How to select kayaking clothing
Layers! Layers! Layers! This is the ultimate answer to being comfortable on the water. A base layer against your skin to wick away the moisture, insulation layers to keep you warm or cool, and an outer shell to keep off the wind and rain. Layers are easily added and removed wile in your kayak, and can be mixed and matched for the different paddling seasons. And, as everyone should know, cotton should be avoided at all cost when on the water.
Why Avoid Cotton?
Cotton is a hydrophilic fabric. In other words it loves water, and when it gets wet, it hangs onto the water with all of its might. If you are wearing this wet cotton, your body heat will be pulled from your skin and used to help evaporate the water from the shirt. But since cotton loves water so much, it will take a lot of your body heat to dry out your shirt. In fact, with the combination of a little salt, from lets say a little salt water dip, your cotton T-shirt may not dry at all. If you go for a swim on your kayaking adventure, it is important to take off all cotton layers including the cotton undies! People have become hypothermic while wearing a completely dry set of cloths except for a pair of wet cotton underpants.
Synthetic materials are hydrophobic. So they don't like to hold onto water and dry very quickly using up very little of your body heat. And many of the synthetic fibers used are hollow, trapping air inside the shirt which is a great insulator. If you are keen on natural fibers, Wool is also a hollow fiber. While it is hydrophilic and holds onto a lot of water taking a long time to dry out, the hollow fibers keep you warm while wet.
The base layer will be dictated by the weather. The lightest layers are silkweight. They feel great against the skin, wick moisture away quickly, and can offer some sun protection. If you are going for sun protection make sure you pick a darker colours as it absorbs the sunlight rather than reflecting it back onto your skin. Silk weight is ideal for paddling in the tropics not only for the sun protection, but to keep you cool. Get the shirt wet and evaporative cooling will keep you comfortable.
For milder weather paddling, the Light-weight layers are perfect. Once again they feel soft against the skin, wick moisture away from your body and are warm when wet, just incase you take that unexpected swim. Layer it with a fleece or a shell for cooler mornings.
When you want to paddle in the cold, the base layer of choice is Mid-Weight. A comfortable wicking layer, it can be warn in layers or on its own. Probably the most versatile base layer, you can wear it on its own on cooler paddles in the summer, with a shell in the spring and fall, or under a fleece and shell combo in the winter.
Underwear should be synthetic if possible. There are many great options including silkweight boxers for men and seamless synthetic tops and bottoms for women.
Fleece is the all time favorite for insulation. It is light, packable, soft against the skin and very warm. The decision then comes down to how thick and what style.
Another option is down and synthetic down. Very lightweigt, warm when wet, and unbelievably packable, the down family again has a long list of styles to choose from.
And once again, if your favorites are the natural fibers, Wool is warm wen wet and a great insulating layer.
When it comes to shells, breathable is great. It keeps the wind and rain off while letting the moisture released from your body escape from your layers of clothing, keeping you feeling dry. Breathable does not have to mean Gortex, although gortex is the brand most often used. Many companies use other fabrics which work just as well and manage to keep the costs down a little.
When starting out, your rain jacket will work well as a paddling jacket. But as you get into the sport you will find the features offered by paddling specific jackets are quite appealing. Paddling jackets are cut shorter to help you avoid sitting on them or dragging them through the water as you paddle. Many of them have a double tunnel which is two layers of fabric around your torso between which your sprayskirt sits. The tunnel keeps the wet neoprene of your sprayskirt off of your skin and base layers while keeping the outer layer of your jacket over top of the skirt. This prevents rain and waves from making their way down the inside of the skirt and into your kayak.
Another water blocking technique comes into play on the wrists and neck of your jacket. Here you have some choice, you can go for the gaskets which block all water but are quite tight fitting, or the neoprene swap around cuff that block most water and is much more comfortable for longer distances. A jacket with gaskets in all three spots is called a Dry Top, which only holds true if you do not capsize, and one with out is called a Semidry Top or a Splash Top. Many touring specific jackets have slightly less snug gaskets on the wrists where you are exposed to the most water and then a wrap around seal on the neck for comfort and airability. Hoods are a nice feature but are not a necessity if you have a good rain hat, although hoods keep you warmer than hats do. Most jackets have intricate pattens of pockets and reflective stripes that work with your PD and spraskirt to keep you comfortable and safe on the water.
Pants are often an easier decision than Jackets. You can get breathable or non breathable, and dry or semi-dry. Breathable will keep you more comfortable on longer daytrips as you do tend to get very sweaty in non-breathable ones, but the non-breathable ones tend to be cheaper. Dry pant have a gasket at the bottom of the ankles that prevent the water from coming up you pants as you step into the water. The only issue with these guys is that if you do come out of your kayak in the water, the pants will fill up from the open waist, making them very heavy and difficult to swim in. Semi drypants have a wrap around gasket on the ankle which prevents some of the water from creeping up your legs but is safer to swim in.
Headwear is always underestimated. "If your feet are cold, put on a hat!" a seasoned fellow instructor told us. You loose 75% of your body heat from your head, so if you are cold put on a toques or a hood. But make sure they are not made of that dreaded cotton fabric! Fleece toques, wool toques, you can never have too many toques. Put one in every bag, you never know when your friend will go for a swim and need to borrow yours. In the sun, a hat will keep you cool, protects you from harmful UVA and UVB rays, and keeps the sun out of your eyes. In the rain, the proper rain hat will keep your head dry, your body warm, and your eyes clear of water.
If you are dressing for immersion you need to take a step back and look before you leap. Are you dressing for immersion because you are unsure about your paddling skills in the environment you are about to go out into? If so, should you really be going out there? Are you heading out with people who's rescue skills you feel comfortable with? Are you going out there with the intent of pushing your limits and learning, in other words asking to be capsized? Or are you just putting your wet suit on because you are nervous about the conditions and afraid of going in? If the later is true, maybe you shouldn't be going out there to begin with. Wet suits and dry suits will keep you warmer in the water, but they should not give you a falls sense of security. They do not replace good judgment and the appropriate call to stay warm and safe in your tent on the beach.
If you are comfortable heading out with the intent of getting wet, keen and excited about pushing your edges and going for a swim, you have two choices. You need to decide between something that keeps you dry, or something that keeps you warm when wet.
Wet suits are made of neoprene, a rubber material that traps air bubbles within it, offering great insulation. The way a wet suit is worn tightly against the skin and allows a little bit of water in between you skin and the neoprene. Your body heat then warms up the water, keeping you warmer. The looser the suit is on you, the larger the volume of water between your skin and the suit, and the more body heat it takes to warm the water. Plus, a loose fitting suit will allow the warm water to flow out and cold water to flow in, requiring more body heat to warm it up again. So wear that suit nice and tight, the super powers that inherently come with the suit may even help out with your paddling skills.
For paddling, we suggest just wearing a farmer John/Jane. This means long legs but no arms. More like a tight pair of overalls. This keeps your arms and shoulders free to move, making paddling easier and reducing chafing. But this also means that you need something on your arms to keep them warm. This could be fleece or some other synthetic insulating layer and a shell, or one of the many neoprene alternatives. One of these alternatives is the radiator line by Navarro. It is a thick spandex material with a Titanium coating that reflects your body heat back at you as well as trapping some water like a wet suit does. Another alternative is fuzzy rubber. A latex coating over a fleece layer stops water from evaporating from the clothing reducing heat loss.
Dry suits keep you dry, albeit a little sweaty if it is cut from non-breathable materials. A gasket warn around the neck, wrists and possibly the ankles keeps the water out. Underneath, you can layer according to the weather and water temperature, with more layers for more time spent in the water and colder conditions, and light layers for warmer days and higher activity. When working hard above the water hypothermia can become a concern so choose your layering wisely. There are many options for dry suits; socks, pockets, hood, double tunnel, different zippers, and relief zippers. Each addition adds on more usability and comfort as well as cost and possibility of leaking.