What to Wear Kayaking, from the Best Footwear to Must-have Sun Protection

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This is everything you’ll need to stay comfortable on your next paddling adventure.

Kayaking is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and explore lakes, rivers, and coastal areas at your own pace. Between more leisurely flat water and exhilarating whitewater paddling, there’s a range of kayaking opportunities for different skill levels. These varied conditions are also important to keep in mind when choosing what to wear kayaking.

For starters, there’s always a risk of getting wet when kayaking, so dressing for the water temperature and staying afloat are key considerations. We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of the best kayaking apparel to stay comfortable and safe from head to toe on your next paddling adventure.

Best Rash Guard: O'Neill Men's Basic Skins UPF 50+ Short Sleeve Rash Guard

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Buy at Zappos.com

Why We Love It

  • This thermal base layer reduces abrasions and stays in place without restricting paddling motion.

What to Consider

  • It’s designed for performance in water sports, so it’s not the most versatile garment.

Popular among the surfing community, the O’Neill Basic Skins Rash Guard is also well-suited for kayaking trips — both with or without a wetsuit. The rash guard has minimal seams to cut down on irritation and friction. The seams it does have are stitched flat and are located away from high-friction areas like the armpits and sides. True to its name, the O’Neill rash guard fits like a second skin. Yet, the four-way polyester/spandex blended fabric doesn’t hinder movement. The rash guard is also equipped with UPF 50+ protection.

Price at time of publish: $20

The Details: Polyester and spandex | S-XXL (men’s); XS-XL (women’s)

Best Moisture-wicking Pants: Outdoor Research Ferrosi Pants

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Why We Love It

  • These lightweight pants are incredibly breathable, helping you stay cool while blocking out the sun.

What to Consider

  • There’s no built-in adjustment.

The Outdoor Research Ferrosi Pants are tough, stretchy, and comfortable. They’re made from 90-denier ripstop nylon and spandex, allowing them to withstand wear, tear, and abrasions while maintaining enough stretch for active use. The pants breathe well enough to be worn in warmer weather and the waist features a soft liner to prevent chafing. Kayakers will appreciate the Ferrosi pants’ UPF 50+ protection, resistance to water and wind, and quick-drying capabilities.

Price at time of publish: $80

The Details: 90-denier stretch-woven ripstop, 86 percent nylon (46 percent recycled), 14 percent spandex | 28-42 waist x 30-36 inseam (men’s); 0-24 (women’s)

Best Shorts: Patagonia Women’s Quandary Short

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Buy at Backcountry.com

Why We Love It

  • These versatile shorts deliver stretchy comfort and solid performance.

What to Consider

  • There’s no integrated adjustment, so they may need to be worn with a belt for a snug fit.

We love the Patagonia Quandary Shorts for providing an ideal balance of comfort and performance for kayaking. They’re designed with a trimmer fit to limit weight and prevent fabric from snagging. The nylon/spandex blend is very breathable and mesh pockets add extra ventilation to these airy shorts. Aside from the two front mesh pockets, the Quandary Shorts also feature two back pockets, plus a coin pocket and zippered pocket on the right thigh (men’s-specific version only). Equipped with a durable water-repellent finish, the Quandary Shorts both repel water and dry quickly if drenched.

Price at time of publish: $69

The Details:  95 percent nylon (65 percent recycled), 5 percent spandex | 28-44 inches (men’s); 0-22 (women’s)

Related: The Best Sun-protective Clothing for Women of 2023

Best Rain Jacket: Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket

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Why We Love It

  • It offers protection from the elements in a lightweight, packable, and adjustable design.

What to Consider

  • It only has one pocket.

Kayakers can paddle rain or shine with the Outdoor Research Helium Rain Jacket. It’s made with a 2.5-layer Pertex Shield Diamond Fuse ripstop fabric to protect from both water and abrasions. The rain jacket’s components and design are geared towards keeping kayakers dry and cozy, including an adjustable hood, elastic cuffs, drawcord hem, and a YKK AquaGuard zipper. At .4 pounds, the Helium rain jacket barely makes a dent in terms of weight in your pack or boat. The rain jacket packs down neatly into its sole pocket (chest pocket on men’s and hand pocket on women’s). The pocket also features a carabiner loop and key clip for storing valuables.

Price at time of publish: $84

The Details: 100 percent nylon, 30-denier ripstop | S-XXXL (men’s); XS-XL (women’s)

Best Long-sleeve Shirt: Kokatat WoolCore Long-sleeve Shirt

Buy at Backcountry.com

Buy at Kokatat.com

Why We Love It

  • The shirt combines the comfort of merino wool with the durability and quick-drying properties of polyester.

What to Consider

  • It’s limited on color options.

The Kokotat WoolCore Long-sleeve Top will keep you comfortable and warm, even when wet. It’s made from a 50/50 blend of merino wool and polyester that’s well-suited for kayaking. The merino wool, which is sourced from free-range sheep in New Zealand, delivers ample warmth for a base layer and odor resistance and moisture-wicking capabilities. Meanwhile, the polyester enhances the shirt’s stretch and resistance to wear and tear. The WoolCore shirt is intended to be used in a multi-layer system under a Kokatat drysuit, but it also performs great on its own for kayaking and other outdoor pursuits.

Price at time of publish: $95

The Details: 50 percent merino wool, 50 percent polyester | S-XXL (men’s); S-XL (women’s)

Best Short-sleeve Shirt: Patagonia Women's Capilene Cool Daily Shirt

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Buy at Backcountry.com

Why We Love It

  • It’s made from quick-drying recycled materials.

What to Consider

  • It doesn’t provide the most warmth as a base layer.

The Patagonia Capilene Cool Daily Shirt provides both relief and protection when paddling on hot, sunny days. Patagonia’s proprietary Capilene Cool Daily fabric is quick-drying and stretchy for enhanced comfort and performance. The shirt is also odor-resistant and incredibly soft thanks to a miDori bioSoft finish — a plant-based fabric softener that provides long-lasting softness and moisture-wicking capabilities. The Daily Shirt is aptly designed for paddling, thanks to set-in sleeves and minimal stitching and seams throughout. These kayak-oriented shirts are made in a Fair Trade-Certified factory and use recycled polyester in their construction.

Price at time of publish: $39

The Details: 50 percent polyester, 50 percent recycled polyester jersey | XS-XXXL

Best Hoodie: NRS H2Core Silkweight Long-sleeve Hoodie

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Buy at Nrs.com

Why We Love It

  • This lightweight hoodie shields you from the sun and bugs.

What to Consider

  • You’ll need to throw on a base layer if paddling in cooler weather.

The NRS H2Core Silkweight Long-sleeve Hoodie is designed to keep you cool and comfortable while paddling. It’s made with 100 percent recycled fabric that’s quick-drying and moisture-wicking. The hoodie also boasts UPF 50+ protection from UV rays and a microbial treatment that keeps odors at bay. Its looser fit provides excellent freedom of movement and airflow. Kayakers will appreciate the addition of thumbholes to ensure the sleeves provide full coverage while paddling. There’s also a loop and button to secure the hood around the face, a handy feature when dealing with mosquitoes.

Price at time of publish: $53

The Details: 85 percent recycled polyester, 15 percent recycled spandex | XS - XL

Related: The Best Inflatable Kayaks of 2023

Best Wetsuit: Kokotat NeoZip Long Wetsuit

Buy at Kokatat.com

Buy at Outdoorplay.com

Why We Love It

  • This paddling-specific wetsuit delivers warmth and comfort for exploring cold water.

What to Consider

  • Kayaking wetsuits are best suited for paddling cold water with warmer air temperatures.

The Kokotat NeoZip Long Wetsuit was designed with kayaking in mind. The seamless armholes cut down on chafing while granting a free range of arm movements to paddle unencumbered. The remainder of the wetsuit uses flat-lock seams to reduce skin irritation. The NeoZip wetsuit is made with 3-millimeter-thick two-sided neoprene, which fits tight to the skin to hold water (if and when you get wet) close to your body heat to warm it up. Extra padding and reinforcement on the knees add durability, and it’s backed by Kokotat’s limited lifetime warranty. The front zipper design makes for easy on and off. It’s available in both women’s and men’s-specific designs — Long Jane and Long John — respectively. The Long Jane also has a relief zipper in the event nature calls.

Price at time of publish: $155

The Details: Nylon neoprene | S - XXL

Related: The Best Dry Bags for Boating, Backpacking, and Beach Trips

Best Water Shoes: Merrell Women's Hydro Moc Water Shoe

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Buy at Rei.com

Why We Love It

  • They’re lightweight, supportive, and quick-drying for active days in the water.

What to Consider

  • They aren’t available in half sizes.

The Merrell Hydro Moc Water Shoe provides excellent traction, durability, and comfort to be worn in and out of the water. The open-air shoe is made with EVA foam that is commonly used for shock absorption in sports equipment. This material also gives the Hydro Moc ample buoyancy to float if dropped overboard. While the slip-on design makes them easy to put on, the heel strap and textured insole do an effective job of keeping them in place. Whether walking through creek beds or trails, the Hydro Moc’s thick sole has ample cushion and support, plus 2-millimeter lugs for grip on slippery rocks or loose terrain.

Price at time of publish: $60

The Details: Men’s 7-15; women’s 5-11 | Injected EVA foam

Best Sandals: KEEN Men's Newport H2 Sandal

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Buy at Rei.com

Why We Love It

  • They’re breathable and quick-drying while offering the protection of a closed-toe shoe.

What to Consider

  • They’re known to run about a half-size larger.

The Keen Newport H2 Sandals pack polyester webbing and quick-dry lining to prevent soggy feet. The hybrid hiking/water sandals are equipped with a tough rubber outsole that's grippy on wet rocks and trails alike, making these a great choice if your paddling also entails portgaging or camping. Instead of straps, the Newport H2 sandals use a 10-point bungee system to dial in a snug fit. This closure system also allows for easy on and off. The sandals are machine-washable, helping keep these durable sandals fresh for many paddling adventures.

Price at time of publish: $94

The Details: Polyester webbing, rubber outsole | Women’s 5-11; men’s 7-17

Best Sun Hat: Sunday Afternoons Unisex Ultra-Adventure Hat

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Buy at Rei.com

Why We Love It

  • The wide-brimmed hat provides excellent sun protection in a lightweight, breathable design.

What to Consider

  • The neck flap isn’t the most stylish.

Keep cool and shaded on the open water with the Sunday Afternoons Ultra Adventure Hat. The hat has a UPF 50+ rating and features a 3-inch brim and 6-inch neck cape to shield against the sun’s rays. Even on hot days, the Adventure Hat offers plenty of air flow to keep from overheating. The top is fitted with mesh panels and the tapered neck flap lets the neck breathe. The fabric under the hat brim is darker to cut down on glare — a major benefit when out on the water. Speaking of glare protection, the hat is also fitted with sunglasses lock sleeves to securely hold your shades in place while not in use. The durable, packable hat can fold down to fit in a pocket and bounce back when it’s ready to be worn.

Price at time of publish: $46

The Details: 88 percent nylon, 12 percent polyester dobby | S-XL

Related: The 17 Best Packable Sun Hats for Your Summer Getaways

Best Sunglasses: L.L. Bean Pocket Water Polarized Sunglasses

Buy at Llbean.com

Why We Love It

  • They offer solid sun protection and an excellent field of vision.

What to Consider

  • The complementary soft case offers minimal defenses and is better used as a cleaning cloth.

The L.L. Bean Pocket Water Polarized Sunglasses are a lightweight and durable pair of sunglasses suited for outdoor adventure. The polarized lenses have a base curve 8 to reduce glare and block out UV rays while granting an expansive field of vision. They also boast class one optics for clear views out on the water. Injection rubber is integrated where the frame meets the temples and nose for a grippy and comfortable fit. The unisex sunglasses come in three sizes: S/M, M/L and XL.

Price at time of publish: $70

The Details: G850 nylon (frame); injection polycarbonate (lens) | S/M-XL

Best Gloves: NRS Boater’s Gloves

Buy at Rei.com

Buy at Backcountrygear.com

Why We Love It

  • These budget-friendly gloves provide blister and sun protection without compromising grip.

What to Consider

  • They’re intended for paddling in warmer conditions.

The NRS Boater’s Gloves keep the hands comfortable for hours of paddling. The palms are made with Amara synthetic leather for a thicker layer of padding where the hands are most vulnerable to blisters. There’s also ventilation and silicone grippers on the palms to enhance comfort and performance. Meanwhile, the backs of the gloves use an H2Core rash guard material that’s quick-drying and boasts UPF 50+ protection. The open-finger design keeps your hands free to perform other tasks with dexterity. The NRS gloves are secured with pairing snaps on the wrists. They come in a range of sizes and offer both a men’s and women’s-specific design.

Price at time of publish: $23

The Details: 93 percent nylon, 7 percent spandex (fabric); Amara synthetic leather (palm) | Men’s XS-XXL; women’s XS-XL

Best Personal Flotation Device: NRS Ninja Kayak Lifejacket PFD

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Buy at Rei.com

Why We Love It

  • It has a low-profile design that’s specifically intended for kayaking.

What to Consider

  • The fit is best suited for paddlers with shorter torsos.

The NRS Ninja PFD was created with paddling in mind. Instead of a traditional life jacket design, the Ninja’s foam paneling is concentrated lower on the torso, creating unrestricted shoulder mobility for kayaking. There are hand-warming pouches between the two front panels of the PFD. The front is also where you’ll find a clamshell pocket with dual-entry zippers and internal organization for stashing essential items. The exterior is made with durable 400-denier ripstop nylon, while the interior fabric is soft enough to wear against the skin for shorter kayak paddles.

Price at time of publish: $111

The Details: Ripstop nylon | S-XXL

Tips for Buying Kayaking Apparel

Look for UPF protection

While wearing sunscreen is good practice, reapplying can get tricky when sweat, dirt, and incoming spray enter the picture. Wearing kayaking apparel with UPF protection and reducing skin exposure is a better method to stay safe and cut back on sunblock application. Look for clothing with a UPF 50+ rating, as this will block out 98 percent of UV rays. In addition to the UPF rating, Blake Neumann, Clean Water Advocate at the Adirondack Council, recommends choosing loose-fitting and breathable garments, especially when wearing long sleeves.

Plan on layering

Layering is best practice to be prepared for varied weather conditions on the water. “Layering will depend on the trip you’re looking to do, but generally speaking, wearing top layers and avoiding cotton at all costs is key,” notes Neumann. He adds that a quick-drying top, such as a rash guard, is essential to layering. “I recommend garments containing merino wool for cooler conditions, especially as a base layer,” says Neumann. If you’re paddling in whitewater or rougher waters in anything but the warmest conditions, a wetsuit or drysuit should be added as a layer.

Opt for lightweight, breathable materials

It’s important to choose materials that wick away moisture to keep your skin dry. Nylon and polyester are both quick-drying and breathable materials that’ll help keep you from staying wet and getting cold. Merino wool is another lightweight and breathable material. Keep in mind that it doesn’t dry as quickly, though it does offer some level of insulation when wet.

Make sure you’ll have a full range of motion

Quality kayaking apparel should avoid restricting your range of motion. Besides limiting your paddling power and efficiency, encumbered shoulder movement can also lead to chafing and skin irritation. Pay close attention to personal floatation devices (PFD), as their bulkier construction is more apt to impacting the range of motion in the shoulders. “I recommend the NRS Ninja for its low-profile design and freedom of movement compared to a traditional PFD,” says Neumann.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do you need a wetsuit for kayaking?

A wetsuit is a good idea when paddling in cold water with warmer air temperatures, especially if there’s a greater risk of getting wet, such as when whitewater kayaking. “For flat water, you’re generally not going to need a wetsuit,” adds Neumann.

How do I layer kayaking clothes?

Wear a quick-drying layer next to the skin and a PFD at minimum. In cooler conditions, add a synthetic or wool mid-layer, or a wetsuit or drysuit under the PFD if you’re likely to get wet.

Can you use kayaking apparel for other watersports?

The UPF protection and quick-drying materials common in kayaking apparel are also well-suited for other watersports, as well as hiking or cycling.

Why Trust Travel + Leisure

Kevin Brouillard is a contributing writer at T+L, specializing in outdoor gear and apparel.  For this article, he researched a range of kayaking apparel to find the most reliable options available, and also interviewed Blake Neumann, Clean Water Advocate at the Adirondack Council, to find out exactly what kayakers should look for when selecting garments. The result is a comprehensive list of the best kayaking apparel worth looking into before your next adventure on the water.

Related: The 7 Best Women’s Water Shoes of 2023, Tested and Reviewed

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