Humans need a water temperature of about 72 degrees to maintain thermal balance. If you lose your kayak and are immersed in 60-70 degree water in summer paddling gear, you may lose consciousness in 2-7 hours. This is not long enough for someone to find you alive if it is dark by the time help is contacted.
When sea temperatures dip below about 60 degrees, what you wear protects you from “cold shock” and “gasp reflex,” which can take your life within moments of capsizing, if your head goes underwater (as it does when you capsize a sit-inside kayak). Individual variation to cold shock response is wide, and is affected by many factors. Cold shock deaths are common in April to May, when warm air temperatures lure unprepared paddlers onto the water.
Hypothermia is a serious threat year-round in the cold north of America. If alone and not dressed properly, you may have only minutes before your hands become too numb for you to get back in your kayak. The most serious consequences face solo paddlers who lose their kayak upon capsizing. This outcome has a high probability due to three factors:
- A third of paddlers kick the boat away from themselves when they wet exit.
- Sudden immersion into water takes most people by surprise, and they are disoriented.
- Wind can carry an empty kayak away much faster than any person can swim.
Injuries that impede re-entry (shoulder, wrist, hernia); medical conditions, such as asthma; or physiological reactions, such as claustrophobia or panic, could further reduce your survival time. In early summer, fall, and throughout the winter, proper dress is the cornerstone of survival strategy. If you paddle in Maine, Alaska and other northern destinations, cold water is a year-round condition.
Cold Water Guidelines:
Never paddle alone. Dress for immersion (as if you plan to fall into the water). Always wear your life vest fully fastened and equipped with whistle, a waterproof means of communication, and a Coast Guard approved strobe light. Never paddle in sea conditions in which you have not practiced self-rescue. Use a paddle leash. Bring extra layers of clothes, a hot de-caffeinated beverage, and high-calorie snack to prevent hypothermia. Don’t use ‘recreational’ kayaks in cold water. Sit-on-tops have two advantages over sit-in kayaks: your head usually remains above water if you capsize (so you avoid gasp reflex), and they are easier to get back onto, getting you out of cold water and lowering your hypothermia risk.
We recommend that you paddle in groups of at least three kayaks, paddling in close formation to be ready to help each other within seconds. All participants should be practiced in rescue procedures.
Warm Water Outfitting (water temperature Above 60)
“Warm” Water Outfitting (water temperature above 60 degrees) Kayaking is a water sport – assume you will get wet. Use quick-dry nylon or polyester fabrics for your shorts/trousers and shirt. Please, no cotton garments. Wear quick-dry underwear or a bathing suit (women, wear a two-piece suit). Bring a fleece top and waterproof windbreaker in case of rapid weather change, or to keep warm after wet exit practice.
Wear a hat with dark under-brim to protect your eyes from glare off the water. Wear sunglasses with retainer strap. Apply sun screen. If you are going to become a regular paddler you may want to invest in neoprene gloves and boots, and a waterproof paddling jacket. We like neoprene shorts or a shorty wetsuit for excellent ‘grip’ to your kayak, for easier eskimo rolls, and to keep warm when wet. We rent neoprene shorts and Farmer Jane/John wetsuits.
We recommend paddling gloves and bootie. Gloves keep your hands from sliding on the paddle shaft, facilitating proper stroke technique. They can be a critical re-entry aid, giving a sure grip on wet, slippery surfaces. They prevent chafing and callouses, especially important on longer trips. Neoprene booties, aqua-socks or sneakers keep you from slipping on algae covered rocks, and from getting cut, scraped and bruised when landing and exploring. They provide excellent contact with foot pegs for maximum drive during the propulsion phase of your forward stroke. Make sure your footwear has no straps, which can catch on your foot pegs and cause entrapment. Open footwear, such as flip-flops and sandals, are not permitted for any trips.
Other Things to Bring
Always bring water. For trips over ninety minutes, we suggest a high energy snack and 8-10 ounces of electrolyte-replacement beverage taken every 15-30 minutes. Each person’s need for fluid will vary depending on their weight, sweat rate, exercise intensity & duration, how they are outfitted, and the weather and sea conditions. Hydration before and after exercising is critical to optimal performance and recovery.
Eyewear retainers are recommended. If you bring your cell phone, a camera or electronic car keys, store them in a dry bag, waterproof case or in double zip-lock baggies.
Nota bene: You should be able to use your means of communication while it remains inside the waterproof container.
For Night Time Paddling
Kayakers must display a single white light, not flashing, from sunset until sunrise while underway. We like an LED bulb on a compact, waterproof light, such as the UST Marine See-Me Light 1.0 for PFD. Coast Guard regulations require kayakers to have a night distress signal. We recommend the ACR “C” Strobe, a compact, life vest worn, flashing white light to be used only in emergencies. Lithium batteries are required. The light and strobe must display these words: “USCG approved.”
Cold Water Outfitting (water temperature below 60)
Protect your torso by layering, using only synthetic fabrics, never cotton. Start with quick-dry nylon bikini or brief style undies. Then put on a long-sleeved thermal underwear top and a 3mm Farmer Jane/ John wetsuit. Add a medium weight insulating layer over arms & chest, either crew or mock-tee style to avoid bulk at the neck. Last put on a windproof, waterproof, breathable paddling jacket (with gaskets or secure velcro closures at neck, waist, and wrists).
On winter days I use a thicker insulating layer and add paddling pants with velcro closures at ankles. If you can afford it, go for a drysuit or “Semi” drysuit, instead of a wetsuit. Since drysuits are shell garments, they must be worn with adequate insulation underneath. Fasten outer shell garments carefully to protect yourself from cold shock and gasp reflex.
Cold-water paddlers should have a neoprene hood to protect the head from cold shock in case of accidental immersion. A snug-fitting fleece or wool hat can be used if you improvise a chin strap. Otherwise, it will fall off in a capsize. My favorite hood features a visor, and perforated neoprene ear-flaps, which let you hear better than other hoods. In May & October, we suggest you wear a regular cap, but carry a neoprene hood or fleece hat in your life vest pocket in case you need to warm up quickly. During coldest months, we never go out without a neck fleece.
High-top, 5 to 6.5 mm neoprene boots (with waterproof liner socks or dry-suit booties) are warm and flexible. Knee-high mukluks with thick synthetic socks keep your feet dry if you don’t wade in water deeper than your boot-tops. They must be worn under dry pants, as they will fall off or fill with water if you capsize. We rent both styles. Note: To insulate best, all neoprene wear should fit closely, but with adequate “wiggle” room for toes.
Neoprene paddling gloves with goretex pogies on top are suggested for warmest hands. Our favorite cold water gloves are 2-3 mm neoprene with a non-slip palm (NRS or Stearns). For hands that chill fast, use 3 mm neoprene mittens. For broad hands try the Stohlquist MAW. We also like 5 mm Deep See Thermocline gloves with zip-back, which are easy to put on, although they provide less grip. Goretex pogies over your gloves keep the wind from cutting through wet neoprene. They are expensive, but definitely worth the price for winter paddlers.
Arthur G. Moore is a veteran paddler. He has over 10 years of whitewater kayaking experience in his kitty. When he was young, he used to love kayaking in rapid III and rapid IV but as time went on, he decided to concentrate mainly on covering long distances on a standard touring kayak. He is currently working as a senior editor for Kayak Manual.