cold water gear

This post goes out to the ice-out lake trout fisherman, or to any one who regularly does cold water trips with lots of portages, etc, north of the border in open hull tandem canoes.

I’ve been going into the quetico for years within two-weeks of ice out. I have never worn a dry suit/wet suit, etc. I have never seen anybody wear this protection in the Quetico. Maybe Minnesotans are just crazy. Our face hits below zero weather throughout the winter. We cut holes in the ice and jump in. Run out of the sauna naked and roll in the snow. There are some lakes in Minnesota that the temperature never gets above 60. All drownings in MN are considered “cold water” drownings. Therefore, as a rescuer, we don’t consider the victim dead until they are warm and dead.

I know the water can kill me. In the spring and late fall, I never travel in just one boat. We always have at least two boats, within sight, everyone with a whistle. All boats have 25-50’ of bow and stern line ready. Each person is equipped to start a fire very quickly. We know how to rescue each other. At this time of year, we always wear pfds. Never, however, have I even seen a dry suit. We generally stick to the shorelines, but not always. I call a “no go” before the weather ever really picks up, just in case. Never a big deal. We just wait it out. I am prudent. I know of half a dozen cold water deaths in MN that wouldn’t have happened had they done one of these three things 1)travelled in more than one boat, or 2) wore pfds, or 3) not challenged mother nature when she began to blow.

I am not a huge risk taker. But I feel comfortable with risks I take and with the people I am with.

On the Advice board there has been a lot of posts regarding safety, cold water gear etc. Stuff like “stay within 3 feet of shore, or don’t go”, but otherwise some really good information, but I don’t know if it is meant for wilderness canoe tripping with portages involved, etc. Most of the advice seems to come from day cruisers in low volume kayaks and their reference point is the ocean and its conditions–not quite the same as the Maligne River in a tandem canoe.

Does anybody wear dry or wet suits on these types of trips involving portages? Are these comfortable? What about over heating? Do you have to take these off at the portages? How much do they weigh? etc. etc.

Just curious. Please no flames or sick Darwin references.


Heed the cautious advice
I paddle with people that dont wear immersion gear, ever, when they should and I occasionally do the same. Having said that, I know cold water can kill through cold shock almost instantly. I am not trying to be a jerk or nothing like that but I dont know if you have ever swam in sub 40 degree water but if you have than you might appreciate why a lot of folks would think you are absolutely crazy to travel more than three feet from shore without immersion protection. Cold water hurts. Your limbs feel numb almost instantly. You breathing goes wildly out of control. You grow weak very, very fast. You get confused. Go stupid. Make really dumb desicions. Things can get ugly.

Hitting the water may make you rethink risky travels witthout a wetsuit or drysuit.

PFDs are good. Watching the weather is good. Multiple boats are good. Having people around you that practice rescues is good. Maybe you may never actually need immersion protection. But it would really suck if you did need it and you weren’t wearing any.

Lets say you were in the middle of a 1/2 mile crossing and a wind came out of nowhere. t happens. A wind strong enough to cause a capsize. Could you get out of the really cold water before you experience a medical emergency? Could you empty a completely submerged canoe and get back in it, paddle to shore, start a fire, change and get warm again? I know to many that doesnt sound that hard but… I wonder how many have done just that. I wonder how long it might take? I wonder what a person might look like trying to do that. Chances are it will never happen. But it happens to people on this board.

Anyways I can relate to those times when wearing immersion protection is a pita. I have also swam in really cold water. It sucks if you are not prepared for it.

PS I am one of those day trippers and maybe should not have chimed in.


– Last Updated: Mar-15-05 7:35 AM EST –


I'm a New England paddler, and I like to get started as early in the Spring as I can manage. I am mainly a day tripper, at least that time of year, and usually solo.

For me, wearing immersion protection is a no-brainer. The cost of even fully breathable drysuits has come down considerably, so I think skipping it based on pricing is a false economy. Wet suits are even more affordable.

What does this protection weigh? Not enough to worry about. Want to take it off to portage? That takes about 2 to 3 minutes.

I hike above treeline in New England in winter quite a bit too. I carry in my pack (as does most everone who has given it much thought) several extra layers of insulation, wind protection shells, and a bivy bag and/or sleeping bag of some sort. We are geared for unexpected immobilization, just as I think the canoeist ought to be geared for unexpected immersion. If I were to find myself unable to continue on, stuck out in the elements with an injury or exhaustion or whatever, at least I could probably survive until help came. Without the extra gear, I could easily die from sprained ankle. People do. Again, a no-brainer.

Am I more likely to capsize in icy water or to break a leg hiking? Yeah, I think so too.

Not that risky the way you describe it
I have never seen anyone with a wet or dry suit doing a BW/Q type trip. You would probably be risking death from heat stroke wearing them on a portage. Your precautions seem more than adequate to me. I guess I should put in as a reference, that I normally trip about the first week of June (when it can still drop below freezing at night, but probably won’t), and have only done one mid-may trip.

I once flipped a canoe in a river, not too long after ice-out. In fact, there were still bits of ice floating down the river from time to time.

Probably floated a mile or more in fast current, but no white water - yeah, it was mighty cold, shocking, numbing cold. After about a half mile, decided that we would have to let the canoe go and swim to shore to avoid hypothermia - it was too far downstream to a reasonable take out. Never even caught a cold. Our second boat saw us flip and wss able to avoid the problem, caught up with us, and rescued the canoe while me and my cousin ran down along the bank with our paddles - running to keep warm. Air temp was probably about 50, sunny and breezy (cold). We did not have spare clothes that trip, but just swithced off some with the other guys. It was only a couple more miles to the takeout, so we didn’t bother with a fire. Yeah, Yeah, I know what you will say - we were just lucky - NOT, we didn’t panic and knew what to do, there is a difference.

Don’t know if I could have swum a half mile across a lake under those conditions, but probably could - more an issue of not panicking, and keeping going even if numb.

As far as the possibility of a big wind popping up out of nowhere and flipping you in the middle of the lake before you could react scenario - well, I don’t really think that that is any more likely than the getting hit in the head by a meteorite scenario. Just turn your bows into the wind and ride it out, kneel if you need to - at worst you get pushed to the downwind shore.

Many people who have never canoed do not have a clue as to how stable a conoe really is, if the people in it know what they are doing. Granted that not everyone does - those are the people who become statistics. It sounds to me you know what you are doing, and are cabable of dealing with any problem that comes up. My answer would be different if you were talking about white water river tripping.

too cold too hot
I have a dry suit but really only wear it for early season White Water. Both Canoe and Kayak. One of the most important things is to have your PFD on. People don’t usually drown with PFDs on. Tripping would be a killer with a dry suit as you would sweat and dehydrate fast. In white water your allways cooling off with water. The layering suggested above is good advice. Plan A and Plan B in the event of a capsize. Spare gear, clothing, sleeping bag, wind break even on day trips is important. Fire starter kit water proofed. The closeer to shore the better but if a mid lake crossing is need then a tight group is better. We sometimes paddle up to ice in and as soon as ice out. We take all the above cautions no matter how short the trip.


perhaps do a
search on the boards for cold water immersion. Lots on knowledge as to cold water impact, involutary gasp reflex and such. It changed my mind as to use of a suit in cold conditions. I paddle year round on rivers in MI.

Thank you. Everything I have read about the gasp reflex scares the h*** out of me and is why I made the original post. I am just trying to determine how to create another layer of safety and learn from what others are or are not doing.

Here is an analogy that some people may not appreciate: I would be safer in my car if I wore a helmet, but I don’t do it. I know it would add another layer of safety, but the likelihood of needing it seems small. I drive safely, wear my seatbelt, drive a modern car with safety features. I haven’t had an accident that caused my head to hit the windshield in 25 years. Every day across the country people suffer major head injuries in automobiles that could be avoided by wearing helmets, but I am not about to don one. This is sort of how I have felt about immersion gear on wilderness trips.

Regarding a previous post, I have heard of people getting killed with life jackets (a father and son crossing Cache Bay of Saganaga several years ago in May swamped and son died of hypothermia–he was wearing a life jacket; and a couple of boy scouts drowned themselves in lower basswood falls swimming with life jackets just two years ago). There seems to be at least one “canoe was found capsized…” news accounts every spring in MN, “body found several days later without lifejacket on”, and sometimes a “man fell off end of dock/raft/boat and disapeared…was a good swimmer” (these sound like gasp reflex). Nearly all of the deaths involve people taking very few, if any, precautions. For example, I was campsite-bound in a group with a “no-go” decision on Argo Lake the day the father and son swamped on Cache Bay.

I know this hasn’t added much value to this string, but I am trying to learn from what other people do. Thanks.

no prob.
better to learn from others than learn the hard way. I love to challenge myself ,but also wanna go home at night safe.

sponsons and fire starter.
I have taken inflatable sponsons for cold water canoeing. They are especially good for fishing. Carry survival gear in your life jacket pockets when cold water canoeing. Buy a life jacket with two large pockets. Carry two lighters, water proof matches, wax fire starter sticks, two small tea candles and a small emergency space foil blanket to reflect heat. Also a whistle and small knife. If you manage to swim to shore after swamping, the easiest thing to light is a candle. This can then be used to light the wax fire sticks.

I use
a drybag with spare clothes, matches, lighter, dryer lint for tinder, extra socks,shoes, hat coat. I also wear a wetsuit and only paddle with trusted friends.