Dress for the weather or dress for the water?

May 23, 2018
Late spring / early summer paddling can be a tricky time to figure out what to wear out on the water. The weather here in BC the last week has been fantastic - with plenty of sunshine and mid-summer temperatures. This is at the same time as the rivers are flooding and bringing all that cold runoff water down from the mountains.
An age-old debate in paddling is if you dress for the water or the weather and this seems to be a good time of year to revisit that debate…

Dress for the water - this refers to wearing appropriate attire for the worst case scenario - that you end up spending a decent amount of time in the water rather than in your watercraft of choice (kayak, canoe, SUP). It assumes that either you personally go for a swim or someone in your group does and you end up in the water for rescue purposes.

Dress for the weather - this refers to dressing in line with the temperatures above the water level so you are comfortable during your paddle and don’t get too warm, too cold or too wet.

At first glance, the safety logic is to dress for the water because that is the worst case scenario. At the same time, a similar safety logic can be used for the dress for the weather scenario if it is a hot and sunny day - wearing a full drysuit and a layer of fleece is a good recipe for overheating and potential heat exhaustion. So… how do you figure out what to do?

It all starts, like many other things in water sports, with an assessment of your activity. What are the potential risks for me personally or the people I am paddling with? Where are we paddling? How likely are we to be in the water? If we were to swim, would it be long or short? How cold is the water?

As whitewater kayakers, we tend to err on the side of dressing for the water, knowing that at worst case we can quickly roll to cool off. As a flat water canoeist, things aren’t quite as simple so you may sway further towards dressing for the above water conditions.

It also comes down to having great gear. Level Six’s new waterproof breathable fabrics on their dry tops and dry suits are making it easier than ever to dress for the water. The fabrics are lightweight to allow for a full range of movement and still breathable so you aren’t getting wetter inside your drysuit (due to sweat) than outside of it. As we get further into spring paddling, we’ll switch from drysuits to dry tops with neoprene pants as this still provides some insulation and coverage in case of a swim but takes the overheating factor down by a notch. Another alternative is to really master the underlayer choices for your drysuit to find the sweet spot between warmth and overheating.

So - pick good solid gear, do an honest assessment of the water conditions and the paddlers in your group and then get out on the water!

Lee Vincent

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