Fabrics and Garments for Cold Water Paddling
by Joyce A. Furfaro
[Note from the editor: Some of the links below may have expired.]
If you plan to paddle in water below 65 deg F, you need to think about protecting yourself from hypothermia and drowning. Cold water is much better/faster at lowering your body temperature than air of the same temperature, and your much-needed hand dexterity deteriorates quickly in cold water, lessening your ability to recover quickly from a capsize.
I am no expert on the topic of what to wear when paddling the icy streams in fall, winter and spring, but I wanted to share what I have uncovered while researching it.
Number one – don’t wear cotton! It takes on water quickly and keeps it against your skin, and it takes forever to dry. OK, number two – dress with the idea that you will be in the water at some point, even if you are sure you won’t be. Consider also that there are fewer boaters in cold weather, so you are less likely to be found quickly if you capsize when paddling alone (a bad idea in any weather). And if you do capsize in cold water without proper protection, guess what disturbing reaction your body has in store for the event – a sudden reflexive gasp. Not good if your head is under water at that time.
Wow – why paddle at all in the colder temperatures? There are several reasons… The scenery is amazing, the waterways are uncrowded (no fishermen), snow-melt provides sufficient water levels to otherwise non-navigable shallow streams, AND, it is a relatively safe venture if you are properly prepared.
Right, its clear that we need to stay dry and warm to safely enjoy paddling in the cold. What sorts of fabrics are good for this? For underlying layers, Ed Bowman recommends synthetic fabrics are best for insulation, heat retention, and quick drying; these include silk, polypro, lycra , spandex, fleece, wool, and polyester. For single or outer layers? Well, there’s the old standard, Gore-Tex, and the only slightly newer neoprene material. Then there are a few newer fabrics that are gaining popularity. Here are some overviews of these fabrics:
Gore-Tex is a breathable and hydrophobic (waterproof) material sandwiched between nylon or polyester and polyurethane (1). It is used for making garments of all kinds (gloves, shoes, jackets, etc.) for the outdoor adventurist who’s not afraid of the elements. It is basically a stretched version of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), otherwise known as Teflon, with pores that are too small for water molecules to pass, but sweat can escape.
Neoprene is a flexible, durable, and buoyant material made of synthetic rubber. T’aint no water getting through this stuff. Sweat, on the other hand, can escape. It provides excellent insulation against the cold, especially cold water, due to a manufacturing process that combines the rubber with foam cells (hence the buoyancy). “Super-flex” neoprene garments add spandex into the mix, giving it even more flexibility and comfort. Commonly used for wetsuits and inner layers, socks, and gloves. $$ (2 & 3)
eVent – a newer waterproof fabric that keeps water out. This one claims to be better than the older fabrics, saying that sweat can escape twice as fast. $$$$ (4)
Epic – another new and waterproof fabric that, like the others, is also windproof, breathable, and washable. Their technology includes an ecapsulation of a thin polymer in the fabric fibers. Found in jackets, shoes and boots (5)
The same paddler as pictured above, here making good use of all that gear, before the helmet icicles formed.
Wetsuit vs. drysuit – see http://www.outdoors.org/publications/outdoors/2004/equipped/wetsuits-drysuits.cfm as they explain it well. In brief, their information includes this handy differentiation: “A wetsuit traps a thin layer of water between your skin and the suit’s insulating layer of neoprene, which the body then heats for warmth. A drysuit, on the other hand, is totally waterproof and has gaskets at the neck, wrists, and ankles to seal out water.” The main idea is that you are more likely to stay dry in a drysuit, but more likely to stay warm in a wetsuit. In fact, wetsuits can get hot, so if you are paddling hard you will stay plenty warm, and perhaps too warm. Then again, if you end up in the water, you will not get too cold. Wetsuits also fit snuggly, while drysuits do not. If you are wearing a drysuit, it is important to wear warm clothing underneath – synthetics are best, and almost anything but cotton will do (6).
There are also semi-drysuits which resemble wetsuits but with seals around the neck, ankles and wrists.
Don’t forget your extremities
You can also buy dry and wet varieties of hoods, gloves, socks and booties for your head, hands, and feet. These are often made of the same materials discussed above -neoprene
Some other cold weather gear tips I found in my research:
• It is important to keep your Gore-Tex and other breathable garments clean, as sweat and dirt can block the tiny pores that give it its breathability. Fabrics made of Gore-Tex can generally be washed in a regular washing machine (7).
• You’ve heard of electric blankets? REI sells a heated wetsuit! This guy runs on batteries and has three temperature settings. It is the Rip Curl H-Bomb suit, and runs about $800. What a concept.
• Finally, paddle with at least one other person (preferably more), bring a dry set of clothes with you (and keep them dry on the trip), attach a whistle to your vest, and bring snacks for extra energy in the cold weather (to help fight hypothermia).
Advice from other sites found on the web:
• http://www.greatlakeskayak.com/GLK%20Newsletter%20004_10_12_08.pdf a site suggested by John Parrott (our VP), including a table of recommendations for combined air and water temperatures on the bottom of page 3. In brief:
o Combined temp < 140 deg F Start taking precautions (The way John learned the rule)
o Combined temp < 120 deg F Wet suit required
o Combined temp < 110 deg F Dry suit required
o Combined temp < 80 deg F Dry suit required & extreme caution I would assume that depth of water plays a role in the final decision, as very shallow water might not be as worrisome in summer months (think Spring Creek). http://www.kayakacademy.com/pages/drysuitfaq.html -Kayak Academy -Dry Suit FAQ
• http://www.mosslake-nc.com/Cold_Water_Kayaking_Tips.php -Moss Lake, NC, Cold Water Kayaking Tips
• http://www.enter.net/~skimmer/coldwater.html – Off-Season Boating, Cold Shock and Hypothermia
• http://www.outdoors.org/publications/outdoors/2004/2004-wetsuits.cfm -Appalachian Mountain Club -Suited for Paddling, Staying Warm With the Right Wetsuit or Drysuit
• http://gokayaknow.com/index.php/gear/drysuit-vs-wetsuit-for-kayaking/ -Drysuit vs. Wetsuit for Kayaking