Cold Water Paddling Safely and Comfortably
Every fall, the wetsuit vs. drysuit debate begins. New paddlers (those who already have heard to dress for the water temperature and not the air temperature and have decided to heed that advice) start shopping for cold-water exposure wear and suddenly experience the sticker shock of buying a drysuit. Why should I buy that instead of a wetsuit at half the price or less? For a short period of immersion, a wetsuit can serve this purpose, but as described later, this immersion, and the addition of a layer of wet material next to the body, starts a clock ticking toward later issues.
For this reason, a drysuit is a superior choice for paddlers who will be in a cold outdoor environment for extended times without access to heated shelter. One down side of a drysuit is that it provides protection only when it functions as designed. If it tears or is punctured, resulting in wet undergarments, much of its insulating value is lost. It’s never a bad idea to have a change of dry clothing in your boat or group as a last-ditch effort to keep someone safe.
Let’s look at many of the variables that affect not only safety, but comfort in paddling cool weather and water. It’s impossible to separate these factors, as they all play big roles in the equation.
Your body loses heat to water 25 times faster than in air. Sudden immersion in water causes involuntary, uncontrollable responses outlined thoroughly by the National Center for Cold Water Safety. Some type of protective immersion wear is necessary to fend off these effects.
Many times, tragically, warm air temperatures and cold water lead people to paddle without sufficient protection from cold/cold water exposure. In many cases these mistakes may be fueled by reliance on flawed “rules-of-thumb” such as air+water temperature less than 120˚F require exposure wear. As likely, many cases are just the hubris of thinking “I’m a strong swimmer and it won’t affect me” or “I’ve never capsized my kayak before”. In fact, exposure is more complex. All of these variables play a role in safety and comfort. Heat loss against wet skin/fabric (e.g. a wetsuit) is 5 times greater than against dry skin (e.g. a drysuit). While instantaneous protection (like a 30-second immersion) may be tolerable in either wetsuits or drysuits, protection by a wetsuit-only following that exposure starts a rapidly ticking countdown timer.
Combined with air temperature, heat loss increase with increased wind velocity creates wind-chill; a factor most of us are familiar with, but for the most part, haven’t considered in the context of a long exposure of wet skin or a wet outer layer of clothing outdoors. Wind plays a small role in evaporative cooling by removing moisture through a breathable drysuit, but in contrast, a huge role in heat loss in a wet wetsuit. If a wetsuit is the only protection option, paddlers should attempt to mitigate this rapid cooling by covering the wet neoprene with a wind barrier like a windbreaker jacket. One of the coldest days I ever spent on the water was an 80+˚F, but very windy day in the Caribbean when I wore a thin, wet wetsuit for hours during a SCUBA diving trip. I quickly learned to get that wet layer off my body in order to stay warm (or at least less cool).
Kayakers paddling in sprayskirts will find that having the lower half of their body surrounded by a closed airspace (inside the enclosed cockpit) keeps you much warmer than if you are out in the open. If temperature becomes an issue, try to minimize the amount of time spent out of the boat in cold air and wind. On really cold or windy days, I’ll frequently eat my lunch in the boat, with sprayskirt on, to help stay warm. Likewise, your PFD makes an excellent, insulating and wind protection layer for your body’s core. Like all other times kayaking: #WearIt. It not only keeps you warm, it helps keep you alive and afloat in a cold water immersion event.
Whether I’ll be paddling in bright sunshine or under cloudy skies becomes a major consideration for me in my process of deciding the drysuit undergarments I’ll be wearing for a long paddling day. I can tolerate a sunny 20˚F day much better than a cloudy, windy 40˚F day.
Continuous wetting of the outer layer of your exposure wear just keeps that exposure clock ticking at full speed. Drysuit undergarments at least provide a buffer between the wet/cooling layer and the skin. In a wetsuit, rain/spray continues the suit’s tendency to cause maximum evaporative cooling through the day.
Staying properly hydrated maintains optimal blood volume, making it easier for your body to distribute heat and fuel itself to generate heat as needed.
It’s harder in the winter to feel your body become dehydrated: you don’t notice yourself sweating during exercise. Generally lower humidity in the winter drains the body of moisture through your breath at a greater rate. Practice active hydration in the winter as much (or even more) in the winter as in the summer,
We think that drinking warm liquids in the winter helps to keep body temperature up. While that may be true to an extent, drinking sugary drinks/eating sweet snacks (combined with good hydration) provide the body with the fuel needed for it to heat itself internally at a rate greater than hot liquids alone. Keep that supply of fuel going throughout the day on cold paddles. I normally carry a packet of energy gel in my PFD pocket that I can pull out and eat (or give to a friend) with little effort when the first chill arrives.
The amount of exercise you’re doing during a cold weather paddle has several significant effects on your ability to stay warm and is a major consideration in how you dress for the day’s paddle. In drysuits, it’s important to wear undergarments that are just warm enough for the conditions, the amount of exercise being done, and the time being spent on the water. It’s a balance between staying warm yet not having too many/too heavy layers that will make you sweat unnecessarily and create more moisture inside a breathable suit than it can effectively transpire or wick away from your body. On less energetic days, you may need heavier (e.g. fleece) or more layers to stay warm. New drysuit paddlers often learn this balance by trial and error, but the choice always needs to be made carefully. If you dress lightly for a day of hard surfing, be sure to balance that with extra food/drink to stay hydrated and fueled for all the internal heating your body is doing.
In addition to body covering and protection provided by wetsuits or drysuits, accessory clothing to protect head, hands and feet aid the body’s ability to stay moderately comfortable and safe.
An insulated beanie or hood (fleece or neoprene) can help reduce heat loss from the head and importantly, can also be a tool to help regulate temperature and comfort. I frequently overdress with a head covering that is easily removed if I get too hot. In particularly cold air and/or water, I find a long neoprene hood that provides some additional neck covering to be particularly beneficial. A hood can be worn up/on for its full potential or can be pulled down to expedite some additional heat loss if you become uncomfortably warm.
Many modern drysuits include attached dry booties which are used with warm socks as undergarments and thus probably the best protection from cold and wet exposure. With either wetsuits or drysuits, many paddlers wear neoprene booties to retain warmth. As with wetsuits, consideration of wetness and degree and duration of exposure should be made in planning how comfortable these will keep your feet. Many paddlers complain of cold feet long before overall body chill. This may be due to having wet feet in the boat or compromised blood flow to the feet/legs while sitting in a kayak.
There’s a lot of debate about the best hand protection; split mostly between pogies or gloves/mittens. Neoprene pogies attach to the paddle and provide a pocket into which you place your hands to grasp the paddle directly. I find pogies to be much warmer than gloves while paddling but, importantly, provide zero protection once you release the paddle and remove your hand. If using pogies, be prepared for the situation where you’re forced to swim and/or spend time out of the boat on shore. In the winter, I’ll carry a pair of dry gloves in a dry bag for times I’ll have to be outside ashore (intentionally or by necessity of a long rescue). I have a very limited window in extremely cold water where my hands will be functional, so I’d better be sure my self-or assisted rescue scenarios are accomplished quickly. In really cold conditions, I’ll wear a pair of thin latex/Playtex® gloves under my drysuit gaskets and pogies for a tiny extra bit of warmth without compromising the feel of the paddle much. Neoprene gloves, of course solve the problem of swimming, but at the expense of creating more long-term evaporative cooling (possibly less so with neoprene mittens) and in my experience, pretty significant hand fatigue from the extra effort of gripping the paddle along with minimized grip sensitivity and dexterity.
I think this discussion covers many of the significant considerations in the acquisition and use of protective clothing for winter and shoulder-season paddling. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I’m always thinking ahead about the variables at play when I prepare to go out and paddle in these conditions. If I’m going to be paddling alone, all of these thoughts and other safety precautions including where to go and what conditions are acceptable are ratcheted up yet another notch.
The next layer of safety for the responsible paddler to add to this equation is to think not only about one’s self but also about the safety and comfort of the paddling group as a whole. Don’t allow the group to go out with an unprepared weak link who may endanger not only their own safety but that of the group in trying to take emergency action for that individual (unnecessarily). Certainly, never be THAT person. Make your plans with the assumption that you’ll be in the water, out of the boat or standing on shore for much longer than the nominal trip would seem to require.
Not to imply any medical or first aid advice, but when emergency action becomes necessary in a cold exposure situation, what simple measures can the individual or group be prepared with? In cold or remote locations, it’s not uncommon for me to have one or all of the following available in my (or one of my group’s) boats:
- a garbage bag with head and arm holes to cover a wet/cold paddler (PFD and all) to minimize heat loss or a storm cag designed specifically for this purpose.
- a groundcloth/tarp to provide emergency shelter (even to the point of a specialized “bothy bag”) or insulation from cold ground. A sheet of Tyvek® house wrap is both ultra-lightweight and waterproof. A torso-sized sheet of ¼” minicell foam stows neatly in the hatch or stern of any kayak and provides a great warm seat on land or a place to rest an injured paddler.
- fire-starting material in case a warming fire is possible/helpful
- a small camp stove and fuel (e.g. Esbit stove) and metal cup to heat liquid (e.g. a pack of hot chocolate)
- dry clothing, headwear and gloves in a drybag
The winter is a great time to paddle. It’s often quieter than warm-weather paddling and you’ll commonly see wildlife, birds and scenery you won’t encounter during warm weather. Winter and early spring are generally when North Carolina has more reliable flow for river/whitewater paddling. I personally can point to my first drysuit and my first winter of paddling in North Carolina as the point where my own paddling skills started a steep improvement since I wasn’t having to re-learn those skills every year. Educate yourself and prepare yourself for cold weather and water and have a fun and safe time doing it.
Retired ACA Whitewater Kayaking Instructor Trainer Educator, Coastal Kayaking Instructor Trainer, River Safety and Rescue Instructor, Tandem Canoe Instructor. Past President, Carolina Canoe Club, Past Secretary and Board of Directors, American Canoe Association.