Saturday, October 9, 2010


It's that time of year when the weather starts to change and the water gets colder. It is the time of year that a lot paddlers start to put their boats away for the season. But it is without a doubt my favorite time to paddle a kayak. In part because there are fewer people on the water, and I can have it to myself without fears of a power boat captained by a 'had a few too many' skipper racing past me way to close for comfort and much faster than necessary. The people on the water are what I like to call 'professionals', some others may call us 'die hards'.

The people that venture out onto the water when the weather turns colder have probably put a bit more time and thought into what they are wearing, as well as what they will be doing. There is a bigger level of commitment when the water temperature drops. If you are paddling and have a bad day and the water temperature is 80º you really don't have much to worry about. But if the water temperature is 50º or even 40º you are in a completely different situation. Those of you paddling in more northern climates know what I am talking about.

There are two different temperatures that we need to look at when we plan what we are going to wear. The air temperature, and the water temperature. We need to meet a happy medium somewhere in between the two. If for example you have a 70º air temperature and a 48º water temperature - common in the summer in Alaska - and you are dressed for the water temperature you will be sweating in the cockpit, but if you are dressed for the air temp, and end up in the water you are going to have a very bad day.

I have two different types of outerwear systems that I use for paddling, and two different types of next to skin layers that I use under the outerwear systems. The temperatures listed below are examples to explain the way I think when I plan for cold air/water paddles. Nothing is written in stone. If you are active in the outdoors, you should have a lot of what I mention here already.

Fall - Air temperature 65º/Water temperature 60º

Outerwear: Waterproof Breathable kayaking anorak with gaskets at the wrists, and a rand at the waist. WPB pants with gaskets at the ankles and a rand at the waist.

Small neoprene booties with nothing under them.

The waterproof layers on the outside are going to trap a lot of heat, so a thin layer underneath is all that is needed to keep me warm. All the options for the base layers will quickly wick moisture away from my skin to help keep me dry. You may get a little moisture inside the clothes - you may be a little wet - but that's okay, because the synthetics will insulate you when wet, and the WPB layers will help keep you warm.

The booties are going to fill with water when you get in and out of your kayak, but they work like a wetsuit. Your body will warm the water, thereby keeping you warm.

Late Fall: Air temperature 55º/Water temperature 60º
Outerwear is the same as above, it's the base layers I am going to change. Midweight synthetic long underwear, top and bottom. You just need a little more insulation to keep the warmth up. Some people go the wetsuit route, but I really don't like it. It doesn't really perform that well when you are dry - as it is designed to warm a thin layer of water next to your skin.

Winter: Air Temperature below 50º/Water temperature anywhere below 60º
Drysuit. That simple. Can you use a dry top and pants like listed above? Sure, just bump up the base layers to heavyweight/expedition weight - but be careful, you don't want to end up in the water. With a drysuit I actually use a midweight baselayer as well, sometimes even a lightweight because it traps so much body heat. My drysuit has thin booties that I put my neoprene booties over in part to protect the drysuit, but mainly because I like the contact I get with my foot pegs. For a very long time I scoffed at the drysuit as extravagant and unnecessary. I really purchased it because of the little booties I wear. I love the feel they offer, the contact with the kayak. I tried many ways to make them work through the winter, and I couldn't pull it off. That combined with a constantly wet bottom, spurred me to make the investment. It paid for itself almost immediately by extending my paddling season right into brutal winter - if the water isn't frozen I can still paddle. It's 34º and snowing? Guess what, I am still going paddling.

I primarily am talking about dressing for immersion, meaning you are planning on getting wet. All of these systems will work when your wet, and still keep you warm. But can you do this another way effectively. Why cant you replace the WPB paddling jacket and pants with regular hard shell outerwear, and replace the neoprene booties with high rubber boots -an Alaskan staple. You can, as long as you don't top your boots getting into our kayak, or roll your kayak once you are paddling you will be fine. BUT, if you do wet exit you have to get ashore and get into dry clothes.

It is important to keep a couple of things in mind. There is nothing wrong with being wet, as long as you are warm and wet. There is also nothing wrong with being a little cold, as long as you are dry and cold. But be very wary of being cold and wet. Cold and wet will kill you.

When expedition paddling it is good to have paddling clothes - clothes that will be damp either from water or sweat - and land clothes - clothes that will be warm and dry. I start all my trips with clothes in two twenty liter dry bags of different colors. One is paddling clothes, and one is land clothes. Eventually I start to think of the two bags differently. Paddling clothes becomes wet clothes. And land clothes become dry clothes. On a long trip something will usually get inadvertently wet. a pair of socks, a T shirt. Once it's wet, it goes in the paddling/wet clothes dry bag.

It only takes a little planning to paddle warm and safe in the winter. If done well, you can paddle all year.


  1. I'm a whitewater kayaker, also ready to start fall paddling season! It's wonderful being the only group on the river - no competition for play waves, and a much greater feeling of solitude.

    My cold-weather gear is similar to yours. I haven't gone the drysuit route due to monetary limitations. I have Kokotat bib-style drypants which gasket together with my drytop, and didn't have any water reach my base layers during a rather lengthy class IV swim. I usually wear a hydroskin, with 1-2 layers of fleece over it, then fleece pants on the bottom.

    I also add a couple things I didn't see you mention. I wear a helmet liner to keep my head warmer, and wear pogies to keep my hands warm. This setup keeps me warm down to 40 degree water/40 degree air. I haven't tried any colder than that, we'll see how late I keep paddling this year! With 40 degree water, as soon as you flip you get an instant icecream headache. I make sure and practice my roll as soon as I get on the river, so I can make sure I have it when I need it. It can be tough to adjust to the shock of water that is SO COLD!

  2. Andrew, thanks for the comment. I was going to get into gloves and head gear in the next post. Primarily because this one got so lengthy. I will also be talking about the physiological effects of a quick submersion in cold water. thanks again for the comment.


  3. What do I wear to walk from Penn to 18th street?