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Best And Worst Paddling Clothing Materials

You can paddle in nearly any environment, at any time of year, and in almost any type of weather. Sure, some types of weather and times of year are more suitable for paddling than others, but when you wear the right clothing - almost anything is possible.

When paddling, regardless of the weather and season, your clothing selection is essential to your enjoyment and your safety. This is particularly true when it comes to the material your clothing is made of.

When choosing your paddling clothes you must pay close attention to the fabric and materials. Wool and synthetic materials like fleece are fantastic for insulation as they keep you warm even when they get wet. Make sure you have an outer layer that is made of reliably waterproof material. Never use cotton, as it takes a long time to dry and takes heat away from your body when wet.

When you are choosing paddling clothing there is a lot more to consider than how comfortable or attractive the items are. Even name brands you rely on for your adventure wear can produce some garments made of fabrics that you should never wear while paddling. This is why it is essential you know the best and worst fabrics and materials to wear while paddling, and understand why they work well or poorly. Keep reading to learn all about the factors to consider when choosing the right clothing to paddle in.

Five Concepts To Live By When Dressing For A Paddle

1. Dress To Swim

“Dress to swim” is a saying to live by as a paddler when it comes to dressing yourself for the water. The idea behind these words is you should choose your clothing based on the temperature of the water, and also with the idea in mind that you may fall in.

This means a couple of things. For one, it means that you need to know the water temperature (which is almost always colder than the air temperature) and dress accordingly for that temperature. Furthermore, it means you need to choose clothing materials that aren’t bulky or loose, as some clothing can be difficult to swim or even float in.

2. Understand What “Layering” Actually Means

The concept of laying clothing is second nature to anyone who lives in a region with seasons. The idea is you wear several layers of clothes that you can add or subtract based on how warm or cold you feel. But when you layer as a paddler there are more factors to consider.

Layering as a paddler means you need two very important layers of clothes. On the outside, you need a protective shell. This should be a waterproof layer that keeps moisture from seeping in but also doesn’t impede your mobility. Underneath the waterproof layer will be one or multiple layers of insulation. In the next sections, we will cover the best (and worst) materials to choose for both of these layers.

3. Keep An Extra Layer Of Insulation In A Dry Bag

Even the best wardrobe choices can end in disaster if you fall into the water. Quick dry clothing sometimes simply can’t dry quickly enough, which is why having a spare set of dry insulating clothing is a game changer. This is particularly important when you are paddling in very cold waters, as you may need to swap clothing quickly to avoid losing body heat.

4. Save Room For Your PFD

Layers are important when choosing your paddling clothing, but the most important layer is always your PFD. Remember that when you add extra layers of clothing it might make wearing your PFD more challenging. Take this into consideration when you choose your clothing, and opt for clothing that won’t make wearing a life jacket difficult. Durable and form-fitting clothing is almost always better than baggy and bulky fabrics.

Check out our Life Jacket Guide to find your perfect PFD.

5. Dress With Sun Protection In Mind

Warmth and dryness are two major factors to consider when choosing the best paddling fabrics, but you should also consider the sun. Regardless of the temperature, you need to protect yourself from the harmful rays of the sun. Instead of constantly applying sunscreen, it is often much easier (and cheaper ) to cover your skin with clothing that blocks these rays.

Best Materials For Insulating Layers When Paddling

When it comes to your all-important insulating layers, several materials and fabrics are better than others. Some are man-made, and others are natural. Below is a list of the best fabrics for those looking to stay warm and well-insulated while paddling.

  • Fleece: Fleece is often considered one of the best insulating fabrics, and is commonly used as an insulating layer by paddlers around the world. What makes fleece ideal is that it is lightweight, durable, and also very easy to wring out and dry quickly. It does not hold on to moisture like natural fabrics, and a thin layer of fleece can keep you quite warm. It is also affordable and widely available.

  • Wool: Wool is one of the best natural insulators. It does a fantastic job of maintaining your body heat in cold conditions. It can be a bit bulky and scratchy. It also takes a long time to dry, including cotton.

  • Nylon: Nylon is another synthetic that is effective at insulating. It doesn’t insulate as well as fleece. If, however, you need a light insulating layer that doesn’t take up much space, and feels more like a second skin, then nylon is a good choice.

  • Polyester: Polyester is another synthetic and widely used fabric that is known for its insulation. It also does not retain or absorb water easily, which means in many cases (but not all) it dries quickly. Polyester is also quite durable, but it is not always to most comfortable of fabrics, so it is best to test out any polyester clothing before using it as an insulating layer on a long paddling journey.

  • Neoprene: If you are likely to get wet, or are facing some challenging paddling conditions and won’t have the ability to change out of wet clothing, neoprene is the ideal insulator. Neoprene is commonly used in wetsuits, making it ideal for those who need to insulate and anticipate a wet paddling experience.

Use Waterproof Materials For A Protective Outer Layer

When it comes to your waterproof outer layer, you need to think about your budget, and also the conditions. For those paddling in frigid paddling destinations, Gore-Tex and dry suits made of various effective waterproof materials are the best options. They will keep you dry, and possibly save your life. But they are costly and bulky, which is why you can consider other options if you are looking for splash protection.

Coated nylon is a great option for those looking for reasonably priced and effective splash jackets. Keep in mind some are better than others, so it always helps to read reviews. Coated nylon is also quite strong in many cases, making it the preferred choice of many paddlers.

Knowing When Paddling In A Wetsuit Or Drysuit Is A Good Idea

A general rule of thumb is if you would wear a wet or dry suit to swim in the water you are paddling in, then it is a good idea to wear one kayaking. This is because, as mentioned earlier, it is important to dress for the water temperature and not for the air temperature.

Still, it is important to consider the air temperature when you are thinking about a wet or dry suit. This is because it is possible to overheat and even suffer from dehydration if you wear a wetsuit in warm weather and are not prepared. Therefore, if you plan to wear a wet or dry suit when the air temperature is warm and the water temperature is cold, pay extra attention to your hydration. It is also a good idea to wear a light-colored outer layer to reflect the sun, as many wetsuits are dark-colored.

Four Worst Clothing Materials For Paddling

1. Any Clothing With Cotton

Many outdoors enthusiasts and survivalists are familiar with the saying “cotton kills.” While this might sound dramatic, there is some real truth to this saying. Cotton is a common fabric in clothing because it is known for its breathability. It also absorbs moisture, which cools your body when you sweat. This works great in everyday life, but moisture-absorbant fabric is the enemy of any paddler.

For one, it takes a long time for cotton to dry. This means if you get wet, you will stay wet. Furthermore, unlike other materials that stay warm even when wet, cotton will continue to pull warmth from your body. This can result in loss of body heat, and cause hypothermia if you are paddling in cold waters and cold weather. This is why wool and synthetics are always a better option for insulation when paddling.

2. Loose-fitting or Bulky Garments

You might enjoy the feel or look of loose-fitting garments when you are on land, but baggy clothing can be dangerous when you are paddling. You want to have clothing that stays close to your body. This makes it easier to add layers (including your PFD). It also makes swimming much safer. Think about how much easier it is to swim in a fitted rash guard versus an oversized t-shirt.

3. Clothing With Metal That Is Prone To Rust

One material that is easy to overlook, but can cause serious problems over time is the metal found in lots of your clothing’s hardware. Exposed metal that is not rust-proof and properly coated can corrode, rust, and freeze up over time.

Opt for zippers and buttons that are coated and rated for watersports. This is especially important for saltwater paddlers, as saltwater can quickly destroy unprotected metal.

4. Materials That Cause Friction Or Impede Paddling

All forms of paddling, from SUP boarding to kayaking and everything in between, involve constant movement. Therefore, you need fabric that is durable and forgiving. Avoid fabrics that cause lots of friction, or will impede your ability to paddle. This is why denim and other fabrics are never a good idea. Lightweight and durable fabrics like quickie-drying nylon and other synthetics are ideal.

Summing Up The Best And Worst Paddling Clothing Materials

When you go to your closet to pick out your outfit for your next paddling adventure, don’t forget to consider the materials and fabrics involved. When it comes to choosing a paddling wardrobe you need to consider your insulating layer underneath, and your outer shell which would be water and wind-resistant.

When choosing fabrics to insulate your body while you paddle, fleece, wool, nylon, polyester, and neoprene are all great options. Cotton, untreated metals, and baggy or bulky materials should be avoided at all costs. Coated nylon and Gore-Tex are both great options for your outer shell. As you select your clothing for your next paddling adventure, remember to dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature, to ensure you make the safest wardrobe choices each time you paddle.

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