Testing Your Immersion Ensemble

It is wintertime and the water is cold in the north (if not frozen) and us northern paddlers envy those in tropical areas. It is a time when us northern folks go for warm water vacations. However there are hardcore paddlers that still go out paddling in cold water. Before you know it spring will be in the air. What does that mean? If you live in a frozen area, the snow and ice are melting and you can once again float your boat. If you are one of the hard-core winter paddlers, then you can put away your hood and pogies. It is also the time when the air temperature gets warmer a lot faster than the water temperature. This difference in air and water temperature is a great concern for safety conscious paddlers, because they know the importance of dressing for immersion.

In a couple of months many sea kayak symposiums are held to take advantage of the beginning of the paddling season. I am already booked to present at a few of these events across the country. Some of the frequently asked questions from participants are, "What should I wear?" and "How do I know it will be sufficient?" I have answered the first question in "Dressing for Immersion." The second question is the focus of this article. The only way to find out if your immersion clothing is sufficient for the conditions, in which you paddle, is to test it. Let's look at ways to test your immersion ensemble.

Goals When Dressing for Immersion

Your goals are:

  1. Wear clothing to minimize your cold shock response
  2. Wear enough thermal protection for your immersion time to avoid hypothermia

Answering #1 is easy. Cold shock is the immediate response due to the amount of skin coming in contact with the cold water. A very thin, well fitting wet suit can take care of the cold shock. However, it doesn't solve the problem for long immersion times. If your capsize recovery techniques are very fast, then a light wet suit may be your solution.

In order to answer the original question of how to test your immersion clothing you need to focus on goal #2. It is important to honestly gauge your anticipated immersion time. This may be a problem for some paddlers, because they may not know how long they will be in the water.

Test with a Paddling Partner

A few words of caution before you try your testing. Since hypothermia is difficult to recognize in oneself, you want a trained paddling partner with you with the ability to help you. This partner needs to monitor your chill factor and your mental state. You also want to do all testing very close to a shoreline that is swimmer friendly. I have heard of clubs that have a clothing testing session when the weather & water get cold. They also plan a picnic as part of the event. I cannot think of a better way to test your paddling clothes and your lunch-break clothes than playing in cold water, doing a little paddling, stopping for lunch, playing in the cold water again and then finishing off with a paddle. It is a great club event.

Test Close to Shore

I have tested lots of clothing variations swimming back and forth in front of a beach on a cold lake. I swam back and forth, because I paced out my planned swimming distance to be twenty laps in front of the beach. My practice swimming distance was equal to the distance from the center of the lake to the closest shoreline.

I recommend that all testing be done very close to shore, because when all else fails just swim the few yards to shore to get out of the water. You are also testing more than your immersion time. You are testing how warm your clothing keeps you once you are out of the water and paddling for at least thirty minutes. Having wet paddle gear on a windy day can chill you down as the day goes on. That is why you need to experiment with wind protection layers on those windy days.

Ways to Test Your Clothing

When you have decided which clothing to test, here are some ways to start gauging if your clothing will be adequate for your anticipated immersion time.

  1. Capsize and slowly get back into your kayak with your normal recovery technique. Once you are back in your boat capsize and do it again. After the second recovery, paddle back and forth along the shore for 30 minutes to see if you are getting chilled.
  2. If you are a small lake paddler, then you may want to try the testing idea I mentioned earlier. Check to see if your clothing will keep you warm if you swam the same distance from the middle of the lake to shore, but swimming that distance along the shoreline.
  3. You may also want to test how long you can sit in the water motionless, before you start feeling chilled. This could be simulating any of the following:
    1. cannot get back into your boat and floating until you get outside help
    2. short distance transfer with you staying in the water
    3. loss of your kayak due to wind and/or fast water
  4. You can also try testing your lunch break clothing if you stop on shore. Do you change any clothing during the break or do you wear what you have on? After you have tested your clothing in the water and have paddled for thirty minutes, come ashore and sit still for thirty to forty minutes and have some lunch.

Whether in a wetsuit or a drysuit, you are not exercising at lunch so your heat generation has reduced as compared to when you are paddling. In addition, you have been perspiring when paddling and your clothing may be damp as a result. It is common for paddlers to feel a slight chill at lunch, but feel better once they start paddling again.

My experience is, those in wetsuits usually peel down the top of the suit and then put on a heavy dry fleece top to stay warm. If it is windy, they add a wind shell. Those in drysuits usually are fine. Sometimes the drysuit folks will actually open their suits to cool down. I highly recommend Gortex drysuits, because it reduces the accumulation of perspiration.

If your clothing is not appropriate you will have to make some changes. Sometimes the changes will need to wait until your next outing. Once you get chilled on your test day you may end up over dressing in the attempt to warm yourself. The clothing needed to warm you when chilled may be more than you need just to keep you warm. When you find the right clothing for the water temperature and your anticipated immersion time, you will still need to monitor your choices as the air temperature changes.

The biggest complaint comes when the air temperature is hot and the water temperature is cold. As always, I recommend dressing for the water temperature and using some cool down techniques for dealing with the air temperature.

In closing, the only way to see if you have the right clothing is to test it in your paddling environment. Your test needs to simulate the conditions you anticipate, but the test needs to be in a low risk environment with help nearby.

Wayne Horodowich, founder of The University of Sea Kayaking (USK), writes monthly articles for the USK web site. In addition, Wayne has produced the popular "In Depth" Instructional Video Series for Sea Kayaking.

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