Cold Weather Kayak Wear

Original Author: 
KFS Staff

Kayaking in cold weather can be very dangerous if you are not wearing the proper protective clothing. If you are caught unprepared the consequences can be life threatening. In this article we will help you understand what you need to wear when the weather/water gets cold and why you need to wear it.

 As a general rule you need to be wearing specially designed kayak clothing that will protect you when you fall into cold water. You may think that you will never fall out of your kayak, but it can happen. If you find yourself suddenly immersed in cold water you will be glad that you read this article and purchased the proper gear to keep you safe.

Water temperature & Air Temperature

The most common mistake made by paddlers is not fully understanding the environment that they are venturing into. Most paddlers dress for the air temperature and do not consider the temperature of the water around them. Even if the air temperature on a sunny spring day is 90 degrees, the water temperature can be as cold as 45 degrees!  As a paddler you need to be aware of both the air and water temperature throughout the seasons.

Summer is definitely the safest time to be out kayaking, but the early Fall season can be quite comfortable too, and the water may not even be very cold yet either. The reason for this is that larger bodies of water maintain homeostasis, which in simple terms means that it retains temperature. After a summer of heating the water is relatively warm, even well into the Fall. Conversely in the Spring, after a Winter of cooling, we may experience the coldest water temperatures of the year. This is why it is so important to dress for immersion and not simply for the air temperature.

Before we discuss what to wear, we're going to tell a few stories about some unfortunate people who didn't prepare for their environment. If it seems like we are trying to scare you then we are making our point. We want everybody out on the water to get home safely every time.

  • Example 1 - About 5 years ago we had a very cold winter. In early April the water temperature was only about 45 degrees. As often happens at this time of year we had a series of 80 degree days. A young couple decided to take out a jet ski in Long Island Sound and enjoy the beautiful weather. They dressed for the air temperature, never giving the frigid waters a thought. They had typical summer attire when they should have been wearing, at the very least, wetsuits. They ended up getting tossed from the jet-ski. Hypothermia set in almost immediately, paralyzing their muscles, and preventing them from swimming back or climbing onto the jet-ski. Both of them died. YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO BE IMMERSED IN THE WATER. Immersion is highly unlikely but you have to be prepared and dress for it.
  • Example 2 - Another near tragedy happened one December when a kayaker went out alone on a fairly nice day and on his return back he found himself in seas that were too big and couldn't get back. He decided to wait it out on some rocks in the middle of the Bay. As it got dark he was stuck out there and on the verge of freezing. He hadn't been prepared for the chance that he might have to spend prolonged time out of his kayak and exposed to the elements. He didn't have extra clothing or a cell phone, and only had one flare. Luckily someone on shore saw his lone flare when he fired it and they called for help. I am sure when he started out on his paddle on a nice 50 degree day he didn't think he would have to deal with the dropping temperatures caused by wind which resulted in a 20 degree wind-chill. YOU CAN NEVER PACK ENOUGH CLOTHES!
  • Example 3 - Hypothermia doesn't only happen when the water or the air are cold. It can happen any time of year and almost anywhere. We got into a situation where we were unprepared for the environment in July in Florida no less. We were kayak fishing the Gulf Coast Flats and the weather was hot and humid. You had to run the air conditioner in the motel room and vehicles. The heat was brutal. We were out fishing and had come upon the first island on our way to a farther island. A thunderstorm was off in the distance so we decided to stop and fish near the first island before proceeding further. It started to rain and then we determined the lightning was getting closer. Here we were on a tropical island approximately 20 minutes from our starting point. We recognized that the storm was going to pass over us so we decided to beach our kayaks on the island and take shelter in the jungle. The storm passed right over us and the lightning was all around. The rain was torrential and we got soaked. Here we were wearing only t-shirts and shorts for the sweltering weather that was the norm. The temperature dropped and it was very windy. We began to shiver. This is the first stage of loosing body heat. The storm wasn't showing any signs of letting up and after close to an hour of shivering we realized that we couldn't continue to loose body heat. As we thought of things that we could do to provide warmth or insulation, we realized that our PFD's would do the task. So we put them on and fortunately they provided enough insulation that our shivering stopped. We saw an opening in the storm and made a mad dash back to the mainland. Shortly after getting back the storm intensified and for the next few hours it was severe. If we hadn't taken advantage of the short weather window and returned to the mainland we would have been in trouble. The adventure could have been an ordeal; we were very fortunate that it became a valuable learning experience instead. We were both amazed at how cold we got in Florida on a July day. Teeth chattering cold! You can't really judge what will happen on the water in a couple of hours time. You have be prepared, no matter what the weather is when you launch.
  • Example 4 - There is a phenomenon in Southern California called the Santa Ana winds; warm inland heating and the exchange between the hot land and the cold ocean create them. These winds can form quickly and can come roaring down canyons towards the coast. They can be very powerful and wind speeds of 50 mph or higher are common. The waters of Southern California are cold considering their latitude. That's because its currents come from the north and bring the cold water from there. Also the waters, even very close to shore are extremely deep, so the sun has little opportunity to warm them. Wetsuits are normal attire for water sports because of this. I don't recall the specifics but I believe that 2 people were out kayaking. They had wetsuits on but unfortunately they got caught in a Santa Ana. Its 50 plus mph offshore winds were impossible to paddle against. They even had a cell phone and called for help. The result was that they were blown far from shore. The winds created rough seas and they constantly got soaked. The wetsuits they were wearing were incapable of protecting them from the wind chill. Their bodies couldn't heat the trapped water layer fast enough to prevent hypothermia. Before rescue agencies could find them they had succumbed to exposure.

There is a formula that is often used which combines the air and water temperatures. It is called the rule of 120. Supposedly if you were to add both values and get a figure over 120 you should be fine. This is nonsense. One can be very safe well below this value and in trouble well over it. It all depends upon what you wear and what you take along with you. The Florida example above (#4) was probably over 160 when we started the day and still easily 140 while our teeth were rattling.

So what should you wear? There are several choices and combinations of those choices. Fortunately technical clothing has improved in recent years and there are many good quality choices available. Paddlers are no longer limited to some rubber band feeling wetsuit that irritates the skin. We now have new materials, which are lighter, warmer, more flexible, and much more wind and waterproof. Gear that provides greater protection, and is comfortable too. No one piece of clothing or system will cover all situations. All have their strengths and weaknesses. By understanding them and utilizing a variety of options you can safely paddle and fish in practically any conditions.

There are many considerations to think about when choosing kayak wear. Two are especially important. They are weather and where you're going to paddle/fish.

  • Weather: Obviously you have to take into consideration the weather. This consists of a few factors: air temperature, the wind status and precipitation, or the likely hood of either or both. None of these variables are singular. By this we mean that they are interdependent. You can't dress for only one. Review the stories above if you have any doubts. You need to dress for the most severe of the factors that you will encounter or bring along appropriate items should they arise. In the Spring, for instance, you can have a wide variety of air temperatures, but the constant, which you much recognize, is going to be the water temperature. So this is what you must dress for. The wind can significantly change how you feel. Wind chill is the event where wind passes over living things. It pulls moisture away and has a cooling or chilling effect. Wind chill is a function of temperature that isn't indicated by a thermometer. It's dangerous when you're wet especially when it's combined with low temperatures. As the Florida example shows it doesn't have to be very cold to be a concern.
  • Destination: How close will you be to shore and what is your access to somewhere you can stop to change clothes? Some of our local waters where we fish a lot have many small islands and rock piles. There are many places to go ashore, whether to add or peel off layers and dry off and change if necessary. We also have a lot of shallow water areas that we call flats. Often you can stand, even though you may be miles from shore. If you need to add, or take off a layer or grab a shell, etc. you simply hop out of the kayak and do so. Conversely if the area I'm fishing doesn't give me this ability I have to give more thought to the subject to better prepare myself.

Now that we have considered and discussed these factors, let's get to the clothing.

Dry suit - This is the big daddy of thermal protection. A dry suit is waterproof, and the better ones are breathable. It's essentially a body suit to protect you from the elements. It has seals around the neck and wrists and the feet ares sealed like waders. High quality dry suits also have waterproof relief zippers for those moments when nature calls. Example: The NRS Extreme dry suit

Paddle Suit - A paddle suit is almost identical to a dry suit with one exception. The neck seal on a paddle suit is made of neoprene and is not 100% waterproof like the rubber neck gasket of a dry suit. Even so when a paddle suit is worn in conjunction with a PFD it will protect you from all but the most extreme conditions. A paddle suit is lightweight, relatively inexpensive (when compared to the value of your life), and will last many seasons when properly cared for. Kokatat makes some excellent paddle suits in recreational and angler models: The  Super Nova paddle suit and the Super Nova Angler paddle suit. Click here to view a You Tube video that illustrates the comfort and safety offer by the Super Nova Paddle suit.

Dry Top and Dry Pants - Same idea as the dry suit with the seals around waist, ankles and wrists but can be worn separately or together. You definitely have more of a chance of water getting in with a top and bottom set as opposed to a full dry suit. Dry pants unlike dry/paddle suits do not have sealed feet. This means that you will have to wear some sort of foot wear that will keep your feet both dry and warm. This is easier said then done. Most often dry top/dry pant combos are worn by white water paddlers and sea kayakers, in our opinion they are not the best choices for kayak fishers or recreational paddlers.

Waders and Dry tops - Many people think that if you fall in the water wearing waders that the waders will fill up with water and pull you to the bottom. This is a misconception. The specific gravity of the water inside the waders is exactly the same as the water around you. In other waters why would the water that you are floating in suddenly get heavy and sink just because it is now inside your waders? Click here to view a You Tube video posted by the world acclaimed kayak fisherman Jim Sammons. In the video Jim thoroughly dispels this common myth about the safety of kayaking with waders.

 A pair of breathable waders combined with a breathable dry top forms a very versatile system that works extremely well for a wide range of conditions. When worn properly waders will actually trap air and act as additional flotation. The other nice thing about waders is that the kayak fisherman often uses the kayak as transportation to go wade fishing. Waders are designed for use while wading and all other forms of clothing don't do this job as well while keeping you dry.

Wetsuits  - wetsuits work by trapping water between the material of the suit and your body. Your body warms the water making you feel comfortable. This works great when you are submersed in the water such as when surfing or snorkeling but once you climb back onto or into your kayak it will not work so well. As you climb back into your kayak the water that was in the suit keeping you warm is flushed out and you are cold again. Wetsuits are best usedd in late spring, summer, and early fall. We suggest avoiding them during the coldest water periods.

Spray Jackets and Pants - Nobody should be without some spray wear (rain wear) and it is important to buy spray wear that is breathable or you will heat up and perspire. This moisture won't be able to escape and at the very least you'll feel clammy, but it can also chill you.
Spray jackets and pants can be used in a variety of ways. They can be used in the summer, when an extra layer is needed. In the Florida adventure told above a good set of spray wear would have prevented our shivering. We would have remained dry and warm and would have been protected from the wind. We always carry a set along now. Spray tops can also be used on cool summer nights, and can also be worn over a wetsuit to provide wind, and or rain protection. This way the wetsuit protects you should you go in the water and the spray gear does the same when you're out of the water. A hooded jacket can even be used over a dry suit or system to keep the rain off of your head. Many of spray suits pack up quite small and come in their own carrying bag. There really isn't any excuse not to carry a set in your dry bag just is case.

First Layer Insulation - The only time you won't need this is when it's warm out otherwise this is important. Base wear is where you will start any clothing strategy. If your core gets wet and moisture stays there you will be cold no matter what you are wearing on the outside. The best way to wick moisture away from your skin is by wearing modern synthetic fibers. These fibers have a myriad of functions, but most important is that they retain their insulation properties when wet. Fleece, polypropylene, capilene, etc. are great to start with because they wick moisture away. There have been recent advances and one such item is a product called Mysterioso. Mysterioso is so advanced that the US Military uses a version of it for their cold weather operations. It has many terrific features. It works great when wet and is super fast drying. It has a wind barrier too. Surfers have been using it for years and it can add up to 2MM of warmth to a wetsuit. It can even be worn as a light wetsuit. Some of the synthetic materials like polyester are OK as a first layer but stay away from cotton.

Hats, booties, and Gloves - Not that you don't have enough to think about but you will need to keep head, hands, and feet warm.

Your head is responsible for 50% of your body's heat loss. If it's cold out a hat can be vital to maintaining your core temperature. At the very least bring a wool hat along. Wool, though a natural fiber, still insulates when wet. There are also more modern caps made out of high tech materials will keep you warm and dry. In warmer weather a hat should be worn to protect you from sunburn and keep the rain out of your eyes. Your mom was right - wear your hat!

If you will be wearing a dry suit, paddle suit, or waders you will want to get a good pair or wading shoes. Make sure they are large enough to comfortably fit over the stocking foot  and whatever socks you are wearing underneath. As a general rule choose a boot that is at least 1 whole size larger than your normal shoe size. Wading boots come in felt sole models for walking on slick rock, lug soles for general terrain, and some boots even have cleats for climbing over the most slippery rocks. Buy the best you can afford, you won't regret it.

Neoprene booties of water shoes can be used during the warm months tp protect your feet from injury, sunburn, and they will also help you from getting cold feet. If you are wearing dry pants or a wetsuit you will also want yo wear some sort of booties for protection as well. Note: neoprene booties are not waterproof and will not keep your feet dry.

At times you may also need to protect your hands too.  There are essentially 2 styles of gloves used in kayaking/kayak fishing. It's a very good idea to bring along both types. Fingerless gloves and fingered gloves. Both have their uses and both come in different variations. Some gloves are made to prevent blisters, some to protect you from the sun, and others are designed to keep your hands warm.  For fishing exposed fingered gloves are necessary when tying knots or working with lures. If you are only paddling then you will be better served with a full fingered glove or mittens to keep your hands warm. You may need to switch gloves throughout the day depending on the conditions and what activities your are engaged in. A good rule is to  always carry multiple pairs of gloves for different situations.

In conclusion

If we've done our job properly you should now have a better knowledge of the cold weather/water clothing available. You still might be wondering what  the best system will be for your kayak fishing adventures. Since we all have different needs and live in different climates there is not always a right or wrong answer. See what clothing systems other kayak fisherman are using in your area. This is a great place to start. If you're still not sure pick up the phone and give us a call 973-659-1114.

Here in the Northeast (NJ) we mostly use paddle suits and wader dry-top combinations during our cold weather/water periods. We then layer appropriately under our dry wear depending on the current conditions. We also bring along a dry bag with extra layers and items such as gloves, hats, rain gear, toe & hand warmers, and emergency blankets.

Throughout your kayak fishing adventures you will certainly  encounter a variety of weather conditions. Always plan ahead considering all potential possibilities so that you can safely and comfortably fish again another day.

Have fun and be safe!

KFS