The Dos and Don'ts of Cold Water Paddling

Photo by Luis Lopez

Photo by Luis Lopez

Here's some good advice from Senior Julie McKoy on cold weather paddling...

It's that time of year again, as the weather turns and the water temperature begins to drop. Here is a note on paddling in cold water, some of which also applies to windy or cold days.

There's no reason not to paddle when it's cold, and winter paddling can be quite beautiful. You just need to know the risks and how to mitigate them.

Most of the risks for paddling in the cold have to do with body temperature, in particular cold shock and hypothermia. Our bodies lose heat about twenty-five times faster in water than on land. The wind can also chill when we're out of the water but wet. Therefore, insulating layers and windproof shells are needed as the air and water temperatures drop.

You can read more about the specific effects of cold water at Atlantic Kayak Tours; there are other similar sites and articles available as well.

Short of these dangers, cold water also inhibits motor activity. Here's an experiment to try if you're willing: extend your arm into the river, unprotected, and hold it there for a full minute. Then, see how easy it is to operate zippers, hold a paddle, or open a day hatch. If you know how long you take to self-rescue, hold your arm in for that duration. 

While everyone has their own levels of personal comfort, a couple of rules of thumb are commonly use. Neoprene wetsuits and farmer-style outfits come into play when the water temperature drops to 62F or lower, with drysuits when it drops to 50F or lower. These can be further layered with other clothes, such as fleece-lined windproof tops and pants, as well as paddling jackets. 

Drysuits keep you dry but do not keep you warm. The idea is to layer up with wicking layers, fleece, and/or wool, dressing for the water temperature. Don't wear a wetsuit under a drysuit though, unless you like to rotisserie yourself.

The water temperature will continue to drop over the coming weeks and months. This season seems to be lasting a bit longer than usual but I wouldn't expect to be paddling without a wetsuit and jacket after drysuit after Thanksgiving.

On the other side of the year, when spring arrives, be aware that the water warms more slowly, and the water temperature is still chilly into late April and early May. Many accidental drownings and near-misses occur in that period as people associate beautiful spring days with safe water.