What to Wear Kayaking in a Cold Climate: The Best Cold Weather Kayaking Gear
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snow covered lake perfect for some cold weather kayaking
It is never too cold for a paddle trip if you have the right gear! Photo Credit: Michelle Coleman (Flickr CC)

While most people may think of canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding as water sports you can only do in warm weather, these outdoor activities are brought to a new level in cold climates.

Instead of paddling beyond coral reefs or between sandy islands, cold environments offer an exciting glimpse into icy marine habitats, glacial islands and snow-capped mountain lakes. So, check out the guide below for a cold weather kayaking gear packing list and our recommendations for gear that will outlast brutally cold conditions.

Before you can begin your journey into these cool terrains, you should have the proper gear to keep you safe, dry and warm. Whether you are planning to explore sub-zero waters or want to pack a few extra layers, knowing what to look for in quality kayaking gear is extremely important. Below, we have created the ultimate guide for what to purchase and pack for cold weather kayaking.

The Best Cold Weather Kayaking Gear

The term “cold” can be quite subjective– I know that my definition of cold weather greatly differs from the rest of my fellow paddlers (what can I say, I run hot). But in paddle terms, cold climate kayaking is whenever the water temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

Good news– most state or national parks will provide the water temperature for you so there is no need to purchase a paddle thermometer. Nowadays, most kayaks will even have a tiny thermometer on the side of the boat so you can easily gauge the water temperature too.

However, if you are planning to go backcountry paddling in a cold climate, you may have to do some research about the temperature of the water you will be experiencing. Also, keep in mind that air temperature and seasonality can also affect water temperatures. With these tips on how to define cold climate paddling conditions in mind, let’s get to the good stuff: cold weather kayaking gear.

How to Dress for Kayaking in Cold Conditions

cold weather kayaking between ice caps
Don’t let snow or ice get in the way of an epic water adventure. Photo Credit: Marsel van Oosten (Flickr CC)

Dress for Submersion, Not for Success

Although I have full confidence in your paddling capabilities, sometimes things happen and you end up spending more time in the water instead of on top of it. Therefore, it is crucial to be wearing the proper gear if your kayak capsizes or you need enter the water for any reason.

Luckily, there are a ton of great options to help keep you dry and warm, even if you end up submerged. The two best pieces of gear to purchase for cold weather kayaking are either a wet suit or a dry suit. While these pieces of gear sound similar, they actually are quite different and knowing the difference can aid in choosing which piece suits your cold climate needs.

Wet Suit vs. Dry Suit: What’s the Difference?

A wet suit is made out neoprene, a water-resistant material. Neoprene wet suits work by insulating your body heat to keep you dry and warm while paddling in cold climates. There are many styles of wet suits, but all styles should fit as snuggly as possible against your body (without cutting off your blood flow).

If you are purchasing a wet suit for kayaking in cold conditions, check the two-number code that categorizes wet suits. The first number tells you how thick the neoprene is around your torso and the second number details how thick it is over the arms and legs. While a thicker layer of neoprene will keep you warmer, it also makes your wet suit less flexible. So, if you plan on being super mobile while paddling in your cold climate, a shorter and thinner wet suit could work well for your trip.

A dry suit is a large, breathable suit made of waterproof material. This roomy design helps keep water away from your body. Gaskets at the wrists, ankles and neck ensure that cold water will stay far away from your body, keeping you nice and dry for your cold climate kayaking adventures.

Dry suits are essentially a giant windbreaker for your whole body– what’s not to like? Since dry suits are similar to wearing a waterproof overcoat, it is essential to wear some base layers underneath. We recommend these base layers and liners to go with your dry suit.

It’s All About the Layers

In cold weather kayaking conditions, layers are your new best friend. Layering is a technique often used in outdoor activities that allows you to put on or take off articles of clothing as you need them.

This can be little tricky when kayaking because you are also wearing a life jacket on top of your gear, so it is best to look into clothing with zippers or velcro that allow for an easy on-off transition if you get too hot or cold while out on the water.

If you need some inpisration on how to layer clothes for your top and bottom, try to imagine the coolest and warmest scenarios you may experience on your paddle trip. When you start off paddling, you will want to be wearing most of your layers. After you have been paddling for a bit, your body may adjust to the colder climate and you can feel free to take off a layer or two. For some awesome base layers and liners, check out these options featured below.

Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Since it is essential to keep your body warm, dry and comfortable while kayaking in cold weather, it is important to know where your body tends to release the most heat.

Most of the places where the body gives off a lot of heat are sneaky places that kayakers forget to buy gear for, such as the head, knees and toes. Purchasing proper headgear for cold weather kayaking is an absolute game-changer. Once I started paddling with a hat, it made the whole experience much more pleasant because I did not have to worry about my ears freezing off the whole time! Similarly, durable footwear is key for having a safe and fun kayaking trip in cold conditions.

These specific spots– the head and the feet– are easily forgotten when packing for a cold weather kayaking trip, but have a huge impact on how you feel when you are out on the water. Don’t believe me? Next time you are kayaking in cold climate conditions, bring along a hat and wool socks and you will feel the difference in how you engage with your time in nature.

a kayaker in the ocean
Get all suited-up for those cold climate kayaking adventures! Photo Credit: Thilo Lehnert (Pexels)

Packing List & Top Gear for Cold Weather Kayaking

No need to let the cold weather get in the way of your epic adventure! Cold weather kayaking just requires some thoughtful planning about which gear will hold up under these harsh conditions. Below, we have created the ultimate cold climate kayaking packing list so you can spend more time paddling and less time packing.

As always, price should never be a barrier to enjoying the great outdoors. For the sake of clarity, this pricing guide will be used for a quick look at some of the expenses that come with purchasing kayaking gear.

  • $ = $10-$49
  • $$ = $50-$150
  • $$$ = $150+

Wet Suit

  • Best Wet Suit for Cold Weather Kayaking: O’Neil Reactor II
  • Materials: Neoprene, nylon, spandex
  • Price: $$-$$$
  • Pros: Comes in short and long sleeve options, snug fit, seamless design, wind-resistant Smoothskin offers extra insulation against the cold
  • Cons: Can be challenging to take on and off, full-body wet suits can be pricy

From the cold waters of mountain lakes to the glacial conditions out at sea, a wet suit is a smart investment for avid kayakers and outdoor lovers. The form-fitting design of wet suits like the O’Neil Reactor II offer great protection from the cold and wind so you can enjoy all of the unique places kayaking may take you.

Avid paddlers especially love wearing the O’Neil Reactor II wet suit because it uses top of the line materials to make sure your body heat stays insulated for the whole duration of your paddle trip. Best of all, this wet suit uses a seamless design so there is no need to worry about chaffing or irritation of the arms or legs while kayaking.

Although wet suits and dry suits both serve the purpose of keeping you dry while paddling, the O’Neil Reactor II wet suit is our top pick for the best cold weather kayaking gear. The suit’s focus on insulation, comfort and mobility means that you can take control of your paddle trip and stay out on the water for hours without noticing the cold.

If you are interested in purchasing a wet suit like the O’Neil Reactor II, you may also want to think about the length of the wet suit and the thickness of the neoprene. Thicker neoprene will keep you warmer, but the suit loses some of its flexibility. So, if you are in a mild climate, a short-sleeve and thin wet suit is preferable to a thick, full-body suit needed for colder conditions.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR THE O’NEIL REACTOR II WET SUIT:

Dry Suit

  • Best Dry Suit for Cold Weather Kayaking: Kokatat Legacy Dry Suit
  • Materials: 3 layers of Gore-Tex Pro Shell, neoprene, latex
  • Price: $$$
  • Pros: Full-body coverage, comes in a variety of colors and styles, extreme weather and waterproofing ability
  • Cons: Expensive, known for weatherproofing instead of insulating

A dry suit is the ultimate piece of gear for any cold weather kayaking adventure. With full-body coverage, it’s safe to say that wearing a dry suit like this Kokatat Legacy Dry Suit will definitely enhance your paddling experience by keeping you nice and dry.

The roomy design of a dry suit acts like a windbreaker– but for your whole body. The intense Gore-Tex, neoprene and latex combination of the Kokatat Legacy Dry Suit offers protection from harsh and rugged outdoor elements.

Many paddlers especially enjoy wearing the Kokatat Legacy Dry Suit because its breathable design allows for massive layering underneath. If you take away anything from this packing guide, it is that layering for cold weather kayaking is an absolute must. By purchasing a dry suit like the Kokatat Legacy Dry Suit, you can count on having enough room for cozy layers underneath this protective outer shell.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR THE KOKATAT LEGACY DRY SUIT:

Base Layers and Liners

Never underestimate the power of a good base layer when kayaking in cold weather conditions! Seriously, having an extra layer of Merino wool underneath your other kayaking gear ensures that you will stay warm and dry throughout your paddle trip.

Most paddlers especially love Smartwool Base Layer Bottoms and Smartwool Base Layer Tops because they are made out of 100% Merino wool. This comfortable fabric is still extremely breathable, so you can still wear another jacket or two on top without feeling overheated or bogged-down with excess material.

Similar to base layer tops, Smartwool base layer bottoms are equally as comfortable and important to pack for cold climate kayaking. You can wear these liners underneath dry pants or dry suits (think of them like long underwear).

Smartwool’s base layers and liners are the perfect form-fitting addition for any cold weather kayaking trip. Best of all, you can wear these base layers and liners for all types of outdoor activites, on land and water. Since they are so warm and comfy, some paddlers even wear them just for lounging around too!

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR SMARTWOOL BASE LAYERS AND LINERS:

Jacket

  • Best Jacket for Cold Weather Kayaking: NRS Hydroskin Jacket
  • Materials: Neoprene and nylon-spandex materials offer optimal stretch and reduced water retention
  • Price: $$
  • Pros: Paddler-specific cut with friction-free seams so you have a wide range of mobility, underarm rash guard
  • Cons: Expensive, small pockets

Cold weather kayaking requires a water-resistant, flexible and, most importantly, warm jacket so you can confidently take on the great outdoors. The reason that jackets like the NRS Hydroskin Jacket are a favorite among paddlers is because you can wear it comfortably underneath a life jacket or PFD and still retain maximum range of motion.

With neoprene, nylon and spandex materials, the NRS Hydroskin Jacket is full of fabrics designed to keep the heat in and the cold temperatures out. This flexible and versatile jacket is great on its own for mild climates and is also an awesome layering piece for more icy adventures.

Since this form-fitting jacket is specifically cut for the paddle motion, you cannot go wrong with adding it to your kayaking gear list. Although the men’s and women’s designs are slightly different, all of the jackets utilize waterproofing technology to make your trip as pleasant– and warm– as possible.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR THE NRS HYDROSKIN JACKET:

Dry Pants

  • Best Dry Pants for Cold Weather Kayaking: NRS Endurance Pants
  • Materials: HyproTex 2.5 water-resistant material, nylon
  • Price: $$
  • Pros: Zip-up pockets, comes in a few colors, works well with a dry suit
  • Cons: Not fully waterproof

Dry pants are the secret ingredient that can really change your cold weather kayaking experience! You can wear dry pants in cold and warm weather conditions, but the water-resistant technology is especially helpful for keeping your legs dry while kayaking.

The durable yet lightweight materials in the NRS Endurance Pants make them one of the best dry pants on the market for cold climate paddling. Besides keeping your legs warm and dry, these pants act as another protective barrier between you and the harsh elements. If you are backcountry kayaking or want to get down and dirty, these dry pants will keep your legs scratch-free.

If you decide to wear dry pants while kayaking, make sure to wear a base liner, swimsuit or wet suit underneath the pants. This way, you can take them off if you get too warm or do not need the extra weatherproofing.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR THE NRS ENDURANCE DRY PANTS:

Headwear

  • Best Headwear for Cold Weather Kayaking: Smartwool Hat
  • Materials: 100% Merino Wool
  • Price: $
  • Pros: Machine washable, unisex, many colors, great for layering
  • Cons: Only one layer of jersey-knit lining

While many kayakers are familiar with bringing along a baseball or bucket hat on paddle trips, a hat specifically designed for cold climates is necessary for creating a safe and enjoyable cold weather kayaking trip.

We especially love hats like the Smartwool Hat because it is lightweight, versatile and great for layering. If you are planning a kayaking trip that has whitewater rapids, you may want to wear a helmet too. A Smartwool Hat is the perfect layering piece to add an extra warm lining and make it more comfortable to wear a helmet for a long period of time.

Besides keeping you head warm during cold climate kayaking, wearing a wool hat is a great practice for multiple outdoor activities. From hiking to sailing, wearing a well-fitted and warm hat keeps the cold and wind at bay so you can fully enjoy your outdoor adventures.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR SMARTWOOL HATS:

Gloves

  • Best Gloves for Cold Weather Kayaking: NRS Boater’s Gloves
  • Materials: ThermalPlush and GripCote padding and lining, DWR-coating
  • Price: $
  • Pros: 4-way stretch, comes in half-finger and full-finger options
  • Cons: Limited warranty, can get expensive depending on materials

Although gloves may not be the first thing that comes to mind for paddle gear, they are an essential item for cold weather kayaking. Out on the water, freezing fingers can really impede your control of the paddle and boat, so wearing a pair of weatherproof gloves is a real game- changer.

We recommend purchasing a pair of kayaking gloves like NRS Boater’s Gloves. These gloves come in a wide array of colors and are offered in half-finger and full-finger options (full-finger pictured here). Best of all, you can wear these gloves for a whole host of water sports besides kayaking. Whether you are sailing or ice-climbing, a pair of gloves like NRS Boater’s Gloves are versatile and helpful for conquering cold weather conditions.

By wearing NRS Boater’s Gloves, your hands can remain warm and toasty as you paddle through the coldest of climates. The 4-way stretch material allows for full paddle control so you can confidently cruise through some epic waves. With the fear of frostbite, hypothermia and blisters out of the way, just imagine the amazing potential of your cold weather kayaking trips.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR THE NRS BOATER’S GLOVES:

Footwear

  • Best Footwear for Cold Weather Kayaking: NRS Paddle Wet Shoe or Kokatat Nomad Paddle Shoe
  • Materials: Neoprene with a heat-reflecting titanium layer to keep the feet warm in cool climates
  • Price: $$
  • Pros: Easy on-off zipper access, good foot and ankle support, fair price for a well-made product
  • Cons: Fleece lining decreases breathability, not too much arch support

Like I mentioned before, a lot of heat can escape from your feet so having the proper footwear for cold weather kayaking is a must! When looking for kayaking shoes that will support your feet in cold conditions, it is best to buy shoes that cover the entire foot and ankle region.

Many cold climate paddlers love the NRS Paddle Wet Shoe or Kokatat Nomad Paddle Shoe. Both of these shoes are made with proper waterproof materials to help keep your feet dry. Best of all, the snug fit allows for a wide range of motion and mobility so your feet won’t feel trapped. The added support and rubber soles ensure stability as you transition from land to water, and also offer great traction if you need to get out of your boat.

The NRS Paddle Wet Shoe and Kokatat Nomad Paddle Shoe are the best cold climate kayaking shoes because these thin heat-insulating shoes easily fit in any type of canoe or kayak. These lightweight, portable and insulating shoes will become your best friend out on the cold water.

CHECK REVIEWS AND PRICES FOR PADDLE WET SHOES:

Hopefully, this gear and packing guide helps you see what items are essential to purchase and pack for kayaking in cold climates. Now that you have this information, get paddling! Don’t know where to start? Check out our kayaking destinations page to see all of the awesome places you could explore by boat.

Additional Resources

What to Pack for Kayaking in Cold Weather

  • Swimsuit: Wearing a swimsuit is essential for being out on the water! When canoeing and kayaking, chances are you are going to get wet, so best to be prepared! Click here to compare men’s and women’s styles and prices for our favorite swimsuits.
  • Sunglasses: Being out on the water is beautiful, but the water can really reflect light! Make sure to bring a pair of sunglasses and croakies to keep them from falling off.
  • Hat: It’s best to keep the sun off of your head to keep you cool. Whether you prefer a nice bucket hat or a vintage baseball cap, keeping cool will ensure an awesome trip.
  • Water Bottle: Keeping hydrated is no joke! Paddling is a great way to exercise and relax, but that means it takes a lot of energy too! Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout your trip with these cool water bottles.
  • Sunscreen and Bug Spray: Don’t let the elements stop you from having an amazing paddle! I recommend bringing sunscreen and bug spray in the boat with you to ward off any pests and sunburns.

For a more complete packing list, check out our ultimate kayaking packing list to help you prepare for all of your outdoor kayak adventures. These essentials will make your time kayaking and canoeing an unforgettable experience!

Related Links to What to Wear Kayaking in Cold Weather



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