Kayak Spray Skirts (A Beginner’s Guide)

The sport and pastime of kayaking is the fastest-growing paddlesport in the world! As it grows, more and more people are becoming exposed to not only different kayaks and styles of kayaking but the sheer quantity and variety of gear and equipment available for kayakers.

Kayak spray skirts are one of those options and almost everyone who ventures on the water with a sit-in kayak will eventually want one. This is especially true for whitewater and sea expedition kayakers.

If you’ve been paddling a yak for years or if you’re just getting started, I think I can help you understand why you might need or want a spray skirt, how to choose one, and how to use it and care for it properly.

I’m always learning new things in my quest to gain knowledge in the world of kayaking and I’ve been gathering that knowledge for over 40 years. Hopefully, I can use my experience to help you learn a bit more about kayak spray skirts, and with any luck, I’ll learn a few things along the way as well!

What is a Kayak Spray Skirt?

A kayak spray skirt is a piece of equipment that is worn by kayakers to keep them dry. It is a water-resistant cloth that is attached around the kayaker’s waist and covers the kayak cockpit. The kayaker’s lower body and kayak interior are then sealed against the weather and water.

A kayak spray skirt is a necessary piece of equipment for kayakers who want to stay dry, especially in rough water conditions.

If you sit in your kayak (sorry, spray skirts don’t work for fishing kayaks or other “sit-on-top” kayaks) without a spray skirt, you’ll notice that you can see your thighs or maybe even your knees. If heavy rain were to start falling, you can see how you would get, including from the waist down, and how the interior of the kayak would eventually gather lots of water.

If you kayak in rough water like whitewater rapids, it’s even easier to see how your entire kayak could be filled with water and swamped within just a few seconds without something to keep the water out of your kayak’s interior.

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Without a spray skirt, this kayaker would likely be swamped in just less than one minute!

Is a Spray Skirt Necessary?

In many situations, you can certainly do without a spray skirt, but in rough water conditions where waves are coming over the sides of the kayak and across the deck, or when you’re kayaking in rough rapids, there’s no good reason for you not to have a spray skirt installed.

If you practice rolling your kayak, it’s strongly advised to use a skirt. Technically, it may be possible to do a few rolls with minimal water retention in the kayak, but eventually, you’ll get swamped.

If you’re kayaking in rainy weather, you’ll gather more and more water in the hull until it starts to rise past your seat and create not only discomfort but poor kayak performance.

Because of the added cost and fuss that surrounds the purchase and use of a kayak skirt, it may be wise to consider the many scenarios where skirts are not at all required or even recommended.

If you are casually paddling on a quiet sunny afternoon in a quiet river or bay, having a skirt is more of a detriment than an asset. It will make you hotter everywhere from the rib cage downward, and it will serve no function whatsoever unless you are in the pouring rain, rough waters with large waves or rapids.

Parts of a Kayak Spray Skirt

Not all skirts have the exact same features, but most have the same basic parts. This example of the Perception TrueFit kayak skirt has some extra features that only make the entire experience of using a kayak skirt all the better.

TUBE– This is the part of the skirt that fits around the kayaker’s waist. It needs to fit tightly, but not too restrictive so as to affect comfort and breathing.

DECK – This is the main part that attaches to the kayak’s cockpit at the bottom, and to the tube at the top. It can feature elements like a zipper to release hot air or an implosion bar that keeps it from sagging and collecting water.

GRIP EDGE – This is the part that actually attaches around the lip or edge of the cockpit itself. Skirts usually come with one of two main types of connections – a bungee style or a rand style.

GRAB LOOP – Most all skirts come with this loop since it makes the job of installing and uninstalling the skirt onto the kayak much easier. The paddler simply grabs the loop then pushes away from his/her body to either install or uninstall the skirt.

IMPLOSION BAR – Not all skirts have this feature, but this Perception TrueFit offers it. The purpose is to reduce or eliminate deck sag due to water pressure or puddles. The bar keeps an upward shape to the main deck of the skirt.

TUNNEL ZIPPER – This is again, a feature not included in all skirts. The purpose is to release any hot air if necessary or at least offer some ventilation during times when the protective features of the skirt are not imminently needed.

SUSPENDERS – Some kayak skirts come with suspenders to secure the fit but not all have this feature.

How Do You Use a Kayak Spray Skirt?

Simply put, a kayaker needs to step into the “tunnel” or “tube” of the skirt and pull it up from their feet to their torso. Then, after getting into the kayak, the base of the skirt is attached to the coaming or rim/edge of the open cockpit to secure it to the kayak and keep water out of the cockpit.

The skirt is attached to the coaming of the cockpit using one of two common attachment systems built into the skirt. One of those systems is called a bungee grip edge and the other is the rand grip edge.

Bungee vs. Rand Grip Edge

A bungee style skirt is usually neoprene and offers a very stretchy cord that easily stretches around the open rim of a kayak cockpit.

It is far easier to apply and remove than the rand style and it is also far more common. It offers a bit more confidence that the paddler will be able to quickly release from the cockpit in the case of a capsize.

A rand style skirt offers a less stretchy fit and is not as popular or common as the easier-to-use bungee style. A rand edge is a bit more technical and features a rubber ridge around the entire perimeter of the skirt where it attaches to the kayak.

The rubber ridge is not unlike that of a kitchen utility container for sandwiches and leftovers. It seals effectively but it’s also more technical and difficult to install and remove.

Rand skirts are best for whitewater and rough conditions since they are not prone to implosion, and they won’t slip off from water pressure from above or air pressure from below.

Some paddlers don’t like the rand style skirt because it seems like it would prevent escape more than a bungee skirt. In reality, both can be exited easily with a bit of practice. Just be sure you can reach the grab loop easily in which case you’ll be able to release yourself easily no matter what type of skirt you use.

Kayak Spray Skirt Materials

There are basically two materials used in the manufacturing of kayak spray skirts; Nylon and Neoprene. Skirts are made of one of these materials, or a combination of both.

NYLON – Nylon skirts are the choice for warm-weather paddlers in nearly all conditions where spray skirts would be required. They do not hold body heat as well (which is a good thing if you’re in a warm climate).

Nylon skirts are a little less durable (if only slightly) and the material is a bit less forgiving when it comes to stretching or resisting tears.

Because nylon is not as stretchy, it won’t fit as snugly around your torso. This means that a good quality nylon skirt will often have a neoprene chest band that offers the most watertight seal around your body.

Even with the neoprene in the tunnel, a nylon skirt is not the best choice for extreme conditions of ocean kayaking and major whitewater.

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An example of a great quality TrueFit nylon spray skirt (from Perception)

NEOPRENE – Neoprene skirts are typically more durable, resilient, more fitted and more watertight than nylon. They also happen to be much warmer which is great in colder environments.

Neoprene spray skirts (well, anything made of neoprene actually) should be wet before it is installed. When dry, neoprene is exceptionally difficult to stretch or properly install no matter what product you are using (ie. wetsuit, spray skirt, gloves, etc.)

A high-quality neoprene skirt is more expensive than nylon and offers a better seal for any whitewater or very rough water enthusiast. Immersion Research is a leading company that manufactures (arguably) the best nylon spray skirts.

The Immersion Research Klingon Empire Kayak Spray Skirt

NYLON / NEOPRENE COMBO – A kayak skirt made with a combination of these two materials offers a good compromise between both the good and bad qualities of them both.

For example, a combo skirt usually has a nylon deck which is a bit cooler and will often provide you with features like a zipper and implosion bar.

Then, around your torso, there will likely be a neoprene band or element that increases the watertight qualities that nylon alone cannot offer.

How Do You Apply or Stretch the Kayak Skirt?

Once the paddler is safely inside the cockpit ready to paddle, the process for most skirts would be for the paddler to lean back slightly and slip the grip edge of the skirt around the back of the cockpit edge or coaming. Then as the paddler leans forward, the sides of the skirt can be slipped over the coaming, and finally, the paddler would reach forward to take hold of the grab loop and push it away from the cockpit to stretch it around the remainder of the cockpit edge.

Both bungee and rand skirts are installed the same way, but the rand will take a bit more muscle power and an extra 30 seconds or so.

If installing a rand skirt, be sure to run your fingers around the coaming or cockpit edge after it’s installed to be sure it’s smooth. If you feel any ridges or bumps, that means the rand may not be properly installed so it won’t seal perfectly. Be sure to work out those bumps or reinstall the skirt.

For neoprene skirts, remember that they’ll stretch better if you get them at least a little bit wet. Otherwise, they may be tough and may not stretch and contract as easy.

How Do You Measure a Kayak Spray Skirt?

Measuring yourself and your kayak for a proper skirt is quite easy no matter what method is used. The easiest way is to use sizing software that analyzes your kayak and immediately gives you the proper skirt size. Alternatively, most kayak manufacturers’ websites will display the cockpit measurements of their models, or you can measure the circumference of the cockpit with a string.

Thankfully, many spray skirt manufacturers have a sizing chart. You’ll need to input the type of kayak you have, the brand and the model. With that information, you’ll get the exact size of skirt you’ll need from that manufacturer.

If that method doesn’t work for some reason, you can measure the circumference of your cockpit with a string.

Generally, a circumference of 79″ – 85″ is considered MEDIUM, while 86″ – 90″ is LARGE. A cockpit measuring 91″ – 96″ is EXTRA LARGE while anything larger would be 2X LARGE.

Tube Sizing

It’s one thing to measure the skirt grip edge size, but that’s only half the process of properly measuring a kayak spray skirt. It’s important to get a proper fit at the tube or tunnel around the paddler’s waist and torso.

A good rule of thumb is to use your pant size as a guideline. Otherwise, consider a 26″ – 28″ tunnel size as EXTRA SMALL and a 29″-31″ size as SMALL.

A MEDIUM-sized skirt tunnel would measure around 32″-33″ and LARGE would be considered 34″ – 36″. Anything in the range of 37″ – 41″ is EXTRA LARGE and beyond that is 2X LARGE.

What if I Tip Over With a Spray Skirt?

Tipping over in a kayak while using a spray skirt can seem a bit intimidating and dangerous. It’s tempting for novice paddlers to envision themselves caught underwater in an inverted kayak while being attached to the craft with the skirt and being unable to exit the kayak.

In fact, spray skirts are designed to allow for a safe and easy exit from the kayak in case of a tip.

That said, there are at least 2 main ways to exit a kayak that is tipping or tipped, and the proper way can take way more discipline than many new kayakers might have.

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With a bit of practice, tipping over in a kayak with a spray skirt is not as intimidating as it might seem

The Poor Method!

The way most paddlers will exit is to simply forcefully pull themselves (or push) out of the kayak while it is starting to tip and is about halfway to a full 180-tip. This is not ideal because, in addition to the kicking and pushing and panicking that happens at that moment when your kayak is about halfway turned over (about 45º rotated from upright), it will also take on lots of water once the paddler has exited.

That means it will be less buoyant and more difficult to bring to shore and prepare for paddling again.

The Better Method!

While this method may take nerves of steel and perhaps a bit of previous practice, it is far and away the better method of exiting a tipped kayak.

As the kayak starts its tip, it’s best to remain in the cockpit until the kayak has turned a full 180º from its upright position on the water. Once fully submerged, the kayaker would simply reach forward to pull the grab loop which should easily release the skirt.

At that point, it is relatively easy for the paddler to push away from the kayak and float to the surface. There’s no need to be underwater for more than 3 – 5 seconds.

By employing this technique, a kayaker will reduce or eliminate any significant water pouring into the kayak’s hull. It will be full of air and the air cannot escape once the kayak is upside down, so it remains buoyant.

This allows it to be used as a safety grab and it’s also easier to get it to shore and re-launch.

What Are the Best Kayak Spray Skirts on the Market?

Technically, any skirt is better than none, but if you’re looking for a higher-quality skirt that will not only look better and fit more precisely, but will do the job more effectively and last way longer, here are just a few of R.O.G.’s top pics (that’s Rugged Outdoors Guide for anyone a bit slow on the uptake) 🙂

1Immersion Research – Lucky Charm

2Immersion Research – Klingon

3Seals Odyssey

4Dagger Outbound

5Perception Truefit

Kayak Spray Skirts Key Takeaways

While using a spray skirt might make you “look cool”, I’d strongly suggest you evaluate your kayaking conditions and environment to determine if you need one at all. If you really don’t need one, it will be more of a both and nuisance than a help.

Be sure to purchase the correct size in both the tunnel and the grip edge.

Practice removing the skirt quickly in case of a spill and remember there is a better way to exit a kayak with a spray skirt rather than the “kick and scramble” method that might come naturally if you haven’t given it some thought beforehand.

As always my friends, Happy and Safe Paddling!

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Pete Stack

After 40 years of experience canoeing, camping, fishing, hiking and climbing in the Ontario wilderness, Pete is eager to combine his love for the outdoors with his passion to write. It is our hope that his knowledge can be passed on through this site and on Rugged Outdoors Guide on YouTube.

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