Seattle paddling wardrobe

Greetings, I am a novice paddler currently living in the Seattle, WA area. I used to live in SF Bay Area (east bay) but moved here in 2020.

I’m looking to get more into kayaking, especially because the waterways around here are downright stunning (I mean beautiful, but I know they are also cold). Particularly sea kayak touring interests me since I live in West Seattle right near Puget Sound and Elliot Bay (although I’m also excited to explore the lakes). I have enjoyed the sport in the past as I’ve rented kayaks both here and in CA, HI.

I’m signed up for NWOC’s Fundamentals of Sea Kayaking course this April so I hope to get a solid foundation from that (I suspect I will, the guy sounded very knowledgable on the phone and folks on this forum seem to like NWOC). It being about a dozen hours of instruction on the water of Lake Union and Deception Pass sounds like a great way to build skills.

Since reading this forum and learning more about kayaking, the most challenging topic for me is dressing for the situation. I am a software engineer who is not used to thinking too much about what I wear, and while I do keep warm enough when I hike or go for a walk in winter, dressing for immersion while staying comfortable seems far more daunting a task. Even in the case of hiking and long walks in cold weather I get clammy so I may not even be dressing well for those things!

I would like to start building up a versatile kayaking wardrobe, both since I need underlayers for the drysuit included in the course but also just for my own general kayaking use in the water around here. I don’t want to decide on buying a drysuit until after the course, as I suspect after using it for a number of hours I’ll either see its immense value or I’ll think it’s an overpriced, uncomfortable bag of cloth. More likely the former, but I am naturally a bit averse to things that are tight at my neck.

Some specific questions:

  1. What is a good store in this area to buy kayak clothing?
  2. What particular items would be nice to buy upfront that are sure to get use down the line in the climate here? Here is a rough idea of the temps around Seattle:

Puget Sound water is 46 - 55 degrees or so for the year.

Spring: Air 50 - 65, Lakes 40 - 55
Summer: Air 65 - 85, Lakes 60 - 70
Fall: Air 50 - 65 , Lakes 45 - 60
Winter: Air 40 - 45, Lakes 37 - 42


Can’t help with a store there as I’m in the mid-Coast (Michigan). Otherwise:

Since you will have a drysuit included with the class you may have what you need. Wool and/or fleece base layers. No Cotton but an old acrylic sweater could work. For your top layers try to stay away from collars and definitely no hoods. I’d hold off on purchasing specialized stuff until after the class. The instructors should be able to demonstrate their choices and make suggestions for you.

Here is my take on drysuit neck gaskets. I have a fairly large neck - 16 or 16.5 collar size if I want to button the top button - and have never liked tight around my neck. I had held off on purchasing a full dry suit for that reason and went with a “Paddling Suit” with a soft neoprene neck. That does work for most of my use cases but not for being under water wearing a kayak. Two years ago I did purchase a Kokatat Meridian drysuit with a latex neck. I spent some time following their stretching instructions & am comfortable when I’m paddling.

I’m sure that this topic will get a lot of responses, but to concentrate on the drysuit question, it’s the way to go for the water temperatures you describe. For water temperatures below 50°F, I think it’s the only way to go. A wet suit appropriate for those temperatures is going to be pretty heavy. Additionally you’ll need a full wetsuit. I’ve done this early on and this type of wetsuit is somewhat restrictive as far as movement. A wetsuit is designed to work best when you are in the water. It allows a small amount of water in that your body quickly heats up without risking the gasp reflex caused by sudden cold water immersion. The thickness of the neoprene provides the thermal insulation. It must be snug to work properly and prevent cold water from flushing in and out. However it doesn’t breathe. With moderate exertion, depending on the air temperature, you will probably be comfortable. Too much exertion and you will quicky overheat. Stopping on a cold and windy beach for a break you will find that it is not enough to keep you warm. You will probably need an outer layer.

By comparison, a drysuit relies on insulation layers to be worn underneath, preferably layers of wicking material, never cotton. By itself a drysuit has all of the insulation power of a shower curtain. Layering will depend on the water temperature. Therefore a drysuit will accommodate a much wider temperature range than a single wetsuit.

Drysuits are extremely expensive, but if you buy from a reputable company like Kokatat, they come with a lifetime warranty. The longer you own it, the less expensive it will be over the years. A breathable suit like Gore-Tex or its equivalent is desirable. It won’t eliminate all of the sweat, but it will significantly reduce it. Included booties and a relief zipper are also highly recommended. Nothing like having to strip off a drysuit or wet suit on a cold windy beach to pee. Dry feet are a major plus.

For the temperatures you are quoting, a drysuit is compatible with all of them with the appropriate under layers, or none at all. A water temperature of 70°F sounds warm, but comparing it to air temperature is deceptive. When I’ve taught wet exits and such standing in water temperatures a little above that, it gets to be pretty cold after a while. I’ve always worn a drysuit or Hydoskins in those occasions.

There is a good reason why the course that you are taking is supplying drysuits. That alone makes me feel that it will be a good course. I’m sure that they will cover the dangers of cold water immersion and appropriate clothing.

Very Knowledgeable staff

I’ve heard good things about Kayak Academy: Looks like NWOC is also a retailer.

You want clothing that will keep you comfortable based on your air temperature, but keep you alive based on your water temperature. This can be challenging to achieve.

The class should cover want you want and need to get. Dry suits are the norm for the Pacific North West, but are a pretty penny. I did a multi-day San Juan’s trip many moons ago using a 3 mm farmer john and paddle jacket, and it worked for late summer, but I would definitely prefer a dry suit for the colder parts of the year.

Here is a source for water temps in your area: CWTG - NCEI Coastal Water Temperature Guide - Pacific Coast: North table Tacoma (and the far extents of the various channels and bays) can actually get pretty warm in summer and fall.

Greetings DanielD,

Welcome to I am a year-round Seattle paddler and have developed my own opinions on what works for me. Lots of folks have opinions and offer guidance on what works for them. I’m just another one.

Regarding where to shop you mentioned NWOC and they are good folks. They offer good service, product assortment and education. I have known them for a bit over 40 years, have taken whitewater, sea kayaking and rolling classes from them. They are a solid organization to form a relationship with.

Someone mentioned Kayak Academy and I agree that they would be another good partner for you. I worked for Barb at REI in the late-‘70’s-early-‘80’s selling sea kayaks. Barb and George run a solid business with a good product assortment. They work hard to be the best and also offer lots of educational opportunities.

I would encourage you to seek out an established local kayaking club/organization. There are several. I am associated with North Sound Sea Kayaking Association (NSSKA) and some others but I really like NSSKA because of their level of activity in the sport and dedication to offering skills development. Unlike some organizations that I have been involved with I feel that NSSKA provides a great balance between learning opportunity and force-feeding. Just know that they require immersion wear on their paddles and while appropriately thick wetsuits qualify they aren’t (in my experience) the best choice for Puget Sound or off-season Lake Washington paddling. Currently they are offering get-togethers that allow paddlers to safely try out their immersion wear and layering. Pretty damn cool thing, IMO. Get in the water with what you are depending on and see if it works.

Others will disagree so read their input and decide for yourself.

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Thanks for the responses all. I guess it’s always a good thing to get involved with the community to learn and meet people. Plus as far as clothing I can see what other people are wearing and notice patterns. I assume regular paddlers know what makes them not miserable and will naturally wear that to events.

The instructor (I assume he is one but not 100%) from NWOC on the phone said he thinks the Farmer John with drytop approach can be viable around here even in January, but he would prefer to be in a dry suit. Not sure what to make of that, but the reality of dry suit use in the class does speak volumes for how dangerous the water can be and how seriously they take it.

NWOC also rents dry suits on a per day basis, $70 for a weekend day with $30 each additional day. That would probably mean by the time I rent a dry suit for 15 weekend days I’ve reached the cost of buying one. The water temps combined with temperate air from proximity to the Pacific Ocean may make a dry suit important and maybe even comfortable for much of the year as @rstevens15 mentioned. The opportunity for frequent use would reduce the sting of the price tag at least.

I have to admit, when I imagine putting on a big suit like an astronaut or something it does give me a feeling of awkwardness or self-consciousness. But if it’s the tool for the job, and especially if there are others around me also wearing one, it should feel fine. What did it feel like for you guys the first time you donned a drysuit and went to launch your boat?

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I’ve been paddling in the PNW for more years than I can remember, and my main aim is to stay dry. My normal attire in warm weather is a pair of shorts and a long-sleeved shirt. In cool weather I wear a wet suit.

As I said, my main aim is to stay dry, so I try to pick conditions that are conducive to that end. Now and then things get a little hairy, but over the years, I have become very confident in how my boats will handle situations. What I would advise is use good judgement and get sufficient experience so that you don’t have to worry too much about what to wear.

I do have one absolute no, no and that is: never paddle into a fog, no matter what you are wearing.

I’m not a club-type and other groups that I have involved myself with have disappointed me or made me uncomfortable in some way. Group dogma doesn’t work for me. If you look around and try some groups you might find someone who you fit with. NSSKA works for me.

I think that some folks will suggest the farmer john/drytop approach because of the reduced cost and maybe it has worked for them. For me the cost of a good wetsuit bottom and drytop is pricey enough that I just opt for the drysuit. Other folks will make other choices. Many folks seem happy in wetsuits. I am miserable in them. Too hot, too cold, too wet, whatever. Personally, I don’t see drytops as viable immersion wear in Puget Sound or Lake Washington during the Winter. Just me.

If you wear a drysuit to a put-in you will find some folks looking at you as if you were wearing a space suit. I’m totally OK with that because I have learned what makes me most comfortable, year round, and what will buy me the most time when things break bad. I’m not always sure that they have.

It’s nice to stay dry since the sport is done while above water in a boat rather than immersed in water. I don’t really want to be wet while outside the water for an extended period of time myself :slight_smile: Although from many posts on this board, I get the impression that it’s important to always plan for the case of taking an unwanted dunk in the drink.

I have actually capsized a kayak one time when I was in the Philippines. It’s the only time I can remember, although this is only from a small sample size of kayaking experiences. I had no idea how to recover from it honestly, and me and my girlfriend at the time (now wife) must have looked pretty silly as we fumbled about for a while. The water is essentially bathwater in the Philippines as it routinely gets above 80F. Looking back, that fact probably saved us. I’m not sure what would have happened to us if the water was cold and we weren’t prepared.

At the same time, mostly when I’ve kayaked it has not felt likely that the boat will capsize. And I do want a fun hobby to be comfortable for the 95+% of the time when things are going as planned, in addition to being prepared for that small chance of things getting hairy.

Another Puget Sound resident here. Most of the time we use drysuits. The tight neck is annoying a first, but it’s something that you get used to and forget about after a while.

Also, keep in mind that you can end up in the water even when it’s nice and calm. For example, years ago, we were kayaing in calm water, the east side of SF Bay as a matter of fact, when after doing some reentry practice, I felt this sudden, annoying tickle in my ear. Without thinking about it, I tilted by head a shook it to get the water out. As you might guess, that messed up my balance and — BLOOP — in the water again.

The exception:

For a short time each year, some of the shallow bays and harbors warm up enough for just swimwear. Over here on Vashon during the hottest summer days you can find people swimming, waterskiing, etc. in the northern part of Quartermaster Harbor. It’s not bathwater, but warm enough to play. If we are out on days like that, UV protection is more of a concern than cold water.

Sit at Ray’s Boathouse on a summer evening and watch the people on paddle boards in bathing suits heading out into Puget Sound. Most have a PFD on the deck, but almost no one dresses for immersion or wears a PFD. People drown each summer around Seattle when they attempt a salt water crossing and capsize in kayaks.

The weather can be warm and the water is cold. It tempts people to do stupid things.

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Yes I have read some stories in Seattle Times about it. So there is a dress for immersion component, a paddle skills component and a sea sense component it seems like. I assume the course will cover all three which will be nice.

If I’m going to REI today though, and probably I will, what versatile apparel can I buy regardless of whether I go the dry suit or wetsuit route? I guess base layer and mid layer, not cotton seems to be the key. And perhaps gloves and shoes and some kind of head wear is generally useful?

Oh the rabbit holes you can go down. Headwear, hand wear, and footwear tend to be highly personal and subjective.

  • There is a recent string here on Pogies vs. gloves/mittens.
  • It’s a good idea to have something like a neoprene helmet liner stashed in a PFD pocket if you need it. Otherwise wide brim with a chin strap (but not for brushy rivers) for sun protection.
  • Ankle high or higher booties (wet shoes) are a good idea but you do have to size for the drysuit foot along with your wool socks. Stock may be an issue though.

Should you get serious with this form of recreation you are likely to make adjustments over time.

I’ll leave the wetsuit strategy to others. I’m a big fan of versatility and prefer wool over synthetic layers. I have light, medium and heavy weight layers that I use depending on air and water temps. I find wool more comfy because it seems to cover a wider temp comfort range than an equivalent synthetic even when wet.

Also, the anti-stink characteristic of wool is a real bonus. On multi-day trips where you might be wearing the same layers 24 hours a day for multiple days synthetic starts to smell toxic after a day while wool lets you be less disgusting for days at a time.

A couple of tips on lower layer choices include:
Tip 1……Whatever weight you get regardless of material make sure it has a fly. If we are talking drysuit you WILL choose one with a relief zipper. There is no valid argument against doing so. Trying to pee in your boat while “fishing” equipment over a waistband and out of the zipper is an uncomfortable and ridiculous task so no tights.
Tip 2….check out the fly on the long underwear bottoms. You want it to have enough overlap that it closes completely so as to not allow unscheduled appearances while putting on and taking off your suit in the parking lot.

Just sayin’


You can go down a deep, dark rabbit hole on each of these topics. Best thing to do is stay home and read a book or watch a movie! No risk of capsizing and no special gear needed.

If you’re generally outdoorsy (hike, camp, ski, ride a bike) you likely have the beginnings of a layering system. No cotton. The stuff next to your skin should be pretty form fitting to wick away moisture. Depending on your climate and your metabolism, you may need light, mid, or heavy weight layers. A lot depends on you, and we cannot answer that. Too many or the wrong layers and you’ll either be chilly or overheat. Trial and experience are the only ways to know for sure.

Keep in mind that you’ll be sitting in cool or cold water, separated only by the hull of your boat and whatever you have on your lower body. As such, some people go a little heavier on the bottom half of the layering system.

REI has tons of stuff. There’s a vibrant debate wool vs synthetic. Have a look at this, process it and try for yourself. My personal experience is that wool keeps me warmer up until the point it gets soaked, then it takes longer to dry and (for my body) I’m not warm anymore. But hopefully you’re not getting soaked if you’re in a dry suit or paddling suit; in that case, perspiration is your enemy. I have a mix of wool and synthetics, tops and bottoms, from light to heavy weight, and I select based on what I’m doing. I’m talking about maybe 6 or so items, not a garage full of layers, and I use them for everything from paddling to skiing. The REI-branded wool garments are usually noticeably less expensive than the Smart Wool products on the adjacent rack.

Footwear, as others have written: bring whatever socks you plan to wear and allow space for the booties of your dry suit etc. I think you’ll need to have that in-hand to make a proper shoe selection. Make sure the shoe has some grip to it. Nothing worse that slipping on your arse because you’re wearing a slick-soled water shoe.

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Thanks for the responses guys. I got a few things at REI, nothing excessive. I do like hiking and biking as well although I don’t get out nearly as much as I’d like.

I got a Patagonia capilene shirt, an REI mid weight polyester base layer, REI midweight bottoms, and a lightweight fleece that could serve as a midlayer (not sure if I’ll need this in Seattle for paddling, the air is usually at least 40 during the day). At least a fleece can be used for more than just a paddling layer if so! I also made sure to get smooth button closure and only quarter length on the fleece. The zippers are maybe too risky with drysuit? Or that could be an old wives tale.

I tried a Smartwool base layer but it felt immediately itchy! I had read Merino Wool isn’t like that, but hey my skin is my skin I guess. I’m glad I made sure to try everything on and make a rough paddling motion :slight_smile:

This particular REI did not have any paddling section. They said to go to the REI flagship in Seattle (massive and beautiful place, haven’t been there yet) or Bellevue. After the course I’m sure I’ll become intimately acquainted with one or the other, or maybe NWOC will have most of the gear.

For water shoes you might want to get two sizes. One for where you are wearing a drysuit and one for going without. You will generally need a shoe at least two sizes larger with a drysuit with booties and possibly wool socks. I actually took my drysuit into REI and put my feet into the legs when trying out sizes.

I prefer self-draining water shoes with a thick enough sole and enough traction for walking on rocky beaches and comfortable enough to go for a short hike during beach breaks.

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That’s smart! Me too.

Back to undersuit layers, wool in particular, I have found a comfort difference in brands. All Merino wool used in underlayers is allegedly non-itchy but that hasn’t been my personal experience.

I find that Icebreaker feels best next to my skin in all weights. Crazy expensive, though. Icebreaker is my go-to.

I have some REI and another brand that escapes me at the moment. Both are OK in terms of “itch” but neither seem to have the wider temp range as Icebreaker in the same weight. I can’t say why but that’s just me.

Smartwool has not panned out for me. I have had numerous pieces but they do tend to itch. One of my paddling buds swears by Smartwool and says that it is the only brand that doesn’t itch so clearly we are all different.

If I could afford it, all of my boxers and t-shirts would be Icebreaker and I wouldn’t own any other brand of long underwear. I have no affiliation with Icebreaker but I have spent nearly 50 years in the outdoor retail industry. Prodeals helped my figure out what worked for me as I had access to pretty much everything. Now that I have retired I expect that I’ll be filtering some other brands into my underwear drawer. Life is full of compromise.

I usually don’t bother responding to the drysuit/wetsuit posts anymore. If you search you’ll probably find maybe 50 or so discussions. In the last about 15 years drysuits have become " the answer" for what you need for immersion protection while kayaking. In the same time period sea kayaking has become the hobby of wealthy old white men with lots of money to spend and who need to “look like a kayaker”. You’ll be told that if you choose to use a less expensive wetsuit you’ll be risking your life. Wetsuits are warn by surfers in arctic conditions by surfers with no issues. I’m not talking about cheap farmer john type suits. Folks who have never surfed have no idea that surfing requires much more flexibility in the body and arms than kayaking. Your arms are your paddle, and modern surfing wetsuits are made to be warm without huge bulk and with flexibility in the arms that is much better than a drysuit with multiple clothing layers. I’ve paddled and surfed in the PNW in a wetsuit that cost about $200 and was never cold or constrained. Drysuits are great (until they get damaged or leak while you are in cold water). If you don’t have the cash to invest in a drysuit and layering wardrobe, talk to a shop that caters to surfers and see what they suggest. Right now all immersion gear is expensive but a decent suit from O’neil or Excel if bought directly online is going to be much less and will still keep you warm when needed. If it gets too hot you simply splash water on your suit or do a quick roll. Most people who swear wetsuits are not suitable have never used a modern wetsuit. Some of us have tried both, I don’t see the expense as worth it, and I have traveled quite a bit to off beat cold waters and been fine with a wetsuit, booties, hood in much colder water than the Sound.