay dry and protect yourself from the wind chill in this case. A lightweight wind breaker or shell jacket is a great option for creating a first line of defence against the elements. Throw on a pair of water repellent pants as well, and perhaps consider upgrading to a pair of boat shoes and warm synthetic socks. Keep some spares in your dry bag so you can warm up your extremities quickly with a change over.

A balaclava is a great option for keeping the wind off your face. Wind burn can be painful and annoying over the course of a long journey. You might change your sun hat for a beanie to help insulate your head.

If you plan on getting wet, you may have upgraded to a full-body wetsuit to help keep your limbs warm.

See aslo: Why not head to the river this summer?

Cold Water / Cold Weather

We are working with broad categories here: there is no one definition for the word cold. But if it’s either a nasty day out there on the water, or you are in a particularly cold climate, there are a few items of clothing you should consider taking with you.

If you are paddling on rivers that flow from high altitude, you are going to want to cover your body from head to toe in a wetsuit that is ideal for those conditions. Booties and gloves need to be worn. It’s a good idea to check with your local dealer to find out what wetsuit weight is best suited to the conditions. What do they wear?

If you are sea kayaking, canoe touring, or kayak fishing in cold climates or stormy conditions, first assess whether it’s a good idea to paddle that day. If the conditions present themselves as dangerous, it might be best to stay on dry land. If, however, you are prepared for the cold, make sure your gear is, too.

See also: Our newbies guide to being safe at sea

In some cases, a dry suit might be appropriate. A dry suit creates a completely dry environment next to your skin, stopping any water from getting in. But a dry suit won’t keep you warm on its own. You are going to need to wear a thermal base layer with your new suit to maximise its thermal properties.

Your feet need to stay dry too. Combine your dry suit with a pair of water tight boots to stay warm even in arctic conditions.

Remember step one: check your fit! Some of these clothing items might be a bit bulky, so be sure to check that once they are on you can actually fit into your kayak and still paddle.


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