By Paul Klonowski, ACA Canoe Instructor
One of our new River Stewardship Volunteers for the Lake County Forest Preserves asked this very important question: “I was thinking about going on this clean up, but I was wondering how to dress for canoeing when it is cold out. Is it possible to be warm?” At this time of year, it’s always good to review this fundamental question.
Cold water exposure will rob your body of heat many times faster than air at the same temperature, and can cause a person to go into hypothermia very quickly. This is a critically serious medical condition, and can be fatal in a short time frame. It’s that serious.
The key to this, that some people don’t really understand, is that you must dress for the water temperature, NOT the air temperature. The difference between air & water temperature can be huge: a balmy late fall or (especially) early spring day can have 75 degrees air temperature, but the water temperature can be a frigid 35. Water that cold will render mere humans unconscious in minutes.
Thus, the most critical factor for cold weather paddling is staying dry. Fortunately, there are some very good options to keep you dry, though they’re not cheap.
A low-end dry suit costs more than $500, and is thus out of reach for a lot of people. But it will keep you pretty dry, even if you fall into the water. Here’s one example: http://www.rutabaga.com/kokotat-supernova-paddling-suit Higher-end versions will include more features, such as “relief zippers,” allowing the wearer to use the bathroom without completely disrobing.
You can also get dry pants and a dry top, or “semi-dry” pants and top. These 2-piece systems typically run a bit less cash than a full dry suit, and are easier to get into and out of. That’s what I use.
Both of the options above can be worn with as many layers of insulation (long underwear, fleece, NOT COTTON) as you can fit inside the outer layer. With both of these options, though, being able to adjust the number of layers you’re wearing is not easy, so knowing how much insulation you need is pretty important. And remember that your PFD, worn outside the dry suit/top, is a good insulating layer for your upper body.
The next best thing is a neoprene wet suit: http://www.rutabaga.com/nrs-mens-radiant-wetsuit. These don’t keep you dry, but they fit tightly to your skin, so if you do fall into the water, only a small quantity of that cold water gets on your skin, and it warms quickly. These work okay if you only get wet once, but every time you get out of the water, the water inside the wet suit drains out, and if you get in the water again, it gets replaced by cold water… multiple dunkings can be deadly. You can wear as many layers of warm clothing on top of the wet suit as you like, but don’t wear anything underneath the wet suit. Doing so defeats the purpose of the wet suit.
For less extreme conditions, the dry or wet suit options may not be necessary. Defining what are “less extreme conditions” is largely a personal matter… if you tend to feel cold when others still feel warm, you will want to use these top-level options at different air temperatures than someone who is less sensitive to feeling cold. But again, dress for the water temperature, not the air temperature.
For insulating layers, cotton is to be avoided at all costs, from undergarments all the way to the outer shell.. Once cotton gets wet, it stays wet, and the water that got it wet is cold. The best insulating layers are synthetic materials, such as nylon, polypropylene, or synthetic “fleece,” all of which don’t hold water well, and dry quickly. Beyond the insulating layers, a windproof shell, often nylon (but again, NOT COTTON), is a great addition, as it will keep the wind from replacing warmed air in the insulating layers. That’s where the dry suit or dry pants & top are at their best.
For most people, their feet get cold before the rest of the body feels cold. Thus, having warm, dry feet is critical. In warm weather on the river, I wear neoprene dive-type boots: http://www.nrs.com/product/30017.04/nrs-freestyle-wetshoe, while in cold weather, I wear mukluk-style boots: http://www.nrs.com/product/2308/nrs-boundary-shoe
It’s important to note that footwear like this is pretty good at protecting your feet from the various sharp objects (broken glass, rusted metal, fish hooks) that we often find in the rivers, but you can’t rely on them being waterproof. Dry pants have “feet” built into them, so you can wear a lot of warm socks inside the dry pants, and wear the boots over the dry pants “socks.” It works well.
Neoprene gloves can feel a bit thick on your hands, but they’ll stay warm, even if you get water in them. They’re kind of like a wet suit for your hands.
Always ALWAYS ALWAYS have a dry bag with spare clothing, a fleece towel, and a “Space Blanket” to wrap yourself in. If you do get wet, despite all the precautions, you’ll want to get warm & dry as quickly as possible.
Another consideration is the boat you bring. Aluminum boats will transmit the water temperature to your feet, knees, and backside. Bring insulating layers for whatever body parts will be touching the aluminum…
If you show up for a cold weather paddling trip wearing inappropriate clothing, and/or without a dry bag with spare clothing, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to leave. Your failure to prepare jeopardizes the safety of the rest of the group. Nobody likes a chain with a weak link, and you’d be the weak link.
This all represents a significant investment in specialized clothing, and each individual needs to make their own choice. What it really comes down to is your personal decision regarding what are your limits, your “comfort zone,” and whether you dress appropriately for those conditions. Remember, cotton kills.
Remember that NOBODY is expecting anyone to paddle outside their comfort zone. If you think it’s too cold for you to go canoeing, that decision must be respected, with no exceptions. I’m comfortable canoeing down to somewhere around 25 degrees, but most people are happier with a warmer air temperature. And remember, the water temperature can be really cold!
Be very careful if you decide to push your personal limits. Paddle with a group of experienced people who know the particular river you’re on, are prepared for the possibility of immersion, know how to recognize hypothermia, and know how to deal with it.
Keep an eye on your map, so you can figure out where to tell the paramedics to find you. Last time I checked my local services, they don’t work off GPS coordinates; they need addresses, or road names & traditional map locations, like “We’re on Rte 173, half a mile east of Rte 41.” And a GPS may not work well when the batteries get cold.
The rivers are beautiful places in the winter, and are even more so after a blanket of new snow. Unfortunately, they can be as deadly as they are beautiful, but having appropriate clothing and equipment can help you enjoy them. As Marge Cline taught us, “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.”
I hope this answers questions about cold weather paddling; if others have input on this matter, please chime in. If you have more questions, please ask! The only dumb questions are the ones you don’t ask…