cold-water numbers

Anybody have data on how often the following bad effects occur when one capsizes into water between 40 and 50 degrees? Heart problems (arrhythmia or arrest), uncontrolled inhalation, hand immobilization. Also, any data on how long it takes for each to start, and how long each lasts?

I’m looking for empirical information across more than four people, not for anecdotes about the time you fell in and were fine.

I have these impressions about the answers, but I can’t remember where I got them: Heart problems are rare, come on quickly, and can last for many minutes after one exits the cold water. Uncontrolled inhalation is common, starts immediately, and lasts about a minute after one enters the water. Hand immobilization is extremely common, starts a few minutes after entering the water, and lasts for many minutes after one exits the cold water.


Good source o’ stuff…


After about 8 minutes in such water, the
only effect I had was marked shivering.

I hope the paddling community isn’t psychologically suggestible, lest they have cold water immersion effects that were not necessarily going to occur.

I think the “gasp reflex” is very real, and requires some practice to control, if one paddles in snow melt.

It is definitely immediate upon capsize.

I’m hoping you’re not suggesting that hypothermia isn’t a serious problem.

As a community we manage to lose a few people to this every winter, it’s not a joke.

Bill H.

cold water paddling
Rule #1, if you think the water might be cold, it is. Don’t paddle alone, the odds of self rescue go down dramatically in cold water. Rule #2, dress for the water temperature, and the idea that “I sweat too much” in a drysuit is just dumb and an excuse to get dead. If you really want to be statistic do us all a favor and find some other sport.

Bill H.

Gasp reflex? Been there!
One major misconception about gasp reflex is that it only occurs in really cold water, which is absolutely false. The only time it’s happened to me was in water in the mid-upper 50’s. The research that I found after that experience indicated that gasp reflex is strongest in water temps near 60. I have no idea why, but it’s important to recognize the danger exists even in relatively warm water. While I’ve spent a lot of time in 40 degree water, it’s always been in a dry suit and I’ve never had an issue with gasp reflex.

Loss of manual dexterity in cold water is a huge problem and it only takes a few minutes at 40 degrees before your hands become largely useless.

can you point me to that research? eom

Google Scholar is your friend. n.m.

Although a drysuit will certainly help prevent lethal hypothermia, it will not necessarily prevent a gasp reflex, or loss of hand dexterity when paddling in frigid water.

its scary too
happened to me right upon hitting glacier snowmelt water in the Arctic. Bronchospasm actually. I could not move air out at all and in a little. At that point I could have cared less about what the scholars said…I was just trying to live in a class four undercut and getting washingmachined.

Don’t Focus on Numbers

– Last Updated: Oct-29-10 11:49 AM EST –

Focus on your own training and gear.
Each time before you paddle in cold water, dive in and submerse your head and splash around for 30 seconds or so and make sure all your zippers are sealed and your gaskets are holding and your hands and feet are comfortable. Many kayakers discover the first time they tip over even though they are wearing their Holy Drysuit, that cold water on the neck causes a gasp reflex and cold water in the ear canal causes a loss of orientation, not to mention a cold skull creates a killer headache.Wear a hood in cold weather. Paddle surfers practice lots of rolls and immersion in winter water temps to help control the gasp reflex, you can train yourself not to do it with practice. If you travel and paddle in much colder areas than you are used to, it's very important to check out your gear in similar water temps before you get to the put in. Extremely cold water is even painful on the face, so plan ahead.

I agree with you.
But I think for at least some of us, it depends on whether we can spend enough time paddling in really cold water to get acclimated in the way you suggest.

When I lived in the Southeast US I was in close proximity to some great rivers (which never froze up during the winter) and I was able to paddle minimally 4 times a month. I thought I had paddled in fairly cold water running creeks on the Cumberland Plateau in winter and early spring, and paddling dam-controlled rivers (like the Nantahala) in which the release came from the bottom of an impoundment and the water temps remained a little above 50 degrees even in the summer.

When I moved to Northeast Pennsylvania and started running creeks in the spring snow melt, I found I had entered a new league, as it were. Conditions were such that I had less opportunities to paddle, and the water was much colder. Just getting to the creek often entailed an exhausting march through hundreds of yards of knee-deep snow. It became very difficult to keep the hands warm, even with pogies, and I was never able to develop (through acclimatization) enough cold-water endurance to really feel comfortable and safe paddling in those conditions.

Capsizes not only resulted in the involuntary urge to inhale cold water, numb hands, and a sense of disorientation, but limb-numbing fatigue after even short periods of immersion followed by a successful roll.

If it’s not fun, don’t do it …
Paddling in ice water certainly isn’t my idea of fun - well maybe I want to do Greenland someday

I travel and paddle a lot but

there is a reason I live in San Diego …

It sure helps, though

– Last Updated: Oct-29-10 1:51 PM EST –

For me, the bit of gasp-reflex that I've had, and it was in only mildly cold water, was clearly due to exposure of my upper body to the water, not my face. I've read elsewhere that the gasp reflex is due to plunging the upper body into the water and that water contact with the face or head is not really an issue. Therefore, I'd expect a drysuit to help a LOT to limit the gasp reflex. That's just my expectation based on what I've heard and experienced, and my experience (so far) does not include being dumped from my boat into dangerously cold water while wearing a dry suit.

I've thought about that hand-dexterity problem though. My hands get cold more easily than those of most people, and I am sure my hands would be useless after just a couple minutes in really cold water. The pain of cold water can be pretty unbearable too. I've caught aquatic critters from lakes and rivers right at ice-out by hand-walking my upper body out over the water with my feet on shore, and it only takes half a minute or so with both fore arms in the water before I can't take it anymore.

Agree with seadart
about not focusing on numbers. I think there’s a great deal of variation amongst individuals in how they respond to cold and especially how they respond to sudden cold immersion. So doing as seadart suggests, regularly exposing yourself to cold and dressing with the possibility of cold water immersion in mind, and of course wearing a PFD, is IMHO the only way to go. IF you decide to go at all.

Not all agree with me on this, but I also am a believer in acclimatization to cold - so even the same individual may not have the same responses at, say, the beginning of the winter as they may at the end, assuming they’ve been disciplined enough to acclimate properly. I found some interesting stuff on this toward the end of this page…

One of the reasons for my belief in acclimatization stems from the times I worked (for four consecutive years)as a snow maker at a local ski hill; 100 day season, no nights off unless lows were above 26 deg., and no real warm places to rewarm if one got cold. We were outside all night every night for 100 days each winter. And we got wet, though not soaked, regularly. Start of the season we’d all be shivering at 20 degrees, by the end of the season we’d (those of us who didn’t quit first) find ourselves standing out in the snow in our stocking feet talking about basketball scores or some such triviality while our boots and snow suits dried on the engine of the snow cat. Thought nothing of it and weren’t especially uncomfortable. Acclimatization.

(And historically, as well as prehistorically, cold is something humans have routinely faced for some time now. Surely in the short evolutionary time since central heating has come into general use we haven’t lost all our cold weather adaptability.)

I now keep my house between 50 and 55 all winter and don’t wear long johns until January. I get the shivers occasionally early on in the season, but I think its better than getting them worse later when its colder. I sleep very well in the cold and believe this is why.

No doubt age plays a role also - just because I could and did handle such and such conditions when I was in my twenties doesn’t mean I can safely do so in my fifties.

I’ve only had one real cold immersion situation as we talk about it here. (I once did go hypothermic, I now realize, as a result of spending an entire sub-freezing day taking spray off the bow of a motor boat on a fishing trip.)

In the more pertinent total immersion instance the uncontrolled gasp reflex didn’t affect me though I think my breathing got shallower after about a half minute in the water. I couldn’t use my hands effectively after maybe three or four minutes - had a heck of a time getting my wet clothes off and wringing/shaking them out once I got to shore. My ability to swim wasn’t much affected, I managed to gather up my floating stuff and swim the canoe to shore, but probably would have weakened in another few minutes if I’d had to swim farther. I recall side-stroking and by the time I was nearing shore felt the need to rest after only four or five strokes. Forced myself beyond that. Glad as heck I was wearing my (then new) PFD and was only about (I guess) fifty feet from shore. I was shivering pretty bad but that calmed down after getting back in to my now merely mildly damp clothes. I don’t think there was any arrhythmia involved, but that probably depends greatly on a person’s cardio-vascular condition going into the event. I wouldn’t count on that not happening as we age.

This is something we need to take very seriously, but with a reasonable mind-set. I can see where a person could become convinced that it is somehow reckless to paddle in anything below fifty degree water. I’ve known folks who wear a $500 dry suit to paddle three foot deep 20 ft wide streams in the shoulder seasons. That looks like over reaction to me, but to each his/her own…

i wonder if it depends on the person
like me for instance i dont ever turn on heat in my home even when its below 30 outside and walk around all winter mostly in shorts i love the cold heat on the other hand i cant deal with i get sick in the heat

I expect so
but I think we’d be wise to remember none of us are polar bears. No matter if we think we do better in the cold than others - we still shouldn’t go to Hudson’s Bay and think we can swim between ice flows. None of us are drown proof and we aren’t freeze proof either. To believe or suggest otherwise would be the height of irresponsibility.

Yet there were a few survivors of the Titanic and other cold-water ship wrecks, there are folks who surf L. Michigan in winter and survive it repeatedly, there are polar-bear club swims every winter and I’ve never heard of a rescue ever having been required at one (though they’re always available). I think acclimatization as well as genetics plays a role in such things.

It would be interesting to see if anyone has done research on how much acclimatization affects a person’s ability to function in cold conditions. Just how adaptable is the average Homo sapiens in this respect? Exactly how much can an individual prepare themselves physiologically for cold water immersion? What is the best way to do it? And THEN wear a dry suit with hood, paddle near shore, etc.

Winter Surf = Winter Fun!
best time of the year to get wet. :slight_smile:

Water sports anytime of the year can be dangerous if the person is not skilled and prepared.

Now, let’s go sell some drysuits. :wink:


Never said it wasn’t real, only that it
may not be nearly as universal as some portray it.

Some people don’t have patellar tendon reflexes either.