It’s not always easy knowing what to wear for the outdoors. Over-dressing or under-dressing, and simultaneously over-packing or under-packing, can impact your whole experience. I love the quote by Alfred Wainwright who wrote “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”.

So, let’s break it down by head, body, and feet. I have provided my personal clothing packing list below as well. And before we go any further, the material for the following is never cotton.

Head: I keep a warm hat (in Canada we call this a toque) in my lap bag for easy access when it gets cold, and a second one on standby when needed. I also bring along a buff, which I will wear over my face when there is a wind chill, or as sunblock from the refracting light from the ocean on those super bright or even overcast days. If it’s sunny, I also have a sun hat and sunglasses easily accessible. Sunglasses are key when kayaking, so I will always have a spare set stored away in case one decides to go for a swim.

Body: I like to layer in thin shirts. Usually, a tank top to start… which is really an undershirt that longs for the day where the chill from the ocean will subside and it can stand alone as the sole shirt to feel the full embrace of the sun. This usually doesn’t happen until we are off the water and in a protected cove from the wind. And when it happens… it feels glorious.

Next, I layer with a thin long sleeve shirt, which is mostly what I live in on the ocean, as the life jacket thereafter usually maintains the perfect temperature for our most common Pacific Northwest coastal days.

My third layer is a thin sweater, or the alternate, a paddle jacket, as usually one or the other will suffice. The thin sweater will add comfort and warmth on a misty or colder, overcast day, while a paddle jacket will do as a stand-alone piece, without the sweater on days where there are showers in the forecast. Of course, should it be really cold, you have the option to wear all four layers. For this reason, it is nice to have a loose-fitting paddle jacket. I will keep the thin sweater in my lap bag for easy access on the water or to throw on at breaks on land.

All non-waterproof materials that I am not wearing, I store in my lap bag. And alternatively, my paddle jacket is kept behind my seat for quick access when the clouds start to roll in and you need that extra wind and rain block to stay happy on the ocean.

While not meant for kayaking, but as a product of kayaking, when you are wanting to be cozy around the fire and at camp after your day’s paddle you will want to also have a thicker, warmer sweater or jacket. Side note, to the side note, this jacket can also double as a pillow to sleep on. I have nicknamed my warm coat my “sloth coat” which I typically have on in the morning while making coffee and in the later evening after the sunsets around the fire. This is a very special clothing piece that brings me eternal joy. Puffy down-filled coats are great for nights; they pack down in size, but need special attention to stay dry in this climate as it won’t hold warmth like fleece or wool when damp.

Here’s where it gets fun. And by fun, I mean the fashion faux pas begins and we start to create a functional look that would cast off any respectable city dweller should we return from the wilderness.

For your lower body, options include shorts for warmer days or pants which have a zipper to tear away the pant legs should they feel less necessary. Remember, when you enter your kayak, you will be at least calf-deep in the ocean or more at times so being able to have removable pant legs or tighter fitting pant legs that can be pulled up and kept dry is a bonus to personal comfort once in the kayak.

Amongst those most common days where you need two layers on your torso, you will probably benefit from the same layering for your bottom half. I often rock this look and it’s definitely one that will clearly identify you as a wilderness patron. After putting on non-cotton underwear, I layer with thermal long underwear, this could be a thin material or more fleecy material depending on your comfort needs. This is then followed by a pair of shorts to finish the look. Your thermal underwear can easily be hiked up to enter and exit the kayak while being thin enough to quick-dry should they become a bit damp. Your shorts should also be thin and quick-dry. Swim shorts are one great option here. This completes the look for your average temperature day on the ocean.

As a final layer, should it be wet, a pair of rain pants, waterproof paddling pants with socks which keep you dry to your waist,  or a full dry-suit depending on what you have or what you are willing to invest in should be included in your packing list. Any of these will further keep that smile on your face and your spirit in dreamy, outdoor, wilderness, exploration, loving land on what would seem like a dreary day to common indoor folk.

Feet: To continue with function over fashion and what will never catch you a city date, drum roll please, my personal favorite foot attire for kayaking in the Pacific Northwest are Crocs. And not any Crocs but the original ugly Crocs, before they realized that they need to up their game on looks Crocs. Crocs that should only be worn gardening or on the ocean and never in public Crocs and definitely won’t score you a date Crocs.

I personally enjoy Crocs for the following reasons when kayaking. They dry quickly when you enter your kayak. You can easily slip them on and off, for when you want to add a warm pair of socks to the look while in your kayak. Crocs don’t fit tight and therefore don’t create friction with small sand particles that wedge between them and your feet. They offer good heel support for when you are in your kayak over fabric material sandals.

My personal bias on them being the best does also come with some criticism. While the Croc brand used to stand even higher in my ranking, I feel that for the price/quality they are starting to lose their value as I have also noticed that the grip that they offer wears seemingly faster than their preceding models. The sole of the shoe becomes slick and thereby turns into a safety issue when carrying kayaks or just generally exploring the uneven and stunning raw terrain that kayaking offers. I suppose we could just fall into their trap of buying a new pair, more frequently, but this is starting to wear on my heartstrings and environmental standpoint, knowing that they could and should last longer.

Other options are sandals. Teva and Keens seem to be the most common brands I have seen by kayakers. The benefits here include what the Crocs lack; better and longer-lasting grip. They are also possibly slightly more diverse for those wanting a shoe that can be worn in more settings than kayaking and gardening. Many kayakers swear by them and don’t find that they are bothered with sand creating friction. They will dry given that the weather is nice or at least they will become dry enough to not irritate your skin. They offer a good amount of airflow to your feet to avoid pruning skin. I have had people irritated by the material and have found heel rubbing in the kayaks when using the foot pedals to control the kayak’s rudder. Finally, if this is the option you’re leaning towards, it’s important to buy sandals with good toes protection, again a fashion faux pas, but will save you from stubbing your toes on endless rocks and tree roots.

My least favorite option is the neoprene booties. Benefits include sand and pebbles won’t likely get in, they offer heel protection and they are the most affordable. My dislike to them is that they are thin and won’t protect well against stubbing your toes. The material never dries and keeps your feet wet at all times, you have wet cold booties to look forward to each morning and they don’t seem to keep feet very warm. I always share with clients to wear a pair of wool socks along with them which they also have to put on wet in the morning to help keep their feet warm enough. If you are wearing a full drysuit where your feet are dry regardless or bid pants which have socks sewn into them to keep your feet dry, then I would recommend neoprene booties to offer wear and tear protection and grip.

Another option for pros are wellies or rubber boots that reach your upper calf. I mention these are for pros as you have to be super aware of the water height of the waves as you are entering your kayak to not flood your boots. They are a luxury item for sure, and do take up a lot of space, but can also be the sweetest treat for especially wet weather trips. Depending on your personal comfort they may or may not work for you to kayak in. It is a major hassle to remove footwear once in a kayak so I would only recommend wearing them to enter your kayak if you intend to also wear them in the kayak. They would also be way too hot to wear on a sunny day and may become extra bulk if you should have solely nice weather. What a problem that would be right. The benefit of course would be super comfy, warm and 100% dry feet.

Finally, you always want a pair of shoes for when you’re kayaking and a second pair for after when you’re at camp. Whatever stunning scenery you may find yourself in whether a sunsetting beach, a rugged rocky coastline, a forested hillside, or pebble beach bring a pair of running shoes to tromp around in that will offer good support and warmth. Bonus if your running shoes also have some Gortex material in them should there be rain.

If I could only choose two shoes to bring, I often will go with Crocs which I have to admit also become my dryland shoes with a pair of wooly socks and a pair of rubber boots which I will wear as well on land and in the kayak depending. I often will wear rubber boots at camp especially if I am having to walk into the ocean to rinse dishes or collect water for the group. Mix and match and see what works best for you.

All together now:

This is an extensive breakdown of what to wear kayaking in the Pacific Northwest. Hopefully, the fashion faux pas have not turned you away from the sport but rather have made you more excited to get outside in all weather. Being on the ocean in a rainstorm is one of my favorite ways to experience the pacific climate as you can typically stay warm and dry and find endless beauty, calm, and wilderness experiences thereby. For more on what clothing materials are best or more tips on how to stay warm, a further packing list, and what to put in various dry bags visit my Wild Root Adventure Blog.

And as promised my clothing packing list for a 4-5 day trip. Multiply the non-waterproof clothing for longer trips.


Clothing Packing List for Kayaking in the Pacific Northwest

Clothing should include:

  • 1 pair of water shoes – can get wet and most importantly have grip. They need to have ankle straps. I recommend runners, water shoes, Keen or Croc sandals. Closed toed shoes help against stubbing toes on rocks.
  • A pair of rubber boots are optional. Perks include your feet staying dry entering and exiting the kayaks. Downside they can flood if a wave fills them. They can also be bulky to wear in a kayak or to store.
  • 1 pair of land shoes – runners or another light weight shoe is great.
  • 2-4 warm socks
  • 2 shorts
  • 1-2 pants
  • Underwear
  • 1 thermal underwear – like the underlays you might wear skiing.
  • 3-4 shirts – a mix of short and long sleeve
  • 1 sweater – a light/medium weight sweater while on water
  • Evening sweater or puffy coat
  • Rain jacket
  • Rain pants – not necessary but nice to have
  • Paddling gloves and on land mitts for those with generally cold hands.
  • Buff – for neck warmth and sun protection
  • Warm hat/beanie/toque – whatever you know it as! Wool or fleece ideally.
  • Sun hat
  • Swimsuit – optional

No cotton or jeans. These materials can cause rapid transfer of heat away from the body, and do not dry easily.
Wool, or synthetics such as fleece or polyester are better options.

Other Items may Include:

  • Sun glasses
  • Glasses/Contacts and Solution – consider a back-up if one becomes lost or broken
  • Small towel
  • Toiletries and menstrual products– biodegradable soaps please
  • Baby wipes – for personal cleaning
  • A few Band-Aids
  • Sunscreen/insect repellent – please spray away from others, not on materials like tents, life jackets and paddle jackets as it leaves stains and ruins the material over time.
  • Lip balm – ideally with 15 SPF or more.
  • Personal medications – bring extra doses of medication if is critical to you. Separate and duplicate, keeping one set with a partner or guide. A trip can be cut short if there is not enough medication to keep a client safe.
  • Wide mouthed water bottle – plastic 1L Nalgene is ideal. They float and do not scratch kayaks. It’s nice to have a carabiner clip attached.
  • Electrolyte tablets – these have added vitamins and minerals which can be nice while exercising in the sun especially.
  • Book – keep in a Ziplock bag
  • Spirits – alcohol may be consumed after the days kayaking only. No glass bottles please.
  • Camera – small waterproof cameras are great. If you have a larger camera a hard case is a great way to keep it protected. Alternatively, a camera can be wrapped in a sweater and kept in a dry bag for protection.
  • Battery pack/cables
  • Ziplock bags
  • Headlamp/extra batteries
  • Ear plugs – if others are sleeping deeply nearby.
  • Camp pillow
  • Small pair of binoculars
  • Sleeping bag and a 15L max compression stuff sack, best is -10º sleeping bag and liner.
  • Sleeping pad

My go to all around store for comparing and buying outdoor clothing and gear is MEC.ca

Kayak Guide wearing rubber boots in the shallow tides by her kayak
Wild Root Journeys