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Bluegrass Canoe and Kayak Group Message Board › Cold weather paddling, hypothermia, and gear

Cold weather paddling, hypothermia, and gear

Don P.
user 13711758
Group Organizer
Nicholasville, KY
Post #: 113
Now that the weather is cooling off, its time to discuss cold weather paddling safety. Unless you want to sit out and not go paddling for the next 6 months, you want to make sure you are ready.

Hypothermia is one of the biggest risks to paddlers as the weather and water turn colder. As a rule of thumb, it becomes a risk as the air temperature plus water temperature (in degrees F) is below approximately 110 to 100. Other factors such as sun and wind play big a factor, too. Even if you don't take a swim, even a rain shower in cool temps can bring on hypothermia.

Water conducts heat away from the body 30 times faster than air. The key is to stay as dry as possible, then wear the correct amount of insulation that stays insulating, even if wet. If you are ever in cool or cold water, get out as soon as possible, no matter what you are wearing, or how warm you feel. See this table to see how long it takes for hypothermia symptoms to set in: Hypothermia table.

Several of the canoe and kayak meetup groups recommend just having unspecified kinds of dry clothes with you in your boat in a dry bag in case you fall in the water. That works as long as you have the time to get out of the water, get to shore, and can change before you start losing dexterity (see the table for how long that is at certain water temperatures). Its important that anything you wear on the water be made from synthetic material or wool, not cotton or cotton blends. Synthetic fleece retains somewhere around 85% of its insulating capacity when wet. Cotton will continue to cool you down when wet, and takes a long time to dry. It helps to have a wind resistant outer layer, top and bottom, too. Dressing in layers also allows you to add/remove clothing items as temperatures change, or as you warm up from paddling.

There are several commercial clothing items made specifically for the paddling community that help keep you dry and warm even if you take a swim. You may want to invest in this equipment if you do any amount of paddling in colder temps. My advice is work your way down to the coldest of temperatures – don't just venture out your first time, say, on a New Years Day paddle. Paddle at a temperature you know you'll be comfortable at, and each time, try a slightly colder temp to make sure what you have chosen to wear works to keep you warm.

Here are some of the more common commercial items available:

Drysuit: Keeps everything but your head totally dry. The ultimate in protection, at the ultimate price. Worth it if you do a lot of late fall, winter, and early spring paddling. Best kinds are made from breathable fabric, have latex neck and wrist gaskets, built-in socks, the appropriate relief zipper, and an overskirt for kayakers.

Drytop/drypants: Same concept as the drysuit. Breathable fabric with gaskets at the neck/wrists/ankles. If wearing both a drytop and drypants, you almost have a drysuit. If you get totally immersed, however, water can find its way in-between the two and usually run down into the pants. Some drytops have a neoprene neck gasket instead of latex, and are usually called semi-drytops. Those allergic to latex can get all neoprene gasket models. Again, pants with built-in socks work better than ones with just ankle gaskets, in my opinion. Although, if you get water in pants with socks, it stays there until you can take them off, whereas you can let water out of pants with gaskets.

Splash top/splash pants: Similar to the drytop/drypants, but usually thinner and/or non-breathable, and no gaskets, usually just velcro at the wrists/neck/ankles. I consider rain jackets/pants used for hiking as an alternative to paddling specific splash top/pants. Can mix and match – I have worn a drytop/splash pants combo many a time.

Wetsuit: Wetsuits operate on a different principle than the drysuits. They actually work by trapping a layer of water next to the skin which warms up – so they generally don't work unless submerged, or you sweat in them. I don't recommend these for flatwater paddling (and I don't like them for whitewater – they just don't breathe), though some people swear by them. For paddling, wet suits usually have no sleeves (a Farmer John) for freedom of movement, so you generally pair them with a dry or splash top.

Base-layers: Generally made of synthetic fleece, for warmth even if wet. Worn under your dry or splash outer layers. They come in several different weights. For drysuits, they come in a union suit form (bunny suit), or they come in separate tops and bottoms. Can also use thinner rash guards underneath for layering. Can use the base-layers sold for hikers and other sports just as well. Wearing only a short sleeve base-layer underneath a long sleeve drysuit or drytop is not a good idea. The base-layer actually wicks the moisture away from your body and lets the breathable drytop fabric do its job. If you have the drytop fabric directly on your skin, the sweat tends to bead up, and once in liquid form, just gets trapped in the drytop.

Pogies/gloves: Hands and feet are usually the first to get cold, so once you've protected your core for safety, think about hand and foot protection. Pogies fit over your paddle and hands so allows your hands to have direct contact with your paddle, and to me, keep your hands warmer than gloves. Some swear by paddling gloves. Paddling gloves are usually somewhat waterproof, have a non-skid material on the palms so the paddle doesn't slip. Thinner is better for feel, but has less insulation.

Socks: Even with the built-in socks on drypants or drysuits, you'll want an insulation layer. I usually use thick 100% wool socks, but neoprene socks work for some.

First-aid kit: You should always carry a first-aid kit in a dry bag whenever you paddle. Other than the standard items in small kits, you should also carry the following (all the time, but its even more important to have them in winter): emergency/space blanket, small flashlight or headlamp, a fire starter kit (lighter, and some form of kindling, commercial or homemade), and an energy/candy bar of some kind.

Hat/cap/skull cap/hood: Depending on how cold your head tends to get, consider just your regular paddling hat, a wool or synthetic toboggan cap, or even a neoprene skull cap or hood.

I'll be paddling all this fall/winter/spring. I don't know how many planned meetups there will be, if any. But hope to see you out on the water - warm, dry and safe.
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