Clothing choices

Looking for help from experienced paddlers!

Being relatively new to kayaking, I am confused with what clothing purchases to make to cover myself, without going bankrupt doing so. We live in upstate NY, where warm water temps are mostly a summer thing. What is the best combination of paddling clothes to purchase initially to cover most of the bases?

Giving the poor economy we all are facing, how can I get the most bang for the buck in paddling attire ? Is a full wetsuit necessary or can a pair of neoprene shorts and shirt be sufficient to get me started with late spring & early fall kayaking ?

What do experienced paddlers wear to protect themselves in(late spring/summer/early fall/ seasons without spending a fortune to do so ?


– Last Updated: Apr-16-09 12:06 PM EST –

If your listed favorite spots reflect your locale of residence, there are a lot of experienced paddlers near you.

Until the water temps hit 60F, we usually wear dry suits. At water temp of 60, wet suits (usually Farmer Johns/Janes)are fine.

When the water temps reach 70 or so splash wear and/or light non-cotton clothing can be fine.

You might want to check in with the Albany ADK chapter paddling committee chair...

Lots of options
Personally, I back up ten degrees from previous poster’s response. Below 50, drysuit. Below 60, wetsuit. But much depends on your personal tolerance for cold water.

In general, drysuits are wonderful but put you in the “small fortune” league, unless you can find one on clearance (and this is the time of year for that) or used.

Splash jacket and pants, with poly and fleece underlayers, are most economical, and will take you a long ways in terms of protection. My personal experience swimming in ice water with splash gear is that you will get wet, but the leak rate is slow enough so that it’s not the same shock as a naked plunge, and you don’t have cold water circulating directly on your skin.

Your risk can be somewhat controlled by your choice of venue. It is high risk to paddle big, open water, where you could be swimming for a long time. If that’s your choice, you need a drysuit. But if you paddle lesser waters where you can quickly get out, you can get by with splash gear and a drybag full of warm, dry clothes.

So, you have options. There’s a saying that you should be able to swim your gear. If you have questions about what conditions you can tolerate, jump in the water and try the rescue you’d need to do. For deep water, that’s reentry and survival until you can get warm. For a small stream, that’s possibly getting out of a strainer, recovering your gear and getting over to the bank. Obviously, control the conditions of the trial, and don’t stick yourself in a strainer!


Paddle Wear
I bought NRS Hydroskins on clearance sale (I believe it is still on) at their web site. They seem to be a good compromise between dry or wet suits and splash wear.

I’d say hydroskins are good warm-water wear, or fair protection against short swims in protected cool water. They’re a lot less protection than a wetsuit or a 3mm drysuit though, IMO.

Based on experience in the 70s and
80s, if you can find some cheap polypropelene knits at Wal Mart or elsewhere, and some waterproof over garments, you can take an occasional cold-weather dunking without problems. Polypropelene, unlike polyester pile or Nylon pile, does not absorb water, and drips out very quickly.

In the SE, we paddle right through the winter. The water temperatures are well below 50, and the air temperature is often low also. My own decision tree, in my old age, is that in winter, I now paddle only when the air temperature will reach at least the low 50s in the afternoon, and the wind speed is not ridiculous. I also usually choose winter streams in which I am not at all likely to take a swim. But I am always dressed so that my odds of surviving a swim are good.

One possible strategy for you is to pick up a good drytop at a cheap price on Then also pick up some “shorty” neoprene paddling shorts. The drytop can be mated to the top of the paddling shorts so that, if the thigh fit is snug, you will take in little or no water in a spill. For some neoprene paddling shorts, you might have to glue on a neoprene extender to the top to mate with the drytop.

We used to say that we should drop the level of difficulty by one class in winter. For me, that means dropping from class 3 to class 2. But I don’t paddle much class 3 anymore, anyhow.

“should be able to swim in your gear”

– Last Updated: Apr-16-09 12:51 PM EST –

Is a very good rule of thumb.

If your clothing is not warm enough to swim in the water you'll be paddling then it is not warm enough to be safe on that water.

Take a look at Patagonia’s Capilene. This is basically a type of polypropylene and it is not cheap, but it does not “pill” in the laundry, is much more comfortable against the skin (less scratchy), has much less tendency to retain odor, and lasts much longer than generic polypro. It wicks very well, comes in a wide variety of garment styles and multiple different thicknesses. I am still using Capilene garments that I bought 19 years ago.

For heavier insulation, synthetic fleece, such as that made by Malden Mills, is effective. For a real retro look and if you want to get by on the cheap, old woolen sweaters retain warmth when wet, and can generally be found at your local Goodwill or consignment store. Moth holes do not seem to have much detrimental effect on their abililty to insulate.

Note that a wetsuit will not necessarily keep you warmer than multiple layers of poly and/or synthetic fleece worn under an appropriate wind barrier. Farmer John style wetsuits are popular because they don’t cover and restrict your arms and shoulders when paddling. But if you stay in the kayak, you really don’t benefit much from the long wet suit pants, and all you really have is a wetsuit vest. In cooler temps I often paddle with a shorty style wetsuit, basically a one piece wetsuit vest with shorts combo, which are popular with water skiers. Even in the summer, when kayaking whitewater I will often wear at least a pair of wetsuit shorts. When rolling, some water inevitably gets past your sprayskirt and you wind up sitting in a small puddle. The shorts also protect your behind if you wind up swimming in a shallow, rocky rapid.

Also, remember that if you swim or capsize, until your body warms that water trapped by your wetsuit, you will be cold. In the north in the early spring, the cold shock can be intense and disabling.

A paddling jacket or drytop can be used for a wind barrier. If you have never worn a drytop or a drysuit, try one on before you buy. Drytops and suits have latex rubber gaskets that go around your wrists and neck. The neck gaskets drive some people crazy, like wearing a very snug neck tie. Also, remember that a drytop will only keep you dry if you stay in the boat. If you swim, water will come in around your waist, but the top will still function as a wind barrier and will retain body heat at least as well as a wetsuit, as long as you are wearing some insulating layers under the top.

Paddling jackets don’t have gaskets and are much cheaper. As long as you don’t capsize, they are about as effective as a drytop (your forearms and wrists will get wet if you dip your hands in the water. A compromise option is the “semi-drytop”. This is a short or long sleeve windproof jacket with elastic seals at the neck and wrists (or arms). The seals are not strictly waterproof, however, but they retard the entry of cold water and help to retain body heat to warm the water that does enter. A lot of whitewater playboaters (who spend nearly as much time with their upper bodies in the water as in the air) use these, at least in the Southeast, and find them more comfortable.

Remember that early fall
has way different water temperatures than April. April has the coldest…often in October kids will still swim…September has warmest temp.

Here in Maine on lakes we use wetsuits from mid May till early June…Hydroskins if you can get out of the water in a few minutes.

Drysuits year round on the ocean.

Drysuit today on the lake. Ice just out a few days ago.

Also from the Capital District

– Last Updated: Apr-16-09 5:21 PM EST –

Once the water temps hit the higher half of the 50's on places like Ballston Lake or Round Lake you can get away with hydroskin or fuzzy rubber tops and bottoms with something to block wind. A paddling splash top is better than a generic shell because these things are featured in a way that keeps them out of the way of yoru paddling. You can get splash type bottoms too, probably advisable if you are paddling without a skirt at the edges of spring and early fall.

Ballston Lake stays cold longer than Round Lake, but mid-spring to early fall there should be water around here in these temps.

The significant diff between splash wear and dry wear is that the gaskets aren't intended to be waterproof if you take a swim. But then a dry top over a wetsuit isn't dry should you swim either, so just realize that water will find a way to get anywhere it can.

The usual cautions apply - if you have any doubt at all about your ability to manage the water temp and are alone, stay near shore and out of risk situations. I'd call the Hudson River a risk situation for example, because between tide and current and wind when it's out of the south or north you could get into some serious trouble there.

If you move into "wet" skills - rolling and the like - you'll eventually get a dry suit. So don't go nuts buying many layers of neoprene for this season. Take a little time to see where you want to go with this.

BTW, I highly advise hydroskin gloves. Nothing works very well with cold hands.

Take a look at the Outings/Activities stuff for the Albany chapter of the ADK. You'll see regular weeknight paddles starting in a couple of weeks. It's a good place to paddle in a group and check out everyone else's gear.

PS - When you see someone pull up with a station wagon that'd normally carry a family of seven and it's so loaded with clothing and gear that stuff starts falling out when the tailgate is open, that's usually at least few years worth of accumulation. No one acquires that amount of stuff overnight. We regularly get razzed for the amount of crap we show up with for a two hour paddle, but it took us some years to get that absurd.

My understanding is that the core of
Capilene is usually polyester. Also, I have not seen better wear in my Capilene garments than I have in my polypropelene garments. I minimize use of Capilene under a drysuit, because the “wicking” coating on Capilene will cause it to feel soggy in the drysuit environment where evaporation is not equal to that of open air.

Capilene works best for hikers, runners, etc. It works well enough for summer paddlers not using overgarments. But it doesn’t work as well as polypropelene under a drysuit.

Lots of unknown variables

– Last Updated: Apr-16-09 4:53 PM EST –

You don't say where you'll be paddling, what your skill levels are, how much "wet" time you might expect to do on purpose (i.e., practicing rolling and re-entry), how well you can swim, etc.

Trying to ignore these unknowns, I agree with the comments that for really cold water (below 50 deg.) a drysuit and insulating underlayers is the best route. However, you did mention budget constraints, so *assuming* that you are talking about water of at least 60 degrees, a good-fitting full wetsuit will probably do. A lot also depends on your personal cold tolerance, and none of us can answer that one for you.

Even in summer, I wear a wetsuit--it's a shorty (short sleeves, short legs) of lighter weight than the full wetsuit, but it's enough to allow prolonged rolling practice in summer. Only on the hottest days with warm water do I skip wearing the shorty or at least a neoprene vest, and on those days you can wear almost any decent outdoor shirts and shorts so no need to purchase special clothing for that type of setting.

If you shop around and get to know your size in neoprene (not that easy), you can find some real bargains. I've gotten every one of my neoprene pieces at huge discounts (two full wetsuits, two shorties, and one vest). The vest was on clearance for $13, and one of the shorties was only $40. They are all "surfer" wetsuits and seem to always be on sale somewhere.

BTW, Farmer John and other sleeveless wetsuits seem to be common for paddlers. I don't get it, though, because for me cold water on the armpits is incredibly shocking. Sleeves will prevent that shock--but you do lose some mobility compared with sleeveless neoprene.

The farmer john wetsuit with

– Last Updated: Apr-16-09 8:21 PM EST –

a Hydroskin long sleeve top under it will give more freedom of movement yet is said to be equivalent to 2mm neoprene. I'm an open boater so if I go over I'm likely to swim. I have a NRS farmer bill wetsuit, NRS Hydroskin long sleeve top, a Kokatat TROPOS jacket, Chota High Top booties, and NRS Mystery gloves. This is good enough for me in 55-60 degree water when also wearing a light merino wool sweater under the splash top. I just wring out the sweater, put it back on and I'm ready to go. I'm thinking about adding a Mystery long sleeve to eschew the sweater.

I've also tried the lightweight Wickers Comfortrel polyester longs from Sierra Trading Post under the wetsuit and Hydroskin which adds a little warmth as well. Because of the price and performance I don't buy any other synthetic longs. Patagonia Capliene and UnderArmour are rip offs as far as I'm concerned.

Flexibility in layering is important for paddling in an area with fluctuating seasonal water temperatures. A good quality drytop is a must. Then have other options for layering depending upon the water temperature. I used a farmer john with my drytop and fleece layers under the drytop until I bought my drysuit and it was warm enough and swimable. I recommend the farmer john over a full suit because it allows more movement in the shoulders and more flexibility in layering beneath it with fleece, ect. for colder days. However, a drysuit was my best paddling gear purchase.


lots of good advice
Lots of good advice here. To re-summarize, depending on temps, some sort of thermal protection is pretty much needed.

On wet suits - most paddlers seem to go for a farmer john style wet suit with 3mm thickness neoprene. These generally run about $100-150.

When it is warm enough that you don’t need a wet suit, or as added layers on top of a wet suit, clothes you use for other activities often can work for paddling. I have a friend who wears bike jerseys when paddling. I use various polypro or similar base layers. Even fleece works. Basically, you want to avoid cotton or other materials that won’t hold heat when they get wet.