Kayaking in cold weather can be very dangerous if you are not wearing the proper protective clothing. If you are caught unprepared the consequences can be life threatening. In this article we will help you understand what you need to wear when the weather/water gets cold and why you need to wear it.
As a general rule you need to be wearing specially designed kayak clothing that will protect you when you fall into cold water. You may think that you will never fall out of your kayak, but it can happen. If you find yourself suddenly immersed in cold water you will be glad that you read this article and purchased the proper gear to keep you safe.
Water temperature & Air Temperature
The most common mistake made by paddlers is not fully understanding the environment that they are venturing into. Most paddlers dress for the air temperature and do not consider the temperature of the water around them. Even if the air temperature on a sunny spring day is 90 degrees, the water temperature can be as cold as 45 degrees! As a paddler you need to be aware of both the air and water temperature throughout the seasons.
Summer is definitely the safest time to be out kayaking, but the early Fall season can be quite comfortable too, and the water may not even be very cold yet either. The reason for this is that larger bodies of water maintain homeostasis, which in simple terms means that it retains temperature. After a summer of heating the water is relatively warm, even well into the Fall. Conversely in the Spring, after a Winter of cooling, we may experience the coldest water temperatures of the year. This is why it is so important to dress for immersion and not simply for the air temperature.
Before we discuss what to wear, we’re going to tell a few stories about some unfortunate people who didn’t prepare for their environment. If it seems like we are trying to scare you then we are making our point. We want everybody out on the water to get home safely every time.
* Example 1 – About 5 years ago we had a very cold winter. In early April the water temperature was only about 45 degrees. As often happens at this time of year we had a series of 80 degree days. A young couple decided to take out a jet ski in Long Island Sound and enjoy the beautiful weather. They dressed for the air temperature, never giving the frigid waters a thought. They had typical summer attire when they should have been wearing, at the very least, wetsuits. They ended up getting tossed from the jet-ski. Hypothermia set in almost immediately, paralyzing their muscles, and preventing them from swimming back or climbing onto the jet-ski. Both of them died. YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO BE IMMERSED IN THE WATER. Immersion is highly unlikely but you have to be prepared and dress for it.
* Example 2 – Another near tragedy happened one December when a kayaker went out alone on a fairly nice day and on his return back he found himself in seas that were too big and couldn’t get back. He decided to wait it out on some rocks in the middle of the Bay. As it got dark he was stuck out there and on the verge of freezing. He hadn’t been prepared for the chance that he might have to spend prolonged time out of his kayak and exposed to the elements. He didn’t have extra clothing or a cell phone, and only had one flare. Luckily someone on shore saw his lone flare when he fired it and they called for help. I am sure when he started out on his paddle on a nice 50 degree day he didn’t think he would have to deal with the dropping temperatures caused by wind which resulted in a 20 degree wind-chill. YOU CAN NEVER PACK ENOUGH CLOTHES!
* Example 3 – Hypothermia doesn’t only happen when the water or the air are cold. It can happen any time of year and almost anywhere. We got into a situation where we were unprepared for the environment in July in Florida no less. We were kayak fishing the Gulf Coast Flats and the weather was hot and humid. You had to run the air conditioner in the motel room and vehicles. The heat was brutal. We were out fishing and had geekowear come upon the first island on our way to a farther island. A thunderstorm was off in the distance so we decided to stop and fish near the first island before proceeding further. It started to rain and then we determined the lightning was getting closer. Here we were on a tropical island approximately 20 minutes from our starting point. We recognized that the storm was going to pass over us so we decided to beach our kayaks on the island and take shelter in the jungle. The storm passed right over us and the lightning was all around. The rain was torrential and we got soaked. Here we were wearing only t-shirts and shorts for the sweltering weather that was the norm. The temperature dropped and it was very windy. We began to shiver. This is the first stage of losing body heat. The storm wasn’t showing any signs of letting up and after close to an hour of shivering we realized that we couldn’t continue to loose body heat. As we thought of things that we could do to provide warmth or insulation, we realized that our PFD’s would do the task. So we put them on and fortunately they provided enough insulation that our shivering stopped. We saw an opening in the storm and made a mad dash back to the mainland. Shortly after getting back the storm intensified and for the next few hours it was severe. If we hadn’t taken advantage of the short weather window and returned to the mainland we would have been in trouble. The adventure could have been an ordeal; we were very fortunate that it became a valuable learning experience instead. We were both amazed at how cold we got in Florida on a July day. Teeth chattering cold! You can’t really judge what will happen on the water in a couple of hours time. You have be prepared, no matter what the weather is when you launch.