How to dress for seakayaking

By Anders Thygesen.

Functional clothing for seakayakingis a problem and something that sea kayakers never cease to discuss. I will try to present some thoughts on what is to be considered when deciding what to wear for a kayaking trip on the sea both summer and winter.

In Norway, it is always winter—in the sea! The water represents a danger all year round, and it is important to dress with this in mind. The sea kayaker has a difficult task in dressing for two extremes. On the one hand, hard physical activity in a warm environment and on the other laying submerged in cold water. It is not uncommon in the early spring to see people kayaking alone far from the shore in leisurewear. The air temperature can be high, perhaps 20°C (68°F), with no wind chill, and in such conditions, the choice of clothing may be suitable. Directly under the kayak, however, the temperature in the water is only 5 - 6°C (41 - 43°F). Body heat loss in water is 25 times faster than in air, and should the kayaker be unlucky and capsize, then the leisurewear offers little protection from heat loss.Choice of clothing will always be a compromise. An insulated emersion suit is the optimal choice for laying in the sea, but far too warm for kayaking in. The important thing is not to dress according to the calendar but consider all the relevant conditions before setting out: wind, air temperature, water temperature, and the changes to be expected in wind and temperature conditions during the trip.

The body

There are numerous ways of dressing. Below I will describe some of the alternatives and discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each garment.

Neoprene is an excellent insulation material, better than anything else when wet. Its insulation ability depends upon its thickness. Neoprene clothing for kayaking is usually 3 mm thick, a healthy compromise between ease of movement and insulation ability. It is important with a snug fit, however. The principle is that the thin layer of water between the neoprene and the body is heated up by body warmth and will remain there without being replaced by fresh, cold water. One-piece neoprene suits are seldom used in kayaking because of constricted mobility and poor ventilation possibilities. A better alternative is the so-called Long John, a tight-fitting bib and brace trousers covering most of the body except for the neck and arms. The vital organs are well protected when lying in the sea with the head and neck above water. Most Long Johns have zippers down the front, and ventilation from the arms and upper body is therefore good. However, the Long John should be combined with a woollen vest or similar and a wind/waterproof top, depending on the temperature. The majority of kayakers are comfortable in neoprene. The disadvantage is that it tends to smell over extended trips and you are somehow allways wet.

The drysuit is probably the best solution for keeping warm in cold water. The drysuit is a waterproof shell to be used with an additional insulating liner. Drysuits are very popular for paddling in Norway these days. It is just a super simple and practical choice eight times out of 10 days of paddling if you paddle all year round.When choosing a dry suit, there are so many temptations when it comes to smart details. Relief zips, pockets, hoods, double seals around the waist and more are some of the extra features some drysuits are equipped with. Personally, I prefer as simple a suit as possible. Preferably a single zipper in the front and a few other details as possible. The details make the suits more expensive and not necessarily better. The great thing about a simple suit with a front zipper is you can unzip and peel off the top when you have a break. This will vent out the inside of the suit as well as all the layers beneath, making it less damp. I use more «advanced» dry suits with double wrist seals and double seals around the waist every once in a while. The result is that I never get to open and undress from the suit during the day and end up being wetter and damper than in my simple drysuit. Whether you enjoy wearing a dry suit is a matter of personal preference, but either way, it is the best protection available in cold water. Some kayak shops sell two-piece models that can be rolled together at the waist, but some leakage can occur with extended activity in the sea. They are fine for paddling in, but the insulation effect is not much better than the alternatives described below.

Paddling tops/drytops Kayak dealers sell a variety of paddling tops for all seasons and types of kayaking. Some have tight-fitting neoprene seals at the wrists to prevent water from entering the sleeves when paddling in rough weather, while others are adjustable. White water kayakers have also neoprene seals at the neck to prevent water from entering during Eskimo rolling. This is not a good solution for sea kayaking because the need for air circulation is a priority. Some tops have a double seal at the waist where the spray deck is sealed in between these two layers. If the top is too specialised, the need will arise for an extra top to use on land, so it is also a question of money. All paddling tops should have a hood and a high-visibility colour.

Tuiliq Originally a jacket made from sealskin with a hood. The jacket fit tightly around the cockpit, making both the paddler and the kayak waterproof at the same time. The modern versions are made from neoprene. Many kayakers use the tuilik to play and practise Eskimo rolls. It is brilliant for this. Partly because it isolates well and partly because you don’t get cold water into your kayak, down your neck, in your ears, etc. It makes rolling more comfortable, and the movability is superb. The neoprene isolates very well, so in combination with a neoprene trouser or Long John and woollen underwear, you have well-insulated paddle clothes for a lot of different circumstances. The tuilik might be somewhat hot for kayaking during hot, sunny summer days, but for paddling in grey, cold weather, wind, rain and snow, it is superb.

A simpler solution can, in most situations, work just as well. Most of us have already clothes suitable for padding all year round. When dressing for a normal trip, I wear woollen underwear and woollen socks, because they insulate well even when wet. If it is cold, I wear a thin woollen pullover or fleece as well. On top of this, I wear a windproof anorak and pants. If I should capsize, I will get wet, but the water will be warmed up by my body heat and the windproof outer layer will prevent fresh cold water from coming in, which is the same way wet suits work. My pants and top are specialised kayak clothing but in my experience, windproof/showerproof pants and an anorak do the same job.

When choosing a top for paddling, it is important to look for the following: good ventilation at the neck, adjustable wrist closure and, last but not least, a hood.

The head

The head is the most important part of the body to keep warm. Note the following:

  • At +10C will 25% of the body's heat loss be through the head
  • At +5C will 50% of the body's heat loss be through the head
  • At -10C will 75% of the body's heat loss be through the head

(Source: Leif Vangaard 2002)

Always have headgear with you. A beanie or neoprene cap or hood. Even during the summer, I always have a beanie handy to protect me against heat loss if I should be unlucky and capsize. The wind chill is an important factor in heat loss and paddling in the wind with a bare head can result in hypothermia. It is therefore important to have a hood on your paddling top or anorak. In strong wind, a hood will protect the neck as well, also an area of high heat loss. A nice, lightweight alternative is a buff - a tube for your neck you also can use as a beanie. And, of course, the rain hat - the sailors' favourite during hundreds of years works just as well for the modern kayaker. Another important issue is sun protection, the head and neck are especially vulnerable, a hat or baseball cap can help here.

The hands

The hands are another problem area, especially when it is cold. I will describe some alternatives here and discuss advantages and disadvantages. 

Mittens or “pogies” fastened directly to the oar are probably the most popular choice in Norway. Made from nylon or neoprene with an open palm to give a good grip on the oar, they are not 100% waterproof, but the hands are protected from the wind. The advantage is the good grip on the oar. The disadvantage is no protection for the hands if you should capsize and wet exit the kayak. 

Neoprene gloves are another choice, the advantage being that you can change position on the oar or even drop the oar and still have warm fingers. Comfort can be a problem. Some people find that they can be too tight when gripping around the oar shaft and prevent blood circulation to the fingers.

Fishing gloves as used by professional fishermen are available, all are waterproof and some are lined, they are made in different lengths and the long-sleeved ones are to be preferred when paddling in heavy seas. The grip in the palm of the hand can vary but I have been found several that work well. The price is usually low, and the quality is good.

Wrist-warmers. Some paddlers suffer from tendinitis in the wrists. This can be a result of poor technique, a too long or large bladed oar or too much feather angle on the oar. Keeping the wrists warm can be preventative and many paddlers use neoprene wrist warmers. The wrists are vulnerable; they are often wet and exposed to the wind and heat loss here can be considerable. Wrist warmers cover the complete wrist and back of the hand and are close-fitting without being too tight. Thin neoprene is preferable because the wind is the problem, not the water.

The Feet

Neoprene boots or socks are used by many paddlers. These are practical in many ways, as the feet are kept warm even when wet, and with the long ones you can wade out into the water even when it is cold. The disadvantage is that you will be sitting with wet feet, which over time can lead to athletes' feet. If you have a small and tight kayak, a thin neoprene sock with a thin layer of grippy sole is a great alternative.

Woollen socks Some paddlers prefer to wear thick woollen socks, sometimes with additional sandals. Woollen socks are warm and comfortable and you can wiggle your toes, which helps to keep them warm. Short rubber boots can be used when getting aboard the kayak and take off and kept separately in the cockpit during paddling.

Footbags Another product many paddlers swear by is watertight foot bags often used inside tents and the construction of emergency shelters in the snow. The bags are worn over the boots or woollen socks and fastened below the knee. Some have a reinforced sole and they can be worn during the entire trip. You can also use footbags to protect the feet of the drysuit. These do not need to be watertight, but easy to put on and take off.

Footbags for when on a trip, taking a break on land. They are excellent especially in northern Norway or in the winter.

Neoprene socks are great for taking care of your drysuit feet or keeping warm during colder summerdays.

Neoprene gloves. Waterproof as well.

A Long John or Farmer John is an excellent choice if neoprene paddling gear is your thing.

A simple dry suit. No fuzz, no muzz. Just a simple front zipper for easy airing out.

Tuilik in neoprene from Brooks. It comes in brown, black, for small and bigger cockpits.

Neoprene hood. A must have in Norway and cold areas.

The classic fisherman's rain hat. It might look a bit silly, but it's really worth it.

Neoprene pogies. For a cold, rainy or windy day.

Wrist-warmers in neoprene. A compromize for not so cold days.