This ACK customer,Chris Carlisle, knows how to keep warm on the water!

When winter rolls around, I find myself lusting for those summer days where you could just slip into a bathing suit, slap on some sunscreen and a hat and be good to go for a day of paddling. Colder weather calls for much more preparation when you’re dressing to keep warm on the water. When I went whitewater rafting in Colorado for the first time, there was a solid layer of snow on the ground. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Arkansas River is all snow melt so I quickly learned a few tricks for layering like a pro and put together this handy guide for keeping warm on the water.

Base Layer

When it comes to winters on the water, it’s extremely important to keep warm down to your core. The best way to accomplish this is by avoiding all cotton – even cotton blends. The problem with cotton is the moment it gets wet, you’re bound to be cold from then on until it dries. Save yourself from having to deal with this struggle and opt for synthetic materials like polyester or capilene. An example of an ideal base layer is Columbia’s Base Layer Midweight II Long Sleeve Half Zip Top. This top features zoned thermal-reflective technology along the front and back torso and breathable, sweat-wicking side inserts so you’ll stay warm and won’t drench yourself in a layer of sweat as you heat up.

Long Underwear

Often times I find people skip over this layer, which is a mistake if you know you’re going to be out somewhere cold – especially in the early morning or evening when the sun isn’t out yet. Whether you’re on or off the water, long underwear is the secret to staying warm. The second temperatures drop, I layer a pair of long underwear with everything – even skinny jeans! Your legs make up a large portion of your body and sticking to one layer doesn’t cut it when you’re dealing with cold weather sessions on the water (especially if you’re breaking my no cotton rule and donning that favorite pair of sweatpants). Options like Under Armour’s UA Base 2.0 Leggings feature a good amount of 4-way stretch so you won’t feel constricted and have a sleek enough profile so you can layer them easily. These have the added bonus of anti-odor technology and Under Armour’s signature Moisture Transport System which pushes sweat away from your body to the surface of the gear causing it to dry faster. 

Fleece Jacket

Snuggling up in a cozy fleece jacket is the ultimate treat on a cold day. A fleece jacket is far more superior than your beloved cotton sweatshirt because it will keep you warm, wet or dry. Fleece will also wick away moisture so you won’t get too cold if you work up a sweat paddling. Columbia’s PFG Harborside Fleece Full Zip Jacket is a fabulous piece to wear or keep in your dry bag in case the weather turns. It’s made with a heathered polyester so it has a nice thick quality giving you plenty of warmth. 


A waterproof layer isn’t always necessary, but when you need one, you really need one. When looking for a waterproof jacket, breathability is a critical factor, otherwise you’ll find yourself feeling gross and clammy the moment you start heating up. Mountain Hardwear’s Ampato Jacket  meets this criteria with its Dry.Q Elite waterproof technology. When you slip it on, the combination of its moisture-vapor transfer rates and air permeability keep you dry at all temperatures. It’s important to make sure something is waterproof and not water resistant. While water resistant materials are better than nothing, if you’re going out during a storm or plan on encountering splashy rapids, you’ll definitely want waterproof.

Heads, Hands, and Toes!

Your ears, hands, and feet are typically the first thing to feel cold and there’s nothing like numb appendages to ruin a good time on the water. Again, I’m thinking of that first time down the Arkansas River when it was snowy cold. I layered a pair of wool socks with my Tevas in true river rat fashion and believe it or not, it worked! As you should know by now, wool or synthetic blends are a champion cold fighter and infinitely better than any cotton options. We carry SealSkinz waterproof socks in a variety of thicknesses and heights. Neoprene socks like Level Six’s fusion Neoprene Sock are awesome because they trap water inside allowing your body heat to warm it up and keep your feet toasty all day. Just watch out for that “juice” when you’re taking them off at the end of your trip – it’s a funky smell for sure. For your hands, I really like SealSkinz Ultra Grip Waterproof Gloves. They’re made with three layers and feature a great grip even when wet via the dotted palm and fingers. To keep heat trapped around your head cover it up! SealSkinz Waterproof Knit Beanie is awesome because of the micro-fleece lining. If beanies aren’t your thing, consider getting a Buff. They’re highly versatile and the Buff Polar Multifunctional Headwear specifically is fabulous for cold weather because it’s made with PolarTec microfleece so you’ll be warm and comfortable no matter how you’re rocking it.

In a nutshell, the golden rule for keeping warm on the water is to avoid cotton and remember those layers. As always with any paddlesport, you’re very likely to get wet on the water – if you stick to the guide and dress appropriately it’ll be no biggie!

Devyn, AKA The Lady in Layers



  1. I am looking to try out several 2 seater hobie kayaks..
    Mostly the oasis – mostly for fishing for one person and 2 people for long distance excursions for fun..
    When and where are your spring expo’s being held?

  2. Devyn, your acknowledgement of an unintentional narrow perspective to your original article, which subsequently generated the follow-on discussions is exactly how this format is supposed to work. For those readers (I’m here in northern Illinois) who have to deal with the extremes of the continuum, it is most useful to have your original intent stretched for a broader audience. Thanks to you and those out on the fringe!

  3. Devyn Stewart THANK YOU for a well written article. Reading the threads of know-it-alls under you makes me mad. People read the article for what it is. Each of us is her/his own paddler and in his/her own areas. Yes people do not want to die and take precautions they feel necessary for their areas. Again THANK YOU Devyn Stewart for a well written article.

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate you saying that – while I always try to take other perspectives into consideration when writing these blogs, something like dealing with true cold like some folks have to put up with up North didn’t occur to me. It’s because of exactly what you said about being your own paddler in your own area – in Austin,Texas I’d be miserably hot in a drysuit out on the water so it wasn’t on my mind. When reading those other comments, I understand where people are coming from and am glad at least those who are in those super cold regions, are smart enough to know how to properly dress for warmth!

  4. While it is important to be warm while on the water it is more important to be dressed for in the water. If you tip or roll over all those layers will get wet and add weight. Does your life jacket have sufficient buoyancy to hold you up until you get back on or in your boat?

    I open water kayak in Buzzards Bay off of Cape Cod. I dress for water immersion which also keeps me warm for being on top. I add dry gear to all the layers, dry socks, dry pants and dry top. I recently purchased the NRS mystery hat with bill for my head. It works well. My pants and top are Kokotat.
    The dryness will afford me more time to get back in my kayak and head for shore. The other important thing is carry a first aid kit with a couple of emergency blankets and a fire starter.
    If you are going to venture on the water in winter please be safe.

    1. You bring up a really good point -it’s especially important to prepare for cold weather and water in areas like where you are!Those are all great brands and you’re smart to prepare for immersion both with safety gear and proper clothing so you’ll be set should something go wrong. Being from Southern California originally, I am a big proponent of staying as warm and dry as possible!

  5. A layering tip from a super senior skier and waterman: wear a thin stocking that are sold as nylon ankle socks for women or cut off the bottom of your wife’s panty hose to add a thin but heat trapping layer under your boots. Can be combined with neopreme or other socks or just worn alone. Be sure to trim your toe nails to prevent “runs”. Remember Joe Namath wore “panty hose” to play with the NY Jets in freezing weather!

  6. First and most important layer before heading out to kayak on any lake in the norther region….


    Long before you dress for staying warm on the water, you need to dress to survive IN the water.

    1. Can you tell I’m living in Texas now? Dry suits are a distant memory haha You’re absolutely right, wearing a dry suit is an essential for colder northern parts of the country. When wearing a dry suit, it’s important to remember they aren’t designed to keep you warm necessarily, so you’ll want to put it on over all the other layers mentioned here.