Kayak Spray Skirts: What Do You Need?

5-minute read + 18-minute video

Spray skirts are designed to keep water out of your sit-inside kayak. Who needs one and what type do you need? We answer those questions here.

whitewater kayaker riding a big wave, shows his kayak skirt on the kayak

Spray skirts are essential for whitewater kayakers (photo courtesy of @caseybryantjones)

Aqua Bound Ambassador and Paddle TV host Ken Whiting tells us what we need to know in the following video. While, as he says, “there is absolutely no way to rock a spray skirt and NOT look like a dork,” it’s vital in many kayaking situations and handy in others.

Watch the video below or continue reading for Ken’s tips:

Who Needs a Spray Skirt?

High-level kayakers use spray skirts as part of their essential gear collection. But does the everyday kayaker need one?

Spray Skirts are for Sit-In Kayaks

Spray skirts are designed for people who paddle a sit-inside kayak and whose cockpit has a combing that serves as the attachment point for a skirt. (The combing is the lip around the cockpit. Not all sit-ins have this.)

Spray Skirts are Designed for Rough Water

The purpose of a skirt is to prevent water from entering your kayak due to:

  • A capsize (assuming you know how to roll your kayak)
  • Splash from waves or adverse weather

Ken suggests paddlers who go beyond Class I current use a spray skirt.

A skirt is an essential safety item for whitewater paddlers. It’s also important for kayakers who could be exposed to wind and waves in open water like the Great Lakes or the ocean. Even if you start on calm water, conditions can change rapidly so you need to be prepared.

You don’t need a skirt if you paddle a recreational kayak in mellow conditions like calm, flat water or slow-moving rivers. Some still choose to use a skirt, though, as it’ll prevent paddle drip and any rain from getting your legs wet. And it can help keep you warmer if you kayak in cooler weather.

What Kind of Spray Skirt Do You Need?

If you decide to buy a spray skirt, the next question is: What type do you need?

All spray skirts have four parts:

  • Tunnel—fits around your waist
  • Deck—the main platform that protects you
  • Rand—the stretchy part that fits over and attaches to the cockpit combing
  • Grab Loop—the front loop you will grab to take the skirt off your kayak
diagram of kayak skirt parts

Spray skirts are not one-size-fits-all. Both the tunnel and the deck are sized—one to you and the other to your kayak. Skirt manufacturers will have a chart on their websites to help you size the deck properly. Or you can measure your kayak’s cockpit and match it as closely as you can (if you have the chance to buy a second-hand skirt, for example). The tunnel is measured in basic medium, large, extra-large, etc.

Styles of Spray Skirt

A basic nylon skirt has the four main parts of all spray skirts but it functions as a splash guard only. It isn’t considered a safety device. The rand is a bungee cord that adjusts to tighten. The deck doesn’t stretch or stay taut so rainwater or splash will tend to pool a bit.

On the other end of the spectrum is a neoprene skirt that seals tightly with a stretchy deck that prevents any pooling. These are designed for high-performance kayaking like whitewater and ocean paddling.

kayaker in a touring kayak on a large calm lake in the mountains

Even the potential of rough water is a good reason for a spray skirt (photo courtesy of @sethezekielwest)

Some skirts have a rubber rand that seals super-tight and is difficult to take off. These are for very high-performing paddlers who have an efficient roll and need their skirts to stick to the cockpit no matter what.

Other skirts serve as a hybrid, having a nylon tunnel with a neoprene deck. This type provides a taut deck without pooling and is easier to put on and take off. A nylon tunnel is much cooler than a neoprene model and is popular with sea kayakers.

Some nylon skirts have a frame built into the deck to prevent water from pooling on it from waves or splash. It’s not as “sticky” as the neoprene models, but more affordable for those who don’t need that upgrade.

As expected, prices start lower with the basic model and increase from there.

How to Put On a Spray Skirt

1. Do NOT put it on over your head like a shirt. Pull it up like a pair of pants or a skirt, feet first. “Accept the fact you’re going to get a wedgie!” jokes Ken.

2. Put your spray skirt on before your life jacket. Once you cinch your PFD down, it’ll hold your spray skirt in place.

3. If you’ll be kayaking in rough conditions (or potentially rough conditions) with waves and spray, a short-sleeved paddling top will keep you dry and prevent extra water from getting in your boat. Ken wears one even in warm conditions.

4. In cold conditions wear a paddle top with a double tunnel. It will keep you completely dry.

5. NEVER tuck the grab loop under the cockpit rim! The grab loop has to be accessible in case you need to pull the skirt off in an emergency. If you capsize but don’t know how to roll, or if your roll isn’t working for some reason, you need to be able to get out of the cockpit.

packrafter with a spray skirt paddling near snow-covered mountains

Avid packrafters use spray skirts too (photo courtesy of Luc Mehl)

We hope this has answered your questions about spray skirts. Enjoy all your kayaking adventures!

What paddling questions can our friendly Customer Service team help you with? Contact us here: 715-755-3405 or [email protected]

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