Dressing for Cold Water Paddling

cold water paddling

Thank you to all who have participated in our Cold Water Paddling Clinics. Always great information and Q&A! This post gives basic safety reminders for paddling a kayak, paddleboard (SUP) or canoe, and also links to some of the recommended clothing we discussed.

For additional details on cold water paddling safety, see the National Center for Cold Water Safety.

For winter paddling opportunities, see our Paddle KC paddling club calendar.

Cold Water Safety Reminders for Kayaking, Paddleboarding (SUP) and Canoeing

Paddling through fall, winter and spring can be a wonderful experience, with proper preparation, gear, and strategies. Following are a few basic safety tips for cold water paddling.

  • Make sure you have all the basics, including your PFD with whistle attached, spray skirt if you have one, bilge pump, paddle float and first aid kit.
  • Adjust your PFD to fit correctly over your winter outfit by loosening all straps, putting it on, then adjusting all straps starting at the bottom and moving up. It should end up snug enough that it doesn’t lift up when pulling up on shoulder straps.
  • Keep a complete change of clothes, camp towel and hand warmers (Hot Hands) in a dry bag for use if you fall in the water and need to change.
  • NO COTTON! Cotton absorbs and holds moisture, making you feel cold and increasing risk of hypothermia. Wear synthetic fabrics, fleece or wool because those dry fast. Fleece and wool are also warm even when wet. See our links below to examples of good clothing for cold weather paddling.
  • Keep a “warm up bag” with additional hand warmers, emergency blanket, fire starting kit, hot tea thermos or backpacker cookstove to heat water fast.
  • Dress for the water temps (immersion), not air temps. Paddlers who are immersed in cold water lose body heat four to five times faster than when in air of the same temperature. Such rapid heat loss can lead to cold shock (immediately), cold incapacitation (in minutes), hypothermia, and death.
  • For maximum safety on cold water, choose clothing and gear that minimizes skin contact with cold water if you capsize. In cold water, you quickly lose ability to use your extremities and have a very short window of time to rescue yourself or others if needed.
  • NEVER paddle alone in cold water unless you’re a very experienced paddler with safety/rescue training, and even that is very risky. Paddle with at least two people who are able and prepared to help if ever needed – one to help with rescue, and one to contact rescue services or go for help if needed. In Kansas City area, request a Paddle KC paddling club group paddle and we’ll add it to our kayaking and canoeing calendar! We enjoy paddling every month of the year, with solid safety guidelines.
  • NEVER paddle without a PFD in cold water. A life jacket is only a safety device if worn, and you will not be able to put it on in the water over winter clothing. Those who don’t wear PFDs put themselves at risk, as well as those who try to rescue them if ever needed.
  • Don’t go farther from shore than you are prepared to swim back in super cold water, and plan your route based on frequent weather checks. We recommend AccuWeather.com, which is much more accurate than weather.com.
  • Paddle below your skill level. For example, if you’ve never paddled a river, wait til warm water season for your first river trip.
  • Biggest danger is always COLD SHOCK where people gasp involuntarily and breathe in water (GASP REFLEX), causing drowning. Cold water immersion also increases risk of heart failure and stroke risk in vulnerable individuals. Minimize risk of gasp reflex by insulating so least amount of skin is exposed to cold water (for example, with a drysuit that blocks water completely, or a wetsuit that warms water next to skin).
  • Join a paddling club to enjoy activities that include responsible safety measures and learning opportunities for kayakers, paddleboarders and canoeists. If the group does not require wearing PFDs, that’s a sign that it does not follow important safety measures.

Dressing for Cold Water Paddling

Recommended Kayaking and Canoeing Clothing for Winter Paddling

We had some great recommendations during the presentation and discussion, and are providing links to those items and other good options.

Remember – safety in cold water paddling requires greatly minimizing skin contact with cold water in the event of a capsize or splashing, and having a realistic plan to get the wet person back to shore FAST and into dry clothes. Choosing clothing options that minimize skin contact with cold water (paddlers’ drysuit or paddlers’ wetsuit) extend the time you have to get back to shore and greatly reduce the dangerous effects of cold water. We are ALL between swims!

Every cold water paddling outfit should have:

  1. a wicking baselayer
  2. warm insulation layer, and
  3. waterproof outer layer.


Base Layer

Insulating Layers (for Over Wetsuit or Under Drysuit or Waterproof Layer)

Waterproof Outer Layers

Wetsuit Separates and Wetsuits

Head and Hands

Paddling Socks

Paddling Boots


Related Accessories

  • Changing Mat/Bag for changing out of wet suit, or out of drysuit without damaging booties
  • Changing Robe for changing out of wet clothes in a public place
  • Deck bag for easy access to hot drink, snacks, extra gloves, etc.


NOTE: If you’re considering buying cold water paddling clothing or gear, buy it early! Supplies for popular items often disappear fast.

If you’re new to paddling, or new to Paddle KC, check out our New Paddlers page for helpful information.

See our full Paddle KC events calendar including monthly paddles through fall, winter and spring.