I bought my first boat, an "experienced" little whitewater kayak, right in the middle of a balmy August. It was great, the weather was perfect, and I spent the better part of a week out on the water every afternoon. August faded into September, the sun started setting earlier and earlier, and as soon as the fall winds started to blow, my boat and me with it - I was out of the water for the winter. Little did I know that I was missing the best part. The serious paddling season doesn't wait for the weather; it comes down from the mountains with the spring thaw and floods the rivers with icy-cold water. By the time the 90-degree days come along, most paddlers are packing up and heading for home, ready to wait for the next batch of serious water come winter.
I soon discovered that, if I wanted to really enjoy the best paddling conditions, I'd needed to be ready to hit the water anytime, regardless of the weather. Needed to be ready for the "snow on the ground," "icicles in the beard" days that keep most folks inside. And to do that, I needed to learn how to dress for the cold.
There are three rules to remember when dressing for cold weather:
- No cotton. It soaks up water and holds it against your skin, leaving it worthless as an insulator and heavy as a layer. A worthless, worthless fabric in the water.
- Layers help trap heat and fend off water. Remember "wick, warmth, and weather" as you arrange your layers: light wicking fabrics first, then warm insulating sweaters or fleeces, and finally an waterproof outer layer to protect you from the elements.
- No cotton; seriously.
Wetsuit or drysuit?
The Farmer John, or overall-type, wetsuit is a paddling classic. Timeless as a hand-me-down tuxedo, it's been used all over the world, in every conceivable situation, and is generally effective at keeping its owner warm and happy. The wetsuit is supreme in its simplicity, bottling in the body heat while still leaving room to layer jackets and other insulation on top. They're a fairly inexpensive piece of equipment, effective, and don't restrict your movement in the boat. The wetsuit acts as an evaporation barrier, allowing a thin layer of water to seep in between your skin and the neoprene and trapping it there. That water retains your body heat and, since cold water can't circulate into its place, adds to the natural insulation properties of the neoprene to keep you warm. That's all well and good in moderate weather, when the water temperature may be around 50 degrees, but what happens when there's snow on the ground? When the water goes beyond being just uncomfortable and becomes downright dangerous? Those lightweight, 2-3mm neoprene suits just aren't going to cut it; you'll need more insulation.
That's where the drysuit comes in. These Gore-Tex wonders do more than just keep the heat in; they also keep the water out. Manufacturers like to show off their products by sending paddlers out onto the water in tuxedos and bringing them back bone dry, but the reality is that a drysuit allows you the flexibility to wear whatever insulation you need and stay dry in the process. That means that a well layered drysuit will generally keep you warmer than a similar wetsuit. So why doesn't everyone wear one? For one thing, they're expensive. They can run nearly $1,000 new, and the hassle of regular maintenance to keep the rubber gaskets from cracking is too much for some people. If you're an expedition paddler that needs to handle serious winter conditions, get a drysuit, no question; but for most of us, a good Farmer John wetsuit will do just fine.
Like most paddlers these days, I like to wear a pair of wet suit booties on my feet whenever I go out on the water. They stay on my feet, give me a good bit of traction in case I swim, and are generally an all-around good idea. As a side benefit, they do a great job of keeping the feet warm by trapping a thin layer of water and holding it against your skin, just like a wetsuit. With the water staying in place, your natural body heat does the rest. They're not perfect for winter paddling, and they can get a little cold in the boat, but they do the job better than anything else I've tried.
Wet hands are an inevitable part of paddling, and regular knit gloves just can't handle those kinds of waterlogged conditions. There are two options for cold hands: Pogies neoprene mitts that wrap over your fingers and around the paddle shaft, leaving you skin-on-plastic contact with the paddle (popular with whitewater types because of the extra contact and better touch control); and full neoprene Wetsuit Gloves that offer more warmth but less "feel." It's really up to you which tradeoff you prefer, but Pogies have proven a popular option for many paddlers over the years, and are generally warmer than they look.
If there was a fourth universal rule for cold weather paddling, it would be to always wear a hat. Whitewater types, something thin that will fit under your helmet; the rest of us, and warm, synthetic ski cap will do.
Tim Sprinkle is a freelance writer from Charlottesville, VA. His work has appeared in a number of national publications including Sea Kayaker and Paddler.