By Alex Toth
People tend to think paddling is a warm-weather sport, but for the committed, whether or not the rivers are running is more important than the weather outside. Unless you are lucky enough to live and paddle near the Equator, at some point during the year it's going to be cold. And even when the days are balmy, snowmelt-fueled rivers often remain icy throughout the spring and early summer and dressing for the water temperature (instead of the air temperature) is key. With this in mind, here are four tips for surviving in the cold as a paddler.
1. Get a Drysuit
Drysuits can be expensive, but they are worth every penny. They provide a barrier between your body and the water, which is important since water conducts heat about 25 times more effectively than air. So if you take a swim in icy water without a drysuit, your core temperature will plummet very quickly. (REVIEW: Drysuit Stress Test)
When buying a Drysuit:
Get the top-of-the-line model with the sturdiest material, i.e. something like Gore-Tex. Quality drysuits won't begin to wet-out as quickly as budget models, and they will remain waterproof for longer. Check into the company's service and warranty programs before purchasing. With some occasional upkeep or factory maintenance between seasons, one drysuit can provide years of comfortable paddling.
A final tip: get a drysuit with built-in booties. Your feet will thank you. The booties keep your feet dry and without them you'll have gaskets at your ankles decreasing blood flow to your feet and making it harder for your body to keep your toes warm. Just be sure to protect the booties by wearing socks over them.
2. You can always take layers off, but you can't put layers on if you don't have them.
Dress in layers according to the conditions you are going to face but air on the side of overdressing; being too warm is better than being too cold. You can always shed a layer if you need to. Personally, I like to wear a fleece onesie and then add layers as needed.
When layering, make sure everything you use is synthetic or wool as both will continue to insulate when wet.
3. Don't Neglect Your Hands and Head
Get a skull cap or a neoprene balaclava (storm hood) that wraps around the entire head and covers the parts of your neck that your gasket does not. This will help limit the amount of skin that is exposed to the elements.
The cold can also wreak havoc on your hands. You'll quickly find that in cold water your fingers turn into numb sausages that can't seem to hold onto a paddle. A neat trick for this that the Quebec Connection boys use is to coat your paddle shaft with Mr. Zog's Sex Wax. The stuff provides such a good grip that Kayak Detail includes a free puck of it with every order.
When wax isn't enough and I need to wear something on my hands, I use a pair of pogies. For those that don't know, pogies are little hand pockets that you can velcro around your paddle shaft. There are many models of whitewater gloves and mittens out there too. My advice is to try the different options out and go with whatever works best for you.
If you choose mittens or pogies, think about bringing along a pair of waterproof paddling gloves in your PFD. Your pogies and mittens are going to be useless if you need to use your hands in a cold water rescue situation. Imagine throwing a rope, clipping a carabiner or setting up a z-drag with uncooperative fingers.
4. Plan for the Worst
While nobody plans to have things go wrong, it's good to be prepared. Always think about exit routes from the river you're paddling before setting out. Plan for the worst case scenario. Then, should the proverbial poop hit the fan, you won't waste precious time having to come up with an exit plan. If there is a chance you could get stuck outside for an extended period of time, you should pack extra layers and emergency supplies in a reliable dry bag. On really cold days, I like to pack an extra set of bottoms, a top layer, a space blanket, a hat, a fire starting device, some water purification tablets and emergency rations like trail mix.
Finally, I'd advise anyone who paddles in cold environments to learn how to treat hypothermia and to recognize its early signs which include slurred speech, shivering, acting sleepy, as well as anger or confusion. Stay up to date on your wilderness first aid and stay toasty out there friends!
—Alex Toth is a member of the Jackson Kayak regional team.
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