Sprayskirts are available for most kayaks including recreational kayaks. However, they are really only a necessary safety item for whitewater and sea kayakers. A sprayskirts is needed to keep waves from filling the cockpit of a kayak and making it unstable and unseaworthy. It also keeps the water out of the kayak during a roll when the kayak is upside down.
Sprayskirts are generally made of nylon, neoprene, or a combination of the two. Nylon skirts should be coated and seam-taped to make them waterproof. Nylon is usually your least expensive option, but the fabric can be noisy when you are paddling which annoys some people. Neoprene and combination nylon/neoprene skirts will be more expensive than basic nylon skirts, but they will generally last longer and are the only choice for the serious whitewater and sea kayakers. The neoprene skirts tend to seal out water better than nylon skirts making them a better choice for paddlers who depend on a roll as self-rescue. Nylon will not be any more comfortable or any cooler than a neoprene skirt since the coating on the nylon holds in heat. There are nylon sprayskirts made of breathable fabric, but these are usually very expensive, and I don’t think it’s worth paying the extra money. The tube of the sprayskirt is worn UNDER your life jacket, so even if the tube of is made of breathable fabric, your life jacket is going to inhibit the transfer of heat and moisture away from your skin (please don’t say that you aren’t going to wear your life jacket). For this same reason, I would also not pay extra for pockets on the tube of a sprayskirt. Any pocket on the tube is going to be under your life jacket and will not be readily accessible in an emergency. (I guess you could use it to store emergency gear that you would need if you lost your kayak and ended up having to survive on a deserted beach overnight.) Pockets on the deck of the sprayskirt can be useful, just make sure that nothing on the skirt will interfere with your ability to remove the skirt and exit the kayak after a capsize.
Be aware that sprayskirts are NOT a “one-size-fits-all” item. You will need to know the exact model of kayak that you need to get a sprayskirt for. Most of the major manufacturers of sprayskirts have a fit guide that tells the size you will need, if you know your kayak make and model. These sizes are not always uniform from manufacturer to manufacturer. You kayak may take a medium skirt from one source, but a large from another vendor. Always consult the fit guide from the company whose sprayskirt you are buying. If you built your own kayak or have an otherwise rare or unique model of kayak, make sure you have the maximum length and width measurements of your cockpit (measured to the outside edge of the cockpit rim). If your cockpit falls between sizes, choose the size that gives the tightest fit that you are still able to remove with one hand. You don’t want to be underwater unable to release your sprayskirt from your cockpit. For all neoprene skirts, especially those used in whitewater, there will be two sizes associated with your skirt. You will have a “cockpit” size and a “tube” size. The cockpit size is the measurement that I just explained above. The “tube” size is specific to the person wearing the sprayskirt. A skinny paddler and a heavyweight paddler paddling in the same model of kayak will both use the same “cockpit” size, but these two paddlers will have different “tube” sizes based on the circumference of their torsos. If you want your boat to stay dry in rough water, you need to pick a tube size that will feel very tight without restricting your breathing or circulation. Nylon skirts generally come with an adjustable tube that will fit a wide range of paddler sizes. The top of the tube will have a bungee cord or a velcro closure that allows the wearer to cinch the tube down to body size of the paddler. Tubes that cinch with a bungee cord often have suspenders to help keep the tube from falling down. Sprayskirts that use a wide velcro band to cinch down the tube usually don’t have suspenders. I prefer not to have suspenders on my own sprayskirt because they have a tendency to slide down your shoulders and can inhibit getting into your set-up position for rolling if not adjusted properly (personal experience).
Most sprayskirts use a bungee cord to attach the skirt to the rim of the kayak. That bungee cord can be sewn to the edge of the deck fabric in which case the size of the bungee is not adjustable, or the bungee can be enclosed in a casing (usually only found on nylon skirts). The sewn bungee will give you a more precise fit for your kayak, but the adjustable bungee cord in a casing may allow you to use the same skirt on boats with slightly different cockpit sizes. I like to use the adjustable bungee style for some of my student sprayskirts since I can use them on several different kayaks. For my personal sprayskirts, I prefer the sewn bungee. Some whitewater skirts come with a rubber rand that stretches around the cockpit rim instead of a bungee. These seal out water quite well and hold the sprayskirt in place in very rough water, but I find them too difficult for me to stretch onto the cockpit of my boat. You will need to make that determination for yourself based on your arm strength.
Skirts for recreational kayaks are generally very difficult to put on because the cockpit opening that they must cover is so large. Often, it requires two people to attach the skirt, or the skirt must be put on the cockpit first and then the paddler needs to try to get into the kayak through the opening of the sprayskirt. Add to that the high cost of most recreational sprayskirts, and I think you will agree that the sprayskirt is more trouble than it’s worth for most recreational kayakers. Putting a sprayskirt on a recreational kayak will not make it safe for use in whitewater or larger bodies of water since these large, nylon skirts are practically useless for keeping waves from filling your boat. If a waves lands in your lap, the weight of the water will easily pop the sprayskirt and the water will end up in you cockpit. If you want to keep water from dripping off your paddle and onto your lap, consider instead the partial sprayskirts that are known as “mini skirts” or “half skirts”. A bungee cord goes around the cockpit opening, but the fabric of the skirt only spans the front portion of the cockpit to cover your legs. No fabric encircles the body of the paddler. These “mini skirts” are less expensive and are easier to use.
For entry-level or “fair-weather” sea kayakers, the nylon sprayskirts are less expensive than neoprene and will be adequate for the conditions these paddlers are likely to face. For paddlers who are a little claustrophobic or just nervous about removing the sprayskirt when wet exiting, nylon skirts usually pop off the cockpit rim pretty easily. This can be a good thing, and a not so good thing. Because the nylon skirts come off easily, they are often harder to attach when getting into the kayak. When you are ready to learn to roll, you will want to have a neoprene skirt. As I said earlier, it will seal water out better, and the neoprene stretches as you move making it less likely that you will accidentally pull the sprayskirt off the cockpit rim while attempting a roll or brace. For practicing rolls in a pool, an old nylon skirt will work fine. You will just have to stop to empty water out of your kayak more frequently, but you won’t be worried about the chlorine damaging your good neoprene skirt.
So what do I use? I have a Snap Dragon Designs Glacier Trek skirt for my sea kayak. I like the neoprene deck because it sheds water better than nylon, but I like the adjustable nylon tube because I don’t have to own a winter and a summer sprayskirt to accommodate the different thickness of clothing that I wear in these different seasons. For whitewater paddling, I have a Snap Dragon Designs Ocean Trek and an Immersion Research J-lo neoprene skirt. I like both of them, but the J-lo fits me a little better since it is designed for a woman’s body. For most situations, using a unisex sprayskirt will work just fine for women. However, for paddlers going out in more challenging conditions, it may be worthwhile to find a women-specific design that is easier to put on and is more comfortable when wearing. The tube is usually cut a little shorter for women and may be angled to better accommodate a woman’s wider hips.
Expect to pay anywhere from about$60 for a very basic nylon sprayskirt to $175 for a very fancy breathable nylon/neoprene combination skirt. Most all-neoprene skirts will fall somewhere in the $100-150 range. (Don’t be surprised to find skirts that exceed these ranges.) If you are going to paddle whitewater or open water like the Great Lakes, this is an expense that you can’t afford to skip. But if you make a wise choice with your purchase, your skirt can last you 10-15 years or more. (One of my neoprene skirts is 21 years old.)
On a related note, you may want to pick up a cockpit cover for your kayak when you are shopping for sprayskirts. If you have a plastic kayak and you plan to use the cockpit cover for transporting the boat on your car, spend the extra money and get a neoprene cockpit cover. The nylon cockpit covers will almost never stay on the rim of a plastic kayak when traveling at highway speeds. Nylon cockpit covers will work fine on a fiberglass, Kevlar, or polycarbonate plastic kayak that has a sharper cockpit rim. Rotmolded polyethylene plastic boats have a rounded cockpit rim that does not grab the nylon cover very tightly. If you have a recreational kayak with a large cockpit, don’t bother trying to get a cockpit cover for transportation. I don’t know of any manufacturers making their largest cockpit covers in neoprene, and nylon is guaranteed to fly off. Cockpit covers for recreational kayaks are only useful for keeping water, bugs, and dirt out of your boat during storage at home.