Dressing for Cold Water Paddling

cold water paddling

Thank you to all who participated in our online Paddlers Show & Tell last night on Dressing for Cold Water Paddling. 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 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • NEVER paddle alone in cold water unless you’re a very experienced paddler with safety/rescue training. Paddle with at least two people who are able and prepared to help if ever needed – two to help with rescue, then one helping after rescue while one contacts rescue services 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!
  • NEVER paddle without a PFD in cold water. 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).
  • Join a paddling club to enjoy activities that include responsible safety measures and learning opportunities for kayakers, paddleboarders and canoeists.

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.

Paddling Socks

Paddling Boots

Base Layer

Insulating Layers

Waterproof Outer Layers

Head and Hands



NOTE: If you’re considering buying paddling clothing or gear this winter, buy it early! Supplies are more limited than usual, so some things are already hard to find in stock.


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