What to Wear Kayaking in Cold Weather?

Whoever said that kayaking has to be enjoyed only in the summer? While most people would rather head out on the water on a warm sunny day, there are a lot of us crazy enough to venture out when it’s downright freezing out.

But, what should you wear during cold weather kayaking sessions? Also, what happens if you capsize while you’re out on the water? You might think that’ll never happen to you because you’ve been paddling for years. But what if it does? Are you ready to plunge into the ice-cold water?

Here you are about to find out what you should wear when kayaking during winter and how to stay safe.

Coldwater is extremely dangerous. According to the National Weather Service, when you come in contact with cold water, cold shock can cause an immediate loss of breathing control which can then increase your risk of drowning, even if you know how to swim and even if the water is calm.

So, how can you paddle safely in winter?

As a rule of thumb, you should wear something that can protect your body from direct exposure to the cold water in case of immersion. With the right clothing, you can survive a swim back to your boat and be able to proceed to paddle.


Wetsuits are close-fitting garments that cover most of the body and are generally made of neoprene or similar materials considered to be a good heat insulator. When you wear a wetsuit, you will still get wet but you’ll get a layer of additional protection against abrasions, cold shock, and hypothermia. 

There are different types of wetsuits that you can choose from:

  • One-piece wetsuit – This wetsuit covers your torso and it extends up to your neck, wrists, and ankles. This is your best choice for the winter or extremely cold conditions.
  • Shorty wetsuit – This one provides cover for your torso, thighs, and upper arms. It is an ideal spring suit.
  • Short John wetsuit – A single-piece wetsuit covering your torso and thigh. It is ideal for warmer waters.
  • Long John wetsuit – It’s like a one-piece wetsuit but with no arm coverage. It is a preferred choice by triathletes.

    Advantages of Wetsuits

    • Available in a wide variety of styles and thickness levels to best match your activity and weather condition
    • Allow you to move freely
    • Keep you warm even if the water is extremely cold

    Disadvantages of Wetsuits

    • Not designed to keep you dry
    • A bit difficult to wear and remove especially when damp


    A drysuit is designed to keep you insulated and completely dry in harsh conditions. More often than not, it is considered overkill for paddling unless the weather and water are extremely cold.

    Compared to wetsuits, drysuits are typically more expensive. That is due to the many unique features that they have. Among the important features of a drysuit are the seals or gaskets around the neck wrists that prevent water from entering the suit. However, unlike a wetsuit, a drysuit works as an outer layer only. This means that you need to have base layers to stay warm.

    Advantages of Drysuits

    • Your best option in extremely chilly temperatures as they allow you to don several layers of clothing underneath to stay warm
    • Designed to keep you completely dry
    • Easier to put on or remove than a wetsuit

    Disadvantages of Drysuits

    • Not designed to provide insulation
    • If your drysuit does not have a relief zipper, going to the bathroom can be challenging

    Dry Tops and Paddling Jackets

    Dry tops are an ideal choice when a full drysuit is not necessary. They work more like drysuits as they are designed to keep you dry. PaddlngDry tops also come with rubber seals or gaskets around the neck and wrists. However, be extra careful when getting one as some products have issues with the seal in the waist area.

    If you often use a canoe or a raft, it’s a great idea to get a good dry top. It pairs well with paddle pants, making it much easier to go to the bathroom. 

    For some who like the idea of a dry top but want to get rid of the uncomfortable seal around the neck, an alternative choice is a paddling jacket. If you are confident that your yak is not likely to roll, a paddling jacket is a perfect upper garment for you.

    In contrast to dry tops, most paddle jackets do not have latex gaskets. Without a neck seal, a paddling jacket is far more comfortable than a dry top.

    Dry Pants

    When you think of dry pants, you might have imagined that you won’t be needing them unless it’s wintertime. But the truth is, even during a warm spring day, the water could drop below 70 degrees (Fahrenheit), which means that it can be dangerous to go kayaking unless you have a complete gear. And speaking of gear, a pair of dry pants nicely goes with a dry top.

    When you go kayaking, your legs are often below the water surface. So when the water is icy-cold, dry pants will keep your legs insulated and dry.

    Base Layers

    Proper layering is vital when wearing a drysuit which does not by itself provide insulation. A thin layer in cold conditions can spell disaster. Base layers function as insulators. When it is too chilly, you need more base layers for insulation, whereas if it’s warm, you obviously will need less.

    Base layers should be good-fitting, breathable, and comfortable. The number of layers that you’ll need will ultimately depend on the weather conditions and level of activity that you want to engage in – thinner base layers will do a better job of wicking away moisture during heightened activity.

    As the foundation of an effective layering system, base layer clothing is categorized by progressive “weight” classes. What that means is your first layer should be ultra-thin or ultralightweight, followed by lightweight, middleweight, and finally heavyweight for rough conditions.

    The most common materials for base layers are wool, silk, and synthetics such as spandex, nylon, and polyester. 

    Additional Tips for Kayaking in Cold Weather

    Aside from wearing the right kind of clothing to protect your body from the cold, you also need to consider how to keep your exposed parts warm. Here are our additional tips:

    Keep Your Hands Warm

    whitewater kayak with paddle that's shorter

    When you go paddling, your hands get most of the work. When it comes to keeping your hands warm, paddlers are into two opposing sides – those who prefer to wear gloves and those who prefer to use pogies. 

    Neoprene gloves are waterproof and they also offer good dexterity if you picked the right size. Gloves that are too tight can restrict your movement while if they’re too loose, you may have a hard time getting a firm grip on your paddle.

    Pogies are open-ended envelopes attached to a paddle and have an opening where you can insert your hand. With pogies, you can hold your paddle with bare hands. What’s great about pogies is that they are easy to get your hands in and out of. They are also warmer than gloves and they allow full dexterity of your hands.

    Keep Your Head Warm

    Some drysuits, dry tops, and jackets already come with a hood. If yours didn’t come with one, you could invest in neoprene hoods, fleece hats, or a waterproof ball cap, in varying thicknesses. Layering is key to keeping your head comfortable.

    Keep your Feet Warm

    There are water shoes designed for those who frequently engage in water activities. However, these shoes have bulky soles that are hard to fit in a kayak. Unless you find the right size for your feet and kayak, your next option would be neoprene wetsuit boots.

    These boots are available in different styles, thicknesses, and sizes. Aside from keeping your feet warm, they also provide an additional level of protection for your feet.


    Winter landscapes are unbelievably stunning. From ice formations and snow-covered trees to mountains and beautiful sunsets, there are plenty of things your eyes will enjoy when the weather gets colder.

    However, there’s also some risk to cold-weather kayaking, such as hypothermia or even death. But, things will be different if you wear the right cold-weather suit for kayaking.

    Wetsuits, drysuits, dry tops, paddling jackets, dry pants, and base layers are vital to keeping you warm and comfortable during your kayaking adventure.

    Don’t forget to put on something for your head, hands, and feet. If you venture out in complete cold-weather gear and know the safety precautions, you’ll have the best experience you can ever have.

    Kayaking in Cold Water FAQs

    To answer this question, we need to understand the dangers of cold water. Warm air doesn’t necessarily signify that the water is warm. To be sure, you should carry a thermometer with you to measure how cold or warm the water is.

    According to the National Weather Service, survival time is greatly diminished for someone immersed in water below 70 degrees. Immersion in this icy water without good thermal protection can be life-threatening.

    The safe water temperature for kayaking greatly depends on your thermal protection. A thin layer isn’t going to help you much in frigid conditions. You can explore the icy wonderland with your canoe so long as you have adequate thermal protection to keep you warm and dry.

    While traditional shoes may get the job done for kayakers, more often they also hold a good amount of water so that at the end of your trip, it almost feels like you have a heavy rock tied to your feet. To avoid this, consider getting reliable water shoes. They are water-resistant and drain water from inside the shoes.

    Boots are also becoming a popular option. There are boots designed specifically for kayaking. These boots have rugged soles to provide stability and a good grip. Boots are the best choice for cold weather kayaking as they are warmer than traditional shoes.

    Yes, it is safe to kayak in the winter as long as you observe some safety precautions and have the proper gear:

    • Put on your complete thermal protection. In case your kayak capsizes, you know you won’t get a cold shock as soon as you hit the icy waters.
    • Choose a safe location. Avoid steep river bends and don’t go too far from the shore.
    • Don’t go alone. It’s best to have someone with you who can also help in case of an emergency.
    • Bring safety gear. You never know what can happen on a regular day out kayaking. The least that you should prepare and bring is a first-aid kit, a communication device, and a GPS.
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