A woman paddles through the Salish Sea near Sucia Island State Park in the San Juans.

How To Choose the Right Splash Wear for Paddling

Photo: Mitch Pittman/Tandemstock

Cover yourself with the main and most versatile kinds of paddling outerwear needed to stay comfortable on the water.

Recreational paddlers don’t usually need the cumbersome wetsuits, dry tops, and dry suits that those tackling rougher water and colder conditions require. If you’ll be paddling close to shore and in climates with relatively warm waters, all you need is splash wear—including paddling tops and pants—to protect yourself from splashes and spray, as well as any inclement weather. Splash wear is designed to keep you dry without stifling you or inhibiting your movements. Cover yourself with the main and most versatile kinds of paddling outerwear needed to stay comfortable on the water.

Paddling Tops

These are water-resistant jackets for those who don't need the robust protection of a dry top, which is designed for full submersion. While they won’t keep you dry if you swim, paddling tops will ward off splashes and rain. Plus, when layered over an insulating midlayer, they’ll keep you warm and dry in most conditions when you’re not expecting to be in the water, or constantly soaked (i.e., they’re great for lake paddling and easy canoeing, ocean touring outside of surf zones, and river-running in mild whitewater). 

Paddling tops feature a loose design built for comfort while applying paddle strokes, and they usually include an adjustable neoprene collar, cuffs, and waistband to keep water out. They’re made with two- and three-ply fabrics—most often a slightly lighter-weight material than the heavier duty fabrics in semi-dry tops—that are water-resistant but breathable, so you don’t overheat when paddling. Also, most come with a chest pocket or other pocket configurations—often with die-cut drain holes—to store accessories. Highly packable, you can stow them when not in use.

Beyond that, there are a few other features that can better suit a paddling top to your needs and preferences.

  • Reflective Tape: Reflective material on the shoulders or arms will make you more visible in low-light conditions.
  • Hoods: Some paddling tops come with hoods, which add protection from the rain and sun.
  • Short Sleeves vs. Long Sleeves: You can find paddling tops with both sleeve lengths. While long sleeves offer a bit more protection from the elements and keep you warmer when combined with full-sleeve layering underneath, it really comes down to personal preference; short sleeves offer better mobility, breathability and heat regulation.
  • Front Zipper: Instead of full front zips like you’d find on a regular rain jacket, most paddling jackets have a quarter-length front zip or V-neck Velcro opening for better water resistance. Unfasten it for egress and to increase breathability when needed.
  • Pockets: Instead of hand pockets, most paddling jackets have either a chest or front pocket for accessories such as sunscreen and snacks. 
A person paddles on Swiftcurrent Lake during sunrise in Montana Photo: Brad Beck/ Tandemstock

Semi-Dry Tops

These fall between paddling jackets and dry tops in terms of water resistance. Like dry tops, they’re designed to block water and wind, but they don’t have latex neck gaskets to seal out moisture. Instead, they feature an adjustable neoprene neck gasket that isn’t as tight or constricting. Many semi-dry tops use the same fabric construction as dry tops: two layers of fabric (polyester, nylon, or similar) with a breathable, water-impermeable inner lining. The emphasis is on water resistance and breathability for when you’re paddling hard.  

Like dry tops, semi-dry tops often include latex wrist gaskets, double tunnels (an additional skirt-like piece of material around the waist to connect with spray skirts and paddling pants), and elastic waistbands. These added features make semi-dry tops a great pick for cold-weather river trips, especially when combined with a pair of paddling pants (see below). As with paddling tops, they’re designed with a roomy, comfortable cut to accommodate the motions of paddling, and they’re available in both long- and short-sleeve versions. While most don’t feature zippered necks in favor of better water resistance, most should have a chest or front pocket for accessories. Those made for sea kayaking sometimes also have hoods for better protection from the elements. 

Paddling Pants

Designed to keep your lower extremities warm and dry, paddling pants are made with water-resistant and breathable fabrics, with a waist and ankles that feature neoprene seals to block out water. The waistbands utilize adjustable (often Velcro) closures so you can dial in a snug, comfortable fit, and the ankles also come with adjustable closures for a tight seal around your legs. 

Look for pants with fully taped seams, which will more effectively block water. Beyond that, there are a few other features to consider.

  • Integrated Socks: Some paddling pants come with integrated socks (you’ll still want to wear water shoes with them, however). Benefits include additional warmth and water resistance for socks worn underneath (a hit with kayak anglers using more exposed sit-on-top kayaks), while drawbacks include a tighter fit into your water shoes and less breathability overall when it’s warm.   
  • Hip Pockets: These provide additional storage—just make sure they have drain holes to let out water, and zipper closures to keep stowed items secure.
  • Articulated Leg Panels: These panels are designed to flex more easily with the movement of your legs. This makes them more comfortable when sitting with your legs bowed (think: in a kayak), or upright or kneeling (in a canoe). It also makes them less restrictive when hiking or portaging. Canoe trippers dealing with extended portages or any degree of bushwhacking will want to look for heavier duty fabrics and reinforced panels. 
  • Inner Liners: Some pants employ soft inner-liners, often made of synthetic mesh material, that make them more comfortable against the skin and help wick moisture, too.

Cold-Weather Gear 

If you’re paddling on a cold day, you’ll need additional insulating layers to stay warm. They don’t have to be paddling-specific; your ski, hiking or other moisture-wicking, quick-drying inner layers will work fine. Look for synthetic or wool (non-cotton) layers, which will wick moisture, and layer them under your splash-proof top and pants. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.