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Cold Water Paddling

Paddling in cool waters is a blast. They key ingredient is "Know thyself." Read on for our tips on how to be prepared and paddle safely.


Know the dangers

Cool air and cold water cannot be overlooked. Even though the potential for getting capsized seems minimal, it is critical to be prepared should that happen. Anyone who decides to join the L Street Brownies for a swim on New Year's Day in South Boston knows that water temps below 50°F will take your breath away. It is pretty much like being put in a cryogenic tank (no disrespect to Ted Williams.)

Beautiful places like Bar Harbor Maine have a high water temperature in July of only 59 degrees. Maybe the air temperature is in the high 70s, but if rough seas put you in the drink, the 59 degree water with just surf shorts, a PFD, and a cotton T-shirt will have most people approaching hypothermia in 30 minutes or so.

Know the location

Choosing to paddle a narrow, quiet river to enjoy the trees is very different than paddling from the mainland of New Hampshire across open ocean to Smuttynose Island. If you are paddling a lazy river and capsize, ask yourself if you would you be able to get to shore, change clothes, and dump the water out of your boat before becoming hypothermic?

Know yourself and others

Determine your personal ability level and the ability of your paddling partners. Ask yourself and your partners how confident they are at re-entering their boat unassisted if they capsize. Does each member of your party know how to Eskimo roll? Do any members of your party have physical issues that would prevent them from re-entering their boat?

Bring the right clothing and gear

Staying dry is staying warm. The key is to know your individual tolerance level to cold air and water, then dress correctly. Knowing what to wear is a function of air/water temperature and your location and distance from the shore. If the water temp and air temp are both above 60 degrees but there is a possibility of capsize, a wetsuit is a safe choice. For the really cold-blooded people out there, a 3 mm farmer-john style wetsuit should do the trick, in tandem with a rash-guard shirt and maybe a splash top to keep the wind and spray off. For those warm-blooded people who put out the BTUs like a Midwest power plant, thinner neoprene (about 0.5 mm) may suffice.

Know why a wetsuit works

How does a wetsuit work, you ask? The idea behind wetsuits is that a thin layer of water is trapped between the neoprene and your skin. Your body heats the water and the neoprene insulates (traps) the heat. Analogy: beer coolie insulates cold brewski.

Know when you need a wetsuit

If the water is below 60 degrees and the prospect of swimming to shore is not easy, then definitely wear a wetsuit with light synthetic layers under it and have a waterproof jacket, gloves, and hat readily available if the air gets cold. By the way, readily available does not mean buried deep in the stern hatch.

Know when to wear a dry suit

If the water is 50 degrees or below and the air is the same with a stiff wind, the safest choice is a waterproof, breathable dry suit. Dry suits have latex gaskets at the neck, wrist, and ankles. Dry suits are intended to keep you completely dry from outside elements. Like a wetsuit, you want synthetic layers next to your skin to wick and dry sweat as well as provide insulation. However, dry suits are a bit tricky when it comes time to make a bathroom stop. Most men's suits have a front relief zipper and women's models can be purchased with a drop seat.

Protect the extremities

Headwear for really cold temperatures would be a neoprene hood or beanie. To protect your hands, Pogies are a nice choice if you do not want the bulk of neoprene gloves. Pogies are waterproof mittens that attach to the paddle shaft and provide an opening to slide your hands in and out of.

Don't mess with the non-negotiables

For cold weather paddling, you must have a spray skirt, paddle float, bilge pump, paddle leash, extra paddle, PFD with a whistle attached, first aid kit, basic repair items for your kayak, waterproof flashlight, and an emergency strobe light. If you are venturing out into big water bring a VHF radio, flares, dye marker and signal mirror, cell phone, compass, chart, and float plan. Always tell someone at home where you are going and when you expect to be back.

And regardless of the location, it is important to carry a complete change of clothes in a dry bag. What not to wear: cotton. Denim jeans and cotton T-shirts remain wet. In short, you will freeze your buns off. Not only are they cold but also really heavy.

Know when to call it a day

Eat, drink, and be merry, but get out before you become too tired. Cold weather and wind exposure make you burn calories and use hydration stores. If you have not had the urge to go to the bathroom in several hours of chilly paddling, this is a bad sign. Stay well hydrated and stop for frequent snacks. (Beer and coffee do not count in the hydration category.)


LEVEL SIX Women's Skye Board Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
LEVEL SIX Women's Skye Board Shorts
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NRS HydroSkin Socks - Eastern Mountain Sports
NRS HydroSkin Socks
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NRS Paddle Wetshoes - Eastern Mountain Sports
NRS Paddle Wetshoes
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EMS Women's Sessions Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
EMS Women's Sessions Shorts
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STOHLQUIST Water Moccasins - Eastern Mountain Sports
STOHLQUIST Water Moccasins
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STOHLQUIST Men's Seaboard Water Shoes - Eastern Mountain Sports
STOHLQUIST Men's Seaboard Water Shoes
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CARVE DESIGNS Women's Lake Sunshirt - Eastern Mountain Sports
CARVE DESIGNS Women's Lake Sunshirt
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TEVA Men's Terra Fi Lite Sandals, Firetread Midnight - Eastern Mountain Sports
TEVA Men's Terra Fi Lite Sandals, Firetread Midnight
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EMS Women's Sessions Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
EMS Women's Sessions Shorts
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NRS Ultra John 3.0 Paddling Wetsuit - Eastern Mountain Sports
NRS Ultra John 3.0 Paddling Wetsuit
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NRS HydroSkin Gloves - Eastern Mountain Sports
NRS HydroSkin Gloves
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KEEN Women's Venice H2 Sandals, Black - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Women's Venice H2 Sandals, Black
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O'NEILL Men's Insider Hybrid Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
O'NEILL Men's Insider Hybrid Shorts
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TEVA Women's Refugio Water Shoes, Slate - Eastern Mountain Sports
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KEEN Women's Newport H2 Sandals, Ensign Blue - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Women's Newport H2 Sandals, Ensign Blue
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THE NORTH FACE Women's Class V Water Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
THE NORTH FACE Women's Class V Water Shorts
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KEEN Women's Clearwater CNX Shoes, Gargoyle/Norse Blue - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Women's Clearwater CNX Shoes, Gargoyle/Norse Blue
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THE NORTH FACE Men's Pacific Creek Board Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
THE NORTH FACE Men's Pacific Creek Board Shorts
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THE NORTH FACE Men's Class V Cargo Water Trunks - Eastern Mountain Sports
THE NORTH FACE Men's Class V Cargo Water Trunks
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EMS Men's River Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
EMS Men's River Shorts
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KEEN Youth Newport H2 Sandals, Midnight - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Youth Newport H2 Sandals, Midnight
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STOHLQUIST Contact Fingerless Gloves - Eastern Mountain Sports
STOHLQUIST Contact Fingerless Gloves
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KEEN Men's Newport H2 Sandals, India Ink - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Men's Newport H2 Sandals, India Ink
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TEVA Women's Tirra Sandals - Eastern Mountain Sports
TEVA Women's Tirra Sandals
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O'NEILL Women's Atlantic Board Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
O'NEILL Women's Atlantic Board Shorts
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KEEN Youth Newport H2 Sandals, Black/Lime Green - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Youth Newport H2 Sandals, Black/Lime Green
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KEEN Men's Owyhee Sandals, Slate Black/Rust - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Men's Owyhee Sandals, Slate Black/Rust
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KEEN Women's Whisper Sandals, Coffee/Yellow - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Women's Whisper Sandals, Coffee/Yellow
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BOMBER GEAR Men's Blitz Splash Pants  - Eastern Mountain Sports
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KEEN Youth Newport H2 Sandals, Heliotrope - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Youth Newport H2 Sandals, Heliotrope
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TEVA Men's Hurricane XLT Sandals
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CHACO Women's ZX2 Vibram Yampa Sandals, Fiesta - Eastern Mountain Sports
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STOHLQUIST Women's Seaboard Water Shoes  - Eastern Mountain Sports
STOHLQUIST Women's Seaboard Water Shoes
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JAMBU Women's Tidal Shoes, Grey - Eastern Mountain Sports
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AHNU Women's Tilden IV Sandals, Colony Blue - Eastern Mountain Sports
AHNU Women's Tilden IV Sandals, Colony Blue
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STOHLQUIST Men's Bodhi Water Shoes - Eastern Mountain Sports
STOHLQUIST Men's Bodhi Water Shoes
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NRS Men's Hydro Gloves - Eastern Mountain Sports
NRS Men's Hydro Gloves
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KEEN Men's Newport H2 Sandals, Raven/Neutral Grey - Eastern Mountain Sports
KEEN Men's Newport H2 Sandals, Raven/Neutral Grey
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THE NORTH FACE Wn's Pacific Creek Long Boardshorts, 7 in. - Eastern Mountain Sports
THE NORTH FACE Wn's Pacific Creek Long Boardshorts, 7 in.
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EMS Women's River Shorts - Eastern Mountain Sports
EMS Women's River Shorts
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