Trip Tips: Cold Water Kills

Be smart, be safe, and dress for the swim

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Trip Tips presented by nrs-logo

By Clyde Nicely

Did you read the story back in September about the three kayakers rescued from Picture Rocks National Lakeshore? They had a simple plan to kayak to an island and camp, but unsuspected winds caused four- to six-foot swells that capsized all three boats, dumping the guys into the lake. The first guy rescued spent four hours in the water. The third guy spent more than seven. All three survived, but only because they were prepared.

Too many paddlers are unprepared for cold water swims. Most of us can go out lightly dressed when the air temperature is 60 degrees and be quite comfortable. If you enter 60-degree water without protective apparel, however, you're in immediate danger of cold shock and death.

Why is that? Water conducts heat nearly 25 times more efficiently than air. When you hit cold water unprotected, your body is assaulted–blood capillaries constrict, nerve endings scream warnings to your brain and organs, your eyes dilate, and you gasp for air. You're in trouble.

Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris / NRS.
Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris / NRS.

From this moment on, adopt the mantra: "I will always dress for a swim." If you do that before you push off from shore, you'll always consider the water temperature first and protect yourself accordingly. This means dressing in some combination of neoprene (wetsuit, NRS HydroSkin, cap, gloves, wetshoes) or drywear (drysuit, dry top, dry pants, bibs).

What you need to wear depends on a number of factors including water temperature, the distance you'll be from shore, your boating skills, type of craft you're paddling, your ability to self rescue, cold tolerance, and more. Educate yourself: consult the staff at your local paddle shop, participate in online boater forums, do web searches, join a boating club, or take a swiftwater rescue class. Do your homework; your life can depend on it.

You may think, "If I dress for the water temperature, I'll overheat on a warm day." But consider this—in your boat, you're surrounded by a highly efficient cooling agent. If you get too warm, just splash some water on yourself, dunk your head, or roll your kayak. Problem solved.

Photo by Jacob Boling / NRS
Photo by Jacob Boling / NRS

Moulton Avery, founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety (NCCWS), has outlined what he calls the 5 Golden Rules of Cold Water Safety:

1. Always wear your PFD
2. Always dress for the water temperature
3. Field-test your gear
4. Swim-test your gear every time you go out
5. Imagine the worst that can happen and plan for it

Study the NCCWS website; it's full of good information and real-life examples of boater close calls and fatalities. Hopefully it will make a believer out of you.

Avery thinks of cold water as a predator. "It's fast, powerful and deadly, with unlimited energy and no need for sleep." And it's waiting there for the unwary, the unwise, and the careless."

Don't be counted among the careless. Be smart, be safe, and dress for the swim.

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