While there’s still plenty of time this fall to get out on our lakes and bays, it’s time to think spring when it comes to dressing for the experience.
As the water temperatures drop it is important to begin dressing for colder water. If you’ve been paddling on the ocean you probably won’t need to modify your clothing choices very much, since water temperatures haven’t risen above the 60s. Average ocean water temperatures for Bar Harbor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are: January, 38; February 36; March, 38; April, 42; May, 47; June, 54; July, 56; August, 63; September, 58; October, 55; November, 52 and December, 44.
What’s nice for me about dropping air temperatures is the rising comfort level — the sauna factor is declining. Since I choose not to paddle without a personal flotation device, and a PFD is actually a layer of insulation, warm days mean a warmer me. Lower air temperatures are welcome.
But lower temperatures and cold water demand respect. The American Canoe Association perhaps says it best in its guidelines for cold water: “Cold water is extremely dangerous. It quickly robs the body of its strength, diminishes coordination and impairs judgment. Immersion in water as warm as 50-60 degrees can initiate what has been determined to be ‘Cold Water Shock.’ When a paddler capsizes and is suddenly immersed in cold water the body’s ﬁrst reﬂexive action is to gasp for air, followed by increased heart rate, blood pressure and disorientation and can even lead to cardiac arrest.
“Without proper equipment and apparel, the body can become incapacitated in just a few minutes and without a life jacket this can be a very dangerous and often fatal combination. When paddling in places where the water temperature is 60 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, a wetsuit is a must and a dry suit is highly recommended. This is also the case if the [sum of] air and water temperatures are below 120 degrees Fahrenheit.”
When improperly protected, the human body immersed in cold water can become hypothermic, and continued immersion can prohibit the body from reheating itself or maintaining its core temperature. Water conducts head away from the body many times faster than air. Signs of hypothermia include shivering, impaired judgement, clumsiness, slurred speech and loss of dexterity.
So what’s a cold-water paddler to do? Here are some ideas I’ve gleaned from the American Canoe Association, NRS and my experience over the past 15 years.
Start out knowing what the weather and water conditions will be and plan your outing accordingly. Eat well and have plenty of water. Put on your life jacket.
Dress for success. Start with a base layer of synthetic material or wool (like Merino) or Hydrosilk or polyester fleece. Do not use any clothing made from cotton. Next, you may need a synthetic insulating layer such as fleece.
Over the base or insulation layer you need to wear a waterproof layer for splash or rain protection. Many paddlers will recommend a wetsuit for protecting you in the water. I prefer a dry suit and an insulating layer that keeps the water and air away from my skin. Others prefer a gasketed dry top mated to dry pants.
Your feet and hands need protection too. Neoprene booties work well but most won’t keep your feet dry. For that you may wish to wear waterproof socks. Many dry suits have built-in booties to keep your feet dry, but remember to put on wool or synthetic socks. Another choice is a mukluk-style neoprene boot that is knee-high. They are waterproof, insulate well and permit you to get into and out of your boat in shallow water without getting wet feet.
Since you rely on your hands to hold your paddle, it is most important to keep them warm and protected. Mambas, pogies or neoprene gloves are good choices as individual as the paddler. Mambas and pogies go over the paddle shaft and your hands slip into them, giving you direct contact with the paddle. The elements are kept at bay and your hands generally stay warm. Some prefer neoprene gloves for overall warmth. A glove will disguise the feel of your paddle.
Don’t forget your head. Fleece beanies, neoprene hoods or synthetic paddling caps are choices. Pick one that will remain on your head should you capsize.
And it’s a good idea to have spare clothing with you, stored in a sealed dry bag. Keep in mind that you do not have to capsize to get wet. You will perspire because you are working your muscles. Dry clothing at the end of the day makes for a good ride home.
Here’s a checklist that the ACA has compiled for safe paddling:
• Be a swimmer.
• File a float plan.
• Wear your life jacket.
• Assess your boat’s flotation needs.
• Carry a spare paddle.
• Always dress for the unexpected flip.
• Wear a hat or helmet.
• Carry a compass and chart or map (inland waters).
• Carry a whistle or sound signaling device.
• Carry throw bags and other rescue gear.
• Carry a “river” knife.
• Have a bilge pump or bailer.
• Carry self-rescue devices (paddle float, sling or tow rope).
• Wear sunscreen.
• Carry drinking water and snacks.
• Carry a light or signal (for low light conditions).
• Wear proper footwear.
• Wear UV eye protection.
• Carry a dry bag with extra clothing.
• Wear appropriate clothing.
• Carry a first aid kit with matches.
• Carry a small repair kit with duct tape.
• Carry a VHS radio and GPS locator.