Author- Danny Mongno of NRS
A note from the author: "So many “educational” reads end up really being an opinion piece. So, I wanted to be up front, yes… this is another opinion piece. Many paddlers have a system that works for them and they are entitled to their opinion as well. There is no FACT that one method works better than another. This piece will draw from my lengthy, 30 year experience in the paddle sports industry and as a paddler. So, I feel there is some good stuff in here to make you a more informed paddler, on this topic."
Cold water paddling, Safety first. What to know before we go
So, to start this piece, we must first identify the primary purpose. Staying alive when you are exposed to cold water. Certainly, discussions roll on about performance wear and sun wear and they are also important. But at the end of the day hypothermia can set in within 5 minutes in the water temps we see in the Northeast in Spring, Fall and Winter. Along with the medical challenges of hypothermia alone, its biggest threat is that it greatly increases your chance of drowning. We realize who the audience of this piece will be, good natured, outdoors people who want to enjoy the quiet of nature in the offseason or perhaps to stretch their training season. So yes, there are points on how different clothing options perform. But as a community, we must address the very serious risks that we face paddling in cold temps. So, before we get too deep into apparel options, let’s look at some easy things we can add to our cold weather paddling routine to decrease the likely hood of getting in danger.
1) Eliminate risks that you can control. Pick days that do not have wind in the forecast. Choose a location that is more sheltered from wind, as a backup plan. Plan to do several loops, as opposed to one long out and back, so you are closer to your vehicle.
2) Avoid the river when you know flows are going to be higher (Spring) making the skills you need to stay safe significantly higher.
3) Paddle with a partner. If you can’t, or just don’t want to, leave a float plan with a friend. Where are you putting on, where are you heading? Have a plan to call that person at a prearranged time when you are off the water. If you don’t call, it is established that 10 minutes after that time, they should be calling for help.
4) Stay close to shore! We are looking to limit risk, so in the event of a totally random and seldom capsize… why be in the middle of the lake? If your rescue skills are rusty, worse case you swim quickly to shore and start getting warm.
5) Consider a more stable craft. Fitness is a key reason to want to stretch your paddling season, but do you need to be in your race boat or on your race board? If anything, the additional resistance of a more stable craft can allow you to increase output while decreasing time on the water. More stability can add a great layer of safety in cold temps and allow you to take time to look around with more confidence.
Okay, so now let’s look at some options for clothing...
Training wear designed specific for paddling, or cross over from running or cross country ski, will keep you warm and manage perspiration in cooler temps. These items will generally be less of investment, as we most likely own some already, and be the most comfortable and performance orientated for the high energy expended during your work out. For the person who is 100% committed to the 5 tips we gave at the onset of this article and are very confident in their skills, simple training wear may suffice. However, you must be honest with yourself in accessing the risk you are taking. These types of clothes are going to offer little to no insulation against cold water and make swimming very challenging when soaked through. The odds of a capsize may be low, but are you willing to accept the outcome if something should happen?
Are by no means going to win you any awards for fashion and at the $700-$1200 price range are not inexpensive. However, you will stay dry and depending on the investment you can make, can be highly breathable. A dry suit uses a combination of different materials to create a highly water resistant seal against your neck and wrists. (Waterproof feet are attached to the suit, so no need for a seal there.) Using a waterproof zipper, you close the suit to keep water out. (Most suits also offer a waterproof “relief zipper” as well, allowing you go number 1, without taking the entire suit off.) Underneath, you layer for the temperature of the water. This can be done with higher end fabrics, or more basic athletic attire, depending on how well you want to manage perspiration. So as Summer approaches, air temps rise but water temps are still cold. You may wear just a very thin silk weight layer. Winter paddling, full on wool or expedition weight pieces. The suit will be made of some level of breathable fabric and depending on if you want to invest in a 2.5 layer material or 4 layer material, will be the deciding factor in how well the suit manages perspiration for you. Due to the looser fit of a dry suit; paddling is not inhibited in any way. In the end, the dry suit does perform the best for an active paddler, provides the driest safety option and gives lots of options depending on the water and air temperature combo. Yes, it is expensive, but as many of us are snow sports people as well… what did your pants and jacket cost you? And they wear out far faster than a dry suit.
It must be told that neoprene only insulates when wet and when dry does not breathe. So, dragging on a wetsuit, is going to be a hot and sweaty experience. Even with the amazing technology in today’s wetsuits, they still make them a challenge for the paddling motion, so additional effort is required. The draw to neoprene options is that that they are less expensive, so they do have a place for the budget conscious paddler. But you should just consider options more for paddling and less for surfing. (Often times we see inexpensive surf style suits or may even have one from water skiing or surfing.) Thinner layers that are sold as tops and bottoms are available. A favorite piece of paddlers is a zippered top, so you can regulate heat when paddling but zip back up to get warm if you should fall in. Tank top style suits called a “Farmer John” and “Farmer Jane” allow freedom of movement and higher breathability (through the exposed arm pits.) Paired with a thin wicking layer against the skin and a wind layer over the top, this can be a great lower cost option. Remember though; unlike in a dry suit your feet are at the mercy of the cold water. (Authors note- neoprene is designed to warm the water that is trapped by your body temp. The challenge with feet, for paddlers, is that they do not move and therefore… do not produce heat. Wet feet will get cold, period.)
It is important to note that splash wear aka “paddling jacket” and
paddling pants” have no insulating properties and no way of keeping water out of the garment and away from the body. (FYI, this would go the same for a rain jacket and rain pants.) “So why do they sell it?” Well, splash wear pretty much says it in the name, it is designed to keep splash or rain off you as a paddler. So these would be for warmer days, when being absolutely soaked by the spray from waves or a driving rain would not only be uncomfortable but lower core temps. The closures around the neck, wrists, ankles and waist are designed to be comfortable and also keep cost down. So if you were to go for a swim, whatever you are wearing underneath would eventually be completely soaked.
So, as we go back to the original purpose of this piece, staying alive when you are exposed to cold water, we feel confident that the different sections of this piece can certainly better educate us to be safe and smarter in choosing paddling ear. Even if some of this is repetitive for you, or maybe you don’t agree with some of it, it opens the conversation and creates a discussion on safety when paddling this Fall-Winter-Spring.