What you wear while out on the water while paddling is crucially important – not just in terms of comfort, but also for your safety
Regular kayakers, especially those who venture out all year round, generally have an ensemble of kit sorted for each season, having figured out through trial and error the requisite amount of layers and degrees of protective coverage they need while out on the water. However, for people who are new to paddling – or those trying the pursuit in a new environment, where the climatic conditions are different to those they have been used to – it can be a bit confusing trying to figure out what to wear kayaking.
Obviously, paddling attire does vary according to the season and the kind of kayaking you are doing. If you’re planning some leisurely and lengthy sea-kayak touring adventures outside of summer, you’ll need a good cag, some decent thermal protection and possibly gloves (depending on where you’re going exploring) but if you’re going to be doing some short, high-intensity performance-orientated paddling sessions, then much lighter kit will work better.
What to wear kayaking: 9 items to consider
Best PFD for kayaking
No matter what kind of paddling you’re doing, or where you are, a PFD (personal flotation device / life jacket) is the one thing you should always be wearing. And not all PFDs are born equal. For comfortable kayaking, you require a PFD that facilitates easy arm movement, so you can perform a full range of paddle strokes properly without being inhibited.
For most forms of kayaking, this means using a Type III PFD, which is different to a life jacket, because it will not automatically keep your head above water (as Type I and Type II PFDs do). These PFDs are not intended to keep you alive for long periods out on the open ocean, but they do help you stay afloat if you end up in the water, and they’re designed to allow full, comfortable arm movement. (Whitewater paddlers will sometimes wear special-use Type V PFDs.)
For kayak touring, it’s best to have a PFD with a fairly high back, for comfort against the boat’s seat. However, if you’re paddling a sit-on-top kayak you might prioritize a PFD with more ventilation. Other features to look out for include robust buckles for a good tight fit, secure pockets for storage and keeping things such as VHF radios or mobile phones handy, and safety elements such as high visibility and reflective elements.
NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD
The Coast Guard-certified NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD is a particularly good and versatile model for kayakers, with a high but well-ventilated back panel, to zipped and to clamshell pockets, six points of adjustment, various reflective and other safety features and a tough 400-denier ripstop nylon fabric composition.
Buy the NRS cVest Mesh Back PFD at REI
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Best kayaking cags
If you plan on doing any serious paddling, from touring to whitewater, then you will need to invest in a good kayaking cag. The word is short for cagoule, but these jackets, designed specifically for kayaking and canoeing, are distinct from your run of the mill sailing jacket.
While sat in a kayak, your legs are nicely protected from the elements by the boat, but your torso is exposed. Cags are worn to keep your upper body dry and to prevent windchill. They typically feature a secure waist seal system and it’s possible to pull the cuffs and collar in very tight with Velcro fastenings, so you can even roll your kayak without getting your underclothing soaked.
Other features to look out for include pockets (arm or high chest pockets are easier to reach when you have a PFD on), sealed seams, reinforced areas (for example on the elbows, to protect against encounters with rocks, and shoulders, where PFDs can rub) and reflective safety details.
Yak Apollo Cag
For kayak tourers, the Yak Apollo Cag is a good option, with a secure neoprene waistband, latex inner wrist seals and a PU neck seal.
Made with DX10k 2.5-layer fabric the Apollo has a high storm collar with chin-friendly fleece-lined moisture control vents, a fully adjustable hi-vis hood that can be deployed when required and high-vis reflective details.
Buy the Yak Apollo Cag at Gael Force Marine
Best kayaking tops
For all kinds of kayaking, from full-on creek and river running through to touring and beach outings on a sit-on-tops, you require a top that will supply some protection from the elements – the sun, saltwater, cold water and windchill, primarily – while allowing complete freedom of movement, so you can continue to comfortably and efficiently paddle.
In the summer, a long- or short-sleeve spray top worn under your PFD may well suffice, but for nine months of the year, a neoprene top will serve you much better.
Gill Marine Hydrophobic Top
Gill Marine’s Hydrophobic Tops – available for men, women and juniors – are excellent for all kinds of paddling, all year round.
Constructed from a moisture-wicking fabric that has in-built thermal technology, a water-repellent finish, the long-sleeve version supplies comprehensive UV 50+ protection while being supremely comfortable to wear.
There is also a Thermal version for winter paddling.
Buy Hydrophobic Tops from Amazon
Best base layers for kayaking
In cold weather, especially during early morning paddles, it can make for a more comfortable kayaking experience if you start off with a base layer beneath your kayaking top.
The layering system works just as well on water as it does when you’re sailing, so if you get too warm once you’re paddling, you can moderate your temperature by removing outer layers, starting with the cag, but even including your main top – good base layers, made with appropriate materials, can be worn alone under your PFD.
Helly Hansen LIFA Merino Midweight Crew Base Layer
The Helly Hansen LIFA Merino Midweight Crew Base Layer, available for men and women, is ideal.
Made with a mixture of merino wool and poly fabric, this long-sleeved top is breathable, comfortable, wicks moisture and boasts naturally occurring anti-bacterial properties that prevent bad odors building up.
It will continue to provide warmth even wet, but breathes well when you’re putting in lots of physical effort.
Buy the LIFA Merino Midweight Crew Base Layer direct from Helly Hansen
Best kayaking legwear
While sit-inside kayaks will protect your legs from the worst of the windchill, you will of course still require some coverage on the lower half of your body.
Lightweight boardshorts or swimwear might be adequate for quick, fun-focused paddles in the summer, but for anything more for substantial, and certainly in the colder months, you will need neoprene leggings or shorts, and during winter escapades these will need to offer extra thermal protection too.
Gill Hydrophobe Trousers
The Gill Hydrophobe Trousers are ideal for all conditions. A unisex, full-leg design, they’re made from a moisture wicking, non-absorbent material with a water repellent finish.
There’s a cord to keep the waist tight and the pants in place while you paddle, and they offer UV 50+ cover plus thermal protection.
They’re easy to get on and off, and comfortable to wear even on longer paddling trips.
Buy Gill Hydrophobe Trousers from Amazon
Palm Horizon kayak shorts
In warmer conditions, Palm Horizon shorts are excellent for paddling.
Specifically designed for kayakers, the recycled-nylon outer is water- and windproof, and the Horizons also boast a quick-drying fleece liner, made from recycled bottles.
Cut to the knee, they have a hip-hugging neoprene waistband and a handy thigh pocket.
Buy Palm Horizon kayak shorts from Ellis Brigham
Best footwear for kayaking
You can paddle barefoot in summer from the beach, especially on a sit-on-top, but for more serious kayaking outings, it’s best to wear proper booties.
Foot protection is important for all kinds of reasons, from keeping your feet warm to preventing puncture wounds from sharp stones, wildlife, fragments of glass and other potentially harmful things on the floor of the river, lake or shore.
The best kayaking booties will come up to and over your ankle, and will feature a secure fastening system with Velcro, buckles or laces.
Gill Edge Boots
Made with 4mm neoprene, and with excellent underfoot grip, Gill’s Edge Boots are excellent for all forms of kayaking (and a range of other watersports activities).
They have a lace closure system, plus an adjustable ankle strap that closes with Velcro to provide a really secure fit. The booties are reinforced in high-pressure areas, including the heel, toe and bridge.
On really cold days, you can combine these booties with Gill’s Neoprene Socks, which provide an extra layer of thermal protection.
Buy Gill Edge Boots from Amazon
Buy Gill Neoprene Socks from Amazon
Best gloves for kayaking
Even when the weather is warm, many people will prefer to wear gloves while paddling. Besides thermal cover, the best kayaking gloves will supply reliable grip and protection from sunburn and blisters.
Sea to Summit Eclipse Paddle Gloves
Sea to Summit’s Eclipse Paddle Gloves are an excellent option for much of the year. Made with a soft, supple, synthetic leather material, they’re very comfortable to wear, and double-layer reinforcement in the high-pressure areas means they’re reasonably robust.
They have a 2mm neoprene cuff, which keeps them firmly in place and prevents water ingress, and they offer UPF50+ protection against the sun.
The fingerless design means you retain the digital dexterity required to operate devices or open snacks.
Buy Eclipse Paddle Gloves from Sea to Summit
Gill Neoprene Winter Gloves
In colder months, a full glove will be required in order for paddling to be pleasurable. Good options include Gill’s Neoprene Winter Glove.
Made from 3mm-thick double-lined neoprene, these gloves have liquid-taped seams and a smoothskin wrist seal, plus Sharkskin palm to provide great grip in wet conditions.
Buy Gill Neoprene Winter Gloves from Amazon
Best drysuits for kayaking
When conditions are really cold, a neoprene top and bottoms will not be enough to protect you from the icy chill of the water and wind, even with a cag over the top, and this is when a drysuit is required.
Paddling conditions, especially on rivers, can be at their best during the wet, wild and shivery months, but only if you know what you’re doing on fast-moving, technical water, and you have the right gear.
A drysuit will, as the name suggest, keep you dry, so you can wear a base layer or even a fleece beneath it. They can, however, be very expensive.
Gill Verso drysuit
The Gill Verso drysuit is comparatively affordable and versatile, and it can be used for everything from kayaking and canoeing to SUPing and sailing during the winter.
Made with Gill’s XPLORE+ 3 layer fabric, treated with XPEL plant-based treatment, the Verso is both reliably waterproof and comfortably breathable.
You get into the suit from the rear, and secure the system with a heavy-duty MasterSeal waterproof zip positioned on the front for ease of use.
A highly-featured drysuit, it boasts an optional hood with two-way adjustment (which can be stashed away), laser-cut face ventilation, inner neoprene Dryseal gaskets at the neck and cuffs, an adjustable overskirt, and a PFD-friendly sleeve pocket with YKK AquaGuard zip.
Buy Gill Verso drysuit from Amazon
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