It might not seem like there’s much of a dress code for kayaking, but what you wear makes a difference, and should depend on the type of environment you’ll be paddling in. If you’re going out in the summer or in the warmer parts of the world, the most important considerations are keeping you dry and protected from the sun. If paddling during the colder months or just really cold water, you’ll need to make sure you stay dry and warm.
If you’re kayaking in warm weather and warm water, you can wear just about anything that you’re willing to get a little wet. A t-shirt or tank top, a pair of shorts, some old running shoes, and plenty of sunscreen should be sufficient. If you’re paddling a sit-on-top kayak, know that you’re definitely getting wet and should wear something that’s dries quickly. If you can help it, don’t wear anything made out of cotton. It might keep you cool and wick away sweat, but it takes forever to dry. Instead, choose clothing made from either synthetic fabric or merino wool. Both will wick away moisture, but will dry in a fraction of the time.
The chief concern for your footwear will be providing comfort against the foot pegs and allowing you to carry your kayak to the put-in point. Many people wear old tennis shoes, which are fine as long as it’s unlikely you’ll be falling out of the boat (they’re hard to swim in). A better option would be hiking sandals that have a back strap; they’ll dry quickly so your feet won’t get irritated, and they won’t smell like an old, wet sneaker.
Warm Weather/Cold Water
Choosing what to wear for whitewater kayaking is more of a challenge, as you might be out on a warm sunny day, but paddling in a glacier-fed river that’s 40 degrees cooler. For the most part, your spray skirt will protect you from the cold, but your hands, torso, and head will still be exposed. Your hands will have the most contact with the water, and a pair of neoprene paddling gloves will prevent them from freezing and protect them from blisters.
A good rule of thumb for whether you should wear a wetsuit is to add together the water temperature and air temperature: if it’s below 100 (or 38 for those using Celsius), you’ll probably want a wetsuit. If you end up needing to do a wet exit in these conditions, you’ll be thanking yourself for wearing that wet suit as you plunge into the chilly water. A 2mm-thick wetsuit is probably sufficient for most alpine rivers; a “shorty” that only extends to the knees and elbows should prevent you from overheating when you’re not being splashed with cold water.
Cold weather paddling necessitates much more specialized equipment: gloves, booties, a dry suit, and a hood. Coming into contact with frigid water when the air temperature isn’t far above the freezing point can be downright lethal. Drysuits are constructed of waterproof material like GoreTex and have cuffs at the wrists, neck, and ankles to prevent any water from getting into the suit. They’re worn in conjunction with neoprene booties and gloves to give full-body protection. Since much of the body’s heat escapes through the head, a neoprene hood is also a necessity. Remember that paddling in cold weather is much more dangerous than in warm weather and should not be attempted until you have some experience under your belt.
Be sure to check the weather before heading out on any paddling expedition. Wearing the proper clothing will make kayaking a much safer and more enjoyable experience, and a just little forethought goes a long way.