With Springtime upon us and thoughts of getting out on the open water starting to consume the devoted paddler’s mind, it behooves us here at Outdoor Gear Exchange to say a few words about staying safe when the water is cold.
The biggest threat to paddlers during any time of year is cold-water immersion; and although the spring air may be warm around you as you slide your boat into the water, make no mistake: the water will be frigidly cold, around 50 or 60 degrees. Falling into water at this temperature will cause what is called, “cold shock”. The key to remaining safe in the event of cold-water immersion is much the same as in many other outdoor activities: preparedness. Dressing for the swim, always wearing your PFD, knowing your limits, paddling with a companion, and having a way to call for help are all sound ideas to remain safe on the water.
What is “Cold Shock”?
Cold shock is, as its name implies, a series of shock responses that your body experiences the instant that cold (50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and lower) water touches your skin during an immersion event. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, cold shock is akin to being struck by lightning or hit by a bus in terms of how profound the stimuli is, and you can expect this phenomenon to persist for at least five minutes after falling into the water unprotected.
The symptoms of cold shock consist of an initial huge gasp; if your head is underwater when it happens, your lungs could fill with up to a liter of water. Gasping is followed by uncontrolled hyperventilation– making it nigh-impossible to swim distances even as short as 6-10 feet and rendering you unable to hold your breath. A massive increase in heart rate and blood pressure will also commence during this initial shock, and this can cause cardiac arrest in vulnerable individuals.
After the symptoms of cold shock subside, remaining immersed in cold water without adequate thermal protection begins the road to hypothermia, the “fumbly mumblies”, and eventually, physical incapacitation and a truly dire situation.
Wetsuits & Drysuits
So cold shock (and hypothermia!) is bad. Obviously. How can you prevent this from happening to you during an early-season paddle? The answer lies in your gear. Nobody ever plans on a wet-exit from their boat, yet as the old saying goes, um, “things happen.” The best way to prevent cold shock is to try and make sure that if you are immersed in water, that you dressed for the temperature of the water. Thermal protection is a must, and mostly comes in the forms of a neoprene wetsuit, or a nylon drysuit.
Wetsuits are worn as a baselayer, first and foremost, as any clothing layered underneath them will prevent their method of thermal protection, which is trapping a very thin layer of water against your skin that will be warmed up by your body heat. While this goes a long way toward preventing heat loss via convection, wetsuits are generally only suitable for water temperatures above 50 degrees. Temperatures lower than that require a drysuit.
Drysuits, which are waterproof, multi-layer nylon suits with latex or neoprene gaskets at the neck and wrists, are the preferred gear for cold water paddling because not only will they totally seal water out when you become immersed, they are also able to be layered under, allowing you to dial in the amount of warmth you personally need dependent on your level of exertion. This presents several advantages over a wetsuit; for one, they are highly breathable, and can be worn comfortably on their own; wetsuits are hot and stifling when you are exerting yourself, and “Farmer John and Farmer Jane”-type wetsuits, which are the most comfortable type of wetsuit for a paddler to use, lack thermal protection around the shoulders and arms, making them ill-suited for unexpected immersion.
Another option for the early-season paddler is to wear a dry top and utilize a spray skirt on their boat, but it is important to note that one has to have a bombproof roll in order to remain dry if they aren’t wearing any protection on their legs, a wet exit will prove to be a hairy situation.
Layering for the swim
Properly layering for paddling in cold water, one must layer in much the same way one would for any outdoor pursuit. Namely, avoiding cotton like the plague. If any water were to somehow breach your drysuit, wearing cotton makes a bad situation so much the worse with it’s slow-drying and heat-robbing properties when wet. Ideally, you should be layering in synthetic, wicking baselayers, then a heavier weight synthetic such as a fleece or thin neoprene layer, and then, over all, your drysuit or drytop.
Another material that has gained traction among some paddlers is merino wool, as not only is it soft and comfortable against the skin, its anti-stink properties, breathability, and ability to insulate when wet makes it a good choice for long days on the water.
Gloves, Hoods, and Booties
Some more cold water gear that goes a long way toward remaining safe and comfortable during your early season paddles are a pair of neoprene gloves, neoprene booties, and a neoprene hood. Again, all of these pieces of gear will be mitigating not only the cold shock response, but also the inherent risk of hypothermia that goes with remaining immersed in cold water should you be unable to self-rescue or if help is still on the way.
A pair of gloves are essential for keeping enough feeling and dexterity in your hands when self-rescuing or for helping others help you, and booties are a necessity in cold water, even if you aren’t going for a swim; let’s face it, your feet are going to get wet, and they aren’t doing a lot while you’re sitting in the boat, so keeping them warm is a priority for remaining comfortable. As for that hood? When shivering, up to 55% of your body heat can be lost through your head, so at the very least a snug-fitting synthetic cap should be worn at all times, and a neoprene hood is the best.
Have Fun Out There!
That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Having fun on the water is easy to do, but it can also be easy to become complacent when the weather is warm and the sun is shining. Remember to dress for the swim, not paddle alone, and always have a backup plan when you’re enjoying the tranquility of early-season paddling. Don’t let the “what-if’s” of getting out stop you from getting after it, just get after it prepared!