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Find the Perfect Outfit for Winter Paddling

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Find the Perfect Outfit for Winter Kayaking and Paddle Boarding


Manhattan Kayak is home to a dedicated group of fall-winter-spring paddlers who keep paddling in NYC when it’s cold. With solid skills, local navigation understanding, and paddle buddies, it’s certainly possible to enjoy NYC waters in the winter. What gear is most beloved by these discerning paddlers? Over time, I observed paddlers trying their new gear and explaining their satisfaction or disappointment. Here is what I learned.

Trying Out Your New Gear

Surely, if you are a beginner, spend many a day paddling when the air and water are warm and gain a keen understanding of your local waters. Then, venture into cool and cold water with the right gear, skills and companions. When you get new gear, try it out in a very low risk situation, such as a at home. Then, take it for a short jaunt during a nice day. Since all paddlers must dress for submersion – anticipate that you will capsize into the water – wear newish gear to a Rescues Training to check that it works with water immersion.

Choosing A Lifejacket: The Most Important Item Of All

In cool and cold water, wear an inherently buoyant lifejacket, not a pull-tab inflatable belt. The buoyant jacket is made of foam to keep your head out of the water and works even when your hands do not. Not all lifejackets are going to fit right, in fact, it’s not easy to find a comfortable fit! If you are buying a lifejacket, try sitting, standing and moving your arms in wide circles. The jacket should feel comfortable and should not ride up or rub your body. The best lifejackets for high-performance paddling take up a smaller surface area of your body and allow for a full range of motion. Meanwhile, given that small surface area, you need to have big enough pockets to stash your smartphone, energy snack and essentials. Find out if the pockets are good enough by stuffing them with your essentials at home. Do the pockets close fully? If not, is there a tether nearby to secure whatever you need? Also, choose a bright colored lifejacket for safety.

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In the fall, wear a lifejacket, wetsuit and splash jacket. Clockwise from top left: NRS Ninja PFD; MTI Trident PFD; NRS Jane & John 3.0 Ultra wetsuits; NRS Endurance splash jackets.


Wearing A Wetsuit In The Autumn
During autumns in NYC, daytime air temperatures hover in the 50F’s and the heat of the summer is still stored in our local waters. You’ll get cold from windchill and being out after sunset in cooling air temperatures. Wear a 3-4mm wetsuit with a splash jacket on top at this time. Some wetsuits are sleeveless, so cover your arms with a warm-when-wet long sleeve shirt. Underwear should be quick drying, not cotton, because it will absorb the sweat you create under the wetsuit. Wear neoprene boots and wool on your feet like we explain below. Have a full change of clothes for afterward.

Wearing A Drysuit In Winter And Spring

During winter and spring in NYC, daytime temperatures dip below the 40F’s and the heat of the summer is long gone from local waters. Even when the air is balmy in May, the water is still cool to cold. Wearing a drysuit is extremely important at this time, especially for soloists or multi-hour adventurers. Drysuits stop water because they’re made of waterproof material and water-tight gaskets at the wrists, ankles and neck. At Manhattan Kayak, we require drysuits from December through April. All things equal, drysuits protect paddlers from hypothermia more than wetsuits. Kokatat is the all-time favorite for kayakers and SUPSkin for SUPers. There are other drysuits recommended by members below.

a group of people standing around each other

In the winter and spring, wear a dry suit. Clockwise from top left: Kokatat Swift Entry dry suit; Kokatat Meridian dry suit; Stohlquist Shift dry suit; Crewsaver Atacama dry suit; SUPskin Dynamic dry suit.


Wetsuits Versus Drysuits for Kayaking and SUPing in the Winter

Hypothermia Risk: In the winter, the water temperature in NYC can reach 32F. The most common 3-4mm wetsuit does not offer high enough thermal protection for cold water immersion these low temperatures. A thicker 5-7mm wetsuit with sleeves adds enough thermal protection but the thickness restricts movement while paddling. Subtracting the sleeves for comfort, such as in a Farmer John or Farmer Jane style, is counterproductive in the winter yet great for the autumn. For winter paddling, drysuits are the winner. They keep the body dry and allow for warm layers underneath.

Cost and Longevity: Quality being equal, drysuits cost 2 to 3 times more than wetsuits, but drysuits last 2 to 3 times longer than wetsuits. If you plan to paddle for years, go with a drysuit. For both, the zippers are the most vulnerable point. Zippers can get stuck or broken if not designed properly, rinsed after use and lubricated periodically. Drysuit gaskets tear if you yank them. Always be sure to buy from a reputable source and a manufacturer who will repair zippers and gaskets.

Wetsuit and Drysuit Fit: Wetsuits are tight, stretchy and porous. The same wetsuit can fit well across varying bodies, albeit not perfectly. Drysuits are inelastic, impermeable and loose. Because of this, a tailored look is hard to get with standard sized drysuit unless you have good proportions. For those of us with unconventional proportions, e.g. hips, waist, chest or legs that cross over into different size classes, we get extra material in some areas and straight-jacket fit in other areas. If you have a few months to wait, contact the manufacturer to get a custom-sized drysuit. The price difference is usually not as much as you’d expect.

Expelling Waste: Being able to go to the bathroom quickly and easily is important. While surfers can pee into their wetsuits, paddlers have to sit in urine or hold it in unless they want to capsize to wash it away. Drysuits should have zippers around the waist and in the front panel for men.

Taking Them Off: After paddling, peeling off the the sweat-soaked wetsuit is unpleasant. As long as you have a zipper that you can reach (read: it is not on your back) unzip the drysuit and step out of it and find yourself wearing warm woolen  clothes.

a person in a suit and tie

Under the dry suit, wear base and mid layers. Clockwise from top left: IR Thick Skin union suit; Smartwool 250 shirt; Patagonia Capilene Air shirt; Decathlon Simplewarm bottoms; Smartwool 250 bottoms.


What To Wear With A Drysuit

You must insulate from cold air under the drysuit. Kokatat drysuits are thick so be careful of over layering and sweating underneath. SUPSkin drysuits are thin so add several layers for warmth, especially in cold winter conditions. These tops and pants are the very best layers, according to our paddlers. Woolens are eaten by moths when you forget about them in the summer, so wash them and store them in a sealed airtight container when the winter season ends.

a group of people posing for the camera

Kayakers wear pogies and SUPers wear gloves. Clockwise from top left: Brace Master ski gloves; NRS HydroSkin Forecast 2.0 gloves; Glacier Gloves; Shaalek heated gloves; Stohlquist Toaster pogies; Kokatat kayak mitt.

What to Wear on Your Hands

Hands and feet are the first bits of your body to get functionally impaired by cold water. Functional hands are essential for paddling, so keep them warm. Kayakers do best with pogies, which are mitts designed to fit around the paddle and create a warm cavity for the hands. Pogies remain attached to the paddle even when the hands let go. Pogies keep water off your hands or kayaking gloves. Without pogies, hands or gloves get wet. On the other hand, paddle boarders move their hands to different parts of the paddle and cannot use pogies. SUPers face a challenge in terms of hand wear and usually settle for 1-1.5mm neoprene gloves during mild winter days. If the material is thicker than 1-1.5 mm, it needs to have a pre-curved finger. Otherwise, a straight thick glove will tire out the fingers from constantly having to bend the material to grip the paddle.

What to Wear on Your Feet

Always wear neoprene boots when the water is cold. It is best to get 7mm booties. 3-5mm booties are too thin for winter. Look for booties with a side zipper. With a side zipper, they are a breeze to remove after a tiring workout. Cold water rinse and air-dry your booties or they will stink. Wear wool socks to prevent smells and keep your feet warm. Bring extra socks for after.

a pair of shoes

Wear wool socks and neoprene boots. Clockwise from top left: Smartwool Hiking socks; Kokatat dry socks; NeoSport 5mm low top boots; Henderson Aqua Lock boots; Neosport 7mm high tops; NRS Remix water shoes.

What to Wear on Your Head For Winter Paddling

For cold days, wear a fleece headband or hat with earflaps. The brighter the better. Even if the day seems warm, have a hat because the cold air will take heat from your body.

Other Necessities 

Use a 10-20L dry bag to store your energy bars or blocs, gloves, and hat. Calories mean heat, so if you get cold, eat your snacks. Tether your waterproof phone case to your lifejacket. On your boat deck, keep an insulated bottle or two. There is more equipment to bring on a paddle trip, but I will leave that for another blog.


Bring the essentials every time. Clockwise from upper left: Thermos 24oz Stainless King bottle; Clif Blok chews; Sea Dog 4-3/4” carabiner; AquaVault floating phone case; Rheos floating sunglasses; Sea to Summit Lightweight 13L dry bag.