November 9, 2019

Fall Paddling and Cold Water Safety : Kayaking

Fall Paddling and Cold Water Safety : Kayaking

Greetings r/kayaking. It’s that time of the year again! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the leaves are falling, and we’re starting to see pics of people paddling in snow and ice. Some quick reminders about cold water paddling.


Cold Water Considerations

First, a brief note on the dangers associated with cold water (generally, water below 50F) :

If you have 10 minutes free, this video is very informative: USCG Cold Water Boot Camp.

Skip to 4:27 if you don’t have much time. 6:34 on has great clips of what cold water does to your motor skills.

Most people understand that cold water can be very dangerous, but don’t understand how quickly it acts on you. The general rule of thumb if you fall in cold water is:

  1. You have 1 minute to control your breathing, or “get your shit together,”

  2. 10 minutes of meaningful movement/motor skills, and

  3. 1 hour until hypothermia.

In severely cold water, you also run the risk of inhaling water with the involuntary gasp reflex that accompanies submersion in to cold water. This risk can be mitigated by splashing your face with cold water occasionally during your paddle.

Still, a lot of paddlers might not think that these concerns apply to them, since they’ve never flipped, or have a very stable kayak. To that, I say “we’re all between swims.” Even if you have a fairly stable boat, or have never flipped, the chance of an OBE (out of boat experience) always exists, and the consequences in cold water are much more severe.

Preparing for Cold Water Paddling: Dress for Immersion

Cold temperatures shouldn’t be a total barrier to your fall boating! If you want to get out while the water is cold, there are a number of things you can do to protect yourself. The rule of thumb is to dress for immersion in water, not for air temperature. This may mean you can feel a little overdressed, but does a lot to reduce your cold water risk.

First, above all else, WEAR YOUR LIFEJACKET. If you watched the video above, you’ll see how a lifejacket can keep you alive and floating well after your’re totally exhausted and your motor skills are gone. Plus, it helps hold in a bit of heat.

  1. Best: Wear a Drysuit $500-$1500. If you’re really enthusiastic about getting out when the water temperature is below 50F, you should really think about getting a drysuit. They may be expensive, but they expand your paddling season well into the spring and fall, and can make paddling very comfortable. Seriously, a drysuit and thermal underwear is like paddling in your pajamas and can feel amazing.

  2. Good: Wear a wetsuit and waterproof overlayers. $100-200. A good wetsuit will keep you warm down into the 50s (water temperature), and is pretty affordable as far as gear goes. If you pair a wetsuit with anything waterproof or windproof, such as a cheap rain jacket, you can reduce heat loss from wind and evaporation.

  3. Meh: Wear a rainjacket/rainpaints, and some wool or synthetic clothes. $50ish. If you’re totally broke, but want to get out, I can respect that. While I strongly recommend that you get one of the clothing options above, I understand that’s not really an option for some people, in which case I would suggest ending your season. If you’re going to go out, consider wearing a rain jacket and rain pants with either wool or synthetic layers underneath. Don’t wear anything cotton, as cotton sucks your heat away once it gets cold. Wool and synthetics will stay warm when they’re wet. Cheap thrift store wool sweaters work great in a pinch, or as a backup layer to carry with you if you get wet.

Thanks for reading, and happy paddling this fall!

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