This article goes hand in hand with our Cold Water Safety article. In order to dress for paddling, particularly in colder temperatures, it's important to understand the effect of water temperatures on your safety and performance. Read the general information below, then click on the temperature ranges above for more specific information.
Dressing for kayaking involves two main issues: comfort and safety. It is difficult to make blanket statements about how to dress, because there is no single "standard" person or paddler. Here are a few general guidelines to keep in mind.
When deciding how to dress, consider these factors: your personal paddling skills, the leadership skills available for the day (yours or the trip leaders), and paddling experience (yours and others in the group).
Many experienced paddlers feel you should take a conservative position, particularly if you are a solo or new paddler. Don't assume that you will not capsize. Dress so that you would be able to tolerate a swim at any point. This is why we use water temperature, and not air temperature, as the standard for dressing decisions. Consider how long you might be in the water and still be safe. Most experienced (4 Star) paddlers would want to be able to tolerate a minimum of 45 minutes in the water and then still be comfortable while wet in the boat. If your skills are lower than 4 Star, you need to increase that time to between one and two hours.
Water conducts heat away from the body much faster than air. Sources differ on the exact rate of heat loss, but we can conservatively estimate the heat loss as at least 5 times faster as air. This has very definite consequences. It means that if you are unprotected you will need to raise your metabolism rate by at least 5 times in order to maintain normal body temperature. To do that you will need to breathe at least 5 times faster than you do at rest. Breathing at that rate is likely an impossibility (try it - it's about 60 to 75 breaths per minute) -- even more so if you are panicked and attempting a self rescue. So your only hope is to protect yourself adequately using proper clothing.
Dressing for any outdoor activity involves layering. The three main layers are the base layer, insulation layer, and protection layer.
This a layer of thin garments against your skin. Its function is to keep you dry and comfortable. By keeping your skin dry, it keeps you warmer. Many people refer to this as the wicking layer, because it moves the moisture away from your skin to the next layer.
Depending on the water and air temperature (and the above safety issues) the thickness of this layer will vary. It also needs to be of a material that will not absorb water. An insulation layer can consist of one medium-weight garment or of two different thinner garments.
The outer layer will help against both convection ( which is the exchange of heat between fluids -- in this case, between the water/perspiration in contact with your body and the surrounding water) and conduction (the exchange of heat due to the direct contact of body and liquid).
Base layers and Insulation layers: need to be hydrophobic fabrics. These fabrics absorb little water, and they are highly breathable. A 90% Polypropylene, 10% Lycra blend (Innova) is the least water absorbent fabric on the market. Rapidstyle, Kokatat, Stolquist, and Mountain Surf all make base layers of this fabric. Other options for insulating layers are Patagonia's Capilene and non-baggy fleeces (such as Powerstretch). It is important to note that if you are immersed and are not wearing a dry suit, cold water will flow through these fabrics.
Waterproof Insulation Layers: are made of materials such as neoprene and Fuzzy Rubber (Malden's Aquashell). These fabrics keep you warm by insulating and by limiting cold water exchange. Water cannot go through the fabrics; the flow is limited to seepage through the seams and openings. A thin layer of water trapped against your skin is warmed by the body. These fabrics are not very breathable, and we don't recommend wearing them under a breathable dry suit.
Paddling Jacket Outer Layers: Paddling Jackets have neck and wrist closures made of neoprene or Darlexx. In an immersion situation water will seep through the closures. These loose-fitting layers do not insulate the way a wet suit does. To prepare yourself for an immersion situation, wear some waterproof insulation layers underneath the paddling jacket, especially on your core.
Dry Outer Layers: only dry tops or dry suits with latex gaskets will keep you completely dry. These layers do not insulate, so insulation must be worn underneath.