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Layering - A Boater's Guide

Layering - A Boater's Guide

Layering is an extremely important skill for outdoor enthusiasts. Although layering considerations for most dry-land sports are the same, water sport require specific purpose-built variations. The most common layering formula is:

  • Sun protection layer

  • Base / wicking layer

  • Mid-weight layer

  • Outer layer

This formula can be mixed and matched to create layering systems that, once you become familiar with them, are customizable to any condition that you might face.  Boating presents an additional consideration in the form of an extreme environmental challenge because boaters need to plan for total immersion. 

As boaters, we seek out water and immersion whereas other athletes try to avoid it. Because of that, we must fundamentally change our layering formula. For example, our outer shell layers are typically a double-edged sword since they are completely waterproof, but also not breathable. Because of that, they have no way to vent heat except immersion.

There are two important categories of layering formulas: wet gear and dry gear (which we will cover in a later article).

Layering Guide

When layering wet gear, paddlers must expect to encounter water within their layers. The layers below are typically added as conditions get colder. One exception is when the water is cold but the air is warm or it is windy. In those conditions, its handy to use only outer layers since it will help decrease rapid heat loss when immersed. In any case, all materials worn on the water should be synthetic.

Sun Protection – When boating, it is nearly impossible to escape the sun’s harsh effects. The most important consideration is how quickly your sun protection layers will dry. Faster drying materials minimize heat loss which accompanies wet clothing. capilene, polypropylene, polyester, nylon, lycra, and spandex are popular choices because they offer good levels of sun protection and dry quickly.

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Base Layer –Boater’s base layers are primarily designed to insulate and reflect heat back towards your body. Base layers may include moisture wicking shirts, but wet gear base layers normally include Hydroskin, light fleece, or fleece-backed neoprene. These base layers are designed to keep a membrane of warm water close to the skin.

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Outer Layer – These layers are primarily designed to reduce the felt effects of weather and water. Outer layers typically consist of hard-shell (waterproof) paddle jackets and pants. Their first purpose it to shed or repel water, with the secondary benefit of reducing the harshness of wind and/or rain. The best outer layers are also highly effective at reflecting heat back towards your body. Outer layers should generally be waterproof with very low permeability.

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Mid-Weight Layer – If you are layering for cold or freezing temperatures, synthetic fleece is the ideal mid-weight layer. Fleece effectively captures body heat without holding excess water. We recommend only wearing one mid-weight layer since additional layers are restrictive and may affect your swimming abilities. If you’re still cold while wearing three layers of wet gear, consider moving to a drysuit.

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Footwear and other accessories - Keeping your feet warm is critical; 2 mm neoprene socks with non-insulating shoes or 2-3 mm neoprene booties are a great choice. For cold-weather footwear, boaters should consider wearing at least 4mm of neoprene socks and / or booties. Other options include neoprene gloves, helmet liners, or fleece beanies. All of these options will effectively aid in heat retention and overall comfort while you are out on the water.

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Material Guide

Neoprene – Neoprene is an insulating material designed to keep a thin layer of warm water against your body. Although many older wetsuits feel porous and absorb water, a good wetsuit should not absorb water. Neoprene wetsuits maintain a thin layer of water warm while providing insulation with multiple layers of hydrophobic material. To be effective, neoprene must be worn against the skin.



Hydroskin – This is a popular material brand in the boating community. Hydroskin is typically a thin .5 mm neoprene layer, which is sometimes backed by a light layer of fleece for extra warmth.

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Fleece (microfleece) – A wet boater’s best friend. Fleece is naturally hydrophobic due to the manufacturing process, and will absorb less than .01% of its weight in water. It is an extremely powerful insulator.

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Wool – Although wool is also a powerful insulator, it retains large amounts of water and can become very heavy which makes swimming or self-rescue difficult.

Lycra and Spandex - Lycra and spandex are often inferior materials for heat retention since stretchy materials tend to trap water between the fibers. One of the serious drawbacks for female boaters is that a lot of Women’s clothing is form fitting and supportive due to lycra and spandex but will not dry. Cotton will actually have a tendency to dry faster. It is important especially for female boaters to try avoid using these as base layers whenever possible since these materials are hydrophillic (sucking up water) and can keep you cold because of fresh cold water moving through the material and carrying away heat from your body.

Polyester and Nylon – These materials are very similar and tend to dry quickly because they are moisture wicking layers. Typically, these layers are not highly effective at heat retention, but offer good sun protection. In addition to sun protection layers, Paddle jackets are also commonly manufactured with these materials.

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Polypropylene & Capilene – Many boaters prefer Polypropylene and Capilene over the materials above because they offer slightly better heat retention properties than other sun protection layers.

Cotton – Boaters should actively avoid cotton fabrics while on the water. Cotton is non-wicking and keeps moisture close to the skin. This drains vital body heat, leading to potentially dangerous situations. 

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