Cold Water Paddling - What To Wear
By Joe Sherlock
Paddlers hoping to extend their kayaking season, or who visit colder climates to paddle, often spend some time wrestling with this topic. It can be very equipment intensive and the expense seems to creep up as the temps drop, but the payoff for investing the time, money, and energy is worth it!
Cold-water paddling (from late fall to early spring in the Northeast) is a fantastic way to explore your local waterway without the hustle and bustle of the summer months. Explore your coast without boat traffic, visit local seal populations, and get out of the house during those dreary winter months. Some of my best paddling trips required wearing my drysuit, neoprene hood, and pogies.
I usually break paddling down into three seasons: summer, early fall/late spring, and late fall/winter/early spring. Here, we’ll focus on the second and third seasons.
Early Fall/Late Spring
During this time in the Northeast, paddlers usually encounter conditions with moderate air temperatures (45°-75°F) and water temps above 50°F. I usually wear—and suggest that others wear—a Farmer John wetsuit with a splash jacket or some version of what I affectionately call “fuzzy rubber,” i.e., a paddling shirt with a rubber-like polyurethane outer surface and a fleecy inner surface. The goal is to shelter myself from the wind, protect myself from immersion, and keep me comfortable while I engage in my favorite form of exercise.
If it’s on the chillier side (air temperatures of 45°-50°F), I’ll wear a 3 mm Farmer John wetsuit, a Gore-Tex paddling jacket, and a pair of 3 mm neoprene booties with a full-length rashguard top and a pair of wicking underwear underneath. If I require more warmth, I’ll put on an additional midweight wicking shirt and/or a 200-weight fleece vest or top to beat the chill.
If it’s milder or has potential to warm in the midday sun, or I plan to work up a sweat, I’ll often go into my equipment bag and pull out my fuzzy rubber. I have a wide assortment of NRS HydroSkin shirts to choose from that provide shelter from the wind and water without the bulk and restriction that comes with 3 mm neoprene suits. These pieces slip on easily, are stretchy, have fuzzy insides, shelter you from the wind, and keep you warm for a moderate amount of time when submerged in cool water. What I like most about them is that they’re comfortable and easy to modify by adding or shedding a layer. This is great stuff for paddlers who get cold during the summer or people who are planning to take advantage only of those spectacular shoulder-season days. Having a paddling jacket and the same gloves, hats, and booties for a colder paddling environment round out this go-to outfit for me!
Late Fall/Winter/Early Spring
True winter paddling requires an investment of time, energy, and money to do it safely and comfortably. Keep in mind that you’ll be dealing with water temps below 50°F and the possibility of immersion, cold shock, and hypothermia. During this time, I wear a drysuit to shelter me from the water with various layers of insulating, wicking long underwear underneath to keep me warm and toasty. If you’re shopping for a drysuit, please take the time to research the materials, features, and price in order to find the right fit for you. This can easily be done on the web, sitting in your favorite chair listening to the winter wind howl, but once you’ve narrowed down your choices, go to a paddle shop to feel, try on, and experience what a drysuit is all about. Take the time to bring in your base layers and really get into it. It’s an investment in your safety and comfort as you extend your paddling season.
Lastly, I use the same backups that I use on warmer days to round out the outfit: a midweight shirt or 200-weight fleece, a hat or balaclava, and something to keep my hands warm.
Important note: Drysuit manufacturers have been doing their homework when it comes to breathable suits (Gore-Tex or proprietary fabrics), relief zippers (male and female), overtunnels (to tuck your spray skirt into and under), and built-in waterproof socks (for warm, dry feet with your favorite wool socks). These are all awesome features and well worth the extra money!
For your head, you have four options: a simple baseball cap, a winter hat, a thin-to-midweight balaclava, or a ¾-to-full neoprene hood. Your choice will be dependent on temperature and how well you tolerate the cold.
For your hands, you have three options: thin fuzzy rubber gloves, thick neoprene gloves, or neoprene pogies. Again, your choice will depend on temperature and personal preference.
Lately I have also been seen sporting a 200-weight fleece neck gaiter that I can pull up to just under my eyes to warm the back of my neck and ears! (This piece is definitely worth the investment since it’s functional outside of your kayak as well.
A Note on Cotton
Paddlers who explore northeastern waters should avoid cotton clothing due to its inability to insulate and keep you dry. Cotton is absorbent and remains wet for a long time. These properties will keep you weighed down with cold, soaked clothing that sucks the heat out of you. If you’ve ever washed a cotton sweatshirt and a fleece jacket together, you’ll know what I mean. That supercomfy sweatshirt would be a bear to wear all day long soaked with seawater, and would provide little to no insulating value. Stick with synthetic fabrics.
Take Paddling Lessons!
Paddling, especially on big water, is most enjoyable when done safely. The Eastern Mountain Sports Paddling School offers a comprehensive curriculum for kayakers and stand up paddlers, from novice to experienced.
About the author:
Joe is the manager of the EMS Kayak School and has been teaching people how to paddle since 2001 (since 2007 with us). He is an ACA Level 4 instructor, Level 3 Whitewater Instructor, Level 2 SUP Instructor and holds an Adaptive Paddling Endorsement.