October through May here in the northeast can be tough on paddlers: ice, wind, and cold can make you dream of warmer times and open water. But October and November are lovely months for paddling; so are April and May. January, February and March typically offer the fewest paddling opportunities; December and March are typically transition months when you might be able to get some paddling–or not. But even in the dark of December or the dead of winter, you occasionally get those lovely days when the sun is shining, the wind is gentle and the air is warm: perfect days for paddling—if you can find some open water to paddle on.
There’s a catch, however. No matter how bright and strong the sun is, however warm the air is, the water you are paddling on is is cold, cold, cold . . . too cold for safety if you aren’t properly prepared.
Cold water and human beings just don’t mix very well. That’s true whether you are talking about a 33-degree rainstorm while you are backcountry skiing in January or falling into a 45-degree river in November or April. The danger, of course is hypothermia, the inability of the body to maintain its core temperature.
We haven’t been able to track down the original source (both have been attributed to the Coast Guard Auxiliary, but we haven’t been able to verify that), but we’ve heard two different versions of the so-called 50-50 rule of how rapidly hypothermia can affect you in cold water. Verified or not, both are worth serious consideration before you leave shore when the water is cold.
One of the 50-50 rules states that without protective clothing and a PFD, you only have a 50-50 chance of being able to swim 50 yards in 50-degree water. It depends a lot on the swimmer’s body composition, physical condition and age, but it certainly helps explain why people often drown very close to shore in cold water.
The other 50-50 rule is that a 50-year-old person has a 50-50 chance of surviving 50 minutes in 50 degree water.
What Is “Cold”
The safety experts at the American Canoe Association recommend wearing protective clothing (a wet or dry suit) when both the water temperature and the air temperature are below 60°F., when you will be more than 1/4 mile from shore and the water temperature is below 60°F., (no matter what the air temperature is), and if you expect be repeatedly exposed to cool (65-70°F or less) water in cool or mild weather.
One thing to remember, however is that the colder the water and the colder the air, the greater the danger and the more rapidly heat loss can affect you. Fishermen often carry a thermometer to determine the water temperature. That’s not a bad idea for paddlers, either. If you are paddling on the ocean, National Oceanographic Data Center keeps track of coastal sea temperatures around the country.
But it’s really simpler than that: if it feels cold, it probably is cold–and you should be prepared.
Cold, Hard Facts
The best information we’ve found on the web about hypothermia from cold water immersion is a Canadian website called Cold Water Boot Camp. According to that site, in 2004, 130 boaters drowned in Canada, 60 percent in water under 50 degrees F.
What’s scary is, of those drowning victoims:
Only 12 percent were properly wearing a PFD,
43 percent were less than seven feet from safety
66 percent were less than 50 feet from safety.
The Cold Water Boot Camp documents a controlled experiment directed by Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht (known as “Professor Popsicle”). Volunteers jumped into very cold water and attempted to save themselves (DO NOT try this at home!). It’s important to realize that this was a controlled experiment. These volunteers: 1) knew they were going to go into the water and 2) were surrounded by people and equipment to save them if they got into trouble. This very likely helped them avoid the panic most of us would feel if we suddenly and unexpectedly flipped a canoe, kayak or whitewater raft. The videos of these voluntary immersions (click on “Boot Campers”) are absolutely fascinating. Okay, they are downright scary. We’d strongly recommend watching some of them—especially if you are a strong swimmer and are not the least bit afraid of a little cold water.
Dr. Giesbrecht has coined the concept of “1-10-1” to describe the first three stages of human reaction to cold water immersion (you can actually watch it happening in the videos) and the approximate time each stage takes.
Stage 1 is your initial reaction to a plunge into cold water. This is called “Cold Shock,” and it lasts about 1 minute. If you don’t have a life jacket on to help you stay afloat, you can drown that quickly. One of the things that happens when you hit cold water is that you immediately gasp for air. It’s a reflex, probably uncontrollable. If your face happens to be underwater when you gasp . . .Let’s repeat that: if you are suddenly plunged into cold water without a good PFD, you can drown in one minute or less.
Stage 2, which takes about 10 minutes (or less) is “Cold Incapacitation.” Even strong swimmers lose the ability to move themselves through the water effectively. And, worse yet, cold affects judgement. In the videos, some subjects who could still swim, swam directly away from shore and safety. Again, without a life vest, you will likely drown in 10 minutes or less . . .
Stage 3 is unconsciousness due to hypothermia. Think about that scene from the movie Titanic when the dawn after the accident reveals all those cold, dead people floating in their life jackets. According to Dr. Giesbrecht, it takes about an hour for most people to lose consciousness. Assuming you don’t drown, how long you live after losing consciousness depends largely on your body mass index and gender. Here’s one place where short and fat is where it’s at for survival. There’s a chart on the 1-10-1 page which shows this clearly. It doesn’t account for how you are dressed. You are going to live a lot longer in a wetsuit and even longer in a good dry suit with insulation layers underneath.
If you are looking for still more info, the American Canoe Association has an excellent “Cold Water Survival” page. Charles River Canoe and Kayak also has excellent information on how to dress for cold-water paddling. New England Sea Kayaker published a detailed article by Daniel E. Smith on Coldwater Paddling Preparation and Outfitting back in 2005 that’s loaded with good information.
There’s also some useful information on the website University of Sea Kayaking, but it isn’t well organized or easy to locate. Click on [Library] in the left-hand nav bar, then [environment], then [exposure] to find a good hypothermia chart and some tips for dressing for cold-water exposure. Our thanks to loyal reader “Van” for digging this out and sending instructions on how to find this material.
Rules To Live By
No matter what the air temperature is, if the water is much below 60 degrees, you need to consider the possible consequences of prolonged immersion, and if it’s below 50, you really need to make safety a priority and prepare for the worst.
1) Know your own ability levels, both for paddling skills and rescue techniques. Know what to do if you end up in the water, including the “HELP” (Heat Escape Lessening Position). Knowing how to do an “Eskimo Roll,” to roll a kayak back upright if you’ve flipped, is a really good safety skill for cold water kayak paddling (and fun to learn).
2) Don’t go alone. Have at least one other person along who can help you if you end up in the water. It’s safest if you both know (and have practiced) some basic kayak rescue techniques.
3) Have a quality life vest and ALWAYS wear it. This is true every time you paddle, but is absolutely critical when the water’s cold. If you go over into cold water without your PFD on, you probably won’t be able to get it and get it on before the cold incapacitates you. If you don’t believe us, watch those Cold Water Boot Camp videos!
4) Dress properly. Best is a full dry suit with layers of synthetic insulation beneath. Second best is probably a full neoprene wetsuit (or “Farmer-style” bibs and jacket) which will insulate your core and extremities. Third is a “Paddling suit” either one piece or separate top and bottom which won’t keep you perfectly dry but will certainly help you stay safer. The colder the water, the more protection you need.
5) Don’t take chances. Strong currents, strong winds, traveling far from shore all increase the danger. Pick your day, pick your place, pick your companions, and paddle safely.
Cold Water Accessories
Knowledge and Good Judgment: The number one accessory you need to keep yourself safe in cold water is between your ears. Learn rescue techniques, and be able to help both yourself and your paddling partners. And, most important, know when it’s safe for YOU to paddle and when it isn’t. With those “accessories” you probably won’t get into trouble and need the rest of this stuff.
PFD: Since you always wear a PFD when you are paddling anyway, we don’t need to remind you that it’s especially critical in cold water. Right? But here’s the place where you want a paddling-specific PFD in good condition with a little extra flotation. Before you start shopping for a PFD, check out these guidelines for choosing a PFD from the Personal Flotation Device Manufacturer’s association. Kokatat, NRS, Stohlquist, Extrasport, Harmony, Stearns, MTI, North Water and some others all make good ones. Don’t scrimp on your PFD when you are paddling in cold water!
Dry Suits: Okay, let’s be clear right up front. If you want to be safer and more comfortable while paddling on cold water, there is nothing better than a quality dry suit. Yes, a dry suit is a huge investment (they can cost more than a good used kayak). But a quality drysuit will last for decades if you take good care of it (keep it clean and dry and store it in a cool, dry, dark place) and it will get you more paddling days each year. Money well spent.
Tim counts his Kokatat Gore tex dry suit as one of his all-time favorite pieces of outdoor equipment. He’s had it since 2005 and has used it many times each season for seakayaking, white water paddling and early or late season whitewater rafting. He’s also used it as a safety suit while fishing in northern Quebec and Labrador.
Tim’s dry suit has the front “relief” zipper, a really nice touch (some women’s models have drop seats for the same purpose). It originally came with latex ankle gaskets which were really difficult to get on and off, so, a couple of years ago he sent it back to Kokatat and, for a very reasonable fee, they replaced the ankle gaskets with the Gore-Tex booties that now come standard on their newer drysuits. Kokatat’s customer service is first rate, and the upgrade well worth the money.
Of course Kokatat isn’t the only company making dry suits. NRS, one of the oldest names in the paddling business, makes dry suits for men and women. Stohlquist, another well-respected name in paddling gear, also makes three different models of dry suits for paddlers. OS Systems offers a variety of dry suit models. Immersion Research offers it’s “Double D” rear-entry dry suit with men’s relief zipper. Palm drysuits were once available in this country for awhile but now seem to be sold only in Europe.
One note of caution about dry suits. Make sure you get one which is designed specifically for paddling and allows plenty of arm and shoulder mobility. The heavy-duty neoprene dry suits made for cold water diving, and the “survival suits” made for search and rescue and commercial fishing, are generally too restrictive and don’t really work for paddling.
“Paddling Suits”: It’s best to think of these as “semi dry” or “mostly dry” suits. They typically have neoprene gaskets at the neck and wrists which aren’t as watertight as the latex in a dry suit but are much more comfortable. They are really wonderful if you don’t need them and far better than nothing if you do. But if you suddenly find yourself immersed in really cold water, you are probably going to wish you had a dry suit.
Wet Suits: While not as comfortable as a paddling suit or a full dry suit, a wet suit is a much more economical way to extend your paddling into cold-water season. The same cautions apply about choosing carefully to avoid garments that restrict your paddling motion. Many of the wet suits designed for scuba diving and even surfing and water skiing are just too restrictive for paddling. Most paddlers choose “Farmer John” or “Farmer Jane” styles which leave the arms and shoulders free yet help insulate your critical core area. When combined with a good paddling jacket with fleece underneath, a Farmer-style wetsuit can provide good protection from cold water and cold weather. If you sign up for a commercial white water rafting trip when the air and water are cold, this is exactly what they’ll outfit you with. One caution, though; NEVER use a Farmer john without a good PFD. Neoprene floats, which has advantages, but all of that neoprene on your legs will float you head-down…if you don’t have your PFD on, that can kill you faster than the cold water.
Two things to note about wet suits and paddling:
One is that, since they don’t breathe, they aren’t very comfortable when the air is warm but the water is cold. In other words they generally work better if you’re wet than if you aren’t, and in paddling on cold water you are generally better off if you stay dry. Choosing a thicker wetsuit which works better in colder water just makes the problem worse. Paddling on cold water on a warm day can get pretty uncomfortable in a wetsuit.
Second, wetsuits work best in water above 50 degress, and if you get wet, then come out of the water into cold air (especially if there’s wind), a wet suit can get uncomfortably cold very fast.
That said, we often use a shorty wetsuit paddling on the coast of Maine in the summer and early fall. The water is still too chilly for safety without some insulation but it’s much too warm for a full drysuit, and the wetsuit provides that extra edge of protection.
Paddling gloves or “Pogies”: Your hands are the first thing to get cold and uncomfortable. Neoprene paddling gloves and “pogies” (oversized neoprene mittens which allow you to hold directly onto the paddle shaft for control) help keep your hands comfortable and your fingers functional. Here’s the conundrum: pogies are better for actual paddling, but useless once you have to let go of your paddle (to climb back into a capsized boat, for example). Gloves sacrifice some paddle “feel” but help more if you really need them.
Hats: These can range from a fleece beanie to keep your ears warm on a chilly morning (and help hold some warmth if you get wet) to a full neoprene balaclava to wear if you know you are going to get wet when it’s cold. Just make sure you have a hat with you. If nothing else, it helps keep your hands and feet warm.
Your PFD and HELP
Obviously if you end up in cold water, you are going to try to get out as soon as possible. But what if you can’t get into your boat or swim safely to shore.Here’s where your PFD (which you are ALWAYS wearing properly, right?) and the HELP (Heat Escape Lessening Position) can keep you alive. In the HELP posture you cross your arms tightly against your chest and draw your knees up. Remain calm and still. Unless you have something you CAN swim to, do not try to swim. Unnecessary movement will use energy that your body requires to survive. The more still and huddled you stay, the longer you live.
Why We Go: An Early Season Kayak Camping Adventure On The Connecticut River (Mostly Dry and Mostly Warm!)
Just as you don’t let “bad” weather keep you prisoner in winter, you don’t let cold water keep you from paddling in the spring and fall. You prepare for it with the proper equipment and make smart choices, build a safety margin into your plans and then go and have fun.
In early April, two of us, EasternSlopes.com’s senior editor David Shedd and executive editor Tim Jones, wanted to paddle to a private river island, to clean up around a campsite we maintain there. We use this island all summer long for overnight getaways and gear testing. The day we’d originally planned was just too cold, windy and rainy, so we waited for better weather. Mother Nature is always in charge . . .
Finally, the proper weather arrived, warm, sunny, not too breezy, and we loaded the kayaks with camping gear (all in dry bags) and tools. We were dressed to allow ourselves the best chance to survive if we suddenly found ourselves swimming in the 40-degree water. Tim was wearing the one-piece Gore-tex Kokatat dry suit he’s used for many years, with a layer of warm, dry fleece underneath. On this trip, David was wearing a neoprene “Farmer John” wetsuit with a paddling jacket and pants over it. (He’s since purchased a two-piece Kokatat dry top and dry pants outfit.) We donned our PFDs, launched, and paddled the mile and a half to the island in the chilly sunshine. The wind was steady but at our backs and didn’t really affect us. We made it to the island and landed without incident (which was how it was supposed to go!), only getting our feet wet as we beached the boats at the campsite. Sometimes, there’s no way to avoid wet feet and this was one.
We had a wonderful afternoon cleaning up the campsite and relaxing in the warm April sunshine, eating a great dinner (you can carry a lot of food in a kayak), solving the world’s problems, watching the moon and stars, and spent a comfortable night tucked in our sleeping bags with everything we needed to stay warm as the nighttime temperature plummeted.
The next morning it was flat out COLD, but we needed to get going early to make a planned breakfast meeting. Also, we had to paddle upstream back to our cars and, on this stretch of dam-controlled river, the currents build with the day as dams above and below release water to generate electricity. Paddling back upstream is MUCH easier in the early morning. We rolled out of our sleeping bags and began making coffee/tea while it was still dark (and COLD!). We had camp pulled down and packed in the kayaks before the sun showed completely over the horizon. Did we mention it was COLD?!? Temps were in the mid 20s, not uncommon for an April morning in northern New England. Our water shoes, wet from the landing the day before, were frozen solid and very hard to zip with cold fingers. And, frankly, David really didn’t enjoy having to pull on a COLD neoprene wet suit that COLD morning. For Tim, donning a drysuit over cozy fleece was much more pleasant.
There was another benefit to our early start, however. The river in the early morning light was simply gorgeous, with wispy coils of mist lifting off the water which was now much warmer than the air (if it hadn’t been, we could have walked home on it!). The wind was calm and the sun growing stronger as we paddled against a mild current back to the cars. The hats, gloves and exercise kept us warm enough for comfort (except for David’s wet feet ).
Neither one of us got anything more than our feet wet on our whole adventure and that only when landing and launching. But that little bit was enough to remind us how COLD the water can be when you are paddling early or late in the season. We were well dressed for safety and prepared for the cold water should we have found ourselves swimming. Being prepared allowed us to get out on, not one, but two perfect paddling days in early April, with a whole season of paddling ahead.