Dressing for Paddling

The following article is by Sherri Mertz, ACA L4 Coastal Kayaking Instructor.

For those of us who paddle in colder climates, what we wear while paddling has more to do with safety than with style or comfort.  In other words, we have to dress for the water temperature.  Lake Michigan rarely inches above 70°F.  That is not a swimsuit temperature.  Frankly, that is a dangerous temperature if you find yourself dumped into the water from your canoe, kayak, or SUP.

Before I go into any specifics about how to dress for the water temperature, I want to spend a few moments talking about why you need to dress for the water temperature.  It seems that most people have heard about hypothermia, the lowering of one’s core body temperature that can lead to eventual death. Hypothermia is certainly a concern for paddlers, but perhaps surprisingly, hypothermia occurs more often as a result of the slow gradual chilling that takes place when a paddler experiences a slight chill from wind and dampness.   Even in extremely cold water, hypothermia takes at least 30 minutes to set in, so if you can get out of the water quickly and prevent evaporative cooling, it probably won’t be hypothermia that kills you.

I don’t wish to diminish the danger of hypothermia to a paddler, it can be a serious threat to safety, but it can be easily prevented.  The real killer in cold water, and the main reason we need to dress for the water temperature, is a phenomenon that very few people seem to be aware of – COLD SHOCK.

When your body is unexpectedly thrown into water less than 70° Fahrenheit, there are some very serious, sudden physical effects that your body experiences.  The first effect is an involuntary gasp reflex.  I don’t think I have to go into much explanation of why it would be dangerous to be gasping while your head is underwater.  When this occurs, the victim may never make it back to the surface unless he/she is wearing a life jacket.  Drowning can be instantaneous.  Even if you do make it back to the surface without swallowing water, that shock of cold water will cause you to begin hyperventilating.  Again, you may breathe water into your lungs with drowning as a result.  More likely, you will have trouble catching your breath.  Hyperventilating causes you to blow off too much carbon dioxide causing a disorienting sensation.  The paddler feels unable to get a good breath and panic often results.  People who would normally be good swimmers have drowned shortly after capsize in cold water due to the loss of breathing control that brings on swim failure. I have had a personal experience with this aspect of cold shock.  My first rescues class was in Lake Superior on a cold, gray day in mid June.  I was wearing a wetsuit, polypro long underwear, fleece pullover, paddling jacket, and neoprene hood.  After coming to the surface following my wet exit, I felt like I had been punched in the chest and it took me probably at least 30 seconds to get control of my breathing as I was hyperventilating.  Thankfully, my clothing gave me enough protection that I did not gasp involuntarily underwater, and we were in a calm area where my PFD kept my head above water until my breathing returned to normal.  I no longer paddle in those water temperatures without a drysuit, no matter what the air temperature.  It’s easier for me to cool off on hot days than to worry about ending up in cold water.

A final, potentially fatal consequence of cold shock is that it can cause cardiac arrest.  This is probably more likely to happen to older paddlers with underlying heart conditions, perhaps an undiagnosed heart condition, but it can happen to anyone.

If you start doing some research, you will come across documented cases of fit, healthy people who seemed to drown very suddenly when dumped into cold water without adequate thermal protection of the torso.  For many years, these deaths were attributed to hypothermia and other conditions that caused drowning, but it appears now that most likely, what we are referring to as cold shock was the cause of death.  Every spring we hear of deaths among paddlers who appear to have drowned in cold water.  Unfortunately for us, the news media reports the death when it happens, but never comes back to let us know what the autopsy results were.  To make matters worse, many of the first responders who are interviewed at the time of the incident use the term “hypothermia” when they mean “cold shock” which further confuses the public.  I think it is fair to assume that many, if not most of these deaths are probably a result of cold shock brought on by paddlers who were not sufficiently dressed for immersion in cold water.

Now that I’ve hopefully got your attention regarding the seriousness of dressing appropriately for canoeing and kayaking, I’ll take up the topic of exactly how to dress.

When dressing for paddling, your PFD is your most important garment.  You need to be wearing it every time you go out on the water.  Your life jacket will not prevent the effects of cold shock in a capsize, but it will keep you at the surface until the effects subside.  The hyperventilation and loss of breathing control usually end after a minute or two.  However, you still need to wear thermal protection in addition to your PFD in order to prevent physical incapacitation or the inability to use your hands brought on by exposure to the cold water.  This incapacitation can come on very quickly after capsize if the swimmer is not adequately dressed for the water temperature.

In order to make good decisions on what to wear, you need to know what the water temperature is going to be in the area in which you will be paddling.  On the Great Lakes, there are websites that will give you this kind of information.  On smaller lakes, you may need to bring a thermometer.  After many years of paddling in southeast Wisconsin, I often take an educated guess based on the time of year and the kind of weather we’ve had.  On inland lakes in July and August, paddling attire is probably a swimsuit or synthetic shorts and t-shirt.  When the water temperature is in the mid to upper 70’s or above, that is probably just fine.  If you feel completely comfortable wading in and taking a 10 minute swim in whatever you are wearing and you’re not shivering when you get out, you are most likely dressed appropriately for the water temperature.  (This does not include a polar bear swim.)

You may have heard a “rule of thumb” that when the air and water temperature added together are less than 120 degrees, you should be wearing a wetsuit.  This rule is USELESS!  If the air temperature is 85 degrees, but the water temperature is still 40 degrees, you need to be wearing a wetsuit or drysuit even though the combined temperature is 125.  When water temperatures are below 70 degrees, you should be wearing some kind of thermal protection from the water temperature regardless of the air temperature.  However, what you wear is going to depend on exactly how cold the water is, how easily you get cold in the water, how strong the wind is, and how quickly you are able to get out of the water following a capsize.  In other words, the answer is not going to be the same for every paddler.  A 250-pound guy is probably not going to need as much protection from the cold as a 90-pound woman even though the water temperature is the same.  75-degree air temperatures will not feel as warm when there is a 15-mile-per-hour wind as it would on a calm, sunny day.  A  highly skilled paddler with a solid Eskimo roll may not need to dress as warmly as a novice paddler with limited rescue practice.  Essentially, you are going to have to make some educated guesses about what to wear, and then start doing some careful experiments to see if you have guessed correctly.  As I said previously, you should be dressed warmly enough that you could spend at least a comfortable 10 minutes in the water.  If you are a beginner, you better make that more like a comfortable 20 minutes in the water since it may take you longer to get back into your kayak or swim to shore.  To test out your clothing choices, get in the water near shore before going out to paddle and see how it feels.  If you are not dressed warmly enough that you are prepared to do a swimming test, you aren’t dressed warmly enough to go paddling.  Do your testing with dry clothes and a warm car nearby in case you have overestimated the water temperature or your clothing choices.

So what are your clothing options?  Since some paddlers may not be familiar with paddling-specific clothing options, I think it might be wise to include some definitions.

Farmer-John Wetsuit – A common choice is to buy a 2-3mm neoprene farmer john-style wetsuit (sleeveless) and pair that with some kind of synthetic shirt or rash guard and a paddle jacket for protection from wind chill when you are back in your kayak.  A wetsuit traps a very thin layer of water next to your skin.  Your body warms up the water, and as long as that thin layer of water stays in place, you begin to feel more comfortable even though the water temperatures are cool.  Your wetsuit needs to fit very tightly in order to keep this layer of warm water in place.  A loose-fitting wetsuit will allow the warm water to be flushed out by incoming cold water.   This option works best for most paddlers down to around 55°F.  As I stated earlier, though, this can differ from paddler to paddler.  When you first capsize, you will feel the shock of the cold water against your skin, so although you will warm up, that first rush of cold water against your skin can still bring on the effects of cold shock.  This is why it is important to test your gear in a controlled environment first.

Hydroskins – A newer, and more comfortable option, is the NRS Hydroskins separates.  You can get long pants, shorts, a long-sleeve shirt, and a short-sleeve shirt all made of a 0.5-1.5mm neoprene with a titanium coating.  The advantage to this system is that you can mix and match the pieces for different air and water temperatures and separates allow you to buy different sizes for your bottoms and tops.  Finding a one-piece wetsuit that fits is tough if you are a different size on top than on the bottom.  Hydroskins are much more comfortable to wear than your standard 1-piece wetsuit, but they are a bit more expensive than a basic farmer-john wetsuit.

What you wear under your wetsuit or Hydroskins perhaps falls under the heading of “too much information”, but it is a question that I get asked.  For women, it is usually a bathing suit.  I recommend a 2-piece suit.  For guys, it could be a speedo, a pair of lycra shorts, or synthetic underwear.  Don’t wear the cotton “tidy whiteys”.  They will get wet and uncomfortable in a hurry and they will stay wet for a very long time.  You can go commando, but I don’t need to know about that, thank you very much.

Rash Guard – a short or long sleeve shirt made of relatively light-weight lycra material intended to provide protection from chafing against the armholes of a wetsuit or PFD, and/or to provide UV protection.  It is often worn under a farmer john wetsuit or as a top over shorts or Hydroskins pants in warmer conditions.  These shirts were originally worn by surfers to protect their arms from chafing against the fiberglass surf board while paddling.  They aren’t intended to provide much thermal protection.

Paddle Jacket – windproof and mostly waterproof jacket made to wear over a wetsuit to provide splash protection from waves and rain.  It helps to keep a paddler warm in the same way that a windbreaker or a rain jacket might keep someone warm on a windy or wet day.  Most paddle jackets today are made from waterproof/breathable fabrics.  When you get wet, the paddle jacket prevents the water in the top of your wetsuit from evaporating.  the process of evaporation draws heat out of your body which is why you feel chilled.  A paddle jacket is a pretty useful and important part of any paddler’s wardrobe.  It can be worn over a rash guard for wind protections even when the water temperatures are not dangerous.  It is most useful at reducing the danger of hypothermia brought on by the slow gradual cooling you might experience on a windy or rainy day and to keep you from becoming hypothermic after you have re-entered your boat following a capsize.  Many older paddle jackets were made of non-breathable fabrics which made them less comfortable on warm days.  Most newer paddle jackets are breathable as well as water-resistant/waterprooof.

Drysuit/Paddling Suit – for colder water temperatures (say below about 55°F) the drysuit is a much better, safer option than most wetsuits.  While there are wetsuits thick enough to protect someone at lower water temperatures (5mm thickness), they are usually too thick and bulky to be comfortable for paddling.  These thicker wetsuits are usually used by divers who don’t need as much flexibility at the shoulders.  Also, most divers going down into cold water will “pre-load” their wetsuits with warm water before going in for their dive.  Paddlers don’t have that option of preparing for their capsize into the cold water.

Drysuits work differently than wetsuits when it comes to keeping you warm.   A drysuit completely protects your body from coming in contact with the water except for the head, hands, and sometimes feet.  The entry zippers are completely waterproof.  There are latex gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankles to keep water from entering the suit.  A better option than ankle gaskets (in my opinion) is to get the sewn-in socks or booties on the drysuit.   The fabric of the suit is generally some kind of waterproof/breathable fabric like Goretex.  (Now that the patent on Goretex has expired, there are many suits that are similar in quality, but cost a little less than those with the name-brand material.)  The drysuit does not actually provide much warmth.  You must layer clothing under the suit to do that – usually synthetic wicking clothing like polypropylene or Capilene long underwear, polyester fleece, nylon, lycra, etc.  You don’t want to wear cotton clothing under your drysuit because it can get wet from perspiration and will no longer provide insulation from the cold.

The difference between a drysuit and a paddling suit is typically the material that some of the gaskets are made from.  While a drysuit will have latex gaskets at all openings, paddling suits may substitute neoprene gaskets at one or more openings.  The neoprene gaskets may not always be quite as watertight as latex, but at the neck opening, the neoprene can be more durable and more comfortable than latex.  Paddling suits tend to be slightly less expensive than full drysuits which make them a good option for paddlers who may not use a drysuit as often or in less challenging conditions where capsizes are less frequent.

How much clothing you wear under a drysuit depends on how cold the water temperature and the air temperature are.  Drysuits are practically a must for those who paddle in places where the water temperature is below 50 degrees (For example, sea kayakers on Lake Michigan in the winter and whitewater paddlers who go out in early spring on rivers full of melting snow).  Drysuits tend to be rather expensive, so typically only the more serious paddlers invest in them.  Once you have one, though, you will wear it instead of your wetsuit whenever you can since it is much more comfortable, and it will greatly expand your safe paddling season.  The authors of this website strongly recommend the use of drysuits when paddling in water that is less than 60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Wet suits will provide adequate thermal protection for most paddlers in water between 60-70°F at a lower cost.

Paddling Footwear – Most kayakers tend to wear some kind of neoprene booties.  The neoprene gives some thermal protection in cold water.  The soles of the booties are thinner than tennis shoes, river sandals, etc. and the neoprene fits very closely to the foot.  This is especially important for guys with larger feet and just about all whitewater kayakers since many sea kayaks and most whitewater kayaks have very little room in the area of the cockpit where the feet are located.  There is little or no extra room for bulky footwear.  However, do not be tempted to go barefoot.  There is a lot of stuff on shore and inside your cockpit that can cause you to cut your foot.  This can ruin a fun day on the water, lead to serious infections, and compromise the safety of the group.  On an extended trip, a foot injury leaves you less able to help out with necessary chores.  You will be hindered from being able to hop out of your kayak quickly during a surf landing, and in a whitewater situation, you may be unable to jump out of your kayak, run along shore, and render assistance to a fellow paddler if your foot has been injured or if you are not wearing shoes.  There are special designs made that will fit in just about the tightest space inside your cockpit, so wear something on your feet.  Just make sure that nothing on your footwear is likely to get caught on anything in the cockpit that would hinder you from performing a wet exit.

Gloves – I recommend wearing neoprene gloves for protecting your hands from the cold.  I do not recommend gloves for blister protection.  If you are experiencing blisters on your hands, it is a sign that you are probably gripping your paddle too tightly.  Relaxing your grip should fix the problem.    If you are paddling in colder temperatures and are using gloves, make sure that all your equipment can be operated while wearing the gloves.  Can you grab hold of your sprayskirt grab loop with gloves?  Can you work the carabiners on your tow belt while wearing gloves?  You may need to make some adjustments to your equipment if the answer to these questions is not a resounding “YES”.

Pogies – These are like mittens that get attached to the shaft of your paddle.  You put your hands inside the pogies and you can grab the shaft of the paddle directly.  In cold temperatures, I prefer to use a slightly lighter glove inside pogies.  The pogies keep your hands much warmer than the gloves, and the lighter glove gives better manual dexterity when dealing with gear.  While you could probably get away without wearing any gloves inside pogies, taking your hands out of the pogies without using a neoprene glove can be catastrophic.  An example of this would be when I am assisting another paddler back into his/her kayak following a capsize.  Pogies come in neoprene or nylon versions.  The neoprene is a little stiffer making it easier to slide your hands in and out.  Neoprene also gives some additional warmth.  However, the nylon pogies are easier to wrap and strap around your paddle shaft when you aren’t using them, so they don’t flop around and get in the way.  Any pogy is better than no pogy.

Headwear – Since heat is lost through the capillaries in your head faster than any other part of your body, and because immersing the head in cold water brings on a serious ice cream headache and disorientation, you need to wear something on your head in cold weather/water temperatures.  A wool knit hat or polyester fleece hat may seem to work well in some situations.  A better option as it gets colder and windier is to get a skull cap or neoprene hood like those used by divers.  The best option for safety is a neoprene balaclava.  These pieces of gear fit much more closely to the head and are less likely to come off in the wind or if you capsize.  Neoprene and other rubberized materials also shed water better.  Wool will absorb water and get heavy and soggy.  For those sea kayakers and whitewater paddlers who are practicing rolls or may be capsizing in cold water, it is also very important to protect your ear canals from the development of bony growths called extoses.  These growths can actually start to block off your ear canal and cause hearing loss.  They have to be removed surgically.  For people who paddle regularly in cold water, it would be wise to get some ear plugs that will keep water out of your ears when rolling.

Now is a really good time to take stock of your paddling wardrobe if you want to extend your paddling season into the months when the water temperatures are below 70°F.  You may be able to keep  paddling well into the fall and even through the winter and early spring, IF you are dressed properly.

Stay safe!