What To Wear Kayaking [Gear Checklist Included]

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As the popularity of kayaking grows, more paddle-specific kayaking gear has started to appear.

In this article, we’ll show you how to make a kayaking gear checklist, what to wear kayaking, and some of the best kayaking gear for beginners.

Cold Weather Kayaking

The temperate and polar regions provide lots of gorgeous and dynamic places to kayak. But the colder water temperature makes paddlers more susceptible to hypothermia.

Paddlers should be comfortable with capsizing and able to recover and assist others before paddling in cold water conditions.

Familiarize yourself with the symptoms and treatment of hypothermia and always paddle with a partner in case you need help.

Wear A Wetsuit

Wearing a wetsuit may be worthwhile if you plan on being out for multiple days or the weather forecast calls for heavy rain and/or rough seas. We’ll discuss selecting the proper wetsuit in more detail below.

If you don’t want to burden yourself with a heavy and bulky wetsuit, there are other ways to ensure you’re warm, safe, and comfortable. 

Cold water areas often have dynamic and changing weather patterns. Temperate regions often experience lots of precipitation and even sunny days can turn windy and cold, even if the clouds don’t show up.

Cold Weather Clothes & Layering

a woman kayaking in the snow

It’s not uncommon for the temperature to swing by ten degrees or more throughout the course of your paddle and this combined with splashing water or rainfall, can make the windchill even lower. 

To combat this, always dress in layers. All clothing should be made of a water-resistant material like wool, spandex, or anything else that wicks moisture. Cotton loses much of its heat retention when it becomes wet and dries slowly. Have at least one long-sleeve layer accessible. 

Vest & Pants

A down vest or jacket makes a great mid-layer that blocks wind and retains heat better than most water-resistant clothing. Like cotton, it loses its effectiveness when wet, so never wear it as your outer layer and reserve your driest storage space for it when not in use. 

For your legs, I often go with a pair of long underwear and rain pants at a minimum. Dripping water invariably finds its way beneath my spray skirt and there are few things I find less comfortable than a wet bum while paddling.

Keep spare layers in a waterproof dry bag that you can access while paddling. Always bring along a waterproof shell.

Keeping Your Hands Warm

Along with your rain jacket, your dry bag should also include a pair of waterproof gloves. I’m not crazy about paddling with gloves on as it changes my grip on the paddle. Some people favor pogies but I find these cumbersome too.

Another way to keep your hands warm is to make sure your core stays warm. The warmer your core is, the more blood your body will be able to shunt to your extremities. A thick wool hat is the last piece of clothing I always bring along. While we don’t lose as much heat from our heads as we think, cold ears are never pleasant.

How to Choose a Wetsuit

picture of a wetsuit

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Made of neoprene, a wetsuit provides insulation and warmth. They work by allowing a small amount of water to fill the suit and trapping it against your skin. Your body heat then warms the water and reduces heat loss.

A wetsuit does NOT make you invulnerable to cold water immersion and hypothermia. It buys you time, but will not protect you indefinitely. 

The thickness of the neoprene varies by model. Thicker wetsuits retain more heat but are bulkier, heavier, and harder to move in. For comfort, it’s best to wear the lightest wetsuit you can for the water temperature.

Wetsuit thickness varies from 0.5 mm to over 6 mm with the thickest part of the suit covering the torso. When looking at a suit, the first number represents the thickness of the torso, the second the arms and legs. If there are three numbers, the third number is the arm thickness. Arms and legs are thinner to allow for more flexibility. 

  • Water temperature 72+: Wetsuit not necessary
  • Water temperature 65-72: 0.5 mm – 2/1 mm
  • Water temperature 62-68: 2 mm – 3/2 mm
  • Water temperature 58-63: 3/2 mm – 4/3 mm
  • Water temperature 52-58: 4/3 mm – 5/4/3 mm
  • Water temperature 43-52: 5/4 mm – 5/4/3 mm
  • Water temperature 43-: 6/5 mm +

How to Layer a Wetsuit

Thinner wetsuits are usually not full body. Some designs are tops and only cover the torso and upper body. Others are called “shortys” or “spring suits”. These cover the torso and upper arms and legs.

Tops can be paired with swimsuit bottoms, leggings, or shorts for warm water paddles. There are also wetsuit specific bottoms that come in several different designs including shorts and leggings.

Since water is allowed beneath the wetsuit layer, it’s not a good idea to layer wool or synthetic clothing underneath as it will get wet. If your wetsuit is irritating your skin or you need another layer, wear lighter UV-resistant clothing called a rashguard, usually made out of lycra. 

In colder water when a full-body wetsuit may be necessary, other accessories could be required. Some heavier suits come with a hood attached for increased head protection and others let you attach one if you want.

Booties are also available while both neoprene gloves and mittens provide maximum protection. Even covering your extremities with thinner, 2 mm neoprene will hamper your dexterity. So it’s best to only outfit yourself booties and gloves if it’s absolutely necessary.  

Kayaking in Summer/Hot Weather

A woman kayaking in summer with a hat and light, long-sleeve shirt

Sun protection is key on the water. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shield your face and neck from direct sunlight and have a light, loose-fitting long sleeve shirt that is UV-resistant on hand to protect your arms.

This will only get you so far though. When the sun reflects off the surface of the water it bounces up and magnifies, leading to quicker burns even if covered. Since there’s no shade on the water, be liberal with your sunscreen application. Apply every two hours or more frequently. Use a “full-spectrum” product that is sweat and water-resistant. 

Bring along plenty of water. You’ll dehydrate quickly on a hot day which can accelerate a sunburn and lead to other sun-related illnesses. 

Even if you’re just out for the day, bring along salty snacks so you can replace the salt and other minerals you’re sweating out. Guzzling water but not replacing your salt output can lead to a condition called hyponatremia which dilutes your sodium levels and overwhelms the kidneys.

Kayaking Gear Checklist for Beginners

Some of these items may vary with their availability and how long you plan on being out. But there shouldn’t be much difference in the type of gear you take no matter how long you’re gone.

A good paddler is prepared for any situation whether out for an hour or a week. There’s nothing wrong with redundant gear (i.e. bring along two lighters in case one breaks/runs out of fuel).

Safety Gear

Communication

Set aside a specific dry bag for your safety and emergency gear. Make sure you have at least one form of communication.

If you’re going to be in an area with cell phone coverage, a fully charged phone will do. If not, you may have to invest in a marine radio or GPS device.

Visual Signaling

This can be flares, a signal, or a flashlight. Note that some of these work better in dark or low light conditions while others work better during the day. Packing two different types is the best way to go.

Overnight Gear

warming by the campfire after a great day kayaking

Include a couple lighters, some form of fire starter, and an emergency blanket (also called a space blanket).

Toss in a couple of power bars or similar high-calorie snacks. You may not be comfortable if you’re stuck out all night, but it’s better than a risky paddle home.

Medical Equipment

There are several small first-aid kits that are worth investing in and are designed for backpackers or kayakers.

These include most basic medical supplies from bandages, gauze, and medical tape to aspirin and antibiotics. 

Kayaking Essentials

Paddle Float

picture of a paddle float rescue

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A small bag with two air bladders that are usually inflated manually. A narrow slit between the bladders is designed to hold the blade of your paddle. You can also find ones made of foam with a mesh net for faster use. 

In the event of a capsize you can inflate the paddle float, insert your paddle, and turn it perpendicular to the boat. This lets it serve as an outrigger that will keep you stable as you climb back in.

Pump

Once you’re back in, it’s time to bail. The cockpit will be full of water and a hand pump will speed the process along. The work will get your blood flowing and help warm you up too.

Bow & Stern Lines

Used to tie and secure your boat. Bow lines should stretch to the back of your seat and stern lines should stretch to the front so you can access either from your cockpit.

Paddling Knife

picture of a paddling knife

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You never know when you’ll need something sharp. Paddling knives come with a plastic holster that attaches to your life jacket for easy access.

Tow Rope

Worn around the waist and attached like a fanny pack. The line is bundled in a sack in the back which can be thrown to a kayak in distress.

Never tie another kayak to your stern lines. You need to be able to unclip in an emergency.

Whistle

Attach one to your life jacket. If you get separated from your paddle group, the sound of a whistle travels much better than your voice. 

Specific Gear for Whitewater and Touring (Multi-day) Paddles

In addition to the following items, you should also include the aforementioned safety gear and equipment.

There’s also no reason not to incorporate touring gear into your day trips if you own it.

Whitewater Kayaking Gear

Helmet: A life-saving piece of equipment when operating in rough and shallow water with hidden boulders and other hazards.

Whitewater Paddle: More streamlined and larger than sea kayak paddles. They allow for better maneuvering in tight corners. 

Proper Footwear: Sandals or open-toed shoes won’t do any good on sharp rocks. Pick something with a good sole that can handle wet and slippery rocks.

Throw Bag

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Similar to a tow rope. You can hold the line and toss the bag to reach someone onshore or another paddler. The rope should be at least 70 feet long.

Touring Gear

Kayak Repair Kit

kayak repair kit

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This will depend on your boat’s material, but it can include fiberglass patching equipment, marine-grade glue, fiberglass, resin, patches, and gel coat to fix a hole or leak. Every kit should always include duct tape. 

Compass: Either one installed into the bow of your kayak or a traditional pocket one will do. Make sure you know how to read it and understand magnetic disturbances and the difference between magnetic and true north.

Extra Clothes: I love the Scrubba wash bag to pack ultra-light, particularly in the summer months. It allows you to wash your clothes easily, so you only have to bring 1-2 days of clothes.

Water Activated Light: These also attach to your life jacket and emit a flashing light if immersed in water. They can be vital if out in remote country for multiple days. 

Paddle Leash: A flexible, bungee-style rope that wraps around the shaft of your paddle and attaches to the boat. In the event of a capsize it keeps your paddle tethered to your boat. 

Water Treatment Kit: Never drink untreated water. Giardia is a common bacteria found in wild streams and lakes that can cause serious stomach flu symptoms including diarrhea.

Food: Cooking might prove very hard when you’re far away from home. But you still need calorie-rich, nutritious foods to enjoy your trip. I like freeze-dried meals such as those provided by HarvestFoodworks.

Conclusion

With the proper clothing and gear you can kayak in a range of conditions suited for your experience level.

Hopefully, you won’t have to use many of the tools you bring along, but if you do, you’ll be glad to have them.

Have anything to add? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments below.

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