Clothing for Paddling in Cold Water: What We Wear to Stay Warm

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Paddling in cold water conditions presents all sorts of safety (and comfort) challenges. We are often asked “What do you wear to stay warm?” – especially when paddling in chilly conditions. While there is some variation in what we wear, depending on the type of paddling/teaching we are doing, we will cover the basics, today – those tried and true layers we turn to on regular basis. We’ve listed below the layers we each wear under and over our drysuits when paddling in cooler or colder conditions. We’ve also listed what we wear with our wetsuits. Keep in mind, our base line temperatures are very different. Ted is fairly warm blooded, and Kelly is ALWAYS cold.

We don’t receive any sort of commission from recommending gear or clothing. We just want our students to be safe and have fun out there! If you have questions about a specific piece of gear, we’d be happy to answer them for you.


• Medium weight synthetic hiking socks
• Wicking, synthetic underwear
• Silk Weight to Medium Weight synthetic long underwear bottoms
• Silk Weight quick dry t-shirt (think tech t-shirt)
• Sleeveless power stretch “farmer john” or expedition weight fleece pants
• Medium weight long sleeve, long underwear top
• Light to Heavyweight fleece pullover
• 3 mm thick neoprene, high ankle paddling booties
• Fingerless neoprene gloves, or sometimes full finger Glacier Gloves

• Heavy Weight merino wool backpacking or mountaineering socks
• Quick dry, and wicking, synthetic underwear and sports bra
• Medium Weight merino wool long underwear bottoms
• Medium Weight merino wool long sleep top
o If conditions are very cold, Kelly wears NRS Hydroskin tights and long sleeve top instead of wool as a base layer. The Hydroskin is not nearly as breathable and wicking as wool, but it is warmer.
• Power Stretch “farmer jane.”
• Expedition Weight long sleeve fleece top, ¼ zip
• 5 mm Neoprene high ankle dive booties.
• Full finger neoprene gloves – Hydroskin, Glacier Gloves, or Stolquist Maw gloves
o In very cold conditions, and when she isn’t teaching, Kelly uses neoprene Pogies in addition to gloves
• Wool stocking cap or 5 mm neoprene dive hood
• On very cold, wet, or windy days, Kelly will also sometimes wear a spash jacket or storm cag over her drysuit and PFD.


For paddling in cold weather conditions, we suggest you wear at least a 3 mm “Farmer Jane/John” wetsuit (long pant legs and sleeveless). While warmer wetsuits are available in dive shops, neoprene that is significantly thicker than 3 mm and/or wetsuits with long sleeves can feel very stiff and confining when paddling. To add warmth to our wetsuits, we add layers.

• Swimming trunks
• Midweight synthetic long underwear bottoms
• Midweight synthetic long sleeve top
o Both top and bottoms worn under his wetsuit
• Heavy Fleece, ¼ zip top (worn over the wetsuit)
• Midweight synthetic hiking socks
• 3 mm high ankle paddling booties
• Splash Jacket (Raincoat will work)
o Worn over the fleece and under his PFD
• Half finger neoprene gloves or full finger glacier gloves
• Wool stocking cap, or neoprene hood

• NRS Hydroskin long sleeve top
• NRS Hydroskin full length tights
o Both top and bottoms worn under her wetsuit
• 5 mm Neoprene dive booties with high ankle
• Expedition weight fleece top – ¼ zip
• Heavy Fleece Jacket
• Waterproof splash jacket (rain coat will work)
• Full Finger neoprene gloves
• Wool stocking cap or 5 mm neoprene dive hood

A note about cotton: Never wear cotton while paddling. Not even cotton underwear or cotton gloves! Cotton absorbs moisture and draws heat from your body which can be extremely dangerous. Plus, it can cause chafing and blisters.
A note about extra layers: Carry extra warm layers with you in a dry bag to use in addition to what you are wearing if weather turns colder or in the event of a medical emergency (including hypothermia).

A word of caution: Sea Kayaking is a dangerous sport. While wearing the proper garments will help keep you warm and comfortable, it is not a substitution for proper trip planning, quality gear, wearing a PFD, and skill development. Keep an eye on the marine forecast, practice your rescues regularly, carry signaling devices and a VHF radio, and never paddle in conditions that outstrip your skill level. Also, we recommend that you not paddle alone.

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