Bill Mauney, Great Outdoor Provision Co.

UPDATE: Check out Bittu’s follow up: “Paddling Clothing Systems for Cold Water” 

It’s a beautiful day in early spring. The air temperature, in the low 60s, feels downright balmy after the frigid weather of the past few months. However, that water is still quite cold. I know you are not planning on getting wet, but capsizes can occur even in the most benign conditions.

Here is the sequence of events that might occur if you accidentally capsize and are not adequately dressed for immersion. As you and your kayak turn 90 degrees, your ear slaps the cold water. If the water hits your tympanic membrane (ear drum) you will become disoriented, not knowing which way is up. Making an Eskimo roll will be difficult, if not impossible. Once your body begins immersion, the gasp reflex kicks in and you may suck in a lung full of water. When you and your kayak turn to 180 degrees, cold water can be forced up your nose by the water pressure and may render you unconscious. Your ability to hold your breath is drastically reduced which would make setting up for a roll or wet exit problematic. Assuming that you are not totally debilitated at this point and you are able to wet exit and get to the surface, you will be hyperventilating. Add that to your already panic state and you lose your ability to control your breathing. The colder the water, the harder it is to maintain control. The hyperventilation can lead to alkalosis which diminishes blood flow to the brain resulting in confusion, dizziness, and possible loss of consciousness. A tingling and numbness in the hands and feet begins. This could lead to severe cramping in your arms and legs. You lose your ability to synchronize your breathing which makes swimming in waves difficult. Panic sets in because your eyes are close to the waterline and all you can see is waves and sky (Where is my kayak?) Pain, claustrophobia, disorientation, and breathlessness increases panic in an already dangerous situation. All of the above symptoms are the result of cold water shock.

If you manage to recover from your capsize and reenter your kayak, hypothermia becomes a serious problem as you are soaking wet and the wind is blowing across your body. At this point, you are losing body heat to the environment faster than your body can produce it resulting is a drop of your core body temperature. This begins the slippery slope of hypothermia. Both cold water shock, which can lead to drowning, and hypothermia are killers of the unprepared paddler.

If you are adequately dressed and prepared for cold water immersion, your accidental capsize is no more than an opportunity to practice your rolling or wet exit and capsize recovery skills.

So, what is cold water? The US Coast Guard considers water below 70 degrees F to warrant protection against hypothermia. Below 55 degrees F is a significant danger. As the temperature falls the intensity of cold water shock increases exponentially from painful to excruciating. When your body is immersed, water penetrates your clothing quickly due to water pressure. You skin is then in direct contact with the water. Cold water conducts heat away from your body 25 times faster than air.

Try this. Fill up the kitchen sink with water and ice. Stick one hand underwater and time how many seconds you can remain immersed. Notice the pain. Now stick the other hand underwater and move it around like you are treading water. Note how many seconds you can do this. Notice the pain. Now imagine your whole body totally immersed in this water. Yikes! After a minute or two immersed try to pick up a coin from the bottom of the sink. Now imagine the difficulty of using your fine motor skills when totally immersed in cold water.

Proper clothing minimizes or eliminates the effects of cold water shock by protecting your skin from direct contact with the water. This buys you time to perform a capsize recovery and continue on your paddling adventure. How much time depends on the temperature of the water, your body type, personal fitness, water movement, your movement in the water and the amount of thermal protections offered by your clothing.

The best clothing system for cold water paddling is a full drysuit. A Gore-Tex version is best because it is breathable and therefore more comfortable when you are active. Drysuits keep you dry, but the warmth comes from proper insulation worn underneath such as wicking underwear next to the skin and fleece top and bottom or one piece suit. Insulation thickness can be varied for differing water temperatures. Drysuits with built in socks can be insulated with fleece socks and a neoprene bootie or mukluk worn on the outside for added insulation and foot/drysuit protection.. A relief zipper for men or a drop down seat for women make answering the call of nature easier without having to totally remove the drysuit.


Although not as good as a drysuit, a wetsuit can be used. Most paddlers prefer a “Farmer John/Jane” version without sleeves to prevent underarm chaffing. Wearing a fleece top and a dry top paddling jacket protects the torso. Non dry top jacket arms can load up with water when immersed. The weight of the water in the arms makes swimming and capsize recovery difficult. Neoprene booties are worn on the feet. The negative of neoprene is the evaporative and convective heat loss once the suit is wet and exposed to the wind.

In either system, the head need protection. A windproof fleece hat may suffice in less extreme conditions. When the water is colder, a full neoprene or “fuzzy rubber” hood is desirable that covers your head and your neck where most heat is loss. Neoprene hoods for divers come in various thicknesses. High end drysuits also have attached hoods for wind and rain.

Also, in either system, the hands need protecting as you found out in the kitchen sink experience. Neoprene paddling gloves, sewn in a pre-curved position, are available in a range of protection thicknesses. Poggies (waterproof/windproof mittens) that attach by Velcro to your paddle shaft are great to prevent evaporative and convective heat loss from your gloves. Some folks only use poggies, but this is not recommended because if you must let go of your paddle during a capsize recovery, you will have cold “potato hands” that won’t be able to function.

A nose clip can be worn to prevent cold water from shooting up your nose when immersed upside down.

How do I know if my clothing protection system actually works? In a safe, well protected, waist deep area with a “life guard” nearby, go for a test swim. Leaks or gaps in your system will become apparent quickly. The amount of time you can stay immersed and remain reasonably comfortable will give you some idea of how much time your system will buy you. If your system fails, a change of clothes, a nearby warm car and a thermos with a warm drink should be welcomed.

Hey, but didn’t you say that it was a balmy day? Won’t I overheat? You need to stay hydrated anytime you are participating in paddlesports. If you start to warm up, just get wet. Hey, remember it is a water sport. Wetting your head, neck, torso or wrists promotes evaporative heat loss. If that doesn’t work you can practice “rotary cooling” by practicing your roll or you could swim and practice capsize recovery. Kayaking is a water sport, so enjoy the water, don’t avoid it.

This article is meant to be an introduction to cold water paddling, not a definitive work on the subject. For more information, may I suggest the following links:

On the last link under “Safety Skills” checkout the sections entitled “Coldwater Safety” and “How to Dress”. Just because the temperature drops it does not mean that your paddling season is over. You just need to be prepared for the unexpected.

My many thanks to Chuck Sutherland and Moulton Avery who taught me about cold water shock and hypothermia as my instructors in an ACA sea kayak instructor course some twenty years ago.

Happy Paddling!
Bill Mauney
Great Outdoor Provision Co.

UPDATE: Check out Bittu’s follow up: “Paddling Clothing Systems for Cold Water