Clothing for boating is an extremely important piece of gear, that is why I created a separate document for this topic. Dressing appropriately for kayaking can be quite challenging. Can you catch hypothermia in 90o weather? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Two great examples are:
- Savage River in Western Maryland where the water is released from the bottom of the dam and is often in the low 40's.
- The Grand Canyon (Colorado River) where very long swims are common and the water is around 50o.
Water immersion is amazingly fast at dropping your core temperature.
On the other hand, it is really easy to overheat as well. Although the water is cold on the Lower Yough, if I wear a dry top in the summer I will be overheated by the end of the first rapid.
Both extremes are not only uncomfortable, they can be lead to poor judgment and perhaps harm your health.
Another weather issue common in the summer is sun burn, especially for fair skin individuals. Frankly, I hate oily sun block lotions and even the water proof variety seem to come off. A light colored top like a spray jacket with nothing underneath does a great job of blocking the sun without causing me to overheat. A brim on your helmet or baseball cap can add extra shade protection to your face and eyes. Inexpensive sun glasses can also help protect your eyes.
We also need to deal with land based issues - especially during portages. Flip-flops may look neat but are downright dangerous when navigating rocks. Suitable water shoes are essential or old sturdy tennis shoes if you can wear these in your boat. Another land issue is thick undergrowth and poison ivy. Some type of long pants may be quite beneficial.
Our hands are constantly exposed to wind and water. When it is cold and windy, we can lose functionality in our fingers. Poagies or gloves / mittens (sometimes both) can keep your hands warm and functional. When it is quite cold out, I wear dishwashing gloves under my poagies and the combination is excellent. I don't lose any paddle feel which is common with many whitewater gloves and mitts. I also keep a pair of Glacier Gloves in my kayak for rescue work.
Heat loss is fastest from the head and there are a number of very inexpensive hoods and skull caps to preserve heat.
Due to many advances in whitewater clothing, you don't need to break the bank to stay comfortable.
I will try to list some of this gear below with some recommendations. First off, determine what kind of boating interests you - perhaps you only paddle in warm weather. Give strong consideration to layering systems so you adjust body heat as conditions change throughout the day. Concentrate on the core and your head first. Always wear solid foot protection. Finally, deal with hand protection if necessary.
There are many options available to keep your core warm. When starting out you can certainly save money by purchasing wet suit instead of a dry suit. Wet suits are very easy to repair and provide excellent abrasion resistance. Wetsuits also require very little maintenance. A decent wetsuit will last decades. Most rescue squads have chosen the wetsuit for this reason. The Farmer John style provides excellent warmth and doesn't restrict mobility. Don't choose a scuba diving wetsuit as they are typically too thick, stick with a 3 mm thickness. Wetsuits cost $100 - $150 new and much less used. Dry suits cost $500 - $1,000.
Polypro (or wool) have been used for many years as insulating layers. This type of material lasts many years and is quite inexpensive. Typical cost is $10 - $20 per garment.
Fuzzy Rubber, Hydroskin, Mystery Fabric are various high tech insulating layers. All work great and can be used for three season paddling. Prices range from $50 - $150 and typically last many years. Northwest River Supplies is a great place to check out your options. REI, Hudson Trail Outfitters, and Potomac Paddlesports are excellent places to shop as well.
Rash guards like the shirts from Immersion Research are excellent for sun protection and will not overheat you. They typically run about $30.
Splash tops block the wind. You still need an insulating layer underneath to provide warmth. This can be as simple as a cheap nylon windbreaker from Wal-Mart or specially designed from paddling. Ones made for paddling typically come with neoprene wrists and collar to keep some of the water out. Paddling jackets cost $50 - $100 new.
Dry Tops cover only from the waist up. Just like dry suits, you still need an insulating layer underneath. The wrists and neck are latex gaskets to prevent any water seepage. They also have a tunnel system which allows the jacket to sandwich your spray skirt tunnel. These jackets are incredibly warm and many use for four season paddling. All is fine unless you swim or need to help out in a rescue. If you go this route, consider wearing long pants made with a neoprene material. Prices new are typically $200 - $400.
Skull caps or hoods are the best warm gear investment you can make. Here are some options available at Northwest River Supplies: NRS Skull Cap, Prices are $20 - $30 new. The Storm Hood from NRS is my favorite and costs only $35: NRS Storm Hood.
Many boaters ignore foot protection and go bare foot. Now this may work if you never have to leave your boat, it isn't a very bright practice. In the course of many boating trips, there are a number of places where you may injure your feet without proper protection:
- Put-ins and Take-outs - These are often along steep banks, extended walks, rocky, and sometimes have broken glass and other debris.
- Portages & Shore Scouting - Major drops you don't feel comfortable running. This is usually difficult terrain and may have poison ivy or snakes.
- Rescues - Wet and slippery rocks are the major hazard here.
- Unintentional swims - Sharp rocks and sometimes man-made objects like rebar.
When choosing appropriate foot gear, try to wear something sturdy that still provides easy entry and exit from your boat. On creek boats, this isn't much of a problem. Play boats have a lot less foot room and constrain your options somewhat.
The least expensive alternative is a pair of older sneakers. Sneakers provide excellent foot protection and you can simply toss in the washing machine to clean afterwards.
Whitewater shoes are the ideal choice and there are many brands and models to choose from: NRS Whitewater Shoes. Whitewater shoes provides excellent foot protection and many have soles that are somewhat resistant to slippery rocks. Prices range from $40 - $125.
Whitewater socks may be appropriate for boats where foot room is very tight. Here are some examples: NRS Whitewater Socks. You can add several strips of shoe goo to the soles to make them last longer and provide some tackiness. Prices range from $22 - $40.
I am not a big fan of sandals. They do protect the sole but offer little other protection. They have straps that can get caught and lead to foot entrapment. If you choose sandals, consider wearing neoprene socks and securing the sandals in the boat.
Flip-flops are a very bad choice of footwear as they provide very little foot and ankle protection.
This is one area of cold weather protection that is often debated passionately. All agree that hand protection is vital in cold weather paddling. Many including myself choose Poagies to keep my hands warm while paddling. A Poagie is a cloth device that is secured to your paddle. You slip your hands in and it simply keeps the wind out. While paddling, your hands typically generate enough heat to keep them warm. Poagies also allow you to hold the paddle directly. Here is an example of a Whitewater Poagie.
Immersion Research ($35), and Snapdragon ($30 - $40) all make excellent Poagies.
Gloves and mitts are also popular. Although you lose some feel of the paddle with gloves (or mitts), they really shine when not paddling like rescue efforts. One brand I really like is Glacier Gloves ($40): Glacier Gloves. NRS has a complete line of Paddling Gloves ($25 - $40): . Many really like the NRS Toaster Mitts.
Finally, I would be remiss to not mention plain old dishwashing gloves. These are really lightweight, cheap, and work surprising well. They provide excellent feel of the paddle shaft as well. If wearing Poagies, it doesn't hurt to pack a pair in the boat (or even wear underneath the Poagies). They don't have a lot of insulation but do provide substantial warmth nonetheless.
Oh-oh, here come the skateboarders. Boaters that paddle steep creeks tend to bang their elbows into rocks from time to time - and that really smarts! Most boaters don't need this extra layer of protection. Most elbow pads come from skateboarding. One challenge you will encounter when purchasing is they seem to be sized for kids and are too tight. This is especially true for the Protec lines of elbow pads. This is one piece of gear I highly recommend purchasing at a local outfitter and not via mail order. Here is an examople from NRS: Elbow Pads.
Prices from $25 - $45.