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Tips for Cold Weather Paddling

This video’s going to be about cold water paddling. Might be one of the most important ones that I do. It's going to be a bunch of tips that hopefully will help people paddle a little safer during the colder months of the year.

Paddling in the in the fall, in the winter, in the spring is absolutely amazing. Especially in the winter – it is stunning, but a lot of times paddlers don't realize the dangers of cold water. I've often heard kayakers say “hey, I have a very stable boat, there's no way I'm going in the water, I haven't tipped yet.” But the truth is you will capsize. You will capsize at some point, so you need to be ready.

If you ask any experienced paddler, they'll tell you the same thing “we're all in between swims.” You need to know how to get yourself back in the boat, you need to know how to deal with being in the water, you need to be able to get other people out of the water if they fall in – especially in the cold. In cold water you need to act quickly.

So let's talk about the risks of cold water. First off, hypothermia. Even though hypothermia takes a little while to set in, muscle incapacitation is what happens very quickly – as little as 5 to 15 minutes and you won't be able to do a lot of the things you need to do to get yourself back in the boat or get someone out of the water. For example, calling for help using your phone, using your VHF radio, setting off a flare, turning your boat right side up, trying to empty it or just even trying to hold on to it if let's say there's a lot of wind and you hold it holding on to that perimeter line. After 5 minutes of being in the water that will become very, very hard to do. All the fine motor skills, gone. Your hands, very hard to use. Pressing buttons, impossible.

So that's one of the main dangers because eventually hypothermia will set in because you haven't been able to get yourself out of the water. One of the ways to avoid this is by dressing appropriately so that you can extend that amount of time that you can be in the water.

Another big risk is called water shock, it's what happens to your body when it's exposed to cold water unexpectedly. One of the things that happens is known as the gasp reflex. If you are submerged in cold water, the first thing your body's going to try to do is suck in air without you meaning to. It's just a response that your body will have and that might be the absolute worst thing that you want your body to do if you're capsized and upside down in the water.

So one of the ways to reduce this risk is to dress appropriately, so that the least amount of skin is in contact with the cold water and therefore we're limiting the possibility of that reflex taking place.

One of the main things we should be doing is wearing our PFDs. We should be wearing our PFDs all year round. The statistics show just how beneficial it is to wear your PFD when you're out on the water but especially in the cold months it is extremely, extremely beneficial.

With hypothermia and muscle incapacitation, your PFD is crucial. It'll help you float while you're doing all these things when you need to get yourself out of the water and back in your boat, you don't need to be treading water. The other thing it'll do is it'll act as a little bit of insulation – it'll keep your torso and your core a little bit warmer than not wearing one.

Let's talk about appropriate clothing for different temperatures. Paddle Boston has this great chart and it shows you the water temperature, the risk of hypothermia and the appropriate clothing you should be wearing. Here, it shows that for 60 degrees and above of water temperature, the hypothermia risk is low, so therefore you can just dress for the weather.

From 55 to 59, the risk is moderate, so a wetsuit or a dry suit would be appropriate. 45 to 54 Fahrenheit there's a high risk of hypothermia, so therefore a dry suit is recommended but don't forget that a dry suit doesn't keep you warm, a dry suit needs to have lots of layers beneath it to keep you insulated for the appropriate temperature. So below 45 degrees Fahrenheit there's extreme risk of hypothermia, so a dry suit is strongly recommended once again with the appropriate layers beneath.

Now, people will argue these points a lot, some people like wearing wet suits the entire time, others will pull on their drysuit the moment the water starts getting a little bit colder and just play around with the layers underneath. I'd say to each their own, this is a great guide for you to try to figure out what to wear.

Rule number one: no cotton! Use synthetic fibers or wool to keep you warm – things that will not keep water in. Cotton will act as a sponge and absorb all the water in and will keep it there,

keeping you wet, keeping you cold, even when you're not in the water.

So let's start with wetsuits. Wetsuits are made out of neoprene material and they work by having a layer of water between your body and the neoprene material. Your body warms that layer of water up and keeps you warm. It's a great way to insulate yourself. It comes in lots of different thicknesses, from 0.5 millimeters all the way to 7 or more millimeters. I think also as well scuba divers will go thicker. The good thing about a wetsuit is they're usually inexpensive. They make them in lots of different sizes, you can get just shorts, tops, you can get a farmer John or a full wetsuit.

On the other hand, we have dry suits. They're a bit more expensive and what they are is a shell of breathable material with gaskets usually around the neck, the wrists, the ankles, sometimes they have booties. The gaskets are sometimes latex, sometimes they're neoprene. Usually the wrists will be latex but you can have a semi dry suit and that won't have a latex neck gasket. It's all a matter of preference and it's all a matter of price. Some people want to have all gaskets that are made out of latex, others will want the comfort of having a neoprene gasket around the neck. It won't be as watertight as the latex but a lot of times it's a lot cheaper and more comfortable around the neck.

The dry suit only works in keeping you dry. You need to wear lots of layers underneath. They need to be wool layers or synthetic layers – things that can breathe, things that can wick away your sweat and then eventually it can evaporate through this material. This material doesn't let the water come in but it allows moisture to come out so that's for your body.

Let's talk about other things. You need to think about your head, you need to think about your hands, need to think about your feet to stay warm.

For your head you can wear wool hats, wool caps, you can wear synthetic materials, you can wear balaclavas, anything you might use in mountaineering or hiking to keep warm, this is good for around your neck or just a full head, or you could even go for neo caps, neoprene hats, those will also keep you warm. Usually hoods like this are great for diving or if you're going to be doing rolling sessions, or if you're going to be playing and surf in cold water that way you can keep your ears dry and warm.

For your hands, same thing. You can find different types of materials. Here's an example of neoprene gloves. These are great for the start of the season but once it starts getting cold, essentially your hands and wind will continue to get cold because they are wet the entire time so the ones like this that once you wrap them and seal them they're much thicker neoprene will keep you warmer. They're fuzzy on the inside, and then you could always go with pogies. If you haven't heard of pogies before, they are great for cold water paddling. They come in lots of different materials, these here I made out of neoprene and the way they work is you just open them up, velcro them on to your paddle shaft and then you're able to slide in your hand from the bottom and hold on to your paddle shaft inside this neoprene glove.

At first I thought “no way, water's gonna get in, it’s going to splash in, I'm not gonna stay warm.” They are extremely warm out on the water.

One thing to remember about the pogies is you need to have another pair of gloves for before and after your paddle because anytime your hand is not on the paddle you're gonna be cold. Also if you capsize you're gonna be floating around without any kind of hand protection.

For your feet, same thing. Wool socks, synthetic materials, things that will wick away any moisture and keep your feet dry and then on top of them neoprene for sure. These neoprene booties here are three millimeter, you can find seven millimeter, nine millimeter lots of different sizes and shapes and types depending on where you're going. Drysuits a lot of times come with booties so that way you can wear wool or synthetic socks underneath, then the drysuit bootie and then you would put a neoprene bootie on top of that.

One thing you should always have with you is a dry change of clothes. If someone goes in the water you need to get them out of the water right away and you need to get them out of wet clothes and into some dry clothes so they can start warming up as soon as possible. So expand your safety kit that you have year-round to  allow for this things like a space blanket or hand warmers, lighters, means of building a fire even if it's raining even if the wind is blowing. Ways to get someone to warm up if they've fallen in and now they are very, very cold.

You can carry other things to help people warm up, things like food, power bars, snacks, hot chocolate, or warm tea in a thermos. That will help people warm up for sure.

Another thing to remember is that in cold weather batteries drain faster, so don't depend on your phone as your only means of communication. The battery will not last anywhere as long as it does on a warm sunny day. So have other ways to call people.

Have flares, have a VHF radio, ways to communicate if something goes wrong.

Solo paddling is amazing, especially to hard-to-reach places but you’ve got to remember just how much higher the risks are whenever the water is really cold. So we usually recommend going in a group of at least three, that way if there's a disabled paddler the second one can help the first and the third one either calls for help or goes to get help.

I'm going to be adding some useful links below if you want to learn more about cold water paddling sites like the ACA, American Canoe Association website, a great resource for all things paddling and other places such as cold water boot camp or Paddle Boston

Places that have helped me in the past put together guides and rules so that I know what I should do in order to try to stay safe while paddling in cold water.

So feel free to subscribe, shoot me an e-mail or a comment below and I'll try to answer any questions. See you next time.

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