Basics of dressing for cold weather paddling

Paddling & COVID-19: Getting outside and active, even for short periods, is good for your mental and physical health. That said, we’re all in this together, and we must be responsible — avoid crowds, stay close to home, be prepared and be respectful of other people. The team at the Northern Forest Canoe Trail can’t stress this enough: now is not the time to take unnecessary risks while engaging in outdoor activities. Our healthcare sector is under enormous stress, and we must be responsible.

A note from the author: So many “educational” reads end up really being an opinion piece. So, Danny wanted to be up front: 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 one method that works better than another. This piece will draw from Danny’s lengthy, 30-year experience in the paddle sports industry and as a paddler. So, we feel there is some good stuff in here to make you a more informed paddler on this topic.

Cold water paddling: Safety first and what to know before we go

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 five 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. 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. 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.

  • PFD (personal floatation device/life vest). With the biggest risk in cold water paddling being drowning as hypothermia takes hold, PLEASE wear your PFD, now more than ever.
  • 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. Stay closer to shore. Plan to do several loops, as opposed to one long out and back, so you are closer to your vehicle.
  • Avoid the river when you know flows are going to be higher (spring, for example) making the skills you need to stay safe significantly higher.
  • 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 in, 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

As we go back to the original purpose of this post 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 and spring. 

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