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Kayak Clothing: Cold Water Clothing for Spring

Kayak Clothing

Spring has finally arrived and you’re ready to get out kayaking on the river for the first time this season. The temps are perfect—lower 70’s and going to rise—so you don’t want to get too hot. You throw on a pair of shorts, a cotton T-shirt and a light weight jacket and load your kayak. Morning kayaking—what an awesome way to start a spring day.  But things could end badly if you set out like this.

Kayak clothing in the spring must consider water temperatures. Early spring is the most dangerous time for kayakers to get cold shock, cold incapacitation and hypothermia. There is a great temptation to dress for the air temperature and not for the water temperature.

The water temperature can be a full 30+  degrees lower than the air, and that’s enough of a difference. A spill from your kayak could mean you could end up in water cold enough so that your limbs become immobilized within 5 minutes, even if you’re only 5 yards from shore. The right kayak clothing can save you. Here are some sobering facts about correct kayak clothing (and the lack of it):

  • Without a wetsuit, people may become completely shocked by the difference in air/water temperature and loose consciousness nearly immediately.
  • Those who don’t loose consciousness may only have about 30 minutes in 40 degree water before exhaustion or loss of consciousness set in.
  • A 3mm neoprene wetsuit will likely give you another 30 minutes on top of that.
  • In 35 – 40 degree water you only have 10 or 15 minutes before your hands and arms become dysfunctional.
  • Even swimmers and experienced swimmers become unable to function once cold incapacitation happens.
  • Kayakers who are immersed in cold water (typical in early spring and late fall) typically loose body temperature 4 to 5 times faster than when in air of the same temperature.
  • This can lead to cold shock, hypothermia, cold incapacitation and even death.
  • Keep in mind the 5-50-50 Rule, which is that kayakers have 5 minutes to swim 50 yards in 50 degree temperature and has a 50/50 chance of surviving that.
  • Also consider the 1-10-1 Rule, which is that if an unprotected kayaker suffers cold shock for only 1 minute he has  about 10 minutes before he can no longer function and then will succumb to hypothermia in 1 hour (unless drowning happens first).

How do you protect yourself? With the proper kayak clothing for the water temperature and always with a  PFD. 

Here is the first rule of thumb, for spring kayak safety: dress for the water temperature (and the possibility of being immersed in it) and not just the air temperature (though the air temperature is to be considered).

Here’s the next rule of thumb for spring kayak clothing:  

Layer it on. Layers are vital for protection during spring paddling.  Typically you’ll need three layers:  a base layer to wick sweat away from the skin and keep you dry (this could be synthetic nylon or smart wool). When using a wetsuit there is no additional wool or synthetic needed.  A mid layer is meant to give warmth but not absorb lots of water (fleece works well). The outer layer is to protect you from wind and water.  A waterproof paddling jacket or even a drysuit is recommended.

What’s a the fuss about a wetsuit or a drysuit? What is the difference?


These are snug garments made of neoprene (usually 2mm to 3mm thick for paddlers) that do not keep water out, but do trap a thin layer of water next to your skin where it is warmed. Wetsuits can feel restrictive to movement. Wetsuits come in different styles, short sleeved, long sleeved, sleeveless Farmer Johns and Farmer Janes  (the Farmer John suit is popular because there is not loss of mobility from tight fabric over your arms, ),  but all wetsuits prevent loss of body warmth through evaporation by trapping and warming water next to the skin. Polyurethane coated fleece is another option which warms water near the body but does not keep it out.


Drysuits give the best protection for cold water or rough water kayaking.  These one piece nylon suites are coated with polyurethane and are totally water proof, due to the suit itself and the latex gaskets at the neck, head, wrists, and ankles.  In other words, if properly constructed, water cannot get in.  But the dry suits have to be worn with the correct layering to be really effective: a wicking layer to wick moisture away, and then a layer of insulation such as smart wool for insulation, followed by the drysuit.  Alternately, a wet suite could be the base layer, then a mid layer for insulation, followed by the drysuit. Drysuits can be hot as the day wears on and the air temperature increases.  Drysuits save lives.  The best bet (and most expensive type) is a GoreTex suit that allows sweat to evaporate. This is top quality kayak clothing that performs for safety and comfort.

Last modified: December 4, 2021