Dressing for Cold Weather Kayaking
While kayaking in the winter you obviously want to be as safe as possible. You want to maximize your chances of survival should the unthinkable happen – falling into icy water. Preparing for this worst-case scenario means you will be ready if it does happen. You want to prepare for capsizing your kayak and taking a swim and you can do that by making sure that how you are dressed is going to keep you warm while in the water and that it will allow you to rapidly dry off once you get out.
During frigid winter days, even with proper gear and clothing, you may have only minutes to perform a self-rescue and get your body out of the water before hypothermia-induced lethargy and confusion sets in. Once you become disoriented in cold water, your chances of survival are slim unless you are rescued by a third party.
To prepare for falling into frigid water, you should dress in multiple layers of synthetics and wool with a waterproof over-layer.
Synthetic Under-Layments Keep You Dry
The synthetic under-layer is a good choice for kayaking during all seasons. In summer it will wick sweat away from your body and provide a shelter from the damaging effects of too much sun. In the winter it will wick moisture away from your body which will raise your body temperature. Synthetic materials, like the popular brand Under-Armour®, are fast drying once you are out of the water.
Ditch the Cotton for Insulating Wool
There is absolutely no place for cotton clothing in cold weather kayaking. Cotton, once wet, becomes useless as an insulating material. It offers no thermal insulation in the water and will stay wet and cold even after you get out of the water, which will sap precious heat from your body. If you fall into the water with cotton clothing on, once you’re out of the water the best advice is to ditch the cotton clothing as quickly as possible to start warming back up.
Wool clothing, on the other hand, is an excellent insulator even when wet. Wool will trap your body heat in the water providing you more time to rescue yourself — and once you are out of the water it can be used to trap heat from other sources, a campfire or an automobile’s cabin heater, for example.
Waterproofing: Keep the Water Out to Stay Warm
You will want to use a water-proof over-layer to keep water spray and paddle drip away from your body as well as helping you from getting soaked if you do fall in the water.
The over-layer will probably not keep you entirely dry for very long, but it will help keep a lot of water away from your body during a quick dip, and keep your body warmer for longer than no over-layer at all. The game plan is to give you the best odds of survival by buying yourself time to rescue yourself or be rescued.
While some kayakers wear simply a waterproof jacket and pants, usually in combination with a wader’s belt, others opt to invest in a wet-suit or dry-suit for cold weather.
A wet-suit is designed to keep you warm in cold water over long periods by trapping and heating a layer of water between your body and the suit. The colder the water, the less effective a wet suit becomes. If you fall out of a kayak into cold water, your goal still remains to get out of the water as quickly as possible.
Dry-suit are far more expensive than wet-suits, upwards of $1,000, and are designed to prevent water from getting to your insulating under-layers at all. Serious kayakers who spend a significant amount of time on the water during the winter season usually opt for dry-suits. Dry-suits do help keep water away from your body, but if you take a swim, water will eventually find it’s way in. The rubber gaskets in the dry-suit are designed to protect against water entering your suit, but require routine maintenance. A dry-suit is only effective if the suit has been stored and maintained properly, but is still the way to go if you’re going to be doing severely cold weather kayaking.
In the end, nothing is going to completely protect you from one hundred percent of the water. All of these garments offer a fair bit of insurance, but it will expire over time. Your best chance of survival from falling into frigid water is to stack the odds in your favor, and you do that by dressing to prepare for the disaster.