TopKayaker.Net's Guide To Kayaking Safety

Chocorua Lake-Spring Thaw by Andrew Thompson Cold Weather - Cold Water &
Watersports Clothing Protection For The Modern Kayaker
by Tom Holtey
Also see: "Watersports Clothing: BUYER'S GUIDE FOR KAYAKERS"

It is a well-established fact that sit-in-side kayakers should always dress to swim, taking into account water temperatures, no matter how good the insulation of their sealed and decked boats. Sit-on-top kayakers should also adhere to this rule, as well as any other person participating in small boat activities. Photo: Chocorua Lake in Spring Thaw Perception's Illusion Photo by Andrew Thompson

The early Eskimo kayakers developed a closed cockpit boat with a paddling jacket, complete with hood. In some instances the garment was actually sew onto the kayak, sealing the paddler into their tropical cocoon on a wild artic ocean. These early paddlers were not prepared to swim. Eskimo rolling and rescues were their only salvation after a capsize. So we have invented insulating clothing, and some pretty high tech stuff to date, to provide a tropical climate that surrounds us, and goes where we go.


Your body looses heat in four ways: Conduction, Convection, Radiation and Evaporation. Heat always flows from a warm place to a cool place to seek a balance.

Example: Put an Ice cube in a glass of warm water. The heat in the water flows into the ice melting it, making the end result a glass full of water that is warmer than the ice was but cooler than the water was. If the flow of heat, on its path, encounters an area that is as warm or warmer than the area it came from the flow will slow, stop or reverse.

Conduction is a flow of heat from a warm object in direct contact with a cold object.

Examples: When you hold a cold can of beer you feel the heat in your hand flow to the can, and warm the beer, as a cold sensation. If you put the can of beer down the flow of heat from your hand will stop, and keep your beer colder. So, when you are seated in your kayak your butt will feel cold because the heat flowing from your body is warming the seat of your kayak. If you use a seat pad on your kayak made out of insulating foam rubber, you will slow the flow of heat from your body into the kayak.

Convection is the flow of heat from a warm object into a gas or liquid assisted by a circulation of that gas or liquid.

Examples: When a wind blows on your face you feel the heat leaving your face as it warms the air that is rushing past your skin. If the wind stops, or you cover up, you feel warmer. While swimming in chilly water, heat flows from your body into the water. If you stay very still the water around you warms up, but if you move through the water you leave a trail of warmed water behind you while you are moving into water that is cold and has yet to be warmed by your body heat.

Radiation is the flow of heat through the ether of empty space, like a beam if light. It is not necessarily dangerous nuclear radiation.

Examples: You are standing next to a campfire on a cold night. Heat is flowing from the fire, in a wave/particle beam, warming the side of you facing the fire, but the side of your body facing away from the fire is cold. If somebody stands in-between you and the fire they get the heat and leave you in the cold. When the sun is shinning you can feel its warmth; dark objects absorb this heat, while shinny or light colored objects reflect this heat. When the sun goes down every thing starts to cool off. You reach for your handy space blanket to wrap around you and it reflects the radiant heat coming from your body back to you.

Evaporation is the process of changing a liquid into a gas. In our case it is water. This process requires, and uses heat. It is facilitated by the flow of air.

Examples: While exercising you perspire; the moisture on your skin dries cooling your body. If you get caught in a rain shower with out a raincoat, your soaked clothing chills you even after the rain has stopped. If a wind picks up you are chilled even more. Once the clothing has dried, or you find shelter from the wind, you cease to feel cold.

Chocorua Lake Spring - New Hampshire-Perception IllusionWHAT WATERSPORTS CLOTHING SHOULD DO

Water sports clothing, and all clothing for that matter, deter these forms of heat loss by insulating the kayakerer.

Your body's "core" is the important part to keep warm. This does not imply that you will sacrifice your limbs; it just means that if your core is warm the extremities will have access to excess heat. Your core consists of your head, neck and full torso. The arms and legs are not part of the core. If the core temperature drops too low heat is diverted from the limbs to the core. Photo right by Andrew Thompson

  • Reducing heat loss by convection is one of the primary tasks of protective clothing. A wind and waterproof material, otherwise called a vapor barrier, best achieves this goal. A splash top will act like a windbreaker and prevent the wind from cutting trough your clothing, or as raincoat to shed the rain. A dry suit or wet suit will prevent the circulation of cold water against the skin while the wearer is submerged.
  • Conduction can be reduced by using an insulation layer. A polar fleece jacket and pants will warm up to your body temperature. Heat flowing from your body will be slowed or stopped before it can flow through your already warm clothing and into the seat of your kayak or the air around you. A dry suit, in combination with an insulation layer, will prevent heat lost into the water from a swimmer's body.
  • Radiation heat loss is the hardest to reduce since a simple barrier will not impede the etheric flow of a wave of electrons. Radiation must be reflected or absorbed to stop the flow. Radiation can be reflected by a shiny surface such as foil, a space blanket, or an area of heat, such as a pocket of warm air trapped in your garment. A thick, dense layer of material such as a sweater can absorb some radiation.
  • Evaporation is best controlled by an insulation layer that wicks moisture away from the body through absorption rather than heat transfer. Polypropylene, polyester fleece and to some degree wool are well suited to this task. The moisture from perspiration will be absorbed and held in the material, away from the skin. This will leave the wearer feeling warm and dry while the moisture held in the garment is slowly released without substantial cooling.

Even though cotton has a great ability to absorb water it will not wick it away from your skin and release it in a manner that will keep your skin temperature comfortable and safe. Do not wear cotton. A vapor barrier such as a splash top can retard evaporation by preventing wind from assisting in the evaporative process.


Dry Suit: (Keeps wearer warm and dry.)

A dry suit is a waterproof garment, with tight fitting neck, wrist and ankle gaskets made of stretchy rubber. There are one or more waterproof zippers to allow entry into the suit, and in some cases one to allow the wearer to relieve themselves. Some suits may even feature a hood and or socks.

Dry suits offer the highest level of thermal protection. They work by trapping a pocket of air, warmed by your body, inside the suit. A dry suit by its self cannot keep you warm. When an insulation layer such as polyester fleece is worn under the dry suit, that layer will remain dry and warm, keeping the wearer safe and comfortable, even while fully submerged.

Dry suits do not allow much, if any, perspiration to escape, so it is essential to wear fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin and remain warm even when wet. Wearing long underwear with wicking properties under your insulation layer will facilitate this.

Some dry suits come as two-piece outfits; I recommend a one-piece suit to reduce the number of openings and possible leaking.

Caution: Make sure you know how to use your dry suit. Neck, wrist and ankle gaskets are fragile. Proper maintenance, inspection and donning of garment is necessary to insure a tight waterproof seal. Never paddle with a dry suit partially open. If you capsize the suit will fill with cold water, and make you less buoyant limiting your ability to float and remount your kayak.

Wear a dry suit when you know you will be exposed to the coldest conditions and for extended durations. Dry suits, with an appropriate insulation layer, are very good for cold water, winds, splashing waves, rain and cold air. A dry suit is your vapor barrier to keep the wind and rain off, but it will also protect your warm, dry, insulation layer. A dry suit is also a good choice if you will be unable to land, such as a long crossing in open water, or along coastline with a shore that you cannot land on.

Wet Suits: (Keeps wearer warm and wet.)

Farmer JaneA wet suit is a neoprene rubber garment that fits snugly against the skin. It works by trapping a layer of water, warmed by your body heat, against the skin. When you enter the water with a wet suit on you will feel the cold water seep into your suit and gradually warm to your body temperature. Once the water gets in your suit, and warms, it will stay there at a comfortable temperature. There is little circulation with the colder water that the wearer is swimming in.

Wet suits come in a wide variety of types, and there are new materials that transcend the original neoprene roots. The principles of wet suits and, the materials they are made from have many other garment applications, such as boots, gloves and hoods.

A "Farmer John" or "Farmer Jane" (his and hers) is the most common wet suit. Like the name implies it is kind of a water sport overall, long legs and a tank top. It keeps the your torso and lower body warm. The neck and arms are exposed and more often than not an additional upper garment, over the farmer john/jane, is necessary to complete the outfit. This type of suit does increase the freedom of motion in the upper body, witch is essential for kayakers.

A "Full Suit" covers the whole body, arms, neck, torso and legs. Most wet suits are made for scuba divers and surfers who do not need the same freedom of motion that a kayaker will need in the arms. Check the fit of a full suit carefully to make sure that your paddling motion will not be inhibited. If there is any stretchy, "rubber band" like feeling while simulating paddling, do not get that suit. Even a little bit of stretch will be multiplied by a long trip and leave you fighting your own suit for every mile. Look for a suit with flexible material in the shoulder area.

A "Shorty" is like a full suit but has short arms and legs. This garment provides less protection, but keeps your core warm and is good for extending your summer season. Check the fit just like you would on the full suit.

Wetsuit topWet suits also come as "Short Pants", "Tank Tops" and "Short Shirts." Wet suit shorts and tops are ideal for summer use of sit-on-top kayaks, and can be worn under quick drying shirts and pants (nylon or fleece) to extend your season. Short sleeve wet suit tops can be worn in combination with farmer a john/jane. Most of these short sleeve tops have flexible material in the shoulders that allow for the movements of paddlers.

Wet suit Wet suitesYou will feel wet inside of your wet suit from perspiration or from water that has entered your suit. Wet suits of any kind are best worn against the skin or over a thin layer such as a bathing suit.

Addition garments such as a splash tops or insulation layers are best worn over the wet suit.

Wet suits are now available with added features. My favorite is a "Fuzzy Rubber" wet suit, with a layer of poly fleece laminated on the inside that wicks moisture away from your skin, leaving you feeling dry, but still traps warm water against the skin, while submerged. Some wet suit materials have tiny flecks of metal that act like a space blanket to reflect your body heat back at you. Others are extremely stretchy to allow full freedom of motion. Some materials are even semi-breathable allowing for additional comfort while paddling or while on shore.

Many wet suits have a layer or two of lycra laminated to the neoprene rubber. This gives the suit a nice, fabric feel and offers some protection for the rubber. On the down side, the outer layer of lycra can absorb water and when wind blows, it can evaporate that water cooling the wet suit wearer. To avoid this look for a suit with a non-absorptive outer surface or wear a splash top over the wet suit.

Wear a wet suit when the water temperature is colder than you would be comfortable swimming in. The colder the water the more protection you will want. If you have less protection rather than more protection, make sure you have identified several landing locations along your route to stop and warm up as necessary. Add an insulation layer and or a splash layer over the wet suit as necessary for additional warmth.

Hats:(Keeps core warm.)

Paddle HatsHats??? Yes hats! Most of the heat lost from the body is lost from the head. A good hat will help keep your whole body warm. Even a ball cap will help, but good outdoor or water sports headwear will do the job right. The best protection comes from a polar fleece watch cap. The polyester material dries fast, is warm when wet and light weight. If it is too warm to wear one, tuck it into a handy place for quick access. Put it on when you take a break or when you feel the chill. Keep a spare handy for an ill prepared paddling partner.

Broad brim hats are good for the sun, but they also shed the cold rain away from your head, face and neck. These wide brim hats are made especially for a variety of conditions such as rain, cold weather and sun protection or some combination there of.

Hoods and skull capsHoods and skullcaps for kayakers are usually made of neoprene or some of the High-Tec hybrid materials. They are best for very wet cold conditions such as white water, ocean surfing, and big water crossings in bad weather. They also fit nicely under a helmet.

Gloves and Pogies:(Keeps hands warm, maintains dexterity.)

Paddle glovesLook for gloves made specifically for kayakers. Test grip a paddle shaft (or something like it) tightly, with the glove on to determine if a seam will give you a blister. Gloves come in a wide variety of styles and materials. For cold water use, look for neoprene gloves. Some styles of gloves will have palms made from synthetic leather. (Do not get natural leather!)

At Tom's TopKayaker Shop:
Paddle gloves
Neoprene paddling gloves keep your hands warm, but can be used in all weather for improved grip and hand protection. Can be used in combination with pogies for extra protection. Pogies
Neoprene paddling mitts to keep your hands warm in raw weather. Wraps around paddle shaft giving the paddler the option of bare hands grip inside mitt, or can be used with paddling gloves for extra protection.

Gloves will come with a wide selection of protection levels. Some will have long cuffs, some mesh backs; some will have fingertips cut off. Get the level of protection you think you will need and a spare pair of different gloves that can accommodate more severe conditions as back ups. Less protection will be necessary in the warmer months. Gloves can be used all year protect the skin of your hands, softened by exposure to water, from blisters and cuts.

Pogies are like mittens for kayakers, but do not have thumbs and there are holes for the paddle shaft to enter. You attach them to your paddle shaft, with a flap and a Velcro closure. A large hole is available to insert your hand into each pogie. You can then grip your paddle shaft with your hand inside the pogie. They create a pocket of protection around your hands and the grip area of your paddle shaft.

Footwear:(Keeps feet warm and safe.)

Paddle bootsNeoprene Boots will keep your feet warm, and protected from some of the harsh landscapes that kayakers encounter. Paddlers originally found their neoprene footwear among scuba supplies. Today many companies make booties or boots especially for kayakers, while the scuba suppliers are still a valid source.

Water will enter your Neoprene shoes while launching, landing and normal paddling activities. Only high-top, knee-high boots have a chance of preventing that. The water that fills the shoes will warm to your body temperature, like a wet suit and keep your feet warm.

Paddle bootsNeoprene boots come in a wide variety of styles. Some are literally neoprene socks, some are booties like house slippers, other come up and over the ankle, even knee high in some cases. A sturdy sole will greatly aid in comfort on the foot wells/rests of your kayak, as well as a rocky barnacle beach landing. Make sure that the boots fit well. If they are too loose water will circulate in your shoes and cool your feet, or even wash off in a wave! If they are too tight it will restrict blood flow and cause your feet to be cold.

Wearing wicking socks inside your boots can enhance comfort. While you cannot expect to have dry feet, they will feel less wet and clammy. Use wicking type synthetic socks that are thin, thick, or in some cases, maybe knee high boots, wool socks.

If you are using a "high-top" or "knee-high" style boots, make sure that you do not tuck your splash pants into the top of the boots. Water will trickle down into the shoe and get your feet wet, foiling your plans to keep dry feet.

Many kayakers may choose rubber "Gum Boots." I would recommend against this because they will become useless and heavy in a capsize situation.

Some summer type footwear such as sandals and mesh top beach shoes can be enhanced by using neoprene socks, but a good pair of neoprene kayaker's boots is your best choice.

Splash Wear:(Keeps insulation layer dry, blocks wind.)

Splash top short sleevePaddling jackets and pants are the kayaker's equivalent to the hiker's rain suit and/or windbreaker. While a rain suit could be used in a pinch, the splash top and splash pants are your best choice.

Splash pantsThese garments are specially made for kayaking, paddler's needs and freedom of movement. Splash tops and pants are made out of water resistant material such as Gore-Tex or urethane coated nylon. Tops come in short and long sleeve varieties. As the name implies, they offer protection from splashes; they are not waterproof in submersion situations like a dry suit.

They are, however, very good vapor barriers protecting the paddler from wind, rain, and the regular splashing that kayakers face. They will also keep your insulation layer warm and dry.

Splash Top long sleeveYou will likely find that water will penetrate your splash pants if you find your self sitting in a wet cockpit. Sometimes a bit of water will trickle into the sleeves of your top, but for the most part, splash wear will protect your body core, where it counts.

Splash wear will not work by it self; you will need to wear an insulation layer underneath to stay warm and comfortable. Wear splash gear when it rains, or is threatening to rain; for wind protection and for wave splashing. As a vapor barrier splash gear can add an additional level of insulation protection even if I is not raining or windy.

Insulation Layers: (Traps warm air against body.)

Fleece Vest Fleece PantsAn insulation layer is any garment that provides a space for trapped air to remain warm and stay relatively free form convection currents.

Poly Fleece is the classic insulation layer. Its thick, dense, wooly weave traps warm air against the skin keeping you warm like a wool sweater. A pair of pants and a long sleeve top, or jump suit, made from this material is the perfect outfit to wear under a dry suit or splash wear set.

Add an additional layer of wicking long underwear, made from capilene or polypropylene, is good for comfort under your insulation layer, while wearing a dry suit on top of it all. It will make you feel dry.

No dry suit? You can wear a wet suit, full suit, or shorts and a top as a foundation under your insulation layer for protection from immersion. This is not as good protection as a dry suit but better than just an insulation layer.

A vest made from poly fleece is handy as a warm up or extra layer.

Polypropylene tops are quite common water wear for kayakers and other water sports enthusiast. Polypropylene wicks moisture away from the skin.

Any wool garment can keep you warm even it is wet, but it will be very heavy and dry slowly.

Nylon and other synthetic clothing can act as light insulation layers but are used more often in the warmer months by themselves.

Cotton is not a good choice for water sports. Cotton holds moisture against the skin, dries poorly and facilitates evaporation.

Insulation layers can be worn by themselves in warmer conditions, but for colder weather they are more often used in combination with dry suits and splash wear.

Watersports Clothing Resources:

*See Watersports clothing choices available at TopKayaker Shop OR our Amazon Link

More Articles:

Wetsuits For Sit-on-top Kayak Surfing by Steve Eisenhauer

Watersports Clothing: A BUYER'S GUIDE FOR KAYAKERS the most comprehensive paddle clothing article on the web with links to purchase.

Cold Climate Kayaking - Strategies for paddling with a sit-on-top kayak in colder climates.


This article is pretty thorough but I would like to suggest these books for additional information. You can purchase them through our Book section. 

RIVER SAFTEY, by Stan Bradshaw, for information on the prevention and treatment of hypothermia.

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